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"Cynewulf and Cyneheard": a woman screams.

The presence of the woman is not to be overlooked.


"Cynewulf and Cyneheard" is the entry for 755/757 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record compiled during the reign of King Alfred (871-899 C.E.). (1) The 755/757 annal has attracted generations of scholars from several disciplines: political and social historians because it may shed some light on the theoretical movement from kinship to comitatus loyalty; linguists because it may contain a rare example of direct speech; and literary critics because it is an unusually engaging narrative, quite unlike the sparse entries ordinarily found in the Chronicle. (For a summary of the story, see the appendix.)

"Cynewulf and Cyneheard" is difficult to translate because of its "spontaneous syntax and free word-order" and, especially, its many ambiguous pronouns. (2) As Kevin Crossley-Holland remarks, its style is "colloquial, almost breathless," and "rather muddling to those unfamiliar with the circumstances...." (3) Mitchell and Robinson speak for most other commentators when they describe "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" as "a narrative which exemplifies one of the cardinal virtues of Germanic society in the heroic age: unswerving loyalty to one's sworn leader, even when that loyalty is in conflict with claims of kinship." (4) However, there is considerable critical controversy on this and many other points. An abundance of translations has also followed this narrative through the years, many of them based on questionable assumptions. As Fredrik Heinemann observes, this little story "has had to endure" considerable "over-explication." (5) These controversies are beyond the scope of the present study: my concern in this essay is the woman Cynewulf was visiting at Merton. Although many "far-reaching assumptions" have followed her throughout the years, (6) to the best of my knowledge there has been no critical discussion about this woman in the extensive, predominantly male, commentary on "Cynewulf and Cyneheard." She has, however, "endured" several questionable translations.

We first meet the woman at Merton in the sentence, "Ond ba geascode he bone cyning lytle werode on wifcybbe on Merantune, ond hine baer berad ond bone bur utan beeode aer hine ba men onfunden be mid bam kyninge waerun," which most twentieth-century translators render, "And Cyneheard discovered that the king was at Merton visiting his mistress with a small following, and he [Cyneheard] overtook him [Cynewulf] there and surrounded the chamber before the men who were with the king became aware of him [Cyneheard]." (7) We hear of the woman for the second, and last time during the first battle, when Cynewulf is slain by Cyneheard and his men: "Ond ba on baes wifes gebaerum onfundon baes cyniges begnas ba unstilnesse, ond ba bider urnon swa hwelc swa bonne gearo wearb ond radost," usually translated as "Then, by the woman's outcry, the king's thanes became aware of the disturbance and went there, each as he got ready and as quickly as possible."

Traditional criticism of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" has been content to keep the woman at Merton where the annalist left her, in the margins of a story about men. However, for a feminist reader, several urgent questions arise. First of all, what happened to the woman? The annalist reports of Cynewulf's party that, after the first battle, "hie alle laegon butan anum Bryttiscum gisle" [they all lay dead except for a British hostage]. (8) Does this mean that the woman was killed too? (9) Who was this woman? What was she doing in Merton? What was her relationship to Cynewulf? Furthermore, the phrase on wifcybbe is disturbing. It denotes a masculine activity; it speaks of the woman as an event, not as an active and independent character, such as we have in Cynewulf and Cyneheard, or Osric, or even the British hostage. In their glossary, Mitchell and Robinson give "company or intimacy with a woman" for wifcybbu, thus raising further questions: Does this word appear in other Old English texts? (10) Is there a similar word for a woman in "company or intimacy" with a man? (11) Is there any other way to speak of a man's "intimacy" with a woman in Old English?

Margaret Clunies Ross, in her article, "Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England," helps clarify the meaning of on wifcybbe. She gives several other Old English words for "sexual intimacy" and discusses how these words changed over the years as the church's influence grew. According to Ross, from early Anglo-Saxon "morally neutral" terms such as wif [woman] and haemed [sexual intercourse] there gradually developed ones such as unrihtwif and unrihthaemed [unlawful wife (and) illicit intercourse]. Ross further explains, "the term wif ... need not refer to a woman's status as a legal wife, but it normally excludes those who have not yet entered into a permanent sexual union." Yet, although Ross asserts that the word wif is "basically neutral" and differentiates it from cyfes, or "concubine," she nonetheless refers to the wif in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" as a "concubine." (12)

Ross's observations generate further questions: was the wif at Merton in "a permanent sexual union" with Cynewulf? Or with another man? Was she married? Was she Cynewulf's concubine? (13) She is present in the text merely as part of a compound word, the wif of on wifcybbe, and in the genitive wifes indicating to whom the "outcry" that alerted Cynewulf's men belongs. However, AEthelweard, an Anglo-Saxon aldorman who wrote his Latin version of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" in the late tenth century, had no problem identifying this woman: he translated Cynewulf, on wifcybbe, as "cum quadam meretrice morando" [tarrying, or dallying, with a certain prostitute]. (14)

Most recent twentieth-century critics translate wif in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" as "mistress" or "woman." However, earlier commentators seem to have had considerable difficulty deciding how to refer to her. For instance, in 1915 Alexander Bell was unable to acknowledge the woman at all: in his summary of the annal, for "Ond ba geascode he bone cyning lytle werode on wifcybbe on Merantune" [And then he (Cyneheard) discovered that the king (was) at Merton in the company of a woman], he gives, "Cyneheard learns that the king is in Merton," and for "on baes wifes gebaerum onfundon baes cyniges begnas ba unstilnesse, ond ba bider urnon" [by the woman's outcry, the king's thanes became aware of the disturbance and went there], "his followers are attracted by the cries [and] appear on the scene" (emphasis added), thereby removing the woman from the story entirely. (15) Francis Magoun, in 1933, is clearly uncomfortable with the whole situation. As he resorts to a coy humor in his references to the woman at Merton, Magoun seems to reveal an anxious titillation: for him the wif becomes "the lady in the case" and "presumably the object of Cynewulf's gallantries." Magoun further ameliorates the presence of a woman at Merton by cloaking it in Latin: he names her a "femina quaerenda" [woman who must be sought], his Latin rendering of Cherchez la femme [Search for the woman (who was the cause of it all)]. (16) Needless to say, Magoun does not take up the search. In 1940, C. L. Wrenn also had difficulty with the Merton visit: all he can say about Cynewulf's on wifcybbe status at Merton is that the king is engaged in "some kind of meeting with a lady." (17) Alistair Campbell, moreover, in 1962 translates AEthelweard's "tarrying with a certain prostitute" as "staying with a certain loose woman." (18) Of course, as Ruth Mazo Karras observes, "[T]he denotation of the word [prostitute] is problematic. In literature and in common parlance meretrix, like 'whore' today, could be a promiscuous woman, one who earned her living by sexual favors, or simply one whose sexual morals the speaker wished to impugn." (19) Campbell may have intended to convey AEthelweard's apparent wish to impugn the woman at Merton by translating meretrix as "a certain loose woman." Yet, although his translation of AEthelweard's Chronicle is amply footnoted throughout, Campbell offers no explanation for the transformation of on wifcybbe either to meretrix or to "loose woman."

More recent critics also seem uncomfortable with the presence of a woman at Merton. For instance, T. A. Shippey prefers to "refrain from any comment about the king and the lady," leaving his readers to work out for themselves why "Cyneheard's men approach [the bower] undetected"; and John M. Hill finds the woman's cries a "siren's song" calling Cynewulf's retainers to their deaths. (20)

It is ironic that the interpretation of a morally affronted tenth-century aldorman characterizes the woman at Merton to this day. As we have seen, Herbert Dean Meritt, in Old English Glosses, refers his readers to AEthelweard's rendering of on wifcybbe as "with a certain prostitute." And in 1971 Cassidy and Ringler, in Bright's Old English Grammar, oddly use AEthelweard's translations in their notes to "Cynewulf and Cyneheard," even though they state in their introduction to the story that "AEdelweard [AEthelweard]--himself a native speaker of the language--blundered badly when he translated ['Cynewulf and Cyneheard'] into Latin." The only immediate assistance a reader will find in Cassidy and Ringler's Grammar on the meaning of on wifcybbe is the editors' footnote to the text: "Cum quadam meretrice ('with a certain prostitute') according to AEdelweard." (21) Margaret Clunies Ross too refers readers to AEthelweard. (22) His interpretation also seems to have influenced Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe and Fredrik Heinemann, who describe Cynewulf's visit to Merton as a "dalliance," and Karen Ferro, who remarks that the king "would take a trip now and then, just to dally in the company of a woman." (23) All three critics appear to have accepted AEthelweard's assertion that Cynewulf was "dallying" (morando) with the woman at Merton.

Charles Plummer, whose 1899 Two Saxon Chronicles Stanley Greenfield identifies as the "most used" edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (24) may be the source of later editors' and commentators' uncritical reception of AEthelweard's translation. Plummer's sole note to on wifcybbe is "'cum quadam meretrice morando,' Ethelw. [AEthelweard]." (25) Dorothy Whitelock, who revised Plummer's Chronicles in 1952, let it stand. Yet, rather than Cynewulf's "prostitute," "certain loose woman," or one of his many mistresses, as Stephen D. White seems to imply when he names her "a mistress of his," (26) it is equally possible that the woman at Merton was involved in an exclusive relationship with Cynewulf. Indeed, as D. G. Scragg has argued, she may have been his wife. (27)

A literal translation of the phrase on wifcybbe renders "in the condition of knowing a woman." It seems to have a biblical resonance, as in "And Adam knew Eve" (Genesis 4:1). If we accept that cyp, or "knowing," in on wifcybbe is sexual, the correct translation would be "in the condition of [sexually] knowing a woman." It does seem likely that Cynewulf was visiting the woman at Merton in order to have sex with her. (28) But, as we have seen, there is considerable critical confusion surrounding her identity and her presence at Merton. Her relationship to Cynewulf could have been anything from his wife; to his mistress; to his concubine; one of his many mistresses or concubines; his prostitute, or one of his many prostitutes; or merely his "certain loose woman."

As we have observed, the entire story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard is fraught with confusion, with its "breathless" narration, ambiguous pronouns, and frustrating omissions and obscurities. As Heinemann remarks, "The annalist's failure to give us enough information ... causes confusion," and his "withheld commentary obfuscates the relation between events...." (29) I would suggest that the confusion in the text caused by the annalist's omissions and obfuscations is mirrored in the confusion in the story's later translations and interpretations. In the following discussion, I offer a feminist analysis of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" that might explain why we have seen everything from AEthelweard's decorous distaste to Magoun's nervous titters in the translations that the woman at Merton "has had to endure."

Critics of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" use the word "confusion" again and again as they wrestle with the many obscurities in this tale. (30) As the literary critic Mieke Bal argues, textual problems that generate confusion often provide rich opportunities for interpretation. However, as Bal further argues, when facing such confusion in narratives concerned with the presence of a woman, androcentric criticism tends to commit "reading fallacies" "lead[ing] to a position that participates in the repression of women." In her analysis of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, another ancient text preoccupied with the perils of woman-knowing, Bal writes of the motifs of male solidarity and concealment embedded both in the story and in its current criticism. Pointing to the confusion that arises because of the many textual problems in this biblical tale, Bal finds in it a "symptom" of "a deep intuitive identification between ... men," both within the text and in its criticism, "based on the common interest men have when facing women." Bal also discusses several "archaic faults" men commit against woman, among them, "the fault of being afraid of [women]" and the fault of "the denial of responsibility" for what they have done to women. She further observes that "the unconscious complex of the fear of women ... [is a] confession, so shameful in itself [that it] needs, of course, to be firmly censored." Yet, as Bal notes, "a return of the repressed" frequently betrays the secret. (31) I would argue that, as in the story of David and Bathsheba, the confusion in the text of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard," and in its subsequent androcentric commentary, is caused by the anxiety that often arises when men are confronted with a story about a man's downfall "because of" a woman. (32)

Like "Cynewulf and Cyneheard," the story of David and Bathsheba has been obfuscated by its male critics, who consistently place the blame for the adultery on Bathsheba. As Bal observes, "insistently speaking of 'Bathsheba's infidelity,'" these critics "betray an ideological position.... in which the guilt ... falls on the woman." (33) Commentators on "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" also tend to blame the woman, naming her, without any textual evidence, "a loose woman," indeed, a "prostitute," while continuing to promote the traditional, but problematic, portrait of Cynewulf as the epitome of a brave and heroic warrior. (34) The problem begins with the annal's narrator, who, I would suggest, becomes "breathless" and "muddl[ed]" because he is dealing with a frightening topic. (35) Rather than a story about the conflicts of loyalty among lords and kin, this story may be a warning to men of what can happen to a man--and to his comrades--when he indulges in wifcybbu: "They all lay dead"--"because of" a woman. Indeed, from an androcentric point of view, the woman at Merton was "the cause of it all." From this perspective, if it weren't for the woman, Cynewulf would not have been on wifcybbe at Merton in the first place. And, as we have seen, the woman's "outcry" is also suspect, for, rather than initiating a valiant rescue, it summoned the king's retainers to their deaths.

Although we may discover other possible meanings and messages in this narrative, its primary concern is the heroic ethos of a warrior culture, which, as David F. Greenberg observes, was based on the "love of man for man, the mutual love of warriors who die together against odds ... the affection between the vassal and the lord," and the "subordination of" and "contempt for women...." Greenberg further observes, "As war became more important to the [ancient] Germans, the male warriors and their culture became dominant, and the status of women declined. Effeminacy and receptive homosexuality were increasingly scorned and repressed." Indeed, as Greenberg notes, the Modern English word "bad (originally baedling [baedling], effeminate), reflects this development." As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has amply documented, repressed homosexuality is frequently expressed in male homosociality, the social bonds between men based on "male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, [and] rivalry," often "characterized by intense homophobia" and always characterized by the oppression of women. Indeed, as Sedgwick observes, "no element of [the structure of male homosocial bonds] can be understood outside of its relation to women and the gender system as a whole." (36)

Although the "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" annalist appears to make no explicit judgment about Cynewulf's visit to Merton, and most critics argue that he wished his audience to come away with a positive opinion of Cynewulf, (37) the king has disrupted the bonds of homosociality at Merton. After all, he has left his men in the hall in order to visit a woman in her bower. Furthermore, Cynewulf has left himself open to attack, apparently forgetting both to see to the guarding of the stockade and to order his own personal bodyguard. It seems reasonable to assume that the annalist's Anglo-Saxon audience would have strongly disapproved of a leader of men tarrying in the women's quarters. (38) Indeed, Cynewulf is finally reduced to fighting for his life in a woman's doorway, a situation that may also have signified his weakness to an Anglo-Saxon audience. (39) It is interesting to note that the annalist uses the adverb unheanlice to describe the way Cynewulf fought in the woman's doorway. The literal translation of unheanlice is "un-shamefully." However, it is almost invariably translated as "nobly, or "valiantly," thereby censoring the "shame" that hovers within the word, and, I would submit, the parallel shame of the annalist and his subsequent male translators and interpreters. (40)

Although the annalist wrote down the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard during the late Anglo-Saxon period and, therefore, was probably familiar with terms such as unrihtwif and unrihthaemed [unlawful wife (and) illicit intercourse], he did not choose to use them when he wrote of the woman at Merton. (41) Yet, there are so many things that seem "un-right" in this story, beginning with the first sentence, where we find that Sigeberht met his doom "for unryhtum daedum" [for wicked deeds]. When we recall with Dorothy Whitelock the tirades against the "sins and excesses of the British kings" that "coloured the views of all ... Anglo-Saxon writers" since the sixth century C.E., (42) it seems likely that, in referring to Sigeberht's unryhtum daedum, the annalist was invoking the iniustitiae [unjust acts] for which Boniface and Alcuin castigated kings in their eighth-century letters, including the fornicationes and adulteria [fornications (and) adulteries] whose perpetrators' just deserts were the ignominy of being deposed, and often murdered, by their own subjects, exactly what happened to Sigeberht and Cynewulf. (43)

Most critics assume that the term unryhtum daedum in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" is a legal phrase, indicating "illegal deeds," perhaps unconstitutional ones, and consider Sigeberht's murdering his loyal alderman an example of the "illegal deeds" the deposed king had previously committed. (44) Yet, as White observes, the annalist "told only one of several possible stories" about Sigeberht: it is equally possible that Sigeberht "had been foully betrayed by evil followers, who had then tried to justify their treachery by blackening their lord's reputation." White further observes that "an effective way of vilifying a lord ... was to represent him as killing or injuring a faithful follower." However, as White reports, lords were also often vilified by accusations of "sexual misbehavior." (45) I would suggest that both the tone and the topic of the 755/757 annal support an interpretation of Sigeberht's unryhtum daedum as "sexual misbehavior." As Ross observes, from the laws of Wihtred in the late seventh century onwards, there was "a growing need to coin words which expressed the Christian view of illegal sexual acts and their consequences as morally reprehensible." The Anglo-Saxons met this need by compounding previously neutral words with "unriht-and similar elements" to indicate "relationships which the church regarded as illicit." (46) However, as Karen Ferro remarks, the phrase unryhtum daedum must remain ambiguous. (47) Sigeberht may have been accused of "illegal deeds," but it is equally possible that he was, in addition, or instead, accused of "sexual misbehavior."

Along with the tirades against the sins of the British kings that colored the views of Anglo-Saxon historians, King Alfred's own point of view must have influenced his scribes. Alfred is best known for

the cultural renaissance he initiated in his realm even while he was leading his nation in a fight for survival against Scandinavian invaders.... [H]e conceived and implemented a far-sighted plan for teaching all free Anglo-Saxons literacy in the vernacular and for translating the more important books of the period into English.... (48)

As Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge observe, Alfred associated "the sorry state of learning at the time of his accession" with "the poor quality of religious observance" in the nation:

It was clearly felt ... that the Church had fallen into serious decay during the ninth century.... Alfred seems to have regarded the Viking invasions as a form of divine punishment for the decline, and his endeavours to revive religion and learning can thus be seen as an attempt on his part to strike at the heart of the problem and thereby to ensure peace and prosperity in the future. (49)

According to Asser, Alfred's contemporary and biographer, the king was a devout and pious man, who, both in his adolescence and adulthood, was deeply disturbed by his sexuality. Indeed, Alfred's youthful aversion to his "carnal desire" and his strange collapse on his wedding day suggest an emotional disorder. Asset describes Alfred's illnesses in his Life of King Alfred:

[I]n the first flowering of [Alfred's] youth ... when he realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire ... [he frequently] visited churches and relics of the saints in order to pray ... that Almighty God ... would ... strengthen his resolve ... by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate.... [A]fter some time he contracted the disease of piles through God's gift; [he struggled] with this long and bitterly through many years....

Now on [another] occasion ... [Alfred went] to a particular church ... [and] lay prostrate in silent prayer a long while ... [asking] that Almighty God ... might substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness.... [S]hortly thereafter ... he felt himself divinely cured from that malady....

But, alas, when it had been removed another more severe illness seized him at his wedding feast....

[On his wedding day] after the feasting which lasted day and night, he was struck without warning in the presence of the entire gathering by a sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians ... and--worst of all, alas!--[it continued] many years without remission.... (50)

Although Asser's report of Alfred's illness, suffering, and miraculous cure seems to be modeled on hagiography, most scholars consider Alfred's illnesses more fact than fiction. Keynes and Lapidge further suggest that they may have been psychosomatic: Asser's "picture of the king as one so obsessed with his poor health [leads one] to suspect that the illness was in part psychological. The picture is supported to a considerable extent by Alfred's own writings." (51)

In the Life Asset presents a picture of a man who was also preoccupied with female sexuality: according to Asser, Alfred repeatedly told him the story of the "wicked" Queen Eadburh, daughter of Offa and wife of the unfortunate Beorhtric, Cynewulf's successor. Eadburh, accused of poisoning her husband, fled to the continent after Beorhtric's death. Asser, relating the story he had from Alfred, writes that Eadburh was a woman of "very great wickedness" who did "all things hateful to God and men." Furthermore, Asser reports that "just as she is said to have lived recklessly in her own country, so she was seen to live still more recklessly among a foreign people." Eventually, according to Asser, Eadburh "was publicly caught in debauchery with a man of her own race ... and [thereafter] shamefully spent her life in poverty and misery until her death." Asset completes his--and Alfred's--tale by stating that Eadburh conferred a "foul stigma on all the queens who came after her," so that "all the inhabitants of the land swore that they would never permit any king to reign over them who ... invited the queen to sit beside him on the royal throne." (52) Clearly, an aura of sexual distaste surrounds Alfred's Life/life. It is not surprising then to find both his biographer and his 755/757 annalist engrossed in stories about "sexual misbehavior."

Yet, despite the "un-rightness" that troubles the tale of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, there is something "right" in this story. In the end-frame, the annalist reports that both men were descended from Cerdic: "hiera ryhtfaederencyn gaeb to Cerdice" [their direct paternal descent goes (back) to Cerdic]. This remark is frequently interpreted as a pointed reminder from the annalist that Cynewulf and Cyneheard were related by blood, and it is used to support the assumption that the story's main concern is "loyalty to one's sworn leader, even when ... in conflict with claims of kinship." (53) Ryhtfaederencyn is conventionally translated as "direct paternal descent." However, the adjective ryht/riht has several meanings. In addition to indicating direction, it signifies "satisfying the demands of conduct, right, proper, fitting"; and "satisfying the requirements of a standard, right, correct, true, orthodox." (54) I would suggest that, as he announced the direct descent from the faederencyn [fathers' kin], the annalist wished to invoke the rightness, correctness, and propriety of paternal ancestry. Indeed, we might hear in ryhtfaederencyn a sigh of relief from our breathless annalist as he winds up his confused and un-right tale about the downfall of men "because of" a woman with a turn to the more "fitting" and "proper" topic of a patriarchal legacy.

The 755/757 annalist seems unusually fond of the negative prefix un-: he uses it three times in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard." Along with unryht [un-right] to describe Sigeberht's deeds and unheanlice [un-shamefully] to describe Cynewulf's manner of self-defense, the annalist uses the word unstilnesse [un-stillness, disturbance, disorder] to tell of the commotion raised during the battle by the bower. (55) I would suggest that all three words resonate with a "return of the repressed": it seems to me that the annalist reveals the secret of his shame in his inability to name outright the "wicked deeds" of Sigeberht, the shameful position in which Cynewulf finds himself at the woman's quarters, and the disorder at the doorway of the bower of the woman who, as the androcentric commentary would like to believe, was "the cause of it all."

In Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, Naomi Schor argues, "To tell the story from the perspective of the detail is invariably to tell another story." (56) As Mieke Bal observes, in a feminist reading for detail "the privileging of the global, the normal, the 'important,' is given over to the minute, the trivial, the apparently trivial," resulting in a "deconstruction of literary priorities" that problematizes "the dominance of male-centeredness in the reading of ... influential texts ...." Indeed, as Bal further observes, "[T]he sheer possibility of a different reading [shows] that 'dominance' is, although present and in many ways obnoxious, not unproblematically established." (57)

We have seen that a different reading of the words wifcyppu, unheanlice, and ryht/riht destabilizes the male-centeredness embedded both in the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard and in its commentary. The word gebaerum, where we meet the woman at Merton for the second, and last time, also invites critical scrutiny. The phrase paes wifes gebaerum is usually translated as "the woman's outcry," and, occasionally, "the woman's screams." However, gebaeru carries several other meanings, including "behaviour, demeanour, attitude"; and "action, gesture, movement." (58) Perhaps, rather than helplessly uttering cries in the margins of the text, this woman was rushing about, running for help, even wielding a sword of her own.

From the time of King Alfred to the present day, the presence of a woman in the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard has been a source of male anxiety. As we have seen, the androcentric commentary that has accrued around this tale has dealt with the woman at Merton at best as a trivial event and at worst as "the cause of it all" in a story for and about men. A different reading, a feminist reading, reveals another story. (59)

Drew University


The following is a brief summary of the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, based on the most widely accepted translations:

In 755 [757], Cynewulf and the West Saxon Witan deprived Sigeberht of the kingdom because of his wicked deeds. Cynewulf took the throne, and, sometime thereafter, the banished Sigeberht killed his loyal aldorman. Sigeberht was later stabbed to death by a herdsman, who was apparently avenging the aldorman's murder. After ruling for 31 [29] years, Cynewulf decided to banish Cyneheard, who was Sigeberht's brother, and, therefore, a rival for the throne. Cyneheard discovered that the king, accompanied only by a small retinue, was visiting a woman at Merton. Cyneheard and his men ambushed Cynewulf at Merton by breaking into the stockade and surrounding the women's quarters, where Cynewulf and the woman were staying. Once Cynewulf became aware of Cyneheard and his followers, he went to the doorway of the woman's bower and defended himself there until he caught sight of Cyneheard, rushed out at him, and wounded him severely. Cynewulf was then killed as he fought against the men single-handedly. The woman's outcry alerted Cynewulfs retainers, who were apparently asleep in a nearby hall. They rushed to the scene, where Cyneheard offered them money and land, presumably hoping they would accept him as their lord. They refused, and a second battle ensued. All of Cynewulf's retinue were killed, except for a British hostage. Meanwhile, news of the king's death reached the retainers who had not accompanied him to Merton, among them his aldorman, Osric and his thane, Wiferth. In the morning, these retainers arrived at Merton, where they, too, turned down an offer of money and land and, in addition, an appeal not to do battle with their kinsmen, some of whom were apparently attached to Cyneheard's party. A third battle ensued, and Cynewulf's retainers killed Cyneheard and all of his men, except an aldorman's godson.


(1) Although it is entered at 755, the correct date for the initial events in the Cynewulf and Cyneheard story is 757. As Dorothy Whitelock reports, in the annal dated 756 a "dislocation of chronology begins." From this date, all extant versions are dated two--or further on even three--years too early up to the annal for 845" (Dorothy Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation [Rutgers U. Press, 1985], 30 n. 5). Furthermore, "The death of Cynewulf has been recorded out of place" in the 755/757 annal (Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 31 n. 6); it is tersely recorded once again at the year of his death, 784 [786].

The first part of the Chronicle was written in Latin and covered the years from antiquity to Alfred's reign, when they were compiled, translated, and continued. There are several extant Old-English versions of the Chronicle. See Whitelock, Introduction, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, xi-xxiv, for a full discussion.

(2) Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 5th ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 208. Citations from "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" in Old English are from Mitchell and Robinson unless otherwise indicated. Mitchell and Robinson use the Parker Manuscript, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 173.

(3) Kevin Crossley-Holland, ed. and trans., The Anglo Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford U. Press, 1984), 35. Many scholars believe that the story "points to a completely lost oral tradition (Crossley-Holland, Anglo-Saxon World, 35) and that its Anglo, Saxon audience knew the story well: what seems ambiguous to us may not have been so for them. Several commentators argue that "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" resembles an Icelandic saga, while others disagree. For a discussion of this controversy, see Fredrik J. Heinemann, "'Cynewulf and Cyneheard' and Landnamabok: Another Narrative Tradition," Leeds Studies in English 24 (1993): 57-89.

(4) Mitchell and Robinson, Guide, 208.

(5) Heinemann, "Cynewulf and Cyneheard": 82.

(6) See Stephen D. White, "Kinship and Lordship in Early Medieval England: The Story of Sigeberht, Cynewulf, and Cyneheard," Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 20 (1989): 1-18, for a discussion of some of the "far-reaching assumptions" that have followed this tale, assumptions "not necessarily supported either by [the text] or by other evidence ..." (5). White, however, does not address the assumptions surrounding the woman in this story.

(7) Merton [Merantun] is conventionally identified as Merton in Surrey. See White, "Kinship": 2 n. 11, for other possible locations.

(8) Unless otherwise identified, Old English and Latin translations are my own.

(9) Charles Plummer (Two Saxon Chronicles: Parallel on the Basis of an Edition by John Earle [1892-99], revised by Dorothy Whitelock, 1952, 2 vols. [Oxford." Clarendon Press, 1965, 1972], 2:45), gives "the arrangements of a Saxon residence": "The chief building was the hall, around which were grouped the other apartments, each entered from the court; the whole surrounded by a wall or rampart of earth, and therefore named a burh. The common external entrance was the gate (geat), which was an opening in the wall; but the entrance to any of the enclosed buildings was a door (duru) ...."

The king's retainers were apparently sleeping in the hall when Cyneheard arrived and surrounded the bur [women's quarters], where Cynewulf was "visiting his mistress." It seems unlikely that a king's "mistress" would have been unattended; surely she had her own retinue of women with her at Merton. Rather than "What happened to the woman?" perhaps the question should be "What happened to the women?"

(10) It does--in an eighth- to tenth-century Old English gloss to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Herbert Dean Meritt, in Old English Glosses (A Collection) (New York: MLA, 1945), 8 n. 79, reports two glosses to actuali peccato [actual sin] in Bede's discussion of original and actual sin (see Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969], 2.19, 202-3). The first gloss is wyfcinde [womankind], which is, as Meritt observes, the glossator's particular comment on [Bede's] actuali peccato"; the second is wif p, a scratched gloss, which Meritt identifies as an abbreviation of wifcyppu. Thus, when Bede writes of original and actual sin, his Anglo-Saxon glossators recall womankind and the perils of woman-knowing. In turn, the glossators remind Meritt of on wifcyppe in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard," and, immediately thereafter, of AEthelweard's translation of on wifcyppe to with a certain prostitute" (8 n. 79). AEthelweard's translation is discussed below.

(11) Authors of Old English texts use gender-neutral words such as homed [intercourse], cunnan [to know], and gemaecscipe [intercourse] when writing of a woman "knowing" a man. See, for instance, AElfric's "Life of Saint AEthelthryth," where the narrator reports, "hit nolde se aelmihtiga god paet hire maego-had wurde mid haemede adylegod" [Almighty God wished that her maidenhood not be destroyed by intercourse] (AElfric's Lives of Saints, ed. Walter W. Skeat [London: Early English Text Society, 1881], 432); and Christ I, 3.198-200, where Mary tells Joseph, "ic gen ne conn purh gemaecscipe monnes ower, aenges on eordan" [I have not yet known a man through intercourse anywhere on earth] (The Exeter Book, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie [Columbia U. Press, 1966], 8). For a discussion of Old English words denoting sexual intercourse, see Julie Coleman, "Sexual Euphemism in Old English," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 93.1 (1992): 93-98.

(12) Margaret Clunies Ross, "Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England," Past and Present 108 (1985): 19, 21, 28, 22-23, 22 n. 70.

(13) Unfortunately, very little is known about Cynewulf himself. Dorothy Whitelock, in Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse (1876), ed. Dorothy Whitelock, revised 1967, reprinted with corrections 1979 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 221, has collected most of the information available from various Anglo-Saxon documents: "Cynewulf was an outstanding Anglo-Saxon king who maintained his independence of Offa until he was defeated at Bensington in 779. He was a generous donor to religious houses, and he and his council wrote a letter to the missionary Lul in Germany. He attended the first of the two councils held by King Offa in 786 to meet the papal legates, and may have been killed before the second."

According to the 755/757 annalist, Cynewulf "oft miclum gefeohtum feaht uuip Bretwalum" [often fought with great battles against the Britons], but, as Whitelock observes, despite her apparent acceptance of the commonly held assumption that Cynewulf was an "outstanding king," we do not know the outcome of these battles (Dorothy Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents, 2nd ed., vol. 1 [London: Eyre Methuen, 1979], 11).

(14) AEthelweard, Chronicon AEthelweardi, ed. and trans. A[listair] Campbell (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), 23.

(15) Alexander Bell, "Cynewulf and Cyneheard in Gaimar," MLR 10 (1915): 44.

(16) Francis P. Magoun, "Cynewulf, Cyneheard, and Osric," Anglia 57 (1933): 372, 367, 362.

(17) C.L. Wrenn, "A Saga of the Anglo-Saxons," History 25 (1940): 214.

(18) Alistair Campbell, Chronicle of AEthelweard, 23.

(19) Ruth Mazo Karras, "Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend," Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.1 (1990): 3.

(20) T.A. Shippey, "Boar and Badger: An Old English Heroic Antithesis?" Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 16 (1985): 237 n. 4; and John M. Hill, Violence, Law, and Kingship in the Cynewulf and Cyneheard Story (755, ASC), unpublished essay.

(21) Frederic G. Cassidy and Richard N. Ringler, Bright's Old English Grammar, 3rd ed., 2nd revision (New York: Holt, 1971), 138, 140 n. 9. Rather than "with a certain prostitute," Cassidy and Ringler give "company of a woman" for wifcyppu in their glossary.

(22) Ross, "Concubinage": 22 n. 70.

(23) Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe, "Heroic Values and Christian Ethics," The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge U. Press, 1993), 111; Heinemann, Cynewulf and Cyneheard": 60; and Karen Ferro, The King in the Doorway: The 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,' A.D. 755," Acta 11 (1984): 20.

(24) Stanley B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (New York U. Press, 1974), 39 n. 20.

(25) Plummer, Two Saxon Chronicles, 2:45.

(26) White, "Kinship": 2.

(27) D.G. Scragg, "Wifcyppe and the Morality of the Cynewulf and Cyneheard Episode in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," Alfred the Wise: Studies in Honor of Janet Bately on the Occasion of Her Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Jane Roberts, Janet Nelson, and Malcolm Godden (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997), 180.

(28) Scragg, however, finds "no direct evidence that the word itself [wifcyppu] can carry the specific meaning of 'having sexual intercourse with a woman,' especially with the implication of intercourse outside marriage" ("Wifcyppe," 180).

(29) Crossley-Holland, Anglo-Saxon World, 35; and Heinemann, "Cynewulf and Cyneheard": 60, 64.

(30) See, for instance, Heinemann, "Cynewulf and Cyneheard": 60; R. W. McTurk, "'Cynewulf and Cyneheard' and the Icelandic Sagas," Leeds Studies in English 12 (1981): 95, 97; Tom H. Towers, "Thematic Unity in the Story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard," JEGP 62 (1963): 310; Whitelock, Sweet, 222; Wrenn, "Saga": 211; and C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1939), 80.

(31) Mieke Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Indiana U. Press, 1987), 6, 29-30, 86, 33-34.

(32) Freud writes of the intimidating "presence of a woman" in "The Purpose of Jokes," Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1960), 8:99-101. According to Freud, sexual jokes between men require two men and the "presence of a woman." One of the men tries to seduce the woman, and, through the first [man's] smutty speech the woman is exposed before the [second man] ...": "The men save up this kind of entertainment, which originally presupposed the presence of a woman who was feeling ashamed, till they are "alone together" .... The woman ... is afterwards retained as though she were still present, or in her absence her influence still has an intimidating effect on the men."

I would argue that the "presence of a woman" in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" incites a similar exchange between men and that the "feeling ashamed" Freud projects onto women who are "exposed"--and then eliminated--by men more accurately describes the men who are, or who wish to be, "alone together," from the writer of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" to his subsequent male commentators. See Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 14.1 (1982): 117-54, for a feminist discussion of Freud's 'Purpose of Jokes."

(33) Bal, Lethal Love, 27.

(34) See, for instance, H. P. R. Finberg, The Formation of England: 550-1042 (London: Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1974), 104; Scragg, "Wifcyppe," 179-185; Towers, "Thematic Unity": 314-15; and Ruth Waterhouse, "The Theme and Structure of 755 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 70 (1969): 635,36. For different opinions, see Ferro, "King in the Doorway": 19-23; Hill, "Violence, Law, and Kingship"; White, "Kinship": 7-10; and Wrenn, "Saga": 214.

(35) I borrow these words from Crossley-Holland, Anglo-Saxon World, 35.

(36) David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (U. of Chicago Press, 1988), 257, 247, 249 (Greenberg cites Vern Bullough, The Subordinate Sex [Baltimore: Penguin, 1973], 163; and C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love [Oxford U. Press, 1959], 9); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men." English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia IT. Press, 1985), 1.

(37) See, for instance, John Johansen, "Language, Structure, and Theme in the 'Cynewulf and Cyneheard Episode, English Language Notes 31.1 (1993): 3; O'Keefe, "Heroic Values," 111; Shippey, "Boar and Badger : 222, 225; Towers, "Thematic Unity": 314; and White, "Kinship": 12.

(38) Critics argue for a similar weakness in Beowulf's Hrothgar as he leaves the hall to seek his "bed-companion" in the women's quarters (lines 662-65a). For a discussion of the Beowulf-poet's implied censure of Hrothgar's visit to the women's quarters and a review of recent critical opinion of Hrothgar, see Mary Dockray-Miller, "Beowulf's Tears of Fatherhood," forthcoming, Exemplaria 10 (1998).

(39) The annalist may have wished to imply that Cynewulf had become a man of poor judgment, perhaps "a little arbitrary and weakened in his latter days as king" (Hill, "Violence Law, and Kingship"). For instance, as Wrenn observes ("Saga": 214), if Cynewulf had remained in the woman's doorway rather than "rush[ing] out impetuously' to attack Cyneheard, he "might have defended himself" successfully until help arrived. (For a different opinion see Shippey, who argues that, rather than viewing Cynewulf's impetuous rushing out to attack his enemy as a "disastrous mistake," an Anglo-Saxon audience may have admired Cynewulf's "furious hatred" and "impetuous courage" ["Boar and Badger": 221-22].) The annalist also reports that, after the kings attendants were alerted by the woman's screams, "pa pider urnon swa hwelc swa ponne gearo wearp ond radost" [they ran there (to the bower), whoever was ready and (whoever was) quickest]. The men's scramble to get ready seems comic, and their unpreparedness a poor reflection on their king. Did Cynewulf use bad judgment in taking such retainers to Merton? Or had he become such a weak king that he couldn't keep good retainers in the first place? He did retain Osric, universally accounted a heroic figure. But then, shouldn't he have kept Osric near him? Did Cynewulf leave Osric behind to hold the fort at Winchester? Or because Osric would have disapproved of the goings-on at Merton?

(40) Bosworth Toiler gives "Ignominiously, ingloriously, disgracefully, miserably, humbly" for heanlice, and "Ignominious, disgraceful, vile, poor" for the adjective, heanlic. For unheanlice, Bosworth Toller has "Not in an abject manner, gallantly" (Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, eds., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary [1898] [Oxford U. Press, 1972], 520, 1118).

(41) The 755/757 annalist's use of the word wifcyppu is curious. It is possible that he coined the word himself: wifcyppu appears only twice in extant Old English, in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" and in the Old English gloss to Bede's "actuali peccato," discussed in n. 10 above. As Coleman explains in "Sexual Euphemism in Old English," 93-97, there were literally dozens of words the annalist might have used instead. Ross argues for the "neutral character" of on wifcyppe in "Cynewulf and Cyneheard' ("Concubinage": 22 n. 70), but to me it has a disturbingly impersonal nuance. Unfortunately it is impossible to tell whether or not the annalist intended to convey a moral judgment on Cynewulf--and the woman at Merton--by using this word. And, as Coleman observes, the Modern English euphemisms in "the standard dictionaries," written in "basically nineteenth century English" ("Sexual Euphemism": 95), further confuse the issue. In Bosworth Toller, wifcyppu is denned as "A visit to a woman, familiarity with a woman" (1218). Most of the introductory grammars and readers also offer euphemisms. As we have seen, in their glossaries Mitchell and Robinson give "company or intimacy with a woman" for wifcyppu, and Cassidy and Ringler "company of a woman." The glossary in the 1990 edition of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, revised by Dorothy Whitelock in 1967, and reprinted with Whitelock's corrections in 1970 and 1975, also has "company of a woman."

(42) Whitelock, English Historical Documents, 4.

(43) The Latin is from "Alcuinus Earduufum, regem Northanhumbrorum constitutum, admonet," Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicarum, Philip Jaffe, ed., Monumenta Alcuiniana, vol. 6, ed. Wattenbach and Dummler (Berlin: Weidmann, 1873), 303-5; and "Alcuinus Aethelredum regem Northanhumbrorum eiusque optimates propter ecclesiam S. Cuthberti Lindisfarnensem a Nortmannis vastatam, ut cum virtute vivant, hortatur," Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicarum, 181. For English translations, see Whitelock, "Letter of Alcuin to Eardwulf, king of Northumbria (796, after May)," English Historical Documents, 851-52; and "Letter of Alcuin to Ethelred, king of Northumbria (793, after 8 June)," English Historical Documents, 842-44.

See also "Letter of Boniface and seven other missionary bishops to AEthelbald, king of Mercia, urging him to reform (746-747)," English Historical Documents, 816-22: "If ... you have, as many say, neither taken a lawful wife nor maintained chaste abstinence for God's sake, but governed by lust, have stained the fame of your glory before God and men by the sin of lasciviousness and adultery, we are extremely grieved .... [A]s the blessed Apostle Paul says .... 'Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err. Neither fornicators not idolaters nor adulterers; not the effeminate nor liars with mankind nor thieves nor covetous nor drunkards nor railers nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God.'"

(44) See, for instance, James Campbell, ed., The Anglo-Saxons (Cornell U. Press, 1982), 115; and Magoun, "Cynewulf": 368 n. 1.

(45) White, "Kinship": 9, 6, 8, 8 n. 2.

(46) Ross, "Concubinage": 19, 21.

(47) Ferro, "King in the Doorway": 28 n. 12.

(48) Mitchell and Robinson, Guide, 204.

(49) Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 18, 26.

(50) Keynes and Lapidge's translation of Asser's ch. 74, Alfred the Great, 88-90. Asser relates these events in mixed chronological order; I have re-arranged them for clarity.

(51) Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 256 n. 143.

(52) Asser's ch. 13-15 in Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 71-72.

(53) Mitchell and Robinson, Guide, 208.

(54) Bosworth Toller, 796.

(55) In the story's end-frame, the annalist uses the negative prefix un- a fourth time with ungefealice [unhappily]: "7 py ilcan geare ... Beornraed feng to rice, 7 lytle hwile heold 7 ungefealice" [And in the same year (757) ... Beornred succeeded to the (Mercian) kingdom and held it for a short time and unhappily]. Beornred's reign came to an end when Offa took over the Mercian kingdom after a civil war (see James Campbell, Anglo-Saxons, 106). As we have noted, Offa's daughter was the "wicked" Eadburh, wife of Beorhtric, Cynewulf's successor. Beorhtric too suffered an unhappy end when he died of poisoning, allegedly by his wife's hand. The annalist also reports in the end-frame that the Mercian king AEthelbald, who was castigated by Boniface for his "fornications and adulteries" (see n. 43), was killed in 757 by his own bodyguard at Seckington. We have noted that the events at Merton are recorded out of place in the 755/757 annal: Cynewulf and Cyneheard died in 786. As John M. Hill observes in a different context, "[I]t may not be merely coincidental that the story [of Cynewulf and Cyneheard] is inserted thirty years too soon at year 755--a mistake for 757, the date King AEthelbald is murdered by his own retainers ...." (The Cultural World in Beowulf [U, of Toronto Press, 1995], 15. It seems reasonable to assume that, as he entered the stories of Cynewulf and AEthelbald "py ilcan geare" [in the same year], the "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" annalist had the punishment of kings guilty of trafficking with "wicked" women on his mind.

The annalist's statement concerning Beornred is not given in Mitchell and Robinson; I have used the Parker manuscript in Plummer, Chronicles, 1:48-50, for the Old English.

(56) Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York: Methuen, 1987), 4.

(57) Bal, Lethal Love, 3-4. Bal refers here to biblical texts, but her observation is equally germane to "Cynewulf and Cyneheard," one of the most widely read texts in Old English Studies.

(58) Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey, et al., Dictionary of Old English (Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1986-).

(59) Parts of this essay were presented at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, 4 Nov. 1995, in the session, "English Literary Translation before 1700"; and at the 31st Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, 11 May 1996, in the session, "Teaching the Middle Ages: A Feminist Perspective," sponsored by The Society for Medievalist Feminist Scholarship.

I would like to thank the members of ANSAXNET, the Anglo-Saxon Discussion Forum, especially Professors C. Abbott Conway, John M. Hill, and David R. Howlett, for responding to my queries about "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" and for generously sharing their scholarship with me in subsequent e-mail conversations.
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Author:Rulon-Miller, Nina
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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