The Battle of Maldon, (not earlier than 991)

(once Cotton MS Otho A.xii, fol. 57a-62b, burned 1731, 18th-century transcription from MS. Rawlinson B203)

Click here for Jonathan A. Glenn's ModE translation of the poem, which was cut from the Norton 8th edition.

Genre:  an epic poem.

Form:  four-stress, unrhymed lines of Anglo-Saxon linked with alliteration on the stressed words and with a caesura between the second and third stress unit.  (Of course, the Norton's version is E.T. Donaldson's Mod.E. prose translation, but if you'd like to see the first ten lines in Old English, click here.)  To hear the final lines of the poem in Old English, including Leofsunu's speech exhorting the war band to fight on after Byrhtnoth's fall, click here.

Characters: Byrhtnoth, earl of Essex, loyal vassal of king Aethelred Unraed and defender of the coast, leader of the warband; various members of his warband who have sworn him loyalty in return for gifts of horses, weapons, gold and land, and of whom some will flee and some will stay to fight and die; the Viking invaders who offer to leave if given tribute.

Summary: The history of this battle also is recorded in the chronicles of Anglo-Saxon times.  A band of Vikings land on an island near shore on the River Pante, now known as the Blackwater.   Byrhtnoth confronts them and answers their demand for tribute payments saying he'll pay them with swords' points and spears.  At low tide, the island is connected to land by a narrow causeway which Byrtnoth orders his toughest warriors, Wulfstan (Ceola's son), Ălfhere, and Maccus, to defend.  The Vikings realize they can't pass without unacceptable losses--they would much rather swoop down on defenseless farmers and slaughter them, leaving before the armored troops arrive (see Odyssey IX when Odysseus' men stay too long after their similar raid on the Kikones).  The Vikings apparently appeal to Byrtnoth's sense of honor for a fair fight, for he allows them to cross the causeway and the two sides engage in a melee.  After several clashes, Byrhtnoth is mortally wounded and thanks the World Ruler ("­eoda waldend") and Lord of Angels ("■eoden engla") for his life.  Then three faithless men steal the horses Byrhtnoth had given them and flee to the forest.  The rest of the warband, one by one, boast defiance of the Vikings and loyalty to Byrhtnoth, and die.  Click here for a peek at my class notes for Old English literature.  They're a bit like shorthand, but you can follow what I'll be asking you to think about more easily if you know where we're headed.  We won't cover all of this, but it's the kind of thing we need to be thinking about whenever we can.

Issues and Research Sources:

1)  The Poet’s Role and the Function of the Poem:

If you look up "epic" in a standard glossary of literary terms, you will read something like this: a long poem praising probably mythic deeds of a hero whose nearly superhuman strength and abilities determine the fate of an entire people and call even the gods into the action; an episodic, unrhymed, alliterative poem sung by bards who may have been illiterate, and who preserved their art by memory, by apprenticeship in the rules of oral-formulaic composition, and by singing improvised public performances before the ruling warrior elite at court. However, "Maldon" represents a comparative oddity in the epic literature of the Anglo-Saxon period (from the Roman retreat in 410 to the Norman invasion in 1066). The poem describes an actual historical event, a Viking raid on the eastern coast of England in either 991 or 992, and its characters are described using all the epic poet’s linguistic strategies (see Homer and Milton, for examples) but with no reference to the supernatural. The hero, the "eorl" or county-ruler named Byrhtnoth, is a very big man, but not superhuman.  No god physically stands beside or before him in battle, and the "feonds" (OE) he confronts are just what the word means in Old English: implacable enemies with whom no truce was possible, as opposed to the foes from one’s own people who might be bargained with in good faith. So here we have the poet acting in a way which nicely defines this early period’s view of the artful uses of language: he praises the brave and he condemns the cowards, that the fame of either shall live on. The poem thus carries a socially constructive burden from past to future—"this is what we have been, and of those things we have done, these are excellent and those are hateful." Preserving the deeds in song challenges the audience to match their courage with their ancestors’ and to carry the memory forward into the dangerous future.

2)  Pagan vs. Christian in "Maldon":

Though Byrhtnoth prays to the "ruler of nations" (OE: ■eoden) to protect his soul in its coming battle with the new "feondes" on the other side of death, there is only a weak sense that the poem’s author and audience are Christian. All the other warriors wish for a speedy end to life rather than any evasion of their goal, to lie dead by the side of the man to whom they have sworn loyalty. To live on, they imply, would be a cursed existence with no hope of a future. It has been suggested that the poem records a very early state of the conversion of the pagan Angles and Saxons from their Germanic religion which promised no afterlife except a kind of eternity of fame for the warrior who dies well in battle. Note the repetitive patterns in the death speeches of Byrhtnoth’s thanes, members of his war band who have sworn to defend him.

3) Manuscript Transmission, Damage and Recovery:

The sole manuscript containing this poem (Cotton Otho A.xii) originally had been hand-copied on calf skin or "vellum." The skin, treated with chemicals to stabilize it and render it pliable, was scraped to remove hair from one side and fat from the other, before being cut into rectangles and ruled for copying. Most important texts were copied onto full sheets, called "folios," which were folded in half only once before being sewn together to make a very large "codex" (c. 18" x 12" or greater; "codex" is Latin for what we would call a "book" vs. a scroll). Important manuscripts, especially those on religious topics, were written in brightly colored inks, and capital letters beginning sections often were enlarged, decorated, and illustrated with brilliantly painted "illuminations" which might take up a quarter to half of the page.

A single codex might house many works of various genres, being a kind of "library-in-miniature" for the patron. "Wanderer," for example, was bound together with twenty nine other works of similar size and widely varied content, a list of maxims, and ninety five riddles. Valuable as it might have been, such a manuscript might have been bound in heavy leather-covered birch or oak boards, perhaps strapped with leather and protected with metal at stress points. However, manuscripts as old as "Maldon"’s might also have been used so often that the binding was destroyed, exposing the front and rear pages to severe damage. We suspect this was true of "Maldon" because the 1726 first printed edition, added as an appendix to the Chronicle of John of Glastonbury, edited by Thomas Hearne, describes the source MS as "capite et calce mutilum," or "maimed at head and foot." We have another version this rare text because the original transcription from which Hearn set his type survived. John Elphinston of the Cottonian library (see below) copied it to paper by hand in a manuscript now known as MS. Rawlinson B203. Elphinston's copy is generally agreed to be more accurate than Hearne's and now serves as the "copy text" or model from which modern editions are made.

A Note on Manuscript Construction and the Perils Affecting Manuscript Survival:
"Maldon"’s original manuscript no longer exists, however, because it was destroyed in the famous Cottonian library fire in October 1731, five years after Hearne fortunately printed his edition. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton had been the sixteenth-century’s most successful collector of ancient English manuscripts, and in the next century his collection was still stored at his estate, cataloged as he had left it. Each bookshelf was topped by a bust of a Roman emperor or other figure from Roman history, which gave its manuscripts their first name. The second and third numbers were the shelf number and the MS. number on that shelf. So MS. Cotton Otho A.xii.fol. 57a-62b ("Maldon"’s codicological name) means it came from Cotton’s library, from the shelves under the bust of the emperor Otho, first shelf (A), twelfth manuscript, folios (pages) 57 (top, right or "meat" side of the hide) to 62 (bottom, left or "hair" side of the hide). The MS was not among those saved, so our only scholarly source for the poet’s song of Byrhtnoth’s warriors’ heroism comes from Hearne’s printed edition and Elphinston’s transcription. This is not an uncommon fate for ancient literature—some of it is still being recovered from the bindings of later books where its calfskin was used to stiffen spines, and the most famous modern treasure trove of classical Greek manuscripts is an ancient garbage dump at Oxyrinchus in Egypt. Precious as the poet’s words were to Byrhtnoth’s descendants, those chance survivals in manuscripts, early printed editions, and transcriptions, are perhaps even more valuable to us for preserving our language’s past.

Unlike its unlucky cousin, the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A.xv) was saved from the Cottonian fire, but it endured a scorching that charred the outside edges of its leaves. As you can imagine, charred calfskin grows brittle, and over time whole words gradually were lost from line ends and beginnings as the manuscript crumbled away. In 1845, Sir Frederic Madden, the British Museum's manuscript curator, began to rescue the poem by remounting its leaves in paper frames which used glue and tape to stabilize the fragmenting edges. Unfortunately, that obscured characters and words on the edges, though it saved the manuscript, itself, from further destruction. Now, a modern project has undertaken to preserve the text and to enhance it to correct errors and to discover the traces of possible revisions in erased passages.

For an image of Beowulf's first folio leaf, and a description of the process by which the manuscript was salvaged in the 19th century, see this paper describing the project which is digitally copying the entire manuscript for scholarly study on the Internet:


To see an image of one page from a 13th-century Paris "Book of Hours," fully rubricated with a burnished gold initial, click here:   

        If you want to read a terrific fictional evocation of the death by fire of a great medieval library, set in a modern-designed murder mystery plot, read the medievalist Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1983, available in two copies at 856.5 E19JnBw and also in a not-too-shabby video staring Sean Connery as the Oxford-trained logician-detective, Brother William of Baskerville, and a very young, innocent-looking [!!] Christian Slater as Adso of Melik, the novice monk, at VC 791.437 N174).

Many readers find it helpful to see archeological artifacts related to poems from ancient cultures.  For samples of Anglo-Saxon era helmets, jewelry, and long-boat remains, see the Pace U. Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial Page.