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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a self-made cartoon. In this post, I deal with the remarkable story  of a battle of birds in the year 671.

A battle of birds in England, 671

In the thirteenth-century historiographical work Flores historiarum [Flowers of History], Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) collected all sorts of events that caught his interest whilst reading the chronicles of other historians. Interestingly, he notes that he collected these stories for entertainment, as well as (intellectual) ‘profit’:

…that which follows has been taken from the books of catholic writers worthy of credit, just as flowers of various colours are gathered from various fields, to the end that the very variety, noted in the diversity of the colours, may be grateful to the various minds of the readers, and by presenting some which each may relish, may suffice for the profit and entertainment of all (trans. Giles, p. 2)

Among his bouquet of historical anecdotes is a peculiar fight among fowls in the year 671:

“In the year of grace 671, there was an extraordinary battle in England among the birds, insomuch that many thousands were found killed, and it seemed that the foreign birds were put to flight.” (trans. Giles, p. 100)

Xenophobic, English birds ousting foreign fowl…imagine if they had made a tapestry out of that battle!

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Birds Tapestry – inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry (see and compare for yourself)

Chinese whispers from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum

The first reference to bird-activity in the year 671 is found in various manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (initiated during the reign of Alfred the Great [d. 899]):

671: Her wæs þæt micle fugla wæl. (Manuscripts A, B, C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available here)

[671: In this year was a great mortality of birds]

While the Old English word wæl is often used to denote dead bodies after a battle, it is more likely that the word here refers to the death of birds following a natural disaster. This interpretation seems supported by the Latin chronicle of Æthelweard (d. c.988), who reported a foul smell caused by the dead birds:

Itaque post decursu anni unius facta est auium magna ruina, ita ut et in mare et in arida spurcissimus foetor uideretur tam de minutis auibus quam de maioribus.

[After the lapse of one year (i.e. in 671) a great mortality of birds occurred, so that on sea and on land a very foul stench was noticeable from the <carrion of> small birds and larger ones.] (Ed. and trans. Campbell)

Since Æthelweard was writing in the tenth century, he is unlikely to have remembered the smell himself: he probably used a now-lost Old English manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that contained this extra information about the event of 671. The chronicler John of Worcester (d. 1140) also seems to have interpreted the event of 671 as stemming from natural causes and spoke of an “[a]uium strages” [destruction of birds]: the same phrase he used for the deaths of birds caused by a harsh winter in 1111:

Hox anno hyemps asperrima, fames ualida, mortalitas hominum, pestis animalium, agrestium simul et domesticorum, stragesque auium extitit permaxima.

This year there was a very harsh winter, a serious famine, mortality of men, disease among animals, both wild and domestic, and a very great destruction of birds. (ed. Darlington & McGurk; trans. McGurk and Bray)

So far, the most likely interpretation of what went on in 671 is a mass mortality of birds, caused by some disease or harsh weather conditions. So what about Roger of Wendover’s battle?

         Matters appear to have gone astray when Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088–c. 1157), in his Historia Anglorum, tried to make sense of annal 671 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He erroneously translated Old English wæl with Latin pugna ‘battle, combat’:

Precedenti autem anno fuit maxima pugna uolucrum in Anglia.

[In the preceding year (671) there was a very great battle of birds in England.] (ed. and trans. Greenway)

Henry, realizing that a battle of birds does not sound very likely, then defended himself by relating that a similar fight had broken out in his own days, one with a symbolic meaning:

This seems more credibly because it also happened in Normandy in our own time, in the reign of King Henry. He was the first king of England of this name. This is specified because in the future there may perhaps be another so named. The birds fought openly at Rouen, and thousands of dead birds were discovered and the foreign birds were observed being driven off. This was a sign of the battle that was fought between Henry, lord of England and Normandy, and Louis, king of France, son of Philip. In this battle the strong King Henry emerged the victor and the defeated Louis fled away. (trans. Greenway)

Now it becomes clear what has happened with regard to the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover: Roger had read Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum but shortened the text in such a way that the details of the battle of birds in 12h-century Rouen were  transposed to the English event of 671. Regrettably, then, we must conclude that in the year 671, in all likelihood, no battle of birds took place in England and that no foreign birds were put to flight that year; some of the flowery anecdotes of the Anglo-Saxon past, it appears, are merely the result of an intriguing game of Chinese whispers!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • Campbell, A., ed. and trans. The Chronicle of Æthelweard (London, 1961)
  • Darlington, R. R. and P. McGurk, eds., P. McGurk and J. Bray, trans., The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450-1066 (Oxford, 1995)
  • Giles, J.A., trans. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History (London, 1849)
  • Greenway, D. E., ed. and trans., Henry Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum. The History of the English People (Oxford, 1996)
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Sitting down in early medieval England: A catalogue of Anglo-Saxon chairs

After fighting their battles, tending to their fields, playing their harps, herding their cows and singing their Psalms, many an Anglo-Saxon would feel the need to put their feet up and their bottoms down. But what exactly would they sit down on? This blog provides a (by no means exhaustive) overview of seating types used in Anglo-Saxon England.

1) fyld-stōl ‘folding stool’

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Left: Reconstruction of folding stool found in Prittlewell burial chamber (source); Right: Decorated folding stools in the Old English Hexateuch © British Library, Cotton Claudius B IV, 43v, 68v.

Simple, compact and, most importantly, portable: the folding stool has been the seating accommodation of choice for a very long time. Foldable chairs have been around since c.1500 BC and were not uncommon in early medieval England. Anglo-Saxon monasteries, for instance, certainly had folding stools. This much becomes clear from the Monasteriales Indicia (‘Monastic Signs’), an Old English text which lists 127 signs used by monks during times when the Benedictine Rule forbade them to speak. One of those signs allowed a monk to gesture for a folding stool:

Gyf þu meterædere fyldstol habban wille oþþe oþrum men, þonne clæm þu þine handa togædere and gege hi þam gemete þe þu dest þonne þu hine fyalden wylt
[If you want a folding stool for the mealtime reader or anyone else, then clasp your hands together and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)
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Foldable throne of Dagobert I (source)

Today, folding stools are usually equated with cheap, plastic things we use on camping trips. By contrast, a folding chair could be a sign of high social rank among the Anglo-Saxons. The richly furnished burial chamber of the so-called Prittlewell Prince (an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who lived in the 7th century), for example, contained several high-status objects, such as luxurious metal objects, laced with gold and silver, a sword, a lyre and a hanging bowl, but also a seemingly humble folding stool.

Indeed, in the early Middle Ages, curule chairs (a deluxe type of folding stool) could bear the bums of kings: Dagobert I (circa 603–39), king of the Franks 629–34, had a foldable throne, made of bronze that was later reused by other monarchs of France (more info here). Such high-status folding stools would often be beautifully ornamented – the arms of the throne of Dagobert resemble panthers, while the legs are shaped like paws. In the Old English Hexateuch, an early eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon comic strip adaptation of the first six books of the Bible (see this blog here), several high-ranking men recline on similar curule chairs with legs terminating in zoomorphic claws.

2) luxury add-ons: fōt-setl ond set-hrægl ‘footrest and seatcover’

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Portrait of prophet Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus ©Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1, fol. 5r (source)

Another type of seat one would find in Anglo-Saxon monasteries is depicted in the portrait of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus (an 8th-century, Northumbrian copy of the Bible, intended as a gift for the pope). Ezra is shown writing a book, sitting on a small bench. While Ezra’s seating accommodation probably wouldn’t pass a present-day occupational health and safety examination, it is worth pointing out that his seat has at least two optional add-ons. For one, his feet are resting comfortably on a fōt-setl ‘foot-rest’ (literally: foot-chair or foot-seat). In addition, his bench is furbished with a comfy blue cushion. The Monasteriales Idicia once more prove that such pillows were a common sight in an early medieval English monastery:

Ðonne þu setrægel habban wille, þonne plice þu ðine agene geweda mid twam fingrum, tospred þine twa handa and gewe hi, swylce þu setl gesydian wille.

[When you want a seat cover, then pinch your own clothes with two fingers, spread out your two hands, and move them in the way that you do when you want to fold it.] (ed. and trans. Banham 1996, 30-31)

3) friþ-stōl ‘sanctuary chair’

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Frith-stools of Beverley Minster (source) and Hexham Abbey (source)

These uncomfortable looking stone chairs are known as frith-stools (lit. peace-chairs). A frith-stool was placed near the altar of a church and criminals could claim sanctuary by sitting in them. The frith-stool appears in various Latin charters from the twelfth century but some (like the ones in Beverley and Hexham) are said to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries (see Simpson 1953-1957). The word “grythstole”, indicating a similar sanctuary chair, appears in a Middle English text that claims to be a charter by King Athelstan (d. 939) for St. Wilfrid’s church in Ripon. Intriguingly, the text is in rhyme:

*Wyttyn al that is and is gan                               testify
That ik Kyng Attelstane
Has gyven as frelich as ich may
To kyrk and chaptel of seint Wylfray
Of my free *deuocon                                             devotion
Thar *pees at Rypon                                              peace, sanctuary
On *ylke syde the kirke a myle                          every
For al ille deedes and ilke *gyle                         guile
And wythinne thay kyrk *yate                           gate
At the stane that grythstole hatte
Withinne the kyrke dore and the *quere       choir
Thay have thayre pees for less and mare.

(Simpson 1953-57; I have added Modern English glosses for the words marked with an asterisk)

4) gif-stōl ‘gift-chair, throne’

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William the Conqueror and Edward the Confessor on the Bayeux Tapestry

One of the Old English words for throne is gif-stōl: literally, the seat whence the lord would bestow gifts on his loyal followers. The thrones occupied by Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) and William the Conqueror (d. 1087) on the Bayeux Tapestry both show a zoomorphic design: fashionable animal paws and heads decorate the extremities of their seats.

5) medu-benc ‘mead-bench, drinking-bench’

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Drinking-bench © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B V, 4v

In Beowulf, we occasionally read about mead-benches and beer-seats. In this world of hardened warriors, we should probably imagine simple, wooden benches: certainly no monkish cushions! A more luxurious (and comfortable) piece of furniture is illustrated in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon calendar page for the month of April. The illustration depicts ‘feasting’ (this is the ‘Labour of the Month’ for April!)  and shows three men enjoying a drink on an elongated seat. The seating part of this drinking-bench is covered with a sheet of some sort and on either end of the seat is the front half of a beast – a lion on the left and a boar(?) with impressive tusks on the right. When it came to fashionable furniture, it seems, animals were all the rage!

Works referred to:

  • Banham, D., ed. and trans., Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, exp. edn. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
  • Simpson, J., ‘A Note on the Word Friðstóll‘, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-1957), 200-210.

 

Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Since today is #InternationalCatDay, I figured it was time to reboot the following blog post, which appeared three-and-a-half years ago on medievalfragments and is my most succesful blog post so far. In this present blog, I have added the rather entertaining aftermath of the blog post (I was contacted by The International Cat Association!), as well as a better version of the image of the medieval manuscript that was peed over by a mischievous feline in fifteenth-century Deventer…

Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts

Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel revealed that this is nothing new:

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky.  A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

(You can read the full poem here)

The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.

A mouse ate my Boethius! (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 214, fol. 122r)

A mouse ate my Boethius! (© Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)

Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.

The aftermath: My first paw-reviewed article

The blog post above was ridiculously succesful and has been viewed over 75,000 times over the last three-and-a-half years. Various bits of the blog post have also been floating around on the internet, including my own translation of the Latin along with the image of the cat-pee manuscript (sometimes with, but more often without attribution!). The success of the blog post, obviously, boils down to a mix of popular ingredients. The internet has always had a unique relationship with cats, with several websites being devoted only to clips and pictures of our feline friends. The Middle Ages, too, are gaining in popularity with the ongoing success of medieval fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. People are fascinated by medieval culture and like learning more about the world of our ancestors a thousand years ago. Combining medieval stuff with cats? The key to success!

About two years ago, the blog post reached its apex of fame, when I received an e-mail from The International Cat Association (TICA). Apparently, they had read my blog post and now wanted to publish it in their magazine. This magazine, TICA TREND with its tagline ‘For Fabulous Felines, Fun and Friendships!’, is shipped to over five thousand cat owners worldwide! My piece was indeed published in the June/July issue of 2015, which also featured the winner of the 2013-2014 Best Household Pet Kitten of the Year’ (you can read it here).

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The TICA Trend magazine. My cat Cnut was most pleased to read the magazine ‘for fabulous felines, fun and friendship’; Breca the Pug was not impressed.

While I am aware that the little publication in TICA TREND is not an academic achievement worth boasting too much about, it does introduce the fascinating world of medieval manuscripts to an audience outside of academia. In all, therefore, I am quite pleased with my first ‘paw-reviewed’ article, even if something appears to have gone wrong in the printing process. The article’s title in the magazine reads ‘Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Century Manuscripts’ and the word ‘Century’ obviously shouldn’t have been there. Perhaps, the error was caused by a cat walking all over the editor’s keyboard – a problem a medieval scribe could relate to!

A better image of the cat-pee manuscript

The image of the manuscript with the scribe’s apology for feline urine that has circulated the Internet for the past three-and-a-half-years was taken with my IPhone from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in a book. I was pleased to learn that the manuscript has since been digitzed (you can access it here), allowing me to present the Internet with a better quality image. Enjoy:

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© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r

 

“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880

At the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland studied older Germanic languages with a particular interest in Old English. He studied under Eduard Sievers in Jena, Germany, and spend close to a year in England, where he interacted with prominent scholars of Old English, such as Richard Morris and Henry Sweet. On the basis of his studies, Bolland tried to write a chronological survey of English literature for the use in Dutch class rooms. While the work would never be published, his hand-written drafts are of interest, since they may contain one of the earliest student summaries of Beowulf…

Bolland and Beowulf: Inglorious youths

When Beowulf returns home to Geatland and is rewarded for his deeds in Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon poet remarks the following about his hero’s inglorious youth:

                                         Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn      godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medo-bence        micles wyrðne
dryhten Wedera         gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon       þæt he sleac wære,
æðeling unfrom.

[For a long time he (Beowulf) had been lowly, as the sons of the Geats had not thought him good, nor had the lord of the Weders cared to put him in possession of much on the mead-bench; they had rather thought that he was shiftless, a slack lordling.] (Beowulf, ll. 2183b-2188a, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)

The younger years of G. J. P. J. Bolland (9 June, 1854 – 11 February, 1922) were equally devoid of promise. Born to a family of peddlers in Groningen, Bolland lost his father at a young age, which forced his mother to make a living as a prostitute. As a boy of 14 or 15 years old and having enjoyed little education, he joined the army in 1868. Bolland proved to be a problematic recruit: he was convicted for cursing and foul language on several occasions, as well as for singing illicit songs. In May 1872, he spent half a month in jail, because he had sold his underpants and lied about this to his commanding officer. In January the next year, he physically assaulted a high-ranking sergeant and was convicted for insubordination: the Groningen-born Bolland would spend the next three years in a Leiden jail-house.

His jail-time in Leiden proved to be a turn-around in Bolland’s life: he began reading books and, following his release from prison, studied hard to become a teacher. As a schoolmaster, first in Groningen, then in Katwijk, Bolland became interested in the study of older languages (Gothic, Old English, Old High German) – his Katwijk students called him ‘Meester Sanskretans’, because he would occassionally teach them about Sanskrit!

Bolland got acquainted with P. J. Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Germanic philology at Leiden University and a specialist in the field of Old English. Under Cosijn’s guidance (as well as his financial support), Bolland continued his studies of Old English. He spent close to a year in London and a brief period in Jena, Germany, developing his expertise. Bolland showed great promise as a Germanic philologist, but a series of events led to his departure for Batavia, where he became a teacher once more. Upon his return to The Netherlands in 1896, Bolland was made a professor of Philosophy at Leiden University and he would never return to the study of Old Germanic languages. For the next twenty-five years, Bolland would be one of Holland’s most prominent and influential philosophers (the standard biography of Bolland is Otterspeer 1995). Quite a reversal of fortunes! Or, in the words of the Beowulf poet:

                                        Edwenden cwom
tir-eadigum menn         torna gehwylces

[A reversal of fortune for all his troubles came to the man blessed with glory.] (Beowulf, ll. 2188b-2189, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)

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Bolland as young schoolmaster in Katwijk, the Netherlands; Bolland as student in Jena, Germany; Bolland as professor of Philosophy at Leiden University (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

Bolland and Moritz Heyne’s Beovulf 

Despite being an autodidact student and the absence of Dutch translations of Beowulf (the first one appeared in 1896), Bolland was a serious and highly critical reader of the Old English poem. He owned several editions of Beowulf, which included those by Alfred Holder (1882-1884) and Benjamin Thorpe (2nd edn., 1875); of the latter he wrote to Cosijn “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“, pointing out several of misprints in the Old English text. Bolland’s Beowulf edition of choice appears to have been the one by Moritz Heyne, Beovulf: Angelsächsisches Heldengedicht (3d imprint, 1873), which according to Niles (2015) “was long admired as the most authoritative edition of Beowulf” (p. 245).

Bolland’s own copy was donated to the University Library of Leiden and features ample hand-written notes in Bolland’s hand (see image below). These notes reveal that Bolland added Dutch glosses to many of the words, grammatical analyses (providing case and number for nouns, etc.) as well as interpretations (noting, for instance, that “se fróda fäder Óhteres” [Beowulf, l. 2929] referred to Ongentheow). He was also able to add five corrigenda to Moritz’s list of “bemerkte Druckfehler im Texte” [noticed printing-errors in the text], probably on the basis of other editions. A thoughtful and diligent reader, indeed!

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Annotations by G. J. P. J. Bolland in Heyne’s edition of Beowulf (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: Beowulf in Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’

Upon returning from his studies in London in 1880, Bolland wrote to a friend about the possibilities of publishing “A short Chronological List of English Literature, with analyses and explanatory notes, being intended as a help for the memory of all who teach or study English literature”. Regrettably for Bolland, this late nineteenth-century version of SparkNotes was never published. Two hand-written drafts related to this work have survived, however, and are currently held at Leiden University Library.

The first draft is found in a little student notebook with the title ‘Early English Literature’. In this notebook, two essays, on Old English Literature and Transitional English [Middle English], precede a brief survey entitled “Landmarks for a chronological survey of Literature in North-America”; lists of English expressions and proverbs; and a chronological overview of Arthurian literature. The essay on Old English features a brief analysis of Beowulf:

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Pages 2-3 from G. J. P. J. Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’ (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry is the epic poem of Beowulf, which consists of far more than three thousand lines. It is the oldest extant epic in any Germanic language and strongly tastes of ancient heathenism, in spite of a few traces of Christianity, which may be later interpolations. Its hero sails from a land of the Goths to a land of the Danes, where he frees a chief of the names of Hrôthgar from the attacks of the marshfiends Grendel and his mother, two monsters lurking in neighbouring fens and moors. In course of time Beowulf comes to be a ruler himself, and in this capacity is deadly wounded at last in a struggle with a fire-spitting dragon that had infested the environs of his residence. He is buried in great statue under a great barrow on a promontory which rises high above the sea.

This fine, brief summary of Beowulf, is followed by an evaluation of the historical value of the poem, which lies in its depiction of “actual life of ancient Germanic leaders”:

Real events have been transformed into legendary marvels in this story of old Teutonic exploits, but the actual life of ancient Germanic leaders is vividly painted. We read of feasts in the mead-hall, of the leader and his hearth-sharers, of their customs and manners, and of rude beginnings of a courtly ceremony. There is much boastful talk and reliance upon strength of hand in the poem, and a practical spirit of adventure that seeks peril as a commercial speculation. For the hero is undisguisedly a tradesman in his sword.

Following Daniel Haigh (1819-1879) (for which, see Shippey & Haarder 1998, pp. 315-317), Bolland then situates the scenery of Beowulf in Yorkshire:

The original scene of the story was probable a corner of the isle of Saeland opposite to Gothland, but though England is never mentioned it seems that the scenery for its existing English shape as taken from the coast of Yorkshire, between Whitby and Bowlby Cliff.

Next, Bolland rounds up his analysis with a few words about the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv):

The manuscript in which the poem has been preserved belongs to the Cottonian library in the British Museum and is held to have been written in the tenth century. It has been much damaged in course of time and shows many gaps; especially the 32d, the 33d, and the 44th or last canto have come down to us in a fragmentary state.

Bolland, obviously, had nothing new to add to the scholarship of Beowulf, but it is interesting to see that he gave the poem such a prominent place in his survey – the analysis of Beowulf precedes his discussion of Caedmon, for instance.

Bolland’s summary of Beowulf in A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880)

Bolland’s hand-written version of A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880) expands over 400 pages and features a chronological list of landmark publications, interspersed with summaries of well-known works, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s Faerie Queene and Thomas More’s Utopia. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Bolland dwells at length on Beowulf, providing a 5-page summary. I provide his full text below (with added white lines for legibility):

BollandBeowulfBlog4

Pages 10-11 of G. J. P. J. Bolland’s A short chronological list of English literature (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

Hrôdhgâr, a Danish King and descendant of Scild Scefing, the mighty warrior, causes a grand hall to be built, to which he gives the name of Heorot. This hall is soon made a scene of slaugter by the mighty attacks of Grendel, a fiendish being, that lives in gloomy marshes and carries off at one time no less than thirty thanes, whom he devours in his retreat. These dreadful visitations continue for a period of twelve years. Intelligence of this calamity having reached Bêowulf, the valiant son of Ecgthêow and a nephew to Hygelâc the King of the Geats, he sets out to rid the Danes of the monster. In company with fifteen other warriors he sails from home. When reaching Hrôdhgâr’s realm he is desired by an outpost standing on the extreme point of the land to give his name and tell the reason of his coming. After a parley Bêowulf and his companions are brought before Hrôdhgâr, who recapitulates all that he has suffered from Grendel; all then sit down to drink. During their potations Hunferth, a quarrelsome and envious courtier, taunts Bêowulf on the subject of a swimming match between the latter and Breca, prince of the Brontings. Bêowulf however retorts effectually and related the perils he underwent at the bottom of the sea in his struggles with the nickers. Wealhthêow, Hrôdhgâr’s queen, then stepping in, presents the mead-cup to the guests; after a while she and her consort retire to rest, leaving Bêowulf & his companions in the hall.

Whilst the other warriors are snoring Bêowulf awaits the coming of Grendel. At last the latter suddenly appears and gets hold of a sleeping warrior whom he devours. He then is caught by Bêowulf, whose companions run to his assistance; but they find that the monster’s carcass is proof against their weapons. Bêowulf, however, grasps him & tears his arm from his shoulder; so mutilated Grendel succedes in escaping to his fen-dwelling. All the people are eager to behold Grendel’s hand & arm; the praises of Bêowulf are sung and one of the King’s thanes recites the heroic deeds of Sigemund Waelsing & Fitela his son & nephew. After this a horse race is held. Heorot is restored to its former splendour and at a great feast Bêowulf & his companions are munificently rewarded for their services. A glee-man having sung some heroic deeds Bêowulf is presented with a rich dress & golden collar.

When the warriors have betaken themselves to sleep Grendel’s mother, bent on vengeance for her dead son, enters the hall; the warriors rousing themselves she hastens back, not however without taking with her Aeschere, an old friend of Hrôdghâr’s. When hearing of this new disaster Beowulf courageously resolves to attack the monsters in their own retreat, and accompanied by Hrôdhgâr he sets out on an exploring expedition towards the marshes. On their way they find Aesc-here’s head lying on the bank of a lake. Notwithstanding its horrid aspect and the monstrous beings it contains, Bêowulf makes up his mind for a descent, armed as he is with a famous sword named Hrunting, lent him by Hunferth. Having plunged into the water he encounters Grendel’s mother, and an awful struggle ensues. After an anxious suspense Hrodhgâr sees the brave Gêat reappear a victor, with Grendel’s head for a trophy, which is borne before Bêowulf in triumph. Bêowulf presents Hrôdhgâr with the hilt of a magic sword found by him in the sub-marine cave; the blade of this goodly weapon melted away when he slew the witch, through the heat and venom of her blood. The monsters now being destroyed once for all, the Danish King & Beowulf take leave of each other. Richly endowed with presents Bêowulf and his warriors return home. They find a welcome reception, and Bêowulf relates his story to Hygelâc, his kinsman.

By a series of subsequent events Bêowulf becomes the successor on the throne of the Gêats; in the latter part of his reign a dragon begins to sorely invest the neighbourhood of the residence. This monster is the keeper of a treasure hid in a mound and laid down there by some prince in by-gone days. He has been enraged by the theft committed by a subject of Bêo-wulf’s, who, having to meet the demands of his master, has ventured in his despair to invade the spell-bound cave. The dragon begins to vomit forth glowing embers and devastates the whole neighborhood. If the dreadful foe is not to lay waste every particle of land the old king must make an effort to overcome him. Bêowulf accordingly prepares for the conflict. In the ensuing struggle the old hero is reduced to great straits; valiantly the noble Wiglaf, his kinsman comes to his help, notwithstanding the cowardice of the followers of the King, who seized by a panic, have fled to a wood.

The fight continues; Bêowulf’s sword, Naegling, snaps asunder and the dragon clutches the aged hero in his talons. Wiglâf having wounded the dragon, Bêowulf draws his knife with which he puts an end to the struggle by cutting the monster through the middle. But though a victor now he feels his own death too to be at hand, the dragon having infused his venom into his veins. Sitting on a stone he bids Wiglâf go and bring the treasure from the cave, that, having looked at it, he may die in peace. Coming back from this mission Wiglâf finds his lord dying; and Bêowulf breathes his last after having given his faithful kinsman his directions for the funeral. Bitterly are the king’s men reproached by Wiglaf having left their prince in the lurch at the time of his need, after having received so many favors at his hands. The funeral pile is constructed according to the wishes of the dying king, and a mound is erected in Hrones-naes as a token of remembrance, that the sailors who will afterwards pass by it, call it Bêowulf’s mount.

His incorrect notion that the dragon clutches Beowulf in its talons and infuses him with its venom notwithstanding (the dragon fatally bites Beowulf in the neck), Bolland provides an accurate and fairly detailed summary of Beowulf. The text holds few surprises for readers who are familiar with the poem, but it is as useful today as it would have been in the 1880s. Bolland’s interesting use of slightly archaic and highly idiomatic English is noteworthy – not bad for a Dutch autodidact student, who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in the gutter of Groningen and a Leiden jailhouse!

This is the third in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. Other blog posts include:

Works referred to:

  • R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
  • Willem Otterspeer, Bolland: Een biografie, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1995.
  • T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder, Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1998.