Monday, October 22, 2007

Dating Beowulf, Part IV
(or, no really, it's very comfortable up here on this fence)

In previous posts I noted the possible range of dates for Beowulf (515-1025) and gave the arguments, pro and con, for a date of composition in each of the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period: Migration Period, Conversion Era, "Golden Age," Viking Raids, Reform, Anglo-Danish Rule. Every time-frame has problems and every time-period has something to recommend it. In this last post I will bring up the more complicated "composite-Beowulf theories and then try to come to some tentative conclusions.

Composite Beowulf

Although this approach is not popular now, the idea that Beowulf as we have it is not a unitary poem from a single author has a long and distinguished pedigree. German scholars in the nineteenth century believed that it was possible to dissect a long poem into the component lays (this approach was called Liedertheorie) that had, they assumed, been gathered together to make that poem. The foremost of these scholars was Karl Müllenhoff, who separated Beowulf into various parts, some made by the original poet, others by a later poet, and still others (and the stitching of the whole together) by an interpolator.

Other scholars were less ambitious than Müllenhoff and divided Beowulf differently, but they too saw the poem as a composite structure made up of shorter poems put together. Others saw Beowulf as having the core of a pagan, Germanic poem onto which had been grafted some unsightly Christian excresences (usually lines 175-188 and Hrothgar's "sermon" later in the poem).

A composite structure for Beowulf solves -- by defining out of existence -- some of the problems that we have discussed above. For example, most of the examples of consistency with "Kaluza's Law" occur in passages about war and battle which to some scholars seem to have a very "traditional" feel and could thus be old or traditional passages that were drawn on by a later Beowulf poet. Or, the Christian references could be grafted on later to an older poem.

After the excesses of Müllenhoff and others, there was a reaction against the "dissectors" -- Tolkien, although he thought that a few lines might be a later composition -- argued very strongly for the unity of the poem, and most criticism since 1936 has assumed a unity of authorship and poem (albeit with a wide variety of different structures). Thus even though there are some appealing aspects of a composite authorship, and although medieval authors and scribes had very different ideas of literary "ownership" and authorship than we do, theories of Beowulfbeing written in more than one century have not found much favor with recent critics.


The German word "zussamenhang" means "hanging together," and is to my mind the test of nearly any theory in the "historical sciences," (like paleontology), history and literature. The theory that accounts for the greatest number of significant facts should be the right one. But there is a major weasel-word in that last sentence: which facts are the most "significant" ones? One school of thought would say that "objective" tests are important. Other schools are quite comfortable with "subjective" judgments in matters of literature.

The linguists and metricists point out that their tests are repeatable and objective: scan the lines, tabulate the spellings, etc., and the data either support one theory or another. I have a lot of sympathy for this approach, and I also accept the critique that the linguists make that at least a fair number of the "lit" people are simply not capable (because they haven't learned the linguistics) of judging the technical arguments. However, there is at least some disagreement among the metricists and linguists (although I would say that, on balance, they tend to support an early date -- the key words not to be skipped in that sentence are "on balance" and "tend.")

It is also important not to confuse things that are completely objective with those that are only partially objective or subjective. For instance, when linguistic tests rely on many emendations to the poem, we end up with layers of subjective (to one degree or another) judgment underlying the apparently objective test. In addition, matters of opinion and interpretations can be stealthily converted into seemingly objective interpretations. Take, for example, the matter of the poem's audience. Dorothy Whitelock, one of the greatest historians of Anglo-Saxon England, makes the argument that an English audience would not tolerate praise for Danes in any period after the sack of Lindisfarne. Her immense authority has led others to take the audience claim as historical (rather than literary) and thus at least somewhat more objective than judgments of style or degree of Christianity. But let us imagine a scholar from 1000 years in the future trying to figure out some enigmatic piece of American fiction from somewhere in the 20th century (say, 1983 or 1954 or 1908). That future scholar could argue "the poem speaks of Germans as friends, and praises them, but we know that America fought two horrible wars against Germany, so the poem must come from the 21st, not the 20th century." Obviously that scholar would be in error (replace "Germany" with "Russia" or put both in place to expand the thought experiment). And individual writers do not always reflect the consciousness of the nation, even in early times.

The manuscript date is another quasi-objective fact. The manuscript does indeed date from late in the 10th or very early 11th. But what does this fact mean? A late manuscript does not necessarily tell us about the text it contains (although this is less true in manuscript culture than it is in print culture, where accurate reproduction is a matter of course). And because the manuscript must be a copy of something, we are left with at least some doubt about how much we want to let the date of the copy influence our thinking about the underlying text. The literary-theoretical problem is very significant and has not, to my knowledge, ever been solved: what are the differences in the ways we interpret texts based where they were created or where they were received or where they were modified?

Drout's View

I was for a while a "late" dater, in large part, I'm afraid, because such a date was congenial to some of my other hypotheses about the poem. In the past few years, however, many arguments for the early date have come to seem much more reasonable to me. The linguistic and metrical tests do, I think, have a different evidentiary status than literary interpretation or speculation about audience, but so does the manuscript. It is easy to say (and I've said it) that "we know that Beowulf was received in the tenth century, and that's enough for me," but much harder to separate out what that means for interpretation: for instance, how much weight can we put, for example, on the depiction of Heremod in the poem (which one scholar whom I respect a lot argues is a key to understanding the characterization of Beowulf), if this is just something that a tenth-century poet inherited without knowing how the story fit in the whole web of Germanic myth and literature?

Let me give an example closer to home: in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," we read of Giovanni's feelings about Beatrice: "Least of all, while avoiding her sight, ought Giovanni to have remained so near this extraordinary being that the proximity and possibility even of intercourse should give a kind of substance and reality to the wild vagaries which his imagination ran riot continually in producing" The date of the production of the text is very significant for our interpretation of the meaning of "intercourse" in this sentence, and we might interpret that passage very differently if we thought that a 20th-century reviser/editor/copyist would have felt free to change Hawthorne's text for one purpose or another.

In 2008 I'll have been studying Beowulf for fifteen years, probably not nearly enough time to have a real opinion on all the evidence. But the more I read and study, the more I move from "definitely late" to "maybe early." And so (and this is where I get in trouble with 90% of my colleagues), I'm very tempted to say "both": an originally early poem, written down when the tradition was still alive, that is re-worked by another artist later on. Am not advocating Liedertheories, but rather a discussion of the modification of wholes: a whole poem being written in the 8th century (or earlier) and then a whole poem being copied and revised/refreshed at other times. The poem is a whole now, and it was a whole in the tenth century, and whatever the tenth-century poet inherited was a whole, each in its own way. I think there are both dissection planes and adhesions, and it may not be possible to separate them absolutely clearly, but the underlying structure is there, and that Kaluza's law, common word pairings, influences of Latin rhetoric, Germanic history, onomastics, etc., will help in figuring it out. But very likely my opinion will change as I read more scholarship, re-read the poem, teach the poem in both translation and OE (next semester) and listen to my colleagues.

Why do people care so much?

When was Beowulf written? is a straightforward question that has a correct answer. Even if the poem was reworked over multiple centuries, it has one true history. But that history is lost (for now; maybe sheep DNA will provide an answer). And there is so much evidence that it can be assembled and re-assembled in new forms, supporting different conclusions. I think the combination of a right answer (somewhere) with the conflicting and confusing evidence of the poem generates the strong emotions. A scholar starts to learn about the evidence and thinks "Hey, I can sort this all out." You come in with an open mind (you think), try to sort out conflicting claims, and all of a sudden you are a "late dater" or an "early dater" with a theory and an opinion. Then you get to enjoy fighting your corner. That is probably reason enough to explain the vast enterprise of Beowulf scholarship.

But Beowulf is also a great poem, an important literary monument and a part of cultural history. When we don't have some kind of historical context in which to put the poem, we lose out on many opportunities for understanding. Simply to thow up our hands and say "Too complicated!" or "TLDNR" (which is what I'm sure people are thinking about this post) is to take a short cut. An a-historical Beowulf is a deliberate choice to ignore important information (the problems is, we don't know which information is important) and I think an abdication of scholarship. And more importantly, if you do this, you miss out on a lot of scholarly fun.

And the body of technical Beowulf scholarship is a beautiful thing, a monument of learning. Reading through the papers collected by Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder in Beowulf: The Critical Heritage is a genuine pleasure (and that only covers criticism before Tolkien). Tolkien and others have on occasion mocked this tradition, but it is, I think, a great human accomplishment, in some ways as great an accomplishment as the poem itself. To contribute even a little to that long tradition is a great privilege. Just to study it is a great joy.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dating Beowulf Part III: Late Beowulf
(Do I contradict myself? Well then I contadict mys— er... sorry about that.)

Previously, on "Dating Beowulf": we discussed the range of possible dates (514-1025) and then examined the arguments for an "early" date in the 500's, 600's or 700's.

Now we turn to the arguments for a "late" Beowulf, those which support a date for the composition of the poem in the 800's, 900's and early 1000's. Note that many of the arguments for dating Beowulf late are the same as the "problems" for dating it early, and vice versa. So, for example, the observance of Kaluza's law is both evidence for an early date and against a late date, but I am not going to repeat the arguments from Part II in their contrapositive form in Part III, so it may seem like Part III is less fully argued than Part II. Although the contrasting length of the two posts may make it seem so, I am not trying to give short shrift to the arguments for the late dating.

The Viking Era (800-900)

Support: Scandinavian raiders began attacking England in the very late eighth century (Lindisfarne was sacked in 793) and the size and frequency of the attacks increased into the ninth century. Eventually, Viking armies began staying in England over the winter rather than returning to Scandinavia, and large portions of England came under Viking rule. By the time of King Alfred's successful defense of Wessex at the end of the ninth century, much of England had been ravaged at one time or another, but Danes had also settled into peaceful and prosperous living alongside (and intermarried with) their English neighbors. Stories celebrating Scandinavian heroes could thus have become part of the cultural background of an English-speaking poet, explaining both why Beowulf was in English and why it celebrates (in its own way) Danes and Geatas. King Alfred's program of vernacular literacy, Alfred's interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the peace treaties he negotiated with the Danes have suggested to some that the Alfredian period might be a good home for Beowulf. At least one scholar attributes the poem to Alfred's priest Æthelstan, and another suggests locating Beowulf at the court of King Alfred or of the Mercian king Wiglaf who came to the throne in 827.

Problems: Although I do not agree that the Danes are the unqualified heroes of the poem, they aren't the bad guys, either. Given that the Danes (and other Scandinavians) had spent this century ravaging England, murdering its people, plundering its resources and taking over a significant portion of its lands, we might be surprised to find a sympathetic portrayal of Scandinavian people in a poem written in English. Dorothy Whitelock argued that a poet would not want to have recited the opening lines of Beowulf, which proclaim the greatness of the Danes, in England after the beginning of the ninth century and thus the poem should be dated earlier.

The Reform Period (900-1000)

Support: The Benedictine Reform really begins with the coronation of Æthelstan in 926 and it reaches its high point in the 970's during the rule of King Edgar. During this time period, Alfred's program of vernacular literacy came into its own. A rebirth of Latin learning was led by Dunstan and Æthelwold, but texts in English were produced and copied in significant numbers. All of the major poetic manuscripts (Junius Manuscript, Exeter Book, Beowulf Manuscript, Vercelli Book) were copied during this time period.

We also have a charter from Wiltshire dating to 931 which includes the places "Beowan hamm" (Beowa's home) and "Grendeles mere" (Grendels' mere) in the boundary clause, suggesting that stories of Beowulf might be circulating in England during this period. There is also a much-discussed parallel between Blickling Homily XVI and the description of Grendel's mere that many scholars have concluded shows that the Beowulf poet knew the homily. The Blickling Homily manuscript dates from around 971, thus indicating that Beowulf would have to have been written after this point.

The combination of vernacular literacy, cultural revival, English national pride (seen in the Benedictine reformers' emphasis on Pope Gregory being particularly concerned about England, for example) combined with the amalgamation of Scandinavian and English people into a single nation under King Edgar, a major patron of the Reform, and the "imperial" practices under Edgar could be a possible environment for Beowulf. We also know that the poem was copied and thus was at least received if not created during the tenth century (though see below for dissent).
In addition, there are at least some passage of the poem, most famously lines 175-188, which read very much like later (10th century) Christian, homiletic material (Hrothgar's "sermon" is another passage, and I would add that line 1864 "feels" more like Latin-inspired, balanced rhetoric to me). Tolkien solved the problem by arguing that 181-88 were probably a later interpolation on top of an original poem. But other scholarship has found word pairs or formulae throughout Beowulf that are only found elsewhere in later, Christian, homiletic texts.

Problems: Most of the arguments against a late date have already been given as arguments for an early date, so I won't rehearse them here at length, but the standard "Anglo-Saxons, speaking English, would not have liked a poem about the greatness of marauding Danes" apply to the tenth century, particularly after Danish attacks resumed during the reign of Æthelræd. Also, finding bits of Beowulf in later, Christian materials could support an 8th-century date as well, if those phrases had antecedents in that time period in now-lost texts (this is the problem with having so many of our texts in 10th-century copies). The parallels with the Blickling Homily are interesting, but it is only one small passage and the two passages may have a common origin. The Wiltshire charter only shows that there were some tales with versions of the names in Beowulf floating around; place names are very conservative, so this could just be evidence for earlier circulation of the stories that only got recorded in the tenth century.

Anglo-Danish Rule (1000-1025)

Support: The manuscript dates from between 975 and 1025, but that date is a creation of the average date of the two hands (Scribe A and Scribe B). Scribe A, who copies the first part of Beowulf and the prose texts in the manuscript, would probably in isolation be dated to the early part of the 11th century. Scribe B, taken in isolation, would be dated to the end of the tenth century. Taking the later date would date Beowulf to early in the 11th century.
One page of the manuscript is a palimpsest: the text has been scraped off the leaf and then re-written. Kevin Kiernan thinks that in this re-writing we see the work of the poet, who is also Scribe B, very carefully and artfully combining two pre-existing poems and joining them at exactly this point.
Kiernan thinks that the layout of the manuscript (ruled for 20 lines per page and laid out so that the manuscript pages match the hair sides and flesh sides of the leaves for each open folio -- therefore the color of the underlying membrane for the pages that face each other is the same) and the fact that the manuscript is written in two different hands (like the Blickling Homily manuscript), shows that Beowulf comes from the same scriptorium (if this is true, however, it could also support merely a generic "late" date).
The reign of King Cnut, who was Danish, would be an opportune time to "publish" a poem in which the Danes and other Scandinavians (Geats) were portrayed heroically or at least sympathetically. Some of my students like this "sucking up to Cnut" thesis a great deal. Cnut's reputation is that he tried to be more English than the English, but he was of course still a Dane. So an English poem about Scandinavians seems like it might have appeal in his court.

Problems: Dating the manuscript to 1016 is definitely pushing the envelope for possible dates based on handwriting. Even scribe B, who corrects the entire manuscript and is under this theory the poet seems to have trouble with the Merovingians passage, and I think the Modthryth passage also looks like the scribe may not have entirely understood that Modthryth was a personal name until after he wrote it (wacky Drout theory; feel free to ignore). The palimpsest page is so difficult to read that much of the interpretation has to rely on conjecture, and different scholars make different conjectures.

General arguments that apply to all "late" datings:

The meter of Beowulf seems much "tighter" than that of the dateably late poems, such as The Battle of Maldon (which obviously cannot date from before the 10th century). There are also a variety of linguistic tests that have been devised to attempt to date poems, the specifics of which I am leaving out due to their technical nature. Almost all of these tests (and all of them are disputed) seem to point to an early rather than a late date (I should note that the linguistic and metrical tests are often considered to be more reliable than evidence of, say, verbal parallels, but the applicability of any specific linguistic or metrical test is hotly debated).

Additionally, a number of scholars, including J.R.R. Tolkien (whose unargued hunches are worth taking very seriously) think Beowulf is more like the poem Exodus than it is any other Old English poem (this is obviously subjective), even though Andreas actually has a number of lines or formulae that are also found in Beowulf. Exodus is usually considered, on the basis of language and meter, to be an "old" poem (even though it too exists only in a 10th-century manuscript). It also seems as if the Exodus scribe was having great difficulty understanding his exemplar. This difficulty could be explained if the exemplar for Exodus was in an older form of the language, unfamiliar to the 10th-century scribe of Exodus (on the other hand, Emily Thornbury has recently argued that Christ and Satanalso in the Junius manuscript, might be the mess it is due to a poet copying from a damaged exemplar). So even if we do not accept the linguistic-chronology tests (like Kaluza's Law or various rules about spelling) as giving us accurate information about what century a manuscript was copied, we could perhaps use general, holistic comparison. There are obvious problems with this approach (hunches are hunches and guesses are guesses), but it is also the case that we are dealing with a literary artifact, so that intuition and holistic analysis may count for something.

Finally, the strongest support for late dating always seems to revolve around the manuscript. We do know when it was copied (within 50 years), and, if we do not want to accept some kind of composite authorship (i.e., parts of Beowulf are early and parts are late), we keep coming back to the manuscript, as it is, and its obvious relationships (which are with tenth-century texts). The problem here is that the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were copied in the tenth century, and we know for certain that many of these are copies or translations of much earlier texts, so a tenth-century copy does not prove a tenth-century date of composition.

In the next post I will try to tie all of this together, disclose my own biases, and lay the whole issue to rest (ha!).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dating Beowulf Part III Delayed

My colleague just had surgery (he is doing well, thank God), so I have to teach a Hawthorne seminar, which means re-reading chunks of Hawthorne for the first time since my M.A. exam fifteen years ago (does anyone else think that old Nathaniel is a major stylistic source for H.P. Lovecraft? Maybe a better way to put that is that Lovecraft was trying to sound like Hawthorne in places). My son as a 103 fever and vomited at the orthodontist's office, where my daughter was getting a bracket replaced on her braces. It was ballet night and we had parent/teacher conferences at my daughter's school. I just collected 30 grammar and translation exams and the essay portion comes in on Friday. I had to develop, by yesterday, a tentative plan for our department's teaching of English 101, replacements for sabbaticals and future hiring needs for the next five years.

Jane! Stop this crazy thing!

I'll finish up part III of dating Beowulf in a day or two.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

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...).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dating Beowulf, Part I
(or, smacking an academic hornets' nest with a stick for fun and [no] profit)

A few years ago I was a last-minute replacement to teach in the summer H.E.R.O. program, which takes promising kids from inner-city high schools and gives them a chance to live on campus and have a college experience in the summer after sophomore year. The students live on campus for two weeks, taking classes, and then they have another two weeks of classes at their high schools, with the professors coming to teach them there. In another post I'll talk about how people were shocked that I would choose to teach Beowulf to kids from inner-city Brockton, how some people were sure that the kids would never enjoy the material, and how it all came together (n.b.: a poem about violence and the price of revenge is particularly relevant during a summer with an epidemic of drive-by shootings). But right now I'll just point out that the single issue that got the students most excited was, believe it or not, the dating of Beowulf. We held a hour-long debate on the topic and the class ended up divided into thirds arguing for a) "Golden Age" Beowulf; b) Reform era Beowulf, and c) Late Beowulf (the Kiernan "Age of Cnut" argument). We never settled anything, but I think they felt very much like scholars for a while.

I got to thinking about that Brockton class and their excitement about the problem of the date because I have done a few interviews lately and the reporters seems always a bit perplexed when I mention that the dating of Beowulf is such an emotionally charged problem that friendships have been lost and beer spilled over it (and see the latest issue of Speculum, which I'll talk more about later). At the end of this post I'll speculate as to why this is, but here I thought I would try (as a useful exercise for myself, if for no one else) to lay out the problem as fairly as I can. I'll disclose right up front that I still haven't made up my mind about the date or, rather, that I've made up my mind several times and changed it just as often. A tenth-century Beowulf would be ideal for my own work (which is why I accepted that date for my dissertation), but I was never particularly confident about that date and am even less so now. On even-numbered days, then, I'm an early dater, but on odd-numbered days I tend to be a late-dater, so in this summary I'll try not to grind any axes and will perhaps end up being equally unfair to everyone. (I anticipate that this will be series of four or five posts, though I may be able to cram it all into three)

The Range of Dates

We start with the manuscript, the unique copy of Beowulf that is known by its library shelfmark, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv (the "Cotton Vitelllius" part means that it comes from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and that in his library it was in the bookcase that had the bust of the Roman emperor Vitellius on it. The "A.xv" means it was on the first shelf down, the 15th manuscript over). From examining the handwriting of the manuscript and comparing it to other manuscripts that we do know the date of (some charters and writs and wills have dates on them, other manuscripts mention things happening and we know these dates), we can determine that the manuscript was copied somewhere around the year 1000 (say, between 975 and 1025). Thus the very youngest Beowulf can be is 1025, because the poem can't be written after the manuscript. A date this late would mean that the person who copied part of Beowulf (because in fact two scribes were involved) would have been the author, not just the scribe. I'll discuss this theory more below.

Most manuscripts that we have are copies, and many are copies of copies of copies of copies. And many (but not all) scholars think that Beowulf is in fact a copy (Tolkien thought that it was at least a copy of a copy) and thus could have been composed some time before the manuscript was copied. For the sake of argument, let's temporarily accept the idea that the poem itself is older than the manuscript (after all, I have a copy of The Lord of the Rings on my shelf that was printed in 2007, but we know that the book was written more than 50 years before that copy). How old, then, could Beowulf possibly be?

One of the events mentioned in the second half of Beowulf is a disastrous raid by Beowulf's uncle Hygelac, the king of the Geats, Beowulf's people. Many years ago the scholar N.F.S. Grundtvig noticed that there is a passage in a work by Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum (the History of the Franks), that describes how a king named Chlochilaichus led a disastrous raid on his he was killed. Grundtvig noted that "Hygelac" and "Chlochilaichus" are the same name in two different languages (in the same way that "John," "Jean," "Juan" and "Ivan" are all the same name). He concluded that these two raids were the same event, that they must have been historical, and that therefore Beowulf cannot have been written before that raid took place (because otherwise the poem wouldn't be able to mention the raid), around the year 515.

So we now have a range of possible dates for Beowulf: 515-1025, basically 500 years! Longer than the amount of time between Shakespeare and ourselves. No wonder scholars would like to narrow this range down.

Century by Century

If we break those 500 years up into centuries and are willing to be a little fuzzy about the boundaries and grossly overgeneralize, we get this exceedingly rough sketch of Anglo-Saxon history:

500-600: Migration
600-700: Conversion
700-800: "Golden Age"
800-900: Viking Raids
900-1000: Reform
1000-1025: Danish Rule

(A good, pop-culture mnemonic is: MCGiVeReD -- thanks to John Walsh)

There are arguments for seeing Beowulf as having been composed in any one of these centuries, although the two most popular time-frames are the "Golden Age" of 700-800 (this was the consensus for about 75 years) and the post-Viking Raid, Reform era of 900-1000. There are also problems with each century, and nothing is completely conclusive.

The Migration Period

Support: Hygelac's raid happened in 515, so the poem depicts at least one historical event during this time period. The "cultural world" of the poem (to mis-appropriate John Hill's term) appears to be from this period. No character in the poem is Christian, details of armour and weapons are consistent with migration-period artifacts (but also could be consistent with the conversion period). Names of tribes and peoples are consistent with what little we know about the migration period.

Problems: Although no characters in the poem are Christian, the poet / narrator seems to be (he mentions Cain and Abel, for instance, though "Cain" is mis-spelled as "Cam" both times) as well as the Flood and the destruction of the giants. It is not clear how much vernacular literacy there was during the migration period, so the problem how the poem would have come to be written down and transmitted is a difficult one. Also, although the language of Beowulf appears to be 'old' in terms of the body of Old English poetry, it doesn't seem to be that old.

Tentative Conclusion: There is something to be said for locating Beowulf in the time-frame in which at least one episode does happen, and we should ask why the poet would bother to set something in a sixth-century context if he was writing at a much later time period (it is not as if Hygelalc's raid was a major historical incident, well-known centuries later; quite the opposite, in fact). But there is not much other evidence that directly supports the idea of a very, very old Beowulf somehow preserved and transmitted from the sixth century, and I do not know any contemporary scholars who believe that the poems as we have it was written in the migration period.

[tomorrow: the Conversion and the "Golden Age" of Bede and Offa of Mercia]

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Me and Theory
(down at the Burgess Shale...?)

A little while back I read this post at my friend Ecce Equus Pallidus' blog. And laughed when I read:
That's not to say I can't think of examples of theory used, and used truly well, truly creatively, by medievalists. Michael Drout's paper at Kalamazoo this past May is, I think, an example of exactly this. How frequently, though, is this sort of approach employed?
I was being used as an example of someone using Theory!!! (chortle, chortle).

Then today, my new course from Recorded Books came out: A Way with Words Part II: Aproaches to Literature, which is, in fact, a course on literary theory and interpretation, as you can see from the list of lectures:
Lecture 1 Understanding Literature: Some Big Questions
Lecture 2 Language
Lecture 3 The Text
Lecture 4 The Author
Lecture 5 The Audience
Lecture 6 Genres
Lecture 7 Formalism and Forms: Primarily Poetry
Lecture 8 Form, Pattern, and Symbol: Prose
Lecture 9 Literature and the Mind
Lecture 10 What Is Postmodernism and Why Are People Saying Such Horrible Things About It?
Lecture 11 Identity Politics
Lecture 12 Culture and Cultural Production
Lecture 13 The Literary Canon
Lecture 14 What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Literature?

More chortling, because at one point in my department it was decided (mostly, I think, by people who have now since retired) that it was important to keep me away from the students in our English 298: Approaches to Literature course because I was a theory skeptic. Now I'm being used as an example of someone who uses Theory and I've written a short book on it for the course. What's going on? Have I sold out and given up my skepticism?

Not hardly (which is why this is so funny to me). My skepticism towards French post-structuralist theory (the dominant mode when I was coming through undergraduate) is not merely undiminished. I even more firmly believe that huge edifices of work based on Lacan and Derrida* are flat wrong in great part because these thinkers and their followers got Saussure so incredibly wrong and tried to build too much on -- or deconstruct too much away from -- linguistic structuralism. And, to beat my favorite dead horse, these fundamental errors arose because people did not know their linguistics. In particular, they did not know, and certainly did not understand, Chomsky (despite some hand-waving in the direction of "deep structure"), so they did not understand how he had shown that Saussurean structural linguistics was inadequate to explain the workings of language -- you need at least transformational generative grammar (even if that hasn't worked out quite as well as, I think, people thought it would in the 1960s).

So I am anti-Theory in the sense that if someone quotes Derrida or Lacan as an authority, I am inclined to say "hogwash" or, more politely, "interesting idea, but lacks logical consistency and plausible mechanism" or, "you'd be much better off with cognitive neuroscience than with Lacan."

But, I do agree that you need some kind of theory (just not capital-T French Theory) when reading literature. Because there are a whole host of very complicated, inter-related problems (which, by the way, are far more evident and easy-to-teach in medieval literature than in the 20th-century texts that are usually used to teach them) about which a scholar needs to have some kind of coherent opinion. For example, if you're going to talk about the apparent psychology of characters, you need to have some kind of psychological theory (I'd recommend Piaget over Lacan any day, if we have to stay French). But I think it is a mistake, hemming you in and forever making you dependent upon things argued 40 years ago and long since ossified, to believe in French post-structuralist Theory. You can use it, if you're callous about it, by saying "hey, this thinker can jump from A to L to Q to Y. Now I need to go back and try to figure out how to get to that interesting Y insight by explaining how to get from A to B to C to D to E... Y." But you shouldn't buy into it. It's either wrong, or it doesn't rise to the dignity of being able to be wrong (yes, I hang out with scientists).

So you should use theory, but you should go looking for it outside the traditions of Theory. I have had great luck with the Anglo-American philosophers (Dennett, Searle) the linguists (Chomsky, Labov) the biologists (Dawkins, Mayr), the neuroscientists (Kandel, Kosslyn and Koenig) and the social scientists (Sperber, Roehner and Syme, Douglas, Boyer). You can find really useful theories there, and they have the benefit of a) not being done to death by English professors and graduate students b) having a better chance of being right than eloquent speculations of 20 and 30 years ago; c) being beautifully written and a pleasure to read (I was going to say 'even the philosophers,' but instead I'll say 'especially the philosophers').

Or, even better, you should read How Tradition Works and then use that theory (which is mine -- apologies to Anne Elk, Miss) or adapt it for your own needs.

[btw, this all came up because today I did a faculty lunch talk entitled "Rules, Adaptation and Stasis: 10th-Century Benedictine Monasticism as a Model System for Cultural Evolution. It was a revised and updated version of the seminar I gave at the Santa Fe Institute this summer. More on this when I have a chance.]

*What about Foucault? You ask. What about Barthes? Foucault is a weird one. He is almost always wrong when he makes historical claims, noting as he did that almost every phenomenon in which he is interested arose in the French classical period. This is also never true: you can find medieval antecdents for most of Foucault's putatively later operations of power. So in the one sense his entire historical argument fails: these institutions and practices don't just arise when he says they do, and that blasts a huge hole in his larger theory. But, Foucault's insights into these practices almost always hold up even when applied back to medieval texts and practices that his theory says should not be influenced by them (just to give one example, the Anglo-Saxon penitentials). So I find Foucault very useful at times. Barthes is more difficult. On the one hand, his "bourgeoise values are bad, bad, bad, and look at the culture enforcing them" is unbelievably tedious. But Barthes had more literary sensibility than any of the other big guns of Theory and actually took time to learn some underlying linguistics, though his semiology collapses as the science he originally wanted for it because he did not understand how Saussure is explaining the phoneme.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Beowulf Basics

I've been fielding a lot of questions about Beowulf lately (which is a very good thing), and thought that it would be useful to put together a sort of primer on the basics of Beowulf. (Nota: Every one of these comments should probably be equivocated six ways from Sunday, but I'm going to leave them simple. Then you can send me emails that say "You know, you over-simplified that situation," and I'll have to agree).

What is Beowulf?

Beowulf is long a poem (3182 lines) written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), the ancestor of the Modern English that we now speak (if you want to hear spoken Old English, go to The poem survived the Middle Ages in a single manuscript, which was copied some time relatively close to the year 1000. But many scholars think that the poem itself was written significantly earlier than the manuscript: some believe it was written around 750, others in the 800s or 900s. There is no real agreement.
At least a few of the events mentioned in Beowulf appear to be historical, and if so, they occured around the year 515, so the poem could be seen as being set in this time period or a more general, mythical "heroic age."

What is the story in the poem (as distinct from the story in the film)?

Hrothgar, the king of the Danes has continued his family's project of subjugating all enemies. He builds a giant hall, named Heorot, to showcase his power. But a monster, Grendel, invades Heorot and eats Hrothgar's warriors. None of them are able to stop Grendel, and eventually they are forced to abandon sleeping in Heorot.

Far away in Geatland (which may be in southern Sweden) a young hero named Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's monster and resolves to go and kill it (Hrothgar once helped his father). Beowulf leads his men to Heorot and, after some effective diplomacy and a verbal confrontation with one of Hrothgar's men, he is given permission to remain in the hall to try to fight the monster. Grendel attacks and kills one of Beowulf's men, but then Beowulf seizes the monster and eventually wrenches off his arm. Grendel retreats to his swampy lair, leaving a trail of blood.

The next day there is great rejoicing. The Danes hang up the severed arm in the hall and Hrothgar richly rewards Beowulf. But that night, Grendel's mother enters the hall, seizes one of Hrothgar's men and the severed arm, and flees. The next morning Beowulf pursues her to her underwater cave. She grabs him and almost kills him with a knife, but he luckily finds a giant sword hanging on the wall of the cave and uses it to kill her and then decapitate the already dead Grendel who is lying there. Hrothgar's men, seeing the welling of blood in the water, given Beowulf up for dead, but his own men stay by the water. Beowulf comes to the surface with Grendel's head and the hilt of the giant sword. They all return to Heorot, where there is more rejoicing.

Beowulf eventually leaves Denmark with rich prizes. When he reaches his homeland, he gives all his won treasure to his uncle Hygelac, the king. Hygelac then rewards Beowulf with enormous wealth and power. Many years later, after the death of Hygelac and of Hygelac's son, Beowulf becomes king. All enemies fear him and he presides over a period of peace and prosperity. Then, a slave or servant, hoping to avoid punishment, sneaks into a dragon's barrow and steals a cup. The dragon is enraged, and he flies out and burns down Beowulf's hall. Beowulf resolves to kill the dragon. He tells his closest retainers to remain hiding in the woods while he fights the beast.

The battle does not go well, and Beowulf is losing, when one of his retainers, Wiglaf, decides he cannot stand by while his lord is killed. He rushes to Beowulf's aid, and the two heroes manage to kill the dragon (Wiglaf's stroke puts out its fire and then Beowulf finishes it off). But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon bite, and he dies, bequeathing his personal possessions (but not, apparently his kingship) to Wiglaf. Wiglaf berates the cowardly retainers and we learn that with Beowulf now gone, his people will be defeated and enslaved by their enemies. The poem ends with the funeral of Beowulf and the lament of the Geats.

[I have left out an enormous amount of the detail and background and Germanic material that makes the poem great]

What was life like in the period in which Beowulf is set/ was written?

After the collapse of the Roman empire, northern Europe was more chaotic and violent than in the past. Various peoples strove rather continuously with each other over land, treasure and prestige. Most people worked in agriculture, but the ones we read about were noble and spent most of their time fighting and ruling. There was both trading and raiding, but most wealth was tied specifically to the argricultural products of land. There was an enormous amount of physical insecurity in this time period because there was no central authority and no clear balance of power, thus enabling a great deal of war. However, it was not an entirely "dark" age: there was Latin learning in monasteries and rather steady technological projects in some fields, particularly agriculture. Certainly the art of poetry thrived in many contexts.

Why are people still interested in Beowulf?

First of all, it's a great story, with much to debate (was Beowulf too eager for fame? Did he put his men and people in danger in pursuit of personal glory?) and study. Also, the problems with the manuscript (there are clear errors, and there is also damage, as the manuscript caught on fire in 1731 and was only barely saved) make for interesting literary-detective work. There are also a plethora of allusions, most of which are controversial, and we think we may be getting a peek into the legendary world of the North as well as the traditional and political culture of the time (which is not recorded very well elsewhere). So even though we have been studying Beowulf for nearly 200 years (the first edition was published in 1815), we still have a lot to learn.

How can I read Beowulf if it is written in this Old English/Anglo-Saxon Language?

There are many, many, many translations of Beowulf, each a product of its own time. The most "poetic" is that by Seamus Heaney. One of the most accurate is by Roy Liuzza (and his has the added benefit of being inexpensive and providing a great many interesting parallels to the poem). One that tries very hard to get the feel of the style of Beowulf is by Frederick Rebsamen. A new one seems to come out every year.

You can also learn to read Old English for yourself and then read Beowulf. My on-line grammar King Alfred's Grammar, is available for free. When I teach Beowulf (I'm teaching a class this spring), it requires a class in the fall on Old English language, which we learn from the grammar book and from translating the poems in John C. Pope's Eight Old English Poems.

What About J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf?

It is not going forward right now, but there's always hope that that will change.

Prof. Drout, have you made a translation of Beowulf?

I think every Anglo-Saxonist has made a translation of Beowulf. I'm an Anglo-Saxonist.

Where can I go for more information?

To you neighborhood Anglo-Saxonist (any respectable college will have one on the English faculty; you should be very skeptical about any English department that does not have at least one). On the web, I am very fond of, which is an amazingly good resource. Also Scott Nokes' "Unlocked-Wordhoard" is a central clearing house for all things medieval. I also highly recommend Benjamin Bagby's performance of the first third of Beowulf. Modesty forbids me from saying anything beyond mentioning my reading of the entire poem, available at Beowulf Aloud.

Will you read Beowulf in Old English for me / my class / my story / my podcast / my newscast ?

Certainly, and I plan to post an excerpt or two at Anglo-Saxon Aloud. Maybe if you are really nice I'll sing the Finnsburg episode (or maybe people will band together to pay me not to sing).

Are you going to see the film?

Absolutely. In fact, I'm hoping that the genius students from my Fall 2006 Senior Seminar are going to come to Wheaton for a reunion and that we will all see Beowulf together before dinner at my house [hear that Tradition seminar?]. Other genius students from other classes are, of course, free to suggest a similar event.