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Chapter 7

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7.1 Manuscript collections

We do not know how much Anglo-Saxon literature has been lost. One of the important manuscript collections that survived is the Exeter Book – the largest known collection of OE literature, containing about a sixth of the OE poetry that has come down to us. It was drawn up in the tenth century, and was presented to Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, Bishop of Exeter. He talks of a mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht (‘a large English book about all sorts of things composed in poetry’). Another important collection is found in the Vercelli Book, thus called because it was found in the cathedral library of Vercelli, a town in north-west Italy. The collection was, in fact, probably produced in Canterbury, during the tenth century. A third collection is known as the Cotton Codex (a ‘codex’ is a volume of manuscripts), assembled in London by the sixteenth-century English antiquarian, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. The Cotton Library originally formed the basis of today’s British Library. It was badly damaged by fire in the eighteenth century.

7.2 A ‘Rough Guide’ to Widsith

  • background: in the ‘heroic’ genre, this fragment is found in the Exeter Book;
  • authorship: unknown, possibly written in the sixth or seventh century;
  • content: Wīdsið (literally ‘wide-going’) means ‘far-traveller’. The wīdsið who tells this tale is a fictional character, a minstrel. The poem is constructed around three catalogues of names – famous rulers (dead or alive); tribes the minstrel visited; mythological heroes;
  • value: the poem provides a survey of people and tribes, particularly those associated with the Germanic heroic age. It is sometimes regarded as the first poem in the language. It possibly contains the first mention of the Vikings – Wicinga cynn (‘kin’, a word mentioned in 3.2);
  • quotations:
    • (a) The poem’s first line uses that word wordhord, much discussed in Chapter 5:

    • Widsið maðolade,   wordhord onleāc
      ‘Widsith spoke, unlocking his treasure of words’

    • (b) Some comments on fame and poetry:

    • Swā scriþende     gesceapum hweorfað
      gleōmen gumen     geond grunda fela,
      þearfe secgað,    þoncword sprecaþ,
      simle suð oþþe norð     sumne gemētað
      gydda gleāwne,     geofum unhneāwne,
      sē þe fore duguþe wile    dōm arǣran,
      eorlscipe æfnan,    oþþæt eal scæceð,
      leōht ond līf somod;

      ‘Wandering like this, moved by fate, minstrels travel through many countries; they express their needs, say words of thanks. Always, south or north, they find someone skilled in poetry, liberal with gifts, who wishes to increase his authority with his men, to show his supremacy, until everything departs, light and life together;’

7.3 A ‘Rough Guide’ to The Dream of the Rood

  • background: A ‘dream-vision’ poem, found in the Vercelli Book. A portion is carved on an eighth-century cross – the Ruthwell Cross – still existing in a small church in southern Scotland;
  • authorship: possibly written by the poets Caedmon or Cynewulf, probably in the eighth century;
  • content: divided into three parts: (a) the poet describes his vision of the cross; (b) the cross itself describes the Crucifixion; (c) the poet declares his faith;
  • value: an expression of devotional simplicity, as well as an ingenious web of imagery. As the quotation below shows, Christ is portrayed as a bold Anglo-Saxon warrior, and certainly not as a meek sufferer;
  • quotation:    Some of the words depicted on the Ruthwell Cross:

    • Ongyrede hine þā geong hæleð,   (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
      strang ond stīðmōd.   Gestāh hē on gealgan hēanne,
      mōdig on manigra gesyhðe,   þa he wolde mancyn lysan.

    • ‘Then the young hero (that was God Almighty), stripped himself,
      strong and resolute. He mounted the high gallows,
      noble in the sight of many, when he wanted to redeem mankind.’

7.4 A ‘Rough Guide’ to The Battle of Maldon

  • background: a historical poem, part of the Cotton Codex. It records the 991 Battle of Maldon, when the English failed to prevent a Viking attack. The English leader was Byrhtnoth, ealdorman (ruler) of Essex;
  • authorship: unknown, thought to be written in the tenth or eleventh century;
  • content: the poem describes how Byrhtnoth was killed and the English defeated, partly because some men fled, and partly because of Byrhtnoth’s ofermōd (‘excessive pride’ – see quotation (b) below. We looked at the word mōd in 5.2.1);
  • value: a powerful statement of ‘Germanic heroic spirit’, where bonds of loyalty were important, and the deaths of leaders needed to be avenged; 
  • quotations:
    • (a) ‘The worse the odds, the stronger the spirit should become,’ is the bold message of these lines.

    • Hige sceal þē heardra,      heorte þē cēnre,
      mōd sceal þē māre,      þē ūre mægen lytlað

      ‘The mind shall be harder, heart the fiercer, the spirit shall be more, as our might lessens.’

      The first half-line is the basis for the motto of England’s University of Essex (Maldon is a town in Essex): ‘thought the harder, heart the keener’.

    • (b) Byrhtnoth allows the Vikings to gain some land, and this is attributed to ofermod:

    • Ðā se eorl ongan        for his ofermōde
      ālȳfan landes tō fela               lāþere ðeode

      ‘Then the earl began, through excessive pride, to concede too much land to a more hateful nation.’