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Widsith and the Anthropology of the Past.

Thanks in part to the opacity with which it names, without comment, tribe after tribe and ruler after ruler of the ancient world, the poem that we know as Widsith defies literary analysis. Those who know this work, either in modern translation or in its unique Old English text, will recall above all its central character, the itinerant singer Widsith himself, the imagined speaker of all but the first nine and last nine lines of the text.(1) The words that begin the poem--Widsi?? ma??olade, wordhord onleac (Widsith spoke, he unlocked his hoard of words, 1)--mark off the long speech that follows as a formal one that is imagined to take place in a dignified setting.(2) In elevated poetic discourse, the singer tells how he found patronage among various tribes and kings of the past, some of whom he celebrates in short eulogistic passages. The ruler whom Widsith singles out for special attention is Eormanric (or Ermanaric),(3) the legendary king of the Goths, who commands ambiguous attention as both a magnificent host and a waerloga, or "oath-breaker."(4) Despite this uneasy mix of praise and blame, Eormanric stands out as a grand figure suggestive of the idealized archetypal king of former times, just as Widsith is the idealized bard who is imagined to have entertained him. One can forgive readers if their memories of other aspects of the poem remain a blur. Few people praise Widsith for its artistic qualities, for compared with Beowulf (a poem with which it is often linked)(5) its narrative moments are empty of drama. The anonymous author seems not to have aspired to the literary verve that distinguishes some of the poem's well-known companion pieces in the Exeter Book. A detractor could call Widsith the sort of thing that results when a piece of language cannot make up its mind if it is a minimalist short story or a shopping list. It is appropriate that, in what is either a pun or an inspired typographical error, one critic has referred to it as arguably the greatest "scissors-and-past" job in English literature.(6)

That Widsith contains remarkable items of pseudo-historical lore should go without saying. That it is composed in a genre of its own is clear. That it is a profitable text to study, a work that is capable of yielding important insights into the early culture of the British Isles, remains to be shown. In the past, those scholars who were accustomed to tracing all good things to their origins in ancient Germania tended to regard Widsith as the earliest poem in the English language (which it surely is not) and therefore as a precious example of primitive poetry(7)--a misunderstanding that also identified it as a subliterary work that did not deserve critical attention. The poem's two chief modern editors, R. W. Chambers and Kemp Malone, used its lists of proper names as points of access to some of the great stories and cast-off ephemera of Germanic antiquity.(8) Their commentaries, though learned to a degree that would be hard to imitate today, are not necessarily to the taste of current readers who turn a skeptical eye on claims regarding ancient Germania or who dismiss that term as one that has largely outlived its usefulness outside the orbit of ancient Rome.(9) One modern critic, regarding the poem not so much as a source of information about the past as a source of insight into how the Anglo-Saxons idealized the past, has used Widsith's imagined autobiographical journey as the focal point for remarks concerning the role of the poet in early English society.(10) In its idealization of the singer of tales, such a study, though full of insight, runs the risk of mirroring the poet's own ideal portrait of the scop and thereby provides ammunition for cynics who view the "search for the Anglo-Saxon oral poet" as largely the quest for a chimera.(11) Despite one hundred and fifty years of commentary, Widsith remains an enigmatic work whose reason for existence is obscure.

My first purpose in this essay is to promote understanding of Widsith in period-specific terms by inquiring into the cultural work that must have been done by a poem of this kind during the time when it was in circulation. I shall do so chiefly by focussing on the question: "What is the point of the main narrative concerning Widsith and the Goths?" This is a question that is best answered, I believe, with reference to tenth-century Anglo-Saxon politics, which are deeply enmeshed in attempts to synthesize the heritage and aspirations of the peoples of various ethnic allegiance who were becoming part of an emergent English nation. I hope to show that even if Widsith has only moderate appeal as "literature"--a modern critical term for which the Anglo-Saxons had no equivalent(12)--it has compelling interest as an example of what speakers of that time called simply gewritu, "writings." By approaching Widsith as a focal point for native English concepts of the past, I hope to relate this poem to the social order that produced it, or that more precisely was in the process of formation, thanks in part to pseudo-historical writings of this kind, during the century or so before the text in its present form was written down.(13)

As has long been appreciated, Widsith makes a summary display of much of the knowledge that the Anglo-Saxons possessed concerning ancient peoples and kings. The poem is not what it is easily taken to be, however, a partial "poetic encyclopedia of early medieval Germania."(14) Rather, it is an arrangement of information into a sequence that embodies an underlying ideology. It serves the function of what Foucault calls an archive, a storehouse where knowledge about the past is too potent an intellectual commodity to be neutrally or evenly distributed.(15) When read in conjunction with other Anglo-Saxon historical writings that can plausibly be dated to the hundred-year period extending from the 880s (or the middle years of the reign of King Alfred, who reigned from 871 to 899) to about the year 980 (the approximate date when the Exeter Book was written out), the poem reveals how the English-speaking people who were living in Britain during this crucially formative period of state-formation--the Angelpeod, as they called themselves--were constructing their historical present, with its various ethnic constituencies, out of a series of gestures toward the past. While agreeing with Joyce Hill that Widsith probably gave "enjoyment and satisfaction" to its late Anglo-Saxon audience,(16) I wish to start where Hill leaves off and will explore that poem's role in helping to shape the historical consciousness of those who either read or heard it, assuming that it did have contemporary audiences.

In addition, this essay has a second purpose: namely, to suggest that anthropological methods can clarify the role of poetry itself in the early medieval context as a form of ritualized discourse. Progress toward this goal depends upon sidestepping a number of antinomies that have preoccupied those who have written about Widsith in the past. I will have nothing to say about a Great Divide between "the secular world" that the poem reflects versus "the scriptorium" in which it was written, nor about differences between the "original composition" that has been thought to precede our text versus the work of an "interpolator" who added things to it, or between the "fictional" names on the poet's list versus the "authentic" ones (whatever this distinction is imagined to mean), or between the poem's "popular" as opposed to "scholarly" reception.(17) The word "Germania" will be almost as absent from my discussion as either that noun or any synonym is from the Old English vocabulary. Instead, I will develop an approach to Widsith that illustrates what can be achieved through what can be called the anthropology of the past. The medium of poetry in which Widsith is composed, I shall suggest, is a rhetorically heightened one that was suited to the purposes of education in the society where it was cultivated. In this ritualized medium, associated with the human voice and yet clearly distinguished from ordinary speech, poets were able to articulate that body of knowledge and that network of beliefs that were considered most essential for the members of their society to have. Whether or not my interpretation of specific details relating to Widsith is accepted, I hope that interest will be found in this broader argument, which is integrated into an overview of issues affecting Old English studies at the present time.


There are at least three reasons why the benefit of anthropological approaches to medieval literature has to be argued rather than being taken for granted. First of all, few medievalists have the training to feel at home with work in the social sciences. Lacking experience in fieldwork, an activity that remains a rite de passage for graduate students in anthropology who intend to become professionals in that field, they may lack the confidence of those who have studied foreign cultures through immersion in them as well as through a more general process of education. While this lack of in-house expertise is not disabling, it may have an inhibiting effect. A second, more telling reason for the neglect of anthropological approaches among medievalists may be the intellectual poverty of work that has sometimes been undertaken along those lines. C. S. Lewis's attack on post-Frazerian forays into literary anthropology is well known:(18)

It is not to be disputed that literary texts can sometimes be of great use to the anthropologist. It does not immediately follow that anthropological study can make in return any valuable contribution to literary criticism.

Lewis's complaint in his essay "The Anthropological Approach" was that the literary qualities of a sophisticated romance like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were in danger of being obscured by anthropological theorizing that replaced Gawain with a sun god and that offered, in place of that knight's brilliantly conceived and strangely hued adversary, nothing better than a rather ordinary-looking enautios daimon.(19) Lewis won his mid-century debate with John Speirs hands down, and it is easy to see why in some circles "anthropology" became for a while a tainted word.

A third reason for the relative neglect of anthropological methods may be the turbulent state of affairs in that discipline itself as its practitioners have sought to absorb recent challenges to its customary modes of scholarship. Postmodernism has taken on many forms since the watershed year of 1986, when a series of bombs went off that initiated a small revolution in the academy. In the field of history, William McNeill's 1986 book Mythistory and Other Essays is remarkable for the equanimity with which its author views the wholesale movement whereby narrative has shifted out of the realms of "fact" or "fiction" into a single encompassing realm of "mythistory," a category so capacious as to encompass virtually any story told about the past regardless of what its truth value has sometimes been taken to be.(20) In the field of anthropology, two books published in 1986 had a similarly destabilising effect. The essays in James Clifford's and George Marcus's Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography go far toward eroding confidence in the authority and objective value of "classic" ethnographic accounts.(21) In his concurrent study Anthropology as Cultural Critique, Marcus stresses that ethnographies almost inescapably serve less as an objective account of some "other" culture than as an implied critique of the researcher's own.(22) These developments are significant considering the exemplary character of such ethnographies for graduate students in anthropology, who customarily enter their profession via a year's immersion in a foreign culture and a written account of that experience. In a corresponding development in the field of archaeology, lan Hodder's 1986 book Reading the Past waved entry to the brave new world of what has been called post-processual archaeology. In urging a turn away from what he considered to be the narrow scientism of the "New Archaeology," with its reliance on quantifiable data and orderly systems and procedures, Hodder directed attention to the potentially erratic role played by the individual in the making of material culture.(23) By focussing on ideological factors that are involved in human agency, Hodder and like-minded archaeologists have sought to engage with questions of power and domination, of ranking and gender. They have approached material objects as symbols in action, to be read as part of a semiotic theory of culture by researchers who cannot hope to conceive of the past free from the biases inherent in their own situation in time and space. To take a final example of new directions taken in books published in 1986, Richard Bauman's Story, Performance, and Event signalled a sharp turn in oral theory away from the analysis of orally-derived texts, with their systems of oral-formulaic diction, and towards the study of performative events.(24) Specialists in oral narrative have since widened their horizons so as to embrace contemporary performance theory, speech act theory, sociolinguistics, and ethnopoetics, with some attempt on the part of philologically-oriented scholars to build bridges between these newer approaches and more time-honored types of textual scholarship.(25)

One result of the intellectual ferment that characterizes publications of the kind that I have just named has been a questioning and, to some extent, a redrawing of the boundaries that customarily have separated history and literature, literature and anthropology, and anthropology and its various neighbors in the academy, including sociology, archaeology, and folklore.(26) Just as the world itself has been undergoing rapid modernization in recent years, the gaze of anthropologists has shifted away from exotic societies so as to take in technologically advanced ones as well, thus encroaching on what was formerly the domain of sociology while holding fast to a concern with cognitive and conceptual models and with the behavior of individuals interacting in small groups. The close, skeptical reading of texts--a skill once regarded as the special province of literary critics--is now a required tool in the kit of scholars in many fields. If one were to venture a slogan to sum up the mixed excitement and angst that characterize current work of a postmodern orientation in the humanities and social sciences, it could well be "All the world's a text, and all scholars merely players." It is not to be expected that every medievalist who has been trained in traditional methods of philology and history will be equally pleased by this development.

Since the revolution in critical sensibilities to which I have referred,(27) there has been a general acknowledgment that no scholarship is innocent. Just as any individual chronicle, poem, sculpture, parish church, or liturgical practice is implicated in the whole set of values, assumptions, and power relations that underpin a society, our own efforts as scholars are necessarily embedded in the accepted norms of our own time. Judgments concerning past cultures are always articulated in terms of a contemporary language that is itself socially situated. This does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. What it does mean is that when we argue for a specific textual interpretation, what we are really claiming is that our interpretation holds true within the hermeneutic system that we invoke at that time. Whether that hermeneutic system is the best of all possible systems is difficult for anyone to say--and more than usually difficult, we may be sure, if a person believes in the validity of that system and takes its guiding assumptions for granted. This is a point that has been made repeatedly by those who have traced the emergence of Anglo-Saxon studies as a discipline, informed at every stage by period-specific investments on the part of those people who have made this field their intellectual home.(28)

If deployed with reason and good sense, I believe, the scholarly movements that have been summarized in the last paragraphs can point the way toward that new kind of medieval studies that could be called the anthropology of the past. The starting point for work of this kind is the acknowledgment that we create our knowledge of the past from knowledge of the present. If, when addressing a problem in research, medievalists ask themselves the question, "How do I make maximum use of the sources of information that are available to me?," their answers will be twofold. (1) We learn by mastering the tools of the discipline in which we are trained and in which we are most at home. (2) We learn by integrating into that discipline the sum total of knowledge and insights that we find available from other resources. Our understanding of any medieval text will thus be grounded not only in philology and good sense, but also in our command of fields that in some instances fall within the social sciences, which specialize in the interrelationships of human action, culture, and society.

Examining a document or artifact from the Anglo-Saxon period, we thus may want to discuss more than its formal and stylistic features, its manuscript context, its possible source or sources, and factors of a similar kind. We may also wish to discuss it in terms of an integrated theory of culture whereby any one element, as in human language, takes on meaning in relation to other elements. To take one example: if we accept that hierarchical status can be maintained through privileged access to valued items and control of their distribution, then we may want to know how material objects dating from the early Middle Ages once related to the status of those who made them, owned them, or kept them in circulation. How did a decorated manuscript page display the power of the Church, or the power of a local church, by making a display of expensive, prestigious materials and craftsmanship? How did a well-wrought ship, sword, or brooch assert the system of hierarchy itself and naturalize it for the sake of either personal rank, the interests of a particular group, or general social stability? How did a particular poem--Widsith, for example--assert a people's identity by locating them vis-a-vis their predecessors in antiquity and their neighbors in space, thereby enhancing the status of particular persons or groups or promoting certain ideological ends by controlling access to information? These are not just cynical questions meant to tear the veil of illusion from the face of power. They are inquiries designed to reveal the meaning of things by reference to the total cultural system in which they are embedded.

When approached along these lines, the historical past is revealed as a complex cultural construction--in part "ours" and in part "theirs"--rather than as a set of events that once occurred independent of observation. The past, in a real sense, is where we continue to dwell, to the extent that we dwell in human time, which is largely the creation of narrative. As Paul Ricoeur has noted, it is through narratives of human events--through stories of past experience, present experience, and potential experience--that the flux of existence is given teleological form so that present fact is acknowledged as the result of past activity and the prelude to future woe or bliss.(29) If this line of reasoning is accepted, then we must conclude that it is storytelling, and not just the general use of language as a system of communication, that chiefly defines human beings as such.(30) A strong case is thereby made for the anthropology of the past, for storytelling, or mythmaking, in the broad sense that is implied by the Greek noun muthos ("story"), is an activity that falls in part within the province of anthropology as a science of humankind.

There is thus more to the anthropology of the past than the ad-hoc forays that were once dismissed as "the anthropological approach." As cultural studies have been practiced more widely in the academy, specialists in medieval studies have been exposed to various models of anthropologically-informed work on which they can draw and from which they can make departures.(31) Whether or not they have been influenced by such work, some medievalists have long been synthesizing the different sorts of evidence that can be provided by archaeology, anthropology, and documentary sources. William A. Chaney's study of charismatic kingship and Audrey L. Meaney's study of Anglo-Saxon amulets and healing stones are two respected studies of this kind.(32) More recently, Guy Halsall has studied the place of Anglo-Saxon warfare within a system of graded levels of violence and ritualized insult; John Hill has made use of anthropological models to suggest how the related institutions of the feud and gift-exchange served to maintain social order; and several scholars have set Anglo-Saxon healing charms, long a goldmine for folklorists and a minefield for critics, into relation to quasishamanistic practices (Steven Glosecki) and popular religion (Karen Jolly).(33) It is a short step from scholarship of these kinds to direct consideration of ethnophilosophy, or the comparative study of traditional systems of thought. This path of scholarship awaits full exploration,(34) and I shall not try to do more here than to conjure its existence as a direction worth taking.

One related area of Old English scholarship that has not suffered from neglect is the study of literacy and orality. Thanks to recent research, we are now in a position to recognize that these are not incompatible skills or opposing media; rather, they constitute two overlapping parts of a performative continuum that produces a single range of cultural effects.(35) Any manuscript text that has come down to us may represent only one moment in a process of reproduction ranging from acts of reading aloud to freely recreative performances, from acts of slavish copying to instances of brilliant literary invention. Especially when one takes into account the manner in which "visible song" was copied from text to text with varying degrees of inventiveness,(36) it is impossible to estimate the number of different authors and audiences a medieval work may have had. This conclusion is bound to affect our understanding not only of texts such as "Caedmon's Hymn" that survive in multiple copies, but also texts like Beowulf and Widsith that happen to have survived in unique ones. Just as it is impossible to speak with confidence of "the audience" of a work like Beowulf or Widsith, it is impossible to speak in the singular of that poem's "meaning," if meaning is held to reside in the convergence of an authorial purpose, a text or a verbal event, and a reader's or listener's response to that text or event. Meaning in traditional art is not something that can be declared by fiat in some absolute realm beyond time and place. It is something that is contested with every act of reception. It is best approached in the plural, as a function of performance and as a dialogue of memories and recreative skills, rather than in the singular as a feature of textuality per se.(37)

As research into literacy and orality should confirm, continuities can sometimes be traced between the cultural practices of a thousand years ago and those of more recent times. Research akin to what archaeologists call ethnoarchaeology, therefore--that is, fieldwork that scholars undertake among living peoples in order to gain knowledge about the uses of material culture in the past(38)--can profitably be undertaken by specialists in literary studies as well. We do not necessarily have to turn to "primitive" societies to find analogues to medieval phenomena but may find relevant information all around us, whether by direct observation or by consulting the literature of folklore and anthropology.(39) While study of present-day phenomena provides no master key to the understanding of the Middle Ages, strategic comparisons between analogous cultural practices may be of use to those who hope to read medieval writings with some understanding of how they once functioned in a living social context.

Enough has been said by now to suggest that, despite Lewis's skepticism concerning anthropological models, one way to read early writings with a minimum of distortion is to supplement knowledge gained through the traditional disciplines of medieval studies with knowledge based on observation of phenomena that have been open to inspection in various parts of the world in recent times. By maintaining an anthropologist's stubborn refusal to impose his or her own prejudices on others, we may remain attuned to the strangeness of the cultures of the past and may be more likely to recognize them as comprehensible systems that have their own integrity, independent of perceptual norms into which we as observers have been acculturated by the accident of our birth.

My focal point in this essay is Widsith, however, and I will now return to that poem.


As announced at the start of this essay, I wish to argue that the text of Widsith is best approached as an indigenous Anglo-Saxon writing that derives its chief meaning from its relation to the society in which it emerged. Seen as such, it exemplifies a discursive practice that connected a tenth-century social order to an imagined prior period that was associated with racial or tribal origins. To the extent that Widsith incorporates history, it is best read as a competitive mythistory, in William McNeill's sense. To the extent that it incorporates ethnographical knowledge, it is best taken as a work of cultural critique, in George Marcus's sense. Widsith is of interest for the ways in which it synthesizes historical and geographical knowledge so as to justify an emergent Anglo-Saxon social order, lending that order the patina of antiquity while wrapping its controlling ethos in an aura of rightness or inevitability that derives from its articulation through the formal speech of the imagined poet-sage, Widsith himself, the celebrant of ancient kings.

Central to this reading of Widsith is the concept of social order as agonistic, as the result of a competitive process whereby, whether implicitly or explicitly, the interests of one group are always set against the interests of one or another rival group. This concept of social life as agon not only is taken for granted among most post-Marxist social scientists; it also was one of the Anglo-Saxons' most basic existential concepts.(40) The principle that life equals competition is expressed succinctly in the 66-line series of gnomic utterances that constitutes the strategically-situated poetic text known as the Cotton Maxims, where we are told that "light must oppose darkess, / army oppose army, one enemy oppose another, foe against foe / struggling over land."(41) Such an attitude finds emphatic expression in the burial sites of early Anglo-Saxon England, with their inclusion of spears and other weapons as the identifying signs of a man. Weapons were the essential things (together with a supply of food and drink, apparently) that were to be borne with a man into the next world. That weapons were not merely decorative but were put to use from time to time is evident not only from those burial sites that reveal anatomical evidence of wounds,(42) but also from the annals of warfare and violence that feature prominently in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other written sources.(43) Equally clear from the archaeological record is that virtually all important inhabited sites were enclosed with defensive fortifications. The attempt of the West Saxon kings to secure their domains and promote their territorial ambitions through an articulated system of defense based on the burh, or fortified town, is one firm expression of this tendency.(44) Nothing was secure in the Anglo-Saxon world, it seems; all good things had to be defended and, if possible, augmented, for all were potentially contested.

In keeping with the overwhelmingly defensive and agonistic attitudes that were characteristic of its time, Widsith can be regarded as a kind of mental battlefield, a place where claims about the past, that priceless possession, are publicly asserted in words whose bland facade, varied by occasional rhetorical extravagance, conceals the aggressive design that is part of any desire for eminence. By listing name after name of rulers in a manner analogous to the listing of ancestor after ancestor in genealogies--that other great weapon of social memory--the poet reduces historical discourse to close to its minimal limits in the direction of gnomic verse. Just as the Exeter Book gnomes confirm the natural order of the world by naming its elements and their properties-forst sceal freosan, fyr wudu meltan (frost has the property of freezing, fire consumes wood)(45)--so the poet of Widsith makes unarguable claims about the social order by naming the peoples of the earth and identifying their most famous rulers: AEtla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum (Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths, 18). The power that the poet exercises is thus the same power that he ascribes to his fictive speaker Widsith, that singer from the legendary past: he raises up the fame of particular chieftains or kings at the expense of rival figures, the great majority of whom remain nameless, part of the soil of oblivion. The form of the list, that blunt mnemonic weapon, permits the poet to naturalize fame as if it were a part of the eternal order of things rather than a cultural construction, as with hindsight we know it to be.

From a present-day perspective, Widsith's choice of a tribe or ruler to call into existence through naming does sometimes seem almost inevitable, as when he names AEtla/Attila as the Hun of history or cites Gu??ere/Gunther (of Nibelungenlied fame) as the archetypal king of the Burgundians and, we are told, his own personal benefactor (65-67). At other times the poet's identifications are subject to strain, as when we are told that Peodric weold Froncum (Theodoric ruled the Franks, 24a). If, thanks to other conduits of fame than this poem, a reader should know of alternative kings of Frankish origin--need one mention Charlemagne?--the Widsith-poet has nothing to say about them. "One tribe, one king" is his rule of thumb, and he usually sticks to it as if it were a feature of life rather than of the rhetoric of the list. Some tribes do not merit named kings. In lines 57-87, with their formulaic syntax Ic waes mid ... (I spent time with ...), one tribe after another is named with no mention of its archetypal ruler. The Scots and Picts go kingless (79a), as comes as no surprise in what is not only an English poem but also a kind of English propaganda-piece. In any period of historical conflict, damnatio memoriae has been a favored means by which the victors have controlled knowledge and the vanquished have entered oblivion. Kinglessness is also the lot of the Wicingas (Vikings, 59b), who are named in passing but remain without the honor of a named ruler. Perhaps more curiously, ancient tribes including the Israelites, Assyrians, Egyptians, Medes, and Persians lack named kings (82-84a). It seems that in Widsith, named archetypal rulers are chiefly associated with that period of Northern European history that was so much the creation of heroic legend that modern scholars have called it the Heroic Age. It is perhaps in part for this reason that the Saxons are named without being ascribed a specific king (62a). Like the Scots, the Picts, and the Vikings, the Saxons were part of the poet's contemporary tenth-century world. For reasons that will become more clear later in this essay, the poet prefers not to speak of Saxon glory in the past tense.

When the kings of former times are also briefly characterized, the profile that the poet gives them sometimes steers the audience toward an understanding of their relative stature in a manner that suggests ranking among their latter-day descendants. When the poet names Offa as the archetypal king of the Continental Angles, for example, he links this king to Alewih, the putative archetypal king of the Danes, in a manner that sheds glory on the Danes with one hand and takes it away with the other:
   Offa weold Ongle, Alewih Denum;
   se waes para manna modgast ealra,
   no hwaepre he ofer Offan eorlscype fremede,
   ac Offa geslog aerest monna,
   cnihtwesende, cynerica maest.
   Naenig efeneald him eorlscipe maran
   on orette.


Offa ruled the Angles, Alewih the Danes. He was the bravest of all of those men. In no way, though, did he surpass Offa in noble deeds, but Offa, the foremost among men, won the greatest of kingdoms while he was still a boy. No one of his age [ever performed] greater deeds of strength in battle.

Widsith does not just incorporate Anglo-Saxon knowledge about the past. It filters knowledge so as to settle, in a desired manner, one group's rivalries with others. In this instance, as in a famous allusion to Offa that figures in Beowulf,(46) the speaker's praise of Offa, the legendary king of the Continental Angles, is generally taken to be a means of honoring Offa II, the great historical king who ruled over Mercia from 757 to 796 A.D. By extension, the allusion honors the descendants of Offa II in a kingdom and a royal line that had been folded into Wessex by the end of the ninth century through a process of conquest, assimilation, and dynastic intermarriage. By a similar argument, the speaker's praise of Alewih, King of the Danes, ought to reflect credit on that king's latter-day Anglo-Danish descendants. To an extent it does, but not without reservation. Besides being said to be inferior to Offa in the performance of heroic deeds, Aleweh is literally a nonentity, a name alone, for such a king is unknown in historical sources outside this poem.(47) The Danes are therefore belittled through the medium of praise. They are a great tribe ruled by a brave nobody.

Certain tribes and rulers thus come off better than others in the poet's implicit rankings. King Gu??ere receives special notice for his gift of a handsome beag (ring or torque) to the itinerant singer (65-67). His Burgundians, a tribe of legendary wealth, thereby come off well. King AElfwine, the Alboin of historians writing in Latin,(48) merits four lines of high praise for his generous hand (70-74). His people, the inhabitants of Eatule (Italy), thus come out near the top in the high-stakes poetic competition where fame is what counts. With these figures a simple rule seems to be in force: the more lines of verse the poet devotes to a person, the higher his stature can be taken to be.

Among all these peoples, the tribe that wins the poet's sweepstakes of praise is the Goths. There is no surprise in this triumph, for it is this tribe, as Chambers remarks, that "had done or suffered so much that their heroes became household names" throughout German-speaking areas of Europe.(49) The poet names either the Goths or Eormanric no fewer than five separate times. (1) In lines 5b-9a Widsith is introduced as someone famed chiefly for having visited the court of Eormanric, here called both a Hre??yning (glorious king, or perhaps Hrethking)(50) and a wrap waerloga (furious troth-breaker). (2) In line 18 the status of Eormanric as the archetypal king of the Goths is established: Eormanric [weold] Gotum (Eormanric ruled the Goths). (3) In line 57 the poet links the Goths and the Huns in a single clause: Ic waes mid Hunum and mid Hre??gotum (I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths). To anyone in the poet's audience who was knowledgeable about the past, this one line would have called to mind one of the most famous episodes of Northern European history, the invasion and conquest of Eormanric's Gothic empire by an army of Huns led by Attila.(51) (4) Toward the end of the poem, the poet recites a catalogue of persons, culminating in Wudga and Hama, who formed the innweorud (inner circle) of Eormanric's court (109-30). Like any catalogue of heroes, this passage serves the function of auxesis and marks as a person of fame and splendor the king around whom such a glorious retinue has gathered. (5) The main allusion to Ermanaric comes in a twenty-line passage (88-108) that directly precedes this list of heroes. This is easily the most extended narrative passage in the poem. Because of its significance to my argument, the first part of it is worth quoting in full.
   Ond ic waes mid Eormanrice ealle prage,
   paer me Gotena cyning gode dohte;
   se me beag forgeaf, burgwarena fruma,
   on pam siex hund waes smaetes goldes,
   gescyred sceatta scillingrime;
   pone ic Eadgilse on aeht sealde,
   minum hleodryhtne, pa ic to ham bicwom,
   leofum to leane, paes pe he me lond forgeaf,
   mines faeder epel, frea Myrginga.
   Ond me pa Ealhhild operne forgeaf,
   dryhtcwen dugupe, dohtor Eadwines.
   Hyre lof lengde geond londa fela,
   ponne ic be songe secgan sceolde
   hwaer ic under swegle selast wisse
   goldhrodene cwen giefe bryttian.


And I was with Eormanric all the time; there the king of the Goths rewarded me bountifully. Lord of cities and their inhabitants, he gave me an armlet worth six hundred shillings counted out in coins of refined gold. Once I returned home I gave that armlet as a present to my dear lord and protector Eadgils, lord of the Myrgings, as recompense for his granting me my father's estate. And Ealhhild, the noble queen, the daughter of Eadwine, graciously gave me a second armlet. Her praise was exalted throughout many lands whenever it was my task to give voice in song and say where I had found the finest gold-adorned queen giving out treasure.

Among many details that are of interest in this passage--the way in which praise, gifts, and land operate as parts of a single social economy, for example--there are two mysteries, as well. First: why does mention of Eormanric lead directly to mention of the generous queen Ealhhild? What is the purpose of this prominent notice of a person who is unknown outside this poem? Second: why, in line 96 of this passage, following up on information that is given in the poem's introductory lines,(52) is Widsith identified as a Myrging? What is the purpose of this notice, seeing that the Myrgings too are a tribe that is otherwise unknown? Let me try to cast light on each of these problems in turn.

From the passage quoted above, all that can be inferred about Ealhhild other than that she is Widsith's benefactor and a person of royal standing is that she is the daughter of a certain Eadwine. Seeing that Eadwine too is unknown outside the poem, this information adds little to one's understanding. Earlier in Widsith, however, the generous King AElfwine (i.e. Alboin), the ruler of Italy, is also identified as beam Eadwines (the son of Eadwine, 74b). If the Eadwine of verse 98b is the same man as the Eadwine of verse 74b, as he can be taken to be in the absence of information that would rule otherwise,(53) then Queen Ealhhild of the Goths and King AElfwine of Italy are siblings born of the same father. Later I will return to this significant point. For now, let us see what is implied by the poem's main narrative. Widsith states that it was in the company of Ealhhild, that faelre freopuwebban (gracious peace-weaver, 6a), that he first travelled to Eormanric's court eastan of Ongle (from the east, from Angeln, 8a). What this statement must mean in the context of northern European geography is that he journeyed into the land of the Goths from the ancient home of the Angles in present-day Jutland, a site east of Britain.(54) It is generally agreed that the purpose of this journey into the interior of northeastern Europe, a region renowned for its dangers and wonders, can only have been to present Ealhhild, who must be imagined as a princess of royal blood, in marriage to King Eormanric.(55) The implication of lines 88-102 is that it is in return for this high-stakes escort service, and not just for his fine singing, that Wiglaf is rewarded so handsomely by both Eormanric and his bride. Since her point of departure is Angeln, Ealhhild must be an Anglian princess and her father Eadwine, like Offa, an Anglian king. The conclusion follows that the main narrative of Widsith concerns a supposed marriage that forges an alliance between the Angles--the ancestors of the Angelpeod (the English people) in general and of the Mercian branch of the English people in particular--and the most famous of the kings and tribes of Northern Europe.(56)

From an English perspective, the first effect of the poet's narrative concerning Ealhhild and her marriage to King Eormanric is to raise the status of the Angles by marrying them into the Goths, whose stature they thereby approximate. Such an attempt to link English and Gothic history is a natural expression of the "Gothicism" that Roberta Frank has shown to have been in vogue by the ninth century in Europe, though not necessarily during earlier times.(57) By the time that Widsith was composed, it seems, a Gothic connection had become the thing to have. The glamor of the Goths is reflected in other Old English poetry of this period, as one can see from the references to Theodoric and Eormanric in Deor (18-19 and 21-26, respectively), to Theodoric and Widia in Waldere (part 2, lines 4-10), and to Eormanric and Hama in Beowulf (1197-1201). Eormanric remains an ambiguous figure, however. The author of Deor remembers him as a grim cyning (ferocious king, 23b) who is known for his wylfenne gepoht (wolvish disposition, 22a), in probable allusion to the marriage of which Widsith speaks. This marriage will come to a savage end. As one can tell from the second simplex in her name, the Ealhhild of Widsith is almost certainly this poet's equivalent to the Sunilda of the Latin history of Jordanes and the Svanhildr of Scandinavian tradition, the hapless woman whom Ermanaric, the Iormunrekr of Norse sources, punishes for her supposed treachery or infidelity by having her trampled to death by horses.(58) Chambers reasonably concludes that it is with reference to this brutal act, which in the Scandinavian branch of the story involves breach of his marital vows, that the Eormanric of Widsith is called a wrap waerloga.(59) Unlike the more civilized Angles, the Goths are capable of terrifying violence. They typify the magnificent yet threatening otherness of the ancient pagan tribes of Northern Europe. The narrative about Ealhhild's marriage to Eormanric thus not only enhances the status of the English; it also raises their moral stature by suggesting their ethical superiority to the Goths. Eormanric can be admired for his wealth and generosity but remains an archetype of rage and murder. His queen remains blameless, as the Angles do by association with her.

We are now in a better position to understand the second of the two mysteries to which I have referred, the identification of Widsith as a Myrging. Who are the Myrgings, we may well ask? The name itself--"bog-dwellers," or "dwellers in a watery district," presumably--has been thought to point toward the North Sea litoral zone and perhaps more specifically toward West Holstein,(60) but speculation based on the word's etymology or connotations would be futile. Like the identification of Alewih as king of the Danes and of Ealhhild and her father Eadwine as members of the Anglian royal family, this is not a name that can be clarified by any other text and we must look to Widsith alone to understand it. In lines 42-44, in the most pertinent reference,(61) we are told that the Myrgings are the neighbors of the Angles to the south and are either identical with or intimately allied with the Swaefe, or people of Suevic (or Suebic, or Swabian) stock. When Offa is said to have "won the greatest of kingdoms while he was still a boy" (38-39), he confirmed his triumph by establishing the frontier with the Myrgings at "Fifeldor," a site that has plausibly been identified as the mouth of the river Eider:(62)
   Ane sweorde
   merce gemaerde wi?? Myrgingum
   bi Fifeldore; heoldon for?? sippan
   Engle ond Swaefe, swa hit Offa geslog.


With a single sword [i.e. in single combat?] he fixed the border against the Myrgings at Fifeldor. Afterwards the Angles and the Swaefe kept to that boundary just as Offa marked it out.

The Myrgings and the Swaffe are here associated with one another, and both groups seem to be regarded as bordering the territory of the Angles to the immediate south. Chambers is inclined to take the two groups to be "the same people, the Myrgings counting as one branch of the wide-spread Suevic stock."(63) While his conclusion may be justified, it is not clear just how the poet conceives of the two groups in relation to one another. In lines 22-23a--Witta weold Swaefum ... Meaca Myrgingum (Witta ruled the Swaefe ... Meaca the Myrgings)--the poet ascribes two different kings to them as if they are separate tribes. Regardless of how their exact relationship is imagined, one point is clear: the land that the Myrging-Swaefe people or peoples occupy is coterminous with Saxon territory.(64) According to the Anglo-Saxons' own Myth of Migration, as confirmed by modern scholarship,(65) it was from this region, immediately south of Angeln, that the Saxons migrated to Britain. Whether or not one believes (as some scholars have held) that the Myrging-Swaefe people or peoples are Saxons under other names,(66) there is an obvious connection to Anglo-Saxon England here, just as there is in the lines that praise Offa as a famous boundary-maker.(67) This English connection virtually leaps forth when we take account of the King Witta who is mentioned in 22a. There can be little doubt that the Witta who rules the Swaefe, in the Widsith-poet's catalogue of names, is the same man whom Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle identify as the grandson of Woden and the grandfather of Hengest, the renowned conquerer of Kent and, in the eyes of post-Bedan generations, the chief founder of Anglo-Saxon England.(68) Information given in Widsith that at first seems inconsequential or opaque can thus be seen to have a construable purpose. Latter-day rivalries and accommodations between the Mercians (that Anglian people) and their southern neighbors the Saxons (who had merged politically with the people of Kent) are paralleled in this poem by imagined relations between Offa's Angles and their neighbors to the south, the Myrging-Swaefe people or peoples. Neither Mercians nor Saxons of the ninth and tenth centuries would have had difficulty recognizing the genealogical links that connected their present-day rulers with legendary kings, Offa and Witta, whose names are included in the Widsith-poet's roll-call of famous people from the past. As the poet makes clear, the territories of those two ancient kings met by opposite banks of the river Eider, just as their descendants' territories met by opposite banks of the river Thames.

Wherever we look in Widsith, we thus see evidence of creative ethnicity.(69) Widsith himself, the singer who is "of the noble lineage of the Myrgings," is one of the most striking examples of this tendency. Widsith is not just a member of an otherwise unknown and forgettable tribe; he looks very much like a proto-Saxon. As a member of a tribe of Suevic stock, he is associated with the southern English who traced their royal lineage back through Hengest to Witta. In addition, as a benefactor of the royal family of the Angles by virtue of his mission to the potentially dangerous land of the Goths, he is associated also with the northern English who traced their royal lineage back to Offa of Angeln. Whether it is his ethnicity or his life story that we pause to consider, he anchors the poem's pro-English bias. This bias extends to the names that are ascribed to the main actors in the poem's central narrative fiction. As Robert Reynolds has observed, the names of Widsith's king (Eadgils), his female patron (Ealhhild), and that woman's father (Eadwine) are typical tenth-century English names. Similar names (Eadwine, Eadweard, Eadmund, Eadgar, Eadred, and Eadhild) are attested among members of the West Saxon royal family during this period.(70) To judge from both onomastics and geography, these are "our" people as opposed to the foreign AEtlas and Caelics, the exotic Glommas and Woingas and Hundingas (Dogmen, or Cynocephali, apparently) that figure elsewhere in the poem. Praise of Widsith as a man of distinguished birth (4b-5a), unparalleled experience of the world (2-3a), exceptional riches and high connections (3b-4a, 56, 65b-67, 70-74, 88-102), and unrivalled skill as a singer (103-8) turns him into a "heroic I," not just a vagabond minstrel. His character is in keeping with what one would expect of a self-respecting ancestor of the English Saxons, who by the early tenth century were dominating the political landscape of Britain. Just as the poet honors the noble ancestry of the Anglian line of kings through his capsule narratives of King Offa and Princess Ealhhild, he affirms the controlling eminence of people of Saxon descent or affiliations through the device of his fictive speaker, Widsith. Widsith the proto-Saxon is the privileged person who ranges over the known world and calls past time into being through the rhythmic intonations of his lists of names. His own name, "Far-Journey," a transparent pseudonym, is suggestive of his identity as a person who embodies virtually all geographical and historical knowledge that is worth having. He has travelled everywhere and seen everyone. Without his voice being raised, without his personal consent to one's place in the archive of information that he controls, no one who has lived in the legendary past is anyone. In addition (as we are asked to imagine), without Widsith's having acted as escort for the royal princess Ealhhild, her strategic marriage to Eormanric might not have taken place and Northern history might not have been the same. Widsith is thus not just a recorder of names, a memory artist. He is also presented as a shaper of events, a man of wealth, birth, and talent who has kept possession of the spectacular beag he received from Ealhhild's hand and who also, in exchange for a second such beag, has come into possession of the substantial estate that his father, "lord of the Myrgings," had owned before him (95b-96).

The poem's pro-English bias even encompasses Rome and its conquerers. To return to a point raised briefly earlier, one noteworthy feature of Widsith's catalogue of names is that King AElfwine is named as the ruler of Eatule (Italy). In other words, the same man whom Paul the Deacon calls Alboin and identifies as the conqueror of Italy is here identified as the son of Eadwine, and therefore the brother of that same princess Ealhhild who has been the speaker's benefactor:
   Swylce ic waes on Eatule mid AElfwine,
   se haefde moncynnes, mine gefraege,
   leohteste hond lofes to wyrcenne,
   heortan unhneaweste hringa gedales,
   beorhtra beaga, bearn Eadwines.


Likewise I was in Italy with AElfwine. He, as I have heard--the son of Eadwine-had the lightest hand of all humankind when it came to winning praise, the least niggardly heart at the distribution of rings, bright treasures.

Implied in these lines, when taken together with information we are given elsewhere concerning the house of Eadwine, is a pseudo-historical claim that is just as audacious as the claim that it was an Anglian princess who married Eormanric: namely, that it is a king of Anglian birth, not a Lombard, who has come to rule over Italy and who, as the heir to Roman affluence, deals out treasures there with an unstinting hand. With one wave of a genealogical wand, Rome has been made subject to an English coup. Although the name AElfwine is clearly equivalent to the Latin name Alboin, there is no evidence that the Widsith-poet conceives of AElfwine as a Lombard. The homeland of the Lombards remains obscure. At two points elsewhere in the poem the Lombards are noticed (at 32b and 80b), but without mention of their conquering or inhabiting Italy. Instead, in yet another coup, they too are drawn into an English orbit. In verse 32b they are ascribed a ruler, Sceaf, whose existence is implied in the prominent reference to Scyld Scefing (Scyld son of Scef [or Sceaf], 4a) at the start of Beowulf and who figures in the West Saxon royal genealogies as an ancestral king of that line.(71) Like the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes, the Myrgings, and the Swaefe, the Lombards are thus imagined as one of the tribes from whom the rulers and people of England could trace their descent.

What we find on display in Widsith, in short, is a Europe that has taken on the contours of a "greater Anglia" and has become a playground for people of English blood and connections. By telling of an Anglian king, Eadwine, whose daughter and son are destined for greatness in northern and southern Europe, respectively, the Widsith poet projects ancestors of the English into each of two crucial events of late antiquity: the rise and fall of Ermanaric's Gothic empire, and the eventual fall of Rome itself. "I was there myself, in the court of both kings," Widsith asserts with his great tongue-in-cheek lie, as if he had observed those momentous events side by side with Ealhhild and AElfwine/Alboin despite the chronological absurdity of this claim.(72)

The main point of the poem, we can now see, is neither to put on display a range of historical knowledge nor simply to play with the materials of the past, as the author does sometimes seem to delight in doing. Rather, it is to assert and naturalize a set of claims to status. When the Danes are introduced into the political landscape of Widsith through their imagined archetypal king Alewih, that king's glory is a foil for Offa's. By extension, Offa's standing sheds lustre on his people and their descendants the Angelpeod. When the Goths are introduced to the poem at length, chiefly through mention of Eormanric, it is in connection with a marriage that allies that famous king with a princess of Anglian blood in a story that implies her moral advantage. When Italy is named, then with a sleight-of-hand so swift that it has escaped scholarly attention, its archetypal king is ascribed Anglian birth. When the Lombards are mentioned, they too are ascribed an archetypal king of the West Saxon royal line. When mention is made of the non-English-speaking inhabitants of the Isle of Britain--that is, the Picts and Scots, for the Welsh are nowhere openly mentioned(73) -- it is in an offhand manner that denies them individual leadership, so that their contribution to British identity is effaced. And who is the master of cermonies of this whole affair, the person who selects every detail of this "confusion of history and chronology,"(74) as it has ungenerously been called, and sets it into an order that maximizes English interests? Widsith the meistersinger, the poet's fictive alter-ego from the past. Through this playful bit of ventriloquism, late Anglo-Saxon knowledge about history and geography, informed by an emergent sense of English nationhood and pride in English royalty, finds narrative expression in an act of mythopoesis whereby a desired order of things is projected into a formative period of the past.(75)


As a compendium of knowledge about the peoples and rulers of former times, Widsith is a writing, to return to that neutral term. Despite its technical qualities as alliterative verse, its ploy of being chiefly the actual words of a singer of ancient times, and its use of rhetorical features that are characteristic of oral thought,(76) the poem can be evaluated side by side with other historical and geographical writings of the tenth-century period during which it was apparently in circulation. An inventory of the more important of those texts would include the relevant entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, including the poems that are inset into the Chronicle as its annals for the years 937, 942, 973, and 975; the Old English translations of Orosius's Universal History. and Bede's Ecclesiastical History, with their own examples of creativity in the representation of the past; the Burghal Hidage, a census of Anglo-Saxon settlements that was drawn up early in the tenth century to serve as an aid to taxation and military duties; a number of lives of English saints, whether composed in prose or verse, including AElfric's late tenth-century lives of the royal saints King Oswald and King Edmund; and Beowulf and the Finnsburh Fragment, with their stories relating to great kings and heroes of the Northern world, to the extent that those poems can be ascribed to the tenth century in the form that we now have them. More or less obviously, all these texts illustrate a connection between state-formation and the use of writing. Large political entities can sometimes be founded through force of arms, but they cannot be maintained except through stable long-term administration of the kind that writing facilitates. In addition, a state cannot function well unless the idea of that political unit is widely available and is deeply impressed into the consciousness of its members. Furthermore, an ethos of enlightened governance, together with practical models of conduct for rulers and ruled alike, must be available for all members of society to share. The arts of writing have a key place not just in the details of administering a state, but also in that spiritual process by which a state becomes a viable concept, worthy of the effort that is required to bring it into being and maintain it on a day-to-day basis.(77)

Like coinage, that succinct genre of iconography, the art of inscription in general has the power to promote an ideology of nationhood. This claim holds true above all of narratives of the past, which (especially when circulated with official blessing) can be an effective instrument for the dissemination of what McNeill has called mythistories. Such stories sometimes take on the form of myths of national origins. Since the claims that they make about the past are presented as true and are regarded as providential, such stories tend to call attention to the rightness of events that have transpired. They thereby confirm the legitimacy and indeed, in the popular mind, the inevitability by which the present order of things has come into being. This political function of writing can readily be traced in ancient Rome, with its various forms of mythopoesis that range from passages of Livy to the whole of Vergil's Aeneid. The desire to inscribe power into the form of durable monuments is evident in a variety of medieval contexts, as well: very probably in Iron Age Pictland, for example, with its impressive symbol stones,(78) and obviously in Anglo-Norman England, with its proliferation of pro-Norman histories and documents(79) and its stunning architectural projects, the grandest attempt at intimidation through awe since Roman times. In any historical period, as archaeologist Stephen Driscoll has remarked, "the technical properties of writing [has] enabled power relations to be expanded beyond the confines of kinship."(80) This capacity of inscription to serve powerful material interests beyond the local level is abundantly evident in Anglo-Saxon England, with its explosion of literature in both Latin and the vernacular during the period when an English nation was being formed.

From this perspective, it does not much matter whether a writing like Widsith was confined to a clerical milieu or whether it circulated widely beyond the scriptorium. The main body of the poem is as devoid of overtly Christian allusions as one might expect of a work that is set in pagan times. At the same time, Widsith the singer ends his monologue with emphatic affirmation of the power of God to grant earthly kingdoms (133-34), while the narrator ends the poem as a whole with reflections on the inevitability of death, together with the durability of fame "under heaven" for all those who act in an honorable way (141b-43). With these dual acts of closure, as Donald K. Fry has pointed out, the preceding catalogues of kings and kingdoms are anchored within the Christian frame of reference that is taken for granted throughout the poetry of this period.(81)

The production of a nominally secular work like Widsith in writing, which was a monopoly of the Church, reminds one that throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, the leading clergy were aristocrats whose interests were those of the dominant class.(82) Even such a devoutly Christian writer as AElfric (ca. 955-1010 or 1015), who was a model of orthodox piety, was not immune to the appeal of English national interests within the greater context of his Christian universalism. Like his predecessor Bede (ca. 673-735), who progammatically honored the autochthonous saints of the Isle of Britain as part of his history of the contribution of the gens Anglorum to the progress of Christianity,(83) AElfric pauses toward the end of his verse life of St. Edmund, king and martyr, to take note that the church in East Anglia housing St. Edmund's body is not unique in its sanctity, for the English race has been blessed with other holy men and women comparable to Edmund in stature:(84)
   Nis Angelcynn bedaeled Drihtnes halgena
   ponne on Englalanda licgap swilce halgan
   swylce paes halga cyning is and Cupberht se eadiga
   and sancte AEpeldry?? on Elig and eac hire swustor,
   ansunde on lichaman geleafan to trymminge.
   Synd eac fela o??re on Angelcynne halgan
   pe fela wundra wyrca?? swa swa hit wide is cu??
   pam AElmihtigan to lofe pe hi on gelyfdon.


The English are not deprived of the saints of the Lord, for in England lie buried other saints like this holy king, and the blessed Cuthbert, and St. AEthelthryth in Ely, and also her sister, incorrupt in body for the confirmation of people's faith. Among the English there are also many other saints who fashion many miracles, as is widely known, to the glory of the Almighty in whom they believed. AElfric's partisanship for insular saints, like that of Bede, is understandable given his apparent confidence that enlightened Christian leadership on the part of people in all walks of life would help secure peace, justice, and unity among all the English-speaking people of Britain, to their welfare and to the glory of God.

Famously, as authors as diverse as the anonymous Widsith poet and AElfric seem to have been aware, writing is a medium that encourages objectivity. Its every advance is therefore based on loss--the loss of personal presence, as the persons who are responsible for education in a society that is based on face-to-face encounters recede into an author's disembodied voice, to the extent that traces of the human voice remain perceptible in a written work at all. It is in part to compensate for this grievous and, indeed, excruciating loss, I would suggest, that AElfric put most of his lives of the saints into the form of alliterative verse. Verse was the time-honored means of reaching large numbers of listeners with stories that voiced the collective knowledge and wisdom of a people. Even more than his prose sermons, AElfric's saints' lives ask to be read aloud. As narratives that exploit the formal conventions of poetry while avoiding the arcane diction and involuted syntax that sometimes makes Old English poetry a difficult medium for those who are not connoisseurs, these sermons in verse seem designed to have an immediate vocal appeal to a wide audience. It is perhaps for the same reason that the tribes, rulers, and events that are featured in Widsith are not just set out in a list, as are the gnomic claims of the Cotton Maxims or the sequence of feast days and labors that figure in the Menologium. Rather, they are put into the mouth of a fictive singer, a colorful man of the road whose imagined presence in the halls of kings provides the audience with a source of verbal power and a personal link to the past. It is because he has seen and heard so much in person, we are told,(85) that he can communicate his wisdom so effectively: Forpon ic maeg singan and secgan spell (It is for that reason that I can sing and tell tales, 54). In addition, his material fortunes as a wanderer have depended on his face-to-face relations with celebrities. Gudheave him a great treasure as a reward for his song (65-67). AElfwine gave him gifts from his own lavish hand, he implies (70-74). Best of all were the 600-shilling-worth treasure that Eormanric gave him and the similar treasure that came to him from Ealhhild's hand (90-98). Through images that personify largesse, the poet gives substance to the idea of personal friendship as the model by which society is properly governed. Power does not reside in some abstract or unpeopled legalistic realm, we are assured through images of the singer and his hosts. It finds expression in the give and take of treasures and words of praise, just as it resides more terribly in the exchange of swordstrokes or whistling spears, as we are reminded toward the end of the poem (119b-22; 127-28). Widsith thus gives fleshly form to the ideals of loyalty, personal devotion, and courage that were believed to be the foundation of social order. The poet puts a human face on the past: the weather-beaten face of Widsith (if we wish to imagine that wanderer thus), or the regal face of Offa, or the alternately cruel and beneficent face of Eormanric, or the helmeted visages of the fearful warriors Wudga and Hama.

It is not just the medium of writing, then, that promotes an ideology of nationhood. It is the use of writing to communicate fictions. Paradoxically, it is in literary works like Widsith and Beowulf, both of them written out in monastic manuscripts, that we find concise expression of one of the main functions of the oral-traditional medium of song that both poems call to mind through their images of singers of tales. This function is to relate the present social order--an order that in the Anglo-Saxon context comprised the effective operation of all manner of complex institutions including coinage and commerce, estate management, monastic life, and systems of taxation, roadbuilding, civil defense, and legal justice--to an imagined past where all members of society were bound to their leaders, and their leaders to them, by elementary ties of kinship and affection.

Through works like these, the past is made useful as a resource for the present. The concept of time that is evident in Widsith is not in the least linear, as one might expect of writings that exploit the full potential of the medium of literacy. Rather, time is structural; the past is a box into which all things seem to have fallen. Famous rulers from Alexander the Great to Eormanric/ Ermanaric and AElfwine/Alboin share the same space, and they all seem to rub shoulders with the wandering bard Widsith. The effect of this collapsing of the walls of time and space is to create a single "fair feld ful of folk" rather than to identify individuals according to distinct temporal or geographical categories, such as Germanic versus Mediterranean antiquity, or the "ancient" versus the "medieval" world (our categories, again).(86) By flattening past time into a single plane, the poet is able to configure tribes into a relationship that mirrors, in prehistory, the desired situation of his own day. The past is created in the image of the present, as is the general rule in premodern historical discourse. A seemingly neutral tale concerning Widsith and his wanderings thus serves as a means of shaping the past into a configuration that is attractive from the perspective of the people of the poet's own age and nationality: the people whom Bede called the gens Anglorum, whom those writers who wrote in English were calling the Angelpeod, and whom today we call the Anglo-Saxons or, simply, the English. Although they appear here by reflection, mirrored by those legendary tribes or rulers that prefigured them or established their royal lines, the English gain stature on that very account.

The rhetorical form in which the poet plays with time is worth attention. Despite my initial allusion to shopping lists, Widsith could never be mistaken for the lists that people use as ordinary mnemonic aids. Unlike the prose entries of the Burghal Hidage or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is composed in language that is utterly distinct from that of everyday use. From its very first words, it proclaims itself as a form of ritualized discourse. Through its pronounced rhythmic structure, its system of alliteration, its deployment of striking metaphors and other forms of poetic diction, its free use of both understatement and superlatives,(87) and its special syntax, which is sometimes involuted in the usual style of poetry and is sometimes almost relentlessly reiterative, Widsith is made rhetorically exciting in a manner that accentuates its role as a giedd (song) -- that is, a vehicle of wisdom, not just knowledge.

Notoriously, the Anglo-Saxons had no concept of lyric poetry in the modern sense. The word "poetry" was not in their vocabulary, and their chief native equivalent to that word, giedd, meant something rather different.(88) The Old English word giedd (or gied, grid, gid, and other variant spellings) denoted a quasi-ritualistic discursive practice encompassing both verse and prose, both song and speech, both oral communication and writing. Through its associations with inspired speech, a giedd was thought to connect ordinary awareness with special sources of wisdom (as in prophecy) and, potentially, with numinous modes of being (as in the magico-medical charms). When Hrothgar speaks a long cautionary gid or sententious speech to Beowulf (Beo. 1723b), when the unnamed woman of The Wife's Lament delivers a giedd that is powerfully laden with personal grief and anger (1a), when the speaker of The Seafarer speaks a so??gied (song of truth, 1b) that expresses hard Christian doctrine in quasi-allegorical terms, just as when Widsith, a man who is gydda gleaw (knowledgeable in songs, 139a), delivers a formal address that incorporates a great deal of ancient lore, then the members of a speech community are invited to enlarge their personal consciousness and deepen their understanding of the world by absorbing words of more than ordinary power.

An Old English giedd was not just a set of linguistic signs given literary expression, then. It also embodied a set of relations between a knowledge and social praxis. As poetry was the usual form that the giedd took (though not the only one), poetry formed part of a discourse, in Foucault's sense of that term as both a superpersonal mode of communication and a guide to ethics and behavior.(89) A discourse is the creation of many individuals acting toward related ends. Since few of the cultural presuppositions that underlie a discourse are a matter of conscious knowledge for the individuals who make up that speech community, but rather are taken for granted as a part of "reality," a discourse gives expression to the guiding concepts and ideals of a people and thus, as a form of ideology, may serve as the basis of social action.

Historical narratives, from this perspective, make up a special kind of discourse that connects various elements in the thought of a people via a set of relations imputed to the past. To return to Ricoeur's important insight, narrative creates human time. It thereby also creates agency, design, providence, destiny, and all the other elements of a teleological universe. Narrative poetry, or poetry (like Widsith) that either is built on a narrative framework or contains a narrative core, is therefore one of the chief foundations of culture. It is a worldmaking venture. In the early English context, heroic narrative connected the present social order with a past order that was regarded as authoritative, and it did so in the high-status ritualized form of verse. Both Widsith and Beowulf exemplify the capacity of poetry to promote social reproduction, or the renewal and transformation of society, in a continuing process by which political institutions, social structures, systems of values, cultural practices, and a whole cognitive system are shaped and reshaped over time.(90) Poems like these show how political consciousness, in the widest sense, can be shaped through fictions set in the heroic past. Through its quasi-ritualistic character, the medium of verse lends the words of the poet-speaker "Widsith" an aura of authenticity that could not otherwise be obtained.

Narrative, particularly that form of narrative discourse that we call history, is often naively regarded as an account of what has happened. It can be that. It can also be a means of choosing the elements of a world that are to be named into existence. The reasons that underlie whatever choices are involved in this process of worldmaking are not often immediately apparent to those who read or listen to stories, nor are they necessarily part of a conscious design on the part of those who tell them. Anonymous narrative works that are set in a remote period of the past are notoriously likely to seem opaque to the people of later times. That is one reason why a work like Widsith calls out for close scrutiny, however disjointed or difficult it may seem at a first reading, for in its own terms it makes fluent sense.


In a recent study of the construction of ethnic identity in the early Anglo-Saxon period, John Hines has remarked that "there would appear to be considerable scope for literary-historical research ... into the historical and geographical consciousness embedded in Old English poems such as Beowulf and Widsith."(91) Elsewhere I have written about Beowulf from such a perspective.(92) In this essay I have taken up Hines's challenge with regard to Widsith while attempting to suggest what can be accomplished more generally through analysis of early English literature from an anthropological perspective. Perhaps I should briefly recapitulate why I have thought this latter attempt worthwhile.

The key insight that anthropology has to offer, when compared with other disciplines, is that there are as many social logics as there are social groups. Related to that insight is an ethical commitment to the right of groups to exist and to be understood in their own terms. Anthropology thus assumes a responsibility on the part of scholars to approach a foreign people and its culture first of all according to that society's own frames of reference, as much as can be done, rather than through any supposedly transcultural systems, which may be little more than an extension of the worldview of the observer. Since the past, as has been observed, is in effect a foreign country,(93) those who study it can expect to experience the same "culture shock" that travellers experience when they step foot in a foreign land. This shock is useful to the extent that it is the prelude to understanding. When travellers in foreign countries fail to encounter culture shock, then they need to ask themselves if one reason for that lack of disturbance is that they have carried their own mental world with them along with their other baggage from home. If so, then they have insulated themselves from the foreign culture in which they reside and will remain anaesthetized to its unusual features.

The meanings of a poem like Widsith are best discovered by working through the experience of shock at its otherness. Whether one is impressed more by its oddly formal phrasing (Widsith unlocked his word-hoard), its confidently stylized meter and syntax, its curious reduction of the sweet language of poetry to the quality of a list, its hodge-podge of old names, or what seems to be a staggering degree of pleonism, the poem ought to strike one as the expression of an ars poetica that is radically unlike that of most modern verse, just as it practices an ars historica that is incomparable with modern standards of historiography. The meanings of such a work can only be ascertained by reference to the total cultural system of which it is a part.

One noteworthy feature of Widsith and Beowulf, together with such other Old English poems as Deor, Waldere, and the Finnsburh Fragment, is that these works invoke a world of primary orality in texts that were surely meant for reading. They thus replicate the functions of oral literature in writing. They create links to an ancestral past that was inaccessible to the Anglo-Saxons except through storytelling. It is in part through such links to the past, even if only imagined links to a factitious past of openhanded kings, large-gestured heroes, and all-knowing singers, that the people of early England were able to maintain a relatively stable society, one whose practical institutions were felt to be based on ancestral precedent and quasi-mythic authority. Representations of oral poetry in the medium of written texts served to reduce the alienation of hearer from speaker that is the necessary result of the medium of writing.(94) Poems like Widsith and Beowulf thus helped solve the problem of how states can exert power efficiently in the absence of "master/man" relationships that link each member of a tribe to a personal chief. They activated the ethos of small group encounters in situations where the subjects of power are actually subsumed into much larger and more impersonal units.

Earlier in this essay I referred to postmodern developments that encourage one to see Anglo-Saxon England or any other idea about the past as a cultural construction rather than a feature of the "real world" in itself. If the idea of Anglo-Saxon England was first developed by the Anglo-Saxons themselves, then modern scholarship has confirmed and elaborated upon that idea in what is by now a 400-year-old tradition. I return to this point now because I believe it worth reiterating that no interpretation of a work of literature, least of all the reading of Widsith that I have offered here, can claim a timeless truth-value. As the period of Offa and Eormanric, Hrothgar and Hygelac, and Widsith and Beowulf was to the early English, so the early English have seemed to us. Any people defines itself and its own cosmopolitan tendencies by looking backward over its shoulder, sometimes nervously, toward a period of more rugged origins. The story that modern scholars have to tell about a work like Widsith, the society that created that poem, and the world that that poem depicts, is therefore part of a continuing discourse that relates to human values. If we pose the question "Why did the phenomenon of Widsith happen at all?" then I do not think we can arrive at a better answer to that question than this: that through bold fictions about the past, poems of this kind facilitated a discourse about values and about national and ethnic identity that could not have taken place so readily in any other medium. A poem like Widsith is the result of a mythopoeic impulse, in the sense that it expresses a desire shared by many members of a community for stories that ground their present identity in a period of prestigious origins. Such myths, reinforced through many retellings and embodied in the whole body of verbal and material culture that constitutes the basis of education, have the function of manipulating those truth-effects whereby a society is motivated to conduct its business with common effort and a minimum of self-doubt.

I suggest that the phenomenon of Widsith has continued to happen during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for many of the same reasons as before, as part of a comparable desire for origins (to use Allen Frantzen's phrase) and as part of a similar creative ethnicity. When scholars talk about the meaning and importance of Anglo-Saxon England today, they are still engaged in a form of myth-making. Through their arguments about matters that relate to their own deep past, they are both refining a myth and carrying on, in an age of state-formations of ever-increasing size and impersonality, a time-tested form of cultural critique.

University of California, Berkeley


(1) For a facsimile edition see The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry, with introductory chapters by R. W. Chambers et al. (London: Lund, Humphries and Co., 1933), fols. 84b-87a. In the present essay, citations of the text of Widsith are taken from George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, ASPR 3 (Columbia U. Press, 1936), 149-53. For opportunity to prepare this essay I am indebted to the University of California, Berkeley, for a Humanities Research Fellowship and sabbatical leave during 1997-98, and to the President and Fellows of Clare Hall, Cambridge, for their hospitality at that time.

(2) This point is made by Matti Rissanen, "Mapelian in Old English Poetry," Words and Works: Studies in Medieval English Language and Literature in Honour of Fred C. Robinson, ed. Peter S. Baker and Nicholas Howe (U. of Toronto Press, 1998), 159-72. A visual cue reinforces this rhetorical emphasis, in that the emphatically large upper-case letter wynn with which the first word of the poem is highlighted on fol. 84b marks out this text as exceptional within the Exeter Book.

(3) The rendering of Germanic proper names in modern English spellings presents anyone writing on Widsith with a special problem. In an attempt to come to terms with this poet's insular conception of history, I will cite the names of persons first of all in the Old English forms that are used here (e.g. Eormanric, AElfwine), while at times taking supplementary notice of the spellings used by chroniclers writing in Latin (e.g. Ermanaric, Alboin). Exclusive use of Latinate spellings would run the risk of obscuring the mentality underlying this poem.

(4) Needlessly, in my opinion, the phrase wrapes waerlogan (of the cruel oath-breaker, 9a) has become a crux in the interpretation of Widsith. Ever since Benjamin Thorpe's first modern edition of the Exeter Book (Codex Exoniensis, London, 1842) some readers have questioned whether such a negative epithet is appropriate to Eormanric. I see no linguistic grounds for doubt hat that phrase, in the genitive singular case, is to be taken in apposition with the immediately preceding noun Eormanrices (8b), also in the genitive singular case, a noun that in turn is in grammatical apposition with the earlier genitive singular noun Hre??cyninges (of the glorious king, or perhaps of the Hrethking, 7a). It is Eormanric, the glorious king, who was a troth-breaker; his high stature is what makes his perfidy worth remembrance. On the interpretation of 9a I accept the reading of R. W. Chambers, Widsith: A Study in Old English Heroic Legend (Cambridge U. Press, 1912), 190 (note to line 9); for discussion of this king's ambiguous reputation see 15-36. For an opposing view see Kemp Malone, ed., Widsith, 2nd ed. (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1962), 29-35 and 146-49.

(5) Roberta Frank, for example, calls attention to features that are shared between the two poems and concludes that "whatever its age, [Widsith] was probably not composed at any great remove, in time or place, from Beowulf" ("Germanic Legend in Old English Literature," The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge [Cambridge U. Press, 1991], 99). Although in that study she does not attempt to date either poem, elsewhere she has shown reason to relate Beowulf to a tenth-century Anglo-Scandinavian milieu and to that period of reflection about Germanic antiquity that followed upon King Alfred the Great's reorganization of learning; see her essays "Skaldic Verse and the Date of Beowulf," The Dating of Beowulf, ed. Colin Chase (U. of Toronto Press, 1981), 123-39, and "The Beowulf Poet's Sense of History," The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1982), 53-65 and 271-77.

(6) Nicholas Howe, The Old English Catalogue Poems (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1985), 171. Howe himself resists such a dismissive attitude.

(7) George K. Anderson, The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons (Princeton U. Press, 1949), typifies early opinion: "The first Catalogue of Kings [lines 18-36] is of great antiquity, probably antedating the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain, at any rate from early in the sixth century. It is consequently the oldest extant piece of English poetry" (61).

(8) See the citations in note 4 above.

(9) Note Frank, "Germanic Legend in Old English Literature," 92: "I would argue that this concept of `Germanic' [i.e. the modern linguistic concept] was not shared by the early Anglo-Saxons. The literary category we call `Germanic legend" is ours, not theirs." The tendency of nineteenth-century scholars to construe Anglo-Saxon England as a part of ancient Germania, thus extending modern political pan-Germanism back into the first millennium A.D., is one of many competing impulses that have shaped modern conceptions of pre-Conquest England, as is discussed in Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles, eds., Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity (U. Press of Florida, 1997).

(10) Robert P. Creed, "Widsith's Journey through Germanic Tradition," Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation, ed. Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores W. Frese (U. of Notice Dame Press, 1975), 376-87. Compare Creed's study of portraits of the singer in Beowulf, "The Singer Looks at His Sources," Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, ed. Stanley B. Greenfield (U. of Oregon Books, 1963), 44-52, and Donald K. Fry's analysis of Caedmon as a type of the singer of tales, "The Memory of Caedmon," Oral Traditional Literature: A Festschrift for Albert Bates Lord, ed. John Miles Foley (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1981), 282-93.

(11) Roberta Frank, "The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet," Bulletin of the John Rylands University; Library of Manchester 75 (1993): 11-36. Frank's title echoes E. G. Stanley, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1975), a book that demonstrates how the desire for a pagan Germanic past dominated the nineteenth-century reception of Old English literature.

(12) Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 2nd ed. (London: Fontana, 1983), 183-88, offers a pointed discussion of the development of the modern meaning of the word "literature." Tzvetan Todorov problematizes the concept of literature in chapter 1 of his Genres in Discourse, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge U. Press, 1990), 1-12, orig. pub. as Les Genres du discours (Paris, 1978).

(13) On the dating, of Widsith, the most convincing arguments are those of Gosta Langenfelt, "Studies on Widsith." Namn och Bygd 47 (1959): 70-111, and Joyce Hill, "Widsi?? and the Tenth Century," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 85 (1984): 305-15, rpt. in Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings, ed. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe (New York: Garland, 1994), 319-33. Langenfeld argues for composition in the first half of the tenth century. Hill acknowledges the possibility that the poems of the Exeter Book were first assembled at an earlier date but stresses that our only knowledge of the poem "is in the form in which it was evidently known and appreciated c. 970-1000" (319). Not all recent commentators accept a relatively late date. Craig R. Davis, "Cultural Assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies," Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36, argues that Widsith represents a "probably early, because relatively awkward, effort at cultural assimilation" (35). Part of my purpose in this essay is to show that features of Widsith that some readers have found awkward are parts of a steady design.

(14) Howe, The Old English Catalogue Poems, 169. Howe acknowledges the ideological functions of such an encyclopedia. Graham D. Caie, "The Shorter Heroic Verse," Companion to Old English Poetry, ed. Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. (Amsterdam: VU U. Press, 1994), 82, quotes Howe with approval but omits mention of his point about ideological functions; instead, he comments that "Widsith seems to serve the function of a mnemonic poem that might help a poet remember the major figures of heroic legend." My own argument is that rather, than serving as a spur to individual memory, the poem creates collective memory.

(15) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock, 1970), orig. pub. as Les Mots et les choses (Paris, 1966).

(16) Hill, "Widsi?? and the Tenth Century," 328.

(17) I cull these terms from Hill's article, which reviews the chief directions taken by prior Widsith scholarship.

(18) C.S. Lewis, "The Anthropological Approach," English and Medieval Studies Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Norman Davis and C. L. Wrenn (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), 219-30, at 219.

(19) John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 215-51.

(20) William H. McNeill, Mythistory and Other Essays (U. of Chicago Press, 1986). McNeill develops a line of thought that has been explored by other historians going back to R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946).

(21) James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (U. of California Press, 1986).

(22) George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (U. of Chicago Press, 1986). If Marcus's book has a parallel in Anglo-Saxon studies, it is Allen J. Frantzen's Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (Rutgers U. Press, 1990), a similarly iconoclastic attempt to document the period-specific investments and biases that have influenced Anglo-Saxon scholarship from its beginnings to the present day.

(23) Ian Hodder, Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (Cambridge U. Press, 1986). A second edition has since appeared (1991).

(24) Richard Baumann, Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative (Cambridge U. Press, 1986).

(25) See John Miles Foley, The Singer of Tales in Performance (Indiana U. Press, 1995).

(26) Note in this connection Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: MLA, 1992).

(27) The "revolution" to which I refer has been a gradual change that began well before 1986, of course, just as it has continued to evolve since then, in a different manner in each discipline and with varying degrees of acceptance among people of intelligence and good sense. I single out that one year as a convenient aid to an argument, not as part of a precise claim about intellectual history.

(28) Frantzen, Desire for Origins; note also Frantzen and Niles, eds., Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity.

(29) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3 vols., trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (U. of Chicago Press, 1984-88), orig. pub. as Temps et recit (Paris, 1983-85). Note also Ricoeur's essay "The Function of Fiction in Shaping Reality," trans. David Pellauer (1979), rpt. in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, ed. Mario J. Valdes (New York: Harvester, 1991), 117-36.

(30) This is the thesis of my study Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature (U. of Pennsylania Press, 1999).

(31) For example Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge U. Press, 1977), orig. pub. Switzerland, 1972, and Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages, ed. Jana Howlett (U. of Chicago Press 1992) to cite two influential studies of this kind.

(32) Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity (Manchester U. Press, 1970); Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, BAR British Series 96 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1981).

(33) Guy Halsall, "Anthropology and the Study of Pre-Conquest Warfare and Society: The Ritual War in Anglo-Saxon England," Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1989), 155-77; John M. Hill, The Cultural World in Beowulf (U. of Toronto Press, 1995), esp. ch. 1 ("Feud Settlements in Beowulf," 25-37) and ch. 4 ("The Economy of Honour in Beowulf," 85-107); Stephen Glosecki, Shamanism and Old English Poetry (New York: Garland, 1989); Karen Louise Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (U. of North Carolina Press, 1996).

(34) Some anthropological studies of this kind are included in Robin Horton and Ruth Finnegan, eds., Modes of Thought: Essays on Thinking in Western and Non-Western Societies (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), and Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine, eds., Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion (Cambridge U. Press, 1984). Two studies that take this approach from an archaeological perspective are Colin Renfrew, Towards an Archaeology of Mind (Cambridge U. Press, 1982), and Hodder, Reading the Past. Jacques Le Goff approaches the same goal from an historian's perspective in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (U. of Chicago Press, 1980). As Le Goff notes, "Through this shift in interest toward the life of ordinary men, historical ethnology [i.e. the anthropology of the past] leads naturally to the study of mentalities considered as that which changes least' in historical evolution" (229).

(35) The recent literature on literacy and orality is vast and includes Brian V. Street, Literacy in Theory and Practice (Cambridge U. Press, 1984), Jack Goody, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge U Press 1987), and Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality Studies in the Technology of Communication (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). Essays by medievalists that incorporate some of this scholarship are included in A. N. Doane and Carol Braun Pasternack, eds., Vox Intexta: Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991); see further Ursula Schaefer, Vokalitat: Altenglische Dichtung zwischen Mundlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit, ScriptOralia 39 (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1992).

(36) Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge U. Press, 1990).

(37) Instructive comments on the fluidity of authorship and text are offered by Carol Braun Pasternack, The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1995), esp. ch. 1 (1-32).

(38) I borrow this term from Ian Hodder, Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture (Cambridge U. Press, 1982).

(39) The widening of the gaze of folklorists from "primitive" rural societies to any social configurations whatsoever is traced in the introduction to Elliott Oring, ed., Folk Groups and Folklore Genres (Utah State U. Press, 1986).

(40) It should need no pointing out that Beowulf portrays a ruthlessly competitive tribal world, as for that matter Bede does in the pages of his Ecclesiastical History or as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does in its annals for virtually every period of pre-Conquest history. As if to ground the principle of strife in divine providence, the Beowulf poet embeds the violent plot that is featured in the first two-thirds of his poem into the context of a Great Feud that pits God against His eternal adversaries: see Marijane Osborn, "The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf," PMLA 93 (1978): 973-81.

(41) "... Leoht sceal wi?? pystrum, / fyrd wi?? fyrde, feond wi?? o??rum, / la?? wi?? lape ymb land sacan ..." (Maxims II 51b-53). The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ASPR 6 (Columbia U. Press, 1942), 57. On the strategic physical placement of Maxims II towards the head of British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B.i., where that poem is written out on fols. lx-lxi just after the Menologium (a list of liturgical festivals) and just before the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, see The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, lx-lxi, and Fred C. Robinson, "Old English Literature in Its Most Immediate Context," Old English Literature in Context, ed. John D. Niles (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1980), 26-28.

(42) S. J. Wenham, "Anatomical Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Weapon Injuries," Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Hawkes, 123-39.

(43) E.g. for the years 900, 903, 909-10, 913-14, 917, 934, 937, 942, 943(D), 945, 948(D) 952(D), 966(D), 969(D), 978(D), 980-82(C), 988(C), 991, 992-94(C), and 997-99(C), to cite only annals of the tenth century: see The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, ed. Dorothy Whitelock (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), 58-85. I cite the A version unless noted otherwise.

(44) F. M Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 264-65 and 335-36; David Hill and Alexander R. Rumble, eds., The Defence of Wessex: The Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester U. Press, 1996).

(45) Maxims I, 71, from Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, 159.

(46) Lines 1954b-60a; see F. Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. (Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1950), 195-98.

(47) An Alweo, however, appears in the genealogy of the Mercian kings as a nephew of the great historical king Penda; see Chambers, Widsith, 203n.

(48) See Chambers, Widsith, 123-26. The career of Alboin is recounted in detail, after more than two centuries of legendary accretion, by Paulus Diaconus in his Historia Langobardorum book 1, chs. 23-27 and book 2, chs. 1-14 and 25-28; for a translation see Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, ed. Edward Peters (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1974).

(49) Chambers, Widsith, 10-11. For information bearing on legends of the Goths and King Eormanric/Ermanaric see Caroline A. Brady, "The Eormanric of the Widsi??," University of California Publications in English, 3 (1937): 225-36, and The Legends of Ermanaric (U. of California Press, 1943), with references to Old English poetry on 149-75. Translations of basic sources for the study of this king are included in Beowulf and Its Analogues, ed. G. N. Garmonsway and Jacqueline Simpson (London: Dent, 1968), 265-85. Two recent studies that provide detailed information about the history of the Goths are Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, trans. Thomas J. Dunlap (U. of California Press, 1988) and Peter Heather, The Goths (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). On pages 1-3, Wolfram reviews attempts by various national groups to appropriate the name and fame of the Goths in the period from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Neither Wolfram nor Heather mentions Widsith or attempts to engage with early medieval appropriations of the Goths, however.

(50) Although I favor the first translation, the choice makes little difference to my argument.

(51) See Chambers, Widsith, 44-48 and 253-54.

(52) Him from Myrgingum / aepele onwocon (his noble lineage derived from the Myrgings, 4b-5a).

(53) Chambers, Widsith, 123-24, concludes of Eadwine and his son AElfwine that "there is no doubt that they are the Audoin and Alboin under whom the Lombard people emerge again into the light of history," particularly in the pages of Paul the Deacon's history. Malone (Widsith, 139-40), in what I believe to be an erroneous opinion, holds that "for obvious chronological reasons" the two references to Eadwine cannot be to the same man. The search for precise historical chronology in a poem of this character is hazardous at best; see on this point David P. Henige, The Chronology of Oral Tradition: Search for a Chimera (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974). By rejecting information the Widsith-poet gives us concerning AElfwine's parentage, Malone fails to perceive the connection between the Angles find Italy. Even Chambers, who accepts this information, does nothing further with it.

(54) The adverb eastan situates the narrator's point of view to the west of Angeln, as would suit a speaker from the British Isles; see Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, xlv. Verse 8a is exceptional as the only point in Widsith where the reader is impelled to adopt a British insular perspective.

(55) Chambers, Widsith, 21-28, argues this point convincingly. Malone, Widsith, 141, makes the alternative suggestion that Ealhhild was already Ermanaric's queen and that there was no wedding journey. This reading must be rejected on syntactical grounds if one accepts the natural construction of lines 5b-8, He mid Ealhhilde ... ham gesohte ... Eormanrices (With Ealhhild, he [Widsith] sought out Eormanric's home). Furthermore, Malone's reading would leave the purpose of Widsith's trip unexplained. Brady, The Legends of Ermanaric, 169-70 n. 7, finds Malone's interpretation "utterly at variance with the text."

(56) Malone rejects this interpretation on the grounds that no king named Eadwine appears in the Mercian royal genealogy (Widsith, 141). In view of how easily both history and genealogy can be manipulated for political ends, his objection carries little weight. Surely the poet who invented Widsith could also invent an Anglian princess to accompany that fictive singer to the land of the Goths.

(57) Frank, "Germanic Legend in Old English Literature," 93-94.

(58) Chambers, Widsith, 15-20.

(59) Ibid., 24.

(60) Malone, Widsith, 185-86. Langenfelt, "Studies on Widsith," 83-86, finds the name "indeed, a puzzle," but speculates that etymologically it means "the brilliant." Neither her etymology nor Malone's is compelling.

(61) The name Myrgings also figures twice in lines 84-86a, where it appears alongside mention of the historical Medes and Persians and the unidentifiable "Mofdings" and "Amothings." It is hard to tell what to make of this collocation of historical names and invented or corrupt ones.

(62) Chambers, Widsith, 204 (note to line 43); Malone Widsith, 149.

(63) Chambers, Widsith, 204-05 (note to line 44).

(64) Malone, Widsith, 183-86.

(65) I allude here to Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (Yale U. Press, 1989). Some details of the migration are addressed by the contributors to Steven Bassett, ed., The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester U. Press, 1989). It is beside my point to argue the particulars of the Anglo-Saxon migration and to try to sort out the geography and the complex and shifting ethnicities that it involved. Worth noting, however, is that the Swaefe seem to have had a place in the settlement of Britain, and their presence there is consistent with my understanding of lines 43b-44. The twin villages of Swaffam Prior and Swaffam Bulbeck in Cambridgeshire and the village of Swaffam in Norfolk, for example, owe the first part of their names (Old English Swafham or Swaefham) to me tribal name Swaefe; see Eilert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), sv. Swaffham. I am grateful to Audrey Meaney for that reference. Also worth noting in connection with a possible Suevic presence in England are several personal names of the late seventh century. These are the kings or royal cadets named Swaefheard and Swaefred (or Swefred) who ruled the East Saxons and possibly the people of Kent during this period: see David Dumville, "Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia in the South-East Midlands," The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Bassett, 136-38.

(66) For references see Malone, Widsith, 183 (note on Myrgingas).

(67) I leave out of this discussion the earthwork known as "Offa's Dyke," as it is unclear whether that great boundary-marker was built under the direction of King Offa II of Mercia. If, whether rightly or wrongly, that earthwork was indeed attributed to him during the tenth century, then the Offa of Widsith is yet more clearly a projection of Offa II backwards into time.

(68) Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica 1:15; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, esp. version E (Bodleian Library Laud Misc 636) for the year 449.

(69) I borrow this term from Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala, eds., Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life (Utah State U. Press, 1991).

(70) R. L. Reynolds, "Le Poeme anglo-saxon Widsith: Realite et fiction," Le Moyen Age 59 (1953): 321. I see no need to follow Reynolds in using this onomastic fact to draw conclusions about the date of the poem, nor to identify Princess Ealhhild with the Eadhild whom Guillaume of Malmesbury names as the sister of King Athelstan and the queen of Hugo the Great of France, as Reynolds does in his study "Eadhild, duchesse de la Francia et Ealhhild, patronne du scop de Widsith," Le Moyen Age 61 (1955): 281-89.

(71) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, versions A D and E for the year 855, versions C and F for the year 856. These creative genealogies have come in for much study of late. On the cultural work done by them, see Craig R. Davis, "Cultural Assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies," Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36, with further bibliography there.

(72) The reign of Ermanaric is dated to about the third quarter of the fourth century; Alboin is believed to have reigned from 565 to 572 A.D. According to clerical chronology, a lapse of about two hundred years therefore separates the two rulers.

(73) The Widsith-poet makes two references to the British inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the first while mentioning his travels mid Rumwalum ("with the Rome-Welsh," 69b) and the second when mentioning Caesar, who ruled over Wala rices ("the realm of the British," 78b). By extension, the second reference could possibly encompass the kingdom of Wales; the first could conceivably do so as well, though the primary reference is to Roman Britain.

(74) Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, xlv.

(75) By "mythopoesis" I mean to refer to the process by which tales about the vast are created, are told and retold, and are incorporated into a system of belief in a manner that explains and justifies the present order of things. Cf. Marshall Sahlin's use of the term "mytho-praxis" in his study "Other Times, Other Customs: The Anthropology of History," American Anthropology 85 (1983): 526-33.

(76) As is noted by Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, "The Geographical List of Solomon and Saturn II," Anglo-Saxon England 20 (1991): 124-25.

(77) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 1991), stresses the link between nationalism and the development of the arts of writing in the vernacular.

(78) For discussion of this point see Stephen T. Driscoll, "The Relationship between History and Archaeology: Artefacts, Documents and Power," Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland, ed. Driscoll and Margaret R. Nieke (Edinburgh U. Press, 1988), 162-87, at 178-86.

(79) See M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993) and "Remembering the Past and the Good Old Law," History 55 (1970): 165-76.

(80) Driscoll, "History and Archaeology," 169.

(81) Donald K. Fry, "Two Voices in Widsith," Mediaevalia 6 (1982 for 1980): 37-56. One need not accept Fry's contention, however, that this introduction of Christian values undermines the "gushy materialism" of the catalogues of kings (50) while "burlesquing" the character of Widsith himself (37). The two voices are in delicate counterpart.

(82) Patrick Wormald makes this point about the earlier Anglo-Saxon period in his study "Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy," Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Robert T. Farrell, BAR 46 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1978), 32-95.

(83) On the English partisanship that accompanies Bede's Christian vision, see Patrick Wormald, "Bede, the Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum," Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society, ed. Wormald (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), 99-129.

(84) Walter W. Skeat, ed., Aelfric's Lives of Saints, vol. 2, EETS o.s. 114 (London: Kegan Paul, 1900), 332-34. I have modified Skeat's editorial practices regarding punctuation, capitalization, line spacing, and hyphenation.

(85) Note the use of the pronoun ic in verses 10a, 17a, 50a, 52a, 54a, 57a, 65b, 70a, 88a, 93a, 94b, 100a, 101a, and 109a, as well as 15 times in lines 59-86 in the formula mid ... ic waes (with ... I was) and 7 times in lines 110-23 in the formula sohte ic (I sought out). I know of no example of Old English writing where the first person singular personal pronoun recurs so insistently as here.

(86) In his study "Germanic and Roman Antiquity and the Sense of the Past in Anglo-Saxon England," Anglo-Saxon England 3 (1974), 29-50, Michael Hunter has made a similar point regarding Anglo-Saxon historical writings more generally.

(87) Widsith, for example, has visited the greatest number of tribes on earth (maest, 2a), he has sought out the finest group of companions (ba selestan, 110b), and no song was ever judged finer than his (naefre ... sellan, 108). Hwala was for a while the best of kings (selest, 14b), but Alexander was the richest or most powerful (ricost, 15b) and prospered the most (maest, 16b). Alewih was the bravest of the Angles and Danes (modgast, 36b), but Offa was the first or foremost of them (aerest monna, 38b) and carved out the biggest of kingdoms (maest, 39b). Hrothwulf and Hrothgar ruled their kingdom in peace for the longest time (lengest, 45b). AElfwine had the most free hand (leohtest, 72a) and the least niggardly heart (unhneawest, 73a). When it came to giving out treasure, Ealhhild was the best of queens (selast, 101b).

(88) Anglo-Saxon terms for singer and song are reviewed by Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions (Yale U. Press, 1980), 230-56. On the word giedd, see also Karl Reichl, "Old English giedd, Middle English yedding as Genre Terms," Words, Texts and Manuscripts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture Presented to Helmut Gneuss, ed. Michael Korhammer (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1992), 349-70, and ch. 1 of my book Homo Narrans, 16-30 Passim.

(89) Foucault, The Order of Things: The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972), orig. pub. as L'Archeologie du savoir, 1969. On the social utility of Old English poetry, see further my article "Reconceiving Beowulf: Poetry as Social Praxis," College English 60 (1998): 3-26, reworked as ch. 3 of Homo Narrans (63-88).

(90) Cf. Driscoll, "History and Archaeology," 167.

(91) John Hines, "The Becoming of the English: Identity, Material Culture and Language in Early Anglo-Saxon England," Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology. and History 7 (1994): 52. See further Hines, ed., The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1997).

(92) Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition (Harvard U. Press, 1983), ch. 4, "The Danes and the Date"; "Locating Beowulf in Literary History," Exemplaria 5 (1993): 79-109, reworked as ch. 5 of Homo Narrans (120-45).

(93) I allude here chiefly to David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge U. Press, 1985).

(94) Compare Ricoeur's use of the term "distanciation" to refer to the way in which anything that is written is alienated from the author's control and enters a separate realm where its meaning must be reconstituted by a reader, who may be situated at some remove in space or time. This is a theme that Ricoeur stresses in ch. 2 of his Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Texas Christian U. Press, 1976), as well as elsewhere in his writings. For discussion see Mario J. Valdes, ed., A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 7.

(95) I develop this point more fully in "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture," Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, ed. Frantzen and Niles, 202-28.
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Publication:Philological Quarterly
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Date:Jan 1, 1999
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