The epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf illustrates the heroic ideal of the Anglo-Saxons through a telling of the heroic life of a strong iron-age warrior of the tribe of the Weather Geat folk. If the society portrayed in the poem is related to that of the ancestral Anglo-Saxons in Denmark, then the poem may well describe elements of that society as remembered by the poem’s author.
When was Beowulf composed? It is supposed to have been before the Danish raids of 793 A.D., after which, things Danish became anathema to the English. The editor and translator of our edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander, suggests that the poem is "set in the southern Scandinavia of the fifth and sixth centuries." There is in Beowulf some remnant of the Danish homeland stories from the late iron-age in Jutland, perhaps as far back as the golden age of Odense on the Isle of Fyn during the third century, from which the richest iron-age treasures are recovered, in excavations from settlements and associated bog sacrifices. However, it may be that Beowulf originates from an even earlier time.
The geneology of the kings of Wessex, found in both the Parker Chronicle, as well as in Aethelweard, uses the same names which we find in Beowulf. These are the heroic names from the sacred geneology of the English Royal family and would not have been trifled with by mere clerics. The English Royal family, to the present day, traces its ancestry from Geat, son of Taetwa, son of Beow, son of Scyld ("Sceldwea" in the Parker Chronicle), son of Sceaf (pronounced "Shef"). The patriarch, Scyld, by simple reckoning, would have been a contemporary of Julius Gaius. In our poem, the hero Beowulf is a descendant of the tribe of Geat, while Hrothgar the Dane’s father was the late-born half-Dane son of Beow(ulf), son of Scyld Shefing.This raises the question of where Beowulf's Geat folk lived. The penguin classic's edition of Beowulf edited by Michael Alexander contains a map which shows them living in what is now southeast Sweden, across the Baltic Sea from Poland. This construction is based on two assumptions. Firstly, that the Geats were the Goths (Gauts) of the Roman historian Tacitus, and secondly, that the Goths came from the southern shores of Sweden. Neither of these assumptions can be proven. The name Geats is actually zeats, and the yogh, "z", is pronounced "y" before fronting vowels, so the correct transcription would be Yeats.
The linguist Piotr Gasiorowski's online commentary explains that:
"Bede Latinised their name as "iuti/iutae", sixth-century Franko-Latin sources called them "eutii", and in Old English itself they were called "e:otan" or "e:otas", dialectally also "i:otas", "i:utan".
and he goes on to explain that: "
Jutland (in Denmark) was called Jótland in Old Icelandic as opposed to Gautland (in Sweden)... Our modern form "Jutes" comes from mediaeval Latin Iuti/Iutae, where the "i" came to be pronounced as a glide and was "hardened" in the French pronunciation of Latin... and since the Jutes were only a historical memory by that time as founders of the Kentish dynasty, the names came to be misidentified occasionally by late Anglo-Saxon authors, or to be more precise the name "ge:atas" was sometimes used instead of "e:otas" for one of the groups that had colonised England (but never "e:otas" for the Swedish Gauts)."
It was Jutland, home of the Jutes, which was Beowulf's proper home, and that matches better some of the internal geography of the poem. Beowulf’s voyage scene may well describe a two day sail south to the Isle of Fyn, the middle iron-age fortress settlement of the Danish overlord, Woden (for an exacting examination of this question which disagrees with the view just put forth, have a look at the 2006 version of the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geats which is excerpted below).
Alexander also offers the opinion that Beowulf makes no reference to Christianity, although there are certainly Christian lessons imposed within the poem by the monk(s) who recorded it for us. For example, the lines 2794-6 have the old iron-age chieftain speaking his dying words, having been mortally wounded by the dragon he has just slain,
"I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity..."
Beowulf then goes on to declare that "Weird has lured each of my family to his fated end." So the Christian content of the poem, as we have it, is thin and contrived, indicating that it does not fit, and so was not originally of the poem.
Beyond what the translator says of Beowulf, it is apparently the primary purpose of this poem to be teaching us three rubrics:
Firstly, as Wiglaf declares (in lines 2889-90) "Death is better for any man than an existence of disgrace." This is repeatedly emphasized.
Secondly, giving some direction to the first rubric is another (from lines 2602-3) "The bonds of kinship nothing may remove for a man who thinks rightly."
Thirdly, finalizing the social contract which guides our hero is the incipient feudal contract spelled out loud and clear (in lines 2634-39). Again, it is Wiglaf who speaks,
"I remember the time as we were taking mead
in the banqueting hall, when we bound ourselves
to the gracious lord who granted us arms,
that we would make return for these trappings of war,
these helms and hard swords, if an hour such as this
should ever chance for him."
(Continuing with lines 2646-52...)
"That day has now come
when he stands in need of the strength of good fighters,
our lord and liege. Let us go to him,
help our leader for as long as it requires,
the fearsome fire-blast. I had far rather
that the flame should enfold my flesh-frame there
alongside my gold-giver -as God knows of me."
So, Wiglaf is the great instructor of the audience. He provides the lesson in the poem in clear language. Meanwhile, Beowulf is the example of courage which the audience must attain to. This poem, then, is a form of pep-talk for would-be soldiers, as well as an object lesson in how to live right and be respected in England.
In case the would-be soldier in the audience became nervous of dying in combat, the poem offered up this reminder...(lines 1001-7)
"...to elude death
is not easy: attempt it who will,
he shall go to the place prepared for each
of the sons of men, the soul-bearers
dwelling on earth, ordained them by fate:
laid fast in that bed, the body shall sleep
when the feast is done."
Beowulf’s example of heroic courage is intended to encourage, not discourage, the audience. For, if Beowulf, alone and unarmed, may face his enemy and yet win, then the average thegn or Jarl must have little to fear, since he goes into battle armed to the teeth, and well shielded.
In this lesson, the poem repeatedly reveals something of Anglo-Saxon traditions. As a warrior society, the iron-age Anglo-Saxons had developed cult status for their weapons. As the samurai of Japan would later do, Anglo-Saxon warriors valued their swords with personal affection, and as personal honour. The attention lavished on the dressing of Beowulf for battle with Grendel’s mother, at water’s edge, focusses glory upon the weapons themselves, and the robust defensive gear is part of the weaponry (lines 1411-64). Girt about with chain mail shirt, silver helmet, royal bands, Beowulf takes up the sword itself, Hrunting. Swords had personal names in Anglo-Saxon society. (This Saxon custom is wrongly attributed to the Romano-British war leader, Arthur, in the later Norman romances involving a sword named Excalibur.)
Here, the sword comes into play in a curious way. The great nobility of Beowulf is such that he earlier fought Grendel unarmed, without his sword, which was an unheard of dignity. This habit of his was due to the fact that his blows were too strong for steel to withstand. When he does strike a blow with Hrunting, the sword is deformed by the blow, and he must discard it. Fortunately, an ancient Giant’s sword from out of the mythical past is handy, and this he is able to use.
So, how exactly does Beowulf describe iron-age Anglo-Saxon society to us? It does not elaborate much upon women, except insofar as they wear jewels and fine clothes well, and serve men beer in the mead hall. The princesses mentioned in Beowulf are useful to their countrymen in forging peace between enemies, through marriage alliances. However, a critical view of the outcome of such peace-weaving marriages is presented in the poem, and not much hope is held out for the future success of such alliances, based on past experiences mentioned (lines 2095-2101).
"Both sides then will break the pact
sworn by the earls; and Ingeld’s vengefulness
will well up in him, overwhelming gall
shall cause his wife-love to cool thereafter.
So I do not believe that this liking of the Heathobards
for alliance with the Danes is all what it seems,
or that their friendship is sound."
Anglo-Saxon noblemen were free-booting raiders in the fifth century, when they invaded Britain. If Beowulf accurately describes them as they lived in Denmark, then they were localized armed gangs of thugs whose use of longships gave them access to ready targets over thousands of miles of coastland. The material evidence of this seagoing warrior culture is evidenced, not only from excavations of the later Viking period (880-1066 A.D.) but from the near contemporary seventh century Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo, which held ship and armaments. In fact, the Sutton Hoo ship contained no body, and is therefore supposed to have been a traditional pagan ritual mound for the dead king, who had been baptized and already given Christian burial elsewhere. Since it was excavated in the East Anglian Royal burial grounds of the Wuffing dynasty, it may have contained the armaments of King Anna, who died a Christian in 656 A.D. or else Raedwald, who died in 624 A.D. The scholar, Martin Carver, in his wonderful book on the Sutton Hoo burial, eulogizes the dead king, sent away well equipped by his people, who loved him:
"...the man is a warrior, equipped for war with helmet, mailcoat, sword, shield and spears. He is a host, ready to put on a feast, with cauldrons, tub, bowls of bronze and silver, drinking horns, wooden bottles, a great silver dish -and entertainment from the lyre player...He is also a mariner, and has an axe-hammer to mend the boat and some spare pieced of tar in case it leaks...It puts us in mind of the old English poem Beowulf..."
The late Roman iron-age saw the development in Scandinavia and Denmark, as well as in Saxony, of farm societies using less of the small one-dozen-household village surrounded by irregular fields, and using more of the individual farmhouse with a walled infield. As these farms grew more prosperous, increased coastal flooding in the region forced more farmers to relocate on high ground, and they built man-made mounds, wurten, for this purpose. This was followed in the fifth century by a substantial economic collapse (trickle down effect from the collapse of the Roman Empire) and a subsequent desertion of settlement.
The Anglo-Saxon farmer-warriors who followed their pioneering chieftains to Britain recreated their tiny farming hamlets as best they could. Dispersed across the countryside as well, were their recreated wurten mound settlements of the lowlands. While the Anglo-Saxons initially transplanted their settlement units in the shape of the ones left behind, they were in many cases able to take over existing Romano-British holdings which served well enough as they were. In this way, there was evidence left, for present day archeologists to find, of continuous occupation of some British settlements, even after the Anglo-Saxons had completely displaced the Britons.
However, in Beowulf no mention is made of peasant folk, farmers, fishers, smiths or tradesmen, nor even of sailors or shipwrights. All the great society of folk supporting the livelihood of the noblemen is left unheard and unspoken. What we do glimpse, is the company of Jarls and thegns, Aethelings and their retainers, who compose the battles and execute the bloodletting deeds. We see them at their leisure in the overlord’s mead hall. There, they are given portions of booty held from successful campaigns. They are rewarded with new and better war materiel, horses and weaponry, and outfitted proudly with most expensive battle gear, all gifts from their king.
These dignities are the outward reward of their good service and bravery in facing down and killing the murderous enemies of their king. This is as much a part of eighth century England as it ever was of fourth century Denmark. The Danish mead hall is also the Anglo-Saxon manor house in which the Earl plays host to his thegns.
There is also the speech making. Oratory in praise of the valiant, with boasting and predictions of greater feats yet to come, was also a feature of Anglo-Saxon noble life in both periods. In fact, the boasting features in early English literature as late as the tenth century Battle of Malden (transcribed by David Casley, deputy keeper of the Cottonian collection prior to the Cotton fire of 1731).
"...here stands with his troop a noble earl who will defend this country, Ethelred, my lord’s home, its people and its land. The heathen shall fall in the battle. It seems to me too shameful that with our money you should embark uncontested..."
The need to talk about it seems to carry through the ages, although it is customarily not the nobleman himself who does his own boasting, but his subjects, whose best speakers tell the tale in praise of the great men (under whose thumbs they slave and at whose pleasure they continue to breath).
The only other class of person mentioned in the poem is the slave. While slavery was a fact of iron-age Danish life, it was still a fact of life in ninth century England. In this poem, there is a runaway slave, terrified of being flogged, who enters the drama as the unfortunate thief who wakens the worm and brings fire down on the kingdom of the Geats. Slavery is an inevitable result of a society ruled through violence and bullying. What choice is left to the weak, but to obey the wrathful strongmen? Why, indeed, would a man accustomed to murdering whom he will, "heart swelling with anger", not order the weak about? There was no check on the violence of the nobleman in such a meager society as that of the early Anglo-Saxons. At worst, the noble were tyrants.
However, as shown repeatedly in Beowulf, the noble were not free from duty to the people. There were, in the mead halls of the Geats as well as in the manor halls of the English, a sense of oblige which the Nobleman had to live up to in order to maintain the support of his kinsmen, and thegns. Generosity, a sense of honour, mercy and discretion, all the hallmarks of gentry, are found in the good rule of the kings praised here in Beowulf.
There is much to be admired in the heroic ideals of iron age societies, such as that of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf inspires its audience with both ancestral pride and martial resolve. This inspiration is exactly what was intended by the author of Beowulf to cement the social bonds his tribe required for mutual survival.
From the March, 2006 version of the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geats is the argument equating the Geats with the Goths, the pertinent argument being excerpted here.
The links below don't work here because of the hasty cut and paste done from Wikepedia.
Geatas was originallyProto-Germanic *Gautoz and Goths and Gutar were *Gutaniz. *Gautoz and *Gutaniz are two ablaut grades of a Proto-Germanic word *geutan with the meaning "to pour" (modern Swedish gjuta, modern German giessen) designating the tribes as "pourers of semen" or "men". They were consequently two derivations from the same proto-Germanic ethnonym, cf. Serbs and Sorbs, Polans and Poles, Slovenes and Slovaks in Slavic languages.
It is a long-standing controversy whether theGoths were Geats. Jordanes claimed that the Goths came from the island of Scandza. He also claimed that on this island there were three tribes called the Gautigoths (cf. Geat/Gaut), the Ostrogoths (cf. the Swedish province of Östergötland) and Vagoths (Gotlanders?).
Some enthusiasts interpreted the findings ofPolish archaeologists as supporting Jordanes' claim. They found the Gothic finds in Poland to be similar to those of southern Sweden. Scandinavian burial customs, such as the stone circles (domarringar), which are most common in Götaland and Gotland, and stelae (bautastenar) appeared in northern Poland in the 1st century AD, suggesting an influx of Scandinavians during the formation of the Gothic Wielbark culture . Moreover, in Ostrogothia, in Sweden, there is a sudden disappearance of villages during this period. The languages of Goths and Geats were strikingly different, however.
The generally accepted identification between the Götar and Gautar as the Geatas of Beowulf is mainly based on the observation that the Ö monophthong of modern Swedish and the AU diphthong ofOld Norse correspond to the EA diphthong of Old English.
|Swedish||Old Norse||Old English|
Thus, Geatas is theOld English form of Old Norse Gautar and modern Swedish Götar.
This correspondence seems to tip the balance for most scholars. It is also based on the fact that inBeowulf, the Geatas live east of the Dene (across the sea) and in close contact with the Sweon, which fits the historical position of the Gautar between the Daner and the Svear.
Moreover, the story of Beowulf, who leaves Geatland and arrives at theDanish court after a naval voyage, where he kills a beast, finds a parallel in Hrólf Kraki's saga. In this saga, Bödvar Bjarki leaves Gautland and arrives at the Danish court after a naval voyage and kills a beast that has been terrorizing the Danes for two years (see also Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki).
Since the 19th century, several other nations have been suggested to correspond to the Geats, such as theDanes (Curt Weibull), the Jutes (Pontus Fahlbeck 1884), the Goths and the Gotlanders, (See e.g. the OED which identifies the Geats through Eotas, Iótas, Iútan and Geátas) with the Jutes referred to in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. '
These hypotheses have been suggested in spite of the fact that, in both Beowulf andWidsith, the Geats are clearly distinguished from both Jutes Eótenas (or Ytum) and Danes. Thus any identification between the Geatas and these two nations is refuted by the two source texts themselves.
In addition, the reconstructed root for both Geat and Gaut is *Gaut-, whereas the reconstructed root of Goth and Got(-land) is *Gut-. The root of Jute is usually regarded as unknown.
Even if the identification made in this article is generally accepted, the matter is not dead and it will continue to raise harsh feelings even in the future—especially inSweden, where the debate about Sweden's history prior to the 11th century is affected.
There is no knowledge about differences in language between Geats and Goths. There is no remaining literature. Out of the very few runic words found in alleged territories of the Geats and Goths, no conclusions can be made.
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