Dating Beowulf, Part II: Early Beowulf
(or, in summarizing arguments I convince myself and then unconvince myself)
Previously, in " Dating Beowulf:the mini-series" we discussed the possible range of dates (515-1025) for the poem, broke them into centuries, and examined the arguments for a date in the Migration Period (500-600).
The Conversion Era
Although there had been Christians in the British Isles for centuries and although some Anglo-Saxons were Christian at the time of his arrival, it is conventional (and basically reasonable) to date the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity as beginning with the arrival of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in Kent in 597. King Ethelbert's wife was already Christian and Ethelbert allowed Augustine to preach Christianity. The religion spread throughout Anglo-Saxon England quickly and (remarkably) without bloodshed. The last pagan kingdom, Sussex, converted to Christianity in the 660's.
Aldhelm and Malmesbury
The figure of greatest learning and literary accomplishment in this period is Aldhelm of Malmesbury, eventually the Bishop of Sherbourne. Aldhelm was the foremost Latin poet of the Anglo-Saxon age, writing incredibly difficult and complex meters in a very learned form of Latin with many Greicisms, words taken from glossaries and other signs of learned scholarship. We still possess a significant portion of Aldhelm's poetry and prose (in Latin). But his vernacular works (if they ever existed) are lost to us--probably.
But we do know that Aldhelm composed works in Old English. Supposedly he would stand on a bridge and sing Anglo-Saxon poetry as people were passing by in order to gather a crowd and bring these people to church. King Alfred supposedly named Aldhelm the best of all vernacular poets. Could Beowulf be by Aldhelm?
There is at least some support for this argument. First, Malmesbury Abbey is thought to have possessed a Liber Monstrorum (Book of Monsters). The Beowulf manuscript contains several texts with a strong focus on monsters: Alexander's Letter to Aristotle, the Wonders of the East, and the Life of St Christopher (although these texts have also been dated to later rather than earlier periods), so the idea is that it is perhaps linked to or copied from that Malmesbury Liber Monstrorum.
Second, Michael Lapidge has argued that a large group of obvious errors in the Beowulf manuscript (the confusion of d for the letter eth) would only be possible if Beowulf had an exemplar in an early script in which it was easy to make those particular confusions (and others as well). Thus he would date Beowulf to the later part of the Conversion era or the early part of the "Golden Age," and some scholars (including Mechthild Gretsch, who is the living Anglo-Saxonist I most admire) would even guess that Beowulf might have been written by Aldhelm or someone in his circle.
Metrics: Kaluza's Law
But the biggest support for an "early" date (though it also could be in the Conversion period or the "Golden Age" is a metrical test called "Kaluza's Law." The "law" is too intricate to do justice to here, but the basic idea is that there are certain phonological distinctions made in Beowulf that were not present in Old English after around 685: the Beowulf poet, in this line of argument, can be seen distinguishing between a final e that is long and a final e that is short -- he adjusts his meter accordingly -- but in later Old English all of these final e's would be the same and there would be no way, unless the poet were an immensely accomplished historical phonologist, for him to make that distinction.
Problems: I'll try to be both brief and fair. The argument for the Beowulf manuscript as a Liber Monstrorum runs into difficulty with Judith (although Andy Orchard has an interesting argument as to why this is not a problem). The confusion of d for eth and the other confusions Lapidge notes are found in Beowulf but also in a very wide range of texts from many other times. Critics of Kaluza's law claim that the metricists themselves cannot agree exactly on it and that in any event if parts of the poem consist of memorized or quasi-memorized traditional formulas, they could both be "late" and obey Kaluza's Law.
The "Golden Age"
After the conversion of Christianity in the seventh century, monasticism and its linked Latin learning spread throughout England. By the eighth century, monasteries were rich and powerful and the English institution of the "double monastery" (a house of monks linked to but separate from a house of nuns, all ruled over by an Abbess) had helped to raise English writing, scholarship and book production to a very high level--the Venerable Bede, for instance, was the leading scholar in Europe.
This was the consensus dating for Beowulf until around 1980 (the legend that everything changed at one conference in Toronto is somewhat misleading, since most of the participants in that conference had formulated their ideas and published them in previous years). Tolkien was sure that Beowulf came from the "Age of Bede."
Support: The eighth century is seen as a high point of culture and development for Anglo-Saxon England. One strand of the argument (though it is not often stated explicitly any more) is that before the 8th century England was not developed enough to produce a complex written work like Beowulf and after the 8th century it had fallen to a lower level of development due to the destruction of the Viking raids of the 9th century. Albert S. Cook thought this about Cynewulf: you need peace and prosperity to write good poetry, so you have to look for places and times that have peace and prosperity. Again, I don't know any scholars who explicitly state this theory, but it seems like some would like to place Beowulf in the greatest courts with the most powerful kings (i.e, the court of Offa or the court of Cnut). Also, after the start of the ninth century, when the Viking were ravaging everything in sight, it would be highly unlikely (thought Dorothy Whitelock) that an Anglo-Saxon poet, writing in Old English, would find an appreciative audience for a poem about Danes and other Scandinavians treated both sympathetically and as heroes. Therefore the poem would more likely to have been written before the 790's, when the raids began.
Support: The "Looking Back on Pagan Ancestors" Theory
The clear and rhetorically convincing presentation of this theory was one of Tolkien's great contributions to Beowulf scholarship. Tolkien argues that the poet was a Christian with a deep fondness for his ancestors and their stories but also an awareness that, because they were heathen, those ancestors were doomed not to just to failure in this world, but hell in the next. The sadness that comes with this position informs the entire poem, the theme being "that man, each man and all men and all their works shall die."
For the purposes of dating, having a Christian poet looking back on his pagan ancestors only works if a) the poet is Christian and b) the remembered ancestors were pagan. Therefore, scholars reason, Beowulf needs to be written after the conversion but not too long after the conversion. Thus the "Age of Bede," circa 720-750, works well for this argument.
Problems: 720-750 is a long time after a battle of 515 to be looking back on your pagan ancestors (i.e., if the poet actually knew he was setting Beowulf in a specific time by including Hygelac's raid). The argument that the poem has to be written soon after a conversion is interesting, but there was in fact two conversions in Anglo-Saxon history: the original one, in the 600's, and a later, re-conversion in the 10th century of many Danes who had settled in England and then became Anglo-Saxons and Christians.
Support: The "Sucking up to Offa" Theory
There is a section of Beowulf,around lines 1925-1962, where there is a discussion of a great king named Offa, who "tamed" the evil (assuming she is evil) queen Modthryth (assuming this is her name and not some kind of abstract quality). Many scholars find these lines an intrusion in the flow of the poem at that point and also find the reference to Offa unnecessary. They theorize that the poet is bringing up an ancestor of (also named Offa) of King Offa of Mercia, who ruled from 757-796 (so at the end of the "Golden Age." This passage is seen as the same kind of currying favor with the king that we see in the parade of Stuart Kings in Shakespeare's MacBeth. Offa was also the greatest king of England before Æthelstan in the tenth century, so the unstated argument that you need a great court for a great poem applies to him.
Problems: If the story, about the older Offa, is just one more story that the poet knows, then it might be in the poem not for sucking up purposes, but simply because it is a useful story at that point in the narrative. At least some scholars believe that the poet is here contrasting a bad queen with a good queen and so goes back to his word-hord of stories about bad queens, find the story of Modthryth, and brings in Offa entirely because he is part of the Modthryth story.
Support: The Merovingians
One anomaly in Beowulf occurs at the end of the poem, after Beowulf is dead. A messenger comes to tell his people about the death and starts predicting the (bad) future of the Geatas. The Franks and Frisians and Swedes will attack them for sure, he says, and also the Merovingians. Well, it is not that simple. The manuscript reads "mere wio ingasmilts" and it is only through much philological work that we can get "Merovingian" out of that (the difficulty of the line suggests that the scribe was pretty confused about what his exemplar said at this point). The basic idea in the argument is that the Carolingians, who deposed the Merovingians, tried to eliminate the use of the name and that it was forgotten. Thus if the Beowulf poet used "Merovingian" then he must be writing early, possibly before the Carolingians took over in 751. Tom Shippey argues, with much more detail that I can provide here, that the spelling of Merovingian in the Anglo-Saxon form (with the w) and the poet's use of the term in general can most simply be explained if a Merovingian was actually a king of the Franks when the poem was written. The poet would not need any specific detailed historical knowledge: he only had to know who was king of a neighboring country. If this is true, Beowulf would have been written before 751.
Problems: The Carolingians certainly did try to damn the memory of the Merovingians, but they did not completely succeed. The Merovingians were indeed famous and would usually be linked with the Franks, as they are in the poem. So the poet may just be passing on some traditional or historical knowledge.
Support: The Names of Characters Theory
Related to Shippey's point about the spelling of Merovingians (with the Anglo-Saxon w) is Patrick Wormald's long-standing argument that the names of the more minor characters in Beowulf are all in the forms one would expect if the poem had been written in eighth century. Wormald notes that in lists of names, such as the Durham Liber Vitae, where we can date the names, the forms used in the early period are much closer to those used in Beowulf than are the forms used in the later period. Wormald argued that the poet would not have been scouring historical documents for names for his minor characters but would instead have used 'normal' names in 'normal' spellings from his own time period.
Problems: The strength of this argument is that it is directional: if scribes updated names into current forms, we couldn't tell much about the date of the text from those forms (i.e., if someone reading "Eadweard" in an exemplar changes it to "Edward," and all we have is the "Edward", we don't know when the text was written; but if he writes "Eadweard," we're more likely to believe that he's copying the older text exactly). However, if the poet is deliberately using "old fashioned" names, he could be writing at a later date.
Conclusions for "Earlier" Dating
As you can see, there are a variety of arguments that can be used to support an "early" (7th or 8th century) date. They also have the benefit of being not all mutually exclusive and may in fact hang together, each supporting the other to one degree or another. However, I should note that I have left out some of the best arguments "against" at this point because those are better presented as arguments "for" the "late" datings. I will present those arguments in the next section of the discussion, Part III: Late Beowulf.
I should also note again that I am in many ways grossly oversimplifying, (and I hope I am not making any egregious errors, particularly as I am writing almost all of this from memory and without having recourse to my books right now). I think also, when this is done, if scholars write in with serious objections I will bring them up out of the comments and into a post or two (or three or four...).