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Treasures and convention in Old English verse.

Treasure is almost ubiquitous in Old English verse occurring in a variety of contexts from the secular to the religious, the mundane to the thematically central; very few poems do not mention treasure in one form or another. In so-called 'heroic' verse, from Beowulf to The Battle of Maldon, treasure is especially found in the context of gift-giving. In heroic, elegiac, and religious verse, treasure, as a symbol for wealth, occurs in connection with the theme of transience. The topos of 'the just' storing up treasure for themselves in heaven, itself frequently described in terms of treasure, by doing good works and especially by giving alms appears widely in religious verse. As the critical interest in the moral connotations of treasure in Beowulf attests, treasure is a theme and image of central importance for the interpretation of Old English verse. I will suggest here that the prevalence of treasure in Old English verse is a feature of the genre of poetry just as such stylistic phenomena as formulas, variation, and kennings. This understanding will be examined by looking closely at the portrayal of treasure through an analysis of the place of weapons, silver, and ring-giving leaders in Old English verse and prose.

Weapons are central to the first description of treasure encountered in Beowulf, and an identification between the two runs throughout secular verse. As the poet recounts the funeral of Scyld Scefing, he pauses over the treasure accompanying the king:

thaer waes madma fela of feorwegum, fraetwa, gelaeded; ne hyrde ic cymlicor ceol gegyrwan hildewaepnum ond headhowaedum, billum ond byrnum; him on bearme laeg madma maenigo, tha him mid scoldon on flodes aeht feor gewitan.


[Many treasures, ornaments, were brought there from distant places; I have not heard of a ship more splendidly equipped with war-weapons and battle-dress, with swords and coats of mail; many treasures, that were to depart with him, faraway, into the possession of the sea, lay on his breast.]

In Waldere A the hero's sword is spoken of as a treasure:

Ne murn dhu for dhi mece; dhe weardh madhma cyst gifedhe to geoce, mid dhy dhu Gudhhere scealt beot forbigan.


[Do not be concerned about your sword; the best of the treasures was granted to you as help, with which you will put down the boast of Guthhere.]

Not only do these two examples make it particularly explicit that weapons are treasure, they are typical of the presentation of weapons in verse, as the high concentration of weapons among the referents of madham in verse underscores.

Madhm occurs seventy-two times in Old English verse and among the instances where madhm is specified, it refers most often to war equipment - armour and/or weapons. Madhm and its compounds are used eleven times to describe solely war equipment;(1) this represents 19 per cent of the appearances of madhm as a simplex and as a second element in a compound,(2) and 32 per cent of such occurrences in which madhm is identifiable. This figure of eleven occurrences includes only those in which it is reasonably certain that madhm refers directly to war equipment, as, for example, in this passage from Riddle 55 in which a sword is referred to as treasure:

thaet oft waepen abaed his mondryhtne, madhm in healle, goldhilted sweord.


[That often wards off a weapon, treasure in the hall, gold-hilted sword, from his lord.]

Instances of madhm where the treasure has been specifically described within the same passage as being comprised of war equipment have also been included. For example, Hrothgar gives Beowulf the following:

segen gyldenne sigores to leane; hroden hildecumbor, helm ond byrnan, maere madhthumsweord.


[a golden banner as reward for victory; adorned battle-banner, helmet and coat of mail, illustrious treasure sword.]

Only four lines later and without having mentioned any additional treasure in the meantime, the poet tells us:

ne gefraegn ic freondlicor feower madmas gold gegyrede gummanna fela in ealobence odhrum gesellan.


[I have not heard of many men, on the alebench, giving to each other four gold-adorned treasures in a more friendly manner.]

Not included among the eleven instances of madhm taken as referring directly to war equipment are occurrences where madhm includes but does not refer solely to war equipment, or where madhm appears as one element of an enumeration. There are six such instances,(3) as, for example, in Judith when madhm appears as yet another item at the end of an enumeration of various types of weapons and armour:

hoelfrig herereaf, hyrsta scyne, bord and bradswyrd, brune helmas, dyre madmas.


[bloody plunder, bright ornaments, shield and broad sword, shining helmets, precious treasures.]

There are a further eleven appearances of madhm,(4) all in Beowulf, which can be found to include war equipment only by referring to other sections of the poem as much as a thousand lines earlier. For example, Beowulf tells Hygelac that for killing Grendel, Hrothgar rewarded him with 'manegum madhmum' (2103). By referring back to line 1020 we discover that those madhmas include war equipment. In total, then, there are twenty-eight possible references to madhm as war equipment. This represents a very considerable proportion, 82 per cent, of the instances where the referent of madhm (occurring as a simplex or as the second element of a compound) is identifiable. This figure of twenty-eight is 47 per cent of all the simplex and second element appearances of madhm (regardless of whether or not the referent can be identified) and 39 per cent of all the instances of madhm (not only regardless of whether or not the referent can be identified but also regardless of whether or not madhm is a simplex or a first or second element of a compound). War equipment, then, is central to the semantic field of the term madhm as it is used in verse.

Prose presents a marked contrast to the verse. Save for the gudhfana and the firdwaen among the 'circlicum madmum' given by Bishop Leofric to Exeter Cathedral in a post-Conquest charter,(5) instances of war equipment explicitly denoted with a Latin or Old English term for treasure are (as far as I can tell) very rare, if not absent, outside Old English verse. Much of this difference is no doubt attributable to the ecclesiastical nature and preoccupations of many of the sources for the period. But even sources which are concerned with the activities of secular people, if only from a clerical point of view, are virtually silent about weapons. Despite his interest in kingship and his concern to present Alfred as a strong warrior as well as a learned man, Asser does not mention weapons in his Life of King Alfred, although he makes frequent references to hunting and warfare as well as Alfred's love of treasure.(6) Despite all the attention focused on the Vikings and defence, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle rarely mentions weapons. This is in part a function of the somewhat distant perspective of the earlier portions of The Chronicle - we rarely see close-ups of action - but even when it becomes a more detailed and narrative source, there is no interest in weapons. The Chronicle does not list weapons among the treasure given to Edgar Cild by King Malcolm;(7) nor does it mention any weapons among the treasure which William the Conqueror left to his son.(8) The wills are the sole exception, but still show a sharp contrast with verse. They mention many weapons but are pragmatic documents concerned with who gets what and are not interested in whether or not the inventoried objects constituted treasure.

The most obvious reason behind the divergent portrayals of weapons in verse and prose are that these two types of sources reflect different material cultures: the weapons of verse are high-status fantasy weapons decorated with gold, and bear little relationship to the work-a-day weapons of prose and the Anglo-Saxon battlefield. To a large extent this is true.

Poets often mention weapons ornamented with gold. As the Beowulf poet says of the hero's gift to the shoreguard:

He thaem batwearde bunden golde swurd gesealde, thaet he sydhthan waes on meodubence mathme thy weorthra, yrfelafe.


[He gave a sword, bound with gold, to the boat-guard, so that afterwards he was, on the mead-bench, the more honoured on account of the treasure, the heirloom.]

A close look at the handling of one item of war equipment, the helmet, in verse and prose provides further evidence of differing material cultures. The wills frequently list helmets among the heriots and a law code of Cnut demands the provision of helmets.(9) All in all, this seems to indicate that there was a considerable number of helmets in late Anglo-Saxon England. These helmets were probably of a type not known from the archeological record, but familiar in form from their depiction on the heads of Anglo-Saxon soldiers on the Bayeux Tapestry; they were conical in shape and may have been made of hardened leather.(10) Contrast these leather helmets with those mentioned in Beowulf, for example:

ac se hwita helm hafelan werede, se the meregrundas mengan scolde, secan sundgebland since geweordhad, befongen freawrasnum, swa hine fyrndagum worhte waepna smith, wundrum teode, besette swinlicum, thaet hine sydhthan no brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton.


[but the shining helmet, which would have to disturb the lake-bottom, seek the commotion of the water, guarded the head, honoured with treasure, encircled with a lordly chain, as in days far past the weapon-smith made for him, formed wonderfully, set about with boar-figures, so that afterwards neither sword nor battle-sword could cut him.!

The helmet here described more closely corresponds to a type of which only three examples (Sutton Hoo, Benty Grange, and Coppergate) survive. The rarity of Anglo-Saxon helmets and the quality of the workmanship on these pieces confirm their high status. The Sutton Hoo and Benty Grange helmets both incorporate precious materials. These helmets are also of a much earlier date than those of Cnut: Sutton Hoo, perhaps before c.625, Benty Grange, perhaps mid-seventh century, and Coppergate, perhaps second half of the eighth century.(11) Which type of helmet the various Old English poets had in mind when they used the term helm cannot be said, but it is unlikely that the poet of Judith, probably writing in the tenth century, perhaps even the later tenth century, had in mind the near contemporary leather cones, when describing the plunder the Bethulians presented to their heroine:

helmas ond hupseax, hare byrnan, gudhsceorp gumena golde gefraetewod, maerra madma thonne mon aenig asecgan maege searothoncelra.


[helmets and daggers, grey corslets, the gold-ornamented armour of men, more illustrious treasure than any man, among the wise, can say.]

The helmets of verse, then, are prestige objects and probably, after the eighth century, archaic.

The division between poetry and prose is not, however, so neat that the former has all the fancy, and the latter all the ordinary war equipment. Treasure-decorated weapons are not the exclusive preserve of poetry. War equipment decorated with gold and silver appears outside Old English verse, and since gold and silver are the substances most consistently and frequently denoted as treasure, it would seem likely that these weapons constituted treasure for the Anglo-Saxons. Such weapons occur in the wills. For example, AElfgar left a sword with four pounds of silver on its sheath to the king.(12) Archaeological evidence also corroborates the existence of swords decorated with treasure. Among the most famous and spectacular are the Fetter Lane Sword pommel of c.800,(13) the Abingdon Sword of the late ninth century,(14) and an Anglo-Scandinavian sword, now in Stockholm, dating from c.1000.(15) And while prose has treasure-decorated weapons, ordinary weapons are not excluded from verse. Decoration does not seem essential to weapons denoted as madhm. Of the eleven instances in Old English verse where it is possible to identify the precise item of war equipment designated as madhm, six are described as decorated while five are not so described.(16) These figures make the point that while much of the war equipment (in poetry) was ornamented, it was considered as a treasure apart from any decoration it might carry. The strong possibility exists that the value of weapons, regardless of their ornamentation, accounts for their status in verse as treasure. Swords required very pure raw material and many hours of labour to produce which may account for their value as well as their prestige.(17) In his will, Bishop Theodred gave a sword worth 120 mancuses of gold to the king and similarly Brihtic gave a sword worth 80 mancuses. It is, of course, possible that these swords were decorated with treasure but this is not stated.(18) Different material cultures appear to be part of the picture, with verse tending to the extraordinary and the archaic and to seeing weapons as treasure as would a warrior rather than a monk, but this view is not in itself sufficient to account for the divergent conceptions of treasure found in verse and prose. Moreover, such a solution begs the question of why verse and prose would present different material cultures.

The portrayal of gold and sylfor also reveals a similar verse-prose split, and a close analysis of the stylistic conventions involved in the use of the words gold and sylfor provides evidence of the degree to which archaic notions of the nature and function of treasure were a part of the fabric of Old English verse. Roberta Frank has recently commented that, despite the fact that comparisons between the treasure of Sutton Hoo and the treasure of Beowulf have become customary, the poet makes no mention of silver.(19) The Sutton Hoo ship burial included many silver bowls and two silver spoons. This absence of silver is, however, a much wider phenomenon in Old English verse - silver occurs only twenty-seven times in the corpus of some 30,000 lines while gold occurs 184 times.(20)

Outside of Old English verse, in Old English prose and in Anglo-Latin prose and verse, references to silver are plentiful in texts as diverse as documents such as wills, charters, and law codes, religious works such as homilies, Alfredian translations, and saints lives and poetry. Bede recounts that, during an Easter feast, Oswald broke up a silver dish to dispense as alms.(21) In Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, Philosophy says:

Et esset (...) infiniti stuporis omnibusque horribilius monstris, si, uti tu aestimas, in tanti velut patrisfamilias dispositissima domo vilia vasa colerentur, pretiosa sordescerent.(22)

lit would indeed be a matter of boundless wonder more dreadful than any evil omens if, as you think, as it were in the most well arranged house of so great a master the worthless vessels were cherished while the precious ones were allowed to get filthy.]

The paterfamilias of the Latin version becomes a king in the Old English version and the 'vasa ... pretiosa' are understood as golden and silver:

Gif hit swa is swa dhu saegest, dhonne is thaet egeslicre dhonne aenig odher broga, 7 is endeleas wundor, dhaem gelicost dhe on sumes cyninges hirede sien gyldenu fatu 7 selfrenu forsewen, 7 treowenu mon weordhige.(23)

[If it is as you say, then that is more awful than any other terror, and is an endless marvel, which is just as if in the household of a certain king gold and silver vessels were despised and wooden ones were esteemed.]

For King Alfred it seems a natural assumption that the dishes used as the royal table, simply denoted as 'precious' in the Latin, would be made of gold and silver. AElfric's homilies include numerous references to silver. For example he comments on the nature of precious metals and gems:

Gold, and seolfor, and deorwurdhe stanas beodh on fyre afandode, ac hi ne beodh swadheah mid dham fyre fornumene.(24)

[Gold and silver and precious stones are tested in fire, but they are not, nevertheless, consumed by fire.]

Wulfstan of Winchester describes St AEthelwold taking silver vessels from the church treasuries to be distributed to the poor:

Vir autem Domini misertus super turbam fame ualida pereuntium omnem pecuniae portionem quam habebat in usus pauperum expendit. Cumque pecunia deficeret, tolli iussit ornamenta quaeque et argentea uasa perplurima de thesauris ecclesiae, praecepitque ea minutatim confringi et in pecunias redigi, intimo cordis suspirio protestans se aequanimiter ferre non posse muta metalla integra perdurare, hominem uero ad imaginem Dei creatum et precioso Christi sanguine redemptum mendicitate et inedia perire.(25)

[The man of God took pity on the throng of those perishing in the harsh famine, and he spent all the money he had on the needs of the poor. When the money ran out, he ordered the collection of all ornaments and many silver vessels to be brought from the church treasuries, and had them broken in pieces and turned into money, protesting with deep heartfelt sighs that he could not tolerate dumb metal being preserved untouched while man, created in the image of God and redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, perished of poverty and lack of sustenance.]

The charter recording Leofric's donation to Exeter Cathedral includes 'silfrenum swurrodum, 7 .v. silfrene caliceas, 7 .i. silfren pipe, 7 .i. silfren storcylle mid silfrenum storsticcan' [silver neck crosses ... and 5 silver chalices ... and 1 silver tube ... and 1 silver censer with a silver incense spoon] but never makes mention of gold.(26) Anglo-Latin verse shares with Old English verse a love of lavish descriptions of treasure but does not eschew reference to silver. Alcuin describes with relish and pleasure the treasured ornament that successive generations of Northumbrian kings had donated to the cathedral at York. His description of the girls of King Oswald and the work of Archbishop AEthelbert deserves quoting at length:

Nec minus interea vario ornamenta decore addidit ecclesiis, Fidei fervore repletus. Namque ubi bellipotens sumpsit baptismatis undam Eduuin rex, praesul grandem construxerat aram, texit et argento, gemmis simul undique et auro, atque dicavit earn sancti sub nomine Pauli doctoris mundi, nimium quem doctor amabat. Hoc altare farum supra suspenderat altum, qui tenet ordinibus tria grandia vasa novenis, et sublime crucis vexilium erexit ad aram et totum texit pretiosis valde metallis. Omnia magna satis, pulchro molimine structa, argentique meri compensant pondera multa. Ast altare aliud fecit, vestivit et illud argento puro, pretiosis atque lapillis, martyribusque crucique simul dedicaverat ipsum. Iussit ut obrizo non parvi ponderis auro ampulla maior fieret, qua vina sacerdos funderet in calicem, solemnia sacra celebrans.(27)

[He also endowed the churches with ornaments of varied beauty, filled with zeal for the Faith. In the spot where Edwin, the warrior king, was baptized the bishop raised a great altar and covered it with gold, silver, and jewels, dedicating it in the name of St. Paul, the universal teacher, whom he loved with all his heart. High above this altar he hung a chandelier, which held three great vessels, each with nine tiers. At the altar he erected the noble standard of the cross covering it entirely with most precious metals. It was all on a grand scale and built on a lovely design, weighing many pounds in pure silver. He erected another altar and covered it too with pure silver and precious stones, dedicating it both to the martyrs and to the Cross. He ordered a large cruet to be made in pure gold and of great weight, from which the priest celebrating holy mass could pour wine into the chalice.]

Gold is not absent in this passage, but silver, which Alcuin mentions three times, is the predominant precious metal. Anglo-Latin verse does not share the proclivity of Old English verse for gold.(28) The archaeological record confirms the abundance of silver in Anglo-Saxon England. Of the 155 objects in the British Museum catalogue of metalwork dated from 700-1100 only twelve are gold, and these are mostly finger rings.(29) After the seventh century the supply of gold in Western Europe markedly decreased, and most surviving jewellery after this date - even the most obviously high status pieces as the Fuller disc broach - were made of silver.(30)

The existence of both verse and prose accounts of the Battle of Maldon provides a particularly pointed example of the exclusion of silver in Old English verse. The poet describes how the Vikings demanded tribute in the form of gold:

Ne thurfe we us spillan, gif ge spedath to tham; we willadh widh tham golde gridh faestnian.

(Battle of Maldon 34-5)

[We do not need to destroy each other, if you are wealthy enough for that; we are willing to fix a truce for gold.]

But the terms used by his contemporary, writing in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, indicate that it was largely silver the Vikings took away:

Her waes G[ypes]wic ge hergod. 7 aefter tham swidhe radhe waes Brihtnodh ealdorman ofslaegen aet Maeldune. 7 on tham geare man ge raedde thaet man geald aerest gafol Deniscan mannum. for tham mycclan brogan the hi worhtan be tham sae riman. thaet waes aerest x thusend punda.(31)

[In this year, Ipswich was harried, and very soon after that ealdorman Bryhtnoth was slain at Maldon. And in that year, it was advised that the tribute be paid to the Danes for the first time on account of the great terror which they made along the coast. That was first 10,000 pounds.]

AEthelred's treaty (991 or 994), with the Vikings, speaks of gold and silver:

Twa and twentig dhuse[n]d punda goldes 7 seolfres man gesealde dham here of AEnglalande widh fridhe.(32)

[22,000 pounds of gold and silver were given to the army from England for peace.]

Professor Peter Sawyer has recently pointed out that since charters, such as this one of AEthelred's, do not set out the proportions of gold and silver, the weights or sums of money they specify are meaningless. He has suggested that the weight or sum refers only to the silver and the inclusion of gold is merely symbolic.(33) Even the poet of the late Battle of Maldon knows what is expected of verse, gold not silver, as clearly as did the Beowulf poet.

Comparison with vernacular and Latin prose, with Latin verse and the archaeological record suggests that the predominance of gold and the avoidance of silver in Old English verse amounts to a poetic convention. Although silver was the primary precious metal in Anglo-Saxon England, in vernacular verse religious and secular poets alike avoid it. Never is silver given in the hall; never does it appear in heaven. The treasure of verse has more to do with an imaginative ideal than with reality and, as the decrease in availability of gold after AD 700 and the old-fashioned helmets of Judith suggest, there is strong archaic element to that ideal. The comment that Old English poetry is imaginative literature is, however, fast becoming a commonplace. As the historian Richard Abels says of The Battle of Maldon:

Even if one grants that the piece was written within a few years of the battle ... we still cannot regard the poem as an accurate depiction of combat. It is above all else a work of literary imagination, heavily influenced by the conventions of heroic poetry.(34)

and as the literary scholar Roberta Frank has said, somewhat more closely to the concern of this article with treasure:

... the material culture of Beowulf is the conventional apparatus of heroic poetry.(35)

An analysis of the alliteration, collocations, and formulas associated with the twenty-seven instances of silver in Old English verse can take these comments a step further, and allow for the consideration of the extent to which the gold convention is part of the poetics of Old English verse.

Sixteen of the twenty-seven instances of silver occur with gold and in fifteen of these gold precedes silver: nine times in the half-line formula 'gold ond sylfor', twice in the half-line formula 'ne gold ne sylfor' and once in the similar half-line 'gold ne sylfor'.(36) In the remaining four instances, gold and silver occur on separate lines.(37) Only in the Old English Psalm 67 does silver come before gold:

fidheru beodh culfran faegeres seolfres and hire baec scinedh beorhtan golde

(Paris Psalter 67:13)

[the wings of the dove are of fair silver and her beak shines with bright gold.]

but the versifier of the psalms simply follows the order of the Psalter here. A glance at the five instances, four from The Paris Psalter and one from Genesis A, in which gold and silver appear in both the Old English and the Latin source text, underscores the precedence of gold.(38) In four cases silver, argentem, is mentioned before gold, aurus, in the Latin, but the Old English poet has switched the two around and used the half-line 'gold ond sylfor'.(39) Two points can be made from this. First, there is a tendency to specify silver only as a co-ordinate of gold, and secondly, the conventions of Old English poetic diction exert a strong pressure - since gold comes before silver in the established half-line 'gold ond sylfor', the versifier will conform to the norms of Old English poetic diction rather than render his source more faithfully.

Fifteen instances of silver do not occur on a neat half-line with gold. Eight of these instances of silver occur on the same verse-line as sinc, a term for treasure only found in verse.(40) This figure contrasts markedly with those for the appearance of silver with any other word for treasure. For example, madhm never collocates (that is, never appears in the same sentence as edited in The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records) with silver although it collocates twenty-one times with gold. Furthermore in all eight of the appearances of the sinc and silver collocation, the two elements always appear on the same line. This, coupled with the scarcity of collocations of silver with any other treasure word, indicates that verse form, in this case alliteration, rather than the reality of Anglo-Saxon treasure, represents the stronger factor in the appearance of silver.

We are left then with five cases where silver neither alliterates with sinc nor appears in a passage with gold.(41) Two of these appear in Old English verse translated from the Psalter or Genesis where silver appears alone. For example, the Psalmist compares the trials of the Israelites to the testing of silver by fire, a metaphor which the versifier of The Paris Psalter maintains:

Ure costade god claene fyre sodhe dome, swa man seolfor dedh, thonne man hit aseodhedh swydhe mid fyre.


[God tried us with pure fire, with true judgment, as one does with silver when it is fiercely refined with fire.]

This leaves only three instances of silver by itself in all of Old English verse, from the poems Solomon and Saturn and Genesis A; two poems hardly constitute a norm.

Translation has repeatedly been mentioned in the examination of the twenty-seven instances of silver, and it is worth counting the translated instances - they are eleven in all, representing roughly 40 per cent of the occurrences of silver in verse. Also, in the preceding discussion the same poems were referred to over and over again. Occurrences of silver are not evenly spread throughout the corpus of Old English verse, but group together in a limited number of texts - most notably The Paris Psalter (with seven), The Riddles (with four), Solomon and Saturn (with three), and Genesis A (with three). Despite the fact that the vast majority of the precious metal available in England after the seventh century, including that used in prestige jewellery, was silver, silver is the exception for Old English verse - often prompted by a Latin original and appearing repeatedly in a small number of texts. The alliteration, collocations, and formulas surrounding the twenty-seven appearances of silver illustrate the pressure which verse form and poetic convention could exert on how and what is said and is not said in Old English verse. But, more importantly, they illustrate how a convention of subject matter, an avoidance of silver, could become part of stylistic and lexical convention - part of the poetics of Old English verse.

Thus far the discussion has been focused on the nature of treasure in Old English verse; a look at the portrayal of kings as ring-givers and treasure-givers also draws attention to the conventionality of treasure in verse and in particular underscores its archaic character. A full discussion of political, economic, social, and religious developments affecting the function of and attitude towards treasure in Anglo-Saxon England is not possible but a brief consideration of the place of the dispensing of treasure to the exercise of kingship in the Anglo-Saxon period will be sufficient to indicate the conventionality of treasure in verse. Again, the contrast between verse and prose accounts of treasure will be of central importance.

The evolution over the seven hundred years of Anglo-Saxon history from the rulership of small areas by war-leaders who rewarded their followers with gold treasure acquired as plunder, to the rulership of England by one king whose revenues derived from sources such as taxation and control of the silver coinage, and who interacted with his subjects through a nascent administrative bureaucracy, takes kings far away from the ring-givers and hoard-guardians of verse, despite the fact that such figures appear even in late Old English verse.(42) The Battle of Brunanburh from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937 describes King AEthelstan as a beahgifa (2) and depicts his role as protector of his kingdom in terms of the defence of treasure. He and his brother Edmund:

with lathra gehwaene land ealgodon, hord and hamas.


[against each of the enemies they defended land, hoard and homes.]

This view has much in common with the Beowulf poet's vision of sixth- century kingship. Unable to trust her own sons with the kingdom, Hygd offers it to Beowulf:

thaer him Hygd gebead hord ond rice, beagas ond bregostol, bearne ne truwode thaet he widh aelfylcum ethelstolas healdan cudhe, dha waes Hygelac dead.


[there Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings and throne, she did not trust her son, that he would know how to hold the homeland against the enemies, when Hygelac was dead.]

In both Beowulf and Brunanburh, despite the fact that they describe kings separated by some four hundred years, control of the nation's hoard becomes almost shorthand for kingship. The portrayal of a king as a treasure-giver is a poetic convention as equally applicable to the kings of the sixth century as to the kings of the tenth century.(43) This impression is strengthened by comparing the verse and prose accounts of Alfred's reign which offer contrasting pictures of the king's control of treasure.

The Metrical Preface to Waerferth's Translation of Gregory's Dialogues portrays Alfred as a ring-giver:

and eac swa his beahgifan, the him dhas bysene forgeaf, thaet is se selesdha sinc[..] brytta,

AElfryd mid Englum, earla cyninga thara the he sidh odhdhe aer fore secgan hyrde, odhdhe he iordhcyninga aer aenigne gefrugne.


[and likewise his ring-giver, who set this example, that is the best treasure-giver, Alfred among the Angles, of all the kings of which he had heard tell ever before, or he had heard of any of the earthly kings.]

However, although, Asser's portrait of Alfred emphasizes his generosity, especially to strangers,(44) and records Alfred's gift of treasure to Guthrum on the occasion of the latter's baptism,(45) and it is likely that the treasury comprised a chest, or chests, which accompanied the king in the charge of a royal official,(46) Alfred cannot be described as a simple treasure-giver, the beahgifa or 'sinces brytta' of The Metrical Preface. Alfred's will testifies that by the end of his life, he was a remarkably wealthy man leaving behind him 486,000 silver pennies.(47) Such wealth, as well as Asser's detailed account of Alfred's allocation of his funds, is evidence of a developing treasury. Asser describes at some length and with interest how Alfred divided up, among secular and ecclesiastical interests, tax revenue which came to the fiscus every year.(48) Some organization would have been necessary to keep the revenues and expenditures straight and Alfred's translation of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae suggests that he was familiar with just such organization. Boethius writes:

Atqui praetura magna olim potestas nunc inane nomen et senatorii census gravis sarcina; si quis populi quondam curasset annonam, magnus habebatur, nunc ea praefectura quid abiectius?(49)

[The praetorship was once an office of great power, now it is an empty name and a heavy burden on the resources of the Senatorial order. Once, when a man had charge of the public corn-dole, he was held to be great; now is there anything lower than that prefectship?]

Alfred expands this passage and removes the unfamiliar praefectura substituting the, presumably, familiar figures of heretogan, domeras, madhmhirdas, and 'wisestan witan':

Hit waes gio giond ealle Romana mearce thaet heretogan 7 domeras, 7 tha madhmhirdas the thaet fioh hioldon the mon tham ferdmonnum on geare sellan sceolde, 7 tha wisestan witan, haefdon maestne weordhscipe; nu thonne odher twega, odhdhe thara nan nis, odhdhe hi naenne weorthscipe nabbadh, gif hiora aenig is.(50)

[It was formerly throughout all the Roman provinces that military leaders and judges and the treasurers, who held the money which ought to be given to the soldiers in the year, and the wisest elders, had the most honour; now it is one of two ways, either there are none of them, or they have no honour, if there are any of them.]

In the process of translating the term madhmhirdas, Alfred provides a definition of a treasurer as one who controls the fioh, money, treasure, or wealth, used to pay the army. Asser's Life provides more information concerning Alfred's expenditure than his sources of revenue, but land taxes (in kind), customary dues on kings estates, the profits of the judicial process and coinage, which Alfred manipulated and controlled just as his predecessors did, were all sources of wealth.(51) Much of this must have been paid in coin or bullion for Alfred to have accumulated such a hoard of coins. The picture of a king receiving treasure as plunder from his retainers which he then dispensed is hardly sufficient and underscores that the portrayal of Alfred as a ring-giver, in The Metrical Preface to the Old English translation of Gregory's Dialogues, is peculiar to verse and is conventional.

If parts can be said to reveal anything about the whole then the portrayal of weapons, silver and gold, and even late Anglo-Saxon kings as ring- givers offers much insight into the treasure of Old English verse. Treasure involves imaginative fantasy rooted in the archaic which becomes embedded in the inherited poetic diction. The archaic element is of great importance since it suggests that treasure, like such features as alliteration and metre, became a part of the poetic form when verse was oral, and the world and concerns of the Germanic aristocratic warrior no doubt produced heroic poetry. The formulas and alliterative pairs associated with gold and silver, the out-dated helmets of Judith and the gold of The Battle of Maldon, both demonstrably late poems, and the designation of Alfred as beaggifa and sinces brytta all testify to the strength of the conventions associated with treasure. The rules of the genre of poetry became defined, and these poetic conventions associated with treasure were as much a part of composing poetry as the alliterative verse form. The strength of the conventions associated with weapons, gold and silver, and kingship taken together with the virtual ubiquity of treasure in Old English verse suggests that treasure was itself a poetic convention. The lack of silver and the abundance of gold in even the most literary religiou verse such as The Phoenix, and the presence of treasure in such meditative verse as The Homiletic Fragment II shows that love of gold and descriptions of treasure are not limited to verse which can be interpreted as reflecting the concerns of a Germanic aristocratic warrior. Once an individual, whether a monk or a scop in a hall, decided to compose verse, there were set ways of saying things and even set things to say. A picture emerges of treasure as an integral part of Old English poetic discourse.

By way of a postscript, I would like to consider, briefly, the implications of the conclusions I have just drawn for the problems of using Old English verse as an historical source. The use historians make of Old English verse can be central to their understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture. Many historians see heroic verse, especially Beowulf, as a valuable source for the concerns of the Anglo-Saxon lay aristocracy; concerns not expressed in other more ecclesiastically influenced or controlled prose texts. Several quotations from the recent work of historians of Anglo-Saxon England will illustrate this view of heroic verse. Patrick Wormald comments in his article 'Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons':

It thus seems reasonable to use heroic literature as a window on the mentality of a warrior-aristocracy, whose existence and whose importance is reflected in other sources, historical, legal and archaeological, but whose preoccupations do not seem to be described elsewhere.(52)

Wormald's views are not unusual. James Campbell writes:

One cannot be certain of its [Beowulf's] date; it may be considerably later than the eighth century which the balance of supposition has generally favoured. Still, it may take us nearer to the thoughts and motives of men in power than do works written for religious purposes.... In the political world of the poem four things stand out. The importance of the king's noble retinue, ...; an indissoluble connection between gold and success; the store set by good weapons which are regarded as treasure; the endless insecurity associated with feud.... This picture is a construct: from a work of fiction. But its elements were important in Bede's England.(53)

In a similar vein, H. R. Loyn writes: 'The poet of Beowulf again gives precious insight into the attitudes of the age'.(54) Finally, after quoting lines 1020-34 from Beowulf, which describe the gifts given to Beowulf by Hrothgar following the defeat of Grendel, H. Mayr-Harting comments:

In this passage, in the bright gold and shining jewels and the mention of Hrothgar's personal bravery, we catch something of the atmosphere of the Heroic Age in which the bretwaldas fought for and won their power and wealth.(55)

It is notable that the quotations from Wormald, Campbell, Loyn, and Mayr-Harting all come from passages where the prominence of treasure in heroic verse is interpreted as evidence that that verse is particularly aristocratic and secular; the portrayal of treasure in Beowulf is more than incidental to the reasons historians have seen Old English verse as a window into the life of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. However, if poetic convention can produce archaic treasure in late poems, we cannot know if the same is not also true of the undatable Beowulf. Given the Beowulf poet's total avoidance of silver, his treasure-weapons and his hoard-guardian kings, poetic convention, it seems, plays a strong role both in the poem's material culture and in the view of aristocratic society it presents. Since we cannot tell if the world portrayed in written heroic poetry is contemporary with its composition or if that world is a part of the genre of poetry, it seems unwise to rely on such poetry for evidence about the behaviour and ideals of the post-conversion Anglo-Saxon aristocracy.

ELIZABETH M. TYLER University of York

1 Riddle 55 13, Beowulf 1027, 1048, 1528, 1902, 2055, 2166, 2193, 2865, Judith 329, Waldere A 24.

2 See C.T. Carr, Nominal Compounds in Germanic (London, 1939), xxviii where he writes that the first element in a compound word is virtually exclusively the limiter and the second element is the determiner.

3 Exodus 586, Beowulf 36, 41, 1898, Judith 318, 340.

4 Beowulf 1482, 2103, 2146, 2414, 2640, 2779, 2788, 2799, 2843, 3011, 3131.

5 Anglo-Saxon Charters, ed. A.J. Robertson, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1956), 228.

6 Asser's Life of King Alfred, ed. W.H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1904), 24-5, 26-31, 32-4, 43-7, 59-62, 76-9.

7 Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, on the basis of an edition by John Earle, MA, ed. Charles Plummer (Oxford, 1892), I, 209-10 (for the year 1074).

8 Two Saxon Chronicles, I, 222 (for the year 1086).

9 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. F. Liebermann, i (Halle, 1903), 358 [II Cn. 71, 1].

10 N. P. Brooks, 'Arms, Status and Warfare in Late Anglo-Saxon England', Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, ed. D. Hill, (British Archaeological Reports, 59; Oxford, 1978), 81-104 at 85.

11 R. Cramp, 'Beowulf and Archaeology', Medieval Archaeology, i (1957), rpr. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. D. K. Fry (Englewood Cliffs, 1968), 114-40 at 119-23; The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900, ed. L. Webster and J. Back-house (London, 1991), 59-62; and E. Schoenfeld and J. Schulman, 'Sutton Hoo: An Economic Assessment', Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo, ed. C. B. Kendall and P.S. Wells (Minneapolis, 1992), 15-27 at 19-20.

12 Anglo-Saxon Wills, ed. D. Whitelock (Cambridge, 1930), 6.

13 D.M. Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork 700-1100 in the British Museum (London, 1964), 148-9.

14 D. Hinton, A Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork 700-1100, in the Department of the Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, 1974), 1-7.

15 The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, ed. J. Backhouse, D. H. Turner, and L. Webster (London, 1984), 103-4.

16 Those decorated are Beowulf 1027, 1048, 1528, 1902, 2193, Riddle 55 13.

17 H. R. E. Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature (Oxford, 1962), 15-96.

18 Anglo-Saxon Wills, 2-4 and 26.

19 R. Frank, Beowulf and Sutton Hoo: The Odd Couple', ed. Kendall and Wells, Voyage, 47-64 at 55.

20 J. B. Bessinger and P. H. Smith (eds), A Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Ithaca and London, 1978).

21 Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969), 230.

22 Boethius, The Theological Tractes and The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. H.F. Steward, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1978), 314-15: I quote their translation.

23 King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. W.J. Sedgefield (Oxford, 1899), 104.

24 The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church. The First Part, Containing the Sermones Catholici, or Homilies of AElfric, ed. B. Thorpe (London, 1846), II, 590.

25 Wulfstan of Winchester: The Life of AEthelwold, ed. M. Lapidge and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1991), 44-5; I quote their translation.

26 Anglo-Saxon Charters, 226; I quote Robertson's translation, 227.

27 Alcuin: The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York, ed. P. Godman (Oxford, 1982), lines 1488-1506; I quote Godman's translation, 119.

28 AEthelwulf mentions the use of silver as well as of gold to ornament the cell of which he was a member. See AEthelwulf: De Abbatibus, ed. A. Campbell (Oxford, 1967), 35 and 51-2.

29 Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork, 10.

30 Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Metalwork, 10; D. Hinton, 'Late Saxon Treasure and Bullion', Ethelred the Unready, ed. D. Hill, 135 and Archaeology, Economy and Society: England from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Century (London, 1990), 52 and 61.

31 Two Saxon Chronicles, I, 127.

32 Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, I, 127. For the dates of the treaty, see English Historical Documents c.500-1042, ed. D. Whitelock, 2nd edn (London and New York, 1979), 437.

33 P. H. Sawyer, Ford Lectures in History, 26 March 1993.

34 R. Abels, 'English Tactics, Strategy and Military Organization in the Late Tenth Century', The Battle of Maldon AD 991, ed. D. G. Scragg (Oxford, 1991), 143-55 at 147.

35 Frank, 'Beowulf and Sutton Hoo', 53.

36 'gold ond sylfor': Genesis A 1769, Dream of the Rood 77, Riddle 14 2, Paris Psalter 104:32, 113:12, 118:72, 134:15, Solomon and Saturn 31, Instruction for Christians 122; 'ne gold ne sylfor': Soul and Body I 58 and Soul and Body II 55; and 'gold ne sylfor': Andreas 338.

37 Elene 1025, Paris Psalter 67:13, Meters of Boethius 21:21, Solomon and Saturn 64.

38 Genesis A 1769, Paris Psalter 104:32, 113:12, 118:72, 134:15.

39 Genesis A 1769, Paris Psalter 104:32, 113:12, 134:15.

40 Daniel 60, Christ and Satan 577, Riddle 20 10, Riddle 55 4, Ruin 35, Riddle 67 15, Paris Psalter 67:27, Meters of Boethius 21.21.

41 Genesis A 2720, 2732, Paris Psalter 65:9, Solomon and Saturn 143, 375.

42 These developments have been studied and discussed by a number of historians, see especially: R. Abels, Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1988); J. Campbell 'Bede's Reges and Principes' in his Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1986), 85-98, 'Early Anglo-Saxon Society According to Written Sources', in Essays in Anglo- Saxon History, 131-8, and 'Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century' in Essays in Anglo-Saxon History, 155-70; P. Grierson, Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, ix (1959), 123-40 and 'La Fonction Sociale de la Monnaie en Angleterre aux VIIe-VIIIe Siecles', Settimane stadio del Centro italiano di studi sull'alto medioevo viii (1961), 341-85; C. W. Hollister, 'The Origins of the English Treasury', English Historical Review, xciii (1978), 262-73; H. R. Loyn, 'The King and the Structure of Society in Late Anglo-Saxon England', History, xlii (1957), 87-100, and The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1984); Janet Nelson, 'Wealth and Wisdom: The Politics of Alfred the Great', Kings and Kingship, ed. J. Rosenthal, Acta, xi (1986), 31-52; P. H. Sawyer, 'The Wealth of England in the Eleventh century', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, xv (1965), 145-64 and 'Kings and Merchants', Early Medieval Kingship, ed. P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood (Leeds, 1977), 139-58; and P. Spufford, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge. 1988).

43 Kings of the Old Testament are also described as treasure-givers, see Genesis A 1857-9 and Judith 28.

44 Asser's Life of King Alfred, ed. W.H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1904), 59-60 and 67.

45 Asser's Life of King Alfred, 47.

46 Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, ed. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983), 273-4 n. 246.

47 J. R. Madicott, 'Trade, Industry and the Wealth of King Alfred', Past and Present, cxxiii (1989), 3-51 at 4.

48 Asser's Life of King Alfred, 85-9.

49 Boethius, 248-9; I quote the editors' translation.

50 King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, 64.

51 Loyn, Governance, 67, and Madicott, 'Trade, Industry and Wealth'.

52 C. P. Wormald, 'Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy,' Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, ed. R.T. Farrell (British Archaeological Reports 46; Oxford, 1979), 32-95 at 36.

53 J. Campbell, 'Bede's Reges and Principes', 85-98, at 92-3.

54 H. R. Loyn, Governance, 17.

55 H. Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (London, 1991), 19.
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Title Annotation:Notes
Author:Tyler, Elizabeth
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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