From Whence it Came: The Historical Context of Beowulf—Bib & Research Paper I

This is my first paper for Bib & Research on Beowulf.  I am decently happy with it, though less so with the later half.  If nothing else, it provides an interesting (albeit cursory) glance into the world of the Anglo-Saxon.  At least such was intended.  I think I was moderately successful, but only moderately.  I have not corrected anything from the submitted version.  There are some rather excellent turns of phrases which I hope you, dear reader, thoroughly enjoy.  There are also plenty of awkward sentences which I hope you will forgive while remembering that I was moderately to several freaked out during the writing of this paper.

Note: if you intend to read this aloud, mark that the ‘eo’ in ‘Beowulf‘ is a diphthong.  The title of this poem is two syllables.  The sound rolls from an ‘e’ (as in he) to an ‘o’ (as in go) or an ‘u’ (as in too).  I prefer the ‘o’ sound, personally, but I have been told it  is either.

Another note: the final sentence in the introductory paragraph is an allusion.  If you can guess from where it comes, I will admire you greatly.

From Whence it Came: The Historical Context of Beowulf

Or: Hypotaxis Vaguely Aspiring to Grandeur with the Belief that ‘Crap is Better than Nothing’

The historical context of Beowulf is shrouded in mist.  The world of the Anglo-Saxon, the Geat, and the Dane is far removed from the world of today and is obscured by a historical lethean haze that has remained nearly impenetrable for two centuries.  Through this thick mist, scholars and readers have made out the shapes and silhouettes of mountains, men, dreams, beliefs, and ideas—but this vision remains ever inchoate.  We can see glimpses of contrary ideas held in the same mind, of vengeances to be had, and of the wergild to be paid, but we are left, still, with nothing but glimpses for scholars to fuss over and bicker about.  Though I have been so sagely warned against generalizations in historical research, the context of Beowulf lends to little else.  In a great, indeterminate span of years, Christianity and paganism come together, wrestle, and somehow merge; ancient texts survive in the hands of the churchmen and spangle the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons with a majestic tradition of heroes and dragons; two cultures come together and form something brilliantly new; that new culture then suffers terribly during the Viking invasions.  It is from this complex, intricate web, blanketed by the dust of millennia, that the ancient epic Beowulf took its form.  It is immensely difficult to tie those few hints of the Anglo-Saxon culture to Beowulf, but it is said that from a single atom one could extrapolate the whole of the universe; so, likewise, I will attempt to capture a few of those threads and paint a picture of the world from which Beowulf came.

The dating of Beowulf has eluded scholars since its first modern edition was published in 1815 by Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin who set the date of composition at the year 340 (Bjork and Niles 17).  According to Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier, a general consensus has placed the composition of Beowulf anywhere from “eighth-, ninth-, or tenth-century Northumbria, Mercia, or East Anglia” (Bjork and Niles 21).  However, this date is still in question, and there have been numerous contrary voices throughout the centuries.  Tolkien, in his seminal essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, accepted the “age of Bede” (c. 672-735) as the era of composition “without argument” (20).  Dorothy Whitelock cites Chambers (1932), Crawford (1931), and Klaeber (1922) as concurring with Tolkien on the date of the poem (23).  For herself, however, Whitelock views the evidence as excluding a date “earlier than the late seventh century” while leaving open the possibility of a much later composition (24).  Louise E. Wright argues that the Old English word merewioingas in Beowulf (2921) refers to an historical dynasty that would not have been known prior to the year 751, setting a “terminus a quo” at that year (2, 5).  According to Michael Drout, the William C.H. and Elsie D. Prentice Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Wheaton College, the oldest composition date for Beowulf is around 975 to 1025 as these are the approximate dates of the manuscript.  He also notes that there is evidence to indicate that the manuscript might be a copy of a copy and, therefore, the composition of the poem itself would be even earlier than this.  Bjork and Obermeier claim that, be the poem the work of one man, archeological evidence would indicate an “eighth- to-tenth-century” date (Bjork and Niles 18).  To paint a picture of such an extensive period of time would be far beyond the scope of this paper; however, the first few strokes of the general background can be applied with an abbreviated history of this period.

Christianity, introduced to England in 597, brought along a significant Latinate influence (Baugh 98).  This insertion of Christianity into Anglo-Saxon England influenced the context from which Beowulf was brought forth in a number of ways.  It established the Christian influences which are easily perceivable within Beowulf, and helped establish an audience that would recognize the familiar Christian terms used in the poem (Bjork and Niles 175, 177).  I will touch on the tension and interplay between the concurrent Christian and pagan elements later on.  However, along with Christianity, the clergy brought with them a tradition of Latinate writings that was absorbed by the Anglo-Saxon society, the influence of which can be seen in Beowulf.  For example, some have noted the influence of Virgil on Beowulf (e.g. Haber in A Comparative Study of the Beowulf and the Aeneid).  C.S. Lewis notes the influence of Phaedrus, a first-century A.D. Roman author, whose creation, the dragon, “a creature born under evil stars, dis iratis natus, and doomed to guard against others the treasure it cannot use itself,” was the predecessor to the dragon of Beowulf (Lewis 147-8).  Though the texts themselves were restricted to the literate members of the monasteries, the Latinate influence brought by Christianity had a significant influence on the Anglo-Saxon culture, especially in relation to the creation of Beowulf.

A crux in the history of the Anglo-Saxons was the Scandinavian invasions of England that began in 787 and continued, with some intermission, until 878, followed by a period of “political adjustment and assimilation” that lasted through 1042 (Baugh 108-9).  Albert C. Baugh divides this invasion into three categories.  The first is that of the intermittent raids which, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, began  in 787 and were carried on until near 850 (108).  At this point, the second of Baugh’s stages begins: this is comprised of the work of large Scandinavian armies that arrived in 850 and ravished England  (including the killing of King Edmund) until a surprising victory by the English King Alfred in 878 which resulted in the Treaty of Wedmore and marked the end of the second stage (108-09).  Incidentally, Whitelock argues that the year 835 marks the latest date for Beowulf as the high praises for the Danish contained in the poem, to her, seem inappropriate for a people who, after about this time, were ravishing the English in earnest (24-25).  The third of Baugh’s stages follows the treaty of 878 and comprises a period of “political adjustment and assimilation from 878 to 1042” (109).  The warring did not end after the treaty of 878.  By approximately 950, the English had reclaimed most of their island, though it was “still strongly Danish in blood and custom” (Baugh 109).  Around 991, however, according to Baugh, another invasion by the Danish began which eventually led to the exile of Ethelred, the king of England, in 1014, and the crowning of the Dane Cnut (110).  As noted above, it was at this moment of political upheaval in England that the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf was created.

At the center of any consideration dealing with Beowulf‘s historical context is the tension and interplay between Christianity and the concurrent paganism.  Nearly every aspect of the cultural context is subsumed and colligated under this consideration.  According to Patrizia Lendinara, while the features of the pagan religion that Christianity began to replace “have more often been guessed at by scholars than known for certain in all its varied aspects,” it was not different in nature from the paganism of the other Germanic peoples. (123).  Christianity was introduced to England in the year 597 (Baugh 98).  Baugh notes an “intense activity in church building and the establishing of monasteries during [the seventh] century” (98).  Whitelock, however, notes that the spread of Christianity was not so quickly accepted throughout England.  She mentions struggles with pagan devil worship at the end of the seventh century, a hundred years after Augustine’s arrival in England (21).  Additionally, the conversions of Sussex and the Isle of Wight did not occur until 680 and 686 respectively (Whitelock 21).  She also cites the Venerable Bede, writing around the year 734, as complaining of the scarcity of Christians to help instruct in the faith (21).

The Christianity evident in Beowulf, and its interaction with the pagan heroic elements has been the subject of numerous studies.  Edward B. Irving Jr. sums up the consensus of critical thought on the matter when he says, “This kind of blending of two traditions, where a work produced in an unmistakably Christian context seems able to tolerate large admixtures of the secular with no sense of incongruity, is not easy to describe” (Bjork and Niles 187).  Irving later states that “Beowulf is at all points a smooth blend of pagan/secular elements with Christian ones, with its chief purpose to express and celebrate the heroic ethic” (Bjork and Niles 191).  Though it seems obvious that the subject of the poem is a remnant of a heroic pagan past, Whitelock is correct in pointing out that “the Christian element is not merely superimposed; it permeates the poem. . . .an acceptance of the Christian order of things is implicit throughout the poem” (4).  This tension between the Christian and the pagan has caused difficulties amongst scholars for years.1

This tension is best seen in some of the cultural phenomenon of the time.  The prime example is the concept of vengeance in Anglo-Saxon England which played an important role within the culture, some of the intricacies of which are demonstrated in Beowulf (e.g. 1384, 154-56,456-472).  According to Whitelock, the blood-feud is the center of numerous Anglo-Saxon stories, even those written long after Christianity successfully spread throughout England (13).  She says, “Action by the kindred, or, in special circumstances, by other persons empowered to act in their place, was the only means by which the Anglo-Saxon law dealt with homicide until after the Norman Conquest” (13).  While the church put great effort into the support of the wergild—monetary reparation for a slain kinsman in the place of their killer’s death—Whitelock notes that “killing for the sake of vengeance was not felt to be incompatible with Christian ethics at any period in Anglo-Saxon times” (13).  Whitelock cites numerous stories from the Anglo-Saxon  period, from widely distant dates, demonstrating the ubiquity of a cultural mindset that maintained no incompatibility between Christianity and killing in order to take vengeance for a kinsman’s death (13-17).  It is incredibly important in any critical appreciation of Beowulf to remember that it is from this culture of dichotomous beliefs—beliefs pertaining to incredibly important issues such as the vengeance required by the death of a kinsman—from which the poem arose.

The tension between the Christian and the pagan is not the only thing that informs an historical appreciation of Beowulf ‘s context.  To understand the mood of Beowulf and to understand the culture in which it was written, one must first understand the huge importance placed upon the community, the mead hall, and the relationship between a thegn and his lord.  The importance of vengeance in the Anglo-Saxon culture discussed above demonstrates the high value placed upon kinship.  However, the most important relationship in the Anglo-Saxon world was that between a thegn—that is, an honored warrior—and his lord.  This relationship was initiated by the thegn who took an oath of loyalty to the lord, promising to defend him and fight in his wars (Greenblatt 30-31).  The benefit to the thegn was the expectation that the lord would reward the thegn with gifts: a mead hall, protection, riches, and so forth (Greenblatt 31).  The elegiac Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” demonstrates the huge importance placed on kinsman and, particularly, the lord by portraying a dolorous picture of life in their absence:

He who has experienced it knows how cruel a companion sorrow is to the man who has no beloved protectors.  Exile’s path awaits him, not twisted gold—frozen thoughts in his heart-case, no joy of heart.  He recalls the hall-warriors and the taking of treasure, how in youth his gold-friend made him accustomed to feasting.  All delight is gone. (Greenblatt 112)

It is from within this culture of a tightly-knit community that the author of Beowulf was writing, and the result of this can be clearly seen within the poem.  These relationships permeated the Anglo-Saxon culture and had an inescapable influence on the author of Beowulf.  This worldview also lends a grim, elegiac tone to the writings of those who wrote out of this culture.

The Old English perspective is hard to capture, and an attempt to do so immediately finds one floundering in an ocean of possibilities and perhaps‘s, risking drowning in nothing more than speculations.  Moreover, such an attempt risks being merely a dilatory maneuver attempting to defer the recognition that there is a frightening lack of scholarly sources on the subject matter by laying on splotches of over-generalized imaginings.  Still, if one desires to dive into the mind of the maker (and it is my attempt to allow for such), one must be willing to get a little wet.  In their A History of Old English Literature, R.D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain note that while the Anglo-Saxon society experience profound and drastic changes throughout its history, “the literature does not always reflect those changes, especially the poetry, since it is steeped in tradition and often seems to reflect a long-outmoded way of life” (3).  There is a constant looking backwards to the heroic past within Beowulf; it is a “‘swan song,’ a conscious memorial tribute to a vanished, or vanishing, culture” as Irving suggests (Bjork and Niles 191).  The poet, perhaps, felt the tantalizing nostalgia of a heroic past replaced by a tamer, domestic faith.  In the midst of a hostile world of pitch black nights unillumed by streetlights, in the face of feral wolves and other beasts that invade your home, and in the face of invisible diseases that subvert your very flesh, perhaps—and this is a grand perhaps—the poet of Beowulf desperately reached out for the heroic deeds of one man who was brave enough to stand up for himself and struggle valiantly against the ravishes of the natural and preternatural world all on his own.

It would take far more than a handful of ink-splotched pages that is this brief overview of the Anglo-Saxon culture to make lucid the twists and turns of the Beowulf poet’s mind as he created the epic poem studied before us today. Still, perhaps these splotches of knowledge will provide the background out of which a better picture of the Anglo-Saxon culture and history might form.


1.  It seems to me, however, that these scholars forget to treat the supposed author and audience of Beowulf as human and subject to all of the implicit flaws.  When dealing with a culture as a whole, it is not hard to understand the variety of beliefs that can be held.  A simultaneous people-group is rarely, if ever, homogenous in its worldview, and it is foolish to assume this of the culture from which Beowulf originated.  Were we to assume the author of the poem to be either a perfectly consistent Christian or a perfectly consistent pagan, the blending of these worldviews within the poem would, admittedly, make little sense.  However, when dealing with an imperfect author, it is necessary to assume that within his mind there might exist ideas of heroic man and Christian man which, though irreconcilable, remain concurrent maugre all.  C.S. Lewis, in The Discard Image, portrays the complexities of medieval thought by repeatedly showing the ways in which classical thought was synthesized, both successfully and unsuccessfully, with medieval Christian thought.  The scholasticism of the medieval world “depended predominantly on books”, and the medieval man believed because he read (Lewis 2, 5).  Certainly Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, and Augustine contradicted one another, but to the medieval mind, they remained true nonetheless and merely required synthesis.  It is not hard to imagine this type of synthesis—this idea is not so removed from ourselves as we might think.  We can see this same sort of tension (tamed by familiarity) in our modern world: Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter with traditions easily traceable to pagan celebrations; theologically unsound Christians will believe in an utterly sovereign, determining God while still celebrating human free-will without ever juxtaposing the ideas and recognizing the incompatibilities; the American dream of a middle-class lifestyle gets constantly confused for the Biblical understanding of a purposeful, responsible life.  Imperfect people have always been able to maintain dichotomous beliefs without great difficulty.  It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the Anglo-Saxons were just as able to do this as we are today—the burden of evidence is on those who would disclaim their fallibility.  In an attempt to understand that culture and view it from its own paradigm, literary and historical critics seem prone to forget that what is incompatible to our modern apprehension was not merely held by the Anglo-Saxons despite their incompatibles, but might have been held as entirely compatible.

Works Cited

Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles., et al. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1997. Print.

Drout, Michael. “Dating Beowulf, Part I.” Wormtalk and Slugspeak. 15 Oct. 2007. Web. 11 Feb. 2011. <;.

Fulk, R. D., and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

Lendinara, Patrizia. “The Germanic Background.” Ed. Elaine M. Treharne and Phillip Pulsiano. A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 121-34. Print.

Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2009. Print.

Randle, Dr. Jonathan T. E-mail interview. 31 Jan. 2011.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Monsters and the Critics: and Other Essays. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006. Print.

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of Beowulf. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967. Print.

Wright, Louise E. “Merewioingas and the Dating of Beowulf: A Reconsideration.”     Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 24 (1980): 1-6. Print.

  1. #1 by salvageroost on March 6, 2011 - 10:59 am

    A pleasant read. Although you didn’t bring any stunningly unfamiliar or surprising information, you did a graceful job of assimilating sources. I must say, I especially enjoyed the endnote. 🙂

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