Anglo-Saxon Literature ~ Part I Early Epic Poems

UnknownThe Finnesburg — or Finnsburh — Fragment is a portion of an Old English heroic poem about a fight in which Hnæf and his 60 retainers are besieged at “Finn’s fort” and attempt to hold off their attackers. The surviving text is tantalizingly brief and allusive, but comparison with other references in Old English poetry, notably Beowulf (c. 1000 AD), suggests that it deals with a conflict between the Danes and the Frisians in Migration-Age Frisia (400 to 800 AD). It survives only in George Hickes’s Thesaurus (1705). The fragment’s attribution comes from a single leaf of manuscript found in the Lambeth Palace library – either Lambeth Palace MS 487 (a 13th Century collection of English homilies) or Lambeth Palace MS 489 (an 11th Century Old English homily book). The fragment is important for it is tied to Beowulf. In the epic poem of Beowulf, a lay of the Battle of Finnesburh is sung by a gleeman at Hrothgar’s court (Beowulf II.1067-1158). [Beowulf on Sterarume

The fragment opens with Hnaef and his Scylding followers in their hall at night. Someone catches sight of approaching attackers, the forces of the Frisian Finn. Hnaef awakens his men, urges them to valor in the approaching fight. The warriors – Siegeferth, Eaha, Ordlaf, Guthlaf, and Hengest – rush to the doors of the hall. Among the Frisian forces, Guthere urges young Garulf to keep out of the fight. Garulf, who has no intention of missing a good brawl, yells toward the hall: ‘Who is holding the door?’ The reply: ‘Siegeferth is my name…a hero well known…I am ready for you.’ They join in battle; the Frisian Garulf falls. The struggle lasts for five days. Unfortunately, the fragment breaks off without naming the victor. [History of English Literature: Part 1 – Early Saxon to Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, page 13)

“ In Beowulf the recounting of the lay of Finnesburh occurs just before a number of speeches by Wealhtheow in which she attempts to secure her sons’ futures; the poem darkly hints at the future bad faith of Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew, and his treachery towards her sons. The strong emphasis on Hildeburh within the Finnesburh lay invites comparison between the position of Hildeburh, as a ‘powerless’ and unsuccessful peace-weaver and Wealhtheow’s own future failure to avert internecine struggle amongst the Scyldings. Hildeburh’s plight perhaps is an even closer parallel to the plight of Freawaru, Hrothgar’s and Wealhtheow’s daughter, when she is given in marriage to Ingeld in order to attempt to settle a feud between the Heathobards and the Danes. Beowulf predicts (ll.2025-2072) that Freawaru too will suffer in the failure of this peace-weaving, when Ingeld is incited against the Scyldings.” [Beowulf on Steorarum]

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (circa 938), we find The Battle of Bruna’s Burg.The piece relates the tale of Athelstan and Edmund’s (Alfred’s heirs) victory over an army of Scots, Danes, and Britons. The Scottish clans and the men of the Danes fell in large numbers. Five kings die, victims of incredible swordplay. Anlaf, who heads the fleet of the invaders, escapes, while Constantine and his men are forced to a hasty retreat. The poem extolls the victory as the greatest to date. Half the lines come directly from other Anglo-Saxon poems: thus Hagen (“Brunanburgh” 49) notes that this “poem may be one of the earliest forms of an anthology. While the depiction of the battle is tense and seemingly historical, the poem is presented in sparse detail. The poem is strong in its general outline of the events surrounding the battle and exhibits a somber tone. However, what may be most striking about this work is there are no Christian elements found in it. Church clerics who later transcribed it left the text as an action adventure story about fighting and heroes.” [A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature, edited by Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin, page 9].

**Check out this video available on You Tube that explains the battle and and contains a reading of the poem in Old English.  

51-7vL0VlCL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_From 991, we have The Battle of Maldon, a poem that celebrates the heroic battle of Earl Byrhtnoth against the Norwegians under Anlaf (Olaf Trygvesson). After harrying Stone, Sandwich, and Ipswich, the Vikings came to Maldon on the banks of the River Panta. The stream divides here into two branches; the Danes drew up their forces on the island. The poem displays many of elements of the heroic works, especially that of personal glory coming from the deliverance of selfless acts.

The poem begins with Byrhtnoth exhorting his men to fight with honor. The Vikings offer Byrhtnoth peace if he will pay a tribute, but he urges his men to fight on. When the tide ebbs, Byrhtnoth permits the Vikings to cross the bridge to the mainland. The error provides the Vikings the advantage, and the Athelings are killed. Byrhtnoth is delivered low by a poisoned spear, but even as he lays dying, he urges his men to resist the Vikings. True to the code of “comitatus,” Byrhtnoth’s comrades Aelfnoth and Wulfmaer share his fate.

Comitatus was a Germanic friendship structure that compelled kings to rule in consultation with their warriors, forming a warband. The comitatus, as described in the Roman historian Tacitus’s treatise Germania (98.AD), is the bond existing between a Germanic warrior and his Lord, ensuring that neither leaves the field of battle before the other. The translation is as follows:

Moreover, to survive the leader and retreat from the battlefield is a lifelong disgrace and infamy. (Wikipedia

The English rally for another attack and the poem breaks off with the brave deeds of Godric. [History of English Literature: Part 1 – Early Saxon through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, page 14].

The Battle of Maldon is a classic composition in the scheme of Old English poetry. “Critics generally agree that the theme of heroism in the face of defeat is expanded here to include the traditional Germanic expectations of loyalty to one’s lord. Much of the criticism of the work centers upon the apparent pride of Byrhtnoth’s decision to allow the Vikings to cross the causeway.” [A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature, edited by Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin, page 10].


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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