Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Deep End

I've enjoyed learning about medieval English literature in the past couple years, but when it comes to Old English, I'm still very much in the shallow end of the pool. Some assigned readings this week introduced me to some very serious and detailed criticism focused on The Battle of Maldon.

The Battle of Maldon is a fragment of Old English poetry, seeming to lack beginning and end. It tells a romanticized version of a historical battle near the town of Maldon in 991 AD fought between Vikings and the native Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth, dies in battle and his loyal followers fight to the death rather than fleeing once their lord is dead.

The Battle of Maldon as we know it is only 325 lines long, but whole books have been written about it. I read one chapter that detailed the layout of 10th century Maldon and had a map that showed dykes and forests and the specific lands that belonged to Byrhtnoth. In another reading, there was a twenty page discussion over whether a location mentioned in medieval sources as 'Assandun' refers to the town of Ashdon in Essex or Ashingdon, also in Essex.

These essays of criticism on The Battle of Maldon frequently quote Old English and Latin, and sometimes German and Greek, not providing translations afterwards as I've gotten used to in other books. I can only assume that the intended audience of this criticism is other experts in the field; they may be the only people who, in addition to knowing Old English and Latin, care enough about The Battle of Maldon to find an essay on the development of Maldon's minting industry in the 990s AD interesting. J.R.R. Tolkien himself composed a fictional verse epilogue for the poem, an interesting example of fanfiction.

Near the end of a book of essays on The Battle of Maldon, one author says, "The poem that cornered the [Anglo-Saxonist] praise market has never made it into the registers of general culture." Indeed, since Beowulf, a greater poem with similar themes, exists, it seems unlikely that The Battle of Maldon will ever reach mainstream fame. The academic work surrounding it is certainly opaque to me.

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