Performance in "Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems 1843846454, 9781843846451, 9781800108004

An examination of the depiction and representation of performative acts in Old English texts. Acts of performance, such

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Performance in "Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems
 1843846454, 9781843846451, 9781800108004

Table of contents :
List of Illustrations and Tables viii
Acknowledgements ix
List of Abbreviations x
Poem Titles, Orthography, Editions, and Translations xi
Introduction: Realising the Intangible 1
1. Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis 35
2. Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics 74
3. Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol 104
4. Storytelling in 'Beowulf' and Meta-storytelling in 'Andreas' 119
5. Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance 144
6. Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? 174
7. The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the
Corpus 216
Conclusion: ‘Poetic Performance’ 230
Bibliography 237
Index 257

Citation preview

Anglo-Saxon Studies 45


Anglo-Saxon Studies ISSN 1475-2468 GENERAL EDITORS

John Hines Catherine Cubitt

‘Anglo-Saxon Studies’ aims to provide a forum for the best scholarship on the Anglo-Saxon peoples in the period from the end of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest, including comparative studies involving adjacent populations and periods; both new research and major re-assessments of central topics are welcomed. Books in the series may be based in any one of the principal disciplines of archaeology, art history, history, language and literature, and inter- or multi-disciplinary studies are encouraged. Proposals or enquiries may be sent directly to the editors or the publisher at the addresses given below; all submissions will receive prompt and informed consideration. Professor Emeritus John Hines, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University, John Percival Building, Colum Drive, Cardiff, Wales, CF10 3EU, UK Professor Catherine Cubitt, School of History, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, NR4 7TJ, UK Boydell & Brewer, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, IP12 3DF, UK Recently published volumes in the series are listed at the back of this book

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Steven J. A. Breeze


© 2022 Steven J. A. Breeze All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation no part of this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system, published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast, transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the copyright owner The right of Steven J. A. Breeze to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 First published 2022 D. S. Brewer, Cambridge ISBN 978-1-84384-645-1 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-80010-800-4 (ePDF) ISBN 978-1-80010-801-1 (ePUB) D. S. Brewer is an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF, UK and of Boydell & Brewer Inc. 668 Mt Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620-2731, USA website: A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library The publisher has no responsibility for the continued existence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate Cover image: John Henry Frederick Bacon, ‘Beowulf Replies Haughtily to Hunferth’, 1910, as reproduced in M. I. Ebbutt, Hero-Myths & Legends of the British Race (London, 1912), 12. Author’s own copy; original artwork in the Public Domain. Cover design:

In memory of William Singer


List of Illustrations and Tables




List of Abbreviations


Poem Titles, Orthography, Editions, and Translations


Introduction: Realising the Intangible


1 Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis


2 Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics


3 Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol


4 Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas


5 Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance


6 Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance?


7 The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus


Conclusion: ‘Poetic Performance’







Illustrations and Tables

Illustrations Figure 1: 1969 reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo lyre. Figure 2: Erroneous 1948 frame harp reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo instrument. Figure 3: King David playing the round lyre surrounded by his retinue of performers. Figure 4: Jubal playing a frame harp.

68 69 70 71

Tables Table 1: Instances of words for ‘poet’ in Old English poetry. Table 2: Recurring words in passages of performance in Beowulf, according to Opland. Table 3: Storytelling speech acts in Beowulf.

47 95 120

Full credit details are provided in the captions to the images in the text. The author and publisher are grateful to all the institutions and individuals for permission to reproduce the materials in which they hold copyright. Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders; apologies are offered for any omission, and the publisher will be pleased to add any necessary acknowledgement in subsequent editions.



This book developed in two fantastic institutions that provide lifelong learning opportunities in London: Birkbeck, University of London, and City Lit. I would like to acknowledge the Birkbeck family of staff and students in the School of Arts, past and present, and those in the Humanities, Classics, and Languages departments at City Lit. I would particularly like to thank those in various organisations who have offered criticism and guidance during this book’s development, offering both advice and support: Alison Finlay, Mike Bintley, Anthony Bale, Isabel Davis, Tom White, Mike Leahy, Alaric Hall, Richard North, Mark Malcomson, Patricia Sweeney, and Peter Moore. I would also like to express my gratitude to the administrative staff in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, and the staff in the following libraries: Birkbeck; University College London; Senate House Library; Sheffield University Library; Sheffield Hallam University Library; and the British Library. The anonymous reviewers of parts of this book offered very useful stylistic suggestions; I hope to have incorporated these successfully. I would like to thank my parents and wider family, and above all would like to thank and express my gratitude to Hester, Lewis, and Neoma. Part of Chapter 5 first appeared in the article ‘The Status of Secular Musicians in Early Medieval England’, Mediaevalia, 42 (2021), 1–29, and is reproduced here with permission.



ANQ: American Notes and Queries ASPR: G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie (eds), The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 6 vols DOE: Dictionary of Old English: A to I online EETS: Early English Text Society (OS: Original Series) EHR: English Historical Review ELH: English Literary History JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology MED: Middle English Dictionary online MLR: Modern Language Review MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly NGD: Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell (eds), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edn, 29 vols (Oxford, 2001) OED: Oxford English Dictionary PMLA: Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America RES: Review of English Studies RGA: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde SCA: Society for Creative Anachronism VPAE: Vaughan Papers in Adult Education


Poem Titles, Orthography, Editions, and Translations

Titles of all Old English poems are taken from the ASPR. Unless stated otherwise, all translations of Old English are by the author. Unless stated otherwise, all passages of Old English poetry follow the orthographic conventions in the ASPR, except those from Beowulf, which follow R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (eds), Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (Toronto, 2008), diacritics omitted. Also, passages from Andreas are from Richard North and Michael D. J. Bintley (eds), ‘Andreas’: An Edition (Liverpool, 2016). All Old English riddle numbers follow the convention in G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie (eds), The Exeter Book, ASPR III (New York, NY, 1936). Unless stated otherwise, all Old Norse Eddic poetry and translation is taken from Ursula Dronke (ed.), ‘The Poetic Edda’, in three volumes: Volume I: Heroic Poems (Oxford, 1969), Volume II: Mythological Poems (Oxford, 1997), Volume III: Mythological Poems II (Oxford, 2011). Stanza numbers are also after Dronke’s edition. Latin extracts and corresponding translations are from various texts and are referenced at their point of inclusion. All line numbers, passages, and translations from Laȝamon’s Brut are from Laȝamon, ‘Brut’, or, ‘Hystoria Brutonum’, ed. W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg (Harlow, 1995). References to The Canterbury Tales are from Larry D. Benson (ed.), The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford, 1987).


Introduction: Realising the Intangible


oetry is disseminated and encountered in collections, selections, and anthologies, in books and online, and is often thought of as a literary form. Indeed, text on the page or screen is essential to our understanding of some poetry, such as shape poems. Yet poems also come alive and generate meaning through recital in performance. Slam poems, for example, exist through performance, and performance is intrinsic to some poetry’s composition, particularly when improvised. In contemporary world societies we engage with performed poetry in diverse contexts, and by means of various media. Consider popular music and its lyrics, poetry’s most pervasive manifestation. The live performance of popular music can be experienced anywhere: a stadium; a field; a living room. We encounter its lyrics, chords, and melody in sheet music form, in notation that facilitates performances. We experience popular music via radio broadcasts, through sound and images resulting from the playback of audio and audiovisual storage media, and via the online streaming of live performances and music videos. These media and contexts can combine: for example, a DJ might utilise audiovisual storage media such as vinyl records, CDs, and computer hard drives in live performance. We also encounter earlier or more traditional forms of poetry in numerous ways, and all cultures construct specific relationships between poetry and its reproduction in performance. These relationships are subject to change over time. Before the invention of the phonograph and subsequent recording and reproduction technologies allowed us to hear and see poetry in performance via amplifying horns, speakers, and screens, poems existed either in the mind, in writing, or in live performance. In a culture without either literacy or recording and playback technologies, poetry exists only in the mind or in live performance, being part of an oral tradition. The metre and form of Old English poetry developed in such a tradition, in a largely preliterate culture, before conversion to Christianity brought writing to sections of early medieval English society. Some poems in the Old English corpus may have been composed and transmitted orally before being transcribed. Accordingly, the ways in which the corpus relates to performance practices have also changed over time. Let us use the history of the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf, to consider this development. We know Beowulf because it appears on the folios of a fire-damaged and age-worn but thankfully almost complete vellum manuscript dating from around the year 1000: the Nowell Codex, which today forms part 1

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems of a composite volume: London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV. Most people believe that Beowulf is centuries older than the Nowell Codex, and existed in other, earlier manuscripts that are now lost. The relationship between the poem, its extant manuscript and any lost manuscripts, and historical performance practices, is unknown. Was Beowulf performed before an audience? Did the Nowell Codex or any other manuscript containing the poem facilitate such performances? The Nowell Codex is sometimes thought of as a loosely thematic collection, about monsters and the monstrous, though that theme is not entirely coherent.1 It should also not be seen as a manuscript full of performance material. Beowulf sits alongside another poem, Judith, and part of a prose Life of St. Christopher, both of which may well have been recited, but also with the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and the heavily illustrated prose Wonders of the East, which seem particularly inappropriate for performance. Like much of the Old English corpus, aspects of Beowulf’s style suggest orality and oral dissemination, but stylistic characteristics do not confirm oral origins or transmission, and a consensus has built suggesting that a literate individual composed the poem in a monastic setting. Arguments for single authorship have long been circulating, particularly since J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1936 British Academy lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’.2 It is unclear how familiar that individual was with contemporary or traditional popular performance practices. All known interpretations and performances of Beowulf, however tangential, rely on that text in the Nowell Codex. A thousand-year journey through time from that manuscript’s manufacture to the present day reveals changes in the way the poem has been appreciated and performed, particularly since its rediscovery in the eighteenth century. The codex’s provenance is uncertain.3 Its ownership before the sixteenth century is not known. Laurence Nowell (1530–c.1570) possessed it, probably from 1563 given that that year and his name appear on the manuscript’s first page. It afterwards came into the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), passing to Cotton’s son, Sir Thomas Cotton, and then to Robert’s grandson, Sir John Cotton, who bequeathed it to the nation upon his death in




Kenneth Sisam initially and most notably advanced the argument for the thematic unity of the Nowell Codex, in Kenneth Sisam, Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford, 1953), 96. For an advancement that sees the codex as concerning monstrous threat more widely, particularly as a threat to leaders, see Kathryn Powell, ‘Meditating on Men and Monsters: A Reconsideration of the Thematic Unity of the Beowulf Manuscript’, RES, 57 (2006), 1–15. J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, 1983), 5–48. A matter considered at the opening of Chapter 2.


Introduction 1702. It was placed in the British Museum in 1753. The Nowell Codex contains the only known Beowulf between the turn of the first millennium and around 1790, when Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, intrigued by Humphrey Wanley’s brief catalogue description of the poem in the British Museum, sought it out when sourcing evidence of the deeds of his Danish ancestors and transcribed it, ushering in the age of Beowulf interpretation.4 Editions and translations enabling performance have been circulating since the nineteenth century.5 Thus, while the Beowulf in the Nowell Codex could have facilitated performances, there might well have been no recitals of the poem between the demise of the Old English language, when the poem increasingly became unintelligible to English speakers, and the nineteenth century. For hundreds of years, very few people, if anyone, could understand the poem.6 Nowell himself may well have been able to; he was a keen early medievalist who transcribed Old English material and compiled an early Old English dictionary, the Vocabularium Saxonicum of c.1587. Robert Cotton apparently had some understanding of the etymology of several Old English words, but the Cotton family’s knowledge of the language is otherwise not known. Wanley’s summary shows that he misread Beowulf, possibly because his aim was to catalogue it rather than consider it thoroughly, but he did have a keen interest in the language. Jakob Langebek (1710–75), a compatriot of Thorkelin on a similar nationalist mission, wondered why there was little interest in the poem, but there is no evidence he accessed it himself.7 The early history of editing and translation was often for the purposes of philological and historical research rather than performance, though since the 1870s the story of Beowulf has also regularly been adapted for





Wanley transcribed lines 1–19 and 53–73 of Beowulf as long ago as 1705. See T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder (eds), ‘Beowulf’: The Critical Heritage (London, 1998), 57–8. On Thorkelin’s Beowulf research and transcription, see Kevin S. Kiernan, ‘Part One: Thorkelin’s Discovery of Beowulf’, in Kevin S. Kiernan, The Thorkelin Transcripts of ‘Beowulf’, Anglistica XXV (Copenhagen, 1986), 1–41. Sharon Turner translated a few lines into English in 1805, but the earliest complete translations were into Latin: Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin: De Danorum rebus gestis secul. III & IV : Poëma Danicum dialecto Anglosaxonica (Copenhagen, 1815), and Danish: N. F. S. Grundtvig: Bjowulfs Drape. Et Gothisk Helte-Digt fra forrige Aar-Tusinde af Angel-Saxiskpaa Danske Riim ved N. F. S. Grundtvig (Copenhagen, 1820). Of course, language comprehension is not a prerequisite for appreciating an Old English poem in performance; its novelty and unfamiliarity alone can provide pleasure, and students often request that Old English is read aloud in the classroom. Kiernan, Thorkelin Transcripts, 1–2.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems a younger audience.8 Only in the twentieth century did Beowulf become a widely interpreted and performed poem. In 1925, a play by S. L. O’Ferrall appeared, entitled Beowulf the Monster Slayer,9 as did a musical composition by Howard Hanson, Lament for Beowulf, which contains chanted lines from the 1895 translation of the poem by William Morris and A. J. Wyatt.10 From the 1950s, recorded performances of the poem also began to be released, using audio and audiovisual technologies. In 1958, an album of extracts from significant medieval poems, including Beowulf, appeared on Folkways Records, narrated by Charles W. Dunn.11 Between 1958 and 1967, Caedmon Records released albums featuring J. B. Bessinger, Jr. reading medieval English poems, including a 1962 disc containing extracts from Beowulf and other popular Old English poems.12 In 1967 the same record label released a four-LP box set, with Kemp Malone reading the complete Beowulf in Old English.13 Numerous film and television adaptations have been made, notably a 1966 BBC television Jackanory story for children read by Stratford Johns, a 2007 Hollywood film, Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and a 2016 ITV television series: Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.14 As the material is adapted for various purposes, the relationship between these adaptations and the Old English poem varies and can be rather distant.15 With the advent of digital media and the internet, Beowulf and performances based upon it has become increasingly accessible. A CD-ROM of the manuscript with an edition and translations was produced in 1999, entitled Electronic ‘Beowulf’.16 The British Library made a digitised 8

9 10







See Britt Mize, Beowulf’s Afterlives: Bibliographic Database, Center of Digital Humanities Research, Texas A&M University, online at ; also Bruce Gilchrist and Britt Mize (eds), ‘Beowulf’ as Children’s Literature (Toronto, 2021). S. L. O’Ferrall, Beowulf the Monster Slayer: A Play in Three Acts (London, 1925). Howard Hanson, Lament for Beowulf for chorus & orchestra, Op. 25 (1925); William Morris and A. J. Wyatt, The Tale of Beowulf (London, 1898). Charles W. Dunn, Early English Poetry: Read in Old and Middle English, record, Folkways Records FL 5891, 1958. J. B. Bessinger, Jr., Beowulf, Caemon’s Hymn And Other Old English Poems, record, Caedmon Records TC 1161, 1962. Kemp Malone, Beowulf Complete, Read In Old English, record, Caedmon Records TC 4001, 1967. The Story of Beowulf, BBC 1, 11–15 July 1966; Beowulf, film, directed by Robert Zemeckis. UK and USA: ImageMovers and Shangri-La Entertainment, 2007; Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, ITV, 3 Jan.–27 Mar. 2016. For an overview of adaptations and interpretations of Beowulf, see Robert E. Bjork, ‘The reception history of Beowulf’, SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature (2020), 1–19. Kevin S. Kiernan with Andrew Prescott et al. (eds), Electronic ‘Beowulf’, CD-ROM (British Library and University of Michigan Press, 1999).


Introduction manuscript available online in 2013. Many recordings and recitals of Beowulf and other Old English poems are now available on YouTube and other video hosting sites. These sites also host material relating to early medieval performance culture and practices, such as demonstrations and recitals with reproductions of musical instruments from the period. As far as books go, there have been many editions of the poem, Julius Zupitza’s 1882 autotype, and numerous translations that can facilitate performance, in almost thirty languages.17 Audiobooks of Beowulf in Modern English include Seamus Heaney reading his popular 1999 translation.18 Michael D. C. Drout has recited the whole poem in Old English.19 Notable among those who regularly perform Beowulf before audiences are Julian Glover and Hugh Lupton, who narrate dramatically in a Modern English paraphrase interspersed with a few lines of Old English, and Benjamin Bagby, a prominent interpreter of medieval music, who performs a mixture of song and speech in Old English with instrumental accompaniment. An alluring aspect of these performances is their possible relationship with traditional performance practices. These performances can be seen as attempts to echo such practices and speak to the oral origins of Old English poetry.20 If Beowulf has not been extracted entirely from academic lodgings as a ‘quarry of fact and fancy’, as J. R. R. Tolkien famously observed,21 nowadays it is the source for a significant amount of performance practice. Despite interpretation flourishing in modern times, the relationship between Beowulf and early medieval performance practices is uncertain. This uncertainty extends to the Old English poetic corpus in general. Donald K. Fry claimed that, of the extant Old English corpus, ‘only Cædmon’s Hymn can confidently be called oral.’22 If we take at face value Bede’s miraculous account of the seventh-century cowherd-turned-poet Cædmon, the only source we have of Cædmon’s existence, then Fry may be right. However, given questions concerning the provenance and purpose of that account, we should not readily admit even that sole poem to the status of unmediated orality. Yet the Old English poems known 17 18



21 22

See Mize, Beowulf’s Afterlives. Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Translation, cassette, CD and digital download (London, 2000). Michael D. C. Drout, Beowulf Aloud, 3-CD collection (2006). Drout has recorded the entire Old Engish poetic corpus, which can be found online at . Bagby reflects on the process of performing in Benjamin Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic: Notes from the Workshop of a Reconstructed “Singer of Tales”’, in E. B. Vitz, N. F. Regalado, and M. Lawrence (eds), Performing Medieval Narrative (Cambridge, 2005), 181–92. Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, 5. Donald K. Fry, ‘Caedmon as a Formulaic Poet’, in J. J. Duggan (ed.), Oral Literature: Seven Essays (New York, 1975), 227–47, at 227.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems to us descend from a culture of oral tradition that required some kind of performance to sustain itself. Some of them possibly circulated in that culture. Moreover, with its uniform metre and conservative vocabulary, Old English poetry’s character changed little following conversion and the spread of literacy in England. Consequently, there are tangible relationships between the extant corpus and the performance practices that sustained the Old English poetic tradition. Because only the text on the folio remains to us, we cannot experience how specific poems were performed, and discerning the wider culture of performance within which some poems were disseminated is a challenge. However, we can and should consider these poems as texts with the potential to be performed. We can also analyse the characteristics of performance practices depicted in early medieval literature, and envision possible relationships between these depictions and their contemporary and prior performance cultures. Despite the inconclusive nature, description of performance, especially in the poems, may well be some of the best evidence we have. Additionally, we can fruitfully consider relationships between modern-day interpretations and representations found within the corpus.

Defining Performance This book, then, is about the operation and representation of performance activity in Old English poems, and its relationship to early medieval conceptions of performance and performance practices. It looks at the principal kinds of performance practices depicted in poems, considers the importance of performance as a symbolic and structural device, and traces the genesis and development of a tradition of performance as a referential theme in medieval English poetry. This book also considers the relationship between poetic depictions and modern interpretations of early medieval performance practices, asking why performers choose to interpret in the ways that they do. But what is performance? The concept relates to ability and accomplishment in various aspects of life: it is intrinsic to sporting success, while the ‘performance management’ of people and organisations is a key concept in the contemporary workplace. For some, ‘artistic’ performance comes to mind: music; dance; the theatre. Thinking about a specific, discrete artistic performance can help our conceptualisation: a concert or play, for example. Yet one school of thought considers any conscious action to be a performance; reading this book would thus be one, so too the act of writing it. When Beowulf sees a giant’s sword among Grendel’s mother’s weaponry, seizes it, and kills her with it (1557–69), that is a performance as well. Indeed, performance is an ‘essentially contested’ concept, W. B. Gallie’s term for something that 6

Introduction possesses the following characteristics: (1) appraisiveness: it signifies or recognises a valued achievement; (2) the achievement must have internal complexity; (3) the complexity of the achievement means that it can be described in many ways; (4) the achievement must be ‘open’ to considerable modification and to changing circumstances; it is thus fluid and dynamic.23 Because it is essentially contested, the fundamental question of what is meant by performance must be answered as clearly as possible before embarking upon a study of its representation in Old English poetry. Proposing a definition before we venture on also functions to delineate further the scope of this book. Performance for our purposes comprises the following components: (1) the performance act: an abstract component, essentially a time-bound phenomenon distinguishable from non-performance activity; (2) the performance mode: the way in which a performance is undertaken, the ‘how?’; (3) the performance material: its text, the ‘what?’; (4) the performer: someone or something that delivers a performance act; (5) performance articles: any object used to facilitate the performance act; (6) the context in which the performance takes place: its setting, the ‘where?’. Let us consider these elements in more detail.

The ‘Performance Act’ A performance act is the element most resistant to classification. For the purposes of this book, performance acts involve the communication of verbal and/or musical material at a particular time through physical or psychological action.24 Crucially, there needs to be an intention to affect someone or something at the time of delivery. In a typical performance, 23


W. B. Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56 (1956), 167–98, at 171–2. Gallie sees the above four elements as most important, but he augments his definition with the following additional elements: reciprocal recognition of its contested character among contending parties; an original exemplar that anchors conceptual meaning; continuous competition through which increased coherence of conceptual usage can be achieved: ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, 172–80. Gallie’s definition and criteria have been developed by numerous subsequent critics. For discussion of performance as an essentially contested concept, see Mary S. Strine, Beverly W. Long, and Mary Francis Hopkins, ‘Research in Interpretation and Performance Studies: Trends, Issues, Priorities’, in Gerald M. Phillips and Julia T. Wood (eds), Speech Communication: Essays to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Speech Communication Association (Carbondale, IL, 1990), 181–204, at 183–4. References to dancing do not feature in Old English poetry, a possible exception being the word hleapan, which appears in The Fortunes of Men (83), part of a metaphor for the motion of a plectrum or lyre string. Early medieval English dance and dancing is thus not considered in this book.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems ‘the public demonstration of particular skills is the important thing’, as Marvin Carlson neatly puts it, and performance tends to be manifest and social.25 However, an audience, human or otherwise, need not be physically present. A performance can be a solitary act, accomplished through thought alone, so long as there is an intention to affect: a prayer to a deity, for example.

The ‘Performance Mode’ Each performance act has its mode: the way in which it is accomplished, which includes the characteristics of delivery and technique of the performer. Verbal delivery modes, the most prevalent kinds represented in Old English poems, include thought, speech, chant, and singing. Instrumental recital, the playing of a musical instrument, is another significant mode. Of course, verbal and instrumental modes can combine. Building a detailed picture of the performance mode being depicted in a passage of Old English poetry is generally not possible, particularly when the style is terse, with perhaps only one or two words referencing the performance act. It is often unclear whether sung or spoken delivery is being described, for example, or whether instrumentation accompanies a vocal performance. The nature of the performing arts exacerbates the lack of clarity. Vocal delivery and playing an instrument are acoustic communications, mediated through the body in recital and experienced aurally and visually, inter alia. The characteristics of such activity are notoriously resistant to naturalistic verbal description, as performing arts critics would attest. Each performance act differs, and the performance mode is infinitely complex and diverse.

‘Performance Material’ The performance mode is the way the performance material, the text, is delivered. The text of a song is its melody and lyrics, and either can vary from performance to performance, or be omitted. Performance material falls into two broad categories in Old English poems, verbal and instrumental, corresponding with verbal and instrumental modes. Verbal material comprises: (a) texts, possibly memorised or improvised, recited before an audience; (b) a scripted or improvised part, portraying a person or thing; (c) story, essentially the communication of events; (d) exhortative matter such as prayers, charms, and spells. These verbal categories could all be performances of poetry, prose, or indeed any type of written or oral text. 25

Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edn (London, 2004), 3.


Introduction Such material in Old English poetry tends to express cultural concerns, including heroic ideals, history, the legendary past, prediction or opinion about the future, fate, myth, and conventional wisdom. An instrument’s musical ‘text’ might accompany verbal performance material. Categories of performance mode and material overlap and combine, and classification can be problematic. Collectively, though, these categories delineate the types of performance act and kinds of material performed in Old English poems. Given the above brief definitions of the performance act, its modes, and its material, it can be stated that reading Beowulf aloud to an audience is a performance. Reading it to oneself, silently or aloud, is not. Doing so might well be seen as a solo performance, particularly if the text was consciously given rhythmic or melodic emphasis. However, performing to the self is out of scope because there is no intention to affect other people or things at the time of the act. Unless it was undertaken through improvisation before an audience, the act of composing Beowulf would also be out, as would the act of committing it to manuscript: there would have been a delay between its composition, the scribal act that resulted in its appearance in the Nowell Codex, and its reception. In the poem, Beowulf is not performing during his fight with Grendel’s mother (1492–1599), as there is no appropriate mode and no delivery of performance material. However, to recite lines 1492–1599 before an audience is to perform. Moreover, Beowulf performs later when he tells his lord Hygelac and others present about the fight (2131–43). The distinction between the latter two examples of performance is significant. A public reading of Beowulf is the performance of a text, as is saying a prayer, or encouraging a plant to grow by reciting one of the metrical charms. Beowulf’s recollection to Hygelac of his clash with Grendel’s mother is a performance in a text. This book considers both, being about the nature of performance as it appears in Old English poems, the relationship between performance in the poems and performances of them, and associations between performance in the corpus and performance practices relating to that corpus from early medieval England to the present day.

The ‘Performer’ The fourth component of a performance is the performer, who need not be human in Old English poems. A raven performs in Beowulf when he tells the eagle, his fellow ‘beast of battle’, of how he gorged on the slain (3024–7). Some riddles in the Exeter Book poetic codex feature non-human performers, while the protagonist and speaker in The Dream of the Rood, a poem found in another manuscript, the Vercelli Book, is a performing piece of wood, exceptional beam though it is. Human characters appearing 9

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems in Old English poetry who are given identifiers relating to their role as performers, such as woðbora, scop, and gleoman, are usually conventional literary types, rather than fully drawn individuals derived from contemporary culture. Their performance practices are not sketched naturalistically or in detail, and passages in which they feature are ambiguous yet suggestive. These performers have often been conflated with the poets who composed and transmitted extant Old English poems that are seen as being oral-derived. For instance, it is often understood that a Danish þegn who performs while riding on horseback in Beowulf (867b–915) produces alliterative poetry in the style and metrics of the Old English corpus or a comparable earlier Continental Germanic form. This association is not overtly recognised in the poem and remains conjectural, partly because the narrator paraphrases the rider’s material. Generally, relationships between performer figures found in poems and historical performers are not established explicitly. Rather than illuminating the contemporary practices and social function of performers, Old English poetry is often concerned with performance from an earlier period, depicting archaised behaviours. This helps to explain the ambiguous yet suggestive style. Interpretative issues are exacerbated by the fact that we do not know when much of the corpus was composed. By around the year 1000, when the manuscripts containing almost all of the extant poems were produced, generic performers who appear in them are likely to have been a feature of the poetic imagination for some time. Unlike the Scandinavian skald, who operated until the late medieval period, early medieval English performers are not well documented, and had seemingly become part of the poetic tradition preserved by monastic scribes.

‘Performance Articles’ The most obvious example of a performance article is a musical instrument. As with performers, these instruments are often represented enigmatically in Old English poetry. At times they are introduced without reference to either a performer or a performance situation. Rather than being functional plot devices or elements within naturalistic description, they operate independently, often as symbols of joy and community. There are considerable taxonomic issues, partly because of the terse representation but also because of the lack of clarity surrounding terminology relating to early medieval instruments, and organological cruces concerning the principal instrument classes. Identifiers for instruments, such as hearpe, horn, hwistle, organa, pipe, and sweglhorn, do not have settled referents; terms might have referred to more than one instrument or changed referent over time. Musical instruments are not the only kind of performance article. The sword hilt referred to by Beowulf during his speech 10

Introduction to Hrothgar king of the Danes (1652–5, 1661–8), which he then presents to the king (1677–8), is an article, and indeed is both component in and referent of the hero’s performance speech.

‘Performance Contexts’ Finally, all performances take place in a physical and psychological space, the context, which supports our definition of performance in so much as the setting, the physical or emotional environment, can affect its delivery and reception. The performer or performers inevitably interact with their surroundings, which can influence other aspects of performance: the material and mode, and any articles. The context can itself become an article of performance, when a space is utilised during a performance act. A raised or protruding stage structured for interactions between characters or between actors and audience is an obvious example. Considering further the distinction between performance of and performance in a text, it should be noted that all poetry is performance material when recited to an audience, but not all poetry depicts performance. Moreover, any direct speech within an Old English poem is necessarily poetry, because it appears in the Germanic alliterative long line characteristic of the entire corpus. However, not all speech in the narrative can be classed as performance; it needs to be appropriate material in an appropriate context: a speech containing storytelling elements delivered to an audience, for example. Some speeches contain no performance material at all or comprise performance only partially. The following speech by Beowulf to Hrothgar contains storytelling as well as non-­ performance material: ‘Hwæt! we þe þas sælac,  sunu Healfdenes, leod Scyldinga,  lustum brohton tires to tacne,  þe þu her to locast. Ic þæt unsofte  ealdre gedigde wigge under wætere,  weorc geneþde earfoðlice;  ætrihte wæs guð getwæfed,  nymðe mec god scylde. Ne meahte ic æt hilde  mid Hruntinge wiht gewyrcan,  þeah þæt wæpen duge; ac me geuðe  ylda waldend þæt ic on wage geseah  wlitig hangian eald sweord eacen  (oftost wisode winigea leasum),  þæt ic ðy wæpne gebræd. Ofsloh ða æt þære sæcce,  þa me sæl ageald, huses hyrdas.  þa þæt hildebil forbarn brogdenmæl,  swa þæt blod gesprang,


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems hatost heaþoswata.  Ic þæt hilt þanan feondum ætferede,  fyrendæda wræc, deaðcwealm Denigea,  swa hit gedefe wæs. Ic hit þe þonne gehate,  þæt þu on Heorote most sorhleas swefan  mid þinra secga gedryht ond þegna gehwylc  þinra leoda, duguðe ond iogoþe,  þæt þu him ondrædan ne þearft, þeoden Scyldinga,  on þa healfe, aldorbealu eorlum,  swa þu ær dydest.’ (1652–76) ‘Thus, Halfdane’s son, prince of the Shieldings, we are glad to bring this booty from the lake. It is a token of triumph, and we offer it to you. I barely survived the underwater battle. It was hard-fought, a desperate affair that might have gone badly; if God had not helped me the outcome would have been swift and fatal. Although Hrunting is hard-edged, I could never bring it to bear in battle. But the Lord of Men allowed me to behold, for he often helps those without friends, an ancient sword shining on the wall, a weapon made for giants, there for the wielding. Then my moment came in the combat, and I struck the inhabitant in that place. After that the damascened sword blade melted; it bloated and it burned in their rushing blood. I have wrested the hilt from the enemies’ hand, avenged the evil done to the Danes; it is what was owed. And this I vow, prince of the Shieldings: You can sleep secure in Heorot with your company of warriors. Never need you fear for a single thane of your sept or nation, young warriors or old, that laying waste of life that you and your people endured formerly.’

This speech begins with the imperative ‘hwæt’, but the first three lines are not performance, being instead statements of fact and intent. At 1655, when he turns to describe the underwater battle, Beowulf begins to deliver a story, and his performance lasts until 1670. Lines 1671–6 close the speech with further pledges that do not conform to our definition of performance. In summary, although some poems that survive as texts in manuscripts may at one time have been transmitted through oral performances, the written corpus of Old English poems is not intrinsically a collection of performance material. However, some poems contain, describe, or refer to performance, and all poems become performance material through the act of recital, if there is intent to affect someone or something at the moment of delivery. As a result of this working definition of performance for the purposes of this book, a further issue naturally follows, one requiring quite different treatment: what kinds of performance acts, modes, materials, performers, and articles either appear in Old English poems, or operated 12

Introduction in early medieval England? What are their characteristics? Answering these further questions requires being open to any possibility within the boundaries set by our definition of performance, and we are tasked with analysing the poetry together with associated evidence: the wider corpus of Old English literature, manuscript illustrations, and archaeological findings. The vague, allusive, and generalised references to performance activity, together with the broad semantic ranges that relevant vernacular terminology possesses,26 hamper attempts to determine the precise characteristics of performance acts. Understanding how a specific performance was undertaken, and how it would have appeared and sounded to an audience, inevitably requires some supposition. Conjecture is required when attempting to determine as clearly as possible the characteristics of performances that appear in passages of Old English poetry. We must consider whether poets had a taxonomy of performance modes and material, intelligible to an early audience from such indicators as the vocabulary or the narrative context. Depictions in Old English poems do not lend themselves to ready identification of performance categories, much less enable a complex picture of what a specific performance might have been like. Moreover, applying Modern English classificatory terms to early medieval practices is not straightforward; after all, classifying twenty-first-century performance is an imprecise exercise. Consider the terms ‘poet’ and ‘poetry’, for instance. Although one might recognise poetry when one reads or hears it, the concept cannot be defined with precision, partly because there are close associations with other literary and musical forms. Much literature, art, and performance can be described as ‘poetic’. ‘Poet’ and ‘poetry’ entered the English language in the fourteenth century, and it should not be assumed that early medieval performers and their art should be defined as such. Nonetheless, passages in Old English poems recognisably depict poetry being performed, and other kinds of performance appear too: music, song, and storytelling. Accepting that Old English poetry presents an interpretative challenge concerning performance practices, this book considers two further, related questions. First, what are the functions of performance? what does it do for a poem? Here, we are on firmer ground. For instance, performance helps to structure some poems. In Beowulf, material of cultural relevance to the poem’s characters is introduced as part of a performance act, via digressive-associative strands. Performance also initiates principal narrative events, such as Grendel’s enragement. Second, what are the effects of performance? That is, what does the representation of performance symbolise? Many poems have an allusive character, requiring


A matter considered in Chapter 1.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems a methodological approach that does not treat the corpus purely as a source for evidence of historical practices and behaviours. These poems should instead be seen as the product of processes of conventionalisation and archetypisation blending with linguistic creativity. The process developed in a prehistoric, partly ‘Germanic’ past, through a process of cultural historicisation, into a language and a poetic form that together creates referential symbolic and semantic effects. The poetry allowed the early medieval English to reflect upon their cultural circumstances and knowledge, and the past as they imagined it. Rather than being unmediated descriptions of contemporary or historical realities, references to performance are often symbolic illustrations, formulated in the process of conventionalisation; they reflect inherited cultural values, and are also influenced by Christian belief.

The Functions and Effects of Performance: An Example Many of the most well-known Old English poems allude to performance. Some describe performances, and some contain speeches revealing the specific words of storytelling acts. Two popular poems, Deor and Widsith, contemplate the experience of named performers: Deor narrates his own circumstances, while a narrator introduces Widsith, who is afforded speech to tell his fantastic story. As might be expected, Beowulf contains the richest world of performance activity in the corpus. But of all Old English poems, The Order of the World, a less frequently admired and studied poem from the Exeter Book, addresses most clearly what is required of performers of poetry, and offers the best insight into their significance in the poetic imagination. It is a manifesto for a certain kind of performer. The Order of the World provides moral guidance by encouraging appreciation of the evidence of God’s creations. Its opening lines state that those with the ability to communicate knowledge through performance should be valued. The narrator believes such skill was common in the past, but is now a dying art: Wilt þu, fus hæle,  fremdne monnan, wisne woðboran  wordum gretan, fricgan felageongne  ymb forðgesceaft, biddan þe gesecge   sidra gesceafta cræftas cyndelice  cwichrerende, þa þe dogra gehwam  þurh dom godes bringe wundra fela  wera cneorissum! Is þara anra gehwam  orgeate tacen, þam þurh wisdom  woruld ealle con behabban on hreþre,  hycgende mon,


Introduction þæt geara iu,  gliwes cræfte, mid gieddingum  guman oft wrecan, rincas rædfæste;  cuþon ryht sprecan, þæt a fricgende  fira cynnes ond secgende  searoruna gespon a gemyndge  mæst  monna wiston.


Will you, eager man, welcome the stranger, give words of greeting to the wise seer, question the far wanderer about the first creation, ask that he speak of the spacious creations, of their life-renewing natural powers which every day, through God’s power, bring many wonders to the race of men! Each is a sign, a clear symbol to one who through wisdom holds the world fully in his mind’s grasp, the man contemplating that long ago men wise in skill often made compositions, resolute warriors; they could speak rightly, so that always inquiring of the race of men, always speaking, always mindful, they wove a web of deep mysteries – they knew the most of all the race of men.27

Lines 1–7 of The Order of the World allude to one of the fundamental concerns of the corpus and those who created it: communication among men, in this case almost certainly the recital of poetry, particularly material concerning God the ultimate creator, His work, and the fate that he ordains. The poem’s opening section introduces the composers and communicators of poems containing material alluded to in an embedded sample poem (38–102). The sample poem exemplifies the biblical knowledge we must endeavour to understand. The narrator asks his addressee, whom he describes as a fus hæle, ‘striving man’ or ‘eager man’, to welcome and question a wis woðbora, ‘wise bearer’ of woð, ‘poetry’, ‘song’, or ‘eloquence’. The woðbora has knowledge of the Creation and other wundra, ‘marvels’, and he delivers gieddinga, a notoriously elusive term that can refer to various kinds of verbal utterance. This individual evidently can communicate the wisdom he possesses. The narrator then states that in previous ages, musician-storytellers disseminated such knowledge through gliwes cræft, ‘musical skill’ or possibly ‘the skill of joy’.28 Because



Translation adapted from Bernard F. Huppé, The Web of Words: Structural Analyses of the Old English Poems: Vainglory, the Wonder of Creation, the Dream of the Rood, and Judith (Albany, NY, 1970), 29. Huppé translates gliwes cræft as ‘power of harp’: Huppé, Web of Words, 29. This suggests an association between vocal performance and lyre playing, contributing to resolving a crux concerning the use of instruments by different kinds of early medieval English performer, which is discussed in Chapter 1. Huppé’s interpretation is speculative, however.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems these performers belong to a former time, their demise means that the knowledge and ability they possessed is now highly valued. Critically, their communication through performance of knowledge concerning searoruna gespon, life’s ‘web of mysteries’, propagates and enables us to understand God’s wondrous Creation. The Order of the World illustrates the importance of performance activity’s function and its potential to affect us, and it demonstrates poetry’s diverse semantic possibilities. Performance is also intrinsic to The Order of the World’s structure, most evidently of course the sample poem and its relationship to the rest of the poem. Ruth Wehlau believes it to be ‘a poem about poetry’, and notes the significance of the sample poem,29 as does Neil Isaacs, who entertainingly declares that ‘this is a poem about a poet talking to a prospective poet about poetry and then creating a sample poem which demonstrates the proper subject for poetry and makes a statement about poetry by using poetic creation as submerged point of reference for the Creator’s Creation.’30 For Robert DiNapoli the poem ‘provides us with the only extended depiction we have of the Old English poet, a depiction compounded of dramatized self-portrait and a reconstructed memory of the poet’s putative forbears in his craft’.31 Yet while Wehlau, Isaacs, and DiNapoli are correct that poetry is the performance material of concern in The Order of the World, and that the poem contains within itself exemplars of its own medium, a stasis is achieved. There is no urge to consider the relationship between the exemplar and those Old English poems akin to it in form and content, and the manner and circumstances in which they were performed, their performance modes and contexts. For example, while Isaacs points out the poem’s allusions to song or music, he conflates them with ‘the art of poetic composition’,32 and the chance to consider the performance mode further is missed. This situation is common, and there is resultantly a tendency to overlook the character and possible diversity of performances that appear in Old English poems; the fact that a poem is deemed to depict poets, or allude to the performance of poetry, does not negate the need for further enquiry. This situation is perhaps expected. With a lack of clarity concerning key terminology, such as word and woðbora in its opening lines, The Order of the World exemplifies the problems that arise when attempting to interpret the performance modes represented in an Old English poem. The


30 31


Ruth Wehlau, ‘Rumination and Re-Creation: Poetic Instruction in The Order of the World’, Florilegium, 13 (1994), 65–77, at 65. Neil D. Isaacs, Structural Principles in Old English Poetry (Knoxville, TN, 1968), 71. Robert DiNapoli, ‘The Heart of the Visionary Experience: The Order of the World and its Place in the Old English Canon’, English Studies, 79 (1998), 97–108, at 97. Isaacs, Structural Principles, 76.


Introduction stasis described above certainly avoids speculation. However, likelihoods should be recognised, even if a precise type of performer or mode cannot be determined. Rather than referring solely to poets akin to the composers of the Old English poetic corpus, particularly literate, monastic poets like the Beowulf poet was likely to have been, The Order of the World alludes to figurative and elusive characters who may have been illiterate or operating in a preliterate culture. Even though the poem survives as text in a manuscript, part of the written corpus that remains to us, it contains several allusions to oral communication and performance. For example, in the passage quoted above the fus hæle should greet the wis woðbora with words (2) and should ask them to tell of the wide creation (4). The woðbora holds the world fully in his mind’s grasp (9–10). Also, men often circulated appropriate material through music (11); they often uttered their compositions (12); and they can speak correctly (13). Later in the poem, an allusion to literacy conjures an image of mental creativity, hinting at a complex relationship between literate vernacular poets and their preliterate forbears: the deophydig mon, ‘thoughtful man’, should bewritan in gewitte wordhordes cræft, ‘write in their consciousness the skill of the wordhoard’ (19); also, the narrator must speak without delay (23); the fus hæle is apparently sage-crafty in his chest (25); and finally, the fus hæle, and the audience of The Order of the World, are urged to hear the sample poem and keep their mind attentive (37). Thus, even when the product, in this case the sample poem, is Christian Old English alliterative poetry scribed on vellum, orality is considered to be significant in poetry’s genesis, composition, and circulation through performance. Indeed, the sample poem opens with hwæt, ‘what’, which functions as an interjection or introduction to some Old English poems, including Beowulf, and is commonly associated with audience exhortation in oral performance contexts. The Order of the World poet is engaging with his poetic tradition, exemplifying what in this book I call ‘poetic performance’. Poetic performance refers to conventional conceptions and representations of performance that appear in the corpus. These conceptions and representations reveal elements of the poetic imagination and also influence society, from the early medieval period to the present day. The performance characteristics of figures referred to in The Order of the World can be determined with some success. For instance, speech is alluded to as the mode of communication (sprecan, 13; secgan, 15), yet the reference to gliwes cræfte (11) suggests that music formed part of the traditional mode. Wrecan (12) has connotations of ‘driving out’, indicating that the material is delivered with force and emotion. The Order of the World thus evinces that the oral delivery of some poetry was deemed to have been characterised by emotive spoken and musical expression. The mode could well have differed from performer to performer or even 17

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems between different performances by an individual performer, and consistency should not be presumed. While this would be incongruent with the uniform metrical nature of the poetic corpus, different genres and subject matter may well have required distinct delivery styles, possibly applicable according to physical space and social context. If the performance modes in The Order of the World have seldom been considered, its material (at least the sample poem) is demonstrably in the form of Old English poetry. It should be noted, though, that the material represented in Old English poems has routinely been seen as poetry, even when there is no evidence suggesting as much. There are several reasons for this. First, the poetry contains much of the detail concerning performance activity alluded to or described in Old English literature. The corpus thus constitutes a context that can conveniently also be understood as exemplifying material comparable with its internal depictions. Also, analysis has generally been undertaken by scholars of literature keen to discover more about the poetry and the elusive oral poet in early medieval England. However, performers in Old English poems are often represented in ways like that of the woðbora in The Order of the World: elusively, nebulously, and in an idealised manner, reflecting traditional concepts present in the poetic imagination. Their modes and material are represented in a similar fashion. Furthermore, the world of Beowulf, for instance, has been seen as being populated by oral poets who produce material in the Germanic alliterative long line. They are often labelled scopas, ‘poets’, even when that identifier is not applied in the poem. Are these figures best defined as poets? Do the poems simply contain representations of people working within the dominant creative medium that happened to survive in manuscripts, remarkable though that corpus is? Are there not additional kinds of performer, those who might be better described as musicians or non-poetic storytellers, for example? The supposition that early medieval English performers are necessarily ‘oral poets’, working in the tradition left to us in manuscripts, is part of a wider tendency to view performance in poetry as replicating historical practices. Poetic material has commonly been used as evidence concerning early medieval history. Given that literature, particularly poetry, is the product of creative action, having a close relationship with the imagination and traditional belief, it is surprising that the representation of performance in poems as a stylistic category has been overlooked in favour of attempts at historical understanding. DiNapoli’s attempt to discern information about the Old English poet from The Order of the World is typical of this critical approach. That attempt may well be appropriate given the presence of the exemplar, which is demonstrably in Old English poetic form, though the poem’s narrator is concerned with figures from the past. However, many critics would argue that the mounted þegn in Beowulf is also an alliterative poet of the Germanic 18

Introduction tradition. For instance, Margaret Clunies Ross claims that the passage describing him (867b–74a) can ‘tell us a good deal at second-hand about the role of [alliterative] poetry in early Germanic-speaking societies’.33 Yet a focus on the stylistic and creative aspects of representation can be a productive alternative to an anthropological approach that attempts to deduce historical truths from a poetry often oriented away from contemporary realities into pre- or pseudo-­history, into gnomic statement, or into symbolic idealism, addressing matters such as the heroic code, or philosophical concerns such as the contemplation of transience and loss. Whatever the representation of performance in the poetry tells us about early medieval historical practices, it reveals much concerning the Old English poetic imagination and its creativity, particularly the domain of associative meaning within which writers operated. Any examination of performance in the poetry should consider this domain. The poetic imagination and its creative application may have fewer tangible properties than outward behaviours and norms, but more evidence concerning the former is to be found in the extant poems.34

Theoretical Frameworks Framework 1: Oral-derived Poetics and Performance as Theme The world of orality fashioned in The Order of the World hints at Old English poetry’s origins in a culture of oral transmission. However, the association between preliterate tradition and extant written corpus is complex, and likely varies from poem to poem. The extent to which some poems in the Old English poetic corpus were composed and circulated orally before being committed to manuscript has been a significant concern of critics, particularly oral-formulaic theorists.35 Moreover, because much Old English poetry is oral-derived, the representation of performance has been seen as a principal aspect of its reflexivity. Seth Lerer argues that certain poems contain ‘scenes of bardic performance or 33



Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘The transmission and preservation of eddic poetry’, in Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn, and Brittany Schorn (eds), A Handbook to Eddic Poetry: Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia (Cambridge, 2016), 12–32, at 13. Roberta Frank notes the lack of evidence concerning early medieval oral performers; see Roberta Frank, ‘The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 75 (1993), 11–36. An overview of the formative criticism regarding oral origins is Alexandra Olsen, ‘Oral-Formulaic Research in Old English Studies: I’, Oral Tradition, 1:3 (1986), 548–606, particularly 550–7.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems social response’ long understood to have been ‘the heart of Anglo-Saxon self-representation’.36 A central formal characteristic of the corpus is the presence of these ‘scenes’ together with other linguistic constructions, from individual morphemes to larger structures, including formulaic half-lines, repeated allusions, and themes. This book establishes that performance can be understood as culturally significant praxis that developed into symbolic, thematic poetic units, which in turn became dynamic aspects of poetic tradition. It will be shown that representations of performance often have regular, even formulaic characteristics in Old English poems, yet the performance theme is diverse, and is applied creatively. This compositional creativity gives performance various functions beyond being an isolated, formulaic unit. For Albert Lord, the early oral-formulaicist, a theme requires analogous diction and structure between passages in a single poet’s work: ‘I consider the theme as a repeated passage – not a repeated subject – within the songs or poetry of a given individual, thus constraining it not only to a single poet but also to a more or less stable set of words.’37 However, ever since Francis Magoun considered the ‘beasts of battle’ in 1955, a more relaxed conception of a theme has been dominant in oral-formulaic discourse as applied to Old English poetry.38 Donald K. Fry offers the following definition: ‘a recurring concatenation of details and ideas, not restricted to a specific event, verbatim repetition, or certain formulas, which forms an underlying structure for an action or description’.39 Lord labelled these more general instances ‘motifs’.40 Though Fry’s definition suggests the actions or descriptions have structural parallel, the arrangement of a theme’s elements matters little. Instead, audience awareness of the theme relies on reference to certain characters, behaviours, and objects, which are often symbolic. For instance, beasts of battle passages will usually refer to the wolf, the eagle, and the raven, which symbolise defeat in battle, but not in any order, and in Exodus the birds are referred to collectively, by means of the compound herefugolas, ‘warbirds’ (162). Moreover, the beasts’ function in relation to battlefield corpses differs in each occurrence.41 A systematic, recurrent order is not required to estab-

36 37 38


40 41

Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln, NE, 1991), 4. Albert B. Lord, The Singer Resumes the Tale (Ithaca, NY, 1995), 201. Francis P. Magoun, ‘The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Old English poetry’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 56 (1955), 81–90, particularly 82–3. Donald K. Fry, ‘Themes and Type-Scenes in Elene 1–113’, Speculum, 44:1 (1969), 35–45, at 35. Lord, Singer Resumes the Tale, 137–8. For comparison between the beasts of battle passages in Old English poems, see Magoun, ‘Beasts of Battle’, 84–8; Thomas Honegger, ‘Form and Function: The Beasts of Battle Revisited’, English Studies, 79 (1998), 289–98.


Introduction lish or identify a theme, which is a loosely analogous episode having broadly similar characteristics. Fry distinguishes themes from type-scenes, defining a type-scene as ‘a recurring stereotyped presentation of conventional details used to describe a certain narrative event, requiring neither verbatim repetition nor a specific formula content’.42 Thus, type-scenes for Fry involve a ‘narrative event’, whereas themes contain ‘a state of being or situation’.43 He explains the difference using episodes from the opening to the Vercelli Book poem Elene, comparing three instances of the ‘approach-to-battle’ type-scene with two instances of the ‘hero-on-the-beach’ theme. In doing so, he acknowledges that the concepts are similar. Nevertheless, the distinction between theme and type-scene is useful and is applied in this book, because episodes featuring performance in Old English poems are overwhelmingly themes in Fry’s conception. Instances of performance type-scenes increase in number after the demise of the Old English tradition, as in the ‘minstrel disguise entrance trick’ that appears in poems from the late twelfth century, notably in Laȝamon’s Brut, King Horn, and Sir Orfeo.44 Another important distinction is that between theme and scene. Some critics describe the depiction of multiple performance events, such as the daily performances in Hrothgar’s hall Heorot that enrage Grendel, as scenes. Lerer’s identification of ‘scenes of bardic performance or social response’, quoted above, exemplifies this. Following Lars Lönnroth’s use of ‘scene’, Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl also adopt the term to refer to thematic episodes, in their discussion and overview of the performance of oral literature.45 In this book, however, a scene is a passage in which specific performance acts on a discrete occasion are being described, as applied in film or theatre studies discourse. A scene can contain thematic elements, but it has a more specific application than a theme, which can be a reference to more than one event. Such generalisation occurs frequently, and it has an idealising effect. Scenes are far more likely to provide detail concerning the characteristics of a particular performance. They are mostly storytelling speeches and are otherwise rare in Old English poems.

42 43 44


Fry, ‘Themes and Type-Scenes’, 35. Fry, ‘Themes and Type-Scenes’, 45. See Jerrianne D. Shultz, ‘Creativity, the Trickster, and the Cunning Harper King: A Study of the Minstrel Disguise Entrance Trick in King Horn and Sir Orfeo’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 2007). Lars Lönnroth, Den dubbla scenen: muntlig diktning från Eddan till ABBA (Stockholm, 1978); Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl, ‘Performance and Performers’, in Karl Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature (Berlin, 2012), 141.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Oral-formulaic theory has been developed extensively and reappraised persuasively since its genesis in Milman Parry’s work on Homeric poems in the 1930s, and that of Lord, his student, who conducted fieldwork with Parry studying Yugoslav epic singers in the 1930s, and also in the 1950s and 1960s following Parry’s death.46 Since scholars of medieval English literature adopted the theory, much consideration has been given to the manner in which Old English poems may have been orally composed and performed. The notion of improvisation has been seductive. Almost all poems can be recited orally but, as Lord states, ‘what is important is not the oral performance but rather the composition during oral performance.’47 This has led to some Old English poems being seen as a transcription of an oral performance. Robert Creed enticingly argues that Beowulf is ‘a copy of a recording of a performance. The recording was made at a time when the traditional technique of singing tales was alive and vigorous.’48 This cannot be proven, and most critics today would see this view as unlikely. Indeed, we cannot be sure that any Old English poems are the product of a specific, improvised performance. Oral-formulaic composition is a less useful concept in relation to Old English poems than oral transmission. The latter highlights the prehistory of some Old English poems as being orally performed, communicated, and passed down, rather than composed through improvisation in performance, in a process separate from and prior to any subsequent commitment to manuscript. More recent criticism of Old English poetry has blurred an oral-literate binary opposition prevalent in earlier oral theory. Parry believed that ‘literature falls into two great parts not so much because there are two kinds of culture, but because there are two kinds of form: the one part of literature is oral, the other written.’49 An assumed distinction between oral and literate form also permeates Lord’s The Singer of Tales, particularly in its introduction.50 Lord later qualified his view,51 but not before Magoun and others 46

47 48


50 51

The key texts are Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford, 1972), and Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA, 1960). Concerning early oral-formulaic theory, see Ann C. Watts, The Lyre and the Harp (New Haven, CT, 1969), 7–62. See also: A. H. Olsen, ‘Oral-Formulaic Research: I’; A. H. Olsen, ‘Oral-Formulaic Research in Old English Studies: II’, Oral Tradition, 3:1–2 (1988), 138–90. Lord, Singer of Tales, 5. Robert P. Creed, ‘The Beowulf-Poet: Master of Sound-Patterning’, in John Miles Foley (ed.), Oral Traditional Literature: A Festschrift for Albert Bates Lord (Columbus, OH, 1981), 194–216, at 194. Milman Parry, ‘Whole Formulaic Verses in Greek and Southslavic Heroic Song’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 64 (1933), 179–97, at 180, Parry’s emphasis. Lord, Singer of Tales. In Albert B. Lord, ‘The Merging of Two Worlds: Oral and Written Poetry as


Introduction had applied his dichotomy in their analysis of Old English literature. Yet any extant oral-derived Old English poem is necessarily transitional; any composition during oral performance has been crystallised by the scribe, removing it from oral performance practices and contexts. Moreover, orally-transmitted poems might well have coexisted with related poems circulating in manuscripts. Nowadays, the corpus can only be improvised upon after the fact of its existence as written material, and innovation can only occur through performances based on those texts, unless we create new poems in the Old English style and form. Literate poets could also develop an oral style, by copying from existing written poems or being familiar with performances featuring formulaic material. Larry D. Benson’s analysis of the Latin-derived Exeter Book poem The Phoenix, the verse prologue to the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Exeter Book Riddle 35, and the Metres of Boethius, showed that poets working with manuscript sources also produced formulaic verse. He proved therefore that formulaic character does not indicate poetry originally created and communicated orally rather than poetry that involves writing throughout the creative process.52 Fry sums it up, stating ‘no reliable test can differentiate written from oral poems’.53 Furthermore, Marcia Bullard highlighted the limitations of the methodology undertaken by oral-formulaic theorists such as Magoun and Robert Diamond,54 who based their conclusions concerning compositional method largely on quantitative analysis – the frequency of poetic formulas, for example – and did not consider the qualitative aspects of the creative process.55 In her assessment of the validity of early oral-formulaicists’ work, Ruth Finnegan suggests that the quantitative approach is problematised by the lack of agreed definition of ‘the formula’.56 Additionally, the presence of formulaic style in Old English literature outside the poetic tradition has been noted.57 Nevertheless, while there are undoubtedly issues


53 54




Carriers of Ancient Values’, in John Miles Foley (ed.), Oral Tradition in Literature: Interpretation in Context (New York, NY, 1986), 19–64. Larry D. Benson, ‘The Literary Character of Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Poetry’, PMLA, 81:5 (1966), 334–41, at 335–6. Fry, ‘Caedmon’, 227. See Robert E. Diamond, ‘The Diction of the Signed Poems of Cynewulf’, Philological Quarterly, 38 (1959), 228–41. Marcia Bullard, ‘Some Objections to the Formulaic Theory of the Composition of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry’, The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, 21:1 (1967), 11–16. See also Watts, Lyre and Harp, 195–7. Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Cambridge, 1977), 69–72. See, for instance, Thomas A. Bredehoft, Textual Histories: Readings in the AngloSaxon Chronicle (Toronto, 2001), 52–3.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems with oral-formulaic theory, its significance has been profound, and it has been a valuable tool in the interpretation of Old English poetic material. Critics have recently stressed that literate culture is partly responsible for creating a myth of the oral past. They do not consider episodes of performance in the poetry to necessarily be examples of historical oral performance, particularly improvised performance. For example, Mark C. Amodio argues that ‘those reports of scopic activity that survive in the written records do not document contemporary Anglo-Saxon cultural praxis but are rather idealized and fictionalized accounts of how legendary figures composed vernacular poetry.’58 Although his focus is specifically on the production of poetry, and leaving aside the fact that vernacular poetry is not necessarily being composed in these accounts, Amodio’s statement aligns with one of this book’s central premises: performance is idealised and fictionalised in Old English poems. This premise has replaced the romantic historicism of earlier critics such as Magoun and Creed. However, despite acknowledging that the Beowulf poet is ‘engaged in creating a piece of poetic fiction and is not presenting anthropological evidence’,59 Amodio turns to an anthropological approach in his analysis, searching for truths in the reports of ‘scopic activity’ in the poetry and questioning what the characters may have been up to in the worlds of the poems when ‘off camera’, a critic-imagined history outside the text.60 Even when attempting to stress the creative qualities of Old English poems, the desire to speculate concerning the performance practices of the historical past is difficult to resist. Lerer similarly highlights the literary-creative aspects of Old English representations of performance, arguing that ‘what we have come to think of as the inherently “oral” quality of early English poetry – its origins in formulaic composition or its transmission in the public contexts of instruction or entertainment – may … be a literary fiction of its own.’61 Lerer proposes a somewhat uniform view of performance’s function: for him, what he refers to as ‘scenes’ of performance activity ‘are, when seen in broader contexts, framed by representations of the written text, and function more as tropes than as unmediated versions of historical reality’.62 In Old English poems, performance is indeed used as a trope,63 particu58

59 60 61 62 63

Mark C. Amodio ‘Res(is)ting the Singer: Towards a Non-Performative AngloSaxon Oral Poetics’, in Mark C. Amodio (ed.), New Directions in Oral Theory (Tempe, AZ, 2005), 179–208, at 184–5. Amodio, ‘Res(is)ting the Singer’, 196–7. Amodio, ‘Res(is)ting the Singer’, 196–7. Lerer, Literacy, 4. Lerer, Literacy, 4. I take a trope to be analogous to a theme, though the term trope conventionally applies when considering an entire corpus rather than a specific text.


Introduction larly in Beowulf. However, this is only the case in certain instances, and the trope takes various forms and has diverse stylistic effects. Moreover, even when performance is used as such, it can operate dynamically within a poem’s narrative and structure, functioning in complex ways that undermine a straightforward reading of it merely being a formulaic component ‘dropped in’ to a poem at certain points. Oral-formulaic theory has encouraged analysis of the formulaic and structural character of Old English poems, promoting concepts such as the theme and highlighting the poetry’s innately referential and associative nature. Yet this book questions certain assumptions that oral-formulaic approaches to understanding the poetry and the representations of performance within it have been founded upon. Along with the critiques of Benson, Bullard and Finnegan, as early as 1967 Michael Curschmann attempted to move beyond the reductive teasing out of formulas as an end in itself, and to blur the distinctions between approaches to texts perceived to be oral and those thought to have a written origin.64 More recent oral-formulaic research has focused upon the creativity of Old English poetry’s form and characteristics. Manish Sharma uses Henri Bergson’s notion of a ‘continuous multiplicity’, and Deleuze and Guattari’s adaptation of Bergson in particular, to argue for a focus upon Old English poetry’s ‘novelty, originality and experimentation’ instead of its traditionality and reliance on formula.65 Sharma sees the typical view of formulas as ‘discrete multiplicities’,66 a term adopted from Bergson, to be limiting, and attempts to move away from the conventional methods of analysing formulaic linguistic constructs: ‘an overly narrow and formalistic concern with the repetition of extensive linguistic units can only lead to the somewhat dreary theoretical conviction … that the Old English corpus is pallidly homogeneous, “similar thoughts in similar language” subtended by a nostalgic “aesthetics of the familiar”.’67 Sharma’s article argues instead that a novel, original, and experimental approach can coexist with formulaic style. This book likewise demonstrates the creative and dynamic characteristics of formulaic poems, in relation to performance. For instance, Chapter 2 shows how passages containing performance in Beowulf exhibit various relationships with the poetry’s formulaic style and its structural characteristics, generating diverse effects, while Chapter 3 demonstrates the complex symbolic nature of the hearpe, ‘lyre’.



66 67

Michael Curschmann, ‘Oral Poetry in Mediaeval English, French, and German Literature: Some Notes on Recent Research’, Speculum, 42:1 (1967), 36–52. Manish Sharma, ‘Beyond Nostalgia: Formula and Novelty in Old English Literature’, Exemplaria, 26:4 (2014), 303–27, at 303. Sharma, ‘Beyond Nostalgia’, 305. Sharma, ‘Beyond Nostalgia’, 322.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems In another attempt at developing formulaic theory, Peter Ramey applies the analogy of the World Wide Web’s interconnected, hyperlinked structure to envisage the function of episodes featuring performances in Beowulf.68 For Ramey, ‘the recurring scenes of poetic performances by a singer (or scop) … [are] non-linear hyperlinks that connect the heroic narrative to a wider network of poetic tradition and thus help the audience navigate the thread of that heroic tale through a web of alternate songs and stories.’69 John Leyerle employs a comparable analogic conception, envisioning Beowulf’s structure as being interlaced rather than digressional, as it was commonly understood to be.70 These approaches highlight the narrative’s interrelatedness, and are useful images with which to conceptualise performance’s structural function in the poetry. However, there has been a tendency in much established oral theory to envisage rather one-dimensional conceptions of performance’s function in Old English poetry. Performance is to be understood solely as a theme, for example, or it acts like relational hyperlinks. Correspondingly, the performers are seen primarily as poets, executors of an oral tradition of which a proportion of the extant Old English corpus is all that remains to us. In fact, each passage containing performance differs in style and function enough for us to consider the characteristics of each instance independently. The representation also expresses various philosophical concerns, communicated through diverse techniques and with wide-ranging functions. The poems possess the formulaic qualities indicative of potential oral derivation and traditional thinking, but the poets’ diverse and often subtle creative application rewards an analytic approach that exposes unique literary qualities in each instance. Indeed, it is from the multiformity of representation in Old English poetry that a more consistent performance theme emerges, developing in later English poetry temporally more distant from purely oral poetics. As oral derivation gives way to textual-derivation, this theme crystallises. For example, Laȝamon’s Brut, a quasi-historical chronicle of Britain written around the year 1200, evinces homogeneity and structural and thematic isolation by comparison with pre-Conquest English poetry with regard to the representation of performance. While themes have been considered a component utilised extensively in oral tradition, the performance theme actually becomes a more pronounced and isolated unit in later contexts, developing into a memetic tradition. The characteristics of that tradition will be examined in Chapter 6. 68

69 70

Peter Ramey, ‘Beowulf’s Singers of Tales as Hyperlinks’, Oral Tradition, 26:2 (2011), 619–24. See also the structural experimentation of John Miles Foley, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind (Chicago, IL, 2012). Ramey, ‘Hyperlinks’, 619. John Leyerle, ‘The Interlace Structure of Beowulf’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 37:1 (1967), 1–17.



Framework 2: Symbolism The employment of performance as a symbol is a common stylistic characteristic in Old English poems. Performance generates what John Miles Foley describes as ‘traditional-’ or ‘metonymic referentiality’, which he believes to be a feature of all oral and oral-derived poems.71 Essentially, representations of performance in Old English poems embody a stylistic method that generates semantic relationships between those poetic representations and wider literature and culture as envisioned in the poetic imagination. The poetry’s style is such that analysing it using Foley’s theory of traditional referentiality can enable us to understand the ways in which poetic technique was utilised in the creation of associative meaning in the early medieval period, whatever the circumstances of a particular poem’s origin. Foley explains that ‘mere intelligibility can hinge on information or perspectives that the composing poet assumes to be available to the audience and thus does not explicitly rehearse in the present performance or text.’72 For him, an oral-derived poem, its meanings, and its poetic tradition, is therefore theoretically culture-bound. Traditional referentiality emerges as the result of an exercise in effective application and selection by a poet. The audience then cultivates the semantic space, associating cultural knowledge. He argues: [traditional referentiality] entails the invoking of a context that is enormously larger and more echoic than the text or work itself, that brings the lifeblood of generations of poems and performances to the individual performance or text. Each element in the phraseology or narrative thematics stands not simply for that singular instance but for the plurality and multiformity that are beyond the reach of textualisation.73

Foley assumes that this concept can be applied to written poems as well as to oral performances. After all, he analyses Homer’s epics and Old English poetry, particularly Beowulf, in exploring his theory of what he calls ‘immanent art’,74 the understanding being that such poetry is orally derived. Foley defines immanence as ‘the set of metonymic, associative meanings institutionally delivered and received through a dedicated idiom or



73 74

John Miles Foley’s principal discussions concerning traditional referentiality are found in John Miles Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington, IN, 1991), particularly xv, 6–8; also John Miles Foley, The Singer of Tales in Performance (Bloomington, IN, 1995). John Miles Foley, ‘Epic as Genre’, in The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge, 2004), 171–87, at 180. Foley, Immanent Art, 7. Foley, Immanent Art.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems register either during or on the authority of traditional oral performance.’75 It is the symbolic world of the poem, generated through the manipulation of poetic language and form. In relation to performance, Foley’s concept of immanence, and the contextual invocation of traditional referentiality, involves the prioritisation of the symbolic meanings connected with a performer and their performance acts over the naturalistic description thereof. This prioritisation is established through poetic techniques and is intended to carry through to the audience hearing the poem. Traditional referentiality is established through creative compositional techniques such as anaphora, allusion, and the use of symbolic language. It enables the association of a complex array of meaning, for both the poet and the poem’s audience, from what might be sparse description. Traditional referentiality is suited to Old English poetic form because its concise style and regulated metre encourages pithy yet suggestive phrasing. This book considers the way in which Old English poets use language, thematics, and symbolism to generate traditional referentiality through the depiction of performance, with those elements offering insight into imaginative conceptions operating in the wider cultural imagination. Foley’s ideas concerning referentiality are significant in this book, particularly because the style of symbolic representation changes in later poems, as the English poetic tradition moves away from its purely oral origins, turning into a more isolated, formally thematic characteristic. Yet the symbolic function of performance in Old English poems is also analysed in this book using an empirical method which considers its complex aesthetic and stylistic characteristics, in addition to its formal ones. Echoing the critique of the oral-written binary opposition, Tiffany Beechy has questioned the alterity assumed by Foley between oral and oral-derived poems, and written ones, challenging the assertion that each type requires a distinct critical approach. Rather than seeing the poems as clusters of derivative formulas, Beechy focuses on their creative, intra-formulaic characteristics.76 Instead of bracketing ‘a priori literary categories’, she considers the ‘structures and effects of texts’ by focusing on their aesthetic as well as their linguistic and formal features.77 She argues that ‘the insistence that medieval texts evince orality and that this orality requires reception and reading practices qualitatively different from those supplied by modern poetics seems unnecessary.’78 This seems an appropriate point; after all, is much literature not symbolic, characterised by rhetorical devices such as repetition, anaphora, and formula? No 75 76 77 78

Foley, Singer of Tales in Performance, 7, Foley’s emphasis. Tiffany Beechy, The Poetics of Old English (Farnham, 2010), 18. Beechy, Poetics, 127. Beechy, Poetics, 18.


Introduction special theoretical approach is needed simply because a poem contains formulas or is thought to be oral-derived.

Framework 3: Theories of Tradition and Interpretation Later in this book, the representation of performance is considered in wider contexts, particularly in relation to Eddic and later English poetries. Old English poetry can be seen as a tradition: its form is very consistent, and it has other defining features such as a distinctive lexicon. Yet what are the relationships between that tradition and characteristics of representation in different literary, and particularly poetic, traditions? And can similarities of representation seen in English poetry over time be seen as a tradition? This book considers such relationships, using theories of tradition formulated and observed by Michael D. C. Drout. Central to Drout’s ideas about tradition is a notion of influence, and this book looks at possible relationships of influence between different poetic traditions, and within the Old and Middle English poetic corpuses over time. Drout also develops concepts of the cultural meme and the meme-plex, collections of cultural memes that form traditions through processes of influence.79 What elements of the performance meme-plex passed from poetry to poetry in different geographical locations, and down through time? Related to this notion of tradition is the practice of interpretation; in particular, what elements of a tradition are seen as important when undertaking the interpretation of early English poetry with the goal of reenactment or performance? Theories of interpretation are devised seemingly quite independently by performers and educators as they decide upon how to perform, reenact, or otherwise display early medieval culture. Yet to have a perceived authority or authenticity, external, general notions of what is acceptable to include in a display must be operating in society. Where do these notions come from? Partly, in relation to the performance of early medieval cultural material, it is from within the poetry itself, and this poses questions of the relationship between creative poetic practice, which led to ‘poetic performance’, and the perceived historical accuracy of a modern performer’s interpretation. Each chapter in this book explores how people have engaged creatively with the Old English poetic tradition in relation to performance: the


Michael Drout’s work on tradition is contained in Michael D. C. Drout, How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century (Tempe, AZ, 2006); also Michael D. C. Drout, Tradition and Influence in AngloSaxon Literature: An Evolutionary, Cognitivist Approach (New York, NY, 2013). Drout defines a meme and a meme-plex in Drout, Tradition and Influence, 10–12.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems ways in which they represented performance or employed it as a literary device, or how they have adopted and interpreted poems in their own performances. Each chapter also considers such creativity in relation to possible early medieval performance practices. Chapter 1 is concerned with Old English vocabulary and examines the terminology relating to performance. I have already stated that the representation of performance in Old English poems is often vague and suggestive. This is because typical rather than individual performances are described, but it is also a consequence of the creative application of Old English vocabulary, which is equivocal, economical, and ambiguous, inviting diverse interpretation. The creative use of compounding, formula, amplification, and parallelism within the conventionality of Old English poetic form, metre, and style enables poetic language to generate powerful symbolic effects through its operation within that orthodoxy. Such style is generated partly through poets’ exploitation of the significant referential meaning possessed by vocabulary relating to performance. The chapter considers the range of meaning that significant terminology concerning performance has, and identifies the opportunities presented for inventiveness as linguistic components were employed as literary tools. The analysis reveals how creative application signifies performance’s place in poets’ imaginations. Many terms for performers and performances had broad semantic fields, poets were intentionally ambiguous, and representations are largely of a conventionalised or imaginary literary type rather than a specific historical type. Consequently, the style undermines attempts at deciphering a poet’s intention behind each occurrence of a key word, inhibiting a ‘correct’ interpretation of any given passage, while enabling symbolic associativity. Partly because of the idealisation found in much allusion to performance activity in the poetry, it is tempting to homogenise how performance and its performers are represented, and the ways in which they function. However, the performance theme operates in various ways. Representation can vary both between and within poems. Chapter 2 considers the diverse representation in Beowulf, which contains the most detailed and multiform depictions of secular performance in the Old English poetic corpus. The poem demonstrates that, despite the routine associations the performance theme often has, a poet can utilise it variously and resourcefully within an individual work. Performance does not function solely as a distinct, formulaic element in Beowulf. It introduces narrative sections and events, and it connects them, acting as a concatenating device enabling the association of at times disparate, digressive narrative elements of cultural and thematic relevance to the central plot. Some of this interconnectedness can be seen as what Ward Parks calls ‘interperformativity’, which ‘comprehends those dimensions of a performance residing 30

Introduction in its relationship with other performances’.80 Parks argues that through digressive episodes ‘the Beowulf-poet situates his story of Beowulf in a world of songs’.81 Those passages containing performance that can be seen collectively as constituting a theme often appear in the narrative space between perilous encounters, where performance is situated among other signs of belonging and pleasure such as feasting and drinking, gift-giving, and other ritual activity and entertainment.82 Moreover, some performers appear in symbolic passages superfluous to principal events, but which offer instead an image of success or community, for example, or relief from an external monstrous or military threat. Performance also initiates and develops plot. Chapter 3 develops the focus on performance as a symbolic phenomenon, initially looking at the ways in which the hearpe and its music is portrayed as a vital component of social cohesion and success. The symbolic utilisation of the lyre can be seen in contrast with the functionality of the horn, an instrument used in martial activity and as a warning. Articles of performance are shown to carry as much referential meaning as the anonymous performers who wield them. Poets manipulate a tension continually engendered between the ephemerality of the symbolic object and its materiality, particularly when it comes to poetic compounding, which can combine reference to the material from which an instrument is made with the effect it has on those who listen to it. Later in the chapter, the representation of musical instruments in Beowulf and in other Old English poems is shown to be comparable with passages in the Bible, particularly Isaiah 24 and 1 Maccabees 3:45, which contain references to the absence of instruments as a symbol of wider cultural loss, decline, or disaster. While there may be no direct influence, it appears that biblical material may have been a stimulus to some of the poetry’s symbolic characteristics in relation to performance. Chapter 4 begins with the premise that story is Beowulf’s dominant performance material, and storytelling the only mode indubitably undertaken by named, principal characters. Unlike generic performers, who are not afforded speech and whose material is paraphrased by the narrator, speeches offer us the storyteller’s precise words, and we know they are in the metre and form of Germanic alliterative poetry. Through speech acts, Beowulf is as concerned with rumination on cultural behaviour and events as it is with representing its hero in action. Some speeches 80

81 82

Ward Parks, ‘Interperformativity and Beowulf’, Narodna Umjetnost, 26 (1989), 25–35, at 26. Parks, ‘Interperformativity’, 32. For analysis of the components of the feast in Old English poetry, see Hugh Magennis, Images of Community in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1996), 60–103.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems refer to performances, so that some instances of performance are mediated through the creative articulation of a character’s knowledge and memory in performance, assisting simultaneously in the development of the poem’s digressive and interperformative structure and character. Analysis of poetic technique and creativity in representations of storytelling acts enables us to interpret these instances in a manner that avoids reducing them merely to static, crystallised expressions of established and reified cultural memory. Later in Chapter 4, storytelling in Beowulf, as an example of oral derivation or influence, is compared with speech and storytelling in Andreas, a manifestly literate poem that contains extended storytelling speech acts comparable with those in Beowulf. Having established that speech passages exemplify conscious poetic technique rather than reflecting an individual poem’s circumstances or origin, the chapter concludes by seeing storytelling performances as stylistic examples of early medieval awareness and conceptualisation of appropriate behaviour, manner of address, and knowledge. Chapter 5 starts by considering the ways in which one category of Old English poetry, the catalogue wisdom poems, also articulates philosophies of performance, particularly idealism, through an associative style of representation. Performance is shown to carry fundamental cultural resonance for Old English poets and their audiences, particularly in relation to a representation of the past, often part-historical, part-­legendary, which is a common preoccupation. Performance is an intrinsic aspect of such quasi-history. Moreover, performance is vital and integral. Just as the performers alluded to in The Order of the World are important both for disseminating understanding and the flourishing of society as a consequence, acts of performance are essential for society’s successful operation. Performers in wisdom poems are regularly shown to have a social role, though they are not always given a specific identifier relating to that role. Their ability and knowledge, which are required to perform effectively, are often emphasised, yet precise detail regarding performance practice is not. This idealisation appears to have been shaping popular practices, and the chapter goes on to discuss the popularity of cultural behaviours that were seemingly being influenced by the kinds of performance that feature in the poetry, such as lyre playing and pagan material. This popularity led to admonition by some clerics who evidently did not share the moral perspectives of the poetic imagination. Personal correspondence, historical account, and other prose writing reveal a far more critical attitude in general, but particularly among the Christian hierarchy, towards the kinds of performance idealised in the wisdom poetry. This incongruity between poetic and non-poetic writing is difficult to reconcile, though there is a clear disconnect between the subject matter of much Old English poetry and the concerns of the literate community that inscribed the poems. Bede, Alcuin, and Wulfstan are notable critics 32

Introduction of lyre playing and pagan song, among other performative secular behaviours. However, sometimes the picture is ambivalent: Cuthbert, abbot of Bede’s former monastery, wrote to the Continent in 764 requesting a lyrist for a Germanic round lyre, undermining any notion that such instruments were universally frowned upon in religious spaces. The chapter concludes that the tension between secular and Christian practices resulted from cultural assimilation in the process of conversion, and it also considers the early medieval English performer to possess an ambivalent social status typical of performers in diverse modern world cultures. The representation of performance in Old English poetry might be seen as analogous with representations in comparable literary forms or genres, being a conceptual device that can operate across linguistically-bound literary traditions and poetic forms. Poetic traditions have ‘deep associations’. However, Chapter 6 finds certain aspects of the representation of performance in Old English poetry to be uniquely significant to an English poetic tradition. A case study is undertaken of Old Norse Eddic poetry, a literature closely related culturally, linguistically, and formally to Old English, with similar structure, metre, and themes. While some relationship in style and representation between Old English and Eddic poetry can be discerned, there are key distinctions. The certainty of the characteristics of performance representation proliferating uniformly across linguistic and geographical boundaries is thus not dependent on their comparable themes or subject matter, or their formal or linguistic relationships. Furthermore, similarity between the formal features of poetic traditions, such as line length or alliterative rules, does not dictate the methods of generating and inferring referential meaning, and neither does genetic proximity between languages. For example, while Old English poems overwhelmingly feature generic lyrists, lyrists in Eddic poems are usually key, named protagonists, such as Gunnarr, whose playing is central to the plot. Moreover, though certain scenes are shown to contain elaborate symbolism, such as Eggþér’s lyre playing in Vǫluspá, the way in which the symbolism operates differs between the two traditions. Using Michael D. C. Drout’s theories concerning early medieval cultural memes and ‘meme-plexes’, the second part of the chapter explores the way in which the Old English representation of performance as complex theme can be seen as the root of an English imaginative tradition extending beyond the early medieval period.83 The performance theme advances in post-­ Conquest alliterative English poetry, beginning with Laȝamon’s Brut, which depicts performance more uniformly in comparison with Beowulf. While performance in Beowulf retains a considerable amount of structural function and symbolic referentiality in the transition from orality to 83

Drout, Tradition and Influence, 10–12.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems literacy, these properties are becoming less apparent in the Brut. With the demise of the Old English tradition, interperformativity and immanence are substituted with discrete episodes containing redundant formulas. Performance becomes a tradition of the archaising, retrospective poetic imagination, as poetic composition and historical performance practices increasingly diverge. As asserted at the outset of this book, Old English poetry has been rediscovered since the eighteenth century partly through acts of performance. Interpretation and performance of the corpus go some way to explaining why some poems enjoy such popularity, influencing contemporary literature, television, music, film, and games. Chapter 7 considers how enactment, reconstruction, and adaptation have informed our understanding of early medieval performance behaviours, and how expectations influence our perception of a performance. How have descriptions within the poems been used in attempts to interpret and perform the corpus? What other literary, illustrative, and archaeological evidence has been used, and with what results? Specific decisions made when attempting to interpret the corpus for performance are also considered in the chapter. For instance, is the lyre chosen to accompany the recital of many Old English poems because of its prevalence in the poems? Should the instrument accompany all Old English poetry, or just some poems deemed appropriate? This book concludes by examining what the rediscovery of the Old English poetic tradition through performance can tell us about early medieval performance’s stimuli, functions, and characteristics, and what it can reveal about early medieval culture, how we choose to perceive it, and why – like Old English poets – we desire to discover, recreate, and evoke the past and its practices. As the above chapter summaries demonstrate, this book considers performance in Old English poems from various perspectives, and it positions that material in cultural and literary context by looking at related poetries, and the culture of performance practices from the early medieval period that we might discern from poetic material, along with archaeological and pictorial evidence. The book also considers modern interpretation of Old English poetic material as being influenced by poetic representation. There is also stylistic inquiry, as the work sees performance as a structural and thematic tool. The following chapter begins this inquiry by discerning the linguistic application and creativity at play in significant Old English poetic material.


Chapter 1 Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis


ecause of performance’s intangibility, descriptors relating to it are imprecise, and interpreting any textual reference to performance entails the potential for loss or modification of meaning. For example, Beowulf 1063a reads þær wæs sang ond sweg, which can be translated as ‘there was song and music’ with little reservation. However, even if this translation is fundamentally acceptable, it is unclear whether the concepts indicated by sang and sweg were the same for the poet as they are for a modern reader. Indeed, they are likely not to have been. The Modern English reflex of sang is ‘song’, but sang could refer to a concept as general as ‘noise’ or as specific as ‘psalm’, and we do not know whether certain performance material or a particular mode is intended. Poetic creativity also needs to be acknowledged: in Beowulf, Grendel’s wail of defeat is described as a sigeleasne sang, ‘victoryless song’ (787a), yet he is unlikely to have sung of his demise! Speaking of the Beowulf poet’s performance mode, Roberta Frank points out that ‘[his] depiction of two anonymous Danish scops reciting stories from Germanic legend (853– 97, 1068–159) indicates only that one Englishman, in whatever century he lived, believed that sixth-century Danes were likely to behave that way, not that song was his medium of exchange.’1 Things are even less certain: we do not know whether song is the ‘medium of exchange’, the mode, being depicted in these instances from Beowulf. As Frank possibly unwittingly infers, they could refer to spoken recitals. Indeed, the performance mode is likely to be spoken storytelling in both passages that Frank refers to. Moreover, just before Grendel’s wail of defeat, the poet states that sweg up astag, ‘a music arose’ (782), also referring to Grendel’s cries. Although certain sections of early medieval English society had the use of Latin and thus the term musica, Old English, like many world languages, did not have a cognate for Modern English ‘music’, which entered the language in the Middle English period.2 A modern reader is thus unable to ascertain with confidence that an Old English identifier for performance refers to a song, story, poem, piece of music, or some 1


Roberta Frank, ‘Germanic Legend in Old English Literature’, in Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2013), 82–100, at 85, Frank’s emphasis. A development of Anglo-Norman musike, derived from Old French musique. OED, ‘music, n. and adj’., online at .


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems combination of these elements. As this chapter intends to show, such issues of interpretation and classification extend to vocabulary relating to performers and their instruments. Poetry’s distinct lexis was conservative in comparison with that of other Old English writing, and the fact that this vocabulary was utilised throughout the early medieval period problematises attempts to date much of the corpus. R. D. Fulk argues that ‘the influence of oral tradition … insulates the language of verse from the immediate effects of change, allowing archaic language forms to persist in poetry long after they have been lost from everyday speech’.3 Oral tradition’s influence is potent and enduring: The Battle of Maldon, with a terminus post quem of 991, contains an archaic lexis and many terms rarely found outside poetry.4 Surveying the entire corpus, Dennis Cronan counts 264 ‘poetic simplexes’, which he describes as ‘any simple word found in two or more poems whose occurrence is either completely restricted to poetry, or whose use in prose or glosses seems to be exceptional in some way’.5 Reflecting the importance of compounding in the poet’s creative toolkit, the number of words confined to poetry and occurring in more than one poem increases to 840 if compounds are included.6 There are also 193 hapax legomena.7 Because it is conservative and traditional, it is reasonable to assume that some Old English poetic vocabulary is more akin than other Old English writing to that circulating in oral communication in the preliterate period. It can thus provide insight into the symbolic world of that pre­history, as well as into the referential intentions of earlier Old English poets. Poetic conventionality also involves a distinctive and creative application of the vocabulary, with many words that aren’t confined to poetry having unique meanings or diverse applications in poetic contexts, a matter also considered by Cronan.8 This problematises the interpretation and translation of depictions of performance, difficulties compounded by Vladimir Orel’s point that many etymologies are ‘automatically accepted today and sanctified more by habit than by reason’.9 These circumstances must be borne in mind when considering relevant terms.


4 5

6 7 8


R. D. Fulk, ‘OE Meter and Oral Tradition: Three Issues Bearing on Poetic Chronology’, JEGP, 106:3 (2007), 304–24, at 304. D. G. Scragg (ed.), The Battle of Maldon (Manchester, 1981), 32. Dennis Cronan, ‘Poetic words, conservatism and the dating of Old English poetry’, Anglo-Saxon England, 33 (2004), 23–50, at 24. Cronan, ‘Poetic words’, 24. Cronan, ‘Poetic words’, 24. Dennis Cronan, ‘Poetic Meanings in the Old English Poetic Vocabulary’, English Studies, 83 (2003), 397–425. Vladimir Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology (Linden, 2003), xi.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis The analysis of the language of performance in this chapter begins with a discussion of the classification of the performer figure and their appearances in Old English writing. Subsequently, the likely etymologies and semantic ranges of key Old English words that relate to the concepts ‘performer’, ‘performance’, and ‘instrument’ are outlined. In doing so, the chapter demonstrates the lack of certainty when attempting to interpret passages concerning performance in specific instances, because of the array of senses that relevant words possess. This situation is exacerbated by the creativity with which they were applied.

Performer Figures This book contributes to a contested aspect of early medieval English literary and historical studies: the nature of the performer figure, and particularly to a debate concerning the existence of the oral poet. This debate has moved from enthusiastic interpretation of, and speculation upon, literary and archaeological evidence up to the middle of the twentieth century, through resigned admission during the later twentieth century that we ultimately know very little, if anything, about such performers or the manner of their performances, to renewed enquiry that relies on the same material for evidence but has adopted more subtle aims and approaches, and has reached more cautious and qualified conclusions. Throughout, attempts to discern particulars concerning the historical performer figure rather than the literary or imagined one have dominated the critical discourse. While discussing these attempts, through a predominantly stylistic rather than anthropological approach this book considers generic performer figures in Old English poems to belong to a literary-creative rather than a historical category, and Chapter 6 contextualises their representation through the comparative analysis of poetries closely related to Old English.

Classifying Early Medieval English Performers Researchers have undertaken a comprehensive but often speculative search for historical figures in the role of artistic performer in early medieval England, particularly the improvising oral poet. Much understanding of these performers hinges on the belief that there were historical figures who held that oral poet role, which remained generally consistent from prehistory onwards. Yet there has long been awareness that a more complex picture may well have existed, involving more than one performer type. In 1765, Thomas Percy introduced the first edition of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry with ‘An Essay on the Ancient English 37

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Minstrels’, which he revised and expanded by the fourth edition of 1794.10 Percy does not isolate the early medieval English performer, though he does discuss the Scandinavian skald and describes his lineage, together with that of comparable figures from other Germanic and Celtic traditions: The Minstrels seem to have been the genuine successors of the ancient Bards, who, under different names, were admired and revered from the earliest ages among the people of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and the North, and indeed by almost all the first inhabitants of Europe, whether of Celtic or Gothic race; but by none more than by our own Teutonic ancestors, particularly by all the Danish tribes. Among these they were distinguished by the name of scalds, a word which denotes ‘smoothers and polishers of language’. The origin of their art was attributed to Odin or Woden, the father of their gods; and the professors of it were held in the highest estimation. Their skill was considered as something divine; their persons were deemed sacred; their attendance was solicited by kings; and they were everywhere loaded with honours and rewards. In short, Poets and their art were held among them in that rude admiration which is ever shown by an ignorant people to such as excel them in intellectual accomplishments.11

It is apparent that Percy judged minstrels to be of high status, an understanding likely informed by material concerning the skalds of the tenth and eleventh centuries. They were revered figures who were divinely inspired and rewarded handsomely for their abilities. It is tempting to conclude that Percy intended the early medieval English performer to be descended from these ‘ancient Bards’, and from the ‘Teutonic ancestors’, and thus conflated them with the scop, a key term for an early medieval performer, but a vague figure – indeed little more than an identifier for a poet or singer – extracted from the literature. Percy believed that the role of the minstrel was to ‘encourage and foment a martial spirit’,12 which is pertinent to earlier medieval, particularly heroic, Germanic circumstances, or at least the literature concerned with those circumstances. Additionally, the ‘high scene of festivity’ context that Percy envisages them in is relevant to the poetic instances discussed in this book.13 However, Percy believed that in early medieval England the role of poet diverged from that of the minstrel. In the fourth edition of Reliques, Percy argues assertively that 10

11 12 13

Partly a reaction to criticism by Joseph Ritson; see Bertrand H. Bronson, Joseph Ritson: Scholar-at-Arms, 2 vols (Berkeley, CA, 1938), ii, 543–610, particularly 586–8. Percy also retitled it ‘An Essay On The Ancient Minstrels In England’; see Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London, 1839), xiii. Percy, Reliques, xiii. Percy, Reliques, xiii. Percy, Reliques, xiii.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis as the Saxons, soon after their establishment in this island, were converted to Christianity, in proportion as literature prevailed among them this rude admiration would begin to abate, and poetry would be no longer a peculiar profession. Thus, the POET and the MINSTREL early with us became two persons. Poetry was cultivated by men of letters indiscriminately, and many of the most popular rhymes were composed amidst the leisure and retirement of monasteries. But the minstrels continued a distinct order of men for many ages after the Norman Conquest, and got their livelihood by singing verses to the harp at the houses of the great.14

Material considered in this book largely supports such a distinction, if not between minstrel and poet but rather between literate poet and more generic entertainer, though creative representation in the literature leads to much ambiguity. Indeed, much of what Percy says is widely accepted or evidenced in primary sources: the attribution of skaldic poetry’s origins to Odin, for example. Remarkably, however, the distinction between poet and minstrel has often been overlooked. An assumption that one kind of performer figure existed in early medieval times has proliferated, and remained largely unchallenged into the twentieth century, during which time the search for them apparently yielded further success. John Southworth opens his monograph on medieval English minstrels with the bold but unsubstantiated assertion that ‘the presence of minstrels at every level of society and on all kinds of occasion is an undoubted fact of English life … from Alfred the Great to Henry VIII’.15 Southworth claims in particular that ‘the bard was a valued member of Anglo-Saxon society for his skill in perpetuating the fame of the heroes, past and present’, in a chapter on ‘Widsith and the Early Harpers’.16 Though that chapter focuses on the harper or gleoman,17 the quotation more likely applies to the eulogistic scop. The distinction between gleoman and scop is considered below. Such conflation of entertainer and eulogiser is commonplace. Moreover, perceiving literary material to be historical evidence, Southworth also confuses the two, stating that ‘the significance of the bard’s role in AngloSaxon society is very much apparent in Beowulf’.18 The fact that Beowulf does not depict that society belies Southworth’s assumptions, which also 14 15

16 17


Percy, Reliques, xiii. John Southworth, The English Medieval Minstrel (Woodbridge, 1989), 1. Jeff Opland notes that Alfred did not seem to patronise a performer: Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven, CT, 1980), 265. Southworth, English Medieval Minstrel, 20. Early medieval ‘harpers’ are identified as lyrists in this book, given the instrument used most regularly in Early Medieval England is actually a lyre. Accordingly, I call the instrument they play a lyre rather than a harp. Southworth, English Medieval Minstrel, 21.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems exemplify the belief that Old English poets were unable to represent the culture of peoples geographically or temporally distinct from their own and are always writing about their own cultural circumstances. Critics have regularly offered assured, detailed descriptions of early medieval English performers, ascribing to them such characteristics as the use of harps or an ability to improvise and create eulogistic or historical narrative at short notice. These enticing figures of the period, often identified as scopas if they are not referred to as ‘minstrels’ or ‘bards’,19 have been defined confidently in various introductory texts on the literature and history of the period.20 For instance, Allen J. Frantzen claims that ‘we know from numerous references that the Anglo-Saxons recited verse to the accompaniment of a harp or a similar instrument’.21 Frantzen does not disclose these references, and verse was by no means accompanied by an instrument.22 Moreover, Old English poets who produced the extant corpus have regularly been conflated with the figures who feature in the literature, to the extent that J. C. Pope, in his detailed analysis of Beowulf’s verse forms and its possible rhythmic characteristics in performance, contends that the poem was likely to have been performed to the accompaniment of a harp.23 The modern critical search for early medieval English performers began in the early twentieth century with Lewis Flint Anderson’s The AngloSaxon Scop, an early detailed study of the scop figure.24 Like Southworth in his discussion of minstrels, Anderson unearths the historical figure of the scop from Old English poetry. His status as court singer is based on passages in Beowulf,25 and he describes them as ‘the conservators of the knowledge of their time’ using the creation myth episode from Beowulf (89–98) as his sole source.26 Using evidence from Widsith, together with 19


21 22 23 24 25 26

For example, in Phillip Pulsiano and Elaine M. Traherne (eds), A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Oxford, 2001), 130. Niles also uses scop in a general sense in John D. Niles, ‘Beowulf’: The Poem and its Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1983), and again in John D. Niles, ‘The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet’, Western Folklore, 62 (2003), 7–61. He reviews his earlier work in 2007, deciding that he ‘would replace the noun “scop” with the more neutral one “poet” or, if it seemed justified, “singer”. While “scop” is a word that is echt germanisch, it seems to have reached retirement age except for special purposes’: John D. Niles, Old English Poems and the Social Life of Texts (Turnhout, 2007), 202. For an example of such definition, see Tom Shippey, ‘Introduction’, in Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia, PA, 2017), xv–li, at xv. Allen J. Frantzen, Anglo-Saxon Keywords (Oxford, 2012), 186. See Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, particularly 257–66. See J. C. Pope, The Rhythm of ‘Beowulf’ (New Haven, CT, 1966), 88–95. Lewis Flint Anderson, The Anglo-Saxon Scop (Toronto, 1903). Anderson, The Anglo-Saxon Scop, 15–17. Anderson, The Anglo-Saxon Scop, 17.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis gnomic aspects of other poems, he additionally asserts that the scop was a teacher as well as a performer,27 and is in no doubt that he accompanied himself using a harp.28 The most extensive study of the scop remains Egon Werlich’s unpublished 1964 thesis.29 Werlich associates the early scop figure with the Continental Germanic priesthood, and sees his role develop into that familiar to us from Old English literature: the oral poet in the service of a ruler.30 Werlich also considers the semantics and etymology of key Old English identifiers for performers: scop, woðbora, gleoman, and leoðwyrhta.31 He sees scop and woðbora as essentially synonymous, referring to poets with the same role.32 He also notes that the gleoman had distinct functions and associations.33 Werlich surveys the poetic material, together with archaeological evidence regarding musical instruments, such as the lyre found in the Sutton Hoo burial (see Figure 1). Consequently, while he notes the problems of conjecture based on poetic material, he relies heavily on it.34 He also associates the scop with improvised performance, and the accompaniment of musical instruments, particularly the hearpe.35 Although his thesis is less speculative than Anderson’s, Werlich attempts to reconstruct historical practices using material that is unreliable, creative, or open to wide-ranging interpretation. Descriptions of and assumptions concerning historical performers have been more circumspect in recent times, and there has been increasing recognition that we know very little about them, to the extent that there are doubts as to whether they existed at all. Changes in cultural practice over time that distinguish the literature from the history have also been acknowledged. Renée R. Trilling reminds us that ‘the image of the Germanic lord, seated at the head of the mead-hall and calling for the scop to sing the history of his ancestors, is an iconic, if anachronistic, cultural 27

28 29

30 31 32

33 34 35

Anderson, The Anglo-Saxon Scop, 17–21. Thornbury argues that some known poets can also be classified as teachers (Aldhelm, for instance, and possibly Cynewulf), but does not see the association as being inevitable or universal. See Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2014), 95–160, particularly 159–60. Anderson, The Anglo-Saxon Scop, 36–7. Egon Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop: Der Aufbau seiner Dichtung und sein Vortrag’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Münster, 1964). Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 7–37. Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 58–88. Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 58–67. Cf. Ida Masters Hollowell, ‘Scop and woðbora in Old English Poetry’, JEGP, 77 (1978), 317–29. Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 87–8. Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 213, 219–20. See his discussions of improvisation, and the harp, in Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 213–22, 234–62, respectively.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems artefact, yet it continues to inform many readings of Old English poetic texts.’36 Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that people with specific roles who were identified as scopas did exist in England outside the literature, and books and articles discussing various aspects of early medieval English society have referenced and described them unquestioningly, within general or introductory discussion or as a basis for specific conclusions. For example, C. L. Wrenn argues: that the scop or poet accompanied his recitations in early times on the harp is attested by Bede’s famous account of Cædmon, and this is borne out by a number of casual allusions in Beowulf and other poems, as well as by the preservation of the small model of a royal harp in the Sutton Hoo collection.37

Bede’s account does not reference a scop or such accompaniment, however, and the Sutton Hoo royal harp (Figure 2), later reconstructed as a Germanic round lyre (Figure 1), does not provide evidence that poets performed with the instrument. Graeme Lawson meanwhile argues that the ‘wandering or partly wandering role’, that he perceives the scop as having, accounted for the popularity of the round lyre. He intimates that the demise of the scop and his role coincided with the demise of the instrument.38 As a result, the figure of the harp-playing, patronised, eulogising court scop, whether itinerant or allied to a specific ruler, has come to be perceived of as a principal feature of social life in early medieval England, and of the pre-Christian period in particular. It is curious that such attention and significance have been afforded this elusive literary character, and such efforts made to extract him from texts and place him into history. His appearances are very rare in the Latin and vernacular writing of early medieval England and also in Continental sources which refer to it.39 Yet elusiveness might go some way to explaining why the somewhat romantic search for the oral poet has continued, and why assumptions about him and his performances have persisted, even after Frank among others attempted to explode the myth, claiming that ‘all we can be sure of is our ignorance.’40 She cautions that ‘such glimpses of the poet in society are standard fare, enriching our lectures and enlivening 36

37 38

39 40

Renée R. Trilling, The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (Toronto, 2009), 3. C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (London, 1967), 36–7, at 36. Graeme Lawson, ‘An Anglo-Saxon Harp and Lyre of the Ninth Century’, in D. R. Widdess and R. F. Wolpert (eds), Music and Tradition: Essays on Asian and Other Musics (Cambridge, 1981), 222–44, at 244. Opland discusses these sources at length: Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 28–189. Roberta Frank, ‘The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 75 (1993), 11–36, at 12.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis our books. They are also no more than hopeful speculations hallowed by repetition.’41 Frank pursues and confirms Jeff Opland’s conclusions in his analysis of the oral poet.42 Opland comprehensively reviews the literature of the early medieval period in England and considers the meanings of Old English words relating to poetry. Overall, he treads more warily than his predecessors, emphasising the lack of descriptive clarity in poetry and prose, the resultant translation and interpretation difficulties, and the limited value of deriving conclusions about cultural history from what are often imaginative literary sources. In the spirit of Percy’s ‘Minstrels’ essay, and akin to another early thesis – Frederick Padelford’s argument from 1899 that ‘in those early days preceding the migration there were two classes of minstrels, the scops who dwelt in the halls of princes, and the gleemen who wandered’43 – one of Opland’s main conclusions is his distinction between two principal types of historical early medieval English performer. Like Padelford, he argues that they were linguistically differentiated. The scop was a eulogising, tribal court poet, in the service of a king and with a martial role at times, inciting or praising success in battle.44 A gleoman, meanwhile, had a more generic role as entertainer with diverse functions and skills,45 and wandering in search of patronage was commonly essential for his continued existence.46 Opland claims that their statuses were distinct, as were society’s attitudes towards them: ‘the glosses for scop and its occurrence in the extant texts suggest a serious, respected function for the poet, whereas the harper and gleoman are often bracketed with scurrilous professional entertainers.’47 For Opland, ‘the distinction between tribal poet [scop] and harper [gleoman] was manifested in function and performance.’48 His view of the scop as court poet is like Niles’ earlier conception.49 The gleoman would provide various entertainment, and his verbal material would also differ. Opland argues that typically the scop would perform unaccompanied, whereas the gleoman might use musical instruments. He also hypothesises that the scop role may have become redundant during the early medieval period, observing for example that ‘Alfred does not seem to

41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49

Frank, ‘Search’, 12. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry. Frederick M. Padelford, Old English Musical Terms (Bonn, 1899), 3. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 259. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 190–1. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 244. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 259. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 190. Niles, ‘Beowulf’, 31–65.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems have supported [one]’.50 Former court poets may then have fallen in with gleomen, enabling the gradual conflation of the two identifiers. If this were accepted, it seems that a process of generalisation by observers of the medieval period, which could have begun in early medieval times with the broadening of scop’s semantic field,51 has resulted in the understanding that the scop figure was a harp-wielding Old English poet and minstrel, influenced perhaps by an awareness of later medieval figures such as the troubadours who operated in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Occitania.52 Typical of such a perception is Southworth’s assertion that ‘in a pre-literate age, poetry and music are almost invariably associated; poet and composer are often the same person, and he may well be his own performer. The harper-poet of the oral tradition was also a story-teller and historian’.53 This view has been brushed over a more complex historical picture. However, Amodio rejects the notion that a process of generalisation took place; he sees the scop as analogous with a later minstrel figure: ‘his title changes from “scop” (pl. scopas) in Anglo-Saxon England to “minstrel” by the Early Middle English period, and although the language in which he composed undergoes dramatic changes during that same time period, his job description seems to have remained fairly constant.’54 That scop is interchangeable with ‘minstrel’ was indirectly questioned long ago by the distinctions of Percy and Padelford, and is undermined by Emily Thornbury’s research into the poet, discussed below, as well as by the analysis in this book. It should be noted that the notion that terms like scop and gleoman are identifiers that can usefully apply to someone who had a specific, differentiated role in early medieval English society is itself problematic. It has become an assumption of critics who perceive such terms to be part of routine early medieval English classification of cultural history and historical process, though the population of the time did not necessarily categorise so. Old English vocabulary may at times have been chosen purely to facilitate alliteration, though poets must have understood its potential semantic range in a poetic context. They would surely thus have rejected using a term if they knew it would not have made appropriate sense to an audience. Yet identifiers for performers are applied variously across the literature. Scop and other words for ‘performer’ might describe a historical 50 51 52

53 54

Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 265. See Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 265. For detail concerning the troubadour figure, see Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay (eds), The Troubadours: An Introduction (Cambridge, 1999), especially 66–126. Southworth, English Medieval Minstrel, 21. Mark C. Amodio ‘Res(is)ting the Singer: Towards a Non-Performative AngloSaxon Oral Poetics’, in Mark C. Amodio (ed.), New Directions in Oral Theory (Tempe, AZ, 2005), 179–208, at 179.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis or fictional individual, but also conventional, symbolic figures of legend such as those found in Beowulf, in which scop identifies an archaic figure, the product of a process of conventionalisation. In prose, it is mainly used in relation to psalmists, as Thornbury points out in the most significant recent study of the early medieval English poet.55 It additionally refers in both poetry and prose to historical and legendary individuals who would not sit within Opland’s definition. This is particularly evident in the Old English translation of the Latin prose of the late-fourth/early-­ fifth-century Gallaecian priest and historian Paulus Orosius, in which scop describes classical poets such as Homer, Parmenides, Tyrtaeus, and Virgil.56 In Old English poems, scop does not only denote a Germanic court poet. For example, Homer is referred to as a scop in the thirtieth Metre of Boethius.57 Aldhelm, the seventh-century abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne, is also described as a scop in a poem found within a manuscript of his prose De Virginitate.58 Identifiers for performers do not indicate specific roles consistently, and there is routinely no naturalistic accompanying description that can aid attempts at interpreting a specific instance. Despite these classification issues, Opland’s distinction between poet and general performer-entertainer can be seen as pertinent in this way: even if his linguistic classification can be questioned, particularly given the creative application in the literature, a distinction can be made between the historical Old English poets and the imagined performer figures who appear in their material. Old English poets and the body of work they created should be seen as independent from the various kinds of performer depicted in their poems. Thornbury accepts Opland’s distinction between the relatively domestic scop and the wandering gleoman,59 and she distinguishes between Old English poetic conceptions of performer figures and recent critical understanding of them: in Old English poems set in the Heroic Age … the Anglo-Saxons seemed to share an idea of a world in which there were poets at court, even if these were not quite the same as later scholarly conceptions of court poets. The traveller rewarded by rulers for his songs should be

55 56




Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 23. See Henry Sweet (ed.), King Alfred’s Orosius, EETS, OS 79 (Oxford, 1883); Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 235–40. London, British Library, Cotton MS Otho A VI. See G. P. Krapp (ed.), The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius, ASPR V (New York, NY, 1932), 202–3. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 326. See E. V. K. Dobbie (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ASPR VI (New York, NY, 1942), 97–8, 194. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 20.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems viewed as a vital part of the Anglo-Saxons’ own ‘mental modelling of their ancestral past’ as Niles puts it.60

The court performer featured in early medieval imaginings of the past, but critics have at times seized upon these imaginings in support of various arguments concerning life in early medieval England. While there were courtly praise poets, notably the Scandinavian poets at Cnut’s English court (1016–35), the vernacular literature, limited as it is, reveals little concerning such practices. Thornbury also questions the idea that there were professional, linguistically delineated categories of performer. She surveys Old English words for poet, and concludes: in Anglo-Saxon England, words meaning ‘poet’ functioned something like the modern category of ‘statesman’. The term is not really a professional category, but rather a word for those who have excelled in the professions of politics or diplomacy … declaring oneself actually to be one would smack of hubris… Scop or poeta … was something one could hope to be called after death.61

Also identifying scopas as poets, Clunies Ross likewise rejects any notion that they are a professional class, arguing that they ‘may be ordinary men (or occasionally women) who happen to have the skills and knowledge required for the job’.62 She also notes that ‘this deduction accords with what we know from later sources about the role of skalds or court poets in Scandinavia’.63 Instead of representing a professional category, the application of a term meaning ‘poet’ suggested that an individual possessed the knowledge and ability to perform. It also had a wider implication: that of indicating an imprecise, conceptualised, and somewhat abstract status.

Old English Terms Relating to Performers Thornbury considers six Old English words that she identifies as terms for ‘poet’ (see Table 1). These will now be discussed. None of the terms refer exclusively to a figure who in Modern English would be described

60 61 62


Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 19. The Niles quote is from Niles, ‘Myth’, 12. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 35. Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘The transmission and preservation of eddic poetry’, in Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn, and Brittany Schorn (eds), A Handbook to Eddic Poetry: Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia (Cambridge, 2016), 12–32, at 13. Clunies Ross, ‘transmission and preservation’, 13.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis as a poet; they could apply to a singer or other kind of musician, or a storyteller. They can also all be translated generically as ‘performer’. Table 1: Instances of words for ‘poet’ in Old English poetry. OE identifier

Appearances in Old English Literature

Appearances in Old English Poetry



















Source: Adapted from Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 21.

‘Scop’ As indicated in Table 1, scop is the term most often associated with artistic performers in Old English writing. It is also the term used most by critics referring to early medieval performer figures. Despite this prominence, however, scop only appears as a simplex seven times in the extant poetry, together with one compound instance which appears in Exeter Book Riddle 8. According to Orel, scop derives from Proto-Germanic *skupan, and is cognate with OHG scopf, ‘story’, ‘anecdote’, ‘mockery’, and Old Norse skaup/skop, ‘railing,’ ‘mocking’.64 Modern English ‘scoff’ is likely to be related to the word. The meaning ‘creator’ is also believed to have been significant in the early period of its use, associating the word with the Old English verb scieppan.65 It has also been suggested that the term developed from Old English biscop, ‘bishop’.66 Thornbury claims that all instances of the term scop in Old English literature ‘certainly or almost certainly referred to someone who composed in verse’,67 yet analysis in this book questions this view. In Beowulf, for example, the scop figure is shown to be a singer and storyteller, but 64

65 66


Orel, Handbook, 346; Jan De Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (Leiden, 2000), 487, 498. Wrenn doubts that it is related to scieppan, however: Wrenn, Study, 36, n. 3. See Richard North, ‘OE scop and the singing Welsh Bishop’, in Kees Dekker, Alasdair MacDonald, and Hermann Niebaum (eds), Northern Voices: Essays on Old Germanic and Related Topics offered to Professor Tette Hofstra (Louvain, 2008), 99–122, at 99. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 21.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems not necessarily a composer of verse. Richard North stresses a correlation between scop and singing, although he argues that the scop is a singing poet.68 Thornbury observes that those most likely to be called a scop were psalmists.69 This does seem probable, there being sixty-two references to psalmist-scopas in the literature, though the number of appearances in the literature does not necessarily translate to a prevalence in early medieval English verbal discourse. Thornbury also argues that, save for in the Exeter Book poem Deor, where the narrator claims they were Heodeninga scop, ‘poet of the Heodenings’, Old English poets did not define themselves as scopas. Instead, scop was a term used to describe others, or applied to fictional people.70 We do not even have to conclude that the Deor poet necessarily conflated himself with Deor his narrator-character, or that the term scop referred to a specific role that he held. Scop is an identifier used by Old English poets to refer variously to archetypal, classical, and named historical figures. It is also a symbolic term: this symbolic function is particularly evident in Beowulf, in which scopas are associated with court formalities and entertainment, an idealised past, and prosperous, joyous society. Rather than there being a focus on their attributes, scopas in poetry typically generate associations between performer, expressive human behaviour, and wider cultural values, associating them particularly with social belonging. Considering instances of scop in Latin–Old English glossaries can give some indication of the ways in which it was understood in the period, though it should not be assumed that such glosses represent unequivocal translations. Scop only appears in glossaries from the tenth century onwards, although these were often developed from earlier glossaries.71 In tenth-century glossaries, witega oððe sceop, ‘prophet or poet’, glosses Latin vates, ‘seer’, ‘prophet’, ‘soothsayer’,72 scop glosses comicus ‘comic’, ‘of or relating to comedy’, scopas glosses lyrici, ‘lyricists’,73 and mid scoplicum meterlicum fotum glosses pedibus poeticus. i. metricus, ‘poetic foot, a metre’.74 In the eleventh century, unweorðe scopes, ‘unworthy/insignificant poets’ glosses tragedi uel comedi, ‘tragedy or comedy’, scop glosses liricus, ‘lyric

68 69 70 71


73 74

North, ‘OE scop’, 103–4. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 23. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 24. For detail concerning the interrelationships between early medieval English glossaries, see Patrizia Lendinara, Anglo-Saxon Glosses and Glossaries (Aldershot, 1999), 27–8. In the glosses of Ælfric’s Grammar: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R. 9. 17 (819). Both in London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A III. In Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 146.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis poet’, and unwurð scop glosses tragicus uel comicus, ‘tragic or comic’.75 Finally, two manuscripts, one from the twelfth and one from the thirteenth century,76 have sceop oððe leoðwyrhta glossing poeta, ‘poet’. The word scop thus has a wide semantic range, or at least came to do so as the period progressed. Oddly, the glossary material available suggests that the range of meaning narrowed over time, though this evidence is very limited. Like Opland, John M. Hill asserts that a scop referred to a serious and respected figure: ‘nothing of the trivial or licentious entertainer hangs upon him.’77 This view is challenged by the straightforward gloss for comicus, and associations with dramatic entertainment, and the situation is complicated by the phrase unwurð scop, which implies figures of lower status associated with tragic or comic performances. North offers a summary of the principal associations: ‘broadly, on the evidence of tenth-century glosses, the word seems to mean “poet” of a secular style, with a comic to tragic slant depending on the attitude to secular poetry espoused.’78 Although some references may have been transcribed from earlier glossaries, the late dating of the extant glosses leaves obscured any insight into conceptions of what a scop referred to in the earlier post-­ migration period. Possibly it had more specific application and may have referred to a particular type of performer, though later glossary evidence undermines such a notion. Concerning the limits of the scop’s role, Opland’s analysis of the literature, together with glossary evidence, leads him to believe that scop could never refer to a musician, but strictly a tribal poet.79 It would be a stretch to perceive scop as referring to musicians, though not wholly inconceivable. While poetic application does not correspond with historical circumstances, scop certainly refers to singers in the poetry. Indeed, we shall see that in Beowulf the scop is conceived of primarily as a singer rather than necessarily a poet, given the accompanying terminology. In only one of his three appearances is there any suggestion that he performs poetry (1066), and that instance is not conclusive. Moreover, scopas sometimes appear in passages where music is also referred to, and there is proximity between mention of them and of lyre playing (89–90, 1065–6). However, there is no conclusive association between those identified through use of the term scop and the playing of instruments.

75 76


78 79

All in London, British Library, Additional MS 32246. London, British Library, Cotton MS Julius A II and Worcester, Worcester Cathedral, MS F 174. John M. Hill, ‘The Social and Dramatic Functions of Oral Recitation and Composition in Beowulf’, Oral Tradition, 17:2 (2002), 310–24, at 319. North, ‘OE scop’, 101. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 253–6, 257–66.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

‘Gleoman’80 While scopas can represent flourishing, jubilant society in poems, the etymology of gleoman incorporates such associations inherently: gleo (also gliw) meant ‘joy’ and its Modern English reflex is ‘glee’. Gleo had additional meanings including ‘entertainment’ and ‘music’.81 It can thus be inferred that the gleoman was originally a performer who provided joy through entertainment. He may have done this through musical skill, although the term does not necessarily imply a musical performer: inimum and mimum, ‘mime’, are glossed gliw in the Cleopatra Glossary.82 Gleo and its variant spellings commonly form the root of a compound associated with performance: as well as gleoman, there is gleobeam, ‘joy-beam’ or ‘music-beam’, and the emphatic gleodream, ‘joy of music’, a fusion of two words associated with both joy and performance. Additionally, glíwhléoðriendlic means ‘music’ or ‘musical’, if a gloss for musica, also found in the Cleopatra Glossary, is accepted. Unlike scop, gleoman refers overtly in poems to someone who plays, or is at least accompanied by, musical instruments. For example, Widsith describes himself singing to the lyre (103–8) and the narrator aligns Widsith with gleomen. Like scop, the term gleoman also has a symbolic dimension, and poets took advantage of its construction and associations to refer generally to a character type who entertains and provides joy, rather than using it as a descriptor or identifier for an individual with a specifically prescribed role. Gleoman appears even more rarely in the extant poetry than scop: just three times. It figures in the Exeter Book poems Widsith and Maxims I, and is used once in Beowulf, reflecting perhaps the poem’s heroic subject matter, for which a scop was considered by the poet to be more appropriate. In early medieval England, a gleoman was likely an itinerant entertainer whose role was more generic and diverse than that of the scop. He is also distinguished by occasional association with the use of musical instruments and the employment of other performance skills, such as acrobatics and juggling.83 Opland notes that, unlike scop, gleoman has no connection in the glosses with poetry or poetic composition.84 Given his belief that scop refers to a poet figure, with no connection to music or other forms

80 81 82

83 84

Alternative spellings include gligman, gligmon and gliwman. DOE, ‘gliw’, online at . Cotton MS Cleopatra A III. Thomas Wright asserts that inimum is erroneous. See Thomas Wright, Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies I, 2nd edn, ed. Richard P. Wülcker (London, 1884), 424; 445, line 14; 476, line 14. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 257–66, particularly 259. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 244.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis of entertainment,85 there is thus no overlap in their respective roles for Opland. If such a distinction existed between scop and gleoman in early medieval England, the use of these terms in poetry, and their conception in the poetic imagination, is comparable. For example, Widsith, associated with gleomen, enjoyed the patronage of lords, just as Deor, associated with scopas, had done. Widsith evinces that a gleoman might not have had a long-term relationship with one lord, yet Deor is also shown to have won and lost favour, and an associated contract. In Beowulf, the poet appears to conflate scop and gleoman by describing the tale of the Frisian slaughter (1071–159a) as both the product of a scop (1063–8), and a gleomannes gyd (1160). Opland regards this as evidence that, while they might have been distinct at some point in the past, the identifiers could have become conflated by the time Beowulf was composed.86 He also offers poetic licence as a possible reason for this connection: ‘[the most convincing] explanation of the apparent identification of scop and gleoman … [is] that the author was a poet, that he was creating poetry not social history.’87 Opland admits that linguistic differentiation of the roles of scop and gleoman is not always clear, partly because of creative decisions by poets.88 The appearance of gleoman in non-poetic material suggests that he adopted multiple roles, and glosses for gleoman indicate a reputation as a scandalous, defamatory, and unruly character, whose transience leaves him on the margins of society.89 They indicate a distinction from scop, glossing terms associated with morally dubious behaviour, such as parasitis, ‘parasite’ or ‘sponge’,90 and circulator, ‘pedlar’,91 implying a reliant yet nomadic character. It also glosses seductor, ‘one who misleads’.92 Gleoman is associated with baser forms of entertainment, such as pantomimus, ‘pantomime performer’,93 and clownish characteristics are implicated at times: gligman glosses mimus jocista scurra, ‘jester’,94 and gliwere glosses scurra, ‘buffoon’.95 The only evidence opposing such marginality is found in the poetry. For example, the reference to gleoman in relation to the performer of the Frisian slaughter tale in Beowulf, and in the Exeter Book poem The Fortunes of Men there is great need for a lyrist who is given a fee for 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95

Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 255–6. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 197. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 197. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 199. See Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 244. MS Digby 146; Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 1650. Prudentius Glosses, Boulogne, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 189. Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 189. Add. MS 32246. Add. MS 32246. Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 189.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems playing at the feet of his lord, though he is not identified as a gleoman. Despite gleo’s semantic range, no glosses associate gleoman with music or the lyre, as the poetry does. Some lyrists may not have been referred to as gleomen, or they could have been called scopas after all. North claims that ‘all scopas are gleomen, but not all gleomen are scopas’,96 and the hypothetical lyrist imagined in The Fortunes of Men may have been designated a scop because of his significant position in relation to his lord at court. It is also possible that a gleoman could have been scandalous and important at the same time, a situation noted by ethnomusicologists that is considered in Chapter 5. The requirements of some early medieval European courts possibly engendered a similar cultural paradox, and within a Christian context Cuthbert’s letter to Archbishop Lul requesting a rotte player provides evidence that a similar social requirement may at the same time induce scorn. It is entirely plausible that some historical performers who could have been described as gleomen, and indeed those imagined by poets and detailed in their poetry, also conformed to this ‘low status, high importance’ paradigm.

‘Leoðwyrhta’ and ‘Meterwyrhta’ The compound leoðwyrhta appears once in verse, in an introduction to the Old English Boethius, where it refers to King Alfred. In the glossaries it glosses poeta three times,97 and vates98 and melopius.99 All of these Latin terms translate adequately as ‘poet’, which would seem to be the most appropriate interpretation. Opland claims that leoðwyrhta is synonymous with scop;100 however, such synonymy undermines Thornbury’s understanding that scop would be a term reserved for someone revered among wider society; Thornbury suggests that uses of the term scop ‘trace a more nuanced picture of Old English usage’ than compound terms such as leoðwyrhta or meterwyrhta.101 These compounds do appear to be more functional and less emblematic. Possibly, to adopt North’s suggestion in relation to gleomen, all scopas were leoðwyrhtan but not all leoðwyrhtan were scopas. Unlike scop, and as with gleoman, the modern reader can perceive some vestige at least of literal meaning from leoðwyrhta’s compound structure. The simplex leoð, considered below, is one of several Old English 96 97

98 99 100 101

North, ‘OE scop’, 107. Oxford, St. John’s College, MS 154; Cotton MS Julius A II; Worcester Cathedral MS F 174. Add. MS 32246. Cotton MS Cleopatra A III. See Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 246–53, particularly 246. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 23.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis words that translate as ‘song’, ‘tale’ or ‘poem’, and leoðwyrhta could therefore be translated as ‘poem-wright’; he was a worker of poems, stories, or song material. The leoð prefix suggests a broad category, allowing for wider potential applicability than simply ‘poet’. Meterwyrhta, used as a gloss for metricus in the Cleopatra Glossary, is a hapax legomenon, though it is difficult to believe that a compound would have been invented solely to gloss. The meter component stresses poetic construction, and it was likely used specifically in relation to creators or performers of verse more routinely than leoðwyrhta.

‘Woðbora’ The term woðbora mainly appears in poetry, where it features six times. It is only used once outside of verse, glossing rethoribus.102 Like Leoðwyrhta, Woðbora contains etymological evidence within its compound construction concerning function and applicability; a woðbora ‘bears’, and thus has the potential to deliver, woð. It has been widely asserted that woð has the same root as Latin vates, which generally translates as ‘poet’.103 However, woð had additional meanings, such as ‘sound,’ ‘noise,’ ‘voice,’ ‘song,’ or ‘eloquence’.104 A woðbora is thus a bearer of poetry, song, or eloquence, and possibly a combination of these things. North notes woðbora’s generic sense, arguing that it is synonymous with reordberend, ‘signifying a man or articulate being’.105 While Werlich thought that woðbora was synonymous with scop, Hollowell observes clear differences, seeing the woðbora as a wise but possibly less well-regarded figure than the scop; his material and role may have altered following conversion to remain relevant.106 Like leoðwyrhta, the potential range of application for woðbora is wide.

‘Sangere’ Sangere is etymologically related to Old English sang and refers to a singer. However, sang also referred to the act of liturgical service and, rather than referring to a generic singer, the application of sangere in prose writing overwhelmingly associates that term with Church figures, just as scopas are regularly associated with psalmists. Accordingly, it is appropriate to 102 103

104 105 106

In Cotton MS Cleopatra A III. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 30 and 251–2; Hollowell, ‘“Scop” and “woðbora”’, 319 Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 25. Orel, Handbook, 469–70. Richard North, Pagan Words and Christian Meanings (Amsterdam, 1991), 42. Werlich, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop’, 58–67; Hollowell, ‘“Scop” and “woðbora”’, 317–29, particularly 328–9.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems translate sangere as ‘church singer’. When defining its Modern English reflex, ‘songer’, the OED additionally offers the more specific ‘psalmist’ for sangere.107 Appropriately, the sole use of sangere in the poetry occurs in Psalm 50, the Kentish Psalm, referring to the musical abilities of the biblical King David.108 Even if Opland’s view is accepted, that there were distinct, linguistically classified types of artistic performer, those who are given a specific identifier appear so infrequently in Old English poems that a clear understanding of each type, reliable as evidence of historical practices, fails to emerge. Niles asserts that ‘because representations of the scop were important to Anglo-Saxons, they have value to us today.’109 However, this assumed importance is not supported in Old English poetry. Although performers could well have been important for society at some point in history, and they are generic, symbolic and even idealised, they are not depicted with any regularity or detail in that poetry, the principal creative representational medium from the period that we are able to analyse directly, exemplifying the artistic imagination and providing evidence of psychological constructs significant in the early medieval English mind. Compound terms for performer in particular illuminate the synthesis of concepts that would have been significant for the culture at one stage in the past. They express an association between cultural phenomena and performer,110 connecting a word-element relating to the performer as human agent, for example bora or man, with one that expresses, albeit concisely, the product of their performances. How redundant are these compounds in the poetry? Other Old English symbolic compounds do not initially appear to have had significance relating to the immediate context within a passage. Some, feasibly seen as rudimentary kennings, are often functional instruments enabling alliteration, such as the compound hronrad, ‘whale road’, which alliterates in Beowulf: oð þæt him æghwylc  þara ymbsittendra ofer hronrade  hyran scolde, gomban gyldan.


…until each of those surrounding peoples over the whale-road must submit to him and pay tribute.

107 108

109 110

OED, ‘songer, n.’, online at . See Joseph Harris, ‘Sanger’, RGA, 26 (2004), 79–86. The Kentish Psalm appears in London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian D VI. Niles, ‘Myth’, 12. See Peter Clemoes, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1995), 116, 132.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis Another ‘sea’ compound, swanrad, ‘swan road’, also alliterates: Het him yðlidan godne gegyrwan;  cwæð, he guðcyning ofer swanrade  secean wolde, mærne þeoden,  þa him wæs manna þearf. (198b–201) He ordered to have prepared for him a sea vessel, a good one, he said he wanted to seek a war-king, a mighty lord, over the swan’s road, as he needed men.

While both compounds conjure images representing the sea, they seemingly add little more than would a non-kenning compound, or a simplex noun. However, although they refer to unspecified watercourses, both may contain a referential aspect and engender a symbolic dimension, with hronrade signifying a wide or turbulent sea and swanrade a smaller, calmer, or more inviting one, for example. Moreover, reference to a ‘road’ expresses notions of geographical and social relationships between peoples. Possibly the Beowulf poet and others, perceiving linguistic links in compounds for performers, such as between music and joy, utilised such language as part of their general nostalgia, to embellish their imagining of the past as well as in fulfilment of alliterative requirements. Drawing on society’s values, poets made creative use of the inherited attributes of Old English, applying or extending the conventional sense of a known compound for a particular use, or inventing one that would have been acceptable for the poem’s audience.

Old English Terms Relating to Performances Many Old English nouns can refer to the product of a performance, including dream; galdor; gesegen; gied; gliw; hleoþor; leoð; saga; sang; spell; stær; sweg; talu; and word. Various verbs express the act of performance, including cyðan; dryman; galan; gieddian; singan; and spellian. As with attempts to characterise performers, identifying the details of a particular performance episode in the poetry from the presence of one term is futile for the most part, and there is generally little supporting description that might aid the task. A sense of each word’s semantic range can be developed through analysis of its appearances overall, but the breadth of possibilities undermines attempts at a specific translation of each instance. Many of the terms can apply to acts of speech, singing, and music. As is also the case with identifiers for performers, there is some evidence concerning the etymologies of these words that enables awareness, to 55

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems varying degrees, of their possible early or primary applications. Also, some terms for performance bind concepts together in the language. For example, there is a clear association in some compounds between performance and joy, as seen with certain words for performer. Moreover, some Old English simplexes have dual semantic strands, encompassing both concepts in their range of meaning.

‘Dream’: Linguistic Referentiality’s Potential Dream, which had a similar semantic range to gliw, is an illuminating example of the linguistic relationships that closely associated artistic performance with concepts of joy in Old English. For almost a thousand years, from Anglo-Saxon settlement until Chaucer’s time, dream had multiple senses. None of them has survived to the present day. There were different strands to its semantic range. ‘Joy’, ‘delight’, and ‘mirth’ was one strand, but it could also mean ‘noise’, and thus ‘a noisy joy’ or ‘revelry’. Music was also a component: ‘melody’; ‘the sound of an instrument’; ‘musical performance’. It is generally supposed that dreamere, a hapax legomenon that appears in Chapter 16 of the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, means ‘musician’, and musica is glossed ða dreamlican in the Cleopatra Glossary.111 These earlier senses survived until the fourteenth century, when they died out to leave the principal Modern English meaning, ‘sleep vision’, which entered the language in the thirteenth century and eventually replaced Old English swefn (n) and mǣtan (vb). The medieval and modern meanings thus coexisted for over a century in the late medieval period.112 Dream is used frequently in Old English literature. Half of the instances are in the prose, half in the poetry, so it could be seen principally as a poetic term given the relative scarcity of extant poetic material relative to the quantity of literature overall. The meaning ‘music’ or ‘melody’ occurs more frequently in prose texts, whereas in poetry it mainly meant ‘delight’, ‘joy’, ‘revelry’, or ‘bliss’, and was often used contextually to refer either to an earthly, social joy, or a heavenly or spiritual joy, particularly when compounded. However, the word was often used ambiguously or referred to both ranges of meaning.113 Poets exploited its multiple senses, and in poetry it regularly refers to musical or other performance activity 111 112


See Wright, Vocabularies I, 445, line 28. OED, ‘dream, n.2 and adj.’, online at . The minor sense in which one might say ‘this sword is a dream to wield in battle’ is relatively recent and not a survival; the OED dates the first instance of this sense to 1837. For the instances of dream, see DOE, ‘dream’, online at .


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis that can induce joy. Bogislav von Lindheim, who considered the development of dream in the English language, rousingly asserts that ‘no other OE word is so distinctly expressive of the vitality and energy of the Germanic warrior, inspiring him to deeds of valour and fame, but also driving him to wear himself out in the noise and reckless mirth of the banquet.’114 Yet dream does not solely express aspects of pagan Germanic culture. It features in several Christian Old English poems, appearing twenty-three times in the Exeter Book saint’s life Guthlac alone. It is thus a wide-ranging term with diverse application. Examples from the poetry considered in this book demonstrate the inspiration for von Lindheim’s statement, but also reveal the way in which poets made use of dream’s ambiguity and the relationships between the concepts that fall within its semantic range. As with gliw, dream is often compounded, and these compounds regularly reflect the particularly social contexts to which the word refers, for example seledream, ‘hall joy’, and medudream, ‘joy at mead’, ‘festivity’, both of which appear in Beowulf. They also associate people with pleasure more generally, as in two compounds also found in Beowulf: mondream, ‘pleasure of human life’, and gumdream, ‘pleasures of men’. Beowulf also features gleodream, near the end of a Geatish messenger’s speech towards the close of the poem, referring to that which Beowulf relinquishes upon death. One of Bosworth and Toller’s definitions for gleodream is the improbable ‘glee-joy’, but I would suggest ‘joyful noise’, and hence possibly ‘music’ or ‘joyous music’; indeed, Bosworth and Toller additionally offer ‘pleasure caused by music’.115 Dream’s association with performance, particularly the sound of a performance, is evident in other compounds: swegldream, which appears in the Exeter Book poem Christ as well as in Guthlac, is generally accepted to mean ‘music’, and like gleodream could also mean ‘musical joy’ or ‘joy of music’, while dreamcræft, ‘art of music’, also appears twice in Old English, in the Consolation of Philosophy and in The Martyrology. Overall, dream and its use in the poetry exemplifies the way in which the Old English language reveals close links between prosperous, successful human societies and circumstances, Christian or otherwise, and the pleasure that humans derive from the performance of music, poetry, and other performance. As this book will demonstrate, poets used the semantic ambiguity and variety of dream to powerful effect, reinforcing those links through compounding and creative application. 114


Bogislav von Lindheim, ‘OE “Dream” and Its Subsequent Development’, RES, 25 (1949), 193–209, at 199. Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller (eds), An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Oxford, 1882–98), 480. Fulk et al. exclude the musical aspect, and translate gleodream as ‘enjoyment, entertainment, revelry’: R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (eds), Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Toronto, 2008), 386.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

‘Galdor’ ‘Poem’ and ‘song’ are the principal performance types referred to by galdor, but the DOE notes that it glosses praestigia(e), ‘illusion’, ‘deception’, ‘deceitful use of words’, and is also associated with spells and incantations.116 The term is related to the verb galan, ‘to sing’, which is considered below.

‘Gesegen’ One instance of gesegen is of particular interest in relation to the concerns of this book, being used to describe the material that the king’s þegn knows in Beowulf (869), in the form ealdgesegena, ‘old stories’. Seemingly related to secgan, ‘to say’, gesegen can refer to a story as well as to a speech act, recital, or conversation. Bosworth and Toller offer ‘saying, telling, conversation, relation, tradition’, and the possibilities are various.117

‘Galan’, ‘sang’, ‘singan’ Galan and singan predominantly meant ‘to sing’, while sang seemingly meant ‘song’, yet they too have diverse meanings that preclude an exact understanding of performance delivery. In Beowulf, sang is used when scopas are mentioned, and it evidently applied to a broad range of performance; Parker describes the scope of the term as ‘anything that is sung or chanted’.118 However, poets’ desire for figurative expression and their obligation to alliterate means we should not assume that the noun sang or the verbs galan and singan necessarily indicate sung performance. Such language occurs at unexpected times in Beowulf. For example, Grendel galan, ‘sang’, a gryreleoð, ‘song of terror’, and, as noted at the start of this chapter, wailed a sigeleasne sang, ‘victoryless song’, as Beowulf gained the upper hand during their fight in Heorot: Norð-Denum stod atelic egesa,  anra gehwylcum þara þe of wealle  wop gehyrdon, gryreleoð galan Godes  andsacan, sigeleasne sang,  sar wanigean helle hæfton.

116 117 118


DOE, ‘galdor’, online at . Bosworth and Toller, Dictionary, 439. Roscoe E. Parker, ‘Gyd, Leoð, and Sang in Old English Poetry’, Texas Studies in Literature, 1 (1956), 59–63, at 60.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis Horrible fear came upon the North-Danes, to each one of them who heard wailing from the wall, God’s adversary sounding a song of terror, a song of defeat, hell’s captive bewailing his wound.

Since the interpretation that Grendel sang at this point in the narrative would be most unlikely, there is a strong possibility that galan and sang are being used figuratively, with gryreleoð and sigeleasne combining in the half-line to affect the way galan and sang – chosen at least partly because of alliteration requirements – are interpreted. Similarly, later in the poem, a horn ‘sings an urgent war-song at times’ in a moment of fear as the Geats and Danes gather by Grendel’s mere: horn stundum song | fuslic fyrdleoð (1423b–24a). In poetry, galan and sang are shown to have a wide range of meaning and figurative uses, particularly when supplemented by an adjective in the half-line. This breadth of meaning can also undermine the notion that the scop necessarily delivers sung performances in Beowulf.

‘Gied’ Roscoe E. Parker describes a gied as ‘an elegy, moral tale, maxim, or parable’, but this does not exhaust its possible semantic range.119 The DOE offers many possibilities, including: ‘poem’; ‘song’; ‘enigmatic utterance’; ‘riddle in verse’; ‘a mournful utterance’; ‘dirge’; ‘lamentation’; ‘keening’; ‘report’; ‘tale’; ‘story’; ‘speech’; ‘utterance’; ‘eloquent speech’; ‘wise utterance’; ‘saying’; ‘proverb’; ‘maxim’; ‘instructive speech’; ‘didactic tale’; ‘parable’; and ‘figurative utterance’.120 Reichl has noted the term’s diverse applicability,121 and Niles argues that it refers ‘to many things, from poetry, to prophecy, to healing charms, to riddles, to heightened speech’.122 He also claims that it ‘was a keyword in the Anglo-Saxons’ cultural vocabulary and … “denoted sententious, rhythmically charged speech … uttered in a heightened register”’.123 According to North, who uses evidence of the history of Old Norse geð’s senses (geð being gied’s cognate), the word is derived from pre-Christian concepts of the soul.124 119 120 121




Parker, ‘Gyd, Leoð, and Sang’, 63. DOE, ‘gydd’, online at . Karl Reichl, ‘OE giedd, Middle English yedding as Genre Terms’, in Michael Korhammer, Karl Reichl, and Hans Sauer (eds), Words, Texts and Manuscripts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture Presented to Helmut Gneuss on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday (Cambridge, 1992), 349–70, particularly 351–66. John D. Niles, Old English Literature: A Guide to Criticism with Selected Readings (Oxford, 2016), 223. Niles, Old English Literature, 223, n. 3. The nested quote is from John D. Niles, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature (Philadelphia, PA, 1999), 30. North, Pagan Words, 39–41.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems He proposes that gied wrecan, used in Beowulf to refer to a scop’s performance (1065) and conventionally in other poems, thus formerly meant ‘to purge one’s soul’ before meaning ‘to compose or recite a poem or song’.125 North also stresses the elegiac nature of gied, arguing that it referred to ‘an inherently sad genre of composition … [which] expressed a private and personal form of poetry especially appropriate for elegy of the dead’.126 Use of the phrase gleomannes gyd in Beowulf suggests that the poet had no issue associating the term with the tale of the Frisian slaughter, which, while a tragic episode that could be interpreted as an elegy for the dead, could not be classed as a private and personal form. Gleoman was also deemed an appropriate identifier for someone who could perform such a gied, notwithstanding the obvious alliterative convenience. Indeed, gied is associated with all three instances of gleoman in Old English poetry, and the need to conform to alliteration rules may have given poetic licence to employ the term widely. Moreover, the horse-riding þegn in Beowulf, described as gidda gemyndig, ‘mindful of tales’, performs in a non-elegiac context: during the Danish troop’s triumphant ride home the morning after the death of Grendel, further indicating that the term’s senses had widened, or that broad applicability was acceptable in poetry.

‘Sweg’ Sweg is also used in proximity with scop in Beowulf, although only when a lyre is also present. It refers to lyre performance three times in the poem, and it is likely to denote musical performance. It also applies to sound more generally, denoting for instance the noise and clamour of Heorot (644).127 Outside of Beowulf, in which it is used six times, sweg appears in numerous other poems and is common in prose. As well as referring to human musical performance, it refers to the song or call of a bird in The Phoenix (131) and The Seafarer (21).

‘Spell’ Spell can refer to a story or tidings, alluding at times to news or new information, hence Old English godspell, ‘good news’. In Beowulf, the cyninges þegn and Hrothgar are both bearers of spell, and the word is compounded, for instance in wéaspelle, ‘woeful news’ (1315), and modified by adjectives in phrases such as syllic spell, ‘strange tidings’ (2109); niwra spella, ‘new tidings’ (2898); láðra spella, ‘hateful tidings’ (3029). 125 126 127

North, Pagan Words, 54–5. North, Pagan Words, 40. See Bosworth and Toller, Dictionary, 946.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis

‘Leoð’ Leoð only appears three times as a simplex in poetry. Though the word’s morphology and meaning are similar to Modern English ‘lay’, with the sense ‘a short lyric poem intended to be sung’, ‘lay’ entered the language in the Middle English period, derived from Old French lai.128 For Parker, the term referred to ‘an aphoristic or lyric poem’, and so likely to a short form of poetic expression.129 However, in its sole appearance in Beowulf (1159) it refers to the long tale of the Frisian slaughter, which was not necessarily intended to have been a verse performance and is also classified as a gied (1160). In a verse preface to the C text of the Old English Boethius, leoð is of interest because it describes King Alfred’s practice, ðæt he ðiossum leodum leoð spellode (4), ‘that he told tales to those people [the West Saxons]’, but no detail is provided about such tales, other than that they are ealdspell (1), ‘old stories’.130 The other appearance in the poetry is in The Phoenix, at a point when the narrator interrupts his narrative to address the poem’s audience directly, and leoð refers to the poem itself: Ne wene þæs ænig  ælda cynnes þæt ic lygewordum  leoð somnige, write woðcræfte.


Let none of mankind imagine that I am composing a poem and writing word-craft with lying words.

This interjectory comment does not appear in the Latin. The Phoenix has lyric and aphoristic characteristics, but at 677 lines is not a particularly short poem. Glossaries provide little additional information about leoð’s meaning; it glosses poema and odas,131 and carmentriumphale, ‘triumphal poem’, ‘triumphal song’, is glossed þæt sigorlice leoð,132 while tragoediam, ‘tragedy’ is glossed sarlic leoð,133 which, if a tragedy is accepted to be generally a long form, again indicates that it could apply to an extended performance. Overall, leoð is a term mainly used in relation to verse, with greater semantic flexibility in poetic usage. It likely had a primary sense of ‘poem’

128 129 130


132 133

OED, ‘lay, n.4’, online at . Parker, ‘Gyd, Leoð, and Sang’, 61. Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine (eds), The Old English ‘Boethius’, vol. 1 (Oxford, 2009), 384. In Add MS 32246 and London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIII, respectively. Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIII. Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIII.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems but could also mean ‘song’ or ‘tale’, and there is no clear distinction in meaning or application from words such as talu.

‘Talu’ Modern English ‘tale’ is talu’s reflex. It was a term used in prose and does not feature in singular form in the primary corpus of Old English poetry. The plural tala appears in Solomon and Saturn, referring to stories by writers found by the narrator in books of the East. It also appears in the late Instructions for Christians, a poem characterised by a partial collapse in alliteration, found only within a twelfth-century manuscript.134 Outside of poetry it glosses disputatio, ‘formal debate’, constellatio, ‘?constellation’, and laterculus, ‘a list (particularly of roles or offices held)’. It too thus has a wide range of association. Although their meanings are various, there is little diversity in the ways these terms for performance are employed in the poetry. They often appear within statements, unsupported by additional description. In Beowulf, for example, þær wæs sang ond sweg (1063) and þær wæs gidd ond gleo (2105) both serve to satisfy the requirements of alliteration. This creates the impression that they are largely interchangeable, and applicable so long as metrical and alliterative rules are observed. Yet the lack of supporting contextual description could have been offset by referential properties that the terms once possessed innately, or that were generated in a particular instance. Evidently, poets did not need to elaborate, and an audience may well have been aware of any intended references. Overall, the principal creative use of these terms lies in the poets’ crafting of images of performance containing symbolic associations generated by their appropriate insertion within terse poetics, rather than through their inclusion within detailed descriptions of performance.

Old English Terms Relating to Musical Instruments Musical instruments, and in particular the instrument signified by the terms lyra (Latin) and hearpe (Old English), form a significant constituent of the symbolic conception of performance in early poetries. In contrast with other poetic traditions, however, instruments are only rarely conceived of as individual objects in the hands of a specific performer in Old English poems. In Homeric epic poetry, individual players and instruments are 134

In Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Li I 33. See James L. Rosier, ‘Instructions for Christians’, Anglia: Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, 82 (1964), 4–22.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis described, as well as classes of instruments. In Old Norse Eddic poetry too, individual instruments and their performers appear, and they feature in specific narrative events. In Laȝamon’s Brut, the generally terse, limited depiction seen in Old English poetry is retained in most cases, but named instrumental performers also appear. Lists of instruments, a characteristic not found in Old English poems, figure too. In comparison with Old English poetry, Middle English poems expand references to instruments and individual players significantly. There are significant interpretative issues concerning which musical instruments are represented or mentioned in Old English poetry. There is also a crux concerning their organological identification. Classification is highly problematic, because the relationship between the Old English vocabulary for musical instruments and the specific instruments being referred to is ambiguous and complex. A further issue concerns whether such instruments accompanied vocal performances and, if so, what kinds of vocal performance would feature instrumental accompaniment.

‘Hearpe’135 The sixth-century Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus had a taxonomic understanding of the different string instruments used by various peoples. In a poem addressed to the Roman aristocrat Duke Lupus, he writes: Romanusque lyra, plaudit tibi barbarous harpa, Graecus Achilliaca, crotta Brittana canat Let the Roman applaud you with the lute, the barbarian with the harp, the Greek with epic lyre, the Briton with the crwth.136

Venantius’s distinction is largely appropriate; the Germanic ‘barbarians’ did use a string instrument that can be distinguished, if principally cosmetically, from those related instruments of other cultures, as confirmed in the increasing number of archaeological discoveries.137 Hearpe, the 135



Concerning instruments of the lyre and harp class from the early medieval period, see Christopher Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Hearpan: Their Terminology, Technique, Tuning and Repertory of Verse 850–1066’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of York, 1981). Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems, trans. Judith George (Liverpool, 1995), 64. George offers ‘crowd’ as an alternative translation for crotta, but this is less likely as Venantius is clearly assigning instruments to respective cultures. Concerning the reason achilliaca is likely to mean ‘lyre’, see Curt Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (Mineola, NY, 2006), 261. For a history of archaeological Germanic lyre discoveries, see Graeme Lawson, ‘Musical Finds and Political Meanings: Archaeological. Connexions Between


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Old English cognate of Latin harpa, is the principal simplex term for an instrument in the context of artistic performance in Old English poetry. It is generally supposed that lyre-harp instruments were prevalent in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, passing to the Germanic peoples via the Greeks.138 Cognates for hearpe appear in all Germanic languages, its etymology traceable to Proto-Germanic *xarpon,139 suggesting widespread use of such instruments in early Germanic culture. Recently, a lyre very similar in structure to the Germanic round lyre has been interpreted from a 1973 dig in Kazakhstan.140 Moreover, the archaeological discovery of a lyre dated to 300 BC indicates the use of such an instrument in Britain long before the migrations of Germanic peoples,141 and there may have been a more complex introduction to the British Isles for the instrument, or instruments, that early medieval English people referred to as hearpan. In addition to doubts concerning the origins of the Germanic instrument found in Northern European burials and represented in early medieval illustrations,142 there is by no means consensus on the scope of the term hearpe in Old English literature. It may refer to a class of instruments, or indeed to all string instruments, though the latter is unlikely.143 Consequently, even when hearpe refers to a specific instrument being played by an individual in a particular passage, its type is indeterminable. Because of regular appearances in early medieval illustrations and its presence among archaeological finds such as the discovery in the Sutton Hoo excavation, it is generally believed that hearpe referred to a string


139 140




Lyres, Poetry and Power in Barbarian Europe’, in Ricardo Eichmann, Mark Howell, and Graeme Lawson (eds), Music and Politics in the Ancient World: Exploring Identity, Agency, Stability and Change through the Records of Music Archaeology (Berlin, 2019), 221–79, particularly 224–50. See Roslyn Rensch, The Harp: Its History, Technique and Repertoire (London, 1969), 3–11. Orel, Handbook, 163. Gjermund Kolltveit, ‘The Sutton Hoo lyre and the music of the Silk Road: a new find of the fourth century AD reveals the Germanic lyre’s missing eastern connections’, Antiquity, 96:385 (2022), 208–12. BBC News, ‘Skye cave find western Europe’s “earliest string instrument”’, online at . See John Whitley Purser, ‘A Lyre Bridge of the Early Iron Age from High Pasture Cave, Scotland: 2. The Context: Environmental – Perceptual – Symbolic – Cultural, and its Implications’, Studien zur Musikarchäologie XI (2019), 265–80. See also John Purser, ‘The Significance of Music in the Gàidhealtachd in the Pre- and Early-Historic Period’, Scottish Studies, 37 (2017), 207–21. Examples of such illustrations are found in London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, fol. 30v (Fig. 5), and Durham, Cathedral Library, MS B.II.30, fol. 81v. The most extensive discussion of the terminology is Page, 10–11, 75–164.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis instrument also known in medieval times as a rotte,144 and presently the Germanic round lyre, a relatively portable instrument that could rest on the knee (see Figure 1).145 Pictorial evidence of lyres from the early medieval period, especially in depictions of King David (see Figure 3), gives some support to the notion that the round lyre is being imagined in Beowulf and elsewhere in the Old English poetic corpus. Christopher Page concludes in his thesis on the hearpe that the term originally referred to the round lyre but came to identify the frame harp at some point from c.800 onwards.146 If so, both instruments would likely have been identified as hearpan simultaneously for a time.147 Archaeological discoveries have determined that the Germanic round lyre typically had six strings. Tuning conventions are unknown and could have varied according to the composition of an instrument or the requirements of a certain performance. The Sutton Hoo lyre reconstruction has been tuned to a pentatonic scale, because of a general belief that this was a preference in earlier times rather than because of any specific evidence suggesting it to be the desired method.148 One theory can be proposed by considering the discussion of, and example tuning for, a six-string classical cithara, an instrument of the lyre class, by the Frankish monk and teacher Hucbald (c.840–930). In his treatise, De Harmonica Institutione, Hucbald describes the tuning as follows: with the lowest-pitched string tuned to C, each adjacent string is then tuned higher by an interval of a tone, except that the interval between strings three and four is a semitone.149 Corresponding to the first six white keys in the C major scale on a piano, this is known as a hexachord, a popular tuning in medieval Europe.150 Such an ‘open’ tuning, which enables a pleasant-sounding chord to be sounded by strumming without the need for a string to be stopped, would make such an instrument relatively easy to play, and adaptable to diverse contexts. Benjamin Bagby offers an alternative open tuning solution that he uses in his performances, with an octave between 144


146 147




Cuthbert uses the term rotte as early as 764, and it may have been used in Beowulf: see Marijane Osborn, ‘Reote and Ridend as Musical Terms in Beowulf: Another Kind of Harp?’ Neophilologus, 62:3 (1978), 442–6. Lyre strings run parallel to the soundboard (see Fig. 4), whereas on the triangular frame harp they run perpendicular to it (see Fig. 1). Page, 163–4. It is generally supposed that the frame harp appeared in England later in the early medieval period. Bruce-Mitford, ‘The Sutton Hoo Lyre’, 8. For discussion of the tuning of early medieval harps and lyres, including analysis of treatises such as that of Hucbald and others, see Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Hearpan’, 12–13, 187–202. Claude V. Palisca (ed.), Hucbald, Guido, and John on Music: Three Medieval Treatises, trans. Warren Babb (New Haven, CT, 1978), 22–3. ‘Hexachord’, NGD, vol. 11 (Oxford, 2001), 472–4.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems the highest and lowest strings, which has a similar sonic effect to the hexachord and is also relatively straightforward to play.151 Such open tunings would make it more likely that the instrument could have passed around a group of non-professionals with varying abilities or circulated among a group of singers. There has been limited musicological analysis and critical consideration of the early medieval string instrument which could be classified as a hearpe, rotte or round lyre, partly because of the doubts concerning classification and interpretation. Often, cursory consideration is made of it within larger works that focus on the frame harp, which has received greater attention given the status of the modern orchestral harp.152 Notable exceptions are the work of Graeme Lawson, who has produced a considerable amount of work on early medieval lyre finds, and Rupert BruceMitford, who provides considerable detail concerning the Sutton Hoo lyre, including information on the materials and components from which the instrument was constructed.153 Bruce-Mitford is in no doubt that the Germanic round lyre is being represented in Beowulf, and is referred to by Bede in his account of Cædmon. He finds that there was no evidence of frame harps in pre-Christian England.154 Analysis of references to musical instruments in Old English poetry has also been minimal, though a small number of articles have focused on poetic instances featuring the hearpe. In his consideration of the corpus, together with archaeological and pictorial material, Robert Boenig questions the idea that hearpe necessarily referred to the round lyre in Old English poems.155 He suggests instead that the frame harp is the instrument being described, though his evidence is not particularly conclusive. He points out rather tentatively that its loud volume is mentioned in Beowulf,156 and that reference is made to the use of both hands in the Junius 151




155 156

Benjamin Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic: Notes from the Workshop of a Reconstructed “Singer of Tales”’, in E. B. Vitz, N. F. Regalado, and M. Lawrence (eds), Performing Medieval Narrative (Cambridge, 2005), 181–92, at 190. See, for example, Roslyn Rensch’s two books on the harp. She discusses the round lyre briefly in these works, particularly Rensch, The Harp, 14; Roslyn Rensch, Harps and Harpists, rev. edn (Bloomington, IN, 2017), 77–9. Originally, Rensch erroneously saw the use of the term hearpe as evidence for the early adoption of the frame harp in England (Rensch, The Harp, 29), though she is more cautious in her later work. See Lawson, ‘Musical Finds’; Rupert Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton-Hoo Ship Burial, vol. 3 (London, 1983), 611–720. Rupert Bruce-Mitford, ‘The Sutton Hoo Lyre, Beowulf, and the Origins of the Frame Harp’, Antiquity, 44:173 (1970), 7–13, at 11. Robert Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, Speculum, 71:2 (1996), 290–320, 292. Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, 292.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis Manuscript poem Genesis, as well as in Maxims I and another Exeter Book poem, The Gifts of Men.157 Yet there appears to have been a strap attached to lyres found in early medieval burials, enabling the strings to be easily manipulated with both hands. See for example the image of King David from London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A I (Figure 3), in which a strap that wraps behind the neck appears to be represented.158 Boenig additionally uses an illustration from the Junius Manuscript as evidence (see Figure 4).159 While it is not clear that the Junius Manuscript’s illustrator intended to represent an early medieval harp, because it depicts a biblical character, the musician Jubal,160 anachronism is not unexpected. Representations of King David often feature a lyre similar in form to that found in the Sutton Hoo burial. Any approach that relies on such images, along with poetic references, to prove poetic intention or historical circumstances is thus potentially problematic. Further exemplifying the interpretative issues, Boenig agrees with Marijane Osborn that reote in Beowulf (2457) refers to a musical instrument rather than to ‘joy’, as it is commonly translated, and therefore that it is a synonym for hearpe, which appears on the following line.161 However, the term reote is more likely to have identified a round lyre than a frame harp, notwithstanding the poetry containing creatively-applied terminology. Reote at Beowulf 2457 is a semantic crux, reflecting the close relationships in the language between music and joy; it is possible that such ambiguity was intentional. Although pictorial and archaeological evidence points to the Germanic round lyre being the likely instrument imagined in Old English poems, the poetry exacerbates doubts concerning the classification of early medieval musical instruments, partly because recording naturalistic detail about them and their associated performance practices was a low priority for Old English poets. Analysis of the passages featuring hearpe in the corpus reveals certain patterns of treatment. As with words for performers and performances, terms relating to instruments and any accompanying description do not have classificatory functions specific enough to pinpoint one type of instrument in a particular instance. Describing or

157 158

159 160


Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, 317–18. Graeme Lawson, ‘The Lyre Remains from Grave 32’, in William Filmer-Sankey and Tim Pestell (eds), Snape Anglo-Saxon Cemetery: Excavations and Surveys 1824–1992 (Ipswich, 2001), 215–23, at 218; Bruce-Mitford notes the frequency of the instrument in graphic representations as well as among archaeological finds: Bruce-Mitford, ‘The Sutton Hoo Lyre’, 10. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11; Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, 296. Displaying further confusion, Southworth believes the image of Jubal to be the depiction of an early medieval English harper: Southworth, English Medieval Minstrel, 21. Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, 294; see also Osborn, ‘Reote and Ridend’.


Figure 1: 1969 reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo lyre. Photograph by Steven J. Plunkett.

Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis

Figure 2: Erroneous 1948 frame harp reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo instrument. Steven J. A. Breeze.

classifying the instrument being referred to is less important for the poets than the functions and effects of these references, and the associations suggested by them. Resultantly, references to instruments are useful for considering the relationship between early medieval English cultural thought, conventional wisdom, and poetic aphorism and narrative, because they constitute a key symbol of what Niles describes as ‘mental modelling’.162 Most representative of the symbolism that the instrument has are the poetic compounds often used as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, the hearpe simplex. For example, gleobeam, ‘joy-beam’ or ‘music-beam’, is used in Beowulf, Christ II, and The Gifts of Men. Another compound, gomenwudu, ‘wood of entertainment’, unique to Beowulf in 162

Niles, ‘Myth’, 12.


Figure 3: King David playing the round lyre surrounded by his retinue of performers, from London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, folio 30v (By permission of the British Library).

Figure 4: Jubal playing a frame harp, from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, folio 54.

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems which it appears twice (1065, 2108), similarly associates pleasure and pastime with the instrument as material object.

Horns and Trumpets Horns and trumpets appear more frequently than the hearpe in Old English poems, but neither the instruments nor their players feature in social entertainment contexts typical of artistic performances, except possibly for one enigmatic example: Exeter Book Riddle 14, to which ‘horn’ is the solution. In this riddle, the instrument is shown to be useful in various, mostly military, contexts but it also summons warriors to drink in the hall: hwilum ic gereordum rincas laðige | wlonc to wine ‘sometimes with my voice I invite proud warriors to wine’ (16–17a). Of course, a horn can additionally be used as a vessel from which to drink said wine. Håkan Ringbom notes that horns had various purposes but were mainly used for signalling and as a summons, in Old English poems and in Laȝamon’s Brut.163 However, in the Brut they are repeatedly used as a discrete component in passages that also reference harps, performers, and the associated elements of ‘joy in the hall’; this association does not occur in Old English poetry. In Old English poems, horns and trumpets are overwhelmingly mentioned within the context of martial activity or accomplishment, and compounds such as guðhorn, ‘war horn’, used in Beowulf (1423, 1432), emphasise this association. A hornbora, ‘horn bearer’, appears in Cynewulf’s Vercelli Book poem Elene (54) within a manifestly martial context, adjacent to mention of the ‘beasts of battle’ in a section describing conflict between Constantine’s Romans, and Huns and Hrethgoths. In the Junius Manuscript poem Exodus, meanwhile, trumpets sing out as seafarers spread their tents along the hills (132), as one similarly does as the troop rest by Grendel’s mere in Beowulf (1423–4). One function of trumpet calls in the poetry is thus to protect a people exposed in some way. Elsewhere in Exodus, the sang and sweg of the sigebyman, ‘war trumpets’, is described, together with their ability to signify rejoicing through fæger sweg, ‘beautiful music’: æfter þam wordum  werod wæs on salum, sungon sigebyman,  (segnas stodon), on fægerne sweg;  folc wæs on lande…


After those words the troop was happy. The war-trumpets sang in a beautiful music, and they raised the banners; the people were on land… 163

Håkan Ringbom, Studies in the Narrative Technique of ‘Beowulf’ and Lawman’s ‘Brut’ (Åbo, 1968), 85.


Instruments of the Poet: Exploiting the Old English Lexis The emotional resonance and musical quality of trumpets is clearly implied here. However, they are ‘war-trumpets’, appropriate in the context of battle or its aftermath: the raising of the standards, the arrival of the troop on land, and their victory. Otherwise, there are several references across the poetic corpus to heavenly trumpet blasts, and in The Phoenix the cry of horns and trumpets is compared unfavourably with the phoenix’s call, inferring some aesthetic appreciation on the part of men. Overwhelmingly, however, they are functional instruments for poets. Unlike lyrists, there are no references to the players of horns or trumpets in Old English poetry, save for the single instance of hornbora in Elene. There are no other descriptors for such players. Horn and trumpets, and those who wield them, are thus outside the scope of performance in the Old English poetic imagination. Overall, the language relating to performance and the concepts ‘performer’, ‘performance’, and ‘instrument’ is unspecific in Old English poems. Significant terms often have broad semantic ranges, raising questions as to the type of performance, performer, or instrument being depicted in a particular poetic context. Such elusiveness allows for poetic creativity, which routinely exploits the inherent associations between concepts associated with performance possessed by an individual term. Moreover, the referential nature of many of the terms serves in the creation of meaning within a poetry that is frequently characterised by terse allusion and suggestion, rather than by descriptive detail.


Chapter 2 Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics


he circumstances surrounding Beowulf’s genesis have been a matter of speculation and debate for over two centuries. It is one of the most enduring issues in English literary studies. We know the poem because of the Nowell Codex inscribed around the year 1000, but the poem’s date of composition has been particularly contentious. Many scholars have offered a position, and there have been two essay collections on the topic.1 The geographical provenance of both the poem and the manuscript is also disputed. Northumbria was suggested by Victorian scholars keen to see Beowulf as a product of the ‘age of Bede’, while East Anglia and Mercia have also been proposed.2 The poem’s process of authorship, particularly its relationship with oral composition and transmission, is also seemingly lost to us. Theories of composition range from seeing the poem as an assemblage of oral folktales to it being the product of an individual, literate author, as discussed in the introduction. It might be both, of course. The circumstances of Beowulf’s authorship are often treated tentatively or avoided altogether: wise moves, perhaps, given the uncertainties. Certainly, a poem’s characteristics and content do not inevitably indicate 1


Colin Chase (ed.), The Dating of ‘Beowulf’, new edn (Toronto, 1997) disrupted a commonly held belief that Beowulf was an eighth-century poem upon its original publication in 1981, perhaps most strikingly in the essay by Kevin S. Kiernan, ‘The Eleventh-Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript’, 9–22. The essays in Leonard Neidorf, ed., The Dating of ‘Beowulf’: A Reassessment (Cambridge, 2014) argue generally for a return to an eighth-century consensus. An early argument for Northumbrian origin came in 1861, when in The Anglo-Saxon Sagas Daniel H. Haigh regarded the poem as ‘the composition of a Northumbrian scop’. Indeed, he locates many of the poem’s events in the region: see T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder (eds), ‘Beowulf’: The Critical Heritage (London, 1998), 315–17, at 315. Shippey resurrected the idea of Northumbrian provenance in T. A. Shippey, ‘The Merov(ich)ingian Again: damnatio memoriae and the usus scholarum’, in Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (eds), Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, vol. 1 (Toronto, 2005), 389–406. For an argument proposing East Anglia, see Sam Newton, The Origins of ‘Beowulf’ and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia (Cambridge, 2004); ninth-century Mercia is advanced in Richard North, The Origins of ‘Beowulf’: From Vergil to Wiglaf (Oxford, 2006), while eleventh-century Mercia is proposed in Simon C. Thomson, Communal Creativity in the Making of the ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript (Leiden, 2018), 65–102.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics its manner of origin, and extra-textual evidence must be sought. In the case of Beowulf, there is little to go on. In his overview of the poem, John D. Niles keeps an open mind. He refers to a Beowulf-poet and suggests that the poem ‘comes from a single creative impulse’,3 but doubts the influence of clerical culture, and does not rule out the idea that the poem was once the ‘property of scops’.4 Andy Orchard avoids detailed speculation on authorship in his Beowulf companion, though he observes a critical trend away from the idea of the poem as originating in a series of oral lays, to seeing it as the product of an individual.5 This shift to belief in a single author seems appropriate, and we can therefore speak of a ‘Beowulf poet’, though material concerning many of the historical and mythical events either alluded to or related in the poem almost certainly circulated prior to composition. Depictions of performance in Beowulf are subtle, complex, and multi­ form, and are interrelated intrinsically with the poem’s structure. The treatment of performance in the poem suggests that it is on balance the product of an individual, aware of the function of referentiality in oral performance contexts, who was able to employ a theme that might well have been common in oral compositions – that of the performer, particularly one in service to a king, a feature of a ruler’s hall – in ways that enable intricate structural functions as well as extensive semantic associativity. The way in which the performance theme is handled suggests a creative, individual poet, who knew traditional tales. I thus adhere to the view of Paull F. Baum, who argues that ‘it may seem odd to picture … an ivory-towered poet in the eighth century, but Beowulf is unique in every sense, and in the balance of probabilities the scales incline to even this unlikely assumption: a poet as individual and apart as his style, his plan, and his subject.’6 The Beowulf poet needed to understand Old English poetic form and have knowledge of history and legend, but he engaged with his poetic and cultural traditions in a distinctive way, and this individuality extends to his manipulation of the performance theme. Beowulf contains a significant proportion of references to performances in the corpus of Old English poetic narrative. The poem presents the most

3 4 5


John D. Niles, ‘Beowulf’: The Poem and its Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1983), 163. Niles, ‘Beowulf’, 37. Andy Orchard, A Critical Companion to ‘Beowulf’ (Cambridge, 2003), especially 6. For overviews of theories regarding Beowulf’s origins, see Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier, ‘Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences’, in Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (eds), A ‘Beowulf’ Handbook (Lincoln, NE, 1997), 13–34, at 28–31; North, Origins, 2, 24–34; John D. Niles, Old English Literature: A Guide to Criticism with Selected Readings (Oxford, 2016), 122–4. Paull F. Baum, ‘The Beowulf Poet’, in Lewis E. Nicholson (ed.), An Anthology of ‘Beowulf’ Criticism (London, 1963), 353–65, at 365.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems detailed imaginative world of performance activity as cultural praxis in a single extant work, effectively standing alone in the corpus in this regard. Performance enables the Geats and Danes to reflect upon their circumstances and their fate. It also helps to structure the poem. Tolkien stresses the subtlety with which the audience is drawn into an enticing and largely coherent world, one that should not, however, be seen as historical: Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Geatland or Sweden about A.D. 500. But it is … on a general view a self-consistent picture, a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought. The whole must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet’s contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past pagan but noble and fraught with a deep significance – a past that itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity of sorrow. This impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly darker, more pagan, and desperate than the foreground.7

The circulation of ‘old tales’ which, as Tolkien observes, appear in the form of concise references as well as via extended passages, is of central importance in Beowulf’s cultural world. Their introduction is also a fundamental function of performance activity in the poem, as the performance of tales generates the poem’s depth, and structures its digressive-associative development and movement. Moreover, performance and its symbolic significance is given primacy over more tangible aspects of Geatish and Danish culture. Roy M. Liuzza argues that: Beowulf strives to set the living world of song and the sustaining power of poetic fame above the insufficiency of material objects to secure lasting memory; the instability and ambivalence of monuments – from Hrothgar’s hall to Beowulf’s barrow – is unfavourably contrasted with the enduring power of narrative commemoration (‘remembering-together’).8

As this chapter will show, Beowulf’s ‘living world of song’ is not represented routinely or uniformly. Displaying subtlety and dexterity, the Beowulf poet modifies his implementation of performance for diverse effect, creating individual episodes unique in content, form, and function.



J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, 1983), 5–48, at 27. Roy M. Liuzza, ‘Beowulf: Monuments, Memory, History’, in David F. Johnson and Elaine Treharne (eds), Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature (Oxford, 2005), 91–108, at 105.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics

The ‘Cyninges Þegn’: Wisdom Embodied Beowulf features Old English literature’s most detailed and intriguing illustration of a specific performer’s knowledge and practices. The passage exemplifies the Beowulf poet’s ability to depict the skills and knowledge of an individual, albeit an anonymous one, in addition to sketching the more archetypal characters who are considered later in this chapter. It describes the delivery of an unspecified number of performance acts, some possibly envisioned as being improvised, as executed by a Danish þegn, a member of Hrothgar’s retinue who is skilled in creative oratory. He can be seen as an oral storyteller or poet: Hwilum cyninges þegn, guma gilphlæden,  gidda gemyndig, se ðe eal fela  ealdgesegena worn gemunde,  word oþer fand soðe gebunden;  secg eft ongan sið Beowulfes  snyttrum styrian ond on sped wrecan  spel gerade, wordum wrixlan;  welhwylc gecwæð þæt he fram Sigemunde[s]  secgan hyrde ellendædum,  uncuþes fela, Wælsinges gewin,  wide siðas, þara þe gumena bearn  gearwe ne wiston,… (867b–78) At times a king’s thegn, a man laden with eloquent speech, mindful of lyrics, he who remembered a large number of stories, a great many old traditions, found one word after another, bound with truth. The man then began to recount wisely the exploits of Beowulf, and successfully uttered a skilful tale, weaving his words. He recounted everything that he had heard told about Sigemund’s brave deeds, many a strange thing, the Wælsing’s struggle, his distant travels, those that the children of men did not know fully,…

Some have speculated that this passage relates to Beowulf’s composition. Niles sees it as an indication of the poem’s oral origin,9 while Peter Orton sees it as a reference to the original recitation of the first part of Beowulf’s story, subsequently transmitted until the surviving manuscript was produced.10 These appealing suggestions exemplify the way in which 9 10

Niles, ‘Beowulf’, 37. Peter Orton, Writing in a Speaking World: The Pragmatics of Literacy in AngloSaxon Inscriptions and Old English Poetry (Tempe, AZ, 2014), 113.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems performance acts appearing within the poems have been seen as relating to the production of Old English poetry. They are not substantiable, given the lack of confirmation within the text and the absence of any external evidence. Despite the passage being the most comprehensive description of a character in the role of artistic or creative performer in Old English, the þegn is nowhere described using a specific identifier relating explicitly to that role. He could have been labelled a scop, for instance, because 867, cystum cuðe hwilum cyninges þegn, alliterates on c and not þ. Some critics classify him as a scop, and discussion of this passage illustrates the way in which the word has been adopted when speaking about early medieval English performers in general.11 But what is a þegn? A popular, long-standing view suggests that the meaning of þegn changed during the early medieval period. Originally referring to a member of a ruler’s military comitatus, it came to denote a rank between ceorl and æþeling.12 Here it is likely to possess the earlier meaning, particularly if an early date for the poem’s conception is accepted. Given that the subject matter is retrospective, and that Scandinavians are being depicted, it is unlikely that the word refers to a particular English rank in Beowulf. Whether the poet wished to represent a character with a certain role or status in Danish society is not clear, and we should not assume that such precision was intended. The þegn is certainly in the king’s service, leading Clunies Ross to argue that the passage suggests ‘poetic recitation was an aristo-



Opland and North acknowledge the absence of the term scop in the passage: Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven, CT, 1980), 203; Richard North, ‘OE scop and the singing Welsh Bishop’, in Kees Dekker, Alasdair MacDonald, and Hermann Niebaum (eds), Northern Voices: Essays on Old Germanic and Related Topics offered to Professor Tette Hofstra (Louvain, 2008), 99–122, at 104–5. However, there are many instances of the assumption; for example: Amodio, Mark C., ‘Res(is)ting the Singer: Towards a Non-Performative Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetics’, in Mark C. Amodio (ed.), New Directions in Oral Theory (Tempe, AZ, 2005), 179–208, at 195–6; Hugh Magennis, The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge, 2011), 40; Niles, ‘Beowulf’, 37 and ‘Myth’, 11–12; Renée R. Trilling, The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (Toronto, 2009), 10; Antonina Harbus, The Life of the Mind in Old English Poetry (Amsterdam, 2002), 164; Orton, Writing in a Speaking World, 113; Graham D. Caie, ‘Ealdgesegena worn: What the Old English Beowulf Tells Us about Oral Forms’, in Else Mundal and Jonas Wellendorf (eds), Oral Art Forms and their Passage into Writing (Copenhagen, 2008), 109–20, at 114; Kemp Malone, ‘Coming Back from the Mere’, PMLA, 69:5 (1954), 1292–9, particularly 1293–4. See Henry Royston Loyn, ‘Gesiths and Thegns in Anglo-Saxon England from the Seventh to the Tenth Century’, EHR, 70 (1955), 529–49, at 540–3. Cf. the servant in Heorot identified as a þegn at line 494.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics cratic pursuit’.13 However, whether producing these performances was an expected part of his role in that service is not explicitly stressed. With his knowledge and ability, he possesses multiple roles, those of bearer of lore, creative eulogiser, and teller of tales, while also being one of Hrothgar’s warrior band. J. M. Hill’s definition of him as a ‘warrior poet, a court poet’14 seems fitting, though ‘warrior-storyteller’ may be more suitable, given the material he produces. No specifics concerning performance practices are provided, though we know the group are travelling on horseback and thus are outside the customary performance space in Beowulf, the hall. While the þegn appears to be providing entertainment as a pastime during travel, Opland sees the performances as part of a eulogistic tradition rather than a recreational one, the purpose being emotional release rather than entertainment.15 This seems appropriate given the material the þegn delivers. We are made aware that, among other things, he relates Beowulf’s exploits, tells of Sigemund’s fight with a dragon and subsequent increase in fame, and recalls the failures of Heremod, an earlier ruler of the Danes. The material is paraphrased by the narrator rather than quoted directly, problematising any assumption that it was necessarily delivered in verse. Niles sees this paraphrasing as ambiguity between narrator and character, an indication that the Beowulf poet was identifying with his performer.16 The lack of acknowledgement of such autobiographical identification in the poem leaves Niles’s enticing suggestion unprovable. It is only with caution, and recognition of a lack of evidence, that the creators of Old English poems can be conflated with the fictional performers depicted within their works. Analysis of the poem’s vocabulary and phrasing enables some understanding of the functions of the passage and the þegn performer within it. For example, the use of hwilum, ‘at times’, ‘sometimes’, at 867b indicates that the lines refer to multiple performances over time; they are not describing a specific scene of performance. The hwilum conjunction is applied as a rhetorical device elsewhere in Beowulf when describing performances, developing an impression that performance was commonplace in the poem’s Danish society. Because of the paraphrasing and generality, the chronology of the þegn’s performances is unclear. The above translation suggests that he told a few unspecified tales (869–71a) 13


15 16

Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘The transmission and preservation of eddic poetry’, in Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn, and Brittany Schorn (eds), A Handbook to Eddic Poetry: Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia (Cambridge, 2016), 12–32, at 13. John M. Hill, ‘The Social and Dramatic Functions of Oral Recitation and Composition in Beowulf’, Oral Tradition, 17:2 (2002), 310–24, at 313. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 202–5, particularly 204. See Niles, ‘Beowulf’, 38.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems before concentrating on a story concerning Beowulf and another about Sigemund. Lines 869–71a could also refer to his general ability, rather than to specific material other than that concerning Beowulf, Sigemund, and Heremod. The actions of Beowulf and Sigemund could even have been recounted within one story; the precise relationship between the material’s constituent parts is not stated. Edward B. Irving, Jr. argues that the þegn tells the stories of Beowulf and Sigemund, but that the material concerning Heremod is the product of the poet-narrator, because it ‘belongs to a category of Christianized exemplum much more likely to be told by a pious king or a Christian poet than by a Danish scop…’17 Again, this suggestion is not acknowledged in the narrative, which does not distinguish performances delivered by the narrator from that by the þegn. North identifies three genres in the terms gilp, gied, and ealdsegen, while acknowledging the lack of clarity concerning Old English classificatory terms relating to performance.18 The quality of the performances has been recognised, particularly in relation to Old English alliterative verse. Lines 870b–71a, word oþer fand | soðe gebunden, ‘found other words, truly bound’, indicate that there was effective, appropriate ordering or joining of words. Hill sees findan, ‘to find’, as evidence of the þegn’s inventiveness,19 perceiving in the originality of the performance ‘the high oral art of a wise composer’.20 As Fulk et al. and Tolkien and Gordon suggest, the phrase recalls Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 35: with lel letteres loken, ‘with truly-linked letters’, a similarly equivocal and much debated line that could refer either to effective poetic alliteration, or to the relationship between staves.21 If word oþer fand | soðe gebunden is a technical reference to alliteration and/or variation, then at least one of Beowulf’s unnamed characters was imagined to be a performer of material in a style analogous with the poem within which they appear, or at least in a Germanic alliterative verse form related to Old English poetry. Such an interpretation exemplifies further the widespread inclination to see these poems as containing glimpses of analogous poetic style. For Barbara Nolan and Morton W. Bloomfield, soðe gebunden


18 19 20


Edward B. Irving, Jr., ‘The Nature of Christianity in Beowulf’, Anglo-Saxon England, 13 (1984), 7–21, at 8. Richard North, Pagan Words and Christian Meanings (Amsterdam, 1991), 39. Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 313–14. Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 313–14. Caie is similarly enthusiastic: ‘Ealdgesegena worn’, 114–15. See also Clunies Ross, ‘transmission and preservation’, 14. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (eds), Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Toronto, 2008), 166; J. R. R. Tolkien, E. V. Gordon, and Norman Davis (eds), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1967), 72; see also Paul Battles (ed.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Toronto, 2012), 32 n. 4.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics (871a) refers to the ‘proper’ nature of the words in performance.22 That half-line would then be a comment on the effectiveness of the þegn’s word construction, and his storytelling abilities in general, in keeping with the idealisation characteristic of the passage. This is a persuasive point; while 870b–71a does not state that his material was poetic in form, it hints at skill and effectiveness. While the mode in which the þegn delivers his material is not clearly specified, the passage contains another intriguing though brief and allusive phrase that could refer obliquely to it: he ongan … wordum wrixlan, ‘began to link words’ or ‘began to mix words’. The phrase has been seen as referring to the practice of poetic variation, with a similar purpose to 870b–71a as a comment on the artful construction of the þegn’s stories.23 However, the phrase is also used in an address by Wulfgar (366) referring to Beowulf’s request to speak with Hrothgar, meaning something akin to ‘exchange words’. Given that much conversation in Beowulf is relatively formal exchanges of set-piece dialogue, this phrase seemingly relates to a speech act, rather than to singing. Wordum wrixlan also appears in the Exeter Book poem Vainglory (16), alluding to the typical communication among groups of men indulging themselves at feasting and drinking, and a similar phrase, wrixleð woðcræft, is used in The Phoenix (127) to describe the bird’s singing technique. Janie Steen translates wrixleð woðcræft as ‘modulates verse’,24 associating the bird with poetry, though ‘change the art of eloquence’ is more literal, if not much less anthropomorphic. Overall, wordum wrixlan and variants should be seen as formulaic units with senses encompassing formal or creative verbal communication and conversation.25 While the details of the þegn’s mode are open to debate, there is no doubt that his performances were tales effectively produced by a competent performer. After being introduced at 867b, his distinctive store of knowledge that enables him to deliver his performances successfully is stressed at 868–70a, using three phrases that contain the genres perceived by North: gilp, gied, and ealdsegen. If these are genres denoting material or mode, they are not readily delineable. However, the phrases that contain them reveal the þegn’s function and are fundamental to his depiction. The first phrase is gilphlæden, the stem of which came to mean ‘glory’ or ‘pride’. Gilp also had a sense in its Indo-European root related to vocal outburst,26 22



25 26

Barbara Nolan and Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘Beotword, Gilpcwidas, and the Gilphlaeden Scop of Beowulf’, JEGP, 79:4 (1980), 499–516, at 509. See Michael Alexander, A History of Old English Literature (Peterborough, ON, 2002), 70. Janie Steen, Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry (Toronto, 2008), 40. See Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 224–5. See Nolan and Bloomfield, ‘Beotword’, especially 501–2, 507–11.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems and is associated with oral utterance in certain instances, such as in The Wanderer (69), where its meaning is akin to ‘boast’. Modern English ‘yelp’ is its reflex. For Nolan and Bloomfield, the senses of gilp ‘imply a manner of presentation that dramatically calls attention to the speaker, shouter, or singer’.27 ‘Laden’ is the suffix’s Modern English reflex. Fulk et al. translate gilphlæden as ‘well furnished with words of praise’ and ‘supplied with glorious words’ in the same volume, exemplifying the possibilities.28 Given those semantic possibilities, it is the term least likely of the three to correspond with a particular performance mode or material. Overall, the phrase announces that this character is full of marvellous material ready to deliver orally in an attention-grabbing manner. The second phrase, gidda gemyndig, is similarly ambiguous given the semantic possibilities of gyd, though it clearly supports the first phrase, confirming that his mind is full of appropriate material. The third phrase, ealfela ealdgesegena worn gemunde, can be translated as ‘remembered a great many old traditions’, referring to the ability the þegn has to recall the legends and tales of the past. All three phrases associate performance material with the ability to retain it in the mind. Used in variation, they give considerable emphasis to his knowledge. Subsequently, from 870b–74a, the þegn’s ability to deliver material is stressed further. We learn that he can tell of Beowulf’s feats, then about his ability to tell a story about Sigemund. Some of this matter was not necessarily well known, either to the þegn’s fellow Danes or to Beowulf’s early audiences: 878 states that he recounts þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston, ‘those [tales] the children of men did not fully know’. People are not entirely aware of some of the knowledge that the þegn is able to recall, at least concerning parts of the tale of Sigemund. This statement is curious, given that Sigemund would likely have been regarded as one of the principal legendary heroes for these Scandinavian peoples. Possibly the þegn had more detailed familiarity with such tales than was common, to the extent that he was able to fill gaps in others’ understanding through his performances. This knowledge, together with the ability to perform it, distinguishes him from the rest of the troop. It is clear that multiple performances are being described in the passage, involving diverse material possibly delivered in more than one mode. However, there have been attempts to define their overall characteristics. Hill, for instance, argues that ‘[the þegn’s] performance here is a mixture of oral composition and oral recitation, the whole involving a complex stitching together of an antithetical triptych’, the components of the triptych being each a story concerning one protagonist: Beowulf, Sigemund,

27 28

Nolan and Bloomfield, ‘Beotword’, 501. Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 166, 386.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics and Heremod, respectively.29 Hill identifies originality with regard to the þegn’s story of Beowulf, noting the appearance of the term spel, ‘news’ or ‘story’ at 873.30 Spel almost certainly refers to the production of material related to Beowulf’s deeds, which is relatively hot off the press, and through his performances the þegn links the creative recollection of those recent events with other material, such as that concerning Sigemund. Although some of his material was likely envisioned as newly created, the þegn was not necessarily an improviser, something Eliason pointed out long ago,31 because the material relating to recent events builds on the praise of Beowulf by other characters. Indeed, the position of the description of the þegn’s performance in the narrative, following the defeat of Grendel, offers clues concerning the purpose of its inclusion: the þegn wishes to deliver performances, about Beowulf, that echo the admiration for him expressed by the Danish riders as they return to Hrothgar’s hall, a few lines before the þegn is introduced: Ðær wæs Beowulfes mærðo mæned;  monig oft gecwæð þætte suð ne norð  be sæm tweonum ofer eormengrund  oþer nænig under swegles begong  selra nære rondhæbbendra,  rices wyrðra.


Beowulf’s glory was there related. Many often said that south or north, between the seas, over the wide world there was no other, greater shield bearer under the sky’s expanse, more worthy of power/of a kingdom.

Stories of Beowulf’s heroism are already circulating among the Danes. The þegn interprets those stories, transfiguring them into material suitable for formal or heightened performance for pleasure, entertainment, or praise. The þegn’s recounting of Beowulf’s exploits need not be fully sketched at this point in the narrative, however, because they have already been told. Only the Sigemund and Heremod tales require elaboration. For the fellow riders, and the poem’s audience, Beowulf’s deeds are thus juxtaposed with other culturally significant tales through the actions of the þegn. If the paraphrase of the þegn’s material (871b–915) is anything to go by, then notwithstanding the imaginative subject matter such as Sigemund’s foe the dragon, these events were presented as being historical 29 30 31

Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 313. Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 313. Norman E. Eliason, ‘The Improvised Lay in Beowulf’, Philological Quarterly, 31 (1952), 171–9.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems narratives. After all, fantastic creatures are part of the living world of the poem. Through a sober representation, the story of Beowulf is associated with the other material produced by the þegn, inviting the audience to consider Beowulf’s courage, witnessed in the fight with Grendel and confirmed by the wider society of men, as being reminiscent of Sigemund’s bravery. Beowulf’s success and popularity can also be contrasted with Heremod’s failure to live up to acceptable standards of kingship; this also foreshadows the poem’s subsequent narrative, from which we can evaluate Beowulf’s reign. Additionally, the tale of Sigemund’s battle with a dragon prefigures Beowulf’s comparable encounter later in the poem. The performances thus link to elements in Beowulf’s wider narrative, concerning events both within and extraneous to its core plot. They also operate as a structuring device, enabling a shift from the triumphant horse-­riding, via mention of Beowulf’s achievement, to stories of Sigemund and Heremod, which continue until we return to the horse-riding at 916, when the anaphoric hwilum is reprised: hwilum flitende fealwe stræte | mearum mæton, ‘at times the horses traversed, competed on tawny roads’. The mounted þegn is more individualised than many unnamed performers in Beowulf. He represents an ideal performer-retainer, with his knowledge of material and ability to communicate it effectively. While his memory of tales and performance skills is centrally important, particulars concerning his status and performance practices are practically absent from the narrative. He is a more fully drawn version of the archetypes possessed of culturally significant abilities alluded to in Old English wisdom poems, who will be considered in Chapter 5. He is also a functional figure, whose knowledge of the past enables him to perform material concerning legendary and historical events effectively. His abilities thus facilitate the introduction of symbolic stories that develop the poem’s temporal depth and heroic-historic character, and expand the cultural milieu. Through such performances he presents his historical and imagined past; it is less important that he himself represents it. He carries no significance or referents other than as idealised communicator and has no specified role other than that of king’s þegn; he develops symbolic and structural associations through the performance of his knowledge, rather than by being inherently symbolic, as other, less individuated performers are in Beowulf, notably those archetypes identified as scopas.

‘Scopas’ in ‘Beowulf’ Speaking generally about Old English poetry, but relying on contexts supplied by Beowulf, Peter Ramey stresses the potential for social unity that can be achieved through performance, together with its symbolic power: 84

Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics when Old English poets wish to invoke metonymically the joy of community, they almost inevitably mention singing and harp-sounding. The song of the scop is not merely an element of the poetic image of dream (OE: ‘mirth, joy’) but the very culmination of it, the moment where, at the height of communal delight, members of this heroic society achieve a kind of union through collective dreaming. It is this communal meaning of the scop’s song, naturally, that Grendel cannot endure.32

Passages that contain scop figures and their performances establish an unequivocal association with collective social action and joy. As will be shown, however, such invocation is not presented uniformly each time they appear in Hrothgar’s hall; the image of communal joy is treated differently in each instance.

The ‘scop’ at 90 A scop first appears early in Beowulf, when the monster Grendel, present outside, …dogora gehwam  dream gehyrde hludne in healle.  Þær wæs hearpan sweg, swutol sang scopes.  Sægde se þe cuþe frumsceaft fira  feorran reccan, cwæð þæt se ælmihtiga  eorðan worh(te),… (88–92) …heard joy each day loud in the hall. There was lyre sound, the clear song of the singer. He who was able to tell of far back in the creation of mankind said that the almighty made the earth…

This passage initiates the earliest of the ‘joy in the hall’ instances that punctuate the poem. As with the passage featuring the þegn, it introduces narrative culturally significant to the peoples being depicted; here a summarised creation myth (89–98). Like the þegn passage, lines 88–92 refer to multiple performances, daily events in this instance, and not a single scene featuring a specific performance. Whether this daily revelry is to be understood as routine hall life or as part of a time-bound festival period upon Heorot’s completion is not specified.33 Characterisation is absent, the phrasing terse, and the ‘clear song’ of the scop is introduced rather 32


Peter Ramey, ‘Beowulf’s Singers of Tales as Hyperlinks’, Oral Tradition, 26:2 (2011), 619–24, at 620. There are few thoughts on the matter, though Hill believes that these performances celebrate the Hall’s initial construction: Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 311.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems than the scop himself. As Ramey’s statement intimates, the performances are significant at this point, and not the performer, particularly given the impending consequences of Grendel hearing them, and other goings-on in the hall. However, the song of the scop is not always given primacy over the scop himself in Beowulf, as will be shown. Along with the lack of characterisation, further fundamentals are uncertain, such as the number of performances being described and what specifically the scop is supposed to have done, or indeed how many performers there were. This is because any relationships between hearpan sweg, swutol sang scopes, and the story of creation are not obvious. As Opland has pointed out, it is not necessary to assume the intention was to depict a single performance by an individual performer comprising instrumental music, singing and myth-telling.34 Graham D. Caie asserts that ‘the harp and poetry are inextricably linked’ at this point, yet the scop song – which was not necessarily poetry – may not have been accompanied by the lyre sound.35 Though proximity implies some connection between half-lines 89b and 90a – between lyre playing and vocal performance – the association between them could be one of amplification rather than variation, and the link is ambiguous.36 Moreover, neither lyre nor song necessarily had any connection with the performance of the creation myth, other than that collectively the components within Heorot enrage the listening Grendel. The fact that it is unclear whether the same performances take place daily exacerbates this lack of clarity. As well as the problem of interpreting who did what, there is also uncertainty concerning the modes and techniques of delivery, given the lack of naturalistic description. Even if it is accepted that the scop performed the creation myth, there is no reason to consider secgan (90b) and cweðan (92a) in the introduction to the myth as verbs referring to anything other than a storytelling performance, with these terms meaning ‘said’ rather than ‘sung’. An early audience may have known the expected method of delivery for the myth. One can speculate that the material was in the Beowulf poet’s own alliterative line, but the narrator summarises rather than quotes his performer. This paraphrasing is necessary, because there would be incongruity between stating that there is daily myth-telling, and a verbatim transcription of one recital of the myth.

34 35 36

Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 193. Caie, ‘Ealdgesegena worn’, 113. Fulk et al. use these half-lines to exemplify what they call ‘parallelism’, ‘the apposition of non-synonymous elements’: Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, cxviii, n. 2. See also Arthur Brodeur, The Art of ‘Beowulf’ (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1959), 40.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics Individual terms in the passage give us some clues as to the performance mode. While association of the verb sang with the scop offers a strong possibility that he sang, secgan and cweðan suggest that the poet likely intended the creation myth to have been spoken. This distinguishes singing scop from spoken myth. Indeed, while Fulk et al. suggest both possibilities in their glossary,37 the scop is more likely to be a singer than specifically a poet, with sang being associated with all three references to a scop in the poem. Although sang enables 90 to conform to the alliteration rules and elsewhere describes Grendel’s wail of defeat, almost certainly not to be taken literally as the delivery of a song, it is highly likely that each day the scop sang. The sang is described as swutol, which meant ‘clear’, ‘manifest’, ‘distinct’, ‘open’, or ‘public’, and the Beowulf poet uses the term elsewhere to refer to that which is on display and possessing significance. When Beowulf exhibits Grendel’s arm following his victory in their fight, it is seen as a tacen sweotol, ‘clear sign’ (833) of Beowulf’s victory and the Danes’ changing fortunes. The wrath of Grendel is also described as a sweotolan tacne (141) that leads the Danish warriors to desert their hall. Therefore, 90a may not refer to aesthetic characteristics of the performances such as volume or acoustic clarity at all. Instead, it is clear, audible evidence of revelry within the hall, to which Grendel reacts. Note that hador, which also meant ‘clear’ or ‘bright’, does not appear to have had the ‘manifest’ meaning, yet is used to describe a scop singing at 497, as discussed below. Overall, however, sweotol’s subtle ambiguity highlights the manifest nature of the performances, as well as their clarity and volume. As for the content of the myth, although the Beowulf poet was Christian, the biblical Genesis would have been anachronistic.38 An audience, however, may have assumed it to be the biblical Creation. Alternatively, they may have had another myth in mind, taken from a shared stock of communal tales, or they might have been aware of non-Christian creation myths, such as those retained in Old Norse literature.39 The paraphrase of the creation myth contains referential elements that the modern reader is unable to comprehend. Whatever the poet’s intentions concerning the mode of delivery for the sang and myth and their relationship to the lyre music, and no matter 37 38


Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 428. For a recent discussion of the Creation myth’s pagan-Christian nature, see Robert DiNapoli, A Far Light: A Reading of ‘Beowulf’ (Newcastle, 2016), 34–7. Norse creation myths are outlined in both the Poetic and Prose Edda: in poetry, they appear in Vǫluspá, stanzas 3–20; see Ursula Dronke, ‘The Poetic Edda’ Volume II: Mythological Poems (Oxford, 1997), 7–24; see also her discussion of the myth at 32–40. In prose, the myths appear in ‘Gylfaginning’; see Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning, ed. Anthony Faulkes (Oxford, 1982), 7–55. See also Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 121.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems who delivered them, the conceptions generated through phrases such as hearpan sweg (89b) and swutol sang scopes (90a) contribute to an overall symbolic function. Whether they were separate events by different performers is ultimately of little consequence. The purpose of the two phrases is the same: to exemplify joyous and successful society in action through reference to performances within Heorot, which are heard by Grendel. The performer does not need to be described in order to develop the plot and initiate symbolic and referential meaning. Their ‘song’, or the sound of their lyre, needs only to be mentioned. Although Opland’s theory that historical people defined as scopas did not use instruments should be acknowledged, a collective impression is developed in the passage, an image of regular performance among Hrothgar’s society in Heorot in which the hearpan sweg and the swutol sang scopes are associated thematically and through proximity, even if there was no intention to describe singing and lyre playing being performed together. Rather than facilitating a detailed description of events, performance in the form of scop song, lyre playing, and creation myth contrasts communal Danish hall society with the apparent isolation of the tormented, exiled Grendel. The fact that there is dream each day and the singing is consistently swutol reflects the idealisation of Hrothgar’s hall society at this point; uniformity is this passage’s defining characteristic. Rather than referring to a specific scene, the performances are routine, daily occurrences involving customs possibly relating to the construction of the hall. Indeed, there is an overall impression of ritual, in which the theme of creation in the myth is associated with hall creation, if only through narrative proximity. Additionally, the reference to the ability and knowledge of the character who told the creation myth (90b–91) evokes the depiction of the mounted þegn, rather than the scopas who appear in the poem.

The ‘scop’ at 496 A scop appears twice more in Beowulf: once when the Geats led by Beowulf arrive at Hrothgar’s hall, and then during a gift-giving scene following Grendel’s defeat. After Hrothgar welcomes the Geats and invites them to sit down and enjoy the hall experience (489–90), a performing scop is introduced along with a functional servant þegn: Þegn nytte beheold, se þe on handa bær  hroden ealowæge, scencte scir wered.  Scop hwilum sang hador on Heorote.  Þær wæs hæleða dream, duguð unlytel  Dena ond Wedera. (494b–98)


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics A þegn observed his duties, he who bore in his hands an ornamented ale-cup poured out a clear, sweet drink. A singer sang clearly at times in Heorot. There was the joy of men, a great host of Danes and Weders.

This passage shares similarities with the earlier instance featuring a scop. Hrothgar’s hall Heorot, named this time, is identified as the performance location, and it too contains a brief reference to artistic performance among a wider description of collective society in action, a vision abruptly disturbed and challenged, this time by Unferth, Hrothgar’s þyle, ‘speaker’ or ‘advisor’, in the following scene,40 just as Grendel disrupts Heorot earlier in the poem. Hill argues that the placement of this instance, before Unferth’s interjection, strengthens the case for an ‘instrumental’ – that is, more than decorative and merely celebratory – use of harp and recitation in Beowulf … I see no reason to consider the preceding reference to bright singing and warrior joy as merely terminal atmosphere. Here bright song is both the pleasure it is and the drawing out of an unpleasant, powerful onlooker (shades of Grendel?).41

Although the scop, ritual formalities, and joy are separated from Unferth’s interjection by the beginning of a new fitt in the manuscript between lines 498 and 499, ‘joy in the hall’ passages featuring performance are again juxtaposed with malevolent forces at work in the narrative. Society, epitomised by performance activity, is jeopardised by such threats. As Chapter 6 will show, this juxtaposition becomes a characteristic of the crystallised performance theme in post-Conquest English poetry containing ‘joy in the hall’ passages. The scop’s mode of delivery in this passage is also comparable to the earlier appearance at 90. The verb singan is the main indicator of performance mode. Sung delivery was therefore again highly likely, with the caveats concerning the use of descriptive language in poems. Thus, whether or not the scop was a reciter of poetry, he is almost certainly conceived of as a singer in the two instances discussed thus far. Moreover, the description of the singing as hador, a term that, like swutol, meant ‘clear’, also ‘bright’ – but apparently not ‘manifest’, suggesting that sweotol and hador are both likely to mean ‘clear’ in relation to the scop performances – shows further similarity with the scop of 90: clarity or brightness is routinely 40


For discussion of Unferth as þyle, see D. E. Martin Clarke, ‘The Office of Thyle in Beowulf’, RES, 12 (1936), 61–6; Ida Masters Hollowell, ‘Unferð the Þyle in Beowulf’, Studies in Philology, 73:3 (1976), 239–65. See also Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 150. Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 312.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems significant.42 Hwilum (496), used in the performing þegn passage, as well as in Beowulf’s own recollection to Hygelac of performance in Hrothgar’s hall later in the poem, indicates that the poet is again not describing one particular scene of performance, but occasional performances over a period of time that constitute an element of the hæleða dream, ‘joy of men’ (497), in the hall. For Amodio, the use of hwilum indicates that the scop ‘sings at various times during the course of the feast, perhaps during lulls in other activities’.43 Though this is speculative, the acknowledgement of multiplicity is appropriate. As previously stated, the use and recurrence of hwilum in the description of artistic performance episodes, as with the reference to the daily lyre playing and reciting of myths, indicates that the poet’s concern is with general representation rather than specific detail. Despite such similarities, there are also differences in representation of note between this passage and the earlier passage depicting scop performances that enrage Grendel. These differences undermine the notion that they can be seen as equivalent thematic units, particularly in the restricted sense as defined by Lord.44 For instance, at 496 the scop himself is introduced, rather than just his sang. Moreover, though there is more than one performance and thus the description could not be classified as a single scene, the passage depicts one occasion, upon the Geats’ arrival, rather than a daily event. Additionally, a particular performance of cultural significance like the creation myth is not introduced; the narrative focuses on hall activities with no paraphrase or summary of a particular tale. Here, scop performances do not facilitate interperformativity or generate structural depth. It is an isolated, passing reference, albeit part of an overall image of pleasure.

The ‘scop’ at 1066 The final appearance of a scop in Beowulf occurs after Grendel has been defeated, in another passage involving performance within Heorot. Scop characters in Beowulf are thus hall-bound: Þær wæs sang ond sweg  samod ætgædere fore Healfdenes  hildewisan, gomenwudu greted,  gid oft wrecen,45 ðonne Healgamen,  Hroþgares scop æfter medobence  mænan scolde Finnes eaferan;  ða hie se fær begeat, 42 43 44 45

See DOE, ‘hador’, online at . Amodio, ‘Res(is)ting the Singer’, 196, n. 50. Albert B. Lord, The Singer Resumes the Tale (Ithaca, NY, 1995), 201. In the manuscript there is a punctus at the end of 1065.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics hæleð Healf-Dena,  Hnæf Scyldinga in Freswæle  feallan scolde.


There was song and music together before Healfdene’s battleleader. The wood of entertainment was touched, a tale often performed. Then, before the mead bench, Hrothgar’s storyteller must recount hall-entertainment about Finn’s sons; when that sudden attack came upon them, Hnæf of the Scyldings, warrior king of the Danes, must fall in the Frisian slaughter.

As with the horse-riding cyninges þegn of 867, the scop’s relationship with Hrothgar his king is mentioned here (1066) and his role – to entertain those on the mead benches by telling the tale of the Frisian slaughter, in the service of his lord – is identified. This suggests he is a court poet or storyteller, although poetry is not necessarily performed, because the Frisian slaughter tale is almost certainly paraphrased rather than quoted. Once again, the performance space is alluded to, this time through reference to healgamen, ‘hall-entertainment’, and the medobence, ‘mead bench’, rather than by referring to or naming the hall.46 Before introducing the scop, the regularity of performance events in the hall is stressed once more through the phrase gid oft wrecen, ‘tale often performed’. In this instance, however, the way in which the poet employs the scop differs significantly. The narrator refers to a particular time-bound event containing several performances, yet one of those performances is singled out: the tale of the Frisian slaughter. We know therefore that the scop is a conduit of historical matter at this point, functioning in the same manner as the cyninges þegn who relates comparable material: the stories of Sigemund and Heremod. This passage thus also bears similarity with the earliest appearance of a scop (90), if we assume that scop performs the daily creation myth. Both would then introduce material of cultural relevance. Yet there is no doubt that the scop of 1066 tells a specific tale, that of the Frisian slaughter, on one occasion following Grendel’s defeat. In doing so, he enables the narrative to depart from the present goings-on in the hall for an extended section. Because of the length and complexity of the Frisian slaughter paraphrase, 46

Commonly translated as ‘hall-joy’, it has been suggested that healgamen (1066) is the name of the scop. See Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl, ‘Performance and Performers’, in Karl Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature (Berlin, 2012), 158; Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 180–1. John F. Vickrey suggests that Finn’s hall is being referred to, because of grammatical issues with the standard reading that sees healgamen and medobence as both relating to Heorot. However, there is no requirement for the word to refer to just one referent; associative ambiguity is effective here. See John F. Vickrey, ‘Beowulf’ and the Illusion of History (Bethlehem, 2009), 101.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems which takes up ninety lines of the poem, we can be reasonably sure that this scop delivers a relatively long narrative rather than a short poem or lyric; it is an extended, tragic tale. Thornbury describes the tale of the Frisian slaughter as ‘the only indisputable instance of performed verse in Beowulf’, because it is referred to as a leoð.47 Yet leoð did not only mean ‘poem’, and nothing suggests that the scop is doing anything other than storytelling. Otherwise, once again little attention is given to performance technique. At this point, the scop at 1066 may not have produced only the story of the Frisian slaughter, but others too. This depends on the relationship between the general references to performance; the sang, sweg (both 1063), and gyd (1065) on the one hand, and the actions of the scop (1066 onwards) on the other. The relationship rests largely on whether ðonne (1066) is translated as ‘when’ or ‘then’, giving these two possibilities: ‘a tale often performed, when, before the mead bench…’, or ‘a tale often performed. Then, before the mead bench…’

Most have interpreted ðonne as ‘when’, but ‘then’ is also plausible. ‘When’ associates the general references with the actions of the scop, and editors such as Klaeber/Fulk et al. and Dobbie support this, placing a comma at the end of 1065.48 Indeed, Fulk et al. declare that it cannot be translated as ‘then’, given the context, although no specific reason is given.49 However, there is a punctus at the end of 1065 between wrecan and before ðonne in the manuscript, which Julius Zupitza acknowledges in his autotype edition by inserting a full stop before ðonne.50 Opland also argues that ‘then’ is the more likely interpretation.51 Lines 1065–7 could thus be read as two distinct references, the first to performance in general and the second to the tale told by the scop, divided by the punctus. The Frisian slaughter is therefore separated from other tales, at least for the scribe or in their source text. The scop appears in the line following the reference to the gomenwudu, ‘wood of entertainment’, being greted, ‘touched’, just 47


49 50


Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2014), 18. Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 37; E. V. K. Dobbie, ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Judith’, ASPR IV (London, 1953), 34. Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 180. Julius Zupitza (ed.), ‘Beowulf’: A Facsimile Edition, EETS, OS 245 (Oxford, 1959), 50. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 196. Opland’s argument focuses on whether the scop plays a lyre, a matter on which this punctuation crux also rests. See also Jeff Opland, ‘Beowulf on the Poet’, Mediaeval Studies, 38 (1976), 442–67, at 454.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics as mention of the scop’s song immediately follows that of hearpan sweg in the introduction to the creation myth. Although the concern might not have been to either represent reality or stress simultaneity, there is thus a strong indication that lyre playing and storytelling performances take place concurrently or are being performed by the same person at these points. The use of sang ond sweg samod ætgædere, ‘song and music with each other’, at 1063 appears to confirm this. Such simultaneity poses a challenge to Opland’s view that people described as scopas did not play lyres and performed unaccompanied, in the Beowulf poet’s imagination at least. However, translating ðonne (1066) as ‘then’ rather than ‘when’ distinguishes scop and lyre playing, supporting Opland’s argument. This interpretation also resolves the inconsistency of having gid oft wrecen, ‘tale often performed’, refer to what appears to be a single performance of the Finn episode. To reflect this, the translation above defies the punctuation in the Old English taken from the Fulk et al. edition of Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’. Even if the lyre playing and telling of tales are considered as being separate from the scop telling the story of Finn, their proximity means that they form an image of revelry, enabling the Beowulf poet to introduce the events of the Frisian slaughter, which the scop certainly relates. The ambiguous way in which the story is introduced means that either the narrator or his character could be speaking. Fulk et al. claim erroneously that ‘many edd. treat the Finnsburg episode as a direct quotation’;52 most editors have not detected direct speech in this section, and neither have translators. There is also no punctuation in the manuscript that might indicate a passage of speech.53 Reference is made to the present: swa nu gyt deð, ‘as it still does now’ (1134), which within speech might be a nod to present circumstances in the narrative, but whether this phrase refers to the poet’s present, the narrator’s present, or the scop’s present is uncertain. A comparable phrase appears at 2859 to refer to the narrator’s present: wolde dom Godes dædum rædan | gumena gehwylcum, swa he nu gen deð, ‘the judgement of God would determine the deeds of every man, as he still does now’ (2858–9). Line 2859 is not part of a speech, however, and the narrator is communicating directly to the poem’s audience.



Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 180. Though editors generally do not perceive direct quotation at this point, other critics have; see Gerald Richman, ‘Poet and Scop in Beowulf’, In Geardagum 21 (2000), 61–91. Elise Louviot argues that punctuation could indicate either speech or narrative, and interpretation is not straightforward. However, she also notes that the end of a speech is indicated in 90 per cent of instances in the manuscripts (though presumably the difficulty in discerning speech renders this figure problematic) and there is no punctuation at 1159 of Beowulf where the speech would end. See Elise Louviot, Direct Speech in ‘Beowulf’ and Other Old English Narrative Poems (Cambridge, 2016), 58–61.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

In these scop passages, elsewhere in Beowulf, and in other Old English poems, associations are established repeatedly between performance and its performers, and concepts of joy, social community, and revelry. Rather than being detailed descriptions of specific occasions, passages featuring performance are suggestive images, generalised visions of flourishing society in action. It is this expression of happiness and of the successful world of men that incurs the wrath of Grendel, whose kind live on the margins of human society, being descendants of the exiled Cain. The visions establish and confirm that Heorot has a successful and prosperous society living within it, or they reflect renewed optimism following harmful events. Such impressions are encapsulated by the keyword dream (88, 99, 497, 721, 850, 1275). The scop and his performance are joyous for the Geats and Danes, while his mere presence can also function to represent joy for an audience. This is partly because the choice of lexis such as dream and gliw develops linguistic and cultural associations, as does the narrative construction. Such a representative style suits the concise nature of the poetry because it enables terse description to suggest wider concepts as part of broader cultural allusions, of which an early medieval English audience was likely aware, through the technique of traditional referentiality. There has been a tendency to view performers who appear in Old English writing collectively, as reflections of generic historical figures. Partly because of the idealised association between scop and joy, the scop glimpsed at in Beowulf has been seen as a mono-functional character, represented consistently, indeed formulaically. Opland’s table of recurrent words that feature in the Heorot passages (Table 2) aims to exemplify such consistency.54 However, Opland reordered the words when constructing his table. As a result, the passages appear to bear greater similarity to each other, and seem more formulaic than they are. Little is formulaic, certainly not in the chronology of the phrasing; word order is far more variable, and wording is not consistent either. At 88–91, for example, the word order is dream, hearpan, sweg, sang, scopes. The similarity in terminology suggests a somewhat routine understanding of performers and performance in the poetic imagination, which could initiate corresponding referential meaning in each passage. However, beyond the referential wording the scop operates differently in each of his appearances, as we have seen. He appears within the hall space as one element in a joyous image each time, yet the construction and function of the image varies. In the first instance, the swutol sang of the scop is heard daily in Heorot as part of the dream that enrages Grendel. In the second, the scop is no more than alluded to during a particular occasion, performing in a ‘joy in the hall’ scene as the Danes 54

Opland, ‘Beowulf on the Poet’, 446–7.






Source: Adapted from Opland, ‘Beowulf on the Poet’, 449.












(gleo) dream








gid asungen(v)













Table 2: Recurring words in passages of performance in Beowulf, according to Opland.




Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems welcome the visiting Geats. In the third, the scop operates more like the þegn on horseback than the scop of the previous passages. He, like the þegn, is explicitly described as being in the service of Hrothgar; just as the þegn performs a culturally relevant tale allowing the narrative to digress, so the scop of 1066 also performs such a tale, enabling the narrative to deviate from the primary plot and setting. The three passages containing a scop also have distinct symbolic functions: the earliest instance suggests the inclusivity of the community within the Danish hall, in contrast with the external, monstrous other in exile; the scene upon the arrival of Beowulf and his band of Geats at the hall forms part of the welcoming formalities, with the scop contributing to a bonding between the two societies; the episode following Grendel’s defeat represents celebration, the praise of the hero, and a return to normality in the hall (for the time being). Only loosely could they be grouped as consistent thematic ‘joy in the hall’ units in the oral-formulaic sense, and the clearest unifying element of the performance theme is not its stylistics, events, or narrative function, but its general symbolic associations with flourishing society. Scop figures disappear after the tale of the Frisian slaughter and are thus only found in the poem’s first third. Subsequent events are largely preoccupied with life outside the hall, and conflict in particular, while the scop remains a feature of hall society.

‘Gleoman’ in ‘Beowulf’ The only reference to a gleoman in Beowulf, leoð wæs asungen, | gleomannes gyd, ‘the song was sung, the glee-man’s tale’ (1159b–60a), appears directly after the Frisian slaughter tale, which is thus framed by references to its performer, labelled a scop before it (1066) and a gleoman after its close. As Opland noted, the poet had no problem conflating gleoman with scop,55 though strictly the instance of gleoman in Beowulf does not refer to a particular performer, but to a performance: the gyd, the tale of the Frisian slaughter. Gyd varies leoð, and functions as an aspect of poetic technique rather than to reveal any additional descriptive detail concerning the role, performance technique, or status of the performer. In doing so, the Beowulf poet effectively conflates the two terms. In this instance, we know that the leoð-gyd, was asungen, ‘sung’. It is also a comparatively long and rather tragic narrative tale concerning a significant event in the Danes’ cultural past. ‘Singing’ is thus associated with all appearances of a scop in Beowulf. Before the tale, mænan, ‘to tell’ or ‘relate’, at 1067 describes the delivery, indicating that it was told but not 55

Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 197.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics necessarily sung. As Hill points out, the term mænan is also used in relation to the stories praising Beowulf told by the mounted Danes (857) as well as to the lament for Beowulf by his companions at the close of the poem (3172).56 Hill considers the Beowulf poet’s diverse use of this term, noting that ‘such an utterance is often a complaint, a sorrowful speech in Beowulf’, but in the passage depicting the praise by the horse-riding troop ‘it is sheer, kinetic joy’.57 Such wide-ranging application precludes a precise understanding of the delivery of this scop/gleoman performance. Rather than being a poem, the telling of the Frisian slaughter is an extended storytelling performance in a heightened prose; its delivery mode was likely somewhere between speech and song. After the gleomannes gyd of 1160a, there is no further reference in Beowulf to appointed though unnamed performers identified using one of the six terms listed by Thornbury.58 The style and function of performance shifts. After the defeat of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is exhausted (1792–5). Hrothgar urges the hero to enjoy himself at a symbelwynn, ‘pleasure feast’ (1782), but no performances or performers are mentioned. The king is in contemplative mood, as demonstrated by his ‘sermon’ speech (1700–84); he too is weary (1791), and rather than celebration there is relief, that no further hall-companions have been lost. As the narrative turns to Beowulf’s return home, and the closure of this period of his life, the conclusion to this section also ends the brief illustrations of performance in the context of the communal hall. Performance re-emerges in a different fashion later in the poem.

Lamenting Fate: Anonymous Performance Towards the End of Beowulf While the appointed performers labelled using terms identified by Thornbury do not feature after the fifty-year jump following Beowulf’s return to Geatland, anonymous performing characters continue to appear. Though not identified by a specific term, they are described using words relating to performance. These characters are routinely associated with their society’s fate, about which they communicate their understanding. Such characters primarily feature towards the poem’s close, when the uncertainties of succession and the threat of neighbouring tribes prey on the minds of members of Geatish society. As Beowulf’s narrative develops,


57 58

Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 312. Concerning mænan and its possible objects, see Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 180. Hill, ‘Social and Dramatic Functions’, 312. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 21.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems social reflexivity is shown to be a significant preoccupation, and performance becomes an outlet for despair.

The Performing ‘Beasts of Battle’ Just as performance symbolises social harmony, community, success, and the pleasures of men, its absence symbolises the loss of such circumstances, or exile from them, a circumstance returned to repeatedly by the poet. One anonymous performer appearing towards the end of the poem is an unnamed Geatish messenger who delivers a long speech (2900–3027), the second longest in the poem after a 152-line address by Beowulf to Hygelac (2000–151). The speech, predominantly in the style of a lament, contains a significant amount of storytelling. It features the recollection of historical and recent events, and his predictions following Beowulf’s death. As exemplified by the ‘joy in the hall’ instances already considered, loosely cohesive themes are employed to creative effect in Beowulf. The messenger refers to performance as a symbol of flourishing society, alongside another traditional theme in Old English poetry, the ‘beasts of battle’, which represents loss of life on the battlefield. Both are employed at the end of the messenger’s speech to prefigure the Geats’ impending fate: ‘… þa sceall brond fretan, æled þeccean – nalles eorl wegan maððum to gemyndum,  ne mægð scyne habban on healse  hringweorðunge, ac sceal geomormod,  golde bereafod oft nalles æne  elland tredan, nu se herewisa  hleahtor alegde, gamen ond gleodream.  Forðon sceall gar wesan monig morgenceald  mundum bewunden, hæfen on handa,  nalles hearpan sweg wigend weccean,  ac se wonna hrefn fus ofer fægum  fela reordian, earne secgan  hu him æt æte speow, þenden he wið  wulf wæl reafode.’ (3014b–27) ‘… then the blaze must devour, the fire enfold – no man shall wear these treasures in remembrance, no woman shall have ringadornment on her neck, but must, sad-hearted, deprived of gold, often, not once, tread in alien land, now the leader of armies has put aside laughter, pleasure, and joy of music. Therefore many a spear, shall be grasped with fingers in the cold morning, raised in the hands: lyre sound shall not wake the warriors, but the black


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics raven, eager over doomed men, shall recount much, and the eagle will say how he succeeded at eating, whilst he plundered the dead with the wolf.’

The unique way in which the Beowulf poet implements the beasts of battle theme has long been celebrated. Adrien Bonjour notes that it is the only instance in the corpus in which an actual battle or fight is not described in the narrative at the point when the beasts appear.59 For him, its placement is apposite, as is its significance as part of the poet’s concern to signify fate, and he notes the juxtaposition with the lyre. He argues: For the Beowulf scop … to have used [the beasts of battle] … in a prophetic anticipation of the tragic destiny of a whole nation, as a symbol for the ultimate triumph of death, further, to have used it in a moving opposition to the motive of music and the harp as a symbol of life and rejoicings … really gives us a measure of his art in turning a highly conventional theme into a thing of arresting beauty and originality.60

Amodio also observes that in Beowulf, the theme is ‘divorced from a martial context and so departs from its traditional template’.61 Moreover, he notes the foreboding nature of this reference by the messenger, stating that it retains its affective impact. In signalling the inevitable martial defeat and physical suffering in store for the Geats, the appearance of the carrion animals at the conclusion of Beowulf powerfully and economically betokens the awful and tragic destiny that awaits the Geats.62

Of course, their ‘appearance’ is in the mouth of the messenger, as a contemplative symbol rather than a physical presence. Just as the hearpe or its absence signifies fate, a matter considered in Chapter 3, so too do the beasts of battle. Yet the departure from the typical template and context in the employment of the ‘beasts of battle’ theme has other unique features and effects. Indeed, performance extends into the beasts of battle section. As E. G. Stanley points out,63 the poem features the sole instance in the corpus in which the different beasts communicate with one another.64 The black raven as storyteller recounting his exploits with the wolf to the 59

60 61

62 63


Adrien Bonjour, ‘Beowulf and the Beasts of Battle’, PMLA, 72:4 (1957), 563–73, at 568–9. Bonjour, ‘Beowulf and the Beasts of Battle’, 571. Mark C. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England (Notre Dame, IN, 2004), 52. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition, 52–3. E. G. Stanley, Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature (London: Nelson, 1966), 109. However, note that wolves ‘sing’ an æfenleoð, ‘evening-song’ in Exodus (164–5).


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems eagle is an ominous substitute for the lyre that is lost. Such representation, which juxtaposes the typical medium of celebratory artistic communication, the lyre, with the communications of the beasts, employs examples of interaction within the standard analogy of death on the battlefield, and is entirely appropriate. It is in keeping with the Beowulf poet’s concern to create a world of communication through the medium of storytelling and performance. It is thus additionally appropriate that Beowulf’s ‘beasts of battle’ passage is an element in one of the poem’s key speeches. It forms a symbolic component in the messenger’s lamentation. As he predicts the fate of his people, the symbolic creatures in his narrative are given performative agency, and thus contrast with the Geatish people who appear passive, and powerless to avoid their downfall. We are shown that to contemplate their fate, all that remains to the messenger and his fellow Geats is to perform.

The Lament by the Geatish ‘Meowle’ At the end of Beowulf, conditions for the Geatish people lead to a situation in which the ability to give ritual performances is seemingly their only agency. For example, in a section at which point the manuscript has been damaged, resulting in numerous lacunae,65 a meowle, ‘woman’, mourns Beowulf at his funeral, though her lament additionally supposes the impending decline of her people that will result from his death.66 The brief description focuses on her performance material rather than her character: swylce giomorgyd  (Ge)at(isc) meowle (æfter Biowulfe b)undenheorde (sang)  sorgcearig,  sæ(id)e (ge)neah(he) þæt hio hyre (here)g(eon)gas  hearde ond(r)ede, wælfylla wo(r)n,  (w)erudes egesan, hy[n]ðo ond hæf(t)nyd.  Heofon rece swealg. (3150–5) A mournful Geatish woman with bound hair also sang sorrowfully about Beowulf, said repeatedly that she sorely dreaded an army invasion/devastation, an abundance of slaughter, terror for the company of men, humiliation and captivity. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

65 66

A later scribe refreshed the legible text. See Zupitza, ‘Beowulf’, 144. Despite attempts to name the mourner as Hygd, Hygelac’s widow and perhaps Beowulf’s widow too, she is anonymous. See Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 270.


Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics The passage depicts a performance characterised by repetition, seemingly ritualistic and likely sung, mourning the death of Beowulf and fearing for the fate of society. The ritualistic nature of the performance, and the tone of despair, are emphasised through elaborate variation (3154–55a). Although it is not explicitly stated, the mourner’s prediction concerning the Geats’ fate is surely to be considered in light of the death of her heroic leader. Overall, it reflects the concerns expressed in speeches by Beowulf’s Wægmunding nephew Wiglaf (2864–91) and the Geatish messenger (2900–3027). Possibly this character is Beowulf’s wife, but there is no evidence of this. According to Tauno Mustanoja, this woman is archetypal and generic; her identity is of little concern. The intention was to represent a traditional funeral, with mourners present who were expected as part of the occasion.67 Fulk et al. similarly describe her as having a ‘socially sanctioned role’ as female mourner.68 Regardless of who she was, she is primarily a conduit for the expression of fate. She also functions to associate the poem’s narrative with historical circumstances, given the Geats’ apparent demise in their Swedish homeland. There has been debate over her only specified physical characteristic, her hair, because it is unclear from the manuscript whether she is described as wundenheorde, ‘with wavy hair’, or bundenheorde, ‘with bound hair’, at 3151b. The latter is generally preferred,69 but the former might be more appropriate for a modern reader, because the hair could be seen to symbolise the loss of control in society, in keeping with her figurative status. Beowulf’s mourner is by no means the only female performer in Old English poetry. While Wealtheow and Freawaru perform ceremonial duties in Beowulf, these functions fall outside of our definition of performance. However, the narrator of the Exeter Book poem The Wife’s Lament is a prominent performer, telling of her circumstances and her past, and towards the end of Exodus, another woman gives voice to forebodings following conflict: Hreðdon hildespelle,  siððan hie þam herge wiðforon; hofon hereþreatas  hlude stefne, for þam dædweorce  drihten heredon, weras wuldres sang;  wif on oðrum, folcsweota mæst,  fyrdleoð golan aclum stefnum,  eallwundra fela. (574–9) 67

68 69

Tauno F. Mustanoja, ‘The Unnamed Woman’s Song of Mourning over Beowulf and the Tradition of Ritual Lamentation’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 68:1 (1967), 1–27, at 27. Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 270. On the MS damage and consequent need for interpretation see Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 270; Dobbie, ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Judith’, 97; Zupitza, ‘Beowulf’, 144.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems They made victory by battle-tales, after they went forth in war against that army; the war-bands lifted loud voices, they hallowed the Lord for that deed-work; men sang of glory; a woman in another, the greatest of folk-troops, lamented a warsong of many wonders in excited voices.

These unnamed female mourners in Beowulf and Exodus embody a society experiencing unfavourable circumstances; they give voice to their circumstances through ritual performance. Like the scop performers, and others, they function symbolically as unnamed generic characters.

The Riders’ Lament The Geatish woman and her lament form part of a series of performance acts marking the closure of Beowulf that correlate Beowulf’s demise with that of his society. Rumination on fate is a principal subject of ritual mourning. Indeed, the poem’s final scene depicts another ritual performance, by twelve mounted retainers encircling Beowulf’s barrow: Þa ymbe hlæw riodan  hildediore, æþelinga bearn,  ealra twelf(e), woldon (care) cwiðan  (ond c)yning mænan, wordgyd wrecan,  ond ymb w(er) sprecan; eahtodan eorlscipe  ond his ellenweorc duguðum demdon –  swa hit gede(fe) bið þæt mon his winedryhten  wordum herge, ferhðum freoge,  þonne he forð scile of l(i)chaman  (læ)ded weorðan. (3169–77) Then around the mound rode the battle-brave, sons of nobles, twelve in all, they wished to bewail their sorrow, to mourn their king, to recite lyrics, and speak about the man; they praised his heroic deeds and his works of courage, deemed him excellent. As it is fitting, that one honours his friend and lord in words, cherish in one’s spirit, when he must be led forth from his body.

The language used in this description, particularly sprecan, points to spoken elegy. Wordgyd, the product of the riders’ lament, is often translated ‘dirge’. However, this interpretation relies heavily on context and ignores the compounding that suggests a more neutral sense, for example ‘wordtale’. As with the episode depicting the woman mourning at Beowulf’s funeral, this passage features substantial variation, amplification, and parallelism. It can be divided into sections: an initial passage lamenting the death of Beowulf and mourning for him up to 3172, followed by a 102

Multiformity and the Orality of Associative, Architectonic Poetics transition at 3173 into a section praising his heroism and skills as a leader. Elegy is woven with celebration in this passage through the proliferation of terms such as cearu, ‘sorrow’, mænan, ‘to relate’ but also ‘to lament’, eahtian, ‘to praise’ and duguðum deman, ‘to judge excellent’. In contrast with the meowle’s desperate performance, the riders perform a controlled, heroic elegy for a fallen lord, appropriate for the poem’s close; they do not speculate or express any fears concerning the future. Indeed, the narrative style towards the end of this passage (3174b–77) is gnomic; the riders do what is expected of them in such circumstances, conforming to expectations concerning cultural behaviour. Comparable scenes depicting the collective performance of mourning are found elsewhere in Old English poetry. In The Dream of the Rood, for instance, Jesus’s followers sing or cry a tale of mourning for him: Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan earme on þa æfentide, þa hie woldon eft sīðian, meðe fram þam mæran þeodne.  Reste he ðær mæte weorode. (67b–69) The wretched then began to cry a tale of sorrow in the eveningtime, then they wanted to go again, wearily from the glorious prince. He rested there with little company.

The vocabulary used in this passage is distinct from that used to describe performance in positive circumstances. The principal verb relating to the followers’ performance, galan, ‘to cry’ or ‘to sing’, at 67, appears in Beowulf, although it is unrelated to performance in two key instances: once to describe Grendel’s anguished cry during his fight with Beowulf (786), and later to describe the sound of a war horn (1432). In Beowulf there is an urgent, dramatic aspect to the term. The Beowulf poet also uses the third-person form of galan in the half-line sorhleoð gæleð (2460), otherwise equivalent to the phrase in 67b of The Dream of the Rood, during Beowulf’s dying speech, referring to Hrethel’s lament for Herebeald. The compound sorhleoð associates sorrow with the performance of a tale or song, as does sorhword, used in Genesis (789) to describe the dialogue between Adam and Eve following their expulsion from Eden. Performances such as the ones represented in The Dream of the Rood and at Beowulf’s funeral should be categorised as laments rather than poems. In Beowulf, performers reflect on Beowulf’s heroism, and relate his actions and the implications of his life and death to the poem’s cultural setting. The voices of minor, anonymous characters offer a perspective on the moral universe presented in the poem, represented in relation to the machinations of fate; their words are bound up with Beowulf’s deeds.


Chapter 3 Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol


he previous chapter demonstrated that Beowulf, the most significant source of information concerning performance in the Old English poetic imagination, represents performance thematically, but diversely. From archetypal scop figures to the characters without identifiers relating to their role as performers, Beowulf depicts a world in which performance is integral to society. Though commonly they are brief allusions, what might be seen as uniform references to performance activity, each in fact has differing purposes and effects. These glimpses of performance in the poem mirror the terse allusions in wisdom poetry, material considered in Chapter 5, with performers represented as positive agents who possess the knowledge and ability to perform effectively. The difference in Beowulf is that these allusions interrelate with the poem’s narrative and structural concerns, implying a close relationship with a type of oral poetics that relied on interrelationships between thematically distinctive yet formally associated material. Moreover, in Beowulf traditional poetic themes are utilised in unique ways, notably for example in the way in which the beasts of battle ‘perform’. Performance’s function shifts too as the poem progresses. Whereas the þegn and the scopas symbolise the social cohesion and successes of the Geats and Danes in the first third, mourners represent social decline after the fifty-year jump, in keeping with the poem’s overall shift in tone. As this chapter will demonstrate, the lyre as symbolic object represents this shift most evidently.

The Lyre as Symbol Referring to the representation of human society in Beowulf, Tolkien describes the poem’s contrasting environments, represented by the presence or absence of light and music: at the beginning, and during its process, and most of all at the end, we look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world. A light starts – lixte se leoma ofer landa fela [the light shines out over many lands] – and there is a sound of music; but the


Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease. Grendel is maddened by the sound of harps.1

Present in two episodes discussed in the previous chapter – the joy in the hall that enrages Grendel and before the tale of the Frisian slaughter, and alluded to by the Geatish messenger at the end of his long speech – the ‘harp’, likely the Germanic round lyre, is the symbolic musical instrument of performance in Beowulf, and in Old English poems more generally. Indeed, it is the only instrument that features principally outside of martial contexts in the narrative poems. Tolkien sees the instrument as a significant component in Beowulf’s human world of light: it represents the existence of society and its successes, circumstances that will soon be threatened. The lyre regularly symbolises the social domain in Old English poems, and the relationship between lyre and society in the early medieval English poetic imagination is comparable with associations between performer figures and society: both represent social cohesion and the achievement of a people.

The Lyre at 2107 Early in the poem, the lyre’s sweg, ‘sound’ or ‘music’, is one element constituting the dream in Heorot that enrages Grendel. Subsequently, most references to lyres occur within speeches,2 reflecting a concern to incorporate its symbolism into the domain of men’s communications; it becomes a verbal sign in the poem’s cultural world which can also act as referential cue for the audience. This concern is best exemplified when Beowulf recalls the lyre being played whilom, ‘at times’, in Heorot, part of a lengthy homecoming speech to Hygelac that is discussed further in Chapter 4 because of its storytelling elements: Þær wæs gidd ond gleo;  gomela Scilding, felafricgende  feorran rehte; hwilum hildedeor  hearpan wynne, gome(n)wudu grette,  hwilum gyd awræc soð ond sarlic;  hwilum syllic spell rehte æfter rihte  rumheort cyning; hwilum eft ongan  eldo gebunden, 1


J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, 1983), 5–48, at 33. The only other reference outside of speech is the gomenwudu at line 1065.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems gomel guðwiga  gioguðe cwiðan, hildestrengo;  hreðer (in)ne weoll þonne he wintrum frod  worn gemunde.


There was song and music. An old Scylding, having learnt of many things, told of long ago. Sometimes one brave in battle struck the joyful lyre, the wood of entertainment, at other times he told a tale, true and mournful. Sometimes the great-hearted king narrated a strange story correctly, at other times an age-bound old warrior proceeded to lament his youth, his battle-strength. His heart surged within when he, old in years, recalled many things.

In Beowulf, individual lyrists are not identified, and the representation of the lyre leaves open the possibility that it was envisaged as a communal instrument, except possibly in this instance. An individual played the lyre, possibly the king. Yet the chronology and nuances of this passage’s events cannot be deduced with certainty.3 Fulk et al. argue that ‘it would be futile to try to determine what exact relation there is between verbal arts (gidd) and harp playing (gleo) in this recollected scene.’4 Moreover, as with the scop-lyre-creation myth episode, the number and roles of characters being portrayed is unclear, and this ambiguity extends to the actions of the king. Published translations reflect the diverse interpretative possibilities. For example, John R. Clark-Hall has Hrothgar recounting tales but without the use of a lyre,5 while Seamus Heaney claims rather noncommittally that ‘the king gave the proper turn to some fantastic tale’.6 The repeated use of hwilom in Beowulf’s recollection suggests that he is describing distinct events, albeit likely on the same occasion. Thornbury considers the possibility that Beowulf recalls discrete performers, as suggested in the above translation, but she also argues that, given the applications of the descriptive gomela Scylding, ‘old Scylding’, and hildedeor, ‘brave in battle’, throughout the poem overall, it is more likely to be one person, the king.7 Other critics, notably Fulk et al., have also felt that Beowulf is describing Hrothgar himself performing with an instrument at this point.8 The king as lyrist is a striking image, and Thornbury’s



5 6 7


See Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven, CT, 1980), 199–201. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (eds), Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Toronto, 2008), 233. J. R. Clark-Hall, ‘Beowulf’ and the Finnesburg Fragment (London, 1950), 127. Seamus Heaney, ‘Beowulf’ : A Verse Translation (London, 2002), 54. Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2014), 18–19. See Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 234.


Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol observation concerning the choice of phrases largely supports the theory that Hrothgar played the lyre, though hildediore (3169) refers to the troop who ride around Beowulf’s barrow rather than to the king himself. Given uncertainties concerning the events taking place in Beowulf’s recollection, attempts to determine what happens are again less profitable than consideration of poetic technique and its effects. Beowulf opens his description of the performances with an authoritative introductory statement: þær wæs gidd ond gleo (2105), reminiscent of the phrase introducing performance events in Heorot: þær wæs sang ond sweg (1063). Indeed, the formulaic ‘there was’ statement is used repeatedly in relation to performance in Beowulf (89, 497, 1063, 2105).9 It also introduces performance in Laȝamon’s Brut (at 12073, for example). Beowulf describes a lyre being played at times, possibly by the king but it could be one of his warriors who is hildedeor, ‘brave in battle’, and stories are told concerning the characters’ past, among other subjects. It would be conjecture to suggest that singing is undertaken too, as no term such as sang is used. Finally, storytelling and the lyre feature in proximity, as they do in the scop-lyre-creation myth episode and before the tale of the Frisian slaughter. The structure at 2107–10 is reminiscent of the distinction implied between different forms of performance – lyre playing, storytelling, and possibly singing and poetry – elsewhere in Beowulf, and in wisdom poems, being listed, proximate though independent, and punctuated in this instance by the anaphoric conjunction hwilum. Whatever the intention, the repetition of hwilum structurally distinguishes four elements, as indicated in the above translation: lyre playing, true and mournful utterances, the king’s stories, and an old warrior lamenting after his youth. The use of hwilum also gives the impression once more that performance is a regular occurrence in Hrothgar’s hall, creating generalised images that exemplify the way in which Beowulf employs the technique of the narrator within his long storytelling speech, though this lack of distinction between narration and speech can be seen as an absence of nuance. The primary symbolic utility of this passage concerns the effect and consequences of wisdom, age, and memory. Experience and knowledge are associated with performing, and particularly the ability to perform. Beowulf describes one of the performers, possibly the king, as wintrum frod, ‘old in years’, having a particular store of knowledge that ‘results from the ageing mind properly seasoned’, as Corey Zwikstra puts it.10 Frod is a frequently-used poetic term that only appears once in non-poetic material, as a gloss for grandeuus, ‘aged’.11 Hrothgar uses the term about 9 10


Jeff Opland, ‘Beowulf on the Poet’, Mediaeval Studies, 38 (1976), 442–67, at 447. Corey J. Zwikstra, ‘“Wintrum Frod”: Frod and the Ageing Mind in Old English Poetry’, Studies in Philology, 108:2 (2011), 133–64, at 134. In London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra A III.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems himself (1724) in a speech to Beowulf; in doing so, he pitches his suitability as a sermoniser.12 The importance of wisdom is emphasised further when the old Scylding storyteller, whether the king or an ageing retainer, is described as felafricgende, ‘many minded’, ‘well informed’. Beowulf is stressing that the performer that he witnessed in Hrothgar’s hall is not only old, he is symbolically old, possessing valuable cultural knowledge and the ability to engage in performance, possibly ritual, concerning the (former) glory of his society. Moreover, his ability to perform is inextricable from his age, experience, and possibly his status. The process of ageing in the correct manner thus facilitates the ability to perform and recount, reflecting the abilities of the scop and þegn stressed earlier in the poem. The tone of this passage is one of profound seriousness. Its themes allude to the wisdom accumulated with the passing of time that enables reflection and nostalgia to be elucidated effectively, with accompanying nods to the waning of physical and, by association, political power. The image of the king as performer, perhaps as the ageing figure lamenting the passing of his battle-strength, is apposite for Beowulf’s audience in the hall, particularly Hygelac. Demise, death, and succession are hinted at here. Among the sombre reflection concerning the assorted performance described in this passage, Beowulf reserves any association with joy for the lyre, recalling the instrument as being one of the principal pleasurable elements in the life of Heorot. At 2107b, the phrase hearpan wynne, ‘harp joy’, identifies the positive social function of the instrument, amplified at 2108a by gomenwudu grette, ‘touched the wood of entertainment’, which stresses the relationship between instrument and performer in addition to that between instrument and joy. The technique of varying hearpe with a poetic compound is also applied in Christ II, and references to touch in relation to the lyre appear in The Gifts of Men (49) and Maxims I (170); this formulaic half-line phrasing will be discussed further below. The lyrist is brave (2107), possibly therefore a notable warrior or the king himself, but little else can be discerned about them. Either way, this reference to a performing warrior or king undermines any notion that being a lyrist was seen as an exclusive role for a dedicated professional in Danish society, for the Beowulf poet at least. Beowulf’s recollection of performance in Hrothgar’s hall on his return to Hygelac, before the fifty-year transition, anticipates further association between the lyre and prosperous society in action later in the poem. Following the fifty-year transition at 2200, references to the absence of the lyre symbolise negative events and portents concerning the Geats’ 12

Richard North, ‘OE scop and the singing Welsh Bishop’, in Kees Dekker, Alasdair MacDonald, and Hermann Niebaum (eds), Northern Voices: Essays on Old Germanic and Related Topics offered to Professor Tette Hofstra (Louvain, 2008), 99–122, at 106.


Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol fate. As shown in Chapter 2, performance in this latter part of the poem is associated with memory, nostalgia, and lament for the loss of aspects of society, including lyre sound and the joy of hearing it. The lyre takes on an additional symbolic dimension as an element in the cultural memory of Beowulf’s characters. This technique of performed remembrance is common in Old English poems; it is often through concise mental visions or images generated through memorisation and recollection that the audience glimpses the joys of society, for example reminiscences in The Wanderer (29–37, 92–6) and The Seafarer (27–8, 42–6).

The Lyre at 2262 The lyre appears shortly after the fifty-year transition, when the narrator describes a lament, addressed to the earth, by a speaker commonly known as the Last Survivor. Following the demise of his people, the Survivor delivers what is likely to be a spoken address, because just before his lament at 2246b we are told that he fea worda cwæð, ‘said a few words’. Among other losses, the Last Survivor reflects that he no longer experiences the sound and joy of the lyre: ‘Heald þu nu, hruse,  nu hæleð ne m(o)stan, eorla æhte.  Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe gode begeaton;  guðdeað fornam, (f)eorhbeal(o) frecne  fyra ge(h)wylcne leoda minra,  þ(o)n(e) ðe þis [lif] ofgeaf; gesawon seledream(as).  Nah hwa sweord wege oððe f(orð bere)  fæted wæge, dryncfæt deore;  dug(uð) ellor s[c]eoc. Sceal se hearda helm  (hyr)stedgolde, fætum befeallen;  feormynd swefað, þa ðe beadogriman  bywan sceoldon; ge swylce seo herepad,  sio æt hilde gebad ofer borda gebræc  bite irena, brosnað æfter beorne.  Ne mæg byrnan hring æfter wigfruman  wide feran, hæleðum be healfe.  Næs hearpan wyn, gomen gleobeames, ne god hafoc geond sæl swingeð,  ne se swifta mearh burhstede beateð.  Bealocwealm hafað fela feorhcynna  forð onsended.’ (2247–66) ‘Now hold you, earth, what heroes cannot: the possessions of nobles. Listen! Brave men won it at first from you; death in war, horrid carnage, took away every one of my tribe, those who gave


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems up this life; they saw hall joys. I have no one who dons a sword, or brings forth the cup ornamented with gold, the valuable drinking vessel; the noble warriors have departed to another place. Now must the hard helmet, adorned with gold, be deprived of its decorations; they sleep who should bear the war-masks. The armour too, which stood the stroke of swords in battle, amid the crash of shields, perishes as does the fighter; nor may the ringed mail fare far and wide with the warrior, side by side with mighty men. There is no joy of lyre, entertainment with the joy-wood; no good hawk sweeps through the hall, nor does the swift horse pound the courtyard. Violent death has sent forth many bodies of men.’

The joy of the lyre accompanies two image clusters relating a prized possession to a site of habitation: the hawk sweeping through the hall and the horse in the courtyard. The images close a section concerned with the effect of war; the loss of ritual adornments such as the gold-adorned cup, and the accessories of battle: sword, armour, and helmet. The passage is reminiscent of the way in which battle and performance figure proximately in Maxims I (127–8) and The Gifts of Men (51b–52a), a matter considered further in Chapter 5. The lyre is imagined as a communal instrument in this passage, relevant in social circumstances; a performer is needed and other people should experience it; the instrument cannot play in isolation. Like the possessions buried by the Last Survivor, the joy and sound of the lyre were significant, resonant cultural phenomena in the society that is now gone. As with the lyre, gold, weaponry, and armour have lost their cultural significance, their reason for being held in possession. Present, in contrast, is the Last Survivor and his speech, his lament for the downfall of his society and those companions who gesawon seledream(as), ‘saw hall joy(s)’. After estrangement and loss, he is still able to deliver a performance, the only agency left to him in relation to his former society, following his burial of the cultural artefacts, just as, following the demise of Beowulf, performance is the only agency that remains for other unnamed figures such as the mourning Geatish meowle (3150–55a) and the twelve riders who encircle Beowulf’s barrow (3169–74a). In the passage, the lyre possesses emotional connections with society, and operates symbolically. It represents the life of the hall and its society of men, and provides joy for that society. Details about the instrument, such as delivery and technique, or its physical attributes, are not specified. Notably, given the presence of Germanic round lyres among archaeological finds, the lyre itself as buried object is not mentioned as one of the articles of human society, though it could be considered one of the eorla æhte, ‘possessions of noblemen’, of 2248a. The discovery of lyres in high-status early medieval burials such as Sutton Hoo, Suffolk and 110

Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol Taplow, Buckinghamshire indicates that the instrument, its sound, or the pleasure derived from it, were important for the high-ranking noblemen with whom the treasures were buried, whatever the social status of those who played the instrument. The inclusion of lyres in burials possibly related to conceptions of the afterlife. Lyres would provide entertainment, joy, good fortune, or even a pastime after death, to mitigate against losses such as those endured in the present life by those who, like the Last Survivor, have become exiled from, or outlived, their societies. This in turn offers the possibility that the occupants of these graves were themselves lyrists. A similar reminiscence of the lyre appears in The Seafarer, in which the loss of the instrument itself is lamented rather than its joy or sound. As with the Last Survivor instance, the lyre in The Seafarer symbolises society and its pleasures. It is one of the illustrations of human relationships contextualised within a rejection of contemplative nostalgia. The seafaring man thinks not of the joys of land-dwelling men – the lyre being one of those joys – but of the sea: Forþon nis þæs modwlonc  mon ofer eorþan, ne his gifena þæs god,  ne in geoguþe to þæs hwæt, ne in his dædum to þæs deor,  ne him his dryhten to þæs hold, þæt he a his sæfore  sorge næbbe, to hwon hine dryhten  gedon wille. Ne biþ him to hearpan hyge  ne to hringþege, ne to wife wyn  ne to worulde hyht, ne ymbe owiht elles,  nefne ymb yða gewealc, ac a hafað longunge  se þe on lagu fundað. (39–47) For there is no man on earth so confident of temperament, nor so generous of his gifts, nor so bold in his youth, nor so courageous in his deeds, nor his lord so gracious to him, that he never worries about his seafaring, as to what the lord will bring him; he will give no thought to the lyre, nor to the receiving of rings, nor to the pleasure of a woman, nor to trust in that which is of this world, nor about anything else, but only about the surging of the waves. And yet he who strives on the sea always has the yearning.

The lyre represents the earthly pleasures rejected by the seafaring man, symbolising human society in general. Here, unlike in the Last Survivor’s lament and elsewhere in Beowulf, the object itself carries the symbolism rather than its sound or joy. An early audience evidently did not require more than mere mention of the hearpe as object to understand its implied associations, because it embodied them. The inclusion of the lyre in a list


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems of society’s pleasures from which the seafarer is distanced is otherwise comparable in style to the Last Survivor instance; although the tone in The Seafarer is one of rejection rather than lament, the symbolic functions are the same.

The Lyre at 2458 A contrast between ‘joyful’ performance in a functioning, if threatened, society, witnessed at earlier points in Beowulf, and lament for that joy and the loss of society later in the poem, is also apparent in Beowulf’s tale of mourning for the loss of a son, delivered when dying following his encounter with the dragon. His speech concerns Hrethel, the father of Beowulf’s former lord Hygelac, and tells of lyre music being heard no more following the death of Herebeald, Hrethel’s son and one of Hygelac’s brothers: Gesyhð sorhcearig  on his suna bure winsele westne,  windge reste, reot[g]e berofene;  ridend swefað, hæleð in hoðman;  nis þær hearpan sweg, gomen in geardum,  swylce ðær iu wæron. Gewiteð þonne on sealman,  sorhleoð gæleð an æfter anum;  þuhte him eall to rum, wongas ond wicstede. Swa Wedra helm æfter Herebealde  heortan sorge weallinde wæg; … (2455–64a) With sorrow and care he sees in his son’s dwelling the winehall desolate, the windswept resting place bereft of joy; the riders sleep, the champions in the grave; there is not the music of the lyre, entertainment in the courts, such as there once was. He goes then into the bed and sings one sorrowful song after another, alone. He thought it all too spacious, the fields and the homestead. So the protector of the Weders’ heart surged with grief and sorrow after Herebeald…

Comparison with the Last Survivor instance reveals significant similarities. The absence of the lyre symbolises Herebeald’s death and loss in society more generally. Here, though, the absence of its sound or music is lamented rather than its joyous effects. Gomen in geardum, ‘entertainment in the courts’ (2459a), alludes to the court space and its positive connotations, an amplification that engenders wider associations, supplementing 112

Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol the symbolic nature of the reference to lyre music. The Beowulf poet thus lists the lyre as object, its music, and the joy that can result from hearing or playing it.

The Lyre at 3023 Another comparable instance towards the end of the poem has been discussed in the previous chapter because of its reference to the beasts of battle. For the Geatish messenger, the music of the lyre will no longer awaken the men following the demise of society that he predicts will occur because of Beowulf’s death. The hero has relinquished the joys of the hall: gamen, ‘entertainment’, and gleodream, ‘joy of music’, exemplify that which has been lost. Understatedly, the messenger refers to Beowulf having ‘put aside laughter, pleasure and merriment’. A contrasting symbolic image is also created through the juxtaposition of the lyre sound with the ‘beasts of battle’ that signify loss of human life on the battlefield. Moreover, from 3016b–21a the messenger groups the treasures and the articles of war with pleasure and performance as symbols of a flourishing society. Indeed, tension between the lyre and battle appears repeatedly in Beowulf, being mentioned in proximity, for example in the Last Survivor’s speech and in Beowulf’s recollection of Hrothgar’s hall. The lyre and battle are recognised as forces that can both reflect and affect the fate of society. War is not perceived entirely negatively in the poem; it is acknowledged that success in battle enables society and its hall nucleus to continue, together with the lyre playing as one of its symbols. After all, Hrothgar’s military success has enabled him to build the ultimate hall in which to host artistic and other entertainments.

The Language of the Lyre Comparing the phrases in which the simplex hearpe is used in the latter part of Beowulf reveals formulaic similarities, though only within the span of a half-line, in which the instrument is associated with a term that can refer either to ‘joy’, or ‘song’, ‘music’, ‘sound’: hearpan wynne (2107b) næs hearpan wyn (2262b) nis þær hearpan sweg (2458b) nalles hearpan sweg (3023b)

Even though a compound is not used in these instances, sound and joy are thus associated with the lyre as physical object through the construction of the b half-line. Regardless how aware the Beowulf poet was of the similarities between these lines, such phrasing appears to be fundamental 113

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems to his conceptions, evidenced further by þær wæs hearpan sweg (89), also a b half-line, in which the presence of lyre song represents the success of Danish society. Robert Boenig believes the reference to the instrument at 89 to be ‘a material sign for Hrothgar’s agenda of political conquest and the transforming of chaos into order’.13 This is a stirring view; there is signification, and performance represents Hrothgar’s success, particularly if it is seen to be celebrating the building of Heorot, indicative of his superior power. Strictly speaking, however, the Beowulf poet does not focus on the instrument itself, but its music. Perhaps Boenig meant that the music was the ‘material sign’, but non-materiality is a feature of the phrasing at this point, as well as in the other half-lines listed above. Whereas in Maxims I (170) and The Seafarer (44) the lyre as object is stressed, the hearpe simplex often refers to non-physical elements in Beowulf: the sound and joy that result from playing the instrument. The Beowulf poet employs a string of referents in which role and ability enable the sound and the resultant joy, reflecting simultaneously the prosperity of Hrothgar’s hall society. Boenig elsewhere attempts to extract evidence from Old English poetry as part of an attempt to gather organological evidence concerning instruments in the early medieval period.14 In doing so, he acknowledges the limitations of such an attempt, and stresses the symbolic purpose that the instrument has, suggesting that ‘the Beowulf poet is more interested in metaphorical than literal harps’.15 In a later work he pursues this point: ‘for the Beowulf poet … the hyperreality of the instruments is … more important than their reality. Why else would Grendel attack immediately after the poet describes the scop’s performance?’16 Overall, Boenig’s focus is on cause and effect, the order of narrative events, and the meanings created by that order. While the symbolic associations that he hints at are present, the Beowulf poet is arguably not interested in representing lyres as musical instruments in that initial instance. If anything, he is instead interested in their sound, and more importantly what that sound serves to represent and instigate: the prosperous hall and the wrath of Grendel, respectively. We do get a sense of the lyre’s materiality when the Beowulf poet employs poetic compound terms. He twice uses gomenwudu, ‘joy-’ or ‘entertainment-wood’, a word unique to Beowulf, although other compounds associating the same concepts, such as gleobeam, are present else13


15 16

Robert Boenig, ‘Musical Instruments as Iconographical Artefacts’, in Curtis Perry (ed.), Material Culture and Cultural Materialisms (Turnhout, 2001), 1–15, at 15. Robert Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, Speculum, 71:2 (1996), 290–320, at 290–1. Boenig, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Harp’, 295. Boenig, ‘Musical Instruments’, 15.


Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol where in the corpus as well as in Beowulf. For Peter Clemoes, rather than being instances of linguistic bifurcation and the embellishment of ordinary language, as the concept of the kenning can infer, compounds were vital, dynamic fusions of pre-existing cultural concepts.17 Examples of what Clemoes calls units of binary thinking and symbolic constructions, these compounds are expanded upon in the half-line to include reference to playing the instrument, and the long line indicates the product of performance: its mode: gomenwudu greted,  gid oft wrecen (1065) gome(n)wudu grette,  hwilum gyd awræc (2108)

The ‘a’ half-line thus forms a unit enabling a relationship between the instrument and the physical act of playing it, as similarly hearpan sweg and hearpan wynne link instrument and product or effect. Doubtless the requirements of alliteration inform the poet in both instances: both times the gomenwudu is greted ‘touched’ or ‘greeted’, and the ‘a’ half-lines are formulaic phrases that infer the successful playing of the instrument. Moreover, the product of this operation is a gied in both instances, though only if it is accepted that they refer to the same performances as the lyre playing. This is not necessarily the case, particularly at 2108 where gied is distinguished from the lyre playing by the hwilum conjunction. The content of the two half-lines is thus not necessarily connected; we can interpret each half-line as being either loosely associated with the other, or as entirely distinct, but in combination they form an overall image of instrumental and verbal performance practices. Formulaic phrasing combined with the use of the compound indicates that poetic style, technique, and referential effect is the poet’s concern, rather than the gomenwudu as instrument. Human agency (grette) is associated with a symbolic compound for an object that links materiality (wudu) with an emotion or activity for which the object has purpose or function (gomen). In Maxims I, the notion of touch or address is linked with the instrument, with the similar phrase hearpan gretan (170). Such halflines form a concise cluster of ideas concerning the relationship between musical instruments, human action, and society. As Clemoes puts it, ‘the function of human craftsmanship was to render a material’s innate potentials operational: wood of a certain sort became gomenwudu, “wood for mirth” … when, made into a lyre, it provided entertainment.’18 The components of such a compound suggest the relationship between the raw material from which the instrument was made, the human labour and 17


Peter Clemoes, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1995), 127–8; 128, n. 12. Clemoes, Interactions, 75.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems skill required to work the material into the desired shape, and the ability to provide entertainment with the resultant instrument. That the lyre is often described using a compound could reflect its symbolism and transcendence, particularly if these compounds are seen as kennings. However, while they may be figurative and active, they could also be seen as redundant metaphors that serve to meet alliteration requirements. This would undermine the argument that they are consciously applied symbols, and any symbolic meaning would be unintended; it is already applied in the language. For instance, the lyre reflects the pleasures of society in the poems, but then compounds commonly link the instrument with the concept of pleasure, regardless of their narrative context. Gomenwudu and gleobeam, for example, contain their symbolism inherently, within the compound’s construction. It seems that the signifier and some aspects of the signified are inseparable, which is possibly the consequence of cultural behaviours present in earlier Germanic societies. This would undermine the task of teasing out any intentions on the part of the poet, who inherited pre-existing linguistic symbolism from his forebears. However, these constructs should be seen as having vitality, particularly through selective, creative application. Moreover, even if such terms were redundant, the creative implementation of these linguistic tools enables their successful operation in the narrative. For example, although gomenwudu and gleobeam are in apposition with the simplex hearpe (2107–8 and 2262–3, respectively), the hearpe simplex alone appears elsewhere, when the loss of the instrument or its music is being lamented (2458, 3023), or during ominous circumstances (89). Poets may have drawn upon a stock of compounds, symbolic dualisms that were on hand ready to apply. Gleobeam appears in Christ and the Gifts of Men as well as in Beowulf. Yet a poet could have invented a compound for a particular poem. For instance, the Beowulf poet alone uses gomenwudu in the extant poetry, and they could have invented that compound to enable certain associations or a specific desired meaning. Whether or not there was a culture of inventing compounds among post-migration poets, certain associations pre-existed in the language. Meaning was also developed in the manipulation of poetic form and narrative. For example, adding the human gretan, ‘touch’ or ‘greet’, element to the unit creates a symbolic half-line with the potential for powerful referential associations in addition to any literal meaning. As Clemoes argues,19 the poet must apply the language effectively, and they are shown to do this in creative ways.


Clemoes, Interactions, 117.


Providence and Pleasure: Performance as Symbol

The Symbolic Harp in the Bible Harps appear regularly in the Bible, almost always among reference to other instruments and singing. The Old Testament contains intriguing analogues to the representation of the lyre as a symbol of loss in Old English poems. In Isaiah 24, for instance, the Vulgate has the following: Luxit, et defluxit terra, et infirmata est; defluxit orbis, infirmata est altitudo populi terrae. Et terra infecta est ab habitatoribus suis, quia transgressi sunt leges, mutaverunt jus, dissipaverunt foedus sempiternum. Propter hoc maledictio vorabit terram, et peccabunt habitatores ejus; ideoque insanient cultores ejus, et relinquentur homines pauci. Luxit vindemia, infirmata est vitis, ingemuerunt omnes qui laetabantur corde; cessavit gaudium tympanorum, quievit sonitus laetantium, conticuit dulcedo citharae. Cum cantico non bibent vinum; amara erit potio bibentibus illam. Attrita est civitas vanitatis, clausa est omnis domus, nullo introeunte. Clamor erit super vino in plateis, deserta est omnia laetitia, translatum est gaudium terrae. Relicta est in urbe solitudo, et calamitas opprimet portas. The earth mourned, and faded away, and is weakened: the world faded away, the height of the people of the earth is weakened. And the earth is infected by the inhabitants thereof: because they have transgressed the laws, they have changed the ordinance, they have broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore shall a curse devour the earth, and the inhabitants thereof shall sin: and therefore they that dwell therein shall be mad, and few men shall be left. The vintage hath mourned, the vine hath languished away, all the merryhearted have sighed. The mirth of timbrels hath ceased, the noise of them that rejoice is ended, the melody of the harp is silent. They shall not drink wine with a song: the drink shall be bitter to them that drink it. The city of vanity is broken down, every house is shut up, no man cometh in. There shall be a crying for wine in the streets: all mirth is forsaken: the joy of the earth is gone away. Desolation is left in the city, and calamity shall oppress the gates.20

In this passage the loss of symbols of performance results from the curse placed on transgressors, and additional instruments are mentioned, but it bears a striking resemblance to passages in Beowulf, as well as to instances in elegiac lyric poems such as The Seafarer and The Wanderer. Moreover, 20

Isaiah 24. 4–12. Douay-Rheims version, dating from the early 1600s: The DouayRheims Bible, online at . Concerning this translation as being most appropriate for understanding early medieval biblical interpretation, see Richard Marsden, ‘Wrestling with the Bible’, in Paul Cavill (ed.), The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England: Approaches to Current Scholarship and Teaching (Cambridge, 2004), 69–90, at 83–4.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems there is an association, reflective of the ‘joy in the hall’ theme, between song and drinking. If this verse was any direct influence on Old English poetry, and no direct influence is assured, then loss imagery in the prophecy of the wrathful destruction of Judah in the Vulgate was transmuted into the imagery of loss of society through war in heroic contexts in Old English poetry. A similar though more concise reference to the loss of performance features in 1 Maccabees 3:45, which contains the following lament in the style of classical Hebrew poetry:21 Et Jerusalem non habitabatur, sed erat sicut desertum: non erat qui ingrederetur et egrederetur de natis ejus. Et sanctum conculcabatur: et filii alienigenarum erant in arce; ibi erat habitatio gentium: et ablata est voluptas a Jacob, et defecit ibi tibia et cithara. Now Jerusalem was not inhabited, but was like a desert: there was none of her children that went in or out: and the sanctuary was trodden down: and the children of strangers were in the castle, there was the habitation of the Gentiles: and joy was taken away from Jacob, and the pipe and harp ceased there.

The mention of a pipe is not characteristic of Old English poetry, though it is a feature of references to performance in later English literature. The function of musical instruments as tools for Christian praise is regularly, overtly stated in biblical material, particularly in the Psalms. However, as in Old English poems, the instrument’s performer is seldom mentioned. If Christian doctrine figured prominently in the early medieval English poetic imagination, possibly a similar manner of representation is seen in Beowulf because of some influence, whether conscious or unconscious: a Christian concept applied to pagan circumstances. This chapter has considered the symbolic nature of performance in Old English poems. Though they offer insight into the culture within which those symbols operated, relevant symbolic references are overwhelmingly brief and largely isolated. The structural significance of these fleeting, associative allusions to the culture of performance, including musical activity and the performance of song and poetry, is overshadowed by the architectonic and milieu-shaping effect of the principal mode of performance in Beowulf and other Old English poems: storytelling.


The observation concerning the poetic nature of this verse is noted in several Bible commentaries, but see John R. Bartlett, The First and Second Books of the Maccabees (Cambridge, 1973), 45.


Chapter 4 Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas


oseph Harris and Karl Reichl maintain that ‘all successful communications in Beowulf are oral, and the many formal speeches, boasts, flytings, and so on might, in real life, have been “performances” by modern standards.’1 Taking this view, then among such communications the principal mode of performance in Beowulf is storytelling. It is the kind of performance represented most comprehensively in the poem, and the only one indisputably performed by named, principal characters. Whereas other performance acts represented in Beowulf may not have taken the form of poetry in the Germanic alliterative long line, one aspect of storytelling’s mode is clear: because it occurs within speeches, it is thus demonstrably, if fictively, executed in that poetic form. Storytelling’s primacy results partly from the fact that it is suited to Beowulf’s psychological focus. Michael Lapidge argues that ‘Beowulf is very much taken up with reflection – on human activity and conduct, on the transience of human life’, and that ‘a central concern of the Beowulf poet … is with human perception of the external world and with the workings of the human mind’.2 In Beowulf, storytelling is the most prevalent and detailed method of expressing this reflection and perception. This chapter explores the representation of storytelling in the poem, arguing that speech acts by certain characters – often but not always named protagonists – regularly perform a function like that of the unnamed, generic artistic figures discussed in Chapter 2. That is, they are tools enabling the poet to weave digressive historical or legendary material, as well as matter related to the poem’s events, into the narrative, and they also serve to comment on cultural matters. Storytellers do this in a much more detailed way than the generic figures, however, and can usefully be seen as exemplars of the poet’s rhetorical dexterity. The latter part of the chapter considers storytelling in Andreas, a narrative poem containing intriguing parallels with Beowulf, and possibly influenced by that poem. The Andreas poet, using more overtly literate sources, shifts the function of storytelling within a more overtly Christian context, creating a work 1


Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl, ‘Performance and Performers’, in Karl Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature (Berlin, 2012), 158. Michael Lapidge, ‘Beowulf and the Psychology of Terror’, in Helen Damico and John Leyerle (eds), Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period (Kalamazoo, MI, 1993), 373–402, at 374.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems in which storytelling is conceived of as a vital element of Christian faith, transmission, and communication. The distinction between storytelling and other kinds of speech act is not always clear in Beowulf: many speeches briefly recall events, among other concerns. However, of the thirty-nine speeches in Beowulf identified by Robert E. Bjork,3 all or part of eleven of them have enough pertinent content to be defined as storytelling performances. That is, a character speaks of recent, historical, legendary, or future events, which could be recollections, predictions or imaginings, in the course of a relatively extended speech act, and the poet appears to have intentionally given the character a storytelling function. Table 3: Storytelling speech acts in Beowulf. Lines



Length (lines)























Beowulf plus a general sense








Beowulf after a general introduction








His retainers



Geatish messenger



Source: Adapted from Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 1017–18.

As might be expected, storytelling is typically a feature of the poem’s longer speeches, although it is present in three that are twenty-five lines or fewer. The length of the storytelling element in each speech is not always discernible because of the poem’s style: where storytelling begins and ends is at times open to interpretation. Also symptomatic of the poem’s allusive style, the speech act of a character and the narrator’s voice is often 3

Robert E. Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift in Beowulf’, Speculum, 69:4 (1994), 993–1022, at 1017–18.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas not clearly distinguished. Bjork argues that speeches become increasingly indiscernible from the narrator’s voice as the poem progresses.4 While this could be seen as a weakness in the poet’s character-voicing skills, it is beneficial to assume that the characterisation in each speech is intentional, and that each passage should be considered on its own terms as a discrete performance act.

Beowulf Introduces Himself to Hrothgar (407–55) As they journey to Heorot, the communications between Beowulf and his band of Geats and interrogatory Danish figures such as the sentinel and Wulfgar contain glimpses of storytelling ability. But fittingly, the earliest clear storytelling performance in the poem is Beowulf’s address to Hrothgar when the Geatish troop arrive at Heorot (407–55). From this point, the prominence of storytelling in Beowulf is established. The speech chiefly concerns Beowulf himself, and acts as a formal introduction of the poem’s hero to the Danish king and his people. Before the speech, the Beowulf poet anticipates its formality with two images of ceremony: he initially alludes to Beowulf’s physical location: he on heorðe gestod, ‘he stood on the hearth’ (404), and then describes his skilfully wrought, shining battle dress (405b–6). Line 404 is one of only three references to a performer’s location within the site of performance in Old English poetry, the others being the þegn on horseback and the generic lyrist sitting at the feet of a lord in The Fortunes of Men. The specific location of the heorð within Heorot is not revealed, though it is understood to have occupied a central position in larger halls.5 As Beowulf would not have stood in the hearth, the poet presumably envisioned him to have been close to it, likely at a central or prominent location in the room. Terms such as heorðgeneatas, ‘hearth companions’, used five times in Beowulf (261, 1580, 2180, 2418, 3179) and in The Battle of Maldon (204), which also features the synonymous heorðwerod (24), suggest that the hearth represented an important symbolic social space, possibly throughout the early medieval period. The effect is thus to demonstrate the significance of Beowulf’s position upon delivery of his speech, close to what is a symbolic feature 4 5

Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 999; 1008–9. See, for example, the reconstruction of the excavated ninth- to tenth-century hall at Cheddar in Somerset: Eric Fernie, The Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons (London, 1983), 20. Although hearths in other halls appear to occupy the same central position – at Yeavering and in three out of four buildings at West Stow for example – one hall at Goltho in Lincolnshire had a hearth at one end; see H. Hamerow, ‘Timber Buildings and their Social Context’, in Helena Hamerow, David A. Hinton, and Sally Crawford (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Oxford, 2011), 128–55, at 138–43.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems of the hall space, and thus the importance of his impending address. In mentioning Beowulf’s battle dress at lines 405b–6, the poet disrupts the usual introductory formula, Beowulf maþelode bearn Ecgþeowes, ‘Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow’, which appears seven times in the poem, instead using Beowulf maþelode on him byrne scan | searonet seowed smiþes orþancum, ‘Beowulf spoke; on him the byrnie shone, a net of armour sewn by smith’s skill’. No other speech in Beowulf is prefaced with such descriptive detail. Niles believes that the byrnie is ‘deictic’, in the sense that reference to it forms ‘an exclamation point signifying the importance of what is about to be said’; it is ‘iconic’, serving ‘as an index of certain abstract qualities, as an emblem of worth in particular’; it has ‘metaphoric significance’; and has ‘symbolic significance, in that it shines.’6 Niles states in summary that the hero’s shining byrnie … is one of a number of indices that mark him out as a culture hero in a context wherein ‘culture’ is literally radiant and above all denotes great buildings, the precious objects that circulate there, and the ceremonious speeches and songs that are the chief forms of interaction of a warrior class.7

Significant aspects of heroic Germanic culture coalesce at this point: the hall space and its key elements such as hearth and king, noteworthy armour, and creative verbal ability. The stylistic formality continues into the ceremonious first half-line of the speech, 407a: wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal!, ‘hail to you, Hrothgar!’, is ‘a common Germanic form of salutation’.8 It is also used in Andreas at 914: wæs ðu, Andreas, hal, and as a ritual address in Metrical Charms 1 (69) and 4 (28). It is also echoed in Laȝamon’s Brut: Lauerd king wæs hæil (7141).9 Following a boast about his strength, and his renown for that strength among his people, the storytelling element of Beowulf’s speech begins at 419. From then until 424a he tells of previous heroic endeavours battling monsters and sea creatures, in a concise yet boastful manner. Then, having provided evidence of his credentials through storytelling, he turns to his awareness of the situation concerning Grendel and his intention to resolve the trouble (424b–51). This section includes a good deal of speculation, and he deliberates on his own fate and that of his troop. In the speech’s 6

7 8


John D. Niles, ‘Sign and Psyche in Old English Poetry’, American Journal of Semiotics, 9:4 (1992), 11–25, at 13–15. Niles, ‘Sign and Psyche’, 15–16. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (eds), Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Toronto, 2008), 141. Laȝamon takes this address by Rouwenne from Wace’s Roman De Brut. The phrase is not understood by the British King, Vortigern, and must be explained by the wise man Keredic, who describes it as a customary Saxony greeting involving drink along with formal words.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas final line, 455, Beowulf demonstrates his familiarity with relevant myth, describing his byrnie as Welandes geweorc, ‘Wayland’s work’, thereby expressing awareness of his armour’s quality and cultural significance. References to the byrnie, by narrator and then hero, thus frame his speech act, which ends with a gnomic statement: gaeð a wyrd swa hio scel, ‘fate goes ever as it must’. The line reveals his attitude to the forthcoming possibilities following his decision to battle Grendel, and simultaneously demonstrates his understanding and acceptance of the workings of fate more generally. Beowulf’s speech thus shows recognition of his own abilities and desire to speculate, and at the same time is focused on wisdom and judgement. He understands the practicalities of the situation, and accepts the inevitabilities, that what is to be will be.

Hrothgar’s Reply (457–90) Appropriately, Hrothgar replies with a storytelling performance speech of his own (457–90), demonstrating his own awareness of cultural history and his importance as a key protagonist within it. He initially describes his previous relationship with Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, and recounts a feud started by Ecgtheow involving the Wylfing people and Hrothgar’s own Danes. Then he too turns to focus on the present tribulations concerning Grendel (473–88). The speech concludes with a formal invitation for Beowulf to settle down in the court and hear, or tell, of heroic deeds (489–90). As in Beowulf’s opening speech, Hrothgar’s reply expresses self-consciousness; he recollects his own experiences and circumstances, and he too demonstrates his awareness of the power of fate, admitting that wyrd is influencing his rule: is min fletwerod, wígheap gewanod;  hie wyrd forsweop on Grendles gryre.  God eaþe mæg þone dolscaðan  dæda getwæfan!


My hall-troop, my band of warriors, is lessened. Fate has swept them away into Grendel’s terror. God can easily put an end to the wicked ravager’s deeds!

Indirectly, Hrothgar reveals his awareness that God can give Beowulf the victory if he so chooses. This balanced interchange between Beowulf and Hrothgar formally introduces to each other the two principal human characters of the first phase of the poem. It reveals their awareness of the conventions expected of them as heroic troop leader and king respectively, facilitates 123

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems the welcome of the Geatish band, and endorses the social bond between the two peoples who will be present during Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel, even if Beowulf’s determination to contest without weapons (433–40) also shows he is keen to fight without their support. The significance of storytelling is further embedded into Beowulf’s narrative just after this storytelling exchange. At lines 489–90, when Hrothgar ends his reply, he encourages Beowulf: site nu to symle ond onsæl meoto, | sigehreð secgum, swa þin sefa hwette, ‘sit now at the banquet and disclose your thoughts to men, glory of victory, as your mind encourages you’. A conclusive reading of these lines has not been agreed upon,10 as evinced by the various attempts at translating them. Clark-Hall has specified that Beowulf is being asked to listen to Danish storytellers.11 The lines have also been translated as an instruction for either the Geats, or Beowulf in particular, to tell of their own deeds, either impending or from their past.12 Some translators commit themselves to stressing that Hrothgar is asking Beowulf to tell specifically of how he intends to rid Heorot of its invader,13 though others are less explicit.14 The poem’s referential, interperformative character might have indicated to a contemporary audience the type of stories being proposed by Hrothgar at this point. The tale of the Frisian slaughter and the deeds of Sigemund can be seen as examples of the typical subject matter of such performances, the type of stories – historical or legendary, heroic, and relevant to collective cultural memory – that Hrothgar might wish the visiting Geats to deliver or to experience. Although heroic deeds are clearly the material of choice for Hrothgar, lines 489–90 are otherwise ambiguous. However they are translated, they provide an impression of a culture of storytelling, shown either to be a part of hall life or expected of guests. Moreover, because a scop is introduced shortly afterwards, at 496, it could be inferred that Hrothgar 10 11




See Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 147. ‘Sit now at the banquet and in due season listen to the victorious deeds of heroes, as inclination moves thee’: J. R. Clark-Hall, ‘Beowulf’ and the Finnesburg Fragment (London, 1950), 45. For example, Fulk et al. translate 489b–90a as ‘disclose your thoughts, glory of victory, to these men’: Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 147. For example: ‘Now, sit down to the feast and unfold to the men what you are deliberating, a glorious victory, as your spirit prompts you’ S. A. J. Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London, 1996), 424; ‘Now sit at the banquet | and say what you think | tell us how you hope | to triumph over Grendel’: Dick Ringler, Beowulf: A New Translation (Indianapolis, IN, 2007), 28. For example, ‘Now take your place at the table, relish | the triumph of heroes to your hearts content’: Seamus Heaney, ‘Beowulf’ : A Verse Translation (London, 2002), 17; ‘But first, sit down at our feast, and in due course, | as your inclination takes you, tell how warriors | have achieved greatness’: Kevin CrossleyHolland, Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Oxford, 1999), 17.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas is inviting Beowulf and his band of Geats to hear a performer. From this initial welcoming exchange onwards, storytelling is fundamental to the social world created in Beowulf, particularly concerning the relationships that figure in the society of Hrothgar’s hall, and the need for expression concerning the Geats’ fate later in the poem.

Beowulf’s Long Speech (2000–151, 2155–62) At 2000–151, upon his return home to Geatland, Beowulf delivers Beowulf’s most significant, dynamic, and rhetorically gymnastic speech act. At 152 lines of unbroken speech it is also the poem’s longest, extending to 160 lines (2000–162) broken only by the narrator’s interjection at lines 2152–4. The speech is positioned at the heart of the poem’s bipartite temporal structure, following the events in Denmark and before the fifty-year jump to the latter phase during which time Beowulf is king of the Geats. As Bjork notes, it occurs ‘on the threshold between his victories over Grendel and Grendel’s mother and his own kingship’.15 The principal mode of this key speech is storytelling, and upon its close the narrator refers to it as a gied (2154), associating it with other creative performances in the poem. Indeed, comparisons have been made between the speech, particularly the Heothobard episode at lines 2024b–69a, and the tale of the Frisian slaughter.16 The speech is well regarded among critics, and its rhetorical and stylistic elements have been discussed extensively. Lerer describes it as ‘a social performance full of pun and wordplay’17 and asserts that ‘Beowulf becomes an entertainer here’.18 He notes elsewhere that the ‘pace, allusiveness, and verbal play’ of the speech form is ‘a characteristically Scandinavian verbal act’19 with Eddic and skaldic features, showing ‘familiarity with Eddic tales of Thor and his escape from Skrymir’s glove’ and also ‘a certain courtly sensitivity to puns and wordplay and to the self-consciousness of poetic telling’.20 Scandinavian influence can be seen in the phrasing as well as the plot and style: Fulk et al. observe that the phrase uncer Grendles (2002) is ‘an instance of the archaic “elliptic dual” construction common in Old Icelandic’.21 Brodeur, meanwhile, 15 16

17 18 19 20 21

Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 1013. For example, Earl R. Anderson, ‘Formulaic Typescene Survival; Finn, Ingeld, and the Nibelungenleid’, English Studies, 61 (1980), 293–301. Anderson believes they are comparable type-scenes, examples of what he defines as ‘tragic court flyting’, at 293. Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln, NE, 1991), 27. Lerer, Literacy and Power, 27. Seth Lerer, ‘Grendel’s Glove’, ELH, 61:4 (1994), 721–51, at 736. Lerer, ‘Grendel’s Glove’, 737. Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 228


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems notes the personal, behavioural characteristics indicated by the speech and its context, stating that ‘in this whole scene the admirable qualities of Beowulf are directly and dramatically presented: first through his own words to Hygelac, and through his demonstration of his love and loyalty in his gift to Hygelac of the rewards received from Hrothgar.’22 Moreover, Alistair Campbell sees Virgil’s influence on this account, because of the infrequency of apologue in epic verse.23 Discussing Beowulf’s narratives about himself, Campbell observes that ‘the Beowulf poet stands practically alone in using the Homeric–Virgilian device of an inserted narrative in its original structural function’.24 The purpose of these inclusions, for Campbell, is not purely to introduce plot elements, but ‘to illuminate the character and background of their heroes’.25 Addressing his lord Hygelac, Beowulf initially summarises his victory over Grendel in Denmark over the first ten lines (2000–9a). He then provides a more detailed description of his arrival at Heorot with his band of Geats, and the formalities and merriment in the hall (2009b–24a), incorporating information not disclosed by the narrator earlier on in the poem. For example, he describes the distribution of a ritual cup by the king’s daughter Freawaru, who we now discover performed the task in addition to her mother Wealtheow. Having introduced Freawaru, he then digresses (2024b–69a) to consider the possible consequences of her betrothal to Ingeld, a marriage intended to be part of a peace accord between the Danes and the Heathobards.26 Although this can be understood as a prophecy, Brodeur argues that ‘Beowulf is not predicting, but merely expressing his opinion of the probable outcome.’27 Wisdom and understanding relating to the ties of marriage and troop loyalty are shown to be one of Beowulf’s diplomatic sensitivities at this point, as he focuses on these themes in the opening and closure of this section of his speech. Ruminating in increasingly specific detail concerning the doomed peace between the two tribes, Beowulf recounts the hypothetical speech performance (2047–56) of an eald æscwiga ‘old spear warrior’ (2042) who, while 22 23

24 25 26


Arthur Brodeur, The Art of ‘Beowulf’ (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1959), 180. Alistair Campbell, ‘The Use of Beowulf in Earlier Heroic Verse’, in Peter Clemoes and Kathleen Hughes (eds), England Before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources Presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge, 1971), 283–92. Campbell, ‘The Use of Beowulf’, 284. Campbell, ‘The Use of Beowulf’, 283. Fulk et al. refer to this part of the speech as ‘the Ingeld or Heaðobard Episode’ and, following Klaeber, note its similarity to the tale as told by Saxo Grammaticus. They also provide an overview of commentary on this section: Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 229–30. Brodeur, The Art of ‘Beowulf’, 178. Brodeur discusses the poet’s skill in constructing the Ingeld or Heathobard Episode, at 177–81. See also Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 229–30.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas drinking, incites a companion to re-establish the feud. Beowulf concludes the digression by describing more generally the ultimate collapse of both marriage and peace (2057–69a). In the subsequent phase of the speech, Beowulf returns to his own exploits with the Danes via a self-conscious link: ic sceal forð sprecan | gen ymbe Grendel, ‘I shall speak further, more about Grendel’ (2069b–70a). Turning to his account of the fight with the creature (2072b–100), he provides additional information to that provided earlier in the narrative. For example, Beowulf reveals that the warrior eaten by Grendel before the fight (initially referred to at lines 739–45a) is named Hondscio (2076). As Sisam suggests, this act of naming reflects the poet’s wish to emphasise that Beowulf is in the Geatish court at this point.28 Hondscio was a Geat, known to Hygelac, so for Beowulf to refer to him generically, as ‘a warrior’ or similar, would not have been sufficient. This is comparable to the representation of Æschere, Hrothgar’s retainer, who is unnamed in the initial description of his death at the hands of Grendel’s mother (1294–5) and later named by Hrothgar when he tells Beowulf what has happened (1322–4). Another new piece of information offered by Beowulf in his speech has less need for inclusion but functions to highlight Beowulf’s storytelling prowess. It concerns Grendel’s glof, ‘glove’, eall gegyrwed deofles cræftum ond dracan fellum, ‘all made of devil’s skill and dragon skin’ (2087b–88), a device into which Grendel would like to have placed some of his victims’ bodies. I agree with Fulk et al., who believe that this new information ‘evidences narrative embellishment rather than inconsistency’;29 the earlier omission of this information should not be seen as a flaw. Because the name Hondscio means ‘hand-shoe’, i.e. ‘glove’, there has been speculation that the poet intended some association between pouch and warrior, though other than the semantic connection it is unclear what that relationship is, as Hondscio is eaten rather than thrown into the pouch.30 Ultimately, Beowulf is developing the scene through his amplifying description at this point. This leads to the section which has been discussed in Chapter 3, describing the entertainment at court following the defeat of Grendel and the possible depiction of Hrothgar as artistic performer (2101–16). He depicts the conduct of a thriving group of men, comparable to the other impressions of Heorot earlier on in the poem. The hero of Beowulf, and its narrator, thus perform comparable functions as illustrative storytellers,

28 29 30

Kenneth Sisam, The Structure of ‘Beowulf’ (Oxford, 1965), 47. Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 233. A summary of criticism concerning Hondscio is offered in Fulk et al., Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’, 233.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems and a narrative ‘double scene’ is produced.31 The story then continues with Beowulf detailing Grendel’s mother’s revenge (2117–41), describing her abduction and murder of Æschere and his own success in battle with her. In doing so, Beowulf replicates the earlier narrative structure of the poem by recording chronologically the two monster battles, which sandwich the performance activity at court. He does not recount the battles as one experience; they are kept separate, in a linear, episodic narrative. The speech act ends with an account of the gifts given by Hrothgar, enabling a return to the narrative present in Hygelac’s hall, when Beowulf offers these gifts to his king. When the introductory and closing elements of Beowulf’s speech to Hygelac are disregarded, its storytelling element covers approximately 137 lines (2009b–147). These lines include a significant number of rhetorical and creative devices; for example: summary followed by extended detail on the same subject at a later point (2002–9a summarise 2071b–100); opining on that which he is narrating in order to place stress upon the significance of an incident (2014b–16a); gnomic statement (2029b–31); urging the audience to understanding (2032–4); employing speech within his speech, thereby effectively acting the part of the old spear warrior (2047–56); indicating a change of focus through a brief summary (2069b– 70a); symbolic language and kennings, for example heofones gim, ‘heaven’s gem’, ‘sun’ (2072); and self-conscious references to his own heroics and to the possibilities and limitations of his storytelling performance: to lang ys to reccenne hu i(c ð)am leodsceaðan yfla gehwylces ondlean forgeald, ‘it is too long to recount how I repaid the people’s enemy for each of his evils in retribution’ (2093–4).32 Stylistic complexity is accompanied by diverse functionality. The extravagant inclusion of this prolonged storytelling speech performance functions as an aide-memoire and as narrative embellishment for the audience. It also displays Beowulf’s wisdom, effectiveness as a warrior, sagacity, and foresight. Brodeur argues concerning 31


If Beowulf were performed in a royal hall, for example, then the narrative events set in a hall, including those of revelry and performance, would be ‘double scenes’ according to Lars Lönnroth’s conception: ‘something that occurs in the course of an oral performance whenever the narrative appears to be enacted by the performer or his audience on the very spot where the entertainment takes place’: Lars Lönnroth, ‘The Double Scene of Arrow-Odd’s Drinking Contest’, in Hans Bekker-Nielsen et al. (eds), Medieval Narrative: A Symposium (Odense, 1979), 94–119, at 95. It is perilous though to suggest categorically that the forms of performance displayed in Heorot were reflective of the performance of Beowulf, as Frank points out: Roberta Frank, ‘Germanic Legend in Old English Literature’, in Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2013), 82–100, 85. Bjork provides further discussion concerning the rhetorical style of this speech, focusing on its grammatical features: Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 1012–13.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas the Heothobard episode that ‘the poet was not concerned to tell the story of Ingeld as it was known already to his hearers; he wished to use it to illustrate Beowulf’s wisdom and political insight.’33 We can also evaluate his storytelling and judgement in relation to his own deeds. Tragically, he does not have such foresight when it comes to those deeds later in the poem: he overreaches in his fight with the dragon, arguably the consequence of a determination again to fight alone; the heroic urge is shown to stand outside everyday sensibilities. In this speech, though, Beowulf presents an autobiographical account detailing his successful deeds and incorporating an awareness of wider cultural matters, while simultaneously exhibiting his skill at wordplay. Beowulf becomes consummate performer at this point in the poem, and his performance is a standard to which the storytelling turns of other characters, for example that of the Geatish messenger, can be compared. Not content with demonstrating Beowulf’s wisdom, bravery, and verbal skill with words through the speech alone, the narrator follows the speech by articulating his own high opinion of the hero, revealing to his audience that Beowulf had formerly to disprove the low opinions of his fellow men: Swa b(eal)dode  bearn Ecgðeowes, guma guð(um) cuð,  godum dædum, dreah æfter dome;  nealles druncne slog heorðgeneatas;  næs him hreoh sefa, ac he mancynnes  mæste cræfte ginfæstan gife  þe him God sealde heold hildedeor.  Hean wæs lange, swa hyne Geata bearn  godne ne tealdon, ne hyne on medobence  micles wyrðne (dry)hten Wedera  gedon wolde; swyðe (wen)don  þæt he sleac wære, æðeling unfrom.  Edwenden cwom tireadigum menn  torna gehwylces. (2177–89) Thus he showed his bravery, the son of Ecgtheow, man noted in war for good deeds, he led his life for glory; never, having drunk, slew his hearth-companions; a tempestuous heart was not in him, but he possessed mankind’s greatest might, an ample gift, which God gave to him, battle-brave. Long had he been wretched so the sons of the Geats did not consider him good, nor to him on the mead-bench would the lord of the Weders grant much honour; they especially said that he was lazy, no bold prince; a turnaround came to the glorious man for each of these miseries. 33

Brodeur, The Art of ‘Beowulf’, 178.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems This panegyric, situated between accounts of Beowulf’s gift-giving, represents the narrator’s highest praise for his hero. It displays Beowulf’s generosity and his social capabilities, immediately before Hygelac presents him with land and a prestigious sword, leading to the close of the poem’s earlier temporal phase. Beowulf’s long speech has been positively received; the Beowulf poet has largely been given the benefit of the doubt, his creative choices defended and rationalised. Deviations and additions in Beowulf’s account from the earlier narrative at the Danish court are seen as conscious and effective poetic decisions. If such commendation is accepted, all of this implies a work carefully constructed by its poet, who had an awareness of the knowledge required, both by Beowulf’s audience of Geats and Danes within the poem, and by Beowulf’s early audience. Additionally, it suggests a deliberate desire to demonstrate thoroughly Beowulf’s creative skills as storyteller, a vital part of his overall prowess as leader and warrior.

Beowulf’s Speech to his Retainers (2426–509) Beowulf delivers another significant storytelling speech just before he proceeds to fight the dragon (2426–509). It begins with reminiscences of his own early life, when King Hrethel adopted him (2426–34). These memories lead him to digress (2435–71), recollecting the accidental killing of one of Hrethel’s sons, Herebeald, by his brother Hæthcyn, and the mourning of their father, quoted and discussed in Chapter 3 because of its reference to the lyre. Woven into this reflection on Hrethel’s mourning is a general contemplation on the sorrows of losing a child and the requirement to avenge a brother-killing according to society’s laws. In doing so, Beowulf conjures images of a civilisation that has died following the loss of Herebeald. This is creatively produced storytelling by an apparently fictional character, but it has not prevented Joseph Harris from speculating about this part of the speech performance, suggesting that these images are a vision experienced by Hrethel as he visits his son’s room.34 Like Wiglaf and the messenger whose foreboding speeches will be considered below, Beowulf goes on to allude to battles between the Swedes and the Geats (2472–89), albeit about historical encounters rather than impending ones in this instance. Unlike Wiglaf and the messenger, Beowulf remains silent concerning the fate of Geatish society after his death. In keeping with Beowulf’s present circumstances and his preoccupations as his fight with the dragon looms, boasting is also a feature 34

Joseph Harris, ‘A Nativist Approach to Beowulf: The Case of Germanic Elegy’, in H. Aertsen and R. Bremmer (eds), Companion to Old English Poetry (Amsterdam, 1994), 45–62, at 50.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas of this performance, particularly when he recollects killing Dæghrefn the Frank without the need for a weapon (2501–2). The whole speech opens with confident reflection, too: Fela ic on giogoðe guðræsa genæs, | orleghwila; ic þæt eall gemon, ‘Many rushes of battle I survived in youth, times of war; I remember all that’ (2426–7). Here, the hero recollects as well as mentally prepares; his performance is an interaction between the tribulations and successes of the past, and the awareness of impending trial. Bjork observes that a forty-five-line section of this speech (2434–78) contains no personal pronouns, supporting his view that the speakers become indistinguishable from the narrator,35 but this is being selective with the evidence, as there is considerable self-reference in those opening lines and then during the rest of the speech; ic appears at 2426, 2427, 2432, 2484, 2497, and 2501. Indeed, the narrator only interrupts the speech at 2510–11a and 2516–18a to stress that these are Beowulf’s final words and to note that Beowulf bids farewell to his troop. Otherwise, the entire speech spans lines 2426–537, and lines 2518b–37 contain nine instances of ic, eight of them in its first eleven lines. Clusters of self-reference thus frame the storytelling elements of the speech, which itself features little self-reference as Beowulf is focusing on wider matters.

Wiglaf and the Messenger (2864–91, 2900–3027) During Beowulf’s later stages, portentous communication in a similar vein to the technique employed by Beowulf when describing the Heothobard episode becomes the principal material contained within storytelling performances. For example, Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf’s admonition of his companions after Beowulf’s death (2864–91) begins with a plea for the warriors who had fled their lord’s side to recall how Beowulf generously obeyed the code of kingship, before turning into a prophetic warning reminiscent of the woman’s lament at Beowulf’s funeral. Specifically, Wiglaf signals that their land will be lost to invaders (2885–8). That speech contains storytelling elements, when he alludes to the circumstances during the battle Beowulf has undertaken with the dragon, and the actions of Wiglaf and his companions, in its middle section. The content and tone of Wiglaf’s speech are developed in the subsequent speech, by the Geatish messenger, into a lengthy storytelling performance comprising 128 lines, predicting the fate of the Geats (2900–3027), including references to the lyre and depiction of the ‘beasts of battle’. Addressed to Geatish companions who have fled from the fight with the dragon, its opening section (2900–10a) is, at ten and a half lines, similar in length to the introductory summary of Beowulf’s long speech at lines 2000–9a, with a similar 35

Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 1008.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems focus: the messenger reports the current situation to his fellow warriors. He relates the outcome of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon and Wiglaf’s observance over his lord. Much of the rest of the speech is otherwise made up of rather critical accounts of Geatish military exploits. From 2910b, the messenger speculates concerning the fate of his people, predicting that the Franks, the Frisians, and the Swedes will not hesitate to attack the Geats. He also tells of previous battles featuring these neighbouring peoples. This forms the main storytelling element of the speech (2910b– 98), and it features intricate cultural references and a significant amount of descriptive detail. From 2910b–21, the messenger reminds his audience of the events surrounding Hygelac’s raid on Friesland and his subsequent defeat, expanding on the brief allusion to Hygelac’s fate earlier on by the narrator (2200–1). The messenger then turns his attention to the Swedes (2922–98). He tells of Ongentheow’s killing of Hæthcyn, paying considerable attention to the military manoeuvres during the battle at Ravenswood at which the killing took place. Then from 3001–7a he predicts that the Geats will lose their homeland, echoing Wiglaf’s prophecy (2884–90a). The speech ends with a lament for the loss of society that will result from his predictions, including the references to the lyre, hall joy, and the beasts of battle. In comparison with Beowulf’s speech to Hygelac, the messenger’s speech is less self-conscious. This is appropriate given that the person delivering the speech is not as significant. Bjork claims that there are no first-person pronouns used between 2922a–3000b, his voice ‘indistinguishable from the bard’s’.36 However, this is again rather disingenuous, as the messenger employs such a pronoun pointedly at 2922a: ne ic te Sweoðeode sibbe oððe treowe | wihte ne wéne, ‘nor do I expect peace or truce from the Swedes at all’, though this remains the sole instance of self-referentiality in the speech. A multifaceted style is otherwise evident here, though, and it contains rhetorical techniques similar to that in Beowulf’s long speech. As well as a rhetoric of expectation for Geatish society, there is figurative language, such as folces hyrde, ‘guardian of the people’ (2981a), used to describe Eofor, and extensive use of imagery when describing military action. The depiction of the violent struggle between the brothers Eofor and Wulf and Ongentheow (2961–81) contains a particularly detailed and graphic reference to a bloody swordfight. As with Beowulf’s long speech to Hygelac, the messenger’s speech exemplifies the significant role that storytelling plays in generating Beowulf’s structural complexity and cultural-imaginative interrelationships. It functions as a synthesis of historical or quasi-historical material –


Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 1008. Bjork notes that this impersonal aspect is a common feature in the later speeches in the poem.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas i.e. Hygelac’s raid on Friesland (2913b–21) and the Battle of Ravenswood (2922–98) – and speculative suggestion about the intentions of Franks and Frisians once news of Beowulf’s demise spreads (2910b–13a). The messenger embeds the political concerns of tribal Germanic Europe within the morality engendered by the figurative heroism of individuals in mythic combat, in this case Beowulf the battle leader and Wiglaf the resilient troop member.

Shorter Storytelling Speeches in ‘Beowulf’ Shorter speeches also contain storytelling. For instance, Wiglaf’s speech contains brief storytelling elements. Unferth’s challenge about Beowulf’s swimming contest with Breca (506–28), part of what is sometimes categorised as a flyting between Beowulf and Unferth, is another significant example.37 The storytelling component of Unferth’s speech (513–24) is an exercise in emotional, persuasive rhetoric, emphasising for example the general turbulence of the sea through dramatic imagery: weol | wintrys wylm, ‘welled, in winter’s swells’ (515b–16a). Beowulf’s response contains storytelling too; having been there, he is able to provide specific descriptive detail in his lengthier reply (530–606). This speech functions deftly as both a first-hand response to Unferth’s own recollection of events, and as a demonstration of Beowulf’s scene-setting ability. Beowulf claims to have been aided in the water by his armour, for example (550–53a), reinforcing the significance of the narrator’s reference to his armour made in the welcoming scene in Heorot, in the introduction to his first speech to Hrothgar. The difference in style between Beowulf’s speech and that of Unferth reflects and distinguishes the characters contesting the flyting. As Greenfield states, Beowulf’s performance is ‘for the most part measured and thoughtful’ in comparison with Unferth’s ‘direct, aggressive’ style.38 Greenfield points out that Unferth’s short clauses contrast with the more extensive þæt-clauses preferred by Beowulf. He concludes that ‘syntax may thus be taken as something of the measure of the man’.39 Such a style, along with greater detail in performance and rebukes in his speech concerning Unferth’s drinking and lack of heroism, appears to secure Beowulf victory in the flyting. Otherwise, the most significant shorter speeches containing storytelling are those given by Beowulf to Hrothgar. Beowulf’s address at lines




See Carol J. Clover, ‘The Germanic Context of the Unferð Episode’, Speculum, 55:3 (1980), 444–68. Stanley B. Greenfield, The Interpretation of Old English Poems (London, 1972), 130–1. Greenfield, Interpretation, 131.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems 1652–76 was quoted in the introduction to this book to exemplify the workings of performance within speeches. In that speech Beowulf recalls his fight with Grendel’s mother. Another speech, lines 958–79, informs Hrothgar about his fight with Grendel. These speeches demonstrate Beowulf’s descriptive capabilities, though they differ in tone. The speech at 958–79 is boastful, and references the creature’s power in particular, as well as the gruesome detail concerning the loss of Grendel’s arm and hand. The speech at 1652–76 is less emphatic: the tone of Beowulf’s language is more modest, as he acknowledges his fortune in finding the sword that can slay Grendel’s mother. Both speeches are however concerned with faith and fate, as Beowulf acknowledges the role of his god in enabling the victory in both battles (967, 1661). These shorter reflections on Beowulf’s endeavours, told in the hero’s own words, have multiple functions: they signal again the significance of those endeavours, foster the bond between Beowulf and Hrothgar, express the hero’s abilities as speechmaker and storyteller, and highlight his awareness of cultural concerns, particularly of the power of fate.

Storytelling in ‘Beowulf’: Conclusions Principal characters in Beowulf are imagined as expressive, skilful storytellers, and storytelling is a central component within the ceremonial style of the poem’s heroic speeches. This ‘heroic storytelling’ style consists of three elements. First, recollection or prefiguration of one’s own courageous deeds. For example, Beowulf’s boasts about his own strength, abilities, and endeavours. Second, the past and future military deeds of neighbouring societies: for example, Franks and Swedes, Geats and Danes. Third, events concerning mythical or legendary heroes. In doing so, storytelling reinforces the poem’s significant cultural referents and associations, and storytelling performers act as a conduit through which the wider context of the poem’s world is developed, particularly its partly-imagined cultural history, as do the anonymous þegn on horseback and Hrothgar’s scop of 1066, for example. Storytelling speeches also expose a tension between foresight and fate, allowing the audience to judge the characters and their actions. Beowulf, for instance, displays significant prescience at times, yet he also acknowledges the limits of human will in the face of fate’s controlling influence over thought and action. Moreover, the structure of the speeches often serves to construct relationships between the events described through storytelling, and present narrative circumstances. For example, speeches commonly begin by discussing the present or the recent past, digress into storytelling, and then return to the present. In Beowulf, storytelling is the principal mode


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas of reflection concerning the self, and cultural events both previous and impending. Moreover, the diverse rhetorical techniques in the speeches demonstrate and express the creativity, awareness, and skill of certain key protagonists.

Performance in ‘Beowulf’: Conclusions In Beowulf, performance is executed within society at times of celebration and other positive occasions, and lamented during reflections on loss or misfortune. It is also used to express mourning for that loss. The Beowulf poet might not have been an expert or historian of performance practices. Indeed, he appears not to have believed such detail to be important to recount. He instead repeatedly uses performers, performances, and instruments as symbolic literary tools associated with the revelry of success and the mourning of absence and loss, and frequently they aid or facilitate deliberation on the mechanisms of fate. While the poem stresses the knowledge held by certain performers through concise statement – for example, emphasising the distinctive knowledge of the þegn who delivers performances on horseback and of the King Hrothgar-warrior figure, through variation and appositive amplification – the knowledge held by others is demonstrated through extensive quotation of their storytelling speeches. The ability certain members of society possess as performers is also important. The poet also draws on characters referred to as scopas, in circumstances generally conforming to Opland’s definition of them: in the royal hall, at times where solidarity is needed – to defeat Grendel for instance – or to praise, for example by performing the tale concerning Finn and the Frisian slaughter following heroic success, i.e. Grendel’s defeat (496, 1066). Additionally, in his earliest appearance, a scop forms part of the joy experienced by the social group before Grendel’s attacks. Rather than explicitly being an oral poet, however, the scop is depicted, concisely, as predominantly a singer or storyteller. The appearance of performer characters and their performances forms part of a poetic representation of pleasure and belonging in society, also symbolised by lyre playing, speech performances, and non-artistic acts such as feasting and gift-giving. Along with ability and knowledge, the association between performance and the successful operation of society and alliances between peoples is another fundamental element in the understanding of performance expressed and presumably inherited by the Beowulf poet. Another purpose for the inclusion of performance is structural and narrative function. It enables the narrative to move from core events concerning Beowulf to culturally significant stories that deviate from the central plot. This enriches the world of the poem and enables signification through


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems the introduction of events and heroes from the legendary and historical past.40 Performance is related to these stories dynamically and can be seen as evidence of the poem’s oral origins, as the inclusion of performance as narrative component functions as a tool enabling a link between narrative present and cultural past for the oral storyteller. If Beowulf developed from content performed by oral poets, then the inclusion of instances of performance is particularly intriguing, as it introduces characters with a similar function to those early transmitters. Oral poets would have been imagining and performing the self, using self-­referentiality as poetic technique. This has been a compelling notion for critics, but it is only the case if the performance mode of performances alluded to is conceived of as being Germanic, alliterative poetry, which is by no means certain in any of the instances except the quoted speeches. Beowulf never divulges a physical description of briefly sketched figures such as the scop or the þegn on horseback, and they are not given direct speech, precluding an analysis of the verbal content of any performances. Through such concise representations, performance becomes part of a generic theme in Beowulf, like the ‘hero on the beach’ or ‘arming’ themes, in which an impression of society is created: at peace, in prosperity, feasting, and enjoying the wealth resulting from success in battle and the reign of a powerful lord. This style of representation has significant comparable precedents in Homeric poetry, and has analogues in later English poetry. Speeches, meanwhile, relate to events either in the main plot or from the wider cultural imagination, allowing the characters’ behaviour to be judged. However, performance is not always used to introduce culturally relevant stories. In the passage featuring the scop at 496, no specific tale is alluded to or embarked upon, and we remain in the hall to witness Unferth’s interjection. At this point in Beowulf there is no requirement for performance to function as a link between narrative present and cultural past. This exemplifies a break from the structural 40

The understanding that earlier critics saw material unrelated to Beowulf’s three fights as digressions has been overstated. Klaeber clearly saw it as contributing to the ‘lack of steady advance’: Frederick Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd edn (New York, NY, 1950), lvii–lviii. He contrasted the three fights with the ‘number of apparently historical elements which are introduced as a setting [to the three fights]… by way of more or less irrelevant digressions’, at xii–xiii. By 1950, however, Bonjour did not see all deviations from the principal plot events as such; he saw the tale of the Frisian slaughter as an ‘episode’, for example, as it is ‘a moment which forms a real whole and yet is merged in the main narrative’, whereas a digression for Bonjour is ‘more of an adjunction and generally entails a sudden break in the narrative’, such as the allusion to Offa; see Adrien Bonjour, The Digressions in ‘Beowulf’ (Oxford, 1950), xi.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas function effective in oral transmission – the use of performance as a concatenating device – and a shift towards the structurally isolated theme that is a feature of the early Middle English Brut. Illustrations of performance are skilfully incorporated into Beowulf’s narrative using diverse methods, with varying aims. The performance theme is thus not treated uniformly. This diversity can be seen to reflect the transitional nature of the poem. Creed accounts for the preservation of Beowulf by considering its creator to be an excellent poet, adaptive to changes in early medieval English culture: He is more than master. He is a virtuoso performer who might have had much to do with the fact that his performance has somehow survived … it was his remaking of the tale of the beneficent heathen god into the tale of the beneficent hero that attracted the attention of those who could command the resources of the scriptorium.41

Though the Beowulf poet is by no means necessarily an oral poet, his virtuosity is revealed not only in his mastery of poetic language and form, but also in the creative and diverse ways in which he introduces, associates, and implements his subject matter, including instances of performance. In doing so, Beowulf is shown to be a generous hero, as Creed suggests, who embodies the favourable art of performance and possesses knowledge, ability, effectiveness, and moral surety in the role of performer. It is in the manipulation of storytelling instances within speeches that the Beowulf poet displays his skills most thoroughly.

Storytelling in ‘Andreas’ What do speech performances tell us about attitudes to storytelling in the poetic imagination? And how might representations differ in poems having literary influence and literate authors? The rest of this chapter considers the treatment of storytelling performances in Andreas, the Old English poem that tells the story of St Andrew the apostle and his mission to rescue St Matthew from the cannibalistic inhabitants of Mermedonia. Andreas is the first poem in the Vercelli Book, which includes six poems on Christian themes. Its poet uses literary sources: the principal source is highly likely to be a Latin translation of a Greek story of Andrew.42 It has 41


Robert P. Creed, ‘The Remaking of Beowulf’, in John Miles Foley (ed.), Oral Tradition in Literature: Interpretation in Context (Columbia, MO, 1986), 136–46, at 146, Creed’s emphasis. Richard North and Michael D. J. Bintley (eds), ‘Andreas’: An Edition (Liverpool, 2016), 5.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems recently been suggested that the poem is a composite, with two authors, one of whom was possibly Cynewulf.43 The poem also draws on vernacular poetry, and the apparent influence of Beowulf has long been observed. North gives us a flavour of the relationship: ‘the poet of Andreas, recasting Mermedonia as the inverse of Heorot and Andrew as Beowulf’s ultimately stronger rival, subjects his [Mermedonian] pagans to a mock-epic ridicule, which his audience could not have enjoyed without knowing Beowulf.’44 North and Bintley detect in Andreas a humorous and subversive response to Beowulf.45 In particular, it features a playful treatment of Germanic heroism: we learn from the outset that the twelve apostles are possessed of martial prowess, given by God: No hira þrym alæg camprædenne  þonne cumbol hneotan, syððan hie gedældon,  swa him dryhten sylf, heofona heahcyning,  hlyt getæhte. (3b–6) Never did their power fail in combat engagement when standards clashed once [the apostles] had dispersed, as the Lord Himself, High-King of Heaven, showed them by lot.46

Like Beowulf, Andreas contains a significant amount of speech. Indeed, speech is more prevalent in Andreas: 912.5 of its 1722 lines are speech, or 53 per cent. This compares with 39 per cent in Beowulf. Bjork sees the high proportion of speech in Beowulf as resulting from the ‘gift-based nature’ of early medieval English society,47 but this does not explain the situation in Andreas. Rather, in both Beowulf and Andreas the high proportion of speech results from a desire to declare publicly what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Both poems are about spreading the word, the self-conscious awareness of the power of words, and the effects of words and story. Indeed, story structures Andreas even more dramatically than it does Beowulf.

43 44

45 46 47

David Maddock ‘The Composite Nature of Andreas’, Humanities 8:3 (2019), 130. Richard North, ‘Meet the Pagans: on the Misuse of Beowulf in Andreas’, in Marilina Cesario and Hugh Magennis (eds), Aspects of Knowledge: Preserving and Reinventing Traditions of Learning in the Middle Ages (Manchester, 2018), 185–209, at 185. North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 64. North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 118. Bjork, ‘Speech as Gift’, 995.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas

Andreas’s Long Speech (644–817) By far the longest storytelling episode in Andreas follows a tale of Jesus’s calming of the storm, told by Andrew to a sailing crew to reassure them as they journey across the sea. Andrew’s delivery lasts 174 lines, after which he falls asleep. This performance is even more self-conscious than Beowulf’s longest speech, particularly as he is being urged to tell stories of the deeds of Jesus by the skipper (God in disguise). At the start of the speech, before turning to the telling of such deeds, Andrew contemplates the power of words, of communications among men, relating the potential of his own speech performances to that of Jesus’s ability to inspire others: ‘Nu ic on þe sylfum  soð oncnawe, wisdomes gewit,  wundorcræfte sigesped geseald,  (snyttrum bloweð, beorhtre blisse,  breost innanweard), nu ic þe sylfum  secgan wille oor ond ende,  swa ic þæs æðelinges word ond wisdom  on wera gemote þurh his sylfes muð  symle gehyrde.’


‘Now that I recognise the truth you have in you [God], the wise understanding, the great triumph, given by wondrous power (with intelligence blooms the breast, with bright bliss within!), I am willing to tell you now in person beginning and end, just as I would always hear the Prince’s words and wisdom from His own mouth in meetings of men.’48

This focus on the power of words is characteristic of the ways in which storytelling in Andreas is shown to have agency. It also demonstrates how the characters in the poem routinely show awareness of the possibilities of storytelling. As a consequence of this, and because of the encouragement that leads to the need for the speech, Andrew employs a range of rhetorical devices. Possibly the most obvious device appears in the middle of the speech, where he delivers four examples of storytelling within a story (676–91, 717–26, 729–34, 744–60), one the words of an ealdorsacerd, ‘high priest’, and three the words of Jesus; Andrew, like Beowulf, adopts the role of another character, though Andrew plays more extensive parts. Following the speech, when God reveals himself to him, Andrew is ashamed that he did not realise he was in the presence of the Lord. His actions as storyteller are central to his embarrassment:


North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 152.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems ‘Hu geworhte ic þæt,  waldend fira, synnig wið seolfne,  sawla nergend, þæt ic þe swa godne  ongitan ne meahte on wægfære,  þær ic worda gespræc minra for meotude  ma þonne ic sceolde?’


‘How did I do this, Commander of Men, Saviour of Souls, so sin against Your Person that I could not perceive You, generous as You were on the sea-voyage, when I spoke more words before God the Measurer than I should have?’49

The extent of the storytelling is something that Andrew is ashamed of. However, this creates a tension, because elsewhere in Andreas, as in Beowulf, both the fame that results from such communication of praise, and also the telling of Jesus’s deeds in itself, are seen as an important aspect of ‘heroic’ culture: ‘Wes a domes georn; læt ðe on gemyndum  hu þæt manegum wearð fira gefrege  geond feala landa, þæt me bysmredon  bennum fæstne weras wansælige.  Wordum tyrgdon, slogon ond swungon,  synnige ne mihton þurh sarcwide  soð gecyðan. Þa ic mid Iudeum  gealgan þehte;…’ (959b–66) ‘Be always eager for renown, keep remembering how among many men the fame spread through a lot of countries how I was abused, made fast in bonds, by men ill-fortuned, who taunted Me with words, beat and flogged Me. The sinners could not prove any truth with their words of reproach, when among Jews I embraced the gallows…’50

At this point, God stresses the importance of the transmission of Jesus’s suffering, and indirectly contrasts His story with the lies of the synnige, ‘sinners’. Such focus on the Word, and associated communications, permeates the entire poem.

49 50

North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 167. North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 169.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas

Later Speeches in ‘Andreas’ In another passage further on in the narrative, following God’s healing of Andrew who has been flogged for the previous three days by the Mermedonians, the narrator makes a self-conscious address directly to the poem’s audience. Opening with the imperative hwæt, he refers to his poem as a leodgiddinga, with its purpose being to communicate Andrew’s achievements: Hwæt, ic hwile nu  haliges lare, leoðgiddinga,  lof þæs þe worhte, wordum wemde,  wyrd undyrne ofer min gemet.  Mycel is to secganne, langsum leornung,  þæt he in life adreag, eall æfter orde.  þæt scell æglæwra mann on moldan  þonne ic me tælige findan on ferðe,  þæt fram fruman cunne eall þa earfeðo  þe he mid elne adreah, grimra guða.  Hwæðre git sceolon lytlum sticcum  leoðworda dæl furður reccan. (1478–89a) Listen, for a while now I have been pleading words in verse ballad so as to teach what glories the saint performed: a history, when revealed, beyond my capacity. A big task it is, a work of timeconsuming study, to say all he suffered in life from the start. Wiser in the law than I is the earthly man, by my reckoning, who shall find in his spirit the means of knowing from the beginning all the hardships that he courageously suffered in that fierce fighting. And yet the narration of a few lyrics more in little snatches on this theme must still be made.51

When he returns to his narrative, the narrator refers to the story of Andrew’s torments as a fyrnsægen, ‘old saga’ or ‘old story’, exposing the nature of the tale as pre-existing material circulating in society, at least formerly: þæt is fyrnsægen, hu he weorna feala  wita geðolode, heardra hilda,  in þære hæðenan byrig.


North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 198.



Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems It is a saga of ancient times, how he endured a great number of torments, harsh assaults in that heathen town.52

The poet is conscious of the historic and epic nature of what he is describing, and he imbues this consciousness in his narrator. In his interpretation of his source material, the Andreas poet elsewhere inserts performance references reminiscent of those in other Old English narrative poetry. As noted by North and Bintley, at the point at which the Mermedonians’ city is about to be destroyed, the poet turns the wails of the Mermedonians from the Greek source ‘into a composition of songs’:53 Ðær wæs yðfynde  innan burgum geomorgidd wrecen.  Gehðo mændan forhtferð manig,  fusleoð golon. Egeslic æled  eagsyne wearð, heardlic hereteam,  hleoðor gryrelic.


Easy there was it to find inside the town a performance of the blues. Many fear-stricken men bewailed their grief, chanted eager litanies. Terrifying fire became clear to the eye, cruel devastation, voices raised in horror.54

The stylish translation by North and Bintley has an anachronistic effect, but the phrase geomorgidd wrecen, ‘uttered a sorrowful tale’, does stress the compositional nature and includes gidd and wrecen, those significant terms relating to powerful, emotional performance. In this passage, and in describing Andrew’s torments as fyrnsægen, such referential language by the Andreas poet reflects his strategy of ‘heroicising’ the story of Andrew, partly by utilising the conventional language of performance in Old English to describe non-performance matters, as in Beowulf’s ‘song’ of Grendel. Moreover, speeches in the poem often contain kennings and other techniques such as variation, in keeping with Old English poetic style. The following speech by Andrew exemplifies such creativity: Ðæt mæg engel þin  eað geferan, of heofenum  con him holma begang, sealte sæstreamas  ond swanrade, waroðfaruða gewinn  ond wæterbrogan, wegas ofer widland. (194–98a)

52 53 54

North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 198. North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 79. North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 201.


Storytelling in Beowulf and Meta-storytelling in Andreas Your angel can achieve that more easily from on high in heaven, he knows the ocean road, the salt sea-currents and the swans path, tumult of shore-tides and terror of the water, ways over open country.55

Overall, Andreas, a sermon on religious power, and particularly the power of faith, is dominated internally by contemplation on and communication about such matters, within the speech acts of the protagonists. It is a story about the power of Christian storytelling. Andrew’s long speech in particular expresses the comfort that can be disseminated through such activity. This power is something also exemplified, in a somewhat different manner, in the next chapter. While Old English narrative poems often demonstrate the effect of performative communication through the display of storytelling acts, in Old English wisdom poems the ability to conduct such communications is seen as a fundamental aspect of early medieval culture. Some in society have an ordained, inherent ability to function as wordsmiths, poets, and musicians. However, the response to this situation is markedly different outside of the poetry, where in written communications the power of performance to affect cultural conditions is shown to be a matter of concern for the Christian hierarchy.


North and Bintley, ‘Andreas’, 128.


Chapter 5 Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance


his chapter examines conflicting attitudes towards performance in the early medieval period. It demonstrates a contrast between the idealisation of performance activity that appears in Old English wisdom poetry and the condemnation of such activity expressed by the religious hierarchy, who nonetheless produced the manuscripts containing the bulk of the poetic corpus. Moreover, while wisdom poems are written from a Christian perspective, they are shown not to articulate contemporary Christian attitudes concerning performance. The tension between idealisation and admonition results from cultural developments in the process of conversion, particularly the assimilation of pre-Christian philosophies of both wisdom and performance into post-conversion culture. The ambivalence also results from the position and status of performers in early medieval English society: they are seemingly popular and important for some, but a problematic nuisance and a threat to social order for others. This attitude is common in many world cultures, in which poets and musicians occupy a marginalised position in relation to wider society or are ostracised by certain hegemonic groups. In the introduction to this book we saw exemplified in The Order of the World how the communication of wisdom is seen as a key function of performance in Old English poems. In another Exeter Book poem, Vainglory, which advocates the virtuous Christian path and cautions against and censures pride, the narrator claims to have had contact with a mysterious figure. He describes how that figure offered him valuable Christian knowledge: Hwæt, me frod wita  on fyrndagum sægde, snottor ar,  sundorwundra fela. Wordhord onwreah  witgan larum beorn boca gleaw,  bodan ærcwide, þæt ic soðlice  siþþan meahte ongitan bi þam gealdre  godes agen bearn,…


Listen! A learned man in former days, a wise messenger, informed me of many special wonders. A book-wise man revealed the wordhoard with wise lore to inform me with prophetic proclamations, so that thereafter I might be able to perceive truly through that invocation God’s own son…


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance The way this frod wita, ‘learned man’, and his store of Christian wisdom is introduced recalls the wis woðbora described in The Order of the World. The man, who converses with the narrator, possesses certain pertinent, enabling knowledge. While The Order of the World has its sample poem, in Vainglory the narrator quotes some verses apparently delivered by the mysterious figure; these verses are preceded by a statement (50b–51) referring to the performer’s skills and delivery: þæt se witga song, gearowyrdig guma,  ond þæt gyd awræc: ‘Se þe hine sylfne  in þa sliþnan tid þurh oferhygda  up ahlæneð, ahefeð heahmodne,  se sceal hean wesan æfter neosiþum  niþer gebiged, wunian witum fæst,  wyrmum beþrungen. þæt wæs geara iu  in godes rice þætte mid englum  oferhygd astag, widmære gewin.  Wroht ahofan, heardne heresiþ,  heofon widledan, forsawan hyra sellan,  þa hi to swice þohton ond þrymcyning  þeodenstoles ricne beryfan,  swa hit ryht ne wæs, ond þonne gesettan  on hyra sylfra dom wuldres wynlond.  þæt him wige forstod fæder frumsceafta;  wearð him seo feohte to grim. ðonne bið þam oþrum  ungelice se þe her on eorþan  eaðmod leofað, ond wiþ gesibbra gehwone  simle healdeð freode on folce  ond his feond lufað, þeah þe he him abylgnesse  oft gefremede willum in þisse worulde.  Se mot wuldres dream in haligra hyht  heonan astigan on engla eard.  Ne biþ þam oþrum swa, se þe on ofermedum  eargum dædum leofaþ in leahtrum,  ne beoð þa lean gelic mid wuldorcyning.’ (50b–77a) Of this the prophet sang, a man ready of speech, and uttered this verse: ‘He who in this troubled time soaks himself in prideful thoughts, exalts himself in arrogance, shall be disgraced, brought low after his journey to death, stay fettered in torments, afflicted by snakes. It was long ago in the kingdom of God that arrogance arose among the angels, a famous struggle; they instigated the quarrel, started a violent attack; they polluted Heaven and despised their superior, when they meant, as was not right, to


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems turn traitor and deprive the noble and mighty king of his lordly throne, and then live in the happy land of glory on their own terms. The father of creation denied them that by force: the fight turned out too fierce for them. Then he who will be unlike the others here on earth will dwell humbly, and with any of his brothers he always keeps concord among the people and loves his enemy, though he often made offense against him, with his desires in this world. He will be allowed to mount up from here the joys of glory into the hope of holiness in the yards of angels. Nor can it be for those others, him who live in laughter through wicked deeds in conceited pride, nor will their rewards be alike with the Glory-King.’

Because of the poem’s ambiguity, how far direct speech extends from the introductory statement into the subsequent lines is unclear. Huppé restricts the speech to lines 52–6, referring to it as ‘the description of the archetypical fall’.1 Shippey sees the speech as being lines 52–66.2 For Krapp and Dobbie, the speech extends to 77a, as quoted above.3 The poem focuses on the theme of the effects of fallen humanity from 57–77a, including a shift to storytelling from 57–66, before a return to the aphoristic style from 67–77a. The narrator then transitions to consider the knowledge of men again from 77b. A statement of Christian wisdom, effectively an extended aphorism, the speech does not appear to have a specific source, though it is patently influenced by biblical teachings.4 Like the wis woðbora in The Order of the World, the frod wita is able to effectively communicate the doctrine of the Church, the wisdom of God. His knowledge, and the ability to impart it, is his most significant attribute. Such figures are distinguished in the Old English poetic imagination. This distinction reflected the importance of the ability to perform and thereby transmit certain knowledge in early medieval English society, which led to the prevalence of what can retrospectively be seen as a genre of Old English poetry known variously as the wisdom, catalogue, gnomic or aphoristic poems.5 These poems contain analogous elements: cultural




4 5

Bernard Huppé, The Web of Words: Structural Analyses of the Old English Poems: ‘Vainglory’, the ‘Wonder of Creation’, the ‘Dream of the Rood’, and ‘Judith’ (Albany, NY, 1970), 19. T. A. Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge, 1976), 57. See also his note, at 129. G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie (eds), The Exeter Book, ASPR III (New York, 1936). See Huppé, Web of Words, 19–20. For a generic overview of wisdom poetry, see David Ashurst, ‘OE Wisdom Poetry’, in Corinne Saunders (ed.), A Companion to Medieval Poetry (Oxford, 2010), 125–40.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance memes that operated in the early medieval English imagination. The uniformity of catalogue gnomic reference to performance in such poems results from the crystallisation of routine conceptions and associations in the poetry. Paul Cavill offers a concise explanation of the functions performed by gnomes and maxims: they ‘are linguistic moulds into which observation, experience and thought can be poured in order to clarify, solidify and preserve them. Gnomes and maxims are structural forms of language which organise thought into conventional patterns.’6 As well as being linguistic constructs, maxims and gnomic phrases are a key psychological and cultural category. They are pre-theoretical statements that configure and express cultural belief. Cavill describes them as being ‘communal, conventional, experiential’.7 Many can facilitate the teaching of conventional wisdom, as they preserve everyday knowledge. They constitute an aspect of the conventionalisation of societal lore and – intrinsic to such convention – are a conceptualisation of contemporary and past culture. Moreover, when verbalised they can act as micro-performances of early medieval English cultural thought. Crucially, Cavill stresses that maxim poems ‘constitute a context for interpretation of Old English poetry’.8 We can usefully scrutinise creative responses to performance through the lens of the wisdom poems, and recognise the ways in which they represent the cultural understanding of the early medieval English imagination, or the poetic imagination at least. In addition to the lists of statements in catalogue poems, expression of wisdom often appears as isolated statements in narrative or lyric poems. Because of the prevalence of such wisdom writing, it may reasonably be inferred that such phrases, and the sentiments within them, figured prominently in everyday verbal communication. These statements of collective wisdom are more likely than those of the lyric or narrative type to have circulated orally as proverbial, pithy phrases among the general population. It is reasonable to propose that an individual poet collated such phrases in the process of creating each poem, as they appear in the Exeter Book, and an individual scribe wrote them down. However, they represent a general reflection of the poetic cultural imagination, and potentially that of wider society. Niles argues that ‘OE wisdom literature … reveals a longing for unequivocal wisdom’,9 and engagement with and communication of conventional wisdom was evidently important in early medieval England. The symbolic, learned figures referred to in The Order of the World and Vainglory reflect the 6 7 8 9

Paul Cavill, Maxims in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1999), 11. Cavill, Maxims, 8–9. Cavill, Maxims, 158, Cavill’s emphasis. John D. Niles, ‘The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet’, Western Folklore, 62 (2003), 7–61, at 39.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems consistent adoption and expression of this type of knowledge-ordering. However, the negative way some performance is conceived of in certain sections of early medieval English society problematises attempts to consider the wisdom poems as unambiguous and straightforward reflections of early medieval English belief generally. Cavill distinguishes between gnomes and maxims, describing a gnome as a ‘linking of a thing with a defining characteristic’ and a maxim as a ‘sententious generalisation’.10 This distinction is useful for understanding the principal kinds of statements listed in the wisdom poems, although a gnome can in practice be seen as all but analogous with a maxim at times, as Carolyne Larrington asserts.11 Classification can at times be obscured by our own conventions. For instance, the lists of distinct human attributes that feature in the Exeter Book poems commonly titled Maxims I and II contain many examples of what Cavill would define as a gnome. Because of such conventions, to avoid confusion I use the terms ‘maxim’, ‘gnome’, and ‘aphorism’ and their variants interchangeably in this book when referring to statements of conventional wisdom.

Generic Performers in Wisdom Poems Maxims I Performers in the catalogue wisdom poems are types rather than individuals, and their appearances are fleeting and sporadic. However, while prominent poems concerning performance such as Beowulf, Deor and Widsith depict Continental figures from an earlier period, in the wisdom poems we can perceive certain attitudes towards and conceptions concerning the early medieval English performer. As in Vainglory and The Order of the World, wisdom poems enable us to evaluate the performer figure. In Maxims I, for example, the social function of scopas is recognised in a section in which aphorisms on the themes of war and battle are apposed with those on society’s needs, pleasures, and luxuries: Muþa gehwylc mete þearf,  mæl sceolon tidum gongan. Gold geriseþ  on guman sweorde, sellic sigesceorp,  sinc on cwene, 10 11

Cavill, Maxims, 50. Carolyne Larrington, A Store of Common Sense: Gnomic Theme and Style in Old Icelandic and Old English Wisdom Poetry (Oxford, 1993), 5. Larrington discusses the various terms used to describe the statements that feature in the wisdom poems, such as ‘maxim’, ‘gnome’, and ‘precept’, 2–5. See also Shippey, Poems of Wisdom, 12.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance god scop gumum,  garniþ werum, wig towiþre  wicfreoþa healdan.


Every mouth needs food, meals must come at the proper time. Gold belongs on a man’s sword, fine ornament of victory, jewellery on a woman, a good poet to the people, spear-battle to men, to hold the dwellings protected against war.

The half-line god scop gumum, ‘a good poet to the people’, appears in a section associating certain objects or people with certain contexts: gold belongs on a sword or ornament (125), a shield with a soldier (129), books with a student (130). These contextualising statements are comparable to the gnomes, in Cavill’s understanding, that place creatures in certain natural habitats; for instance: wulf sceal on bearowe, earm anhaga,  eofor sceal on holte, toðmægenes trum (Maxims II, 18b–20a). The wolf must be in the wood, a miserable recluse; the boar must be in the forest, strong with the power of his tusks.

Aphoristic statement in Old English poems articulates both socio-cultural and natural norms. As a result, certain cultural circumstances are presented as natural or ideal, exemplifying Niles’s claim about the early medieval desire for ‘unequivocal wisdom’. The importance of the god scop gumum, ‘good poet to the people’, in the gnomic imagination is immediately evident. The phrase exemplifies an ideal conception of the performer’s vital role in society. This concise statement concerns belonging, and intimates that a scop must be with the people, and the people need a scop, for society to be in its ‘natural’ order. Like the wis woðbora in The Order of the World and the frod wita of Vainglory, the scop can be relied upon for his skills and knowledge. He should be welcomed because he possesses these attributes. Like other fundamentals, such as appropriate meal-­taking, a strong military defence, and skill in battle, he symbolises society’s success and is essential for its existence. He is a character central to human social group relations. Lines 124–8 of Maxims I demonstrate the way in which depictions of performance in narrative poems reflect early medieval English conventional wisdom, as narrative poems contain thematic passages in which a performer delights an audience at a social gathering. He is a required presence in the social spaces imagined by poets. God scop gumum encapsulates a circumstance evinced variously in narrative form, especially in Beowulf, in which performance is always public, communal, and of benefit to the social group. 149

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Shortly after the reference to the scop in Maxims I, the roles of other performers and social communicators are stated: Ræd sceal mon secgan,  rune writan, leoþ gesingan,  lofes gearnian, dom areccan,  dæges onettan.


A man should speak counsel, write runes/secrets, sing songs, earn repute, expound judgement, hasten each day.

This passage expresses the relationship between performance, wisdom, and judgement, and reiterates that certain roles are a routine social requirement. Depending how this passage is read, one man could be seen to undertake all of these. Or it may alternatively distinguish those who speak counsel from singers of songs or poems, though they are of course associated through proximity and possible variation. This distinction-­ proximity characteristic reappears later in the poem, when gleomen are also listed: Wæra gehwylcum wislicu  word gerisað, gleomen gied  ond guman snyttro. Swa monige beoþ men ofer eorþan,  swa beoþ modgeþoncas; ælc him hafað sundorsefan. (165–68a) Wise words are proper in everyone: a lyric to entertainers and wisdom to a man. As many as there are people across the earth so are there thoughts. Each of them has a different mind.

The gleomen and the guman are more clearly distinct figures at 166 than the figures at 138–40. However, despite the gleoman’s associations with scandal in glosses, he is linked through proximity with the guman snyttro and thus with the communication of wisdom. He can thus be aligned with the woðbora in The Order of the World and the frod wita in Vainglory. The successful performance of a gleoman is one of the distinct modgeþoncas, ‘conceptions of mind’ (167), which together constitute the diverse wisdom of men. The passage hints that wise words and entertainment can reconcile differences between people, enabling society to operate successfully. As noted in Chapter 1, gied, the term used to describe that which a gleoman performs, also refers to the performance associated with a gleoman in Beowulf, and to gleomen gumena, ‘people’s entertainers’, in Widsith (136). Such routine alliterative connections in the poetry create memetic assemblages of meaning, operating like formulas. Concise phrasing, which could have originated in stylistic impulse, together with linguistic and poetic convention and repetition, generates routine associations between 150

Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance concepts. Moreover, succinct gnomic statements appear consecutively in catalogue poems, classifying natural or cultural phenomena by defining attributes. This creates a tension; people are distinguished and categorised by ability and personal characteristics, yet proximity encourages us to associate them. One clear distinction in Maxims I is between scop and gleoman, who seem to have been distinct figures for the poet; they appear separated by forty lines and seemingly represent distinct kinds of performer. The poet apparently did not intend for their reader or listener to contrast or compare their attributes.

‘The Gifts of Men’ Little further reference is made to generic performers in the extant wisdom poems. A figure associated with the performance of gied, ‘songs’ or ‘tales’, is listed in The Gifts of Men: sum biþ woðbora | giedda giffæst, ‘someone is a bearer of eloquence, gifted with lyrics’ (35b–36a). It was noted in Chapter 1 that woðbora can be translated in several ways, for instance, ‘bearer of song’, ‘poetry’, or ‘eloquence’. His function and knowledge are proclaimed intrinsically, if equivocally, within the compound. Otherwise, we are made aware that such performers are gifted, reflective of the woðbora in The Order of the World. Furthermore, in a terse section later in The Gifts of Men, another performer is briefly introduced: Sum bið rynig,  sum ryhtscytte, sum leoða gleaw,  sum on londe snel, feþespedig.


Someone is good at counsel, someone sure of aim, someone skilled at poetry, someone rapid on land, speedy of foot.

Whereas one half-line lists the woðbora and the second half-line amplifies the reference (35b–36a), here the reference to the ‘poet with skill’ is contained within a single half-line. Despite the brevity, two things can be stated concerning the character described as being leoða gleaw, ‘skilful in poetry’: first, they could well be of the same type as those conceived in The Order of the World or Vainglory, and second, referentiality and cultural knowledge could have enabled early audiences to comprehend this figure and his perceived place in society more specifically. Partly because of the classificatory nature of such gnomic statement in wisdom poems, performance is regularly presented as being the preserve of certain skilled individuals. Through their performances, which are associated with society’s norms and evidently a desire for its continuation, performers can please their fellow men. This is ironic, considering 151

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems that the Christian hierarchy see them as a threat to social norms, as we shall see. Such negative attitudes, and the corresponding perception and status of those with such skills, may have been inferred intrinsically for some in society from references to performers such as this one, even if the association was not expressed overtly.

The ‘Hearpe’ in Wisdom Poems We have seen that the hearpe is an instrument singled out for inclusion in Old English poems. Unless the word referred to more than one type of instrument, a class of string instruments, or musical instruments in general, it is the only instrument explicitly imagined in the context of artistic performance in Old English poetry, with the possible exception of Exeter Book Riddle 31, the solution to which being almost universally accepted as ‘bagpipe’,12 and Riddle 14, which has the solution ‘horn’. That hearpe referred to all musical instruments is unlikely, as there is enough descriptive evidence – such as reference to use of the hands and to strings, plectrum, and nails – to indicate that a certain class of instrument is being described. Outside of martial contexts, the hearpe instrument, or class of instruments, had pre-eminence during the early medieval period, and appears to have held a unique position in gnomic thought and in the poetic imagination. It had symbolic associations with the prosperous world of men, and with what Clemoes refers to as the ‘roots of action’,13 the fundamental perceivable values and behaviours operating in early medieval English society. We have seen that these gnomic associations are voiced in Beowulf, in which the most important function of the hearpe is to symbolise earthly joys and the communal society of men.

Maxims I (170) Positive connotations of success and happiness are associated with the hearpe in the lines following those referring to the gleoman (166) in Maxims I:



Craig Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977), 233–5. Chaucer may well have used harpyng in reference to performance with string instruments, or indeed performance in general; see, for instance, the portrait of the Friar in Larry D. Benson (ed.), The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford, 2008), ‘General Prologue’, lines 208–69. Peter Clemoes, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1995), xi.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance Longað þonne þy læs  þe him con leoþa worn, oþþe mid hondum con  hearpan gretan; hafaþ him his gliwes giefe,  þe him god sealde. Earm biþ se þe sceal ana lifgan, wineleas wunian  hafaþ him wyrd geteod. (169–73) He has less longing, who knows many songs/poems or can touch the lyre with his hands; he has his gift of music in him, that God gave to him. Miserable is he who must live alone, to exist without friends: fate has ordained it for him.

As previously stated, elements classified in gnomic poems are not wholly distinct, because of the mixture of the cataloguing style and the resultant inevitable proximity between phenomena. Just as a gleoman has an ordained ability to tell a tale, lyrists and songsmiths have the gift of music-making given to them by God. Moreover, the lyrist-songsmith has less longað, ‘longing’, and seemingly greater social inclusion, through their ability and behaviours. It is not clear what kind of connection, if any, the poet wished to make between this passage and the section referring to the gleomen (165–68a). Additionally unclear is the relationship between he who knows lots of songs or poems (169) and the lyrist (170). The presence of the conjunction oþþe, ‘or’ (170) suggests that they are to be understood as distinct skills, though both can bring comfort, companionship, and relief from longing. Gliw (171) likely refers to ‘music’ rather than ‘joy’, if only because the notion of having a gift of joy is a less often expressed concept than having a gift of musical ability. However, the poet could have intended to exploit the term’s ambiguity. Possessing an ability to provide joy is not inconceivable, and the purpose could have been to indicate that such joy, the result of musical and verbal endeavour, could contribute to the relief of longing. As might be expected in a catalogue poem, scant detail is provided concerning playing technique, except for reference to use of the hands.

The Gifts of Men (49) The hearpe, and the ability to play it, is singled out elsewhere in Old English wisdom writing. As well as in Maxims I, lyre-playing skill is referred to three more times in the Exeter Book: twice more in wisdom poems, The Gifts of Men and The Fortunes of Men, and in a gnomic section of the long narrative poem Christ II. Collectively, these appearances reflect the lyre’s symbolic significance in the poetic imagination. Evoking Maxims I (169–71), skilful playing of the instrument is cited as one of the gifts bestowed upon men by God in The Gifts of Men: 153

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Sum mid hondum mæg  hearpan gretan, ah he gleobeames  gearobrygda list.


Someone can touch the lyre with his hands; he possesses the skill of prompt vibration with the music-beam.

Performer types are distinct in The Gifts of Men, a characteristic also comparable with Maxims I (169–71). In this passage, skill at playing the lyre is distinguished from a reference to those gifted with songs, who are mentioned earlier in the poem (35b–36a), and from those leoða gleaw, ‘skilled in poems’ (52), described just after the lyrist. Lyre playing is listed among other kinds of abilities with which men are gifted, such as construction skills (44–8), athleticism (52–53a), and seamanship (53b–57). A passing reference is made to playing technique at 50b: gearobrygd has been translated variously, as for example ‘a prompt vibration’14 or ‘quick movement, deft playing’;15 while list meant ‘skill’ or ‘craft’. Further particulars are not mentioned, and little further can be discerned regarding the way in which lyre-playing performance techniques were imagined from this passage. However, there are notable similarities between the formulaic construction of this instance and Maxims I (170): both instances refer to the hands, and the half-line hearpan gretan, ‘touch the harp’ or ‘handle the harp’, is identical. Routine references to touch foreground the human body and its relationship with the instrument in performance. Moreover, an anthropomorphic communication is imagined between performer and instrument, as gretan can also mean ‘greet’, its Modern English reflex, as it does in the half-line wordum gretan in The Order of the World (2). Given the mechanisms of traditional referentiality, one can only imagine the impressions of musical and vocal performance that were conjured in an audience merely by half-line statements such as these, particularly if the audience had seen lyres being played and were familiar with the performance techniques involved.

Christ II (669) Skill with the lyre is also one of the gifts endowed by God to men in a gnomic section of Cynewulf’s poem Christ II: Sumum wordlaþe  wise sendeð on his modes gemynd  þurh his muþes gæst,



Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller (eds), An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Oxford, 1882–98), 368. DOE, ‘gearu-brygd’, online at .


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance æðele ondgiet.  Se mæg eal fela singan ond secgan  þam bið snyttru cræft bifolen on ferðe.  Sum mæg fingrum wel hlude fore hæleþum  hearpan stirgan, gleobeam gretan.  Sum mæg godcunde reccan ryhte æ.  Sum mæg ryne tungla secgan, side gesceaft.  Sum mæg searolice wordcwide writan. (664–73a) To someone he sends wise speech through his mouth’s breath, fine understanding into his mind’s consciousness. The power of wisdom is granted to the spirit of the man who can sing and say all manner of things. Someone can strike the lyre with his fingers and play the music-beam very loudly before an audience. Someone can interpret the divine law correctly. Someone is able tell the mystery of the stars, the extensive creation. Someone can write words artistically.16

According to Clemoes, in this section of Christ II Cynewulf converted ‘a list (by Gregory the Great) of six spiritual endowments distributed by the Holy Spirit into a selection of ten discrete cræftas [skills] implanted by God in different people, five primarily in the mind and five mainly in the body’.17 These skills, including lyre playing and verbal ability, distinguish humans from other animals; their classification represents the logical organisation of crucial human social, intellectual, and creative abilities in the early medieval English mind. Many of the cræftas are listed in catalogue wisdom poems, and some, such as martial ability and seafaring, appear extensively across the wider Old English poetic corpus. In the above passage, lyrists are distinguished from those who ‘sing and say of all manner of things’ (666b–68a). Though the repeated conjunction sum mæg, ‘someone can’, separates them, whether we are being encouraged to distinguish, associate, or compare is not stated, though Cynewulf surely intended some relationship between these artistic cræftas. Moreover, although his list was adapted from a Latin source, Cynewulf’s phrasing of 669b–70a is comparable with phrases in Beowulf in which variation amplifies the reference to the lyre, the simplex hearpe being amplified by a more referential poetic compound: hearpan wynne, | gomenwudu grette (2106b–7a), næs hearpan wyn, | gomen gleobeames (2262b–63a), as noted in



Translation adapted from Janie Steen, Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry (Toronto, 2008), 120; she comments on the Old English adaptation of this passage on 121. Clemoes, Interactions, 79.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Chapter 3. Following the prosaic word, the compound creates emphasis and supplies additional symbolism in variation.

The Fortunes of Men (80) The Christ II passage is analogous with other instances in gnomic poems. For example, the presence of an audience of men is stressed (669), as in The Fortunes of Men, in which lyre playing is similarly proclaimed as one of the destinies given to men by God: Sum sceal on heape  hæleþum cweman, blissian æt beore  bencsittendum; þær biþ drincendra  dream se micla. Sum sceal mid hearpan  æt his hlafordes fotum sittan,  feoh þicgan, ond a snellice  snere wræstan, lætan scralletan  sceacol, se þe hleapeð, nægl neomegende;  biþ him neod micel.


Someone can please a company of men, gladden at beer those sitting on the bench; there the drinkers’ joy is the greater. Someone must sit with the lyre at his lord’s feet, accept treasure, and always rapidly twang the lyre string, let the plectrum leap to create sweet melody; the need for him is great.

Despite being contained within a catalogue poem concerning God’s gifts, this passage can be seen enticingly as a depiction of pre-Christian practices, bearing comparison with ‘joy in the hall’ passages in Beowulf, or the exploits of Widsith. There is no altruism in the lyrist’s performance, in praise of God for instance, unless the need for him is inferred as being for religious purposes, an example of cultural assimilation explored later in this chapter. There is also mention of beer, reference to the benches that evoke the meadhall, and the fact that the lyrist benefits from financial or other rewards, though no scene referring to patronage or reward for a lyrist exists in Beowulf.18 The reference to the lyrist sitting at his lord’s feet conjures images of the hall space, with a ruler on his throne and his patronised performer sitting on the dais below him. T. A. Shippey has recently claimed that this lyrist was ‘surely’ a scop, conflating him with the kind of man whom he describes as a ‘warrior-poet’, who was buried with a lyre in the early medi18

For discussion of the ‘joy in the hall’ theme in Old English poetry, see Jeff Opland, ‘Beowulf on the Poet’, Mediaeval Studies, 38 (1976), 442–67, at 445–53; also Peter Ramey, ‘Beowulf’s Singers of Tales as Hyperlinks’, Oral Tradition, 26:2 (2011), 619–24, at 620.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance eval cemetery at Snape, Suffolk.19 However, as Renée R. Trilling warns,20 such an image may be anachronistic and could as easily arise from erroneous interpretation as from traditional referentiality. The passage offers no identifier for the performer, and the lack of clear distinction between roles again leaves the poet’s intention open to interpretation. It is uncertain for example whether he intended the man who pleases the company on the benches and the lyrist at his lord’s feet to be the same person, though they are divided by the sum sceal, ‘someone must’, device (77, 80). One distinctive though ultimately inconclusive functional detail in the passage is the description of the nægl, likely either a fingernail or a plectrum, though Page offers the possibility that nægl referred to a tuning peg.21 The use in Ælfric’s Glossary of the more specific hearpnægel for plectrum indicates that there was at least some awareness of the practice of plectrum use with the lyre, and it is likely that such practice was envisioned in this passage.22 The functionality of the nægl is embellished somewhat in the half-line snere wræstan, ‘twist the string’ or ‘wrest the string’, imagery that evokes the physical and emotional effort required to play the instrument. Understanding of typical playing techniques would again have enabled greater insight into any practical or referential associations. Resemblances between these instances in Old English gnomic poems featuring a hearpe are immediately identifiable. The ability to play the instrument well is stated as being one of the gifts or abilities bestowed by God upon men, listed among other enabling skills such as martial prowess and divinely-conferred knowledge. The number and consistency of these appearances gives the impression that skilful performance with the instrument is an important attribute in the collective understanding of Old English poets, worthy of gnomic expression. Just as the woðbora in The 19




T. A. Shippey, ‘Introduction’, in Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia, PA, 2017), xv–li, at xv. Renée R. Trilling, The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (Toronto, 2009), 3. Christopher Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Hearpan: Their Terminology, Technique, Tuning and Repertory of Verse 850–1066’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of York, 1981), 183. In London, British Library, Add. MS 32246. It also features in the prose Apollonius of Tyre, a fairly close translation of a Latin text, translating Latin plectrum. See Peter Goolden (ed.), The Old English ‘Apollonius of Tyre’ (Oxford, 1958), 26–7. The simplex for ‘plectrum’ is possibly sceacel (‘shackle’ being its Modern English reflex): see ‘sceacel.’, in Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller (eds), An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Supplement (Oxford, 1921), 694. Page denies that this is a genuine Old English word for plectrum, however: Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Hearpan’, 181. He also doubts that the plectrum was used in lyre performance, at 325.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Order of the World and the frod wita in Vainglory are thought to have skills not possessed by everyone, lyrists’ skills are imagined as being the preserve of certain members of society, a gift or ability akin to being a skilled warrior or wise with words. This exclusivity controverts the notion of performance as a communal activity, such as that possibly being described in Bede’s account of Cædmon, considered later in this chapter. Despite being a distinctive character, none of these gnomic instances provides a specific identifier for the lyrist. He is always defined through the action of performance, explicitly before an audience in Christ II (669) and The Fortunes of Men (80). Thornbury understands words such as scop, poeta, etc., to be specific terms relating to performance that do not identify a particular performer category or role.23 In contrast, the generic lyrist has a specific role, but is not given an identifying term. Indeed, hearpere, the functional, routinely applied identifier for a lyrist in Old English, appears only once in the poetry, in Psalm 50 (4), though it is used relatively often in the wider literature. Even though the lyrist is conceived of as having an important and enabling gift in the poetic imagination, he is not represented by either an everyday or a poetry-specific term. The lack of identifying terminology, expression, and general manner of representation creates the impression instead that his role was symbolic. He represents joy and belonging, while functioning to provide pleasure for a lord and his company.

A Homeric Analogue? Whether or not lyre playing is stated explicitly as being a gift from God in each instance, Old English poetry echoes gnomic statement in relation to the lyre in earlier poetic traditions. For instance, references to such skill in Old English poetry are comparable with elements of a speech by the wise Polydamas to Hector in the Iliad: Because the god has granted you the actions of warfare therefore you wish in counsel also to be wise beyond others. But you cannot choose to have all gifts given to you together. To one man the god has granted the actions of warfare, to one to be a dancer, to another the lyre and the singing, and in the breast of another Zeus of the wide brows establishes wisdom, a lordly thing, and many take profit beside him and he saves many, but the man’s own thought surpasses all others.24 (Book 13, 727–34) 23


Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2014), 34–5. 415 Homer, The ‘Iliad’ of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, IL, 1951), 290–1.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance In comparison with the Old English examples we have seen, the singer and lyrist are more readily identifiable as the same person in this passage, an overt style of association common in Homeric epic. Otherwise, the similarities are marked, particularly the rhetorical technique of listing divinely distributed attributes. Performance and skill in battle are connected through proximity, and there is association between performers and the ‘wise mind’ attribute, redolent of associations developed in Old English wisdom poems. Although direct influence should almost certainly be ruled out, in general the gnomic representation of the Germanic lyre in Old English wisdom poetry can be seen to compare with the primacy and cultural significance afforded the classical lyre in Greek literature. Despite the significance of the hearpe in Old English wisdom poems, the importance and status of the lyrist do not remain wholly unambiguous. There is great need for him according to Maxims I: DiNapoli suggests that the need is for the nægl,25 though this would be an uncharacteristically mundane and specific concern in this type of poem. His apparent proximity to a lord could suggest that the poet considers him to have relatively high status. However, proximity does not necessarily indicate status, as Eliason points out,26 though a symbolic reading would favour the belief that it is likely to. Also, as previously noted, skill at playing the instrument is seen as an important gift, worthy of mention in numerous wisdom poems, and the performer is always described in the act of performance, or in relation to their ability. However, such a symbolic, near-reverential status is not universally recognised. We learn in one non-gnomic poem, The Phoenix, that the lyre is one of the instruments that enables humans to make music, yet that music cannot compare with the phoenix’s song. Human music, as a social phenomenon, contrasts with God’s natural creations; human musical activity reveals our inferiority to His designs. These allusions are present in the Latin original, however.27 In relation to the wisdom poetry of the period, it is safe to say that overall the lyre and its players are afforded a special status in the gnomic imagination. As with much of the extant Old English corpus, wisdom poems were largely composed, or at least transcribed, by literate Christians in a monastic setting, but that does not preclude other influences from informing 25



Robert DiNapoli, ‘Close to the Edge: The Fortunes of Men and the Limits of Wisdom Literature’, in Chris Bishop (ed.), Text and Transmission in Medieval Europe (Newcastle, 2007), 127–47, at 145. Norman E. Eliason, ‘The Þyle and Scop in Beowulf’, Speculum, 38:2 (1963), 267–84, at 269, n. 14. Although The Phoenix’s principal source is the Latin poem Carmen De Ave Phoenice, generally attributed to Lactantius who lived c.240–c.320, references to trumpets and horns were amplifications by an Old English poet.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems their creativity. While Homer is unlikely to be a direct influence, Carolyne Larrington observes that wisdom poems ‘are all Christian in conception’, yet ‘there may be outcrops of archaic wisdom in the poems’.28 Morton Bloomfield and Charles Dunn note the diverse forms of ‘verbal arts’ represented in The Gifts of Men, which, they argue, ‘suggest that the pious author had not entirely separated himself from his Germanic roots’.29 Drout argues that wisdom poems represent a rather sophisticated attempt to understand the way that the monastic life fits into the rest of Anglo-Saxon culture. The authors of these poems are not randomly collecting traditional material. They are trying to understand the old world in terms of the new, the new world in terms of the old.30

Christian Old English poets were actively and creatively engaging with their cultural circumstances, including the wider poetic corpus, and their pre- and post-conversion past. This does not mean that monks were necessarily observing lyre playing and the performance of stories, songs or poetry as the behaviours of ‘others’; a discrete, lay society with distinct cultural practices that may be cause for suspicion or concern. The overwhelmingly positive depictions of performance in gnomic poems throughout the poetic corpus suggest that being a performer was not customarily frowned upon in the monastic environment in which the wisdom literature was compiled. After all, the poets are likely to have had Christian contexts in mind when creating the bulk of references to performance in wisdom poetry. The image of the lyrist at his lord’s feet has been seen by many critics as forming part of a ‘Germanic’ setting too readily invoked. Much performance referred to in wisdom writing should be seen as a facet of Christian practice, divinely bestowed by God. The Nowell Codex was produced in a monastic community, however, and monks therefore seemingly had no issue with creating or at least transcribing literature not wholly devoted to Christian concerns. The appearance of performance in its many forms leads to the conclusion that the scribes who created the extant corpus of Old English poetry at least tacitly accepted diverse material and contexts for performance, and the idealised imaginings of earlier, possibly oral, poets. Distinct attitudes are aligned with literary form, as such acceptance is strongly challenged in non-poetic material. Prominent Christians are unable to tolerate the intrusion of the ‘old world’ of performance into their cultural events and spaces. 28 29


Larrington, A Store of Common Sense, 120. Morton W. Bloomfield and Charles W. Dunn, The Role of the Poet in Early Societies (Cambridge, 1989), 95. Michael D. C. Drout, How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century (Tempe, AZ, 2006), 292.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance

The Secular Performer in Eighth-Century England In non-poetic writing, attitudes towards performers are conceived in relation to wider cultural norms, particularly Christian perspectives, and such attitudes contrast markedly with poetry’s idealised conceptions. Frequently, performers’ behaviours, practices, and material are shown to be challenging those norms.

The Council of Clofesho, 747 The canons drawn up at the 747 Council of Clofesho exemplify the attitude of the religious hierarchy in the eighth century, because it comprised a diverse assembly of the political and religious elite.31 Canons twelve, sixteen, and twenty-one contain regulations concerning behaviour at feasts, and delivery style when performing sacred material. In canon twelve, for instance, certain singing techniques are criticised: secular performers apparently have a particular garrio, ‘chatter’ or ‘babble’, which is to be avoided.32 Sections of canon twenty proscribe the behaviour of secular entertainers in monastic spaces: … monasteria iuxta uocabulum nominis sui, id est honesta silentium quietorum atque pro deo laborantium habitacula et non sint ludicrarum artium receptacula, hoc est, poetarum, citharistarum, musicorum, scurrorum; sed orantium, legentium, Deumque laudantium habitationes, et ut non habeant sæculares quique vagandi licentiam per inconvenientia sibi loca, vel discursus per interiora monasterii domuncula…33 … monasteries [should] keep in with the designation of their name, that is, as honorable dwelling places of quiet men in silence working for God, and not as taverns of the sportive arts, namely, of poets, of lyrists, of musicians, of clowns; but earnestly, readers, to praise God in houses, and not have seculars who do not have the permission to go plundering where they do not belong, in places they are not allowed, or running about through the interior of monastery houses…

Specific performer figures, whether professional or not, are the objects of concern here, rather than a general populace indulging in ‘sportive arts’. Poeta refers to poets rather than poetry, citharista refers to lyrists rather than to the lyre or its music, and scurra also refers to the people rather 31 32


See Simon Keynes, The Councils of Clovesho, VPAE, 38 (Leicester, 1994). Arthur Haddan and William Stubbs (eds), Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 3 (1871), 366. Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, 369.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems than their act. Musicus could mean either ‘musician’ or ‘music’, but in a list of persons it is more likely to mean the former. At Clofesho, poets, musicians, and particularly lyrists, are associated with social deviance in religious spaces in the eyes of the Christian establishment. They are also likely to be seen as being among the disruptive, trespassing ‘seculars’ spoken of in the passage.

Alcuin’s Letter to ‘Speratus’ The hierarchy’s call for discipline that emerged from the 747 Council of Clofesho is reflected in the opinions of other prominent religious figures from the period. Alcuin (c.735–804) was, among many other things, a prolific epistolarian, with many connections on the Continent, owing especially to his time at Charlemagne’s court in Aix-la-Chapelle in present-­day Germany.34 Alcuin’s letters show him to be a tireless critic of what he deemed to be inappropriate behaviour in relation to Christian values. Such behaviour included some types of performance.35 His letter of 797 to ‘Speratus’, understood to be the Mercian Bishop Unuuona, contains a useful – if rather brief – insight into his views concerning cultural behaviours. The letter contains the oft-quoted question commonly interpreted as an encapsulation of Alcuin’s belief that pagan legendary matter should not be preferred to Christian material: quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?, ‘what has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ He also censures music: Verba Dei legantur in sacerdotali convivio. Ibi decet lectorum audiri, non citharistam; sermons partum, non carmina gentilium. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? Angusta est domus: utrosque tenere non poterit. Nun vult rex cęlestis cum paganis et perditis nominetenus regibus communionem habere; quia rex ille aeternus regnat in caelis, ille paganus perditus plangit in inferno. Voces legentium audire in domibus tuis, non ridentium turbam in plateis.36 Let the word of God be read at the clergy’s feasts. There it is proper to hear the reader, not the lyrist; the sermons of the fathers, not the songs of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow, it cannot hold them both. The King of heaven will have no fellowship with so-called kings who are pagan and damned, for the Eternal King reigns

34 35


See Douglas Dales, Alcuin: His Life and Legacy (Cambridge, 2012). See W. F. Bolton, Alcuin and ‘Beowulf’: an Eighth-Century View (London, 1979); Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven, CT, 1980), 144–5. Ernst Dummler (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolarum IV, Karolinum Aevum II (Berlin, 1895), 183.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance in Heaven, while the pagan is damned and laments in Hell. The voices of readers should be heard in your houses, not the crowd of revelers in the streets.37

As in Clofesho canon twenty, Alcuin singles out the lyrist, the citharista, for admonition, and implies the popularity of lyre playing and pagan song: the kinds of entertainment performed by secular performers, the kinds also manifest in Beowulf. The letter reflects the concern within the religious establishment about performance activities expressed in the canons and questions the practices of the general populace. Alcuin urges the suppression of these activities, their popularity being a threat to the clergy’s proper routine. Although the extent to which such behaviour was prevalent in early medieval English society and encroaching into the clergy’s feasts is unclear, it is patently widespread enough to have stirred Alcuin into his admonition to a fellow countryman. Like the Clofesho canons, Alcuin’s view sits uncomfortably with the idealism in the wisdom poems. However, while he singles out the lyre for unequivocal criticism, it is not certain that for Alcuin the instrument had intrinsic associations with unacceptable material or practices, precluding it from being appropriate in all circumstances in monasteries. His letter refers to lyre playing and pagan song at sacerdotales convivia, ‘religious feasts’. Given Cuthbert’s request for a lyrist in a letter discussed below, it does not seem that lyre performances were inappropriate in all circumstances. Alcuin’s hostility may thus have been limited to those religious feasts: he might not have been so disapproving of the populace, or the clergy for that matter, listening to lyres or legendary songs in other contexts. He appears to associate the performance he holds in disdain with the general population, with the crowd of revellers in the streets. While the canons admonish inappropriate performance in certain spaces, Alcuin additionally associates such activity with deviance in certain social contexts. One could speculate that he identified the lyre with the gleoman, whose unsavoury connotations may have influenced his attitude: he might have seen lyre playing as an inherently deviant act after all. However, Alcuin does not divulge his opinion on these matters.

Bede’s Account of Cædmon The most well-known early medieval English literary reference to events involving musical performance, certainly outside Old English poetry, is Bede’s narrative concerning the Old English poet Cædmon, in Book 4, Chapter 24 of his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Daniel O’Donnell


Roy M. Liuzza, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Peterborough, ON, 2000), 160.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems argues that Bede’s account is unreliable, noting that many critics are either doubtful or non-committal concerning Cædmon’s existence.38 Accordingly, the chapter could be historical account, allegory, or hagiography. It is the only extant source referring to Cædmon, and it was written sixty years after his purported death. His name is mentioned only once, through the voice of the mysterious figure who appears and compels him to sing. Yet the Cædmon story occurs within a section of Bede’s Historia in which each chapter is a biographical account of apparently historical figures. There is little doubt therefore that Bede intended Cædmon to be regarded as someone as real as the better-attested individuals between whom he is sandwiched: Hild, the abbess of the Whitby monastery where Cædmon apparently became a brother, and Adamnan the Irishman, who performed penance in the monastery of virgins at Coldingham. Cædmon becomes a performer of pious poetry, and is given the gift of canendi, ‘singing’, but the passage of greatest interest in relation to performance is the reference to communal entertainment at convivia, ‘feasts’, from which Cædmon retires. In the passage, Bede describes the lyre being played during such gatherings: Unde nonnumquam in convivio, cum esset laetitae causa decretum ut omnes per ordinem cantare deberent, ille ubi appropinquare sibi citharam cernebat surgebat a media cena et egressus ad suam domum repedabat. And therefore sometimes at a feast, when for the sake of providing entertainment, it had been decided that they should all sing in turn to the lyre, when he saw the lyre approaching him, then he would rise up in the middle of the feasting, go out, and return to his house.39

Bede’s brief reference to convivia provides little detail about them. The passage also offers scant information concerning performance practices, though an association between singing and lyre playing is established. If the usual interpretation is accepted, that lyre playing is expected of everyone present at convivia, then there is no distinction between designated lyrist and non-lyrist among the social group, unusual in early medieval English literature. The passage would thus be a brief, idealised representation of communal performance activity among non-professionals. Alternatively, though it is stated that the lyre approaches Cædmon rather than its player, Bede could have envisioned the instrument circulating in the hands of a mobile, assigned lyrist (note that Bede mentions nothing 38


O’Donnell, Daniel P., Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Archive and Edition (Cambridge, 2005), 3–4, 30. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford, 2008), 215.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance about Cædmon’s inability to play the lyre). Cædmon is a cowherd, and Bede thus envisages low-status individuals participating in music and song, even if only certain attendees played an instrument. However, we do not know whether he considered the convivium to be populated entirely by people of Cædmon’s social standing, so we do not discover the status of any lyrist. Despite the interest that the passage referring to convivia has generated among those searching for depictions of historical early medieval English performance activity,40 reporting naturalistic detail is not Bede’s focus or purpose. The account has literary and symbolic qualities. It is thus precarious to treat it unquestioningly as evidence of historical practices. For instance, the lyre must be circulating and all the participants must take their turn at singing for the story to make sense, as Cædmon would not be required to sing if there were designated, professional singers. Moreover, Bede does not introduce an individual feast, and the passage does not describe one occasion. Nonnumquam, ‘sometimes’, indicates that he refers to multiple feasts rather than a single event. Bede stresses Cædmon’s aversion to the lyre whenever there was such an occasion. The passage forms a representative image of routine behaviour. Bede does not specifically criticise musical practice or attendance at convivia. Later in the Cædmon chapter, however, we are told: cuius carminibus multorum saepe animi ad contemtum saeculi et appetitum sunt uitae caelestis accensi, ‘by [Cædmon’s] songs the minds of many were often inspired to despise the world and to long for the heavenly life’. The feast, with its communal singing and lyre performance, comes to exemplify a social world that Cædmon inspires people to reject. Bede presents music at feasts as an example of social conduct in opposition to appropriate Christian practices, fashioning an image of secular behaviour that Cædmon spurns. Convivia thus function as symbolic events in the account. Accordingly, Bede is critical of such decadence in a letter dated 734 to Egbert, Bishop of York. The letter does not refer to musical performance, but feasting and fabulis, ‘myth’ or ‘storytelling’, are censured. He writes: Quia de quibusdam episcopis fama vulgatum est, quod ipsi ita Christo serviant, ut nullos secum alicuius religionis aut continentiae viros habeant: sed potius illos qui risui, iocis, fabulis, commessationibus et ebrietatibus, ceterisque vitae remissions illecebris subigantur, et qui magis quotidie ventrem dapibus, quam mentem sacrificiis coelestibus pascant.


Examples of such interest include Francis P. Magoun, Jr., ‘Bede’s Story of Cædmon: The Case History of an Anglo-Saxon Oral Singer’, Speculum, 30:1 (1955), 49–63; Donald K. Fry, ‘Caedmon as a Formulaic Poet’, in J. J. Duggan (ed.), Oral Literature: Seven Essays (New York, NY, 1975), 227–47; Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 106–20; Thornbury, Becoming a Poet, 5–8.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems It is reported of some bishops that they have no men of true religion or self-control around them, but instead are surrounded by those who give themselves up to laughter, jokes, storytelling, eating, drinking, and other seductions of the soft life, and who would prefer each day to fill their stomachs with feasting rather than their minds with heavenly offerings.41

Like the Clofesho canons and Alcuin’s letter, Bede’s writing denounces certain entertainments among the clergy, and he goes further, criticising feasting practices overall, as well as certain practices undertaken at them. The letter suggests the influence of such practices on the conduct of some in religious orders, including bishops. While story is referred to specifically, Bede might well have thought other performance practices to be examples of ‘seductions of the soft life’. Bede’s letter and his story of Cædmon’s departure from feasts can, like Alcuin’s letter, be read as a condemnation of the kinds of popular practices that are accepted and indeed idealised in the poetry.

Cuthbert’s Letter to Lul Whereas secular performance activity is unequivocally positive and beneficial for the societies being depicted in Old English poems, the examples considered so far see it as a problematic nuisance to be restricted or rejected. A more positive attitude towards performance, if tempered by some embarrassment and caution, appears in further epistolary communication from the eighth century. P. H. Blair notes that ‘we have no information about the musical instruments used to accompany the monastic singing of Bede’s day. There was a harp of the kind called rottæ in the [Monkwearmouth-Jarrow] monastery shortly after Bede’s death, but nobody knew how to play it.’42 We know this because in 764 Abbot Cuthbert wrote to Archbishop Lul of Mainze in the Rhineland making a request: Delectat me quoque citharistam habere, qui possit citharizare in cithara, quam nos appellamus rottae; quia citharum habeo et artificem non habeo. Si grave non sit, et istum quoque meae dispositioni mitte. Obsecro, ut hanc meam rogationem ne despicias et risioni non deputes. It would delight me also to have a lyrist who could play on the lyre which we call ‘rottae’; for I have a lyre and don’t have a craftsman. If it

41 42

Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 344–5. P. H. Blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge, 1990), 257.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance be not a trouble, send one also to my disposal. I beg that you will not scorn my request nor think it laughable.43

Cuthbert’s request, a brief passage in a relatively long letter, is virtually an aside, yet it raises questions concerning the acceptance and status of early medieval English performers. Opland considers it ‘curious that Cuthbert should send to the Continent for a lyrist: from Bede’s account of the convivium that Cædmon left, we would conclude that lyrists could be found in Northumbria’.44 However, while it is clear from another of Cuthbert’s requests in his letter that nobody could make glass vessels – he states ‘we are ignorant and destitute of that art’45 – it is not certain that no one in the vicinity of the Jarrow monastery could play a lyre. Although the rottae has been interpreted as being a Germanic round lyre,46 the Jarrow instrument could be an obscure variant requiring specialist ability. Moreover, Cuthbert is not necessarily requesting an individual who simply possesses some lyre-playing skills. He envisages the citharista to be an artifex, ‘artist’ or ‘craftsman’, someone with the abilities required to occupy and execute a specific role in the monastery successfully, a responsibility possibly desired and designated by the monastic community. Presumably the lyrist would thus have been expected to play to a high standard. Unless it took time and a certain skill to become a player effective enough to inhabit the role, someone reasonably local, or a current inhabitant of the monastery, could presumably have figured out how to play it and practised, becoming a specialist and negating the need for a lyrist from abroad. Indeed, if it were a Germanic round lyre, some in the area would have been able to learn to play to a basic level readily, if musicological conjecture noted in Chapter 1, that it was relatively easy to play and tuned to an open chord, is accepted.47 Given that lyre playing has been considered negatively in the non-­ poetic material considered thus far, it is a wonder Cuthbert’s request was made at all. His appeal for a specific, skilled player is particularly incongruous. Because of Cuthbert’s letter, we know that at least one senior member of the Church took delight in hearing the lyre, or he at least saw a lyrist as being a useful addition to the monastery, performing a valuable 43


45 46


Translation adapted from Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents 1, c.500–1042 (London, 1955), 765–6. Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 143. Marijane Osborn sees the rottae as an unfamiliar, Continental instrument; see Marijane Osborn, ‘Reote and Ridend as Musical Terms in Beowulf: Another Kind of Harp?’ Neophilologus, 62:3 (1978), 442–6, at 442–3. Whitelock, English Historical Documents, 765. Regarding the Germanic round lyre as referent for rottae, see Myrtle BruceMitford, ‘Rotte (ii)’, NGD, vol. 21, (Oxford, 2001), 788–92, at 788. Page, ‘Anglo-Saxon Hearpan’, 12–13, 187–202.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems function. This sits uncomfortably with the warnings in other communication. Cuthbert does show some embarrassment in his request, seemingly indicating a low general opinion of rottae players and their performances. However, if having a lyrist in the monastery were frowned upon, it is unlikely that Cuthbert would have asked the archbishop at all. The letter itself demonstrates the measure of significance he attaches to lyre playing, in that he takes the trouble to make the request, albeit towards the end of a letter largely concerned with other matters. Moreover, Cuthbert’s wish that his appeal not be dismissed out of hand is not restricted to the rottae. Requesting a maker of glass vessels in the same paragraph, he writes: ‘I pray that you will not spurn my petition and my need.’48 Stating his desire that his appeals are acted upon is therefore characteristic of Cuthbert’s style at this stage in the letter, and not restricted to the request for the lyrist. Cuthbert conceived of lyre playing as a specific role. He did not want to learn to play the lyre himself or wish other members of his community to do so, preferring instead to hear its music in the hands of an expert, one skilled as a player. A degree of professionalism might thus be expected when playing the rottae in a monastic setting, expertise that could not be found in the monastery’s vicinity. Such conclusions are again surprising given the attitudes expounded by other religious figures towards citharistas, but the letter suggests that playing instruments was appropriate within the monastery, in certain circumstances at least. It is likely that this acceptance was contingent upon the lyrist being restricted to playing material suitable within a monastic context. Cuthbert is not requesting a secular performer: drafting in a local musician from wider society would likely have been inappropriate. Whether or not they are given a specific identifier, secular performers are criticised and derided by the religious hierarchy when they encroach upon the monastery space or the religious feast, crossing the line for some between acceptable unorthodoxy and activity to be condemned. This attitude is maintained late into the early medieval period. Around the turn of the first millennium, Wulfstan cautions against inappropriate entertainment, and those who perform it, in his Canons of Edgar, and in the Law of the Northumbrian Priests. Canon 59 of the former work reads: Riht is þæt ænig preost ne beo ealusceop, ne on ænige wisan gliwige mid him sylfum oðrum mannum, ac beo swa his hade gebyrað, wis and weorðfull, ‘It is right that any priest should not be an ale-poet, nor in any way entertain with himself or another man, but be as suits his office, wise and worthy.’49

48 49

Whitelock, English Historical Documents, 765. Roger Fowler (ed.), Wulfstan’s Canons of Edgar, EETS, OS 266 (Oxford, 1972), 14–15.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance Law 41 of the latter work reads: Gif preost oferdruncen lufige oððe gliman oððe ealascop wurðe, gebete þaet, ‘If a priest loves to drink too much or becomes either entertainer or ale-poet, make him pay for it.’50 That gleoman and scop can both identify disreputable characters for Wulfstan, particularly in the context of drinking, may well exemplify the situation proposed by Opland, that these figures were merging during the early medieval period.51 The caution and disapproval of earlier writers, and the cultural consequences of the tenth-century Reform movement, which enabled the transcription of Old English poetry with its idealised representation of the performer, did not prevent circumstances in which senior figures felt the need to make overt admonitions. References in the literature considered in this chapter offer brief, often inconsistent insights into how secular performance was perceived, and the concomitant status of its performers. Lyre playing is a God-given gift in the gnomic poetic imagination, which elevates musical activity and idealises the performer. The wider poetry consistently suggests high status, positioning the lyrist and their instrument near the centre of both the hall space and extra-Christian culture generally. In the poetry, the lyre symbolises society’s cohesion, success, and even existence. In response to this, Christopher Page perceives that the lyre ‘enjoyed a “regal” mystique’52 among the pre-Christian elite in England, which resulted in its presence in early medieval burials, but also accounted for ‘the lenient view of secular music which is such a distinguishing feature of ecclesiastical life in Anglo-Saxon England. The Church fought against minstrels and entertainers with ceaseless energy throughout the Middle Ages, yet the Old English poets took a humane view of man’s need for joy.’53 The paradox in this statement exposes the complex and ambivalent relationship between the religious hegemony, poets, and secular performance practices, a relationship which altered during the medieval period with changes in political and socio-cultural factors. In eighth-century canons and letters, prominent, literate ecclesiasts are largely critical of performers’ behaviour, particularly within the spatial and cultural contexts of the Church. The formal communication considered in this chapter demonstrates the Church’s fight, but not the leniency perceived by Page, which is found instead in depictions of idealised secular performance practices in poetry concerned with pre-Christian themes, which was produced and reproduced in monasteries. Such leniency is also suggested by the fact 50 51 52


Benjamin Thorpe (ed.), Ancient Laws and Institutes of England (London, 1840), 418. See Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 186–8, 265–6. Christopher Page, ‘Music’, in The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, vol. 1: Prehistoric, Roman, and Early Medieval (Cambridge, 1988), 247–53, at 250. Page, ‘Music’, 250.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems that appropriate musical practices involving the Germanic round lyre might well have existed in monastic spaces. In the eighth century, the popularity of the early medieval English performer’s art among the monastic community led to a requirement to admonish its practitioners in official edicts. The influence of these edicts on actual behaviours is not straightforward, as literary evidence points to secular intrusion being an aspect of monastic culture’s decline that characterised the ninth century, before the Benedictine revival in the tenth. Performers were popular even among some priests and bishops, according to Bede in the eighth century and Wulfstan in the tenth and eleventh. Though somewhat embarrassed to request one, Abbot Cuthbert is supportive of lyrists, deeming them to be artists or craftsmen. Moreover, early medieval English manuscript illustrations depict religious figures playing the Germanic round lyre, notably King David, suggesting that the instrument was not entirely proscribed. What evidence there is also suggests the wider popularity and appeal of such performers outside the monastery, as they are associated with the crowd of revellers in the street and trespassing seculars. For prominent Christian figures, the secular performer should reside outside of monastic culture. Because of the lack of evidence, the reception of the performer among that general populace is not certain. Although the clergy are overtly critical, because of the very popularity that forces them to speak out, it seems that secular performers are more accepted among the general population, such as among those who benefit from their performances at convivia. This ambivalence is not uncommon. Studies of music in diverse world cultures have established that musicians often hold a unique status in society, a combination of low social standing and high cultural importance, with a licence to deviate from society’s norms and indulge in immoral and/or criminal behaviour. This paradigm for the musician was hypothesised by the ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam, who conducted fieldwork among the Basongye people of the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the 1950s. Based on his findings, and supported by comparative evidence from other ethnographies, Merriam concludes that ‘there is some evidence, at least, to suggest that this pattern of low status and high importance, coupled with deviant behaviour allowed by the society and capitalized upon by the musician, may be fairly widespread and perhaps one of several which characterizes musicianly behaviour in a broad world area.’54 The paradigm emerges because musicians often have particular knowledge and abilities required for rituals, rites of passage, and other cultural events. However, while therefore needed,


Alan Merriam, The Anthropology of Music (Evanston, IL, 1964), 137; see 123–44 for Merriam’s evidence and general discussion concerning this paradigm.


Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance they do not enjoy high status in society. Indeed, somewhat negative stereotypes are routinely applied to musicians, who may in turn exploit the attitudes of wider society to indulge in deviant behaviour. This behaviour can reinforce belonging among social groups of musicians, while serving to position them unconventionally in relation to a mainstream society that perceives them to be deviant; musicians play upon expectations as part of their self-definition.55 Subsequent fieldwork by ethnomusicologists in diverse world cultures has revealed similarly ambivalent reputations, both for individual musicians and among musician social groups. For example, John Baily, while noting that it is undoubtedly a general conception particularly unsuited to some Western cultural contexts,56 found that the paradigm applied among Afghan musicians in the 1970s, noting that it ‘certainly fits with traditional trends in Afghan culture’.57 Discussing musicians in some Muslim societies, he states that ‘while it may be a ritual necessity (especially for weddings), those who provide music are stigmatized and often recruited from low-ranking ethnic minorities’.58 Stephen Cottrell also considers Merriam’s paradigm, in relation to Western art (classical) musicians in London. He concludes that musicians also conformed broadly to the hypothesis in that context, notwithstanding the complexities of social relations in a large urban metropolis.59 To these examples could be added the jazz musician in early twentieth-century American society.60 It has even been seen as pertinent to the experience of the backing instrumentalist in contemporary popular music.61 While such research evidences the often-complex social position held by performers, and the cultural value of their performances, the paradigm does not wholly apply to early medieval English cultural circumstances. Essentially, while the high importance element of Merriam’s paradigm seems applicable to performers in Old English poetry, they might be described as ‘popular’ rather than necessarily ‘important’ in literate early 55 56


58 59 60


Merriam, Anthropology of Music, 134–40. John Baily, ‘Music Is in Our Blood: Gujarati Muslim Musicians in the UK’, in Lucy Green (ed.), Learning, Teaching, and Musical Identity: Voices across Cultures (Bloomington, IN, 2011), 109–27, at 109–10. John Baily, War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan: The Ethnographer’s Tale (Farnham, 2015), 35. Baily, ‘Music Is in Our Blood’, 110. Stephen Cottrell, Professional Music-Making in London (Farnham, 2004), 193–9. For a discussion of the jazz musician’s segregation from mainstream society, the value of deviance, and their ‘occupational ideology’, see Alan Merriam and Raymond W. Mack, ‘The Jazz Community’, Social Forces, 38:3 (1960), 211–22, at 222. Ioannis Tsioulakis, ‘Negotiating Local Tastes: Urban Professional Musicians in Athens’, in Suzel A. Reily and Katherine Brucher (eds), The Routledge Companion to the Study of Local Musicking (Oxford, 2018), 405–16, at 411.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems medieval English culture, though they may well have greater importance among the wider populace outside the monastery. The low-status element is only ever inferred in the literature, principally through admonition, and association with that lay population. While the performer’s social status from the perspective of the religious hierarchy is seemingly low, their behaviour certainly deviates from Christian norms in the eyes of many literate commentators. But was this deviance sanctioned, as Merriam’s paradigm proposes? It appears not to have been, given the criticism considered in this chapter, though the scurrilousness identified by Opland may have been accepted in wider society. The performer’s ambivalent position meant that they likely attempted to walk a line between satisfying demand, including from within the monasteries, and inciting criticism. Yet their deviance is unsanctioned in the official view of the Christian establishment, and thus their views do not seem to align with this aspect of the hypothesis. Merriam’s paradigm was evidently informed by small-scale societies, and the fact that it does not account for multiple viewpoints from different sections of a complex society is a key weakness. A status paradigm appropriate to eighth-century England must allow for variances of perception within different sections of society, the most significant influence on such variances being the distinction between a powerful, literate, monastic culture, and secular culture. A performer’s status is relative in this situation. The status of the performer outside the monastery was feasibly more reflective of the representation in the poetry. Monastic rule, controlled by Church leaders, likely undermined the secular performer’s pre-Conquest status. Moreover, a performer’s social status may be uniformly low across society, but their importance could differ between social communities. Status and importance depend upon the position of the observer, and whether behaviour is deemed deviant is also contingent on that observer’s own social circumstances. Indeed, such varied perspectives say something about both the observer and their community, and thus the dynamics of society, as well as about the performer. A paradigm for the early medieval English performer must additionally account for the assimilation of existing and innovative cultural and artistic practices in the process of social change. For instance, medieval European monasticism patently had a complex relationship with popular and possibly pre-Christian musical traditions, leading to a situation in which the Germanic round lyre, an instrument widespread in mainland pre-Christian Europe, could be accepted – indeed centrally significant – in the Old English poetic imagination, and be integrated as a tool for performance in certain monastic circumstances in the eighth century. The hearpe, originally the instrument of the pagan musician, could be incorporated within Christian settings. It could be pictured in the hands of prominent Christian figures in manuscript illuminations, while being proscribed 172

Wisdom and Power: Philosophies of Performance when in the hands of secular musicians.62 Instruments and practices popular outside the monasteries likely came to be incorporated into the routine performance of some Christian material. An effective paradigm would suggest (unwarranted) popularity for practitioners of secular material, and a certain importance for those performers useful within the monastery as accompanists of appropriate material. In other words, from the Church’s perspective performers had different statuses depending on the material they performed, and no licence to deviate. In wider society, secular performers potentially had greater popularity, higher status, and acceptance of deviance, but because of the lack of written evidence there is little to support this notion, which can only be inferred.


For consideration of the appropriation of Germanic cultural practices in the process of conversion, see Barbara Yorke, The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society c.600–800 (Harlow, 2006), 127–8.


Chapter 6 Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance?


ore is known about performance cultures operating in early medieval Scandinavian societies than those of early medieval England, especially at royal courts. There is a far greater corpus of extant literature depicting and relating to the skáld, professional court poets who produced complex and allusive eulogistic poems for their rulers, than there is concerning any insular figures of the early medieval period. Indeed, we know more about Scandinavian court poets who travelled to and operated in England during the age of Viking settlement in the ninth to eleventh centuries than about native performers. The term skáld, which can mean ‘poet’ in general, also refers to a Scandinavian figure with a role more clearly defined in relation to the court than Old English scop or gleoman.1 Hundreds of skalds are named, listed for example in the Skáldatal catalogue of poets,2 and they appear in much saga material. Significant skalds from the literature are believed to have been historical, and have detailed, partially accepted biographies, even if the sagas or accounts in which they appear are not to be relied on for historical accuracy. Practically all evidence for these skalds sits within saga prose narrative, as does the body of skaldic poetry purportedly composed by these poets. Many preserved verses are believed to date as early as the ninth century, and some include first-hand reference to poetic practice. However, the sagas themselves generally date from the 1


For discussion of skalds operating in early medieval England, see Matthew Townend, ‘Cnut’s poets: an Old Norse literary community in EleventhCentury England’, in Elizabeth M. Tyler (ed.), Conceptualizing Multilingualism in Medieval England, 800–1250 (Turnhout, 2011), 197–215. Also Matthew Townend, ‘Contextualizing the Knútsdrápur: skaldic praise-poetry at the court of Cnut’, Anglo-Saxon England 30 (2001), 145–79); Judith Jesch, ‘Skaldic Verse in Scandinavian England’, in James Graham-Campbell (ed.), Vikings and the Danelaw: Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress (Oxford, 2001), 313–25. Concerning the relationship between Skaldic practice and early medieval England, see Alistair Campbell, ‘Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History’, The Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies (London, 1971). Thornbury provides a list of skalds known to have worked in early medieval England: Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2014), 248–9. The earliest extant version of Skáldatal is in the early fourteenth-century Codex Upsaliensis, Uppsala, University of Uppsala, MS DG 11 4to. See Snorri Sturluson, The Uppsala Edda: DG 11 4to, ed. Heimir Pálsson, trans. Anthony Faulkes (London, 2012), particularly xxx–xxxiv.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? thirteenth century onwards. Moreover, even with such a body of literary evidence, certain fundamental information concerning skalds is unclear. For example, like those defined as scopas, it is not known whether they played, or were accompanied by, musical instruments, though skaldic poetry’s complexity, together with the lack of any explicit reference to accompaniment, makes it unlikely.

Performance in a Related Poetic Tradition: Eddic Poetry More relevant for our discussion is Eddic poetry, the Old Norse form more closely related to the Old English poetic tradition. Skalds composed poetry with eulogistic subject matter in exceptional, discrete metrical and stylistic forms. They are not commonly associated with the production of Eddic poetic material, although a few skalds may have consciously mimicked Eddic style.3 Also, professional skalds do not appear in Eddic poetry, though the early skald (and possibly god) Bragi is named in Grímnismál and Sigrdrífumál, and appears as a character in Lokasenna.4 Eddic poetry’s authorship and date of composition is unknown, and it is generally believed to have had oral origins.5 The possible oral origins of The Poetic Edda, the principal Eddic material, are as obscured as those of the Old English tradition, and this issue has become as much of a point




For example, in the account of the battle of Stiklastaðir in Heimskringla II, King Olaf calls on one of his skalds to recite the ´Bjarkarímur´, a poem in Eddic metre, and some early skaldic poems such as Ynglingatal and Háleygjatal, quoted in the early parts of Heimskringla, use a metre similar to fornyrðislag. Moreover, in Sneglu-Halla þáttr skalds are called on to use imagery from Eddic stories to describe everyday events, such as a quarrel between a smith and a carpenter. Bragi has commonly been seen as a god of poetry, but for a discussion of the relationship between the poet Bragi Boddason and the god Bragi, see John Lindow, ‘Narrative Worlds, Human Environments, and Poets: The Case of Bragi’, in Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere (eds), Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions (Lund, 2004), 21–5, at 21, 24. On the provenance of Eddic poetry, see Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature, trans. Peter Foote (Reykjavík, 1988), 26–30. Concerning the oral-formulaic nature of Eddic material, see Robert Kellogg, A Concordance to Eddic Poetry (Cambridge, 1988). See also Lars Lönnroth, ‘Hjálmar’s Death-Song and the Delivery of Eddic Poetry’, Speculum, 46:1 (1971), 1–20, at 1; Terry Gunnell, ‘Eddic Poetry’, in Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2005), 82–100, at 83. Scott Mellor applies oral-formulaic theory to part of The Poetic Edda in Scott A. Mellor, Analyzing Ten Poems from ‘The Poetic Edda’: Oral Formula and Mythic Patterns (Lewiston, NY, 2008).


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems of contention as it has for Beowulf and other Old English poems. Gísli Sigurðsson argues from an oral-formulaic perspective that attempting to date the Eddic poems by relying on internal evidence is problematic.6 Lars Lönnroth offers a similar argument, specifically in relation to Guðrúnarkviða I, highlighting the complexities of its oral prehistory.7 We are thus dealing with a poetry created by the antecedents of many named professional skalds whose material was produced between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, likely their ancestors. Owing to the lack of information we have concerning this prehistory, however, detail concerning the role, status, and associated performance contexts of Eddic poets is lost to us. The principal similarity between Old English and Eddic poetry lies in its overall metrics. The late thirteenth-century Codex Regius manuscript, the main store of Eddic poetry along with the material known collectively as the Eddic Appendix and the Eddica Minora,8 features the Germanic alliterative long line throughout. Despite being designated collectively as ‘Eddic’, there are multiple, distinct metres in the Eddic corpus. The predominant verse forms are as follows: fornyrðislag, ‘old story metre’, the most common form and the Eddic metre most similar to that of Old English poetry, though structurally stanzaic in the main; málaháttr, ‘speeches form’, which features additional unstressed syllables and has a less formal style in comparison with fornyrðislag; and ljóðaháttr, ‘song form’, a stanzaic metre comprising six lines, or two units of three lines.9 As well as the intra-traditional diversity that distinguishes Eddic poetic metres from Old English poetics, there are also differences in content and style between the two traditions, and their literary qualities differ. Lönnroth argues that ‘in comparison to West-Germanic narrative poetry, 6




Gísli Sigurðsson, ‘On the Classification of Eddic Heroic Poetry in View of the Oral Theory’, The Seventh International Saga Conference: Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages, Spoleto, 4–10 September 1988 (Spoleto, 1990), 245–55. Lars Lönnroth, ‘Heroine in Grief: The Old Norse Development of a Germanic Theme’, in Jan Helldén et al. (eds), Inclinate Aurem: Oral Perspectives on Early European Verbal Culture. A Symposium (Odense, 2001), 111–27. See also Mellor, Analyzing Ten Poems, particularly 61–8. Concerning the manuscripts containing poems that typically constitute the wider Eddic corpus, see Joseph Harris, ‘Eddic Poetry’, in Carol J. Clover and John Lindow (eds), Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide (Toronto, 2005), 68–156, at 68–9. A recent summary can also be found in Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘The transmission and preservation of eddic poetry’, in Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn, and Brittany Schorn (eds), A Handbook to Eddic Poetry: Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia (Cambridge, 2016), 12–32, at 21–31. See R. D. Fulk, ‘Eddic metres’, in Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn, and Brittany Schorn (eds), A Handbook to Eddic Poetry: Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia (Cambridge, 2016), 252–70.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? the Edda is much less lax, repetitious and conventional in style; its didacticism much more epigrammatic; its rhetoric much more succinct and precise.’10 For Lönnroth, Eddic poetry is a ‘carefully polished product of poetic craftsmanship’ rather than ‘recordings of an illiterate singer’s improvisations’.11 Although a poem such as Beowulf does not exclusively display signs of the latter – it too is crafted to a significant degree, as its storytelling speeches in particular demonstrate – one possible outcome of such polish concerning the representation of performance is that the vague though symbolic representation of unnamed performers with generic identifiers found in Beowulf was apparently not appropriate for inclusion in Eddic poems. Also, instruments, particularly the lyre, do not function in the same manner in the Eddic corpus, appearing as the device of an individual, named performer rather than as an isolated symbol, as will be shown. There is also some distinction between the uses of formulaic patterning in Eddic and Old English poetry. Whereas in Beowulf analogous halflines encapsulating concise concepts are employed for emphasis, and variation, amplification, and parallelism develop symbolic associations, formulaic properties in Eddic poetry are generally in the form of repeated phrases, often by way of a refrain, a characteristic that does not appear in Old English poetry, except in Deor and somewhat loosely in Wulf and Eadwacer.12 This method of repetition can be seen as a component and possibly a consequence of Eddic poetry’s stanzaic form, another feature rarely found in Old English poetry (Deor, The Rune Poem, and Instructions for Christians being notable exceptions). Lönnroth neatly states that in Eddic poetry, ‘[formulas] serve as ornaments and as poetic padding rather than as the basic building blocks of composition’.13 He also argues that ‘they function very much like refrains in the ballad, i.e. to set a mood, emphasize an idea and give a certain unity to a group of stanzas.’14 Although the placement of formulaic language differs between the two traditions, its function in Eddic poems as conceived by Lönnroth is much the same in Old English poetry, save for routinely giving unity to stanzas – though formulaic language also does this in the Old English poems that feature stanzas.

10 11 12



Lönnroth, ‘Hjálmar’s Death-Song’, 10. Lönnroth, ‘Hjálmar’s Death-Song’, 10. See Brittany Schorn, ‘Eddic style’, in Carolyne Larrington, Judy Quinn, and Brittany Schorn (eds), A Handbook to Eddic Poetry: Myths and Legends of Early Scandinavia (Cambridge, 2016), 270–87, at 281–2. Lönnroth, ‘Hjálmar’s Death-Song’, 2. See also Paul Acker, Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse (London, 2014), 96. Lönnroth, ‘Hjálmar’s Death-Song’, 96.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Amodio considers the ‘leakage’, to use Foley’s expression,15 of literary features across traditions. He claims that whereas formulas are always linguistically and culturally specific and thus are necessarily aligned only with each tradition’s unique prosody, traditional themes are able to cross linguistic (and cultural) boundaries because they are not solely elements of the local expressive economy of any given tradition but are rooted in a far more global one.16

However, there is no certain passage between such boundaries, no guarantee that proximity between cultures or languages necessitates a transfer, through influence or transmission, of literary attributes. Instances relating to performance in Old Norse Eddic poetry are represented in a markedly different manner than in Old English poetry, despite the formal similarities, linguistic relationship, and any comparable subject matter. In particular, the vague, unnamed performers present in the Old English tradition do not feature in Eddic poetry, although description is similarly limited. Also, performance does not feature in the context of hall-­entertainment or the feast. Despite these distinctions, certain deep associations of symbolic application can still be determined. One method of identifying these analogous associations is to consider the gnomic statement in Eddic poetry, comparable in style and content with Old English wisdom poems. For example, the introductory stanzas of the poem Hyndluljóð, found in its entirety in the Flateyjarbok manuscript, contain the following gnomic stanzas spoken by the goddess Freyja. Her speech exemplifies the comparable deep associations concerning cultural knowledge, in the form of aphoristic statement, which evidently existed between the Old English and Old Norse poetic traditions:17 ‘Vaki, mær meyja! Vaki, mín vina, Hyndla systir er i helli byr! 15



John Miles Foley, ‘How Genres Leak in Traditional Verse’, in Mark C. Amodio and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (eds), Unlocking the Wordhoard: Anglo-Saxon Studies in Memory of Edward B. Irving, Jr. (Toronto, 2003). Mark C. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England (Notre Dame, IN, 2004), 156–7. Ward Parks compares the flyting mode across literary traditions, in Ward Parks, Verbal Dueling in Heroic Narrative: The Homeric and Old English Traditions (Princeton, NJ, 1990). Based on internal evidence, Flateyjarbok, the name given to Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute, MS GKS 1005 fol., was constructed between 1387 and 1394. See Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, ‘Manuscripts and Palaeography’, in Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2005), 245–64, at 250.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Nú er røkkr røkkra, ríða við skulum til Valhallar ok til vés heilags. Biðjum Herjafǫðr í hugum sitja, hann geldr og gefr gull verðungu; gaf hann Hermóði hjálm ok brynju en Sigmundi sverð að þiggja. Gefr hann sigr sumum en sumum aura, mælsku mǫrgum ok mannvit firum; byri gefr hann brǫgnum en brag skáldum, gefr hann mannsemi mǫrgum rekki.’

(stanzas 1–3)

‘Wake up, girl of girls, wake up, my friend, Hyndla, sister, who lives in the rock cave! Now it’s the darkness of darknesses, we two shall ride to Valhall, to the sacred sanctuary. ‘Let’s ask Odin, lord of hosts, to be kindly, he gives and pays out gold to the deserving; he gave Hermod a helmet and corslet, and to Sigmund a sword to keep. ‘He gives victory to some, to some riches, eloquence to many, and common sense to the living; he gives following winds to sailors, eloquence to poets, he gives manliness to many a fighter.’18

The gnomic statements witnessed in Old English wisdom poems and in Homeric epic are recognisable. Divinely given gifts are assigned, by Odin in this instance, while the skald is perceived of as someone with a particular skill, possessing bragr, ‘art’ or ‘inspiration’. Similarities in the construction of these gnomic statements, and the association between them, are also perceptible. For example, Freyja additionally alludes to


Passage is from Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason (eds), Eddukvæði, vol. 1 (Reykjavik, 2014), 461. Translation adapted from The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyn Larrington (Oxford, 2014), 245.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems those possessing eloquence, reminiscent of the way in which the abilities of lyrist and wordsmith are listed adjacently in poems such as Christ II and Maxims I. Analogous classification in gnomic statements relating to fundamental conceptions of the performer’s skill is thus perceptible in the imagination of Old English and Eddic poets. Despite such underlying conceptions, however, there is little depiction of performance in the Eddic corpus. What does appear will now be discussed.

‘Vǫluspá’ The seeress in Vǫluspá, ‘Prophecy of the Seeress’, the opening poem of the Codex Regius manuscript, can be seen as an archetypal, ur-storyteller, who has knowledge spanning the extremes of past and future time, so that even Odin desires her wisdom, and it is at his command that her recollections of the past and prophecies for the future are delivered. However, although the possession and acquisition of knowledge is shown to be of primary importance from the outset of the principal codex, storytelling is not a major mode of performance in Eddic poetry. Much Eddic material is conversational and dialogic, and does not routinely provide contexts for formal or professional performances. The narrative settings in which performance appears, and its symbolic associations, are also dissimilar from those found in Old English poetry. For example, performance does not feature as an aspect of social court activity representing communal pleasure in Eddic material, either independently or as a component of ‘joy in the hall’, even though drinking consistently does. There is significant referentiality in Eddic verse, but the method of its generation differs in comparison with the Old English tradition. For example, in Vǫluspá the shepherd-giant Eggþér performs with his harpa, ‘lyre’: Sat þar á haugi ok sló hǫrpo gýgiar hirðir, glaðr Eggþér. Gól um hánom í Galgviði fagrrauðr hani, sá er Fialarr heitir.

(stanza 41)

There sat on the grave-mound and struck his lyre the ogress’s herdsman happy Eggþér. Above him crew in Gallows Wood the gleaming red cock that is named Fialarr.19 19

Adapted from Ursula Dronke, ‘The Poetic Edda’ Volume II: Mythological Poems (Oxford, 1997), 18.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? As in the Old English tradition, the lyre is the most significant instrument in Eddic poetry, and we cannot be certain of the kind of instrument that was envisaged by the poet. The instrument appears four times in the Eddic corpus, though in the context of strife or impending battle rather than as a symbol of pleasure in the social hall. That Eggþér is named distinguishes him from the lyrists in Beowulf and other Old English poems, who are never named or indeed given any characterisation at all, unless King Hrothgar is the player described by Beowulf during his speech to Hygelac (2105–14), and that Scilling is the name of Widsith’s companion in Widsith (103) and not a word referring to the sound of their performance.20 Such identification continues throughout the Eddic corpus, in which all reference to lyre playing is associated with named characters. Eggþér, a musician-herdsman, is glaðr, which could mean ‘glad’ or ‘confident’. Whether he is glaðr because of his musicianship is not spelt out, but it is unlikely. Eggþér is glaðr for reasons other than because of the act of his performance; it is because of the impending end for the gods in Ragnarǫk, his awareness of which is made clear as the poem progresses, and his happiness thus derives from wider plot events rather than from the act of playing the lyre. Although it is not made explicit in the poem, Dronke suggests that Eggþér has knowledge concerning future events, and that his playing was influencing those events.21 Musical performance’s potential to influence, and indeed its magical power, not expressed in Old English poetry outside of the metrical charms, is thus evident here.22 The depiction of Eggþér operates in a complex realm of symbolic images. The associations between the act of the performer and the seeress’s prophecies concerning Ragnarǫk are clear, although the mythological referentiality in Vǫluspá is intricate and largely allusive. Dronke explains the symbolism thus: oppressive portents in the vǫlva’s vision are suddenly replaced by a bright scene: a merry herdsman was sitting, playing a harp; in a tree above him a vivid red cock was crowing. Yet this pastoral peacefulness had an undertow of warning. The harpist’s seat was a grave-mound; he himself belonged to the giant world – gýgiar hirðir – and the wood in which the cock was crowing was hung with corpses. When we hear in the next stanza that two more cocks began to crow, one to wake Oðinn’s

20 21 22

W. J. Sedgefield, ‘Scilling’, MLR, 26 (1931). Dronke, Mythological Poems, 56. The principal work on the charms and early medieval English magic more generally, including edition and commentary, remains G. Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic (The Hague, 1948). See also Lori Ann Garner, ‘Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance’, Oral Tradition, 19:1 (2004), 20–42; Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, NJ, 1991).


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems champions in Valhǫll, and one in the halls of Hel to wake the valorous dead, we can be sure that this minstrel’s lay is an aubade to war.23

The use of performance in this ‘bright scene’ exemplifies powerfully the way in which referentiality can generate contrast between the description of a benign, seated, passive performance, and wider narrative and cultural circumstances. Significant associative implications relate the circumstances of this stanza to the mythological events with which the poem is concerned: the Eggþér’s seat is a burial mound; he is not guarding sheep but wolves which will fight at the impending final battle at Ragnarǫk; the cockerel crowing in the gallows-tree is one of the portents of that battle. Eggþér’s musical performance is one instance of sound functioning as a symbol alluding to forthcoming war in this section of the poem. The purposeful crowing of the cocks is echoed four stanzas later by the blowing of Giallarhorn, the ‘shrieking horn’, by the god Heimdallr, which acts to signify the initial phase of Ragnarǫk: Leika Míms synir, en miǫtuðr kyndiz at en[o] galla Giallarhorni. Hátt blæss Heimdallr -horn er á loptimælir Óðinn við Míms hǫfuð.

(stanza 45)

Mímr’s sons sport, but fate’s measure is lit at the sound of the clear-ringing Clarion Horn. Loud blows Heimdallr – the horn points to the sky – Óðinn talks with Mímr’s head.

Sound in diverse forms is depicted in these stanzas as an expression of impending battle, a call to arms, much like the horn’s function in Old English poetry. Elsewhere in The Poetic Edda, horns are drinking utensils rather than martial or recreational instruments, although one exception appears later in the cycle: in stanza 18 of Hamþismál, the blowing of a horn is associated with a ‘joy in the hall’ scene. The instrument is not played as part of the revelry, however. Used instead as a signal in the hands of a warrior, it alerts the revellers to impending danger, or is winded by one of the warriors who are approaching to attack the hall, and it represents another call to arms:


Dronke, Mythological Poems, 56.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Glaumr var í hǫllo, halir ǫlreifir, ok til gota ekki gerðot heyra, áðr halr hugfullr í horn um þaut.

(stanza 18)

There was revelry in the hall, warriors were happy with ale, and they did not hear the sound of horses, until a keen soldier blew his horn.24

Despite such vivid scenes as the one depicting Eggþér, no further references to performance operate in the same manner in Eddic poetry. We are presented with ‘joy in the hall’ passages, such as the one just quoted, as we are in Beowulf. However, although mead is often mentioned as being passed around, performance does not feature. Such references to performance in joy in the hall passages in Greek epic suggest its presence was common in early European poetry, yet because the corpus of early Germanic poetry is so limited, it is not clear whether performance was lost from ‘joy in the hall’ passages in the Eddic tradition, and introduced into the Old English tradition, or indeed was created independently by a poet such as the Beowulf one, whose depictions are the primary instances that remain to us in Old English. Resultantly, any processes that distinguished the two corpuses are also lost. Performance in Eddic poems has symbolic associations, well attested in the Eggþér stanza, but the method of association differs from that seen in Beowulf and other Old English poems. Eddic poets are concerned with action and character agency rather than symbolism inherent to performers, performances, or instruments. Performance functions as part of the plot, rather than as a component in an image, or as an associative tool or structural device used to introduce historical or legendary context.

Gunnarr’s Lyre Playing Eggþér is one named performer, but a more celebrated musician, the heroic Gunnarr Gjúkason, brother-in-law of Sigurðr Fafnisbani the dragon slayer, uses the lyre too. In doing so, rather than merely being the conduit for historical and legendary material, Gunnarr embodies such material by performing heroic-tragic deeds, just as Widsith embodies the transient, knowledgeable, and capable entertainer in the Old English tradition. In Beowulf, the lyre and its song are abstracted from the plot: they are merely 24

Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda Volume I: Heroic Poems (Oxford, 1969), 165.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems indicated rather than used as tools in key plot events. Additionally, there is little relationship to, and no discussion of, the lyre’s human performance context: the actual activities carried out through its use. In the hands (or feet) of Gunnarr, however, the lyre performs a function integral to the poem’s events. The story of Gunnarr playing the lyre in the snakepit is told in three Eddic poems: Atlakviða, Atlamál in Grænlenzku, and Oddrúnargrátr.25 These episodes constitute the remaining references to lyre playing in Eddic poetry. Although the details of the story change in each occurrence, Gunnarr is never depicted as a performer of artistic material, and his playing is consistently a plot device rather than a symbolic or recreational act. The first instance in the Codex Regius featuring Gunnarr’s lyre playing is in Atlakviða, a version of the tale of Atli’s killing of Gunnarr and his brother Hogni, and the revenge taken by their sister Guðrún. Banished to a snake-pit by Atli, he plays his lyre: Lifanda gram lagði í garð, þann er skriðinn var, skatna mengi, innan ormum. En einn Gunnarr heiptmóðr hǫrpo hendi kníðiglumðo strengir. Svá skal gulli frœkn hringdrifi við fira halda.

(stanza 32)

They placed the living prince in a pit that was crawling – a crowd of men did it – with snakes inside. But Gunnar, alone, with hate in his soul, struck his lyre with his hand. The chords resounded. So must a brave, munificent lord guard his gold against men.26

In this version of the snake-pit story there is little descriptive detail concerning lyre playing save for the reference to use of the hand and the resonance of the chords. While the gnomic style of the final two lines emphasises the heroic nature of Gunnarr’s performance, the purpose of



Outside of Eddic poetry, the story of Gunnarr in the snake pit is also told in the Völsungasaga and in the Prose Edda. See Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, ‘Gunnarr and the Snake Pit in Medieval Art and Legend’, Speculum, 87:4 (2012), 1015–49. Adapted from Dronke, Heroic Poems, 9–10.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? the playing is not made clear. How lyre playing enables him to guard his gold and why he should play at the moment of his impending death is not immediately apparent either, but it is seemingly behaviour appropriate for such a heroic man. One inference is that ‘the harp helps to lighten anguish’, as Dronke suggests,27 but it is also suggested that the playing lulls the snakes in thirteenth-century sources: Dráp Niflunga, Völsunga saga, and Skáldskaparmál in Snorri’s Edda.28 In Atlamál in grænlenzku, an extended version of the same tale of Atli and Guðrún’s revenge over him, Gunnarr’s hands are bound and he resorts to playing the instrument with his toes. Despite this unorthodox technique, the effectiveness of his playing is more apparent here than in Atlakviða, revealed by the reaction of those who hear it: Harpu tók Gunnarr, hrærði ilkvistum. Slá hann svá kunni, at snótir gréto, klukko þeir karlar, er kunno gørst heyra. Ríkri ráð sagði – raptar sundr brusto.

(stanza 63)

Gunnarr took a lyre, touched it with his foot’s twigs. He played with such skill that women wept and men sobbed as they heard it plainly. He told his fate to the mighty queen – the roof-beams burst asunder.29

Despite Larrington’s observation, that Atlamál in grænlenzku is less ‘subtle and allusive’ and more ‘colloquial and idiomatic, closer to the prose sagas in tone’ than Atlakviða,30 detail relating to performance technique is again minimal, and the use of the feet as playing technique undermines any potential relationship between the account and everyday practices. The lyre-playing skill that Gunnarr has is stressed in this instance, together with the effect of his playing upon others and upon the rafters. Those who hear Gunnar’s playing weep at his skill, but also because of what it represents: his demise. In Oddrúnargrátr, the final poem in the codex to refer to Gunnarr and the lyre, his playing is offered from a different perspective. Atli’s sister, Oddrún, who is in love with Gunnarr, describes it within a speech that 27 28 29 30

Dronke, Heroic Poems, 66–7. Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, ‘Gunnarr and the Snake Pit’, 1043. Dronke, Heroic Poems, 89–90. Larrington, Poetic Edda, 211.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems contains storytelling. While she is visiting another court to help with the brewing of beer for a feast, Oddrún hears a lyre and realises that it is a plea for help: Nam ek at heyra ór Hléseyju hvé þar af stríðum strengir mæltu; bað ek ambáttir búnar verða, vilda ek fylkis fjǫrvi bjarga.

(stanza 30)

I heard it there in Hlésey, how the strings were singing of strife; I told my serving-maids to get ready, I wanted to save the prince’s life!31

Oddrún arrives too late to save Gunnarr; Atli’s mother kills him, disguised as a snake. In this instance, we obtain some detail concerning the stríð, ‘grief’ or ‘strife’ communicated by the sound of the strings, as the lyre is said to mæla, ‘speak’ (or gjalla, ‘shriek’ or ‘ring’, since mæltu is a correction of gullu in the manuscript), but there is no further detail. Akin to a signal, an alerting call such as commonly executed by a horn, this could barely be interpreted as a performance, but it does bear comparison with the skilful, affecting playing described in Atlamál in grænlenzku. The lyre playing is a communicative act; meaning is generated via the instrument’s strings. Despite the relationship between their poetic line, form and language, Eddic poetry is of a different kind from a long narrative of the Old English tradition such as Beowulf, or the catalogue style of the wisdom poems. This, together with the distinct concerns of Eddic poems, can account somewhat for the lack of similarity in their representations of performance. Some content is comparable, however: there are Eddic poems heroic in tone and focus, and episodes of revelry at court which could have featured performance do appear. Moreover, the provenance of the two traditions is similarly obscure. Additionally, despite the many apparent differences in representation and narrative style between the two traditions, deep associations in relation to performance are perceptible. In both, the lyre is the primary instrument, with cultural significance and symbolic aspects to its representation, while the horn appears within martial contexts and as a signal. Additionally, the gnomic wisdom in both traditions highlights the 31

Passage from Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason (eds), Eddukvæði, vol. 2 (Reykjavik, 2014), 370; translation from Larrington, The Poetic Edda, 209.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? skill required to be an artistic performer, a skill that is purportedly given divinely. The overall impression is that the representation of performance differs stylistically between Eddic and Old English poetry, while similarities in their underlying associations point to certain correspondences concerning the two traditions in the poetic imagination. As well as underlying similarities between the Old English and Old Norse poetic traditions, an association has long been made by critics between those who performed them. They assert that these performers were related in the past through common and recognised roles in society that were inherent to their respective cultures but also comparable with each other.32 Percy is one early commentator who conjectures that there was a relationship between those who performed Old English and Old Norse poems.33 There have also been attempts to see the Old English poetic tradition as being influenced by Old Norse.34 Also, the associations and differences between the two traditions have been highlighted in comparative analyses.35 One hypothetical reason for differences between Old Norse Eddic and Old English poetic representations of performance, and in particular for the lack of inherent symbolic associations through allusive reference to unnamed entertainers and their instruments in The Poetic Edda, is that in England the tradition of patronising formal court poets had died out, leading over time to an idealised, archaised perception of performers, at least until the tenth century when Athelstan may have received skalds at his court.36 Whenever the Old English poems were originally conceived, they were written down in monastic settings culturally distinct from a mead-hall setting presided over by a pagan, heroic lord. In Scandinavia, however, the skald maintained the tradition of creating and performing eulogistic court poetry after conversion to Christianity, which took place at various times, but in all places later than conversion in England.37 In Old Norse literature, therefore, the performer is less likely to appear in generic, idealised form, performed by an unnamed character, 32 33 34




Cf. Roberta Frank, ‘Anglo-Scandinavian Poetic Relations’, ANQ, 3 (1990), 74–9. Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London, 1839), xiv. For example, Roger Humphris, ‘Scop and Skald: Norse Influence on Old English Poetry’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wales, 1977). See, for example, Hazel Carter, ‘Poetry and Society: Aspects of Shona, Old English and Old Norse Literature’, Zambezia, 3:2 (1974) 11–25, at 20–1. According to Egils Saga, Athelstan apparently patronised Egill Skallagrímsson who, the saga claims, is said to have composed the Aðalsteinsdrápa, of which one stanza is cited in the saga. See Matthew Townend, ‘Pre-Cnut Praise-Poetry in Viking Age England’, RES, 51 (2000), 349–70. On the conversion of Scandinavians to Christianity, see Alexandra Sanmark, Power and Conversion: A Comparative Study of Christianization in Scandinavia (Uppsala, 2004), 75–117. On the relationship between skalds, sagas, and conversion, see John Lindow, ‘St. Olaf and the Skalds’, in Thomas Andrew


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems because the tradition had been preserved and was ongoing, and there were named antecedents to contemporary skalds.

Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’ and an English Tradition of ‘Poetic Performance’ Critics have increasingly been concerned to interrogate the relationship between the Old English poetic tradition and the poetry that followed the Norman Conquest, particularly that of the early Middle English period, during which time Norman French influence on the vernacular was less pronounced than in the later Middle English poetry of Chaucer and his London contemporaries. In addition to the linguistic similarities between Old English and early Middle English prose material such as the Katherine Group texts,38 thematic, stylistic, and associative characteristics of the Old English poetic tradition persisted into the post-Conquest period. As Amodio observes, ‘the traditional themes and story patterns that continue to appear in post-Conquest vernacular verse remain linked to their Old English predecessors through other than verbal means.’39 One of these traditional Old English themes, the idealised representation of artistic performance involving associations with joy, revelry, and successful society, persisted most notably in the work of Laȝamon, a Worcester priest and poet writing between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. We shall now consider the way in which Laȝamon imagined performance in the sole work ascribed to him, the early Middle English Brut (c.1200), to discern influences from the Old English poetic tradition. In the Brut, the representation of performance, while possessing features comparable with the Old English tradition, shows evidence of increasing crystallisation and isolation from the poem’s architectonics and adjacent plot events, into a purely stylistic theme. Following this, we shall discuss more generally the notion of an English tradition of the representation of performance, that emerged in the Old English period and was disrupted, though not entirely broken, in the fourteenth century. Amodio points out that the Brut ‘contains many narrative patterns, among which are scenes of feasts, voyages, arrivals, and combat, whose



DuBois (ed.), Sanctity in the North: Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia (Toronto, 2008), 103–27. The Katherine Group texts are a collection of five prose works dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 34. Concerning Old English linguistic characteristics in these texts, see Dorothy Bethurum, ‘The Connection of the Katherine Group with Old English Prose’, JEGP, 34:4 (1935), 553–64. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition, 158.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? thematics are remarkably similar from one occurrence to the next’.40 The homogeneity of the Brut’s representation of performance can be seen as a result of its remoteness from preliterate cultures of oral transmission, notwithstanding any oral-derived literary characteristics operating within the poem. Poetic intention should be borne in mind when considering the Brut in relation to Old English poems. For example, the Brut is not presented as a heroic epic so much as a historical account. Therefore, performance’s allusions and the complex relationships between performance and reflection on cultural circumstances and with the poem’s overall structure seen in Beowulf should not be expected in the Brut. However, the Brut and Beowulf feature substantial comparable subject matter; both are a mixture of history and legend, and both foreground heroic events. Moreover, as in Beowulf, joy in the hall is a significant thematic element in the Brut. Laȝamon’s Brut survives in two manuscripts: London, British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A IX and London, British Library, Cotton MS Otho C XIII. There are significant differences between the two versions, to the extent that Caligula is approximately 3,000 lines longer than Otho. There is also a notable difference in diction between the two versions. Caligula contains an archaic lexis, relying more heavily on vocabulary derived from Old English, and it features considerable use of compounding reminiscent of Old English poetic constructions. Moreover, the archaisms relating to performance in Caligula often echo the language of performance in Old English poetry, particularly its vocabulary concerning performers. Otho routinely favours Norman-derived words over the archaisms of Caligula and omits many archaic words and lines. This was at one stage thought to suggest a later date for Otho. However, palaeographic evidence dates both manuscripts to the second half of the thirteenth century.41 Both manuscripts rely on an earlier source now lost, although Caligula’s diction is thought to be linguistically closer to the authorial text than Otho.42 Françoise Le Saux also considers Caligula to be ‘most faithful to the authorial copy’.43 Both scribes likely revised an original version, with the Otho scribe being more liberal with his amendments and thus creating a text more divergent from the original than Caligula.44

40 41




Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition, 113. Thomas J. Harford, A Comprehensive Study of Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’ (Lewiston, NY, 2002), 2. E. G. Stanley, ‘Laȝamon’s Antiquarian Sentiments’, Medium Ævum, 38 (1969), 23–37. Françoise Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’: The Poem and its Sources (Cambridge, 1989), 13. On the relationship between the two MSS and their possible progenitor, see Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 10–13.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems The Brut is a product of manuscript sources, in particular Wace’s Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman poem dated to 1155, which is in turn based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin Historia Regum Britannie, ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’, dated to c.1136. Significantly, the development of the treatment of performance in the process of translation and expansion from Laȝamon’s source texts reveals the influence of Old English poetry’s overall style and representation of performance on his work. Laȝamon greatly expands upon the depictions of performance in his sources, or he inserts new ones, showing influence from Old English narrative poems.45 The fact that the Brut is consciously a literary text clearly influenced its reception by early audiences as well as the circumstances of its creation. It is a poem seemingly unsuitable for recital, given its length and subject matter. Brewer points out that Laȝamon envisages a solitary reader rather than a public audience, because the narrator consistently addresses his reader in the singular,46 and internal evidence suggests that Laȝamon considered it a poem for reading. Any oral characteristics in the Brut have been influenced by inevitable changes in the process of poetic creation over time, as Amodio points out.47 Despite this, traces of oral poetics linger in the poem, and Arthur Glowka believes that it was ‘meant to be read aloud or at least read so that its cadences and sounds can be felt’.48 Oral-formulaic analysis has even been applied to the poem. Dennis P. Donahue considers its formulaic features, arguing that Laȝamon applied the characteristics of an orally circulated poem in the adaptation of his sources,49 and Håkan Ringbom adopts the oral-formulaic concept of the theme in his discussion of the narrative correlations between Beowulf and the Brut.50 Nevertheless, the Brut is principally a textually informed work, even if it shows signs of influence from an oral-derived tradition and 45






For detail concerning Laȝamon’s amplifications of Wace, see Håkan Ringbom, Studies in the Narrative Technique of ‘Beowulf’ and Lawman’s ‘Brut’ (Åbo, 1968), 105–23; for comparison between Laȝamon and Wace in relation to performance, see 81–4. Derek Brewer, ‘The Paradox of the Archaic and the Modern in Laȝamon’s Brut’, in Malcolm Godden, Douglas Gray, and Terry Hoad (eds), From Anglo-Saxon to Early Middle English: Studies Presented to E. G. Stanley (Oxford, 1994), 188–205, at 205. Mark C. Amodio, ‘Tradition, Performance, and Poetics in the Early Middle English Period’, Oral Tradition, 15:2 (2000), 191–214, at 201; Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition, 98–128. Arthur W. Glowka, ‘The Poetics of Laȝamon’s Brut’, in Françoise Le Saux (ed.), The Text and Tradition of Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’ (Cambridge, 1994), 57–63, at 62. Dennis P. Donahue, Lawman’s ‘Brut’, an Early Arthurian Poem: A Study of Middle English Formulaic Composition (Lewiston, NY, 1991). Ringbom, Studies.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? some intention to acknowledge that tradition. Following a consideration of performances depicted in Laȝamon’s principal textual source, Wace’s Roman de Brut, the creativity that Laȝamon employs in the process of amplifying the depiction of performance in his work will be explored. This creativity is shown to be influenced by a familiarity with Old English poetry and a desire to develop aesthetic and thematic associations with that earlier tradition, with distinctive results.

Performance in Wace’s ‘Roman de Brut’ Wace’s Roman de Brut contains two significant episodes involving performance. In the first episode (9101–10), the Saxon nobleman Badulph disguises himself as a harper to gain access to his brother Colgrin, who is being besieged by Arthur at York. Taken directly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, it is effectively a translation. As expected from an Anglo-Norman work based on a Latin prose source, the passage bears little relationship to references to performance in the Old English poetic tradition; performance is used as a plot device, in the manner of the ‘harper’s disguise’ theme that begins to appear in early Middle English texts, including in the Brut, in which this episode appears relatively faithfully. In Wace’s second episode, there is detailed description of the festivities that follow the coronation of Arthur, including a long list of instruments and reference to various performing artists: Mult out a la curt jugleürs, Chanteürs, estrumenteürs; Mult peüssiez oïr chançuns, Rotruenges e novels suns, Vieleüres, lais de notes, Lais de vïeles, lais de rotes, Lais de harpes, lais de frestels, Lires, tympes e chalemels, Symphonies, psalteriuns, Monacordes, timbes, coruns. Assez i out tresgeteürs; Joeresses e jugleürs; Li un dient contes e fables, Alquant demandent dez e tables.


There were many minstrels at court, singers and instrumentalists: many songs could be heard, melodies sung to the rote and new tunes, fiddle music, lays and melodies, lays on fiddles, lays on rotes, lays on harps, lays on flutes, lyres, drums and shawms,


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems bagpipes, psalteries, string instruments, tambourines and choruns. There were plenty of conjurors, dancers and jugglers. Some told stories and tales, others asked for dice and backgammon.51

In this section, Wace significantly expands upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, which briefly mentions a music concert together with a general reference to musical instruments. Perhaps because it was perceived of as an unnecessary expansion on Wace’s sources, the passage does not appear in nine of the thirty-two extant manuscripts and fragments of the Roman de Brut. This passage is also distinct from the Old English poetic tradition. In particular, the use of lists of different instruments and performers in the Roman de Brut is markedly different from the Old English style, while rote, lyre, harp, and other string instruments are differentiated. Perhaps Laȝamon’s source manuscript was one of those in which the passage was omitted, because his work does not feature this episode of performance, and in fact is unusually terse in comparison with Wace at this key point in the chronicle. The Brut has the following: Muchel wes þa blisse  þa Arður com to burhȝe; þer wes bemene blæst  and swiðe glade beornes. Þer heo houen to kinge  Arður þene ȝunge. (9942–4) Great was the joy when Arthur came to the town; there was blowing of trumpets and great rejoicing among the men. There they raised the youthful Arthur to the kingship.52

Despite dispensing with Wace’s instruments, this brief passage does reference trumpets, not present in Wace’s long list. Here and elsewhere, as will be shown, trumpets are principally envisaged as instruments of ceremony rather than of court pleasure in the Brut. They are commonly listed separately from those instruments of entertainment, referring to distinct elements though within the same passage.

Episodes of Performance in Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’ Laȝamon develops the Roman de Brut’s 7433 octosyllabic couplets significantly, to 16095 long lines in Caligula. He adds more detail particularly to the section of Wace’s poem that focuses on King Arthur, but greatly expands references to performance throughout his work, and in doing so 51


Judith Weiss, Wace’s ‘Roman de Brut, A History of the British’: Text and Translation (Exeter, 1999), 265. Laȝamon, ‘Brut’, or, ‘Hystoria Brutonum’, ed. W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg (Harlow, 1995), 512–13.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? includes many stylistic elements and diction recognisable from the Old English poetic tradition. References to performance feature extensively in ‘joy in the hall’ episodes, and there are numerous allusions to unnamed vocal, harp playing, and other musical performances. Yet the poem also features named artistic performers, most notably the master musician King Blæðgabreat (3488–97).53 Laȝamon’s description of Blæðgabreat is taken with little revision and amplification from Wace, who expanded on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s brief description. When Laȝamon does expand on his sources, he does so through the introduction of unnamed performers who are often given labels relating to their abilities, reminiscent of those in Beowulf. They appear at times when society is in order, particularly when a king returns home victorious following adventure and conflict, especially in the Arthur section of the poem which, as noted, is where Laȝamon expands on his sources the most. Relatively early in the Brut, a religious festival in the court of King Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain, is described: Hit ilomp on ane daȝe  þat Brutus and his duȝeðe makeden halinesse  mid wrscipen heȝen, mid mete and mid drinchen  and mid murie gleo-dreme, mid seoluer and mid golde  þe elche bar an honde, mid horsen and mid scruden  –bliss wes on hirede; wes al þat folc swa bliðe  swa heo neoren nauer er on liue. (911–16) It happened one day that Brutus and his followers were performing holy rites with solemn ceremony, with food and drink and with merry music-making, with silver and gold which each bore in hand, with horses and raiment – joy was among the people; that whole company was happier than they had ever been.54

This passage is comparable to Wace, in which dancing, feasting, and playing games is mentioned, although Laȝamon includes specific reference to gleo-dreme, ‘music’, or ‘pleasurable sound’, more generally. Thus, anonymous, idealised performance is associated with feasting and signs of wealth, and with the general pleasure experienced by a ruler and his company, reminiscent of Beowulf. Images of joyous prosperity in the royal court contrast with oppressive external dangers that require a heroic response, also comparable with events in Beowulf: immediately following this image of peace and prosperity, twenty giants attack Brutus’s company of Trojans and five hundred of his men are killed. The use of archaic language in this passage recalls Old English poetic language, particularly the 53 54

Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 180–1. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 48–51.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems superlative compound gleo-dreme, unique to the Brut in Middle English. This is a rarely used compound; the Beowulf poet’s use of gleodream (3021), in reference to that which will be lost following Beowulf’s death, is the only extant instance in Old English literature. Significantly, Otho retains this description of merriment together with the compound, in the variant plural form gle-dremes. Otho’s only omission in this passage is of Caligula’s 915, which refers to the horses, raiment, and joy among the people. Later in the Brut, an episode similar in content occurs when King Leir visits his daughter Cordoille at the court of her husband Aganippus, king of the Franks: Heo comen togadere  and ofte heo custen; heo uenden to burȝe;  bliss wes an hirede. Þer wes bemene song  þere ȝeden pipen among; al weren þe hællen  bihongen mid pellen, alle þa mete-burdes  ibrusted mid golde. Ringes of golde  ælc mon hafte on honed; mid fiþelen and mid harpen  hæleðes þer sungen. (1813–19) They met and kissed repeatedly; they went to the city; there was rejoicing in the court. There was the song of trumpets mingled with that of pipes; the halls were all hung with tapestry, all the dining tables laid with gold. Everyone had rings of gold upon their hands; there was singing to the fiddle and harp.55

Laȝamon’s concern in this passage is again to represent the display of wealth and feasting in the hall during a period of celebration. The vague depiction of performance is immediately reminiscent of Beowulf, as is the ‘there was’ statement, a formulaic introduction to performance activity. The Brut departs significantly from Wace at this point, adding the rejoicing in court, the sound of trumpets and pipes and other musical performance, and the images of prosperity. Although Otho has suffered damage affecting the legibility of this part of the poem, it can be determined that much of this passage is retained, except for 1815, that contains the reference to pipes and trumpets, which in Caligula is a formulaic application conforming to a structure in which Laȝamon references narrative events, followed by trumpets and sometimes pipes, then allusion to the wealth of the court, and then to pleasure and performance, which operates partly as a summary of the joyous events (cf. other passages discussed in this chapter: 2545–50, 7455–61, 11415–21). Through the formulaic ordering of his passages, Laȝamon thus commonly distinguishes the function of trumpets from other instruments and singing. 55

Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 94–5.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Laȝamon does not restrict performance to within the court. A battle plain is the setting for another episode of similar style, which occurs when Brenne, a British king, and his brother Belin, duke of Burgundy, are reconciled through the efforts of their mother following a long rivalry. As in the scene featuring Leir, Cordoille, and Aganippus, the passage begins with an affectionate reunion: Þer heo hom custen  þe weren kings bearn, bifeoren þa twam ferden  freondscipe makeden. Bemen þer bleowen  bliss wes on folke. Þer weore segge56 songe,  þer were pipen imagge, þer wes swa muchel murehðe  þat ne mihte heo beon namare. Þus iwerað Brennes  sæht whit his broðer. (2545–50) There they who were king’s sons kissed each other, became reconciled before the two armies. The trumpets sounded; there was joy among the people. There were minstrel songs mingled with the sound of pipes, there was so much merriment that it could not have been greater. So Brenne became reconciled with his brother.57

In this instance, trumpets are again isolated as formal symbols of ceremony and wider celebration, while pipes are additionally incorporated into the allusion to public merriment. This is not a depiction of court performance in the manner of Beowulf, however; it is an instance reporting the merriment among the armies. Although a field containing the two armies is the setting for the reconciliation, Laȝamon’s description leaves open the possibility that the music and joy might not be confined to those armies; he could have meant that there was jubilation among the wider population. Laȝamon again adds performance to Wace’s account at this point – no trumpets, pipes, joy, or minstrelsy feature in Wace – and he is shown to be creating his own images representing peace, with this episode and the episode featuring Leir containing similar elements: trumpets, pipes, and minstrelsy, although reference specifically to harping only appears in the Leir episode. In this passage, one significant distinction between the two manuscripts occurs at 2548, and resultantly minstrelsy (gleomenne) is only a feature of Otho. Otho replaces Caligula’s line: þer weore segge songe, ‘there was the song of men’,58 with the more specific þar was gleomenne songe, ‘there was the song of the minstrel’, exemplifying the continued use of 56 57 58

Gleomenne in Otho. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 132–3. Barron and Weinberg translate segge as ‘minstrel’, perhaps because of their


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems the term gleoman into the Middle English period. Unlike the term scop, gleoman and its variant forms continued to identify entertainers into the late medieval period, where it features in the Lay of Havelok the Dane and Piers Plowman, among other poems. William Dunbar uses the term as late as the 1510s. Except for when Otho omits 9586–7, reference to gleomen in Caligula is retained in Otho and here the term is preferred at 2548 in place of Caligula’s segge. Otho routinely substitutes segge, which despite deriving from Old English secg, ‘man’, is not strictly an archaism, being used in late Middle English poetry; it may have become a dialect word; it is used by the Gawain poet and by the poet of the Alliterative Morte Arthur. When the treacherous Rouwenne feigns to king Vortimer that she has adopted Christianity, Laȝamon describes the following: Þa wæs Uortimer þe king  bliþe þurh alle þing; he wende þat hit weore soð  þat þeo scaðe sæide. Bemen þer bleowen,  blisse wes on hirede. Forð mon brohte þat water  biforen þan kinge; heo seten to borde  mid muchelure blisse. Þa þe king hafde iæten,  þa eoden þeinesmen to mete; in halle heo drunken,  harpen þer dremden. (7455–61) King Vortimer was then the happiest of men; he thought that what the evil creature [Rouwenne] said was true. Then trumpets were sounded, there was rejoicing at court. Water for washing was brought to the king; amid great rejoicing they all sat down to table. When the king had eaten, the noble servitors began their meal; there was drinking in the hall, there was the sound of harps.59

This passage is also a Laȝamon amplification. The focus on harp sound, described using the Middle English verb dremen, which developed from Old English dream and also dryman ‘to sing aloud, rejoice, be joyful’,60 recalls the reference to lyre sound or music at 89 of Beowulf: þær wæs hearpan sweg, as well as other reminiscences of hearpan sweg in Beowulf’s later passages. The sounding of the trumpets and the harps – distinct in position and function – and indeed the entire description of the court, is not found in Wace. Otho retains this passage except for one line, 7457, again omitting the ceremonial trumpets, and the general reference to rejoicing at court.

59 60

awareness that gleomen was used in Otho: Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 133. The more literal ‘men’ is preferred here, however. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 385. See the OED, ‘dream, v.1’, online at .


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? It should be noted at this point that there are formulaic characteristics in the Brut that belie its literary influences, or indicate the influence of formulaic writing. All four of the passages discussed above contain the bliss wes, ‘there was joy’, ‘b’ half-line, associating joy with either hirede, ‘court’ or folke, ‘people’: bliss wes on hirede (915) bliss wes an hirede (1814) bliss wes on folke (2547) bliss wes on hirede (7457)

For Laȝamon, as it was for the Beowulf poet, bliss, ‘joy’, is clearly a routine concept associating a positive emotional state, partly involving and resulting from performance, with the communal court space and its populace. Though it is not uniform in all passages, another formulaic characteristic of Laȝamon’s passages of performance is their overall structure, which can be broken down as follows: protagonists in action; trumpets; feasting and wealth display; artistic performance. Gleomen feature again in the Brut when King Uther Pendragon reappears to his people, instigating another period of rejoicing among the Britons. Bliss is again emphasised: Þa com he to þan ærde   þer læi his ferde, Merlin hafde a þene king  his wlite iset þurh alle þing; þa icneowen cnihtes  heore kinelauerd; þer was moni oht Brut  mid blissen afeolled. Þa weoren inne Bruttene  blissen inoȝe: hornes þer bleowen,  gleomen gunnen gleowen; glad æuerælch cniht,  al mid pælle biþæht. (9582–8) Then the king came to the place where his army lay. Merlin had restored his appearance to him in all respects, and so the knights recognised their lord and king; many a valiant Briton there was filled with joy. In Britain then was much rejoicing: horns were sounded there, minstrels made music; glad was each and every knight, clad all in fine clothes.61

Laȝamon clearly favours the inclusion of a description of celebration involving performance to mark a king’s return, forming a recurrent theme in the Brut. This passage, however, shows a compression of his typical structure, with joy, horns, minstrelsy, and wealth display – the fine clothes – occurring over two and a half lines. We shall see that this compression intensifies as the poem progresses. 61

Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 493.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

Laȝamon’s ‘Scopes’ Perhaps the most overt archaism applied by Laȝamon in relation to performance is the use of the term scop (in the plural form scopes), which otherwise died out very early in the post-Conquest period. This continued use by Laȝamon can be seen as representative of the conscious links to Old English demonstrated through the choice of descriptive language in Caligula. With scopes, as indeed with gleomen too, the singular form of the word is never used, such is the general nature of the description; scopes and gleomen consistently appear as an anonymous and homogeneous group. Laȝamon employs two forms: scopes ‘poets’, and leod-scopes, ‘poets of the people’ or ‘poets of the king/prince/ruler’. E. G. Stanley argues that ‘many of the compounds not found in ME outside the Brut, e.g. those with “leod” as first element, clearly belong to the tradition of OE poetic compounds’,62 though, as Le Saux suggests, compounding does not necessarily denote conscious archaism.63 The compound leod-scop does not appear in pre-Conquest literature, although leod derives from Old English, and so Laȝamon could have adopted the practice of inventing nonce compounds from his awareness of the diversity of compounding in Old English poems and invented leod-scopes, among other leod-compounds unique to him. It shows that he believed such practice to be ‘permissible and desirable within the traditional poetic diction’, as Stanley suggests.64 Scopes are largely distinguished from gleomen in the Brut, lending support to Opland’s distinction even at this late date.65 Alternatively, Laȝamon was aware of a distinction that existed in the early medieval period. Scopes and gleomen are mentioned together, however, in two references to a prophecy by Merlin concerning Arthur. The first passage reads: Af him scullen gleomen  godliche singen; of his breosten scullen æten  aðele scopes; scullen of his blode  beornes beon drunke. (9410–12) Of him shall minstrels splendidly sing; of his breast noble bards shall eat, heroes shall be drunk upon his blood.66 62 63

64 65


Stanley, ‘Laȝamon’s Antiquarian Sentiments’, 30. Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 189–92. See also W. R. J. Barron, ‘The Idiom and the Audience of Laȝamon’s Brut’, in Rosamund Allen, Lucy Perry, and Jane Roberts (eds), Laȝamon: Contexts, Language, and Interpretation (London, 2002), 157–84, at 178–9. Stanley, ‘Laȝamon’s Antiquarian Sentiments’, 30. Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven, CT, 1980), 259. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 484–5.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Otho replaces aðele scopes ‘noble bards’ with staleworþe kempes, ‘brave warriors’, so that warriors perform the actions of the final two lines, and while the first two lines are a variation on the roles of artist figures in Caligula, 9412 amplifies 9411 in Otho. Otho retains the reference to gleomen that features in this section. Later in the poem, at 11495, the same prophecy by Merlin again features both scopes and gleomen: Al þat iherde  of Arðure telle heom þuhte muchel seollic  of selen þan kinge. And swa hit wes iuuren iboded,  ær he iboren weoren. Swa him sæide Merlin,  þe witeȝe wes mære, þat a king sculde cume  of Vðere Pendragune, þat gleomen sculden wurchen burd  of þas kinges breosten, and þerto sitten  scopes swiðe sele and eten heore wullen  ær heo þenne fusden, and winscenches ut teon  of þeos kinges tungen, and drinken and dreomen  daies and nihtes; þis gomen heom sculde ilasten  to þere weorlde longe. (11489–99) All who heard tell of Arthur marveled greatly at the noble king. And so it had been foretold long ago, before he was born. Merlin himself, the famous prophet, said so, said that a king should descend from Uther Pendragon, that minstrels should make a table of that king’s breast, and most excellent poets sit down thereat and eat all they wished before they went away, and draw draughts of wine from that king’s tongue, and drink and make merry both day and night; this entertainment should suffice them to the end of the world.67

Otho differs again at this point, omitting Caligula’s 11495 featuring scopes entirely, while retaining the gleomen of the previous line. With their distinctive imagery of minstrels’ eating, in the context of praise within a prophecy, both previous passages diverge from the Old English tradition. However, scopes are mentioned in a similar manner as in Beowulf in one instance, when Arthur returns safely home to Britain, landing at Grimsby: Þat iherden sone  þa hæhste of þissen londe and to þære quene com tidende  of Arðure þan kinge, þat he wes isund icumen  and his folc on selen. Þa weoren inne Bruttene  blissen inoȝe:


Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 590–1.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems her wes fiþelinge and song,  her wes harpinge imong, pipen and bemen  murie þer sungen; scopes þer sungen  of Arðure þan kingen and of þan muchele wurðscipe  þe he iwunnen hafeden. (11324–31) The greatest men in this land soon learnt of that and news of King Arthur was brought to the queen, that he had returned safe and sound and with his army in good heart. Then there was in Britain great rejoicing: here sounds of viol and of voice, mingling with music of the harp, there pipes and trumpets ringing out merrily; there minstrels sang of Arthur the king and of the great honour which he had won.68

In this passage, another expansion on Wace, the ordering of music, harp, pipes, trumpets, and minstrels is chronologically inverted from those passages considered above, and trumpets and harps are grouped with the other references to performance. Also uniquely, this passage references the subject matter of the scopes: their praise of the king and his deeds, at the end of the usual celebratory elements. Scopes are shown to be performing the archetypal role of eulogist, possibly in the professional service of their lord, although this is not specified. Again, scopes are omitted from Otho; this time, the scopes þer sungen half-line at 11330a of Caligula is not included. References to such archaic characters were seemingly deemed irrelevant by the Otho scribe.

Performance in Later Passages of the ‘Brut’. Shortly after Arthur lands at Grimsby, the subsequent episode of performance follows disorder in Arthur’s London court; there is animosity between hæxte þeines, ‘high-ranking thanes’, and their knights, who arrive from different parts of Arthur’s kingdom. After scuffles break out, Arthur orders the men to break up the fight. Following this display of authority, his court returns to order and there is reconciliation: Seoððen me bleou bemen  mid swiðe murie dremen; weoren him leof weoren him læð,  elc þer feng water and clæð and seoððen adun seten  sæhte to borden, al for Arðure æiȝe,  aðelest kingen. Birles þer þurngen,  gleomen þer sungen, harpen gunnen dremen;  duȝeðe wes on selen. Þus fulle seoueniht  wes þan hirede idiht. (11415–21) 68

Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 583.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Then trumpets were sounded with a cheerful noise; whether reconciled or not, everyone there made use of water and towel and afterwards sat down to table in amity, solely out of respect for Arthur, the noblest of kings. Cup-bearers thronged there, there minstrels sang, harps resounded; the company was in high spirits. For fully a week the court was maintained in this manner.69

The typical chronological construction of trumpets, court activity and wealth, and minstrelsy, is resurrected in this passage. Otho again retains the line featuring the gleomen (11419) at this point, though it omits the following line that features the harpen (11420). Harps are mentioned in celebratory scenes in Caligula more often than in Otho, suggesting a move away from the dominance of the instrument in the Old English period, which is reflected in Caligula, and suited to Caligula’s archaic style. The general dominance of the harp as component of the description of performance and celebration is ending by the early Middle English period, as other instruments routinely appear. Ringbom notes this, but also argues that in the Brut other instruments such as trumpets and horns ‘are, however, mentioned not in accounts of feasts proper, but in such passages where the people give vent to feelings of joy and happiness’.70 This gives the impression that harps appear in separate passages than trumpets and horns, but as we have seen the instruments do appear in the same passages, but as distinctive components, singled out from the overall joy accompanied and represented by other references to performance and pleasure, at 1819, 7461, 11420, and 12073. The above passage describing the disorder and return to normality at Arthur’s court is characteristic of the Brut’s latter stages, where performance appears only briefly. Laȝamon, having presented episodes of feasting and other joyous occasions featuring performance earlier in the poem, appears to feel even less need to offer detailed description in later passages. For example: Þus Arður þe king delde  his drihtliche londes after heore iwurhte  for he heom þuhte wurðe. Þa weoren bliðe spelles  in Arðures hallen; þer wes harepinge and song,  þer weoren blissen imong. (12070–3) So King Arthur distributed his royal lands according to the merits of those men whom he thought worthy. Then there was joyful entertainment in Arthur’s halls; there was harping and singing, and other pleasures as well.71 69 70 71

Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 586–7. Ringbom, Studies, 88. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 622–3.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Over just two lines, this instance repeats the compression seen at 9586–8. Reference to performance is also very brief on another occasion, when Arthur and his army set sail: Wunden into widen sæ  þeines wunder bliðe. Scipen þer forð þrungen, gleomen þer sungen, seiles þer tuhten, rapes þer rehtten; wederen alre selest and þa sæ sweuede. (12747–50) In high spirits the warriors set out upon the open sea. Then ships pressed onwards, minstrels sang, sails were hoisted, ropes adjusted; the weather was very calm and the sea lay quiet.72

At this relatively late point in the Brut, performance achieves extreme brevity and redundancy, lacking function in the text. Outside of the traditional contexts of hall or battlefield, listed among references to seafaring and associated tasks, performance’s intended associations have become ambiguous. It could be that the minstrels are contributing to the high spirits, or reflecting and supporting heroic endeavour, but no clear purpose for performance’s inclusion is perceptible here. Laȝamon’s representation of performance subsequently fades away, having become increasingly terse.

Laȝamon’s Notion of Tradition Amodio argues that some isolated elements of Laȝamon’s feasting scenes, such as the joyous noise and the music and song that attend the occasion, clearly descend from Anglo-Saxon tradition, but their overall contours deviate so greatly from those found in Old English poetry that a structuralist reading of them yields only general insights.73

Amodio does not see performance as an appropriate subject for the comparative analysis that he subsequently undertakes with Wace’s Roman de Brut, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannie, and Old English poetry, to highlight how Laȝamon is informed by oral poetics. Instead, he compares a passage in which a hero battles a monstrous foe, and another in which a woman greets a man and offers a cup to him.74 This is justifiable: those episodes contain more specific plot details, including named 72 73 74

Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 657. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition, 114. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition, 114–28.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? characters, and they have typically heroic and ceremonial characteristics respectively. Yet if we compare episodes of performance in the Brut and Beowulf, we can observe similarity in their generalised representation, and there are certainly linguistic correlations. More specifically, episodes in the Brut are reminiscent of the point in Beowulf at which the Geats have arrived at Hrothgar’s hall (494b–98). There, the Beowulf poet places a reference to performance among a description of joy in the hall, during a moment of relative peace for the Danish people as they welcome Beowulf and his Geatish band. Unlike other instances of performance in Beowulf, the performer does not introduce a specific tale, and the passage does not have any symbolic function other than to represent pleasure and effectiveness at court. This passage is comparable with Laȝamon’s representations throughout the Brut. Laȝamon’s images of periods of peace and joy at court between battles bear striking similarities to those in Beowulf, even though they possess less dynamism in relation to the construction of the narrative and more isolation from plot events. Indeed, the most significant difference between the treatment of performance in Beowulf and the Brut is that at no point does Laȝamon use performance to develop the narrative. The Beowulf poet places significance on, and shows intriguing identification with, his performers, by using them as intrinsic components that facilitate and link narrative elements while also developing symbolic associations. Laȝamon’s performance, while being a routine aspect of hall-entertainment and feasting showing obvious associations with pleasure and success, is superfluous to both the architectonics and wider symbolic and cultural contexts of his work. Performance is not exploited as a literary device in the Brut except as a component of a generalised description of pleasure, though usually an aspect of court life reminiscent of Old English representation, particularly as one of the characteristics of the feast.75 It is arguable, given the broad lack of comparable representation in other Old English narrative poems, that Laȝamon could have been influenced by Beowulf specifically, or by a poem in Beowulf’s mould now lost. Like the Beowulf poet, Laȝamon engages with subject matter that looks back to an earlier time, taking him outside his contemporary cultural milieu. Moreover, his treatment of his material, his language, and his verse form reveals an overtly anti-Norman stance. Yet Derek Pearsall believes that ‘Laȝamon is a massive erratic in the history of English poetry. He proves nothing about the continuity of the alliterative tradition but his own obstinacy: his sources and models lay outside the tradition…’76



See Hugh Magennis, Images of Community in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1996), 60–81, particularly 62. Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London, 1977), 112.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Pearsall also rejects any idea that Laȝamon’s heroic style, particularly his description of battle, is influenced by Old English.77 Similarly, Thorlac Turville-Petre claims that ‘the suggestion which is sometimes made that Laȝamon was drawing on a tradition of heroic verse orally handed down has little to support it.’78 However, he does accept that Old English poetry may have played some part.79 Oral transmission may not have influenced the Brut directly, and performance in the poem does not have the structural function that might have been an indicator of oral narrative technique, but the associative aspects of written Old English poetry and its oral origins were a significant influence in relation to the Brut’s representation of performance. Laȝamon copied the events of Wace’s Roman de Brut, without reflecting Wace’s use of Anglo-Norman, while adding his own images of success that appear to have been influenced by the Old English poetic tradition.80 Noting the amplification in Laȝamon’s ‘joy in the hall’ episodes, and its evocation of passages in Beowulf, Brewer determines that ‘this may be part of Laȝamon’s re-creation of archaic modes’.81 Concerning such images, Ringbom claims that ‘as Lawman elaborates on exactly those set themes that were most common in Old English poetry it is tempting to suspect that he was influenced by Old English traditions’.82 Considering performance in particular, Ringbom notes that ‘music and singing are described in the same terms in Beowulf and the Brut’.83 Moreover, in contrast with Pearsall and Turville-Petre, some critics have seen more general evidence of links between the Brut and Old English literature. For example, in the introduction to their edition and translation of the poem, W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg note that [it is likely] given the growing evidence of Laȝamon’s conscious performance, that he felt free to embellish his version of Wace with whatever his imagination found relevant among the source materials, literary and oral, available to him. The archaising element in his poem – his use of a basically accentual verse-line, his heavy reliance on alliteration, his fondness for a poetic diction reminiscent of Old English literature – and the very choice of English at a time when French was more widely used as a literary language, link him with the Old English literary tradition.84

77 78 79 80

81 82 83 84

Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry, 112. Thorlac Turville-Petre, The Alliterative Revival (Cambridge, 1977), 13. Turville-Petre, Alliterative Revival, 13. Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 24–7. See also Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, xvi; Brewer, ‘Paradox’, 194–6. Brewer, ‘Paradox’, 196. Ringbom, Studies, 78. Ringbom, Studies, 90. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, xvi.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Elsewhere, Thomas A. Bredehoft notes the influence of Ælfric’s works, as well as late Old English poems, on Laȝamon.85 He also goes on to argue that Laȝamon was familiar with certain poems of the later early medieval period, particularly some from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.86 Given the nature of the Brut as a historical text, Laȝamon’s familiarity with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is entirely plausible. If Laȝamon did read Old English material, it is not clear how much of it he would have had access to. In his proem, Laȝamon claims to be a priest who lived at Areley Kings, in the West Midlands of England. He is thus likely to have had an association with nearby Worcester, only ten miles away, and might have been familiar with the Old English manuscripts in the cathedral library there.87 Moreover, Laȝamon claims that he used an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as a source,88 and he may have accessed one of the manuscripts of Bede in circulation that contained a small amount of Old English verse. However, the Brut itself does not show evidence of direct access to Bede’s work.89 The other source he names, which he claims was ‘composed by St Albin and the blessed Austin who introduced baptism here’90 was written in Latin, even if he used that obscure text at all.91 As to Laȝamon’s versification and what it can reveal concerning his likely influences, Laȝamon’s Brut is an alliterative poem, though its metre is much looser than that of classical Old English poetry.92 Although there are routinely two stresses in each half-line, the syllable count of the Brut’s poetic line is more variable than that of classical Old English poetry, with a minimum of five syllables per half-line but no maximum. Indeed, Glowka suggests that it is more appropriately described as ‘rhythmic, ornamental prose’,93 and its metrical characteristics could have been influenced partly by the prose nature of some of Laȝamon’s source material. Turville-Petre proposes that Laȝamon ‘learnt his metrical technique not from Old English poetry but from works such as The Worcester Fragments’. The Fragments are 85 86 87 88


90 91



Thomas A. Bredehoft, Early English Metre (Toronto, 2005), 99, 110–20. Bredehoft, Early English Metre, 111. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, xvi. Laȝamon makes the claim in the proem to his work. See Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 2–3. See Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 16–17; also E. G. Stanley, ‘Laȝamon (fl. 13th cent.)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 3. For discussion of this source see Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 17–22. Harford suggests that this source may in fact be Bede’s Latin Historia Ecclesiastica: Harford, Comprehensive Study, 3. Concerning Laȝamon’s metrics, see Thomas Cable, The English Alliterative Tradition (Philadelphia, 1991), 2–3 and 58–63. Glowka, ‘Poetics of Laȝamon’s Brut’, 57.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems short transcriptions of vocal music from the later thirteenth century, likely too late for Laȝamon to have accessed and hardly comparable to the Brut in terms of subject matter or genre, though geographically convenient for him.94 Aligning with Bredehoft’s point, some critics see the greatest influence on this loose alliterative style as being Ælfric’s tenth-century prose, which has rhythmic characteristics.95 Laȝamon could also have been influenced by the writing of a community of fellow priests, such as the glossator known as the ‘Tremulous Hand’ of Worcester, his likely contemporary from the same region. However, Thomas Cable points out two alternative possibilities, both of which assume contact with Old English poetry: the differences between the Old English metrical line and Laȝamon’s line may have come about because (a) Laȝamon devised his own interpretation of Old English poetry, focusing on the stress rather than the syllable count, or (b) he modified his metre from the syllable count in the Old English line.96 Laȝamon’s loose alliterative style blends elements of Old English alliterative metre, rhythmical prose, and Continental rhyme into a unique formulation. Whether it follows that this determines a significant amount of contact with and understanding of Old English poetry is not certain. However, even if he did not encounter an oral tradition of heroic verse – and it seems unlikely that he did – Laȝamon appears to have represented performance using a style typical of written epic verse, reminiscent at least of the scop’s appearances in Beowulf. There are such similarities in the representation and the language of performance between Laȝamon’s Brut and Old English poems – particularly Beowulf – not present in his stated sources, that some direct influence between the two could be argued for. In general, Bredehoft’s perception of a process of evolution and development through influence from the rules of classical Old English verse to the early Middle English period seems entirely plausible when considering Laȝamon’s Brut.97 There has been significant discussion of Laȝamon’s relationship with pre-Conquest history and culture as well as with Old English language and literature, particularly concerning his intentions concerning the Brut’s archaic lexis. It has been argued, for example, that Laȝamon was consciously refuting the ‘Norman yoke’ and advocating support for his early

94 95

96 97

Turville-Petre, Alliterative Revival, 13. N. F. Blake defines Laȝamon’s style as ‘rhythmical alliteration’: N. F. Blake, ‘Rhythmical Alliteration’, Modern Philology, 67 (1969), 118–24. However, see Rafael J. Pascual, ‘Ælfric’s Rhythmical Prose and the Study of Old English Metre’, English Studies, 95 (2014), 803–23, for an argument that contemporary compositional trends influenced Ælfric’s style. Cable, English Alliterative Tradition, 60–2. Bredehoft, Early English Metre, 100.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? medieval forebears.98 His use of archaic language has thus been seen as reflecting an English nationalism, or as an attempt to associate with the English ‘race’, particularly by earlier scholars.99 Brewer, however, believes that Laȝamon was ‘inventing an archaizing style’.100 Moreover, the narrative suggests an ambivalent attitude: early English rulers are negatively depicted in the Brut, which favours the original Britons, and he has also been seen as a multiculturalist, albeit a rather limited one, because of the linguistic diversity of his sources, and his focus upon Britain as opposed merely to England.101 Considering further the purpose for undertaking the writing of the Brut, and what that purpose might suggest concerning its relationship with older literary traditions, Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne consider the uninformative nature of Laȝamon’s prologue to his work, together with the possible circumstances surrounding the way he, as they see it, ‘was inspired by the desire to recount the history of the nobles of England, and embarked on a textual adventure to gather up the past of the land and to produce a new written synthesis’.102 They contemplate the possible audience of the poem in particular, and argue that ‘it is not easy … to re-create the receptive context (desired or actual) for Laȝamon’s work’.103 Considering the way in which he builds on or invents instances of performance, Laȝamon’s impulse was creative and scholarly enterprise rather than the assemblage of material for consumption by a particular audience. Brewer argues that Laȝamon was ‘transposing Wace’s anachronistically “modern” presentation of the primitive early history of Britain into something more suitable. He adopts a modified form of ancient ver-

98 99

100 101



See Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 184–9. See Henry Cecil Wyld, ‘Laʒamon as an English Poet‘, RES, 6 (1930), 1–30. Concerning the perceived invention of Laȝamon’s nationalism by critics, see Daniel Donoghue, ‘Laʒamon’s Ambivalence’, Speculum, 65:3 (1990), 537–63, at 557. Brewer, ‘Paradox of the Archaic’, 194, Brewer’s emphasis. Concerning Laȝamon’s reaction to English history, and his allegiance to the early medieval English and their literature, see Harford, Comprehensive Study, 41–75. For Laȝamon as multiculturalist, see Elizabeth J. Bryan, ‘Laȝamon’s Brut and the Vernacular Text’, in Rosamund Allen, Jane Roberts, and Carole Weinberg (eds), Reading Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’: Approaches and Explorations (Amsterdam, 2013), 683; Elizabeth Salter, English and the International: Studies in the Literature, Art and Patronage of Medieval England, ed. Derek Pearsall and Nicolette Zeeman (Cambridge, 1988), 48–70. Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ‘National, World and Women’s History: Writers and Readers of English in Post-Conquest England’, in David Wallace (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge, 1999), 94. Johnson and Wogan-Browne, ‘National, World and Women’s History’, 97.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems sification, avoids modern French words and concepts, creates his own archaizing diction as he goes along.’104 His additions to his source material form one aspect of his retrospective approach to the conception of chronicle, one that incorporates poetic allusion, an approach that might well have alienated a contemporary audience. Relating to this creativity, even though the Brut is purportedly a historical chronicle, Laȝamon himself, possibly unwittingly, cautions against our treating his work as being accurate, and he does this through reference to leod-scopes. Laȝamon expresses the nature of truth in relation to opinions of kings, and of ‘poets of the people’: Ne al soh ne al les  þat leod-scopes singeð; ah þis is þat soððe  bi Arðure þan kinge, Nes næuer ar swulc king,  swa duhti þurh alle þing; for þat soðe stod a þan writen  hu hit is iwurðen, ord from þan ænden,  of Arðure þan kinge, no mare, no lasse,  buten alse his laȝen weoren. Ah Bruttes hine luueden swiðe  and ofte on him liȝeð, and suggeð feole þinges  bi Arður þan kinge þat næuere nes iwurðen  a þissere weorlde-richen. Inoh he mai suggen  þe soð wule uremmen seolcuðe þinges  bi Arðure kinge. (11465–75) What minstrels sing is not all truth, nor all lies; but this is the truth about King Arthur. Never was there such a king, so valiant through thick and thin; for the truth of what befell King Arthur from beginning to end has been recorded in the writings, his acts just as they were, no more, no less. But the Britons loved him greatly and often tell lies about him and say many things of King Arthur which never happened in this mortal world. He who is willing to speak the truth can tell many marvellous things about King Arthur.105

As noted by Kenneth Tiller, Laȝamon is more ambiguous about the nature of leod-scopes’ material than Wace is about that of the fableürs in the corresponding section of the Roman de Brut:106 Que pur amur de sa largesce, Que pur poür de sa prüesce, En cele grant pais ke jo di, 104 105 106

Brewer, ‘Paradox of the Archaic’, 194. Barron and Weinberg, ‘Brut’, 588–91. Kenneth J. Tiller, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’ and the Anglo-Norman Vision of History (Cardiff, 2007), 187.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? Ne sai si vus l’avez oï, Furent les merveilles pruvees E les aventures truvees Ki d’Artur sunt tant recuntees Ke a fable sunt aturnees: Ne tut mençunge, ne tut veir, Ne tut folie ne tut saveir. Tant unt li cunteür cunté E li fableür tant fablé Pur lur cuntes enbeleter, Que tut unt fait fable sembler.


In this time of great peace I speak of – I do not know if you have heard of it – the wondrous events appeared and the adventures were sought out which, whether for love of his generosity, or for fear of his bravery, are so often told about Arthur that they have become the stuff of fiction: not all lies, not all truth, neither total folly nor total wisdom. The raconteurs have told so many yarns, the storytellers so many stories, to embellish their tales that they have made it all appear fiction.107

Whereas Wace is clear – and critical – about the role storytellers have played in making all of Arthur’s adventures incredible, Laȝamon stresses that the leod-scopes communicate both facts and fiction: Ne al soh ne al les þat leod-scopes singeð, ‘What minstrels sing is not all truth nor all lies’ (11465). Tiller states that ‘Laȝamon explains, sympathetically, the process of dissimulating fiction and history about Arthur, and invites reader scrutiny of all accounts.’108 Yet Laȝamon assumes that the written material is truthful, whereas the leod-scopes are less so. The intention of the Brut should be seen in relation to this passage. Does Laȝamon align himself with leodscopes, or is he perceiving them to be the oral storytellers of a former time? Although Tiller suggests that Laȝamon is participating in a culture of history transmission that necessarily involves unreliability,109 the Brut claims that it has the truth: ah þis is þat soððe bi Arðure þan kinge, ‘this is the truth about Arthur the King’ (11466). Laȝamon appears to profess to be a historian, distanced from the part-truths of the oral poet. In doing so, he contends that the author or narrator of an extant medieval poem should not be conflated with the poet figures that their works contain. Here, as in Beowulf, the poets themselves are presented as being historical, though that is by no means a certainty, and both poems can be seen to present 107 108 109

Weiss, Wace’s ‘Roman de Brut’, 246–7. Tiller, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 187. Tiller, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 187–8.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems scop performers of the same kind: poet communicators, storytellers among the people of former times, rather than the narrator’s time. Of course, in presenting a work that is itself an adaptation of diverse sources, Laȝamon simultaneously undermines any notion that the Brut is wholly accurate, by highlighting the unreliability of transmission. Because of the timespan between the Brut’s events, whether historical or legendary, and Laȝamon’s writing, and because he was embellishing his sources, which were often erroneous in any case, the reader of Laȝamon’s Brut should not expect to discover any significant description concerning historical performance technique from the poem. As stated, the representations are uniform throughout its chronology. Its composition date is distinct from the events it describes, as with Beowulf. Whereas Beowulf might well be the product of a process of transmission among oral poets, followed by a subsequent transition to written form, the Brut is a work of a single, literate author, though it contains traces of oral style. The Brut, therefore, along with Beowulf and together with many other Old English poems, should be read without expectation of historical accuracy. Because we cannot be certain of Laȝamon’s influences on his representation of performance, we are not able to say how he may have amended or adapted his sources. If such representations were found in Wace, we would have something to compare. Regarding performance, Laȝamon was not influenced by Wace or the other sources stated in his work. The sole significant appearance of performance in Wace features a long list of instruments, which Laȝamon does not appropriate. Instead, textual comparison reveals greater evidence that he turned to the Old English poetic tradition, or the remnants of its poetic imagination, possibly the imagination of a poet of heroic material, such as the Beowulf one, for his inspiration. Performance in the Old English period was regularly presented as a component of a theme, particularly as a part of ‘joy in the hall’, with associative functions and idealistic representation. It is likely that Laȝamon observed this phenomenon, in Beowulf or elsewhere, or understood the conception as part of his poetic imagination. He applied it in the late twelfth century to his representation of British history, revealing a continuation of this mode of imagining into the early Middle English period, in a manner that largely removes performance from the wider plot and the architectonics of the work. The performance meme crystallised as it became distanced from the oral tradition. As a result of the similarities in its use of language and application of theme, the representation of performance in the Brut can be seen as a continuation of the style found in Old English poetry. However, their representations also have significant differences, in ways that reveal the Brut to be a poem further removed than Beowulf from the practice of oral composition and transmission. In the Brut, performance functions in a far more homogeneous way overall in comparison with Beowulf. It also has 210

Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? less significance in relation to the poem’s structure, and little symbolic relationship with wider plot events. There is no interperformativity. Ringbom observes that performance features as a component of feasting, and that ‘the feasts, which do not vary much in length, are of a very conventional character’ and, moreover, they ‘are described in the same terms regardless of the historical period described’.110 Whereas the Beowulf poet utilises performance in a multiform manner, Laȝamon applies his imaginings of what performance ought to be uniformly, for the duration of his chronicle. The idealised representation of performance could broadly be grouped as a generic characteristic of early medieval heroic poetry, particularly a poetry that takes the past as its subject. Sharma argues that ‘in Bergsonian and Deleuzoguattarian thought, the past is alive: it is never the lost object of fantasy but a vital ontological principle, informing the present and constituting a non-human reservoir for novel productions and creative evolutions.’111 Even though their aims may have differed, the Beowulf poet and Laȝamon are two poets who, together with their characters, can be seen as conduits of the past in the Bergsonian and Deleuzoguattarian sense. Whereas Beowulf is an amalgam of history, fiction, and myth, Laȝamon was consciously creating a poetic narrative purporting to be history. It has often been argued that such representations in Beowulf and the Brut are nostalgic, anachronistic, remote inventions far removed from the period in which the poem was created.112 Yet there is a purpose to this nostalgia, such that nostalgic heroic epic can be seen as a conscious genre of literary fiction through the ages, with analogous themes and associations, and similar approaches to representing particular ways of being, including that of the performing artist.113 Beowulf’s diverse representation and implementation of performance is an example of the results of creative effort, and Laȝamon’s Brut can also 110 111



Ringbom, Studies, 90. Manish Sharma, ‘Beyond Nostalgia: Formula and Novelty in Old English Literature’, Exemplaria, 26:4 (2014), 303–27, at 323. See, for example, concerning Beowulf: Renée R. Trilling, The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (Toronto, 2009); Roy M. Liuzza, ‘Beowulf: Monuments, Memory, History’, in David F. Johnson and Elaine Treharne (eds), Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature (Oxford, 2005), 91–108. Concerning the Brut as an exercise in archaising, see E. G. Stanley, ‘Laȝamon’s Antiquarian Sentiments’. For example, the innovation and contemporary relevance of the Brut’s representation of history has been noted, for example by Joseph D. Parry, ‘Losing the Past: Cezar’s Moment of Time in Lawman’s Brut’, in Rosamund Allen, Jane Roberts, and Carole Weinberg (eds), Reading Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’: Approaches and Explorations (Amsterdam, 2013), 194–5. Le Saux describes the Brut as ‘an attempt to create a new foundation myth’: Le Saux, Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, 230.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems be seen as an explicit example of individual production. Working outside the early medieval period, with literary sources removed from the Old English poetic tradition, Laȝamon nonetheless assimilates that tradition into his work. Despite his declared sources not being part of the Old English tradition, he engages with its sentiments, reflecting his understanding of performance’s place in the poetic domain. The notion that the Brut is related to the earlier tradition is strengthened by the fact that Laȝamon also contributes to the maintenance of English more generally, during a perilous period for the language. Swan and Treharne note that Laȝamon …, in a land ruled by descendants of the Norman conquerors, chose to look back to the days when English saints and scholars taught the people in English, and to play [his] own part in that language’s survival by contributing so effectively to the continued use of the vernacular.114

His choice of language, as well as his creative choices within that language, align him intrinsically with earlier English writing. He also contributes to the continuation of idealised illustrations of performance, and of ‘poetic performance’, in poems into the later medieval period.

The English Tradition Can the Old English poetic depiction of performance be seen as a tradition that crossed typically defined historical, cultural, and linguistic boundaries into the Middle English period? Could traditional thought have been applied in passages of narrative poetry, which then became a poetic tradition adopted even after the Old English classical form had declined? After all, the Brut is a single text by one author from the post-Conquest period. By the time of the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century, the period in which most of the canonical Middle English poems were written, the treatment of performance had wholly fragmented. The influence of the romances introduced from the Continent and the linguistic innovations deriving from Old French were prevalent. Perhaps influenced by passages in such Continental romances, diversity in the representation of performance is apparent as early as 1250 in King Horn, in which performance is a plot device. One passage shows Horn being initiated, partly as a harper, at the court of Aylmar, King of Westernesse (227–44). Elsewhere, Horn and his companions disguise themselves as harpers and jugglers (1473–96), a type-scene defined by Jerrianne D. Shultz as ‘the minstrel disguise 114

M. Swan and E. M. Treharne, Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 2000), 208.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? entrance trick’, no doubt influenced by passages in works such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace.115 This plot device appears in Laȝamon’s Brut (10127–48), as well as in the late-thirteenth or early-fourteenth-century Sir Orfeo. As a character, such performer-kings may be reminiscent of Hrothgar storytelling and possibly harping in Heorot, but the minstrel-ruler, who also features in the Brut in the form of Blæðgabreat, is a figure otherwise alien to extant Old English poetry, in which the subservient, dependent, largely unnamed retainer-performer dominates. Traces of the idealised depiction of performance in the Old English period do persist in later Middle English material, particularly in alliterative poetry, so that traditional form and traditional theme appear to be associated. In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, for example, dating from around 1400, ‘minstralsy noble’ is associated with ‘mirth’ and drinking in a royal hall (231–42, 3173–5), showing evidence of influence from instances in earlier Arthurian material such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Laȝamon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains a varied application of performance, some of which is reminiscent of the Old English tradition, particularly in the final stanza of the first fitt, when Arthur ruminates on the pleasures of feasting and performance, unnamed performers accompany good food, and the court is joyous (467–86). Festive music-making also features as a central component in the joyous life of the mysterious castle wherein lives the Green Knight, disguised as Bertilak (1648–56). In non-alliterative poems, however, a discontinuity from earlier English poetry is perceptible. While performance occasionally features as part of celebration, such passages are isolated, as in the single example in the late-thirteenth-century Lay of Havelok the Dane, upon the coronation of Havelok (2320–35), and in the early-fourteenth-century Ywain and Gawain (1393–400). With diverse influences, particularly from the Continent, Chaucer’s depictions of performance differ radically from those in the English alliterative poetic tradition, and performance as idealised symbol is lost. Chaucer’s performers also contrast with the consistently virtuous figures found in Beowulf and the Brut. For instance, in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales it is noted that the wayward friar Hubert took enjoyment from playing the harp and singing (I, 266), while the repulsive, drunkard Miller plays the bagpipes (I, 565). The ‘Cook’s Tale’ associates performance with moral corruption (I, 4365–422), as does the opening of the ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ (VI, 463–71), showing an entirely divergent representation from the earlier English tradition, particularly in relation to


Jerrianne D. Shultz, ‘Creativity, the Trickster, and the Cunning Harper King: A Study of the Minstrel Disguise Entrance Trick in King Horn and Sir Orfeo’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 2007).


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems the context in which harping is created. Chaucer’s listing only of string instruments, ‘gyterne or ribible’ (I, 4396), ‘harpes, lutes, and gyternes’ (VI, 466), might reflect his particular distaste for them, or a negative perception of them in wider society. As Osborn observes, Chaucer uses the verb ‘to harp’ to reference the playing of any string instrument, perceiving them to be a linguistically classifiable group.116 The openings to ‘The Cook’s Tale’ and ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ shows this instrument class to represent deviance. Later in the latter tale, performance is associated with gluttony (VI, 477–82), subverting the performance-feasting association characteristic of earlier poetry. By portraying performers as instigators of lechery, Chaucer also satirises the gnomic association between performance and feasting stated so overtly in Homeric epic. His views additionally align with those of the early medieval religious community highlighted in Chapter 5. In ‘Sir Thopas’, meanwhile, the harp, pipe, and hurdy-gurdy are associated with the perils of Faerie, and his hero’s clichéd plea for minstrelsy while arming himself in preparation for a fight with a giant with three heads reflects the tale’s satirical tone (VII, 845–50). Elsewhere, we are told at the start of ‘The Manciple’s Tale’ that Phoebus was a multi-instrumentalist (IX, 113) and an unrivalled singer (IX, 114–18). However, he ‘brak his mynstralcie’, again all string instruments: ‘harpe, and lute, and gyterne, and sautrie’, in sorrow after hearing of his wife’s adultery and killing her (IX, 267–8). Meanwhile, the Wife of Bath danced to the harp and sang in her younger days after drinking wine (III, 457–9). In such instances, Chaucer precludes musical performance from offering any morally acceptable enjoyment. Chaucer’s representation is radically distinct from the references to performance as component of the theme in the Old English literary tradition. Yet performance as isolated occurrence, representing joy, community, and belonging, did not die out with the demise of the Middle English alliterative tradition. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, from 1590, ‘Minstrales’ and ‘Bardes’ operate in the ‘commune hall’.117 Like Laȝamon, Spenser invents his own archaising style, in which performance is envisaged as being present in traditional circumstances, and such representation of poetic performance persists as a component in the archaic or retrospective poetic imagination. Drout describes a tradition as ‘an unbroken train of identical, non-­ instinctual behaviours that have been invariably repeated after the same recurring antecedent conditions’.118 Old English poetic verse form can be 116 117


Osborn, ‘Reote and Ridend’, 442. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, ed. Thomas P. Roche and C. Patrick O’Donnell (London: Penguin, 1978), Book 1, Canto V, Stanza iii. Michael D. C. Drout, How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century (Tempe, AZ, 2006), 9.


Theme Songs: An English Tradition of Performance? seen as traditional according to this definition, because it remained largely unchanged during the early medieval period, and a poet would have had to engage with its form and understand its rules before generating something new within the tradition. Rare variations show the effect of time upon poets’ understanding of that tradition, for example in the early twelfth-century Instructions for Christians, which demonstrates a limited knowledge of the rules of Old English verse form.119 However, another late poem, Durham, written between 1104 and 1109, is remarkably faithful to traditional form. The appearance of a poetic component such as a ‘joy in the hall’ passage, with such routine features as performance and the display of wealth, is also likely to result from a process of influence and repetition, even though the exact circumstances of that process are uncertain. Foley argues that ‘even in the case of the ancient Greek and Anglo-Saxon epics, where prudence demands that we speak of oral-­ derived rather than ascertainably oral works, the role of tradition is still manifestly prominent.’120 It can additionally be argued that the tradition of poetic performance in a loose sense persisted into the Middle English period, though in somewhat isolated instances. However, Drout’s definition may not apply readily when it comes to creative thematic, symbolic, or associative aspects of English poetry beyond the Old English period. Finding ‘unbroken’, ‘identical’, ‘invariably repeated’ examples within such a creative medium over time is perhaps not to be expected. The definition needs loosening somewhat if a relationship in the form of a conscious tradition between Old English poetry and the Brut and beyond is to be proposed. While the representation of performance in relevant passages is a thematic component of the Old English poetic tradition, later poetry such as Laȝamon’s Brut shows some influence from that representation, even while it does not include other themes, such as the ‘beasts of battle’. It also shows familiarity with and influence from Old English poetry’s form and its vocabulary. Whether specific antecedent conditions were widely known after the early medieval period – whether Laȝamon knew Beowulf specifically, for example – cannot be determined for certain, although some familiarity with the Old English poetic tradition, or at least some remnant of it, possibly through imaginative conception rather than literal access to relevant manuscripts, is difficult to refute.



See James L. Rosier, ‘Instructions for Christians’, Anglia: Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, 82 (1964), 4–22, at 4–5. John Miles Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington, IN, 1991), xv.


Chapter 7 The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus


istorians and educators often say that to engage people with the past it should be brought to life, an undertaking that requires a process of interpretation. Historical reenactment is a principal method of interpreting and animating history, and all reenactment involves performance of some kind, such as battling (perhaps the most recognisable form of reenactment), cooking and feasting, and crafts, among other cultural activities. Essentially, it involves acting out a role. The nature of artistic performance means that storytelling, music, and drama have been principal modes of reenactment, of bringing the past to life. Aligned to this culture of reenactment is the phenomenon of presentation and demonstration, particularly in education settings. Anecdotally, this author has witnessed the benefits of introducing performances and instruments in such settings. For instance, when a lyre reconstruction is brought out at a talk or in the classroom, a change in the manner of engagement occurs among the audience or the students. Objects, demonstrations, and immersion in experiences relating to the past demand attention and generate a desire to become involved, either as active participants or passive spectators, through listening and watching as well as through those senses less often used when learning about history: touch, smell, and taste. This chapter is concerned with the processes of interpretation, of decision-making, that are undertaken when attempting to reproduce early medieval English music, song, and storytelling, and how the representation of performance in the poetry is often a key influence on those processes. It also considers journalistic and critical responses to those performances, which additionally contribute to popular understanding, expectations, and notions of early medieval performance. Starting in the twentieth century, an interpretative urge has resulted in the formation of elaborate organisations that use medieval literary, illustrative, and archaeological material to inform reenactment practices. Among various aspects of medieval culture, such as cookery, textiles, and warfare, the performance of poetry, storytelling, music, and drama is common among these groups. One prominent movement involved in reconstructing the Middle Ages is the Society for Creative Anachronism, a global organisation that, according to its mission statement, is ‘devoted to the research and re-creation of pre-seventeenth century skills, arts, combat, culture, and employing knowledge of history to enrich the lives of participants through


The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus events’.1 As their name suggests, reenactment involves some guesswork, and the SCA acknowledges that participants ‘selectively recreate the culture [of the Middle Ages], choosing elements of the culture that interest and attract us’.2 Additionally, luthiers have reproduced musical instruments from the period based on archaeological finds and manuscript illustrations. These instruments are sold commercially and used in reenactment. They also inform research into medieval performance practices. This interpretive urge has resulted in many poets, musicians, and musical groups utilising the corpus in creating a myriad of adaptations. During the time in which much of this chapter was written, public performances were not taking place because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While history buffs sought out the past in the virtual world, the recent absence of performance has forced many of us to reflect on the value of collective experiences. Bringing history to life involves sensory involvement, facilitated by the tangible nature of material culture. There has been much yearning, therefore, for a resumption of staged theatre and music performances, and reenactment events. Kinds of interpretation range widely: from staged performances by singers, poets, or actors, to hands-on demonstration such as educational workshops, and experiential ‘living history’ events. In its many forms, reenactment is a big deal. Societies operate across the world, and some, like the Society for Creative Anachronism, are global operations. Within all these contexts there is a desire for authenticity in interpreting the past; a concern for historical and interpretative accuracy is important. The setting and backdrop to reenactment can also be a significant component of that authenticity. As a result, appropriate locations such as reconstructed medieval villages in England, at West Stow in Suffolk for instance, are used as settings for living history and education events related to the period. Organisations such as English Heritage, a charity that primarily maintains buildings and other sites, utilise reenactment of the past as part of their aims. English Heritage is a non-departmental public body of the British government, which manages over 400 sites. Education is key to English Heritage’s outreach work, and they have educational programmes and spectator events set on their properties. The communication on their website proclaims the value of the past being brought to life. They declare:



Society for Creative Anachronism, online at . See Michael A. Cramer, Medieval Fantasy as Performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2010). Society for Creative Anachronism, ‘What is the SCA?’, online at , emphasis on SCA website. Concerning the recreative adaptation of medieval texts, see E. B. Vitz, N. F. Regalado, and M. Lawrence (eds), Performing Medieval Narrative (Cambridge, 2005).


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Gone are the days when people learned about history simply from reading books. People are increasingly looking for experiences that bring history to life in an engaging way and nothing beats standing on the spot where history happened. We offer a hands-on experience that will inspire and entertain people of all ages. Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. We want people to experience the story of England where it really happened.3

Educating on the site at which the history apparently took place is thought to add authenticity. Setting and context have intrinsic value. Part of English Heritage’s hands-on experience is enacting living history, and performance is integral to its educating mission; events include jousting and tournaments, feasts and culinary demonstration, battle reenactment, and the performing arts. The prevalence of interpretation, particularly public demonstration and performative education, historical reenactment, and performance, enables people who may not have read any literature from or about medieval times to engage with the period. Consequently, Old English poetry can be discovered and enjoyed without reading a word in a book, because of film, audio, and live performances. Beowulf is popular not just because of the manuscript, the edition, or the written translation, but also because of film and television adaptations, audio recordings, and public recitals. Yet how much of that material has been influenced by representations from within Old English creative literature, and the poetry in particular, especially in relation to performance? What is the relationship between those corpus depictions and modern interpretations? If we consider the poetry as unreliable evidence for understanding historical practices, as many critics do, then the same issues naturally apply to representation that is based on that poetry. We should question why we interpret and reenact in the ways we do, and why interpretative modes of performance are the ways they are. In doing so, we can discover the symbolic triggers that resonate with modern interpreters, influence the manner of performances, and shape popular understanding.

Benjamin Bagby: A Case Study of Beowulf in Performance Let us consider in detail the interpretative choices of one prominent performer, Benjamin Bagby, who has an impressive life’s work performing early music, along with considerable engagement in education, lecturing, 3

English Heritage, ‘About Us’, online at .


The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus teaching, and conducting workshops internationally. In a nod to Albert Lord’s renowned study of oral performers, Bagby describes himself as a ‘reconstructed “singer of tales”’.4 He acknowledges with this self-­definition that he operates in a culture distinct from that in which his material was originally composed: he has had to ‘construct’ his performance mode using evidence from the past. Bagby performs early music, being most well known for his solo recitals of Beowulf, which are particularly popular with audiences. During his performance, which generally depicts the poem’s first third, Bagby speaks, chants, and sings in deep-throated tones, in Old English, interspersed with melodic refrains plucked on his reconstruction of a Germanic round lyre.

Benjamin Bagby’s Interpretive Process Bagby has written about his work as a performer, providing a valuable personal insight into his working methods and decision-making. In a reflective chapter, Bagby offers a fascinating account of his approach to interpreting Beowulf. He acknowledges that his is only ‘one possible reconstruction of medieval epic poetry in performance’ and regrets that we are unable to experience ‘the actual sound, the presence of a living master’.5 But he does assert that we can use a variety of evidence, which he calls ‘documentation’, to inform our decisions concerning how to perform the poem. When deciding on his own approach to performing Beowulf, Bagby initially evaluated existing recitals of the poem that were available to him; essentially, he judged prior recordings of the poem in performance: I was struck by what I perceived as an exaggerated emphasis on the pure mechanics of metrics; the metrical patterns of various lines, which for an oral ‘singer of tales’ would normally function on a deeper structural level, had broken the surface of the text (and the story), becoming obvious and heavy in the mouth of the reciter, and intrusive in the ear of the listener. The musician (and storyteller) in me imagined a subtler role for these delightfully vivid and supple metrical patterns, and I resolved to work on the text of Beowulf (and later, the Edda) in such a way that the metrical structures are servants of the performance and not its master.6


5 6

Benjamin Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic: Notes from the Workshop of a Reconstructed “Singer of Tales”’, in E. B. Vitz, N. F. Regalado, and M. Lawrence (eds), Performing Medieval Narrative (Cambridge, 2005), 181–92; Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA, 1960). Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic’, 181–2. Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic’, 188.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Personal judgement inevitably influences interpretation, and this applies both for the interpreting performer and for those reading their reflections. Bagby’s notion that metrical patterns function on a certain structural level for oral performers is intriguing, though what is meant by a ‘deeper’ level is unclear, and the assertion is not verifiable; each interpreter’s perception and analysis differs. The inability of language to describe performance with clarity and certainty is apparent in other ways: terms like ‘obvious’, ‘heavy’, and ‘intrusive’ are difficult to quantify. Still, it is likely that Bagby observed in previous recitals an over-emphasis on the rhythm and stress that govern Old English poetics, particularly at the level of the individual line. He also perceived that a slavish focus on metrics dominated the recordings he heard. Bagby’s approach is a reaction to this. His interpretation involves a looser relationship with the metre and stresses, and flexibility when it comes to the application of metrical patterns, resulting in the diverse, fluctuating style characteristic of his own performances. Concerning Bagby’s choice of instrument, the lyre that he plays in his Beowulf performances was constructed by a German luthier, based on remains found in the grave classified as number thirty-seven in the burial site at Oberflacht, Germany. As well as using this instrument to accompany Beowulf, he has used it in the performance of Eddic poems, and to accompany songs from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Bagby consciously adopts the term ‘harp’ rather than ‘lyre’ to classify his instrument: for him, modern classification is less important than medieval terminology. He argues that ‘the term “lyre” is misleading, as it was not used by any northern peoples until the advent of monastic writing about music in Latin’.7 He also points to Old High German and Old English cognates for ‘harp’; in doing so, Bagby connects his instrument with the Continental history of the round lyre, and with the historical language that he performs: ‘I prefer to use the word “harp” (OH German “harpa”, Old English “hearpe”) as a designation for the 6-string instrument which I play.’8 Perceiving the instrument as being unsuited to varying dynamics, Bagby alters the emphasis of the instrument through what he calls ‘density of articulation’,9 the variation of the number of notes in a melody. He sees the lyre as ‘an instrument of pattern, of inversion, even of percussive technique’.10 He also has a notion of how it was tuned: he believes it


8 9


Benjamin Bagby, ‘Re: A couple of questions for Benjamin Bagby’, received by Steven Breeze, 30 Jan. 2021. Email Interview. Bagby, ‘A couple of questions’. Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, ‘Restoring Lost Songs from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (2) — Benjamin Bagby’, online at . Faculty of Music, Cambridge, ‘Restoring Lost Songs’.


The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus is ‘designed to play only in one mode’,11 so that it requires retuning for different circumstances and performances. Why does Bagby use a lyre to accompany the delivery of Beowulf, which was likely composed by a literate individual with no discernible association with music? There is not a detailed consideration in his chapter of why he chooses to use the round lyre along with the other early instruments employed by his ensemble Sequentia – essentially flute and fiddle – other than that they ‘are mentioned in early northern sources describing or depicting music-making’.12 These sources are not named, but presumably it is the literature, and particularly the poetry, of the early medieval period, along with illustrations and perhaps carvings. In personal communication with Bagby, I asked him why he chose to use the instrument. He states that I use this instrument since it is the one which has been found in all excavations which yielded musical instruments, it is seen in most ms. depictions of harps, and it is described in texts such as ‘Beowulf’. All Anglo-Saxonists agree that this is the type of instrument associated with the function of the ‘scop’ and in the performance of epic poetry. So I never really made a ‘choice’ to make use of such an instrument – it was an imperative. There were no viable alternatives.13

Bagby thus gives several reasons for the use of the Germanic round lyre: archaeological evidence, manuscript illustrations, and evidence from within Beowulf and other poems. In combination, this produces an ‘imperative’ to use the instrument; for Bagby there is no choice of which instrument to use, and no option to forego the lyre altogether. There is a natural, bound association between certain poetic material and an instrument. Discussing further the reasons for his chosen performance practices, he claims that ‘some choices made as a performer are based on a careful analysis of texts or historical documents, and other choices are more or less made in advance by the historical facts, the only remaining questions concerning degree or mode of implementation.’14 Those choices decided upon by ‘historical facts’ strengthen the imperative to use the Germanic round lyre. It is essential to the appropriate performance of Beowulf, Eddic poems, and other early medieval material. It follows that Bagby sees the instrument as being an ‘equal partner in the telling of a story’ rather than ‘having only an “accompaniment” function (which is a


12 13 14

Faculty of Music, Cambridge, ‘Restoring Lost Songs’. See also Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic’, 188–91. Bagby, ‘Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic’, 188. Bagby, ‘A couple of questions’. Bagby, ‘A couple of questions’.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems later musical idea)’.15 This view is compelling; it positions the instrument as being intrinsic to the performance of certain kinds of poetry. We might therefore consider the text we know of from Beowulf’s single manuscript, if not necessarily the manuscript itself, as only one of the articles required for a performance of the poem; the round lyre is also integral. Along with the belief that the round lyre is integral to the performance of Beowulf, Bagby considers there to be no dispute among critics that this is the instrument that is associated with the scop and the performance of epic poetry. However, these notions are neither certain, nor even likely. While the views of earlier critics such as Anderson and Werlich, and less forensic critics such as Southworth, align with this view, much recent research, some of it considered in this book, questions the link between hearpe and scop, notably Opland’s argument that the scop did not use a hearpe, and Thornbury’s cautious acceptance of this, in the two principal monographs concerned with the performing early medieval English poet.16 Moreover, if Boenig is correct, and the hearpe in Beowulf is the frame harp and not the round lyre, then the use of internal evidence from the poem would actually undermine any argument for accompaniment with a round lyre. Despite the caution of many critics, a popular conception has been established conforming with Bagby’s view, a conception readily seized upon by interpreters and performers of the early medieval period. Bagby could have stated that he uses a Germanic round lyre in the performance of Beowulf and other works simply because he wants to. There is no intrinsic issue with such reasoning. However, among many interpreters, reenactors, and performers – and indeed their audiences – there is a desire for authenticity. At the same time, though, there is uncertainty in much critical understanding of Beowulf’s history of performance, the role of the scop, and early medieval performance practices more generally. These uncertainties have certainly influenced popular understanding, yet the desire for authenticity does not appear to extend to the assimilation of recent research into early medieval English poetry and its possible performers and performance contexts. Additionally, there is another disjuncture, between critical complexities and uncertainties, and popular perceptions of appropriate performance aesthetics. For instance, while Beowulf may well not have been performed before an audience, with musical accompaniment, Bagby’s performances, along with those of many other reciters of medieval poems, seem largely appropriate from a modern perspective. Why should this be? Is it due to audience expectations of the characteristics of medieval performance? Why does Bagby’s 15 16

Bagby, ‘A couple of questions’. Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (New Haven, CT, 1980), 166, 253; Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 2014), 20.


The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus vocal performance appear to suit, and earn popular and critical praise as a result? Consider the argument of Fulk et al., who state that speeches in Beowulf are ‘not dramatic in quality, but they are characterized by eloquence and ceremonial dignity’.17 The same can be said for many modern interpretations of early medieval English poetic material. The profound seriousness that comprises much of Bagby’s performance (though it is by no means without humour), as well as that of others such as Ben Hellman, who performs in Modern English and who also plays the Germanic round lyre, seemingly suits the material, but does it bear any relationship to early medieval recitations, if recitations of Beowulf were indeed given? Bagby’s varied approach, which reflects changing mood, events and character, exposes an issue with Old English poetic metre: how should it be recited? Its rhythms do not translate in any straightforward manner into vocal performance. Naturally, this is further problematised by the fact that we cannot be sure that our understanding of mood, events, and character in a 1,000-year-old poem reflects the expectations of an early audience, though this is always the case; all literature is open to interpretation, after all. To explore these issues of appropriate aesthetics, let us consider Bagby’s technique and context during his performances of Beowulf in some detail, followed by journalistic responses to those performances.

Appraising Bagby’s Performances Reenactment can function with or without the mediation of twenty-­firstcentury technology, which can also aid performance but might be consciously eschewed during immersive experiences as part of the desire for authenticity. Bagby incorporates modern technologies: a large screen displays Beowulf’s lines, in Modern English surtitles, as he performs them in Old English, and lighting effects are used when possible. Otherwise, the presentation is minimal. Bagby is seated, alone. He does not go in for colourful minstrel’s attire. His black clothing, sometimes with a waistcoat, patterned but subdued, affords prominence to other expressive elements: instrument, hand and arm gestures, facial expressions. This sparsity is emphasised when Bagby pauses to retune the lyre, as he must do frequently, and the stage blackens in settings in which the lighting can be controlled. Such pauses create their own suspense, and we are also reminded of the fragility of the instrument he plays. The variety with which Bagby delivers the alliterative long line is one of the strengths of his performances, and his choice to keep ‘subtle’ the metrical emphasis of the poem appears a successful one, for the modern 17

R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (eds), Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Toronto, 2008), lxxxvii.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems audience at least. Variation helps to increase the engagement in the performance. As well as speaking, chanting, singing, and playing the lyre, his bodily gestures provide additional expression, and support the narrative. Bagby’s skill and variety means that the performance is engaging and effective, to this modern ear. As the narrative develops, he modifies his vocal pace, rhythm, and volume according to the events he describes. Bagby also alters his lyre playing significantly in different parts of the narrative. For example, when he is narrating how in-fighting caused the demise of Heorot (82b–85), he lowers his voice, speaking unaccompanied by the lyre, and gestures as though this narrative foresight is undisclosed information, to be shared only between performer and audience.18 When reciting the section describing the dream in Heorot before Grendel’s attacks (89b–98), he does so with stirring, fast plucking of his lyre, and with powerful singing using sustained notes. This all seems appropriate to the sensibilities of a modern audience. At another point, Bagby performs a section in which Beowulf is speaking to Hygelac and responding to Unferth’s provocation by using singing accompanied by the lyre. Beowulf is storytelling at this point, describing his swimming adventures, but the style might be less appropriate for an audience, as we are unused to addressing a ruler or describing the threat of sea monsters by singing along with the melody of a lyre. Still, the lyre helps to set the scene in the storytelling act, and Bagby’s mode appears overall to suit the material. To discover more concerning Bagby’s achievement in relation to the popular understanding of Beowulf and how it should be interpreted, let us consider responses by newspaper and other media critics, whose writing attempts to put the audience experience into words and evaluate the success or otherwise of a performance. The first thing to note is that Bagby’s Beowulf is often considered in relation to its physical context: the venues he performs in, which are often modern concert halls. As is common in reviews of early music, supposed traditional contexts for performing are alluded to in reviews, along with a judgement of the performer’s ability to transform the space and transport the audience to a more appropriate context, enabling that audience to imagine and ‘experience’ historical circumstances. To do this is frequently seen as a success for the performer and their performance, and certain spaces are seen more naturally to lend themselves to such transportation. For instance, George Grella, in a review of Bagby’s 2018 Beowulf performance at Corpus Christi Church, in the New York Classical Review, alludes to a 2014 performance in Zankel Hall, part 18

A reviewer also notes Bagby’s method of relating the demise of Heorot: Angus McPherson, ‘Beowulf (Canberra International Music Festival): Benjamin Bagby brings Beowulf to life in an epic retelling’, Limelight, May 7, 2018, online at .


The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus of the Carnegie Hall complex: ‘there, on stage and with concert lighting, he seemed imprisoned behind glass, demonstrating a historical idea but, as a storyteller, separated from the audience. Beowulf did not come alive.’19 This remark touches on the fine line between demonstration and performance that exists when interpreting medieval material. The more intimate Corpus Christi Church is seen as a more appropriate setting, and the result is more successful: there, ‘Bagby’s manner was much freer and more familiar. He was the poet at court, telling a tale of things that might have been, alternately ennobling, entertaining, and gripping, as if all were in the great mead-hall that Grendel was ravaging.’20 The perceived relationship between the performance space and cultural spaces of the early medieval period is important. Even better if a performer can transform the space, to evoke the mead-hall contained within the poem; this is a mark of achievement. Brian Logan begins a review in The Guardian with an evaluation of success in this regard: ‘Edinburgh’s Hub bears no resemblance to an ancient mead hall except in its iciness, but when Benjamin Bagby speaks it is as if a thousand years have disappeared.’21 He sums up his review by returning to consider setting: ‘I can’t help feeling that the tale would be much better enjoyed around a roaring fire in a pub.’22 This perceived appropriateness of setting is part of wider attempts to discern the original manner of performance and its contexts. In a 1997 New York Times review, D. J. R. Bruckner considers the relationship between Bagby’s performance and traditional practices: How authentic is all this? Well, we know from many historical sources that in the first millennium at royal or noble houses a performer called a scop would present epics. Mr. Bagby has lived with this epic for many years, as well as with ancient music, and his performance is his argument that Beowulf was meant to be heard, not read, and that this is the way we ought to hear it. It is a powerful argument, indeed. The test of it is that when he has finished, you leave with the overwhelming impression that you know the anonymous poet who created Beowulf more than a dozen centuries ago, that you have felt the man’s personality touch you.23


20 21 22 23

George Grella, ‘Bagby’s “Beowulf” collapses the centuries with harp, voice and soul’. New York Classical Review, October 1, 2018, online at . Grella, ‘Bagby’s “Beowulf”’. Brian Logan, The Guardian, ‘Beowulf’, 20 August 2007. Brian Logan, The Guardian, ‘Beowulf’, 20 August 2007. D. J. R. Bruckner, ‘Sweeping Aside 1,200 Years to Collaborate’, New York Times, 22 July 1997.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems Though the idea that someone identified as a scop would present ‘epics’, and that this is known from many historical sources, is unsubstantiated, the understanding of the scop as performer in a royal or noble house is not too far from Opland’s conception of them. Given the lack of understanding of the scop role, however, this popular understanding relies on speculation. We therefore have a situation in which a modern performance is judged on a perceived authenticity which is in turn largely unfounded, or at least based on rather uncertain, limited information. At times, though, conjecture by both performer and critic is acknowledged. Bruckner hints at such by noting that Bagby argues for Beowulf as a poem for performance rather than for reading. Moreover, also in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes that ‘Mr. Bagby’s “Beowulf” is, of course, an act of reconstruction, even speculation’.24 Intriguingly, Tommasini also comments on the variety in Bagby’s approach: ‘he shifted from whispering, to muttering, to shouting, to singing the Anglo-Saxon lines so deftly that song and speech were essentially merged.’25 Tommasini does not spell it out, but variety is thus seen as both a key element of the success of the performance (Tommasini’s brief review is positive), as well as a central characteristic of the process of Bagby’s reconstruction.

Julian Glover’s ‘Beowulf’ Bagby’s Beowulf might be the poem’s most well-known staged performance of recent times. Another prominent example is that of Julian Glover, who for more than thirty years performed the poem in Modern English, with a few choice Old English lines included to great effect. His final performances of the poem took place in 2015. Glover developed his solo show using translations by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan.26 Though the language is principally modern, in many ways Glover’s performance is akin to Bagby’s. Like Bagby, Glover opts for a minimal presentation, and though he does not play a lyre he uses other symbols of the early medieval, at times wielding a sword and a tankard to clarify characterisation or context. There is also a throne on stage. Like Bagby, he too wears generally dark, simple, and modern clothing. And his presentation is similarly deepthroated, largely serious, seemingly befitting the ‘epic’ material, though as with Bagby humour plays its part too, particularly in his depiction of the Beowulf–Unferth flyting. One review of Glover’s performance, by Vera


25 26

Anthony Tommasini, ‘Telling Stories, From “Beowulf” to the Hobo Life’, New York Times, 23 April 2014. Tommasini, ‘Telling Stories’. Michael Alexander, ‘Beowulf’ (London, 1995); Edwin Morgan, ‘Beowulf’: A Verse Translation into Modern English (London, 1952).


The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus Liber, begins with the association of modern performer and scop, claiming it is ‘a feat of learning and memory if not quite equal to Beowulf’s heroic exploits, at least surely equal to the yarn-spinning Anglo-Saxon Scops of old’.27 This performance took place at the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Globe Theatre complex, and the review considers the effectiveness of Glover’s adaptation in relation to the setting: surrounded on all sides, from pit to rafters, under smoking candlelight, Glover transports us to the very centre of Heorot. Not a young man anymore, but a twinkle-eyed wise bard he steals into our minds, bringing us up short by the occasional anachronism, which raises a laugh. Zombies, I ask you…28

The reviewer thus raises the relationship between authenticity and conscious anachronism. The effect of anachronism on the audience – to make them laugh – shows that a deliberate, overt departure from expectations is permitted in an adaptation and is enjoyed by an audience. It simultaneously brings to our awareness, and reinforces, the typically-understood aesthetic boundaries of the interpretation of early medieval material. It is contentious to suggest that very little of the corpus lends itself to performance. Performance is apparently intrinsic to some Old English poems, such as the metrical charms.29 And we have just been considering the excellent Beowulf performances by Bagby and Glover after all. Yet what of the reconstruction of other Old English poems, part of the same poetic tradition but not necessarily possessing the themes of Beowulf? Germanic round lyres are used in the twenty-first century in the performance of a range of material, including Old English poems such as Deor, The Wanderer, and Wulf and Eadwacer. But a significant number of performers make creative use of early medieval material so that authenticity is less important. For example, the Norwegian group Moro play a range of early medieval instruments, replicas from archaeological finds. They have produced renditions of Against a Dwarf and Wulf and Eadwacer, both spoken with round lyre accompaniment; these might be seen as authentic interpretations. Their repertoire is wide, however, and they interpret modern popular music using traditional instruments, and have penned a song called ‘Grendel’, using a Finnish bowed lyre, known as a jouhikko, and percussion.30 Another performer, Brian Kay, uses a Germanic round 27 28 29


Vera Liber, ‘Julian Glover’s Beowulf’, British Theatre Guide, 24 May 2015. Liber, ‘Julian Glover’s Beowulf’. Lori Ann Garner, ‘Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance’, Oral Tradition, 19:1 (2004), 20–42. ‘Moro – Grendel’, YouTube, 9 Nov. 2019, online at .


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems lyre among many other instruments; he also interprets Old English poems among a much wider repertoire, and the lyre is used to accompany a range of non-medieval material. Performance techniques vary among performers. When playing the lyre, for example, Bagby plucks his open-tuned instrument using the thumb of the left hand and fingers and thumb of the right hand, eschewing any stopping of the strings. The left hand also holds the lyre. Some performers choose to strum the instrument with one hand, and they might stop the strings with the other. Peter Horn, a lyrist who also speaks in Old English to accompany his playing, prefers an open tuning, plucking without stopping, and he also introduces a percussive element by tapping the body of the lyre with the knuckles. This diversity may well have existed in the early medieval period, but it also results from the lack of information we have about lyre-playing techniques. There is certain limited information to be gleaned from manuscript illustrations, but these are unreliable, as are the brief references in the literature, for example the reference to the nægl, ‘nail’ or ‘plectrum’, mentioned in The Fortunes of Men. Most players approach the instrument and discern through trial and error what sounds best for them or their performance requirements. For a performer such as Bagby, who sees the use of the instrument as an imperative, there must be a certain frustration that we do not know whether there was a typical or expected method of playing the Germanic round lyre, and how it might have been used to accompany poetry. Bagby’s article and discussions are infused with an understanding that early medieval poems are intimately related to oral methods of composition and performance. Any possibility that Beowulf might first and foremost be a written text, by a literate poet, is not considered. Modernday performers rely on conceptions of early medieval performance like those of Anderson and other early twentieth-century critics. There is also a popular expectation that some Old English poetic material should be treated in certain ways. Key to this is the notion of authenticity, particularly regarding setting, something that is utilised by organisations who aim to keep the past alive. Popular understanding of early medieval performance practices in England is influenced by what happens in the poems, as well as by illustrative, archaeological material. We expect lyres, just as we expect mead-halls, and reenactment reinforces notions about medieval performance practices. What in the poetry transfers over into performance practices? The setting of performance, in a reconstructed ‘mead-hall’ ideally, also takes its cue from poetic representations. Reconstructions of Germanic round lyres are commonly used to accompany Old English poems, partly because of references to hearpes within the material. There seems to have been a process of influence, which began with representations of performance within poems, supported by other representation from early medieval Europe such as illustrations, and other 228

The Lure of the Lyre: Interpretation, Reenactment, and the Corpus sources such as grave finds. Those who have interpreted the way in which poetic material should be performed, along with literary critics and historians, look to these sources, and have created a world of medievalism, which has influenced popular understanding of the elements of early medieval performance practices. These in turn influence the interpreters, who respond to that popular understanding in their process of turning the poetry into performed art. Thus, reenactment is one phenomenon that has influenced, but is also influenced by, popular understanding of performance activity in early medieval England. Reenactment and popular understanding is based partly on representations in Old English poetry.


Conclusion: ‘Poetic Performance’


n Old English poems, performance has overwhelmingly positive associations. In narrative and wisdom poems, as well as in poems such as Widsith and Deor in which a performer is the subject, performance is valuable, and performers are explicitly and routinely moral. Moreover, a belonging that binds performers such as those described as scopas and gleomen with the people is often stressed. Performance and its performers are seen as intrinsic to a harmonious and prosperous society. As well as being a positive phenomenon, the representation of performance in narrative poetry, particularly by characters defined using specific identifiers associated with performance, is often archetypal, and effectively, successfully performed. The effectiveness of a performer is shown to be the result of the knowledge and ability that they possess, sometimes – particularly in the wisdom poems – attributed to God, and at other times the product of worldly experience, as in Beowulf and Widsith. The choice of attribution to divine influence or experience appears to depend on the religious milieu surrounding a poem’s origin, as well as its subject matter. Performers in the corpus are also imbued with an authority to perform. Such ability and authority is incorporated into the gnomic sayings found in catalogue wisdom poems of the period. Narrative poems reflect the concerns of those wisdom poems, and are embellishments of the concise statements within them. The generic representation of performance is non-nuanced, and based on linguistic relationships between joy and entertainment, which accentuates the conventionality. In short, performance is routinely idealised. In Beowulf and Andreas, however, performance also performs an important structural role, through creative application by the poet. Effective performers have knowledge of stories from and about the past, which they can deliver. This enables the poet to introduce contextual material and develop a poetic world of interperformativity. The types of poems in which performers and their performances appear lead to the conclusion that they are often imagined as an aspect of a heroic ‘Germanic’ past for Old English poets, or at least for the scribes of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries whose manuscripts have survived. This is particularly the case for the Widsith, Deor, and Beowulf poets, and this historical focus further explains the generality, idealisation, and lack of detail in these poems. The poets’ concern with the past means that performance becomes an element in that historical orientation. Additionally, performance is shown to be one aspect of the ‘unequivocal wisdom’ that, accord-


Conclusion ing to Niles,1 was longed for in early medieval England. Correspondingly, Old English poetic representations of artistic performance in wisdom and narrative poems reveal a longing for performance to be seen as positive, effective, and important for society. Such representation is not a feature of the related Scandinavian poetic tradition of Eddic poetry, despite the Old English tradition often being concerned with an idealised past. It is seemingly unique in relation to the literature of its close cultural neighbours, though aspects of deep association do appear between Old English and Eddic poetry, as well as in more distant traditions such as Homeric epic and biblical material. The small amount of poetic material available to us in related early Germanic literatures is a barrier to determining the distinctiveness of the Old English tradition. Even in Old English material alone, the principal problem when attempting to make conclusions concerning performance is the scarcity and brevity of the references. The treatment of the lyre as a reference to memory and the past, for example, is similar in Beowulf and The Seafarer, and thus that cultural association is shown to cross poetic genres, but it would be difficult to conclude that stylistic and thematic links are thus routine across narrative or lyric poetry. Subtle differences in representation mean it would be possible to argue that each poet imagines lyres differently, and that for example the specific formulaic compounding and phrasing that links joy or song with the lyre in Beowulf was a functional invention of one poet. The case for an association between a general conception in the imagination and its reflection in the language is overwhelming, however. In numerous instances the lyre is associated with people and represented as a public, social instrument capable of delivering joy, a status supported in the poetic language as well as in the prose of the period, in material such as the account of Cædmon in Bede’s Historia. Indeed, Bede’s Historia exemplifies that some of the stylistic, aesthetic characteristics, together with the underlying deep associations of the poetic imagination, do also feature in prose from the period. The suggestive image of communal secular performance as component of the feast initiates the events that lead to Cædmon’s creative and spiritual conversion. However, these images and associated behaviours cause concern for the religious hierarchy, including Bede himself. Such concern is summed up well in a speech by the snottor ar, ‘wise messenger’, in Vainglory, which unusually in the poetic corpus leans towards criticism of performance as a component of feasting and revelry: ‘Þæt mæg æghwylc mon  eaþe geþencan, se þe hine ne læteð  on þas lænan tid 1

John D. Niles, ‘The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet’, Western Folklore, 62 (2003), 7–61, at 39.


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems amyrran his gemyndum  modes gælsan ond on his dægrime  druncen to rice, þonne monige beoð  mæþelhegendra, wlonce wigsmiþas  winburgum in, sittaþ æt symble,  soðgied wrecað, wordum wrixlað,  witan fundiaþ hwylc æscstede  inne in ræcede mid werum wunige,  þonne win hweteð beornes breostsefan.  Breahtem stigeð, cirm on corþre,  cwide scralletaþ missenlice.  Swa beoþ modsefan dalum gedæled,  sindon dryhtguman ungelice.  Sum on oferhygdo þrymme þringeð,  þrinteð him in innan ungemedemad mod;  sindan to monige þæt!’ (9–25) ‘Every man can quite easily consider on this, he who does not let a lecherous mind mar his thoughts in this fleeting world, and in the count of his days be drunken with power, when many holding meeting are proud war-smiths in their festive settlements – they sit at the feast, reciting true lyrics, mixing words, wishing for the wise men in every place of spears within their halls abiding with men, then wine whets the warrior’s breast-sense. Voices mount high, an uproar in the company, they shout their speeches variously. So the minds become separated into parts, lordly men are all unalike. One in his arrogance proudly pushes forward, within him swells an immoderate mind – too many are like that!’

The Vainglory poet is not looking back to a pre-Christian period or dealing with legendary matter. Instead, he is considering a contemporary situation, and the attitude of the snottor ar chimes with opinions prevalent among the religious hierarchy in the material discussed in Chapter 5. The issue thus arises as to whether the idealised representation of performance found in other Old English poems was a form of cultural relativism and acceptance, a result of deliberate archaising, or the product of a relatively early date of origin and subsequent preservation. Whatever the answer to this problem, and the situation likely differed from poem to poem, the critical moral position found in Vainglory is not routinely adopted in poetic material, either in the early medieval or the post-Conquest period. Vainglory excepted, performance is represented in a distinctive manner in Old English poetry, particularly in Beowulf, in which it combines symbolism with narrative function by expressing the concepts also generated in gnomic statement and referring to concerns such as the fate of individuals and society as well as to specific, detailed narrative digressions 232

Conclusion such as the stories of Sigemund and the Frisian slaughter. Performers are symbolic in Old English poems, yet they also function at times to further the narrative through their performances. It is apparent, however, that the Beowulf poet uses them in more complex ways than do other poets whose work survives. Symbolism and maxims become narrative themes in Beowulf, but these are not merely static elements slotted into the narrative: they relate dynamically to the narrative and vary according to the poet’s particular intentions at each point. The representation of the hearpe as an aspect of cultural memory later in the poem is one example of the way in which referential linguistic symbolism can be used in relation to significant cultural concerns in the plot. Performance in Beowulf and Andreas is an expression of traditional wisdom in a narrative context. This dynamism and use as initiators of digressive stories, for example, suggest that performers and performance are inserted into the worlds of both Beowulf and Andreas in ways that closely associate them with oral composition and delivery, and integrate them with the poem’s architectonics, even though Andreas is certainly a poem with textual sources. Chapter 4 argued that storytelling is the mode given most considered attention in Beowulf. Because it occurs in speeches, it is the one mode certainly delivered in the Germanic alliterative line. Not only are named principal characters – including the hero – storytellers, but key unnamed characters such as the Geatish messenger, the þegn on horseback, and the symbolic hall-performers, are often shown to be storytellers too. Indeed, Andreas can be seen as a contemplation on the power of storytelling, and a demonstration of that power. Compared with most of the comparable instances in Beowulf, the performance is less dynamic in Laȝamon’s Brut, in which it is unrelated to the events surrounding it other than as a component of an image of society’s success or pleasure. Performance is a paradoxical phenomenon in Old English poetry. The lack of references throughout the extant corpus, particularly in relation to singing and the making of music, indicates that it is not an ongoing concern for Old English poets. The succinct depiction and limited description that does exist, in heroic poems especially, further evidences that it does not appear to have significance for them in relation to plot events, while its referentiality has importance. In Beowulf, such performance episodes form part of the psychological focus that the poem has, and performance is shown to be a distinctive mode of idealised cultural being. Yet despite this idealisation, Old English poets uses performance in diverse and creative ways, and it is regularly used as a referent for significant cultural elements, and a tool for incorporating disparate narrative elements in the construction of their imagined cultural world. Beechy argues that part of the individual poet’s work is to vary phrasal formulas, to balance multiple tensions among the exigencies of rapid composition, the needs


Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems of the plot and characters, and personal color, style and innovation. Also, in a traditional poetry there is a diachronic, collective creative force, and it is this force which is responsible for the formation of the formulas themselves.2

Performance as represented in Old English poetry exemplifies well the balance between tradition and innovation required by the early medieval poet. If one were to judge poetic quality by the way these formulaic elements coexist dynamically, Beowulf achieves this most clearly. Old English poets understood that performance alluded to, and was also inherited from, a past that they often imagined and mythologised in their poems, reflecting what Clemoes refers to as ‘active being’, the fundamental cultural behaviours of society.3 Old English vocabulary relating to performance carried symbolic as well as literal meaning, enabling a poem’s traditional referentiality to suggest and stimulate elaborate cultural knowledge in an audience, through concise and allusive phrasing. The conception of performance in the poetic imagination was developed in didactic and gnomic poems, and narrative poets also made use of inherited linguistic and symbolic characteristics, innovating within the tradition. Mary LeCron Foster argues that ‘culture is not itself formed of symbols, but of the meaning that lies behind and unites symbols. This meaning only exists in the minds of participants in culture, but it is acted out through the manipulation of symbols, which objectify meaning.’4 The meanings lying behind linguistic symbols relating to performance are shown to be of considerable importance for Old English poets, as their poems regularly present an imagined, often idealised, yet complex domain of cultural understanding through the manipulation of such symbols. Moreover, performance in Old English poetry serves to transmit connotative meaning via the language; the poets manipulate symbols to objectify and reinforce meaning, whether that meaning was reflective of contemporary historical realities or an imaginative conception. Old English poetry contains fleeting glimpses of a performance culture that we can assume bears some relationship with that operating in early medieval England, or in Continental prehistory before the Germanic migrations to England. That culture of performance and associated social and ritual practices must have altered over the period during which the corpus was composed, given the span of time and the cultural change

2 3


Tiffany Beechy, The Poetics of Old English (Farnham, 2010), 18–19. Peter Clemoes, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry (Cambridge, 1995), 68–73. Mary LeCron Foster, ‘Symbolism: The Foundation of Culture’, in Tim Ingold (ed.), Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology: Humanity, Culture and Social Life (London, 1997), 366–96, at 366.


Conclusion that took place. However, in this book I have offered evidence that we should see performance within poems as the product of a distinctive poetic imagination which remained relatively unchanged throughout the period, as did the form of the poetics. ‘Poetic performance’ resulted from poets creatively employing their understanding of what performance symbolised when composing their poems. Because of the imaginative nature of poetic representation, poetic performance should be seen as a conceptual category, influenced by contemporary or historical practices but incorporating legendary and mythical beliefs. For Old English poets and their audiences, reading or listening to poetry was an active experience. It involved identifying references to extra-poetic cultural concerns, moral understanding, and other matters, which were invoked using sparse description and stylistic elements such as convention and repetition in a narrative. In doing so, early medieval English people connected creatively with their cultural traditions and their history, whether true, legendary, or a combination of the two. They were also engaging with and responding to their particularly consistent oral-derived literary form, and the aesthetic and formal characteristics of its formulas, themes, and other narrative components, the workings of which they understood intimately. With the decline of the Old English poetic tradition, another tradition emerged, a tradition of the representation of performance that bore resemblance to that in the Old English corpus but that also developed with changing literary and cultural processes. With increasing removal from purely oral transmission of poetry, changes took place in the ways performance operated within poems. Symbolic relationships that utilised meanings inherent in the language and the culture were lost. Structural functions were less significant. Individual performers’ actions became more important as plot elements. Performance became a more isolated, crystallised theme, even as the complex thematics of oral-derived Old English poetry overall were lost. Laȝamon’s Brut shows evidence of engagement with the earlier tradition, and his representations of performance can be seen as part of a collective creative force, involving conscious archaising, that occurs and persists in diverse literatures. Yet performance in the Brut is one-dimensional and less integrated in comparison with Beowulf and Andreas. Just as early medieval poets gathered from a range of cultural knowledge, personal circumstances, and collective understanding of the past, those of us who look back upon early medieval England use assorted, associated evidence to formulate conceptions of what performance was like. Based partly on ‘poetic performance’, the modern imagination has in turn generated certain beliefs around what early medieval performance should be like. Reenactment often reinforces these beliefs, as the presumed aesthetics of the medieval are displayed. Performance helps all of us to engage with the past. However, attempts to reenact early medieval 235

Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems performance practices rely on earlier, often outdated critical understanding of how poetic performance – what is essentially a creative relationship with contemporary and historical circumstances in combination with the exploitation of poetic style – related to early medieval philosophies and practices of performance. Particularly influential have been the representations in Old English poems that appear to show lyrists, as has a perceived relationship between the corpus of Old English poems and early medieval performer figures, leading to the work of present-day performers who employ ‘poetic performance’ practices to deliver the Old English poetic corpus to a general public, particularly those popular poems – Beowulf; The Wanderer; The Seafarer – that have captured the public imagination in recent decades, finding new voices in the various performance media, modes, and contexts of the twenty-first century.



Manuscripts Boulogne, Bibliothèque Municipale — — MS 189 Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale — — MS 1650 Cambridge, Cambridge University Library — — MS Li I 33 Cambridge, Corpus Christi College — — MS 326 Cambridge, Trinity College — — MS R. 9. 17 (819) Durham, Cathedral Library — — MS B.II.30 London, British Library — — Add. MS 32246 — — Cotton MS Caligula A IX — — Cotton MS Cleopatra A III — — Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIII — — Cotton MS Julius A II — — Cotton MS Otho A VI — — Cotton MS Otho C XIII — — Cotton MS Vespasian A I — — Cotton MS Vespasian D VI — — Cotton MS Vitellius A XV Oxford, Bodleian Library — — MS Bodley 34 — — MS Digby 146 — — MS Junius 11 Oxford, St John’s College — — MS 154 Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute — — MS GKS 1005 fol. Uppsala, University of Uppsala — — MS DG 11 4to Worcester, Worcester Cathedral — — MS F 174



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Bibliography Townend, Matthew, ‘Cnut’s poets: an Old Norse literary community in Eleventh-Century England’, in Elizabeth M. Tyler (ed.), Conceptualizing Multilingualism in Medieval England, 800–1250 (Turnhout, 2011), 197–215 — — ‘Contextualizing the Knútsdrápur: skaldic praise-poetry at the court of Cnut’, Anglo-Saxon England, 30 (2001), 145–79 — — ‘Pre-Cnut Praise-Poetry in Viking Age England’, RES, 51 (2000), 349–70 Trilling, Renée R., The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (Toronto, 2009) Tsioulakis, Ioannis, ‘Negotiating Local Tastes: Urban Professional Musicians in Athens’, in Suzel A. Reily and Katherine Brucher (eds), The Routledge Companion to the Study of Local Musicking (Oxford: Routledge, 2018), 405–16 Turville-Petre, Thorlac, The Alliterative Revival (Cambridge, 1977) Updegraff, Derek, ‘The Translatability of Manuscript Pages Containing Old English Verse (with an Illustrative Translation of The Exeter Book, Folios 98r–101r and 124r–124v)’, TSLL, 56:1 (2014), 1–41 Vickrey, John F., ‘Beowulf’ and the Illusion of History (Bethlehem, 2009) Vitz, E. B., N. F. Regalado, and M. Lawrence (eds), Performing Medieval Narrative (Cambridge, 2005) Wallis, Christine, ‘The Old English Bede: Transmission and Textual History in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2013) Watts, Ann C., The Lyre and the Harp (New Haven, CT, 1969) Wehlau, Ruth, ‘Rumination and Re-Creation: Poetic Instruction in The Order of the World’, Florilegium, 13 (1994), 65–77 Werlich, Egon, ‘Der Westgermanische Skop: Der Aufbau seiner Dichtung und sein Vortrag’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Münster, 1964) Whitelock, Dorothy, The Old English Bede (Oxford, 1962) Woolf, H. B., ‘Three Notes on Widsith’, JEGP, 36:1 (1937), 24–8 Wrenn, C. L., A Study of Old English Literature (London, 1967) Wright, Thomas, Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies I, 2nd edn, ed. Richard P. Wülcker (London, 1884) Wyld, Henry Cecil, ‘Laʒamon as an English Poet’, RES, 6 (1930), 1–30 Yorke, Barbara, The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society c.600–800 (Harlow, 2006) Zwikstra, Corey J., ‘“Wintrum Frod”: Frod and the Ageing Mind in Old English Poetry’, Studies in Philology, 108:2 (2011), 133–64



Online Sources BBC News, ‘Skye cave find western Europe’s “earliest string instrument”’, online at The Bible: Douay-Rheims Translation, online at — — Vulgate, online at Cameron, Angus, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey, et al. (eds), Dictionary of Old English : A to I, online at (Toronto, 2016) Drout, Michael D. C., ‘Anglo-Saxon Aloud’, online at English Heritage, ‘About Us’, online at Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, ‘Restoring Lost Songs from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (2) – Benjamin Bagby’, online at

Grella, George, ‘Bagby’s “Beowulf” collapses the centuries with harp, voice and soul’. New York Classical Review, online at , 1 October 2018 McPherson, Angus, ‘Beowulf (Canberra International Music Festival): Benjamin Bagby brings Beowulf to life in an epic retelling’. Limelight, online at , 7 May 2018 Mize, Britt, Beowulf’s Afterlives: Bibliographic Database, Center of Digital Humanities Research, Texas A&M University, online at Moro, ‘Moro – Grendel’, YouTube, online at , 9 Nov. 2019 Oxford English Dictionary, online: — — ‘dream, n.1’, — — ‘lay, n.4’, — — ‘music, n. and adj.’, — — ‘perform, v.1’, — — ‘performance, n.’, — — ‘poet, n.’, — — ‘poetry, n.’ — — ‘songer, n.’, Society for Creative Anachronism, ‘What is the SCA?’, online at



Ælfric Glossary 157 influence on Laȝamon 205, 206 Alcuin 32 letter to ‘Speratus’ 162–3 Aldhelm 41 n.27 De Virginitate 45 Alfred the Great, King of Wessex 39, 43–4, 52, 61 Alliterative Morte Arthur 196, 213 Amodio, Mark C. 24, 44, 90, 99, 178, 188–9, 190, 202 Anderson, Lewis F. 40–1, 222, 228 Andreas 32, 119–20, 122, 137–43, 230, 233, 235 Andrew, Saint 137 see also Andreas Arthur, King 191–3, 200–2, 208–9, 213 Athelstan, King 187 Atli 184–6 audience 2, 4–5, 8–9, 11, 13, 17, 20, 26–8, 32, 44, 55, 61–2, 76, 82–4, 86–7, 93–4, 105, 108–9, 111, 124, 128–30, 132, 134, 138–41, 149, 151, 154–6, 158, 190, 207–8, 216, 219, 222–5, 227, 234–5 audiovisual media 1, 4–5 Bagby, Benjamin 5, 65–6, 218–26, 228 bagpipe 152, 192, 213 Baily, John 171 Battle of Maldon 36, 121 Baum, Paull F. 75 ‘beasts of battle’ 20, 72, 98–100, 104, 113, 131, 132, 215 Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. 163, 205 story of Cædmon 5, 42, 66, 158, 163–6, 167, 231

Benson, Larry D. 23 Beowulf as performer  Beowulf ‘beasts of battle’ in 98–100 Danes 59, 76, 79, 82, 83, 87, 94–6, 97, 104, 123, 126, 127, 130, 134 Geatish meowle in 100–2 gleoman in 96–7 history of performance 1–5 interperformativity in 30–1, 32, 76, 90, 124, 230 performance mode in 35 provenance 74–5 scopas in 84–96 single author theory 2, 74–5, 221 speeches in 11–12, storytelling in 31–2, 119–37 structured by performance 76 symbolic significance of performance in 76 Beowulf manuscript see under manuscripts Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands 4 Bergson, Henri 25, 211 Bessinger, Jr., J. B. 4 Bible 31, 117–18 Bjork, Robert E. 120–1, 125, 128 n. 32, 131, 132, 138 Blair, P. H. 166 Blæðgabreat 193, 213 Boenig, Robert 66–7, 114, 222 Boethius Consolation of Philosophy 220 Metres 23, 45 see also Old English Boethius Bonjour, Adrien 99, 136 n. 40 Bragi 175 Brewer, D. S. 190, 204, 207 Brodeur, Arthur 125–6, 128–9 Bullard, Marcia 23, 25


Index burials 41, 64, 67, 110–11, 169, 182, 220, 229 Cædmon 5, 42, 66, 158, 163–6, 167, 231 Cædmon’s Hymn 5 Caie, Graham D. 86 Cain 94 Campbell, Alistair 126 Carlson, Marvin 7–8 Cavill, Paul 147–8, 149 Charlemagne 162 charms 8, 9, 59, 122, 181, 227 Against a Dwarf 227 Chaucer, Geoffrey 56, 152 n.12, 188, 213–14 Canterbury Tales 213–14 Christianity 14, 17, 32–3, 39, 42, 52, 57, 87, 117–18, 119–20, 143, 144, 152, 159, 160, 161–73 church admonition of performance 32–3, 161–73 Clark-Hall, J. R. 106, 124 Clemoes, Peter 115–16, 152, 155, 234 Clofesho canons 163, 166 council of 747 161–2 Clunies-Ross, Margaret 19, 46, 78–9 Cnut English court 46, 174 compound words 20, 36, 50, 56, 57, 60, 102, 103, 189, 231 in Laȝamon’s Brut 189, 193–4, 198 for musical instruments 31, 69–72, 108, 114–16, 155–6 for performers 47, 52–5, 151 conversion in England 1, 6, 33, 53, 144, 160, 172–3 in Scandinavia 187 Cotton family 2–3 Cottrell, Stephen 171 covid-19 pandemic 217 Creed, Robert P. 22, 24, 137 Cronan, Dennis 36

Curschmann, Michael 25 Cuthbert, Abbott  letter to lul 33, 52, 65 n.144, 163, 166–8, 170 Cynewulf 41 n.27, 138 Christ II 69, 108, 153, 154–6, 158, 180 Elene 21, 72, 73 Danes 35 see also Danes under Beowulf David, King 54, 65, 67, 70, 170 Deleuze and Guattari 25, 211 Deor 14, 48, 51, 148, 177, 227, 230 Diamond, Robert 23 DiNapoli, Robert 16, 18, 159 ‘double scenes’ 127–8 dragon 79, 83–4, 112, 127, 129, 130, 131–2, 183 dream 55, 56–7, 85, 88, 90, 94, 105, 196, 224 compounds 50, 57, 110, 113, 194 Dream of the Rood 9, 103 Drout, Michael D. C. 5, 160 memes and meme-plexes 29, 33 on tradition 29, 214–15 Dunn, Charles W. 4, 160 Durham 215 Eddic Appendix and Eddica Minora 176 eddic poetry 33, 63, 125, 175–88, 220, 221, 231 Eggþér 33, 180–3 Egil Skallagrimsson, 187 n.36 Electronic ‘Beowulf’ 4 English Heritage 217–18 Eofor 132 essentially contested concepts see under performance  ethnomusicology 52, 170–1 Exodus 20, 72, 99 n.64, 101–2 Finn 91 n. 46, 93, 135 Finnegan, Ruth 23, 25 flyting 119, 125 n.16, 133, 178 n.16, 226


Index Foley, John Miles 215 immanence 27–8 traditional (or metonymic) referentiality 27, 28 formulas 19–26, 28–9, 34, 231, 233–4, 235 in Beowulf 30, 81, 94, 107, 108, 113, 115, 122, 231 in Eddic poetry 177–8 in Laȝamon’s Brut 190, 194, 197 in wisdom poetry 150, 154 Fortunes of Men 7 n.24, 51–2, 121, 153, 156–7, 158, 228 Foster, Mary LeCron 234 frame harp 65–7, 69, 71, 222 Frank, Roberta 19 n.34, 35, 128 n.31 on early medieval oral poet in England 42–3 Franks 132, 133, 134, 194 Frantzen, Allen J. 40 Freawaru 101, 126 Freyja 178–80 Friesland 132, 133 ‘Frisian slaughter’ 51, 60, 61, 91–2, 93, 96–7, 105, 107, 124, 125, 132, 135, 136 n. 40, 233 Frisians 132, 133 Fry, Donald K. 5, 20–1, 23 Fulk, R. D. 36 Gallie, W. B. 6–7 Gawain poet 196 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 80, 213 Geats 57, 59, 76, 88, 90, 94, 96–102, 104, 105, 108–9, 110, 113, 120, 121, 124–7, 129–32, 134, 203, 233 Genesis 67, 103 Geoffrey of Monmouth Historia Regum Britannie 190, 191, 192, 193, 202, 213 Germanic round lyre  accompaniment to poetry 5, 8, 9, 34, 40–3, 50, 63, 166, 173, 220, 221, 222, 224, 227–8 in Beowulf 86, 93

use by skalds 175 compound words for 69–72 in modern performance 219, 220–3, 227 reconstructions 68, 228, 65, 216, 219 tuning 65–6 see also gleobeam, gomenwudu, hearpe, and rotte under musical instruments Giallarhorn 182 Gifts of Men 67, 69, 108, 110, 116, 151–2, 153–4, 160 gleoman 10, 39, 41, 43–4, 45, 47, 50–2, 60, 95, 163, 169, 174, 196 in Beowulf 96–7 in wisdom poems 150–1, 152–3 glossaries 48–50, 52–3, 56, 61, 87, 157 Glover, Julian 5, 226–7 Glowka, Arthur 190, 205 Greenfield, Stanley B. 133 Gregory the Great 155 Pastoral Care 23 Grendel 13, 21,35, 58–9, 60, 72, 83, 84, 85–91, 94, 96, 103, 105, 114, 122–8, 134, 135, 142, 224, 225 Grendel’s mother 6, 9, 97, 125, 127–8, 134 Grímnismál 175 Gunnar 33, 183–6 Guthlac 57 Hamþismál 182–3 Hanson, Howard  Lament for Beowulf 4 Heaney, Seamus 5, 106 hearpe see under musical instruments Heimdallr 182 Hellman, Ben 223 Heorot 12, 21, 58–9, 60, 76, 78 n.12, 83, 85–6, 88–9, 90–1, 94, 105, 107, 108, 113, 114, 121, 124–8, 133, 138, 203, 213, 224, 227 Heremod 79–80, 82–3, 83–4, 91 Hild 164


Index Hill, John M. 49, 79, 80, 82–3, 85 n.33, 89, 97 Hollowell, Ida M. 53 Homer 45, 126, 159 Iliad 22, 27, 62, 136, 158–9, 179, 214, 231 Horn, Peter 228 horns in Laȝamon’s Brut 197, 201 in The Phoenix 159 n.27 in the Poetic Edda 182 Hrothgar 11, 21, 60, 77, 79, 81, 88–9, 91, 96, 97, 113–14, 120, 121–8, 133–4 as performer 105–8, 123–5, 135, 181, 213 Hucbald 65 hwilum conjunction 79, 107, 115 Hygelac 9, 90, 98, 100 n.66, 105, 108, 112, 120, 126–8, 130, 132–3, 181, 224 hyperlinks 26 Instructions for Christians 62, 177, 215 interperformativity see under Beowulf Irving, Jr., Edward B 80 Isaacs, Neil B. 16 Jackanory 4 jazz musicians 171 Jesus 103, 139–40 ‘joy in the hall’ 72, 85, 89, 94–5, 96, 98, 105, 118, 156, 180, 182–3, 189, 193, 203, 204, 210, 215 Jubal 67, 71 Judah 118 Judith 2 Katherine Group texts 188 Kay, Brian 227–8 kennings 54–5, 115–16, 128, 142–3 Kentish Psalm 54, 158 King Horn 21, 212–13 Lactantius 

Carmen de ave phoenice 159 n.27 Langebek, Jakob 3 Lapidge, Michael 119 Larrington, Carolyn 148, 160, 185 ‘Last Survivor’ 109–11, 112, 113 Laȝamon 188, 190–1, 191, 192, 214, 215 Brut 21, 26, 33, 63, 72, 107, 122, 137, 188–212, 213, 215, 233, 235 Lawson, Graeme 42, 63 n.137, 66 Lay of Havelok the Dane 196, 213 leod-scopes 198, 208–10 Leoðwyrhta 41, 47, 49, 52–3 Lerer, Seth 19–20, 21, 24, 125 Letter of Alexander to Aristotle 2 Leyerle, John 26 Life of St. Christopher 2 Liuzza, Roy M. 76 Lokasenna 175 Lönnroth, Lars 21, 128 n.31, 176–7 Lord, Albert B. 20, 22, 90 Lupton, Hugh 5 luthiers 217, 220 lyre see cithara, gleobeam, gomenwudu, hearpe, lyra, and rotte under musical instruments Magoun, Francis P. 20, 22, 23, 24 Malone, Kemp 4 manuscripts  Beowulf manuscript(London, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) 1–3, 4–5 history of ownership 2–3 Boulogne, Bibliothèque Municipale MS 189 51 Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale MS 1650 51 Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Li I 33 62 Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 326 45 Cambridge, Trinity College MS R. 9. 17 (819) 48 Codex Regius (GKS 2365 4º) 176, 180, 184


Index Codex Upsaliensis (Uppsala, University of Uppsala MS DG 11 4to) 174 n.2 Durham, Cathedral Library MS B.II.30 64 n.142 Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501) 9, 14, 23, 47, 48, 50, 51, 57, 67, 72, 81, 101, 144, 147, 148, 152, 153 Flateyjarbók (Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute MS GKS 1005 fol.) 178 Junius Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11) 188 London, British Library Add. MS 32246 48–9, 51, 52, 61, 157 London, British Library Cotton MS Caligula A IX 189 London, British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra A III 48, 50, 52, 53, 107 London, British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra A XIII 61 London, British Library Cotton MS Julius A II 49, 52 London, British Library Cotton MS Otho A VI 45 London, British Library Cotton MS Otho C XIII 189, London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A I 64, 67, 70 London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D VI 54 Nowell Codex 1–3, 9, 74, 160 Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 34 188 n.38 Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 146 48, 51 Oxford, St. John’s College MS 154 52 Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Cathedral Library MS 117) 9, 21, 72 Worcester, Worcester Cathedral MS F 174 49, 52 Martyrology 57 Matthew, Saint 137

Maxims I 50, 67, 108, 110, 115, 148, 180 hearpe in 152–3, 154 performers in 114, 148–51, 159 Maxims II 149 mead hall 41, 57, 156, 183, 187, 225, 228 mead bench 91, 92, 129 Merlin 197–9 Mermedonia 137–8, 142 Merriam, Alan P. high-importance/low status paradigm 52, 170–3 meterwyrhta 47, 53 Metrical Charms 9, 122, 181, 227 Miller 213 minstrels 21, 37–40, 43–4, 169, 212–13, 223 in Laȝamon’s Brut 195, 197, 198–202, 208–9 in Roman de Brut 191–2 ‘minstrel disguise entrance trick’ 21, 212–13 mode 9, 11, 12, 13, 16–18, 31, 35, 81–2, 86–7, 89, 97, 115, 118, 119, 125, 134–5, 136, 178 n.16, 180, 216, 218, 219, 224, 233, 236 defined 7, 8 Moro 227 Morris, William 4 musical instruments 10–11 in burials 41, 64, 66, 67, 110–11, 169, 220 identifiers for cithara 65, 117, 118, 164, 166 gleobeam 50, 69, 95, 109, 114, 116, 154, 155–6 gomenwudu 69, 90, 92, 95, 105 n.2, 108, 114–16, 155 guðhorn 72 hearpe 10, 25, 31, 41, 62, 63–72, 99, 108, 111, 113–16, 152–9, 172–3, 220, 222, 228, 233 lyra 62, 63 rotte, reote 52, 64–5, 66, 67, 167 n.44, 46 sigebyman 72


Index Mustanoja, Tauno 101 Niles, John D. 40 n.19, 43, 46, 54, 59, 69, 75, 77, 79, 122, 147, 149, 231 Northumbria 74, 167 Nowell, Laurence 2, 3 Oberflacht 220 Oddrún 185–6 O’Ferrall, S. L. Beowulf the Monster Slayer 4 Old English Boethius 52, 56, 57, 61 Ongentheow 132 Opland, Jeff 39 n.15, 43–4, 45, 49, 50–1, 52, 54, 78 n.11, 79, 86, 88, 92–3, 94–5, 96, 135, 156 n.18, 167, 169, 172, 198, 222, 226 oral-formulaic theory 19–26, 96, 175 n.5, 176, 190 Orchard, Andy 75 Order of the World 14–19, 32, 144–51, 154, 157–8 Orel, Vladimir 36, 47 Orosius, Paulus 45 Orton, Peter 77 Osborn, Marijane 65 n. 144, 67, 167 n. 44, 214 Padelford, Frederick 43, 44 Page, Christopher 163 n.135, 65, 157, 169 Parker, Roscoe E. 58, 59, 61 Parry, Milman 22 Pearsall, Derek 203–4 Percy, Thomas 37–9, 43, 44, 181 performance  contexts 11–12, 16, 17, 38, 163, 168, 169, 178, 181, 184, 202, 213–4, 218, 222–9 defined 6–12 as essentially contested concept 6–7 functions and effects of 13–19 initiates narrative events 13 language of 35–73 popular conceptions of 222

as tradition 6, 10, 20, 26, 29, 33–4, 79, 174–215, 230–1, 234, 235 words for dream 56–7 galan 58 galdor 58 gesegen 58 gied 59–60 leoð 61–2 sang 58–9 singan 58–9 spel 60 sweg 60 talu 62 Phoebus 214 Phoenix 23, 60, 61, 73, 81, 159 ‘poetic performance’ 17, 29, 212, 214, 215, 235–6 Pope, J. C. 40 Psalm 50 54, 158 Psalmists 45, 48, 53–4 Ragnarǫk 181–2 Ramey, Peter 26, 84–5, 86 Ravenswood, battle of 132–3 reenactment 29, 216–29, 235–6 Reichl, Karl 21, 59, 119 riddles 9 Riddle 8 47 Riddle 14 72, 152 Riddle 31 152 Riddle 35 23 Ringbom, Håkan 72, 190, 201, 204, 211 Rune Poem 177 sangere 47, 53–4 scenes 19–20, 24, 26, 33, 38, 103 in Beowulf 79, 85, 88, 89, 90, 94–95, 96, 102, 106, 126, 127, 133, 156 defined 21 in Eddic poetry 181–3 in Laȝamon’s Brut 188, 195, 201, 202 Scilling 181 scop 10, 18, 24, 26, 35, 38, 39, 40–9, 50–4, 58, 59, 60, 74 n.2, 75, 156,


Index 158, 169, 174, 175, 196, 221, 222, 225–6, 227, 230 in Beowulf 78, 84–96, 97, 102, 104, 106, 108, 114, 124–5, 134, 135, 136 in Laȝamon’s Brut 198–200, 206, 208–10 in wisdom poems 148–51 scribes 1, 10, 17, 23, 49, 92, 100 n.65, 147, 159–60, 189, 200, 230 Seafarer 60, 109, 111–12, 114, 117, 231, 236 Sequentia 221 Sharma, Manish 25, 211 Shippey, T. A. 74 n. 2, 146, 156–7 Shultz, Jerrianne D. 21 n.44, 212–13 Sigemund 79–80, 82—4, 91, 124, 233 Sigrdrífumál 175 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 80, 213 Sir Orfeo 21, 213 skaldic poetry 39, 125, 174–5 skalds 10, 38, 46, 174–6, 179, 187–8 slam poetry 1 Snorri Sturluson 185 Society for Creative Anachronism 216–17 Solomon and Saturn 62 Southworth, John 39–40, 44, 67 n.160, 222 Spencer, Edmund The Faerie Queene 214 Stanley, E. G. 99, 198 Steen, Janie 81 storytelling 8, 11–12, 13, 14–15, 18, 21, 31–2, 35, 44, 47, 77, 79–84, 86, 91–3, 97–100, 105–8, 118, 119–43, 146, 165–6, 177, 180, 185–6, 213, 216, 219, 221, 224–5, 233 string instruments 63–6, 152, 192, 214 Sutton Hoo lyre 41–2, 64–67, 68, 110–11 Swedes 130, 132, 134 symbolism 6, 10, 13–14, 19, 20, 25,

27–9, 30–1, 33–4, 36, 45, 48, 50, 54, 55, 62, 69, 147–8, 149, 169, 233, 234, 235 in Beowulf 76, 84–5, 88, 96, 98–100, 101, 102, 121–2, 128, 135, 232 of Cædmon account 165 in eddic poetry 177, 178, 180–3, 184, 186, 187 harp as symbol in the Bible 117–18 in later English tradition 213, 215 in Laȝamon’s Brut 195, 203, 210–11 lyre as symbol in Beowulf 104–16 in wisdom poems 152, 153, 156, 158, 159 in modern performance 218, 226 Thor 125 Thornbury, Emily V. 41, n.27, 44, 92, 106–7, 174 n.1 on OE words meaning ‘poet’ 97, 158, 45–6, 46–48 on professional perfomers 46 on scop 45, 52, 222 Tolkien, J. R. R. 2, 5, 76, 80, 104–5 ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ 2 tradition see under performance ‘Tremulous Hand’ of Worcester 206 Trilling, Renee R. 41–2, 157 troubadours 44 trumpets 72–3, 159 n.27 in Laȝamon’s Brut 192, 194–7, 200–1 Turville-Petre, Thorlac 204, 205 type-scene 21, 125 n.16, 212–13 Unferth 89, 133, 136, 224, 226 Vainglory 81, 144–6, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151, 158, 231–2 Venantius Fortunatus 63


Index Virgil 45, 126 Vǫluspá 33, 87 n.39, 180–3 Wace  Roman de Brut 122 n.9, 190–2, 193, 194, 195, 196, 200, 202, 204, 207, 208, 209, 210, 213 Wanderer 82, 109, 117, 227, 236 Wealtheow 101, 126 Wehlau, Ruth 16 Werlich, Egon 41, 53, 222 West Stow medieval village 121 n.5, 217 Widsith 14, 40–1, 50–1, 148, 150, 156, 181, 183, 230 Wife of Bath 214 Wife’s Lament 101 Wiglaf 101, 130, 131–3 wisdom poetry 32, 84, 104, 107, 143, 144–60, 163, 178–9, 186, 230

woðbora 10, 15–18, 41, 47, 53, 145, 146, 149, 150, 151, 157–8 Wrenn, C. L. 42, 47 n.65 Wulf 132 Wulf and Eadwacer 177, 227 Wulfgar 81, 121 Wulfstan 32, 170 Canons of Edgar 168–9 Law of the Northumbrian Priests 168–9 Wyatt, A. J. 4 Ywain and Gawain 213 Zemeckis, Robert  Beowulf (2007 film) 4 Zupitza, Julius 5, 92 Zwikstra, Corey 107


ANGLO-SAXON STUDIES Please see the Boydell & Brewer website for details of earlier titles in the series.

Volume 24: The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment, edited by Leonard Neidorf Volume 25: The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England, Toby F. Martin Volume 26: Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England, Michael D.J. Bintley Volume 27: The Peterborough Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Rewriting Post-Conquest History, Malasree Home Volume 28: The Anglo-Saxon Chancery: The History, Language and Production of Anglo-Saxon Charters from Alfred to Edgar, Ben Snook Volume 29: Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia, edited by Michael D.J. Bintley and Thomas J.T. Williams Volume 30: Direct Speech in Beowulf and Other Old English Narrative Poems, Elise Louviot Volume 31: Old English Philology: Studies in Honour of R.D. Fulk, edited by Leonard Neidorf, Rafael J. Pascual and Tom Shippey Volume 32: ‘Charms’, Liturgies, and Secret Rites in Early Medieval England, Ciaran Arthur Volume 33: Old Age in Early Medieval England: A Cultural History, Thijs Porck Volume 34: Priests and their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England, Gerald P. Dyson Volume 35: Burial, Landscape and Identity in Early Medieval Wessex, Kate Mees Volume 36: The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe: Experience, Identity, Representation, Sue Brunning

Volume 37: The Chronology and Canon of Ælfric of Eynsham, Aaron J Kleist Volume 38: Medical Texts in Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture, Emily Kesling Volume 39: The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf, Francis Leneghan Volume 40: Old English Lexicology and Lexicography: Essays in Honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey, edited by Maren Clegg Hyer, Haruko Momma and Samantha Zacher Volume 41: Debating With Demons: Pedagogy and Materiality in Early English Literature, Christina M. Heckman Volume 42: Textual Identites in Early Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe, edited by Jacqueline Fay, Rebecca Stephenson and Renée R. Trilling Volume 43: Bishop Æthelwold, his Followers, and Saints’ Cults in Early Medieval England Power, Belief, and Religious Reform, Alison V. Hudson Volume 44: Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England, edited by Karen Louise Jolly and Britton Elliott Brooks