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While the last native speaker of Old English may have died in the eleventh century, later generations of poets, scholars and students have continued to use the language of early medieval England for their own compositions. This blog post calls attention to a love poem, composed in Old English by a Dutch student of Old Germanic languages in the year 1879: “Se glēo-mann” [The minstrel].
“Glowing with the glow of love”: Gerard Bolland and Klazina Bakker
Glōwende lufan glēde, glædlīcum mægð-frēode,
birnende æfter blǣde, beorhtnisse hlīsan
sceaft-rōf gydda scop, scearp hrēðe mecg,
hatigende sorhfulle hēafas on hearme nealles
eode under ēag-þyrl ærnes lēofre. (ll. 1-10)
Glowing with the glow of love of delightful love for his bride, yearning for fame, for the brightness of glory, the spear-brave singer of songs, the sharp, brave warrior, hating sorrowful lamentations, not at all aware of danger, he went under the window of the house of his beloved.
These are the opening lines of an Old English love poem that G. J. P. J. (Gerard) Bolland (1852-1922) composed for his fiancée Klazina Bakker (1859-1913). The love poem describes how a minstrel serenades his beloved underneath her window on the morning before a battle.
Gamen-wudu grētte gearu luf-songe;
swǣslīce nehstan siðe song morgen-grētinge: (ll. 11-14)
He greeted his play-wood ready for a love-song; graciously, for the last time, he sang his morning-greeting:
The poem was composed in 1879 and, two years later, G.J.P.J. Bolland married his Klazina. That same year, the couple moved to the Dutch East Indies, where Bolland became a teacher of German and English at the Willem III Gymnasium.
In the East Indies, the couple lived happily together and got a son called Alfred. The family returned to the Netherlands in 1896, when Bolland became Leiden University’s most notorious Professor of Philsophy (see this Wikipedia entry).
The two staid together until Klazina died after a long and arduous sickbed in 1913, at the age of 53. In her death notice, Bolland remembered her as “his beloved wife”.
Clearly, Klazina and Gerard loved each other very much and the Old English love poem represented Bolland’s heartfelt feelings. But why did he write the poem in Old English?
Bolland as an aspiring Old Germanicist
Bolland’s Old English poem survives in the Leiden University Library today because he did not only send it to his sweetheart, but he also included it as an appendix to a letter he wrote to his friend and mentor Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Old Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon at the University of Leiden. Under Cosijn’s guidance and with his financial assistance, Bolland gave up his job as a schoolmaster in order to study Old English and other Germanic languages in in London (England) and Jena (Germany) from 1879 to 1881.
During his stays abroad, Bolland devoted himself to his studies and kept in touch with Cosijn. In his letters to the Leiden professor, Bolland criticized the works of famous philologists like Benjamin Thorpe (see this blog post), complained that the famous linguist Henry Sweet did not want to grant him an audience (see this blog post), and shared personal details about Cosijn’s foreign colleagues, including Richard Morris (see this blog post) and Eduard Sievers (see this blog post). While Bolland relished in acquiring books and knowledge on Old Germanic languages, he sorely missed his fiancee (“and not just sexually”, he wrote to Cosijn). This longing for his wife-to-be is also reflected in his Old English poem “se glēo-mann” [The Minstrel] that he wrote during his stay in London in 1879 (and sent to Cosijn):
‘Hūru mīnum hām-stede hēah-byrig lēofre
ēstum ic fultum an earma mīnra!
heorte and hyge-þanc hyldo gemynda
on būr-getelde bēoþ beorhtre lēofan mægðe.’ (ll. 15-22)
Indeed! To my homestead to the lofty town of my beloved I gladly grant the help of my arms! The heart and thoughts the grace of my remembrance are in the dwelling of the bright dear maiden.
Eventually, it was the prospect of reuniting with his wife and being able to provide her with a pension that drove Bolland away from the study of Old English – he accepted a lucrative job as a teacher in the Dutch East Indies, never to return to Old Germanic Studies.
“Se glēo-mann” as an Old English poem
Bolland likely sent his Old English composition to Professor Cosijn to show his benefactor that his studies were paying off. The poem certainly bears witness to Bolland’s extensive knowledge of the technicalities of Old English poetry. Each pair of half lines are connected through the alliteration of three stressed syllables – an impressive regularity that is often lacking from most surviving Old English poems, including parts of Beowulf.
Glædlīce glōwan glēde wæl-gīfrum
Lufan and blǣde lēane lǣcan sprēote,
Feohtan for fæder-ēðle and fægere idese
Dǣd-cēnum gydda dihtere gedēfe is! (ll. 23-30)
To glow gladly with battle-eager glow for the reward of love and fame, to throw with the spear, to fight for the father-land and the fair lady, to the deed-brave poet of songs that is fitting!
Bolland was also able to coin various poetic compounds that are not found in the Old English poetic corpus, including “sceaft-rōf” [spear-brave], “heoru-stapa” [sword-stepper] , “dēaþ-sēoce” [death-sick] and “ord-mecg” [sword-warrior]. Other poetic compounds he used are so-called hapax legomena from Beowulf, showing Bolland’s great familiarity with the Old English epic (for which, see “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880). These include “wael-hlem” [noise of battle], “frēo-burg” [noble town] and “benc-þele” [bench-plank].
The poem totals 120 half lines and is divided into four sections of thirty half lines each. In the opening section, the ‘spear-brave’ minstrel sings his love song in the morning prior to his last battle; subsequent sections deal with the minstrel’s fate in battle, during which he continues to sing of his beloved. In the last section, the minstrel is mortally wounded and the last lines of the poem feature a striking variation to the refrain:
For lufan and lof-herunge on lāce sīgan,
sweltan for swæsre swētre lofestran
anunga orettan ǣðelan cynnes
dǣd-hwatum songa dihtere gedēfe is! (ll. 113-120)
For love and praise to die in battle, to die for one’s dear sweet most beloved, certainly for the champion of noble stock, to the deed-brave poet of songs that is fitting!
If you want to read the whole poem and learn more about Bolland’s endeavours in London and Jena, please read my full article:
Thijs Porck, “An Old English Love Poem, a Beowulf Summary and a Reference Letter by Eduard Sievers: G. J. P. J. Bolland as an Aspiring Old Germanicist,” in Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature, ed. Thijs Porck, Amos van Baalen and Jodie Mann (Brill: Special issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 78:2-3): 262-291
Many legends referred to in medieval Germanic literature, ranging from the Old High German Hildebrandslied to Icelandic sagas, are set in the age of the Germanic Migration Period (4th to 6th centuries). The same goes for several Old English heroic poems, including Beowulf (set in early 6th-century Scandinavia), Waldere (about a legendary 5th-century Visigothic king) and The Finnsburg Fragment (set in Migration Age Frisia). The Old English poem Widsith too refers to this crucial period in the early medieval history of Europe. This blog post focuses on one reference in Widsith in particular: to the Burgundian King Gundahari (d. 437), who also appears in the much later Volsunga Saga (as Gunnar) and the Nibelungenlied (as Gunther).
Widsith, the widely travelled
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum. (Widsith, ll. 57-59)
[I was with the Huns and with Goths,
with Swedes and with Geats and with the South-Danes.
With the Vandals I was and with Varni and with the Vikings.]
Widsith is the name given to a 143-line poem in Old English that survives in the 10th-century Exeter Book (but was probably composed centuries earlier). In this curious poem, the speaker identifies himself as Widsith [‘broad journey’]; an apt name, since he claims to have travelled among no fewer than fifty different tribes, ranging from Fins, to Huns, through to Saracens, Egyptians, Indians and Frisians. He also claims to have interacted with various historical figures, including Julius Caesar (d. 44 BC), Ermanaric, king of the Goths (d. 376) and Alboin, king of the Lombards (d. 572). Clearly, we are dealing here with a fictional travelogue, unless we assume Widsith truly spanned the known globe and lived to at least 650 years of age.
The Anglo-Saxon poet of Widsith shows a familiarity with stories surrounding pseudo-legendary historical figures from the Germanic Migration Period, who are also mentioned in other Old English poems. These include the Danes Hrothgar and Hrothwulf (mentioned in Beowulf), as well as the Frisian Finn and Half-Dane Hnæf (mentioned in Beowulf and The Finsburg Fragment; see: The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In this intriguing catalogue, Widsith also mentions a magnanimous Burgundian king:
ond mid Burgendum, þær ic beag geþah;
me þær Guðhere forgeaf glædlicne maþþum
songes to leane. Næs þæt sæne cyning! (Widsith, ll. 65-67)
and among the Burgundians, there I received a ring;
there Guðhere gave me a shiny treasure,
as a reward for a song. That was not a thrifty king!
This Guðhere is a historical king of the Burgundians who plays an intriguing role in various Germanic literary traditions.
Gundahari: A Burgundian king, defeated by Huns
Even though the names may seem wholly different, etymologists will tell you that the name “Guðhere” in Widsith is the Old English reflex of the Burgundian name Gundahari. Old English gūþ ‘war’ and gunda both derive from Proto-Germanic *gunþī-/*gunþjō– ‘fight’ (just like Present-Day English mouth and German Mund both derive from Proto-Germanic *munþa- ‘mouth’); Old English here ‘war’ and hari come from Proto-Germanic *harja- (the Burgundians spoke an East Germanic language which, like Gothic, did not undergo i-mutation [a change in vowels followed by an i or j in the next syllable]). (For Proto-Germanic etymologies, see Kroonen 2013)
Gundahari was a historical fifth-century king of an East Germanic tribe known as the Burgdundians. He ruled a kingdom at Worms (Germany) which was overrun by Huns in the year 437. Gundahari was killed and, defeated by the Huns, the remaining Burgundians started to migrate and ended up in the area of Savoy (France).
Some of these Burgundians settled on the estate of the Roman diplomat and poet Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-489). In a letter to his friend Catullinus, Sidonius gives a fabulous description of these Germanic barbarians:
Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid me compose a song … , placed as I am among long-haired hordes, having to endure German speech, praising oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Burgundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair? Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry ? Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions discharged upon you at early morn from ten breakfasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn … by a crowd of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen of Alcinous could support them. (trans. Anderson 1936)
Sidonius’s gives the Burgundians a harsh review: they eat him out of house and home, they smell of garlic and onions, spread butter in their hair and sing horrible songs. It is most unfortunate that Sidonius did not record any of these Burgundian songs; who knows? They may have been singing of their king Gundahari and the crashing defeat by the Huns.
It is certain that the name Gundahari was well remembered among the Burgundians. One of Gundahari’s successors, King Gundobad (c. 452 – 516 AD) issued a law code known as the Lex Burgundionum [The Law of the Burgundians], which includes Gundahari in a list of memorable kings, along with Gibica, Godomar and Gislahari:
That songs were indeed sung about Gundahari is further suggested by his appearance in other Germanic literary traditions.
Sneaky Huns and sleepy snakes in the Völsunga Saga
The thirteenth-century, Icelandic Völsunga Saga synthesizes various older (oral) stories about the history of Sigurd the dragon slayer and the destruction of the Burgundians. In the Völsunga Saga, Gundahari appears as Gunnar, son of Gjuki (that is: Gibica!), King of the Burgundians. After a series of tragic events, Gunnar acquires the great treasure of Sigurd. This treasure rouses the interest of King Atli (that is: Atilla the Hun!). Through trickery, Atli lures Gunnar to his court and demands the treasure be handed over. Gunnar refuses and says that he has deposited the gold into the river Rhine. A battle between the Burgundians and Huns ensues and Gunnar is bound and thrown into a snake pit. Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister and Atli’s wife, helpfully hands Gunnar a harp and, in a desperate attempt to save his own life, the bound Gunnar begins to play the instrument with his toes. Almost all of the snakes fall asleep, but one stays awake and bites Gunnar to death.
Gunnar’s marvellous death scene was rather popular in medieval art and perhaps the most famous depiction of Gunnar in the snake pit is on the doorway of a 12th/13th-century stave church in Hylestad, Norway:
Variations of the story of Gundahari/Gunnar appear, among others, in the Old Norse Edda and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (in this version, Gundahari is named Gunther and is beheaded by his sister – no sleepy snakes involved). The Burgundian king that was struck down by Huns in 437, it seems, had truly become a legend.
The reference to Gundahari in Widsith attests to the fact that this fifth-century Burgundian king was also known in early medieval England. In this Old English poem, Gundahari is not linked to Atilla the Hun, there are no snakes, nor helpful (or vindictive) sisters; but the poem does associate the Burgundian king, explicitly, with treasure and song: this was not a thrifty king and he rewarded his poets well! These rewards, judging by Gundahari’s place in various literary traditions, certainly paid off!
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also like the following blog posts:
- Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
- A medieval giant on display: Last resting place of Beowulf’s Hygelac discovered?
Works referred to:
- Anderson, W.B., trans. (1936). Sidonius: Poems and Letters (Cambridge, MA)
- Kroonen, G. (2013). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden & Boston)
N.B. Gundahari also gets a reference in the Old English Waldere, but that is something for another blog post!
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