The Battle of Maldon
Some issues and themes to consider when writing about The Battle of Maldon.
Consider these two statements about the poem, from Dolores Warwick Frese 'Poetic Prowess in Brunanburh and Maldon: Winning, Losing, and Literary Outcome' in Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton and Fred C. Robinson (eds.) Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986) pp. 83-99.
- "Byrhtnoth himself is remembered in this poem as a wordsmith rather than a warsmith."
- "The etymological entering of almost every Anglo-Saxon word for utterance into the text of The Battle of Maldon finally achieves a superfluity of specification that becomes poetically meaningful."
- The Viking messenger switches in his speech between using the second-person singular pronouns (þe, þu - addressing Byrhtnoth) to using plurals (eow, ge). Is he trying to subvert B's authority, going over his head and putting the Vikings' case to the whole army? Is the poet stressing the magnitude of paying tribute - that it affects the whole country, not just individuals?
- Names used for Byrhtnoth - these emphasise his relationships with others, as subject (of Æþelred), as lord, as leader, as kinsman. Look at the ways in which people are named - what does it tell us about their relationships and their status? Why does the poet keep potentially confusing names (the two Godrics, for example) rather than using poetic licence and changing them? Contrast with the naming of the Vikings - generic words suggesting their evil characteristics, their status as outsiders, people who are based on sea rather than land and therefore unfixed.
- Consider the difference between the generic depiction of king/leader as a giver of treasure with the specific depiction of Byrhtnoth here. There are suggestions that he has previously been a generous lord, giving gifts and supporting his men, but in the poem as we have it the emphasis is on fighting for king and country, to eschew cowardice, rather than to gain treasure. Would the fact that the battle was known to end in defeat for the English affect the presentation of reward, do you think?
- There is a lot of word-play relating to tribute and treasure. Is the Vikings' greed (demanding tribute in a wish to get out of fighting, trying to loot Byrhtnoth's corpse) another reason why the poet might downplay the role of reward as an impetus for the English to fight?
- Why does Byrhtnoth spend so much time teaching, advising, organising his troops? Is it significant that words meaning "young man" are used to describe some members of the army? Is there a suggestion that the army, perhaps largely composed of men performing obligatory military service, is not well-prepared or experienced? Note that Byrhtnoth is most comfortable with his own men, perhaps because he already knows their fighting abilities and considers them competent?
- Look at the words used for weaponry, and how weapons are depicted. Does the poet use personfication/prosopopoeia in his descriptions? What would be the effect of this? How does the description of fighting in this poem match up to depictions in, say, Beowulf or The Battle of Brunanburh?
- The lost opening. How much has been lost? Can we assume that the subject of the previous lines was Byrhtnoth, since he is so strongly assumed to be the subject of the first lines we have?
- The lost ending. Do we have enough information from the surviving portion to tell us what the "moral of the story" is?
- Look for self-contained and strongly alliterative half-lines. The poet is very fond of them - why might this be? What is their effect in the movement of the narrative or in the presentation of information? There are also repeated structures of various sorts in sections of the poem, which are often be based around half-lines.
- Consider the use of direct speech and reported speech. Why might the poet prefer one over the other at various points? Is there anything distinctive about the way characters talk? Use the Old English Coursepack to get information about the Viking messenger's use of Scandinavian dialect words.
- Look at how the poet deals with action and thought - vocabulary and structure are constantly being used to emphasise these two aspects of battle-readiness.
- How does the poet use tenses? Look at the (perhaps obvious) difference between narrative and direct speech - might the poet be using the different sense of time in direct speech for particular purposes?
- Consider the linearity of the narrative. How does the poet use language to present events as they are happening? When and why does he digress and look back to past events?
- The paying of tribute (don't call it Danegeld at this stage in history) appears to have begun in the same year as the battle at Maldon (991). Is the poet presenting a politicised view of the payment of tribute? How does his language suggest his attitude towards this?
- Look at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries for this battle - how do they compare to the poem? What might they tell us about the poet's preoccupations and biases?
- Look at the possibility that the presentation of heroic life here is, in fact, anachronistic. If the men were largely performing military service, the brief suggestions we are given of a comitatus-style society are likely to be a literary fiction rather than any kind of reality. Indeed, it's possible that such structures were never a reality in Anglo-Saxon England. Why would the poet use such a device, which is likely to be an archaism? What does such a construct offer to him? You might find this interesting in terms of historical readings of heroism in Maldon: Michael Matto, 'A War of Containment: The Heroic Image in The Battle of Maldon' Studia Neophilologica 74, 2002. (Full text is available online).
- Is the letting go of the horses at the beginning of the surviving poem a comment on A-S methods of fighting? Remember that the English troops in 1066, because they largely fought on foot, had huge difficulties against Norman cavalry.
Intertextuality and formulae
- l. 314: "god on greote" - compare with Beowulf l. 3163 ff. "Hi on beorg dydon beg ond siglu, eall swylce hyrsta, swylce on horde ær niðhedige men genumen hæfdon, forleton eorla gestreon eorðan healdan, gold on greote, þær hit nu gen lifað eldum swa unnyt swa hit æror wæs", and Andreas l. 1078 ff. "Hie þa unhyðige eft gecyrdon, luste belorene, laðspell beran, sægdon þam folce þæt ðær feorrcundra, ellreordigra, ænigne to lafe in carcerne cwicne ne gemetton, ah þær heorodreorige hyrdas lagan, gæsne on greote, gaste berofene, fægra flæschaman."
- ll. 26, 42, 209: "wordum mælde". This is a formulaic introduction to an utterance and appears regularly in OE literature. Note that it is used in the initial exchange of threats and promises to describe first the Viking and then Byrhtnoth - what is the effect of using the same formula?
- ll. 42, 309: "Byrhtnoð maþelode, bord hafenode"; "Byrhtwold maþelode, bord hafenode". "Mathelode" Another formulaic introduction to speech, again commonly used in OE. What is the effect of the semi-rhyme between the two parts of the line?
- l. 126, 303: "wæl feol on eorþan".
Be careful of...
- Discussing "the heroic code" as though it is a monolithic code of behaviour rather than a literary device with, potentially, little real-world application. Certainly, do not assume that the ideal of dying with one's lord was a widely-accepted goal in Anglo-Saxon military thought. Consider that the poet may be using archaic/literary ideals to put a good spin on a military disaster.
- Using the word "comitatus" if you don't know what it means. It is translated by one Old English glossary as "gesiþræden", meaning a troop of comrades/followers/retainers/ warriors. The term tends to be used in the Anglo-Saxon context to describe a close troop of warriors who are supported by (and who militarily support) a single leader. Byrhtnoth's heorðwerod might be described as a comitatus, if we read them as this kind of group.
- Quoting Tacitus as a direct source for Anglo-Saxon culture. Although this is often done, we must remember that Tacitus was writing in the first century A.D., about nine hundred years before Maldon. Consider whether you would accept a text written by Ælfric as good evidence for English customs in 1900, or even in 1400. Tacitus may, however, have something to tell us about how the Anglo-Saxons viewed their past and what their ideas of archaic society might have been like.
- Misspelling Byrhtnoth's name!