Old English Anxieties in the Elegies of the 10th Century Exeter Book
18 January 2021
Archaeologist Lorna Webb is back with another blog post on medieval texts. This time she's inspired by Blue Monday as she looks at themes of anxiety found in the Exeter Book.
When the government announced the third “lockdown” restrictions in England on the 4th January I had a huge hit of anxiety. Was life ever going to go back to normal? Would I still be going to work? Could I still go and see my grandfather?
Our current world has become very uncertain and filled with anxiety and with foreboding about the future seemingly dominating our conversations, occupying our news, and disrupting our plans. But this uncertainty about the world is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history periods of uncertainly have given rise to change in the political process, led to great art works, musical compositions, stories, and poetry and this is true of Old English poetry.
Written across a period of change and uncertainty, Old English poetry, which seems to almost exclusively deal with themes that stem from anxiety and uncertainty, can give us an interesting, yet relatable look into the ways to convey feelings in an uncertain world.
First - a content warning. This blog post deals with themes of anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation. At the end of this blog post there are a list of links for websites offering advice if you are feeling any of these things.
Cover image: The Wanderer, Exeter, Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 3501 fol. 76v-77r
The period between AD410 and AD1066 shows some interesting and fundamental changes for the peoples living within those centuries (Brooks 2013). Not only did the language and religion of the population change the so did the structure of society. This “transition” is reflected archaeological through the change in settlement structure, the burial customs, and a shift in material culture (Welch 2011: 266; Yorke 2006: 32; Blair 2005: 58).
These changes were ushered in primarily from the removal of the Roman administration and then the emergence of a new societal structure dominated by the uncertainty of conflict. These conflicts can be seen while looking through the shift in material culture in burial evidence at this time. This is most evident through the so-called “warrior burials” with famous examples being the Prittlewell prince and the Sutton Hoo ship burials (Carver 1998).
These burials show a range of artefacts which indicate conflict, including swords, arrow heads, knifes, shields, and helmets. But they also show a range of transition items – both Christian artefacts, such as gold foil crosses and baptism spoons, and pagan items, such as items with hunting motifs associated with Norse gods.
Speaking of Norse gods… In areas such as the north of England and along the south coast in places like York and Exeter there was also another dangerous uncertainty – Viking raids. As well as the day-to-day uncertainty of changing laws, societal transition, the language change, material change, climate change (though viewed at a local level of whether the harvest would be good or not), death and disease, the fear of invasion was also very real.
Is it any wonder that the poetic musings from these centuries explored themes that expressed anxious emotions?
The Exeter Book
One of the major collections of Old English poetry is the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). Written in the 10th century but arguably containing works that are from the centuries before that, the Exeter Book contains 131 leaves of continuous text. Named in an inventory as “mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht” (Wiliamson 1977:3) which translates to “a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things.”
The works found in the folios are arranged like a scrap book with different items of prose and poetry without any logical order (Sisam 1953). The book contains a sixth of all known Old English corpus (Gameson 1996) and has a large collection of both poetry and Old English riddles. There is not a contents page, and the way the works are copied shows us that this really was a personal collection of someone collecting the poetry and riddles which they enjoyed. There isn’t an author named and it is assumed that the items in the manuscript were collected from other, now lost, manuscripts.
The book itself has been well used. Although lacking in later glosses or notes added by scribes in the centuries after it was made, the book does have minor damage to it. There are missing pages, knife strokes, light damage where it was presumably left open and on folio 8 “the spillage of liquid from a cup or mug” (Williamson 1977: 4). The back of the manuscript has sustained the most damage with a long burning slash down the back folios. One historian has summarised that a burning beam fell on the book possibly in a Viking raid! (Klinck 1992:13)
Luckily for us the book has survived through the centuries to give us a glimpse into the semantic themes of Old English poetry.
Poetry, Elegies, and Elegiac Poetry
In the limited amount of Old English Literature which includes prose, riddles and stories, poetry makes up a large chunk. There are two main types of old English poetry: heroic Germanic tales and Christian literature. In many cases this is sometimes difficult to pull apart from one to the other with many themes and translations giving the same poem the two different meanings. This is particularly true of the poems featured in the Exeter Book which cover the transitional period between these two types, often featuring themes from both epic poetry but also themes that translate when read with Christian theology.
Some of the works within the manuscript fall squarely into Christian literature with bible stories and a couple of hagiographies (or saints’ lives), which tell the stories of saints such as Guthlac, an Early Medieval saint.
However, the most intriguing types of works are known as the “elegies” or “elegiac poetry”. An elegy is defined as a lament for the dead and covers works which are pessimistic but meditative. This differs from the term “elegiac poetry” which is generally used to describe the poetry, which is more reflective, and emotive. A good example of this Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot.
Defining elegiac poetry from the early medieval period especially from the collection in the Exeter book is problematic and the term itself is misleading. Fell (2013:181) argues that these poems should be classed as “transient” to express the changeable nature of situations instead of focusing on the sorrow and depressive subject matter.
Throughout the Exeter book there are at least 7 elegies. The most commonly agreed on are The Wanderer (fol. 76b - fol. 78a); The Seafarer (fol. 81b - fol. 83a); The Riming Poem fol. 94a - fol. 95b); Deor (fol. 100a - fol. 100b), Wulf and Eadwacer (fol. 100b - fol. 101a); The Wife's Lament (fol. 115a - fol. 115b); The Husband's Message (fol. 123a - 123b); and The Ruin (fol. 123b - fol. 124b). These have been greatly written upon and critically reviewed as well as argued as to whether they actually are elegies. For this look at early medieval anxiety we are going to look at 3 poems which reflect different facets of anxiety, uncertainly, loss and in some cases, meditative reflection.
“Oft him anhaga, are gebideð, metudes miltse. | Often the solitary man enjoys the grace and mercy of the Lord.
Consisting of 115 lines, this poem is the best known of the Old English elegies found in the Exeter Book, known in the modern world as “The Wanderer”. The most used devices and themes in this poem are those of telling of exile, longing for a world as it was, earthly melancholy and the description of winter.
At the beginning of the poem (lines 1-8) the theme of earthly melancholy is used by using descriptive words to show the world in winter. Phrases such as “hrimcealde sæ” ice cold sea, “wintercearig” winter, paint a picture of frozen wastelands and set a depressing scene for a forlorn figure to tell their tale. The uncomfortable weather is reflected in the speaker’s emotions which are shown in phrases such as “him anhaga” the solitary one, “modcearig” sorrowful at heart, “wræclastas” path of exile.
The speaker then identifies themselves as “eardstapa” which directly translates to “earth stomper” or Wanderer which is what gives the poem its modern name. In the Exeter book there are not any indication of titles and these have been added by modern editors, and in some cases the idea of a single “wanderer” can be misleading. This is where modern commentators have greatly discussed the number of speakers within the poem. So far, we have the wanderer themselves but also possibly a narrator. Character in the elegiac early medieval poetry can be difficult to see and sometimes the way the poem is edited can affect the reading of the poem as well as the number of characters present.
From lines 8 to 36 the poem then tells of the wanderer’s sorrow and mourning the life they have lost. It is retrospective and leans into poetry themes of a “golden age.” He describes the lord and hall culture of which he is familiar with and tells of how wonderful things used to be. In lines 36 to 48 the speaker then turns back to the frozen winter and uses it as metaphor of how they see their life.
Lines 48 to 88 has the speaker talking about how to live and is quite philosophical. Did they bring this on themselves? Is life meant to be like this? To answer the lines 88 to 110 brings a new theme to the poem. In English literature terms this is called “ubi sunt” or a “where are?” In the Wanderer this is expressed as “hƿær cƿom.” An ubi sunt is a Latin formula which literally translates to “where are the…” and is found in other poems including Beowulf and is used throughout the collection found in the Exeter Book in other poems such as the Ruin and Deor (found below).
In the Wanderer the anxiety of the speaker’s position is expressed through lines 92 to 96 and in a change to the metric pattern in the alliteration the speaker says:
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?
“Where is the horse now? Where the hero gone? Where is the bounteous lord, and where the benches for feasting? Where are all the joys of hall?”
This style of expression may be familiar as it is used in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The repetitive nature of the question and the format on which it is presented changes the rhythm and alliteration in the Old English and makes the reader really look and think about the questions as they stick out. The interesting thing about these questions are that they are all rhetorical. And no answer is given – instead we are left to search for the wisdom in the statements.
The poem then ends with the themes of loneliness, solitude and anxiety being concluded as the narrator or the wanderer now being a “wise man” who has learnt to be brave and through his suffering learnt acceptance.
“Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas, swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera. | Slaughter was widespread, pestilence was rife, and death took all those valiant men away.
“The Ruin” is the last of the elegies found in the Exeter Book and, due to the aforementioned burning, is also the most damaged. It is more descriptive than the other elegies and seemingly takes the reader through a “ruined” city (Greenfield and Calder 1986).
The theme of ruined city or excidium Urbis (Muir 2000:699) and the phrase “sic transit Gloria mundi” were quite popular in the 10th century and The Ruin maybe more of an example of this type of poetry as a subcategory of the elegiac genre. This has led to scholars debating whether the location of the poem is an actual site or a biblical metaphor.
However, specific descriptions in places such as on line 10 “raeghar and readfah” “red stained and grey with lichen” (Hamer 2015:5) and on line 30 “Þaes teaforgeapa tigelum sceadeÞ” “this red arch is coming away from its tiles” suggest that the poet has a location in mind. Scholars have attributed the mystery location to places such as Bath or even Colchester (Swanton 2002) due to a descripition of a large bathhouse (Klinck 1992:61). Whether the poem is angling the reader towards the description of an actual scene has been much debated.
The Ruin stands apart from the other elegies as it does not have a first-person speaker (Greenfield and Calder 1986: 281) and instead is composed completely from the poet’s point of view. This makes the poem different in comparison to poems such as the Wanderer as without a central character the poem is purely a journey of a single voice. However, this enhances the themes of loneliness and isolation by the lack of characters and makes the reader an onlooker (Klinck 1992: 61) to the lonely scene. The separation from both narrator and observer and the tone as “impersonal and contemplative” (Leslie 1961: 22) links The Ruin to the elegiac poems, and just like The Wanderer the poem is unrelenting where it comes to answers and leaves the reader with more questions.
The word bank formed from this poem is very descriptive. Words to do with building are paired with words describing old and decay. The language built into the alliterative Old English style gives a rich description of the scene before the poet’s eyes. Words paired together such as “marvellous” and “masonary” (line 1), “ruined” and “destroyed” (line 2), “towers” and “tumbled down” (line 3), “frost cracked” (line 6), “ground” and “grip”, “dead- departed”, “heaps of rubble”, “host of heroes” “glorious, gleaming, gold-adorned” show a rich description of both abject ruin and the splendour of the world that has been lost. This makes the reader think of lost things and feelings.
The Ruin deals with loneliness and depression from a personal point of view. The poem goes as far as to highlight the causes of human misery with examples including pride, war, and pestilence. It shows how landscape can show age and decay and make the reader think of a “golden age” and how things were better in the past; a trope that is still felt in the modern age.
“Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. | That passed and so may this.
I am finishing my look at early medieval anxiety with a short but interesting poem found towards the middle of the Exeter Book.
Deor alludes to lots of early medieval pop culture references as well as legends and links to other cultures including that of Norse mythology. All of the characters mentioned had some sort of misfortune and have a story behind them. These would have been well known stories and echo an oral tradition and therefore makes this poem’s origins much older than the written version contained in the Exeter book.
The inclusion of Weland the Smith (or Wayland) is particularly interesting due to its links with both early-medieval culture in Britain and Norse mythology. Wayland is a smith enslaved by a king, and then takes his revenge by killing the king's sons and escaping by crafting a winged cloak and flying away.
For a closer look at Deor, let’s take the Weland verse of the poem:
Welund him be wurman wræces cummade,
Anhydig eorl earfoþa dreag,
Hæfde him to gesiþþe sorge and longaþ,
Wintercealde wræce: wean oft onfond
Siþþan hine Niþhad on need legde,
Swoncre seonobende on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
“Weland by sword-points suffered woefully,
Strongminded warrior, endured much pain,
Sorrow and longing were his company,
Winter-cold exile. Hardship was his lot
After Nithhad with supple sinew-bonds
Condemned the better man to live in bondage.
That passed away, and so may this from me.”
Themes of suffering, earthly melancholy, betrayal and disabling misfortune weave themselves through this scene, with “winter cold exile” in particular reflecting the language and feel of The Wanderer. The story continues to be bleak and harrowing for the reader, yet the final line, which repeats throughout the poem, offers comfort. “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg” - That passed, and so may this.
This phase can be interpretated in two different ways. The first is a comfort, a reassurance that a remedy was found, and the situation sorted itself out and the second is the acceptance of time passing. Both of these interpretations offer the reader something that The Wanderer and The Ruin do not offer and that is an element of hope and togetherness, that humanity goes through the same emotions and hardships together.
Throughout periods of change and stress throughout history works of literature can reflect the otherwise missing feelings and emotion of the stressful events the people of the time were living through. First World War poetry and prose is a relatively modern parallel to the Early Medieval Old English poetry. The experiences described in the poetry, for us as a modern audience, are difficult to understand and in some cases completely beyond our view of the world and collective modern experiences. However, the emotions are very relatable.
In a way it is refreshing that the human expression of negative emotions can be expressed in a range of ways and literature is one of them. Especially in times of unprecedented change, such as the global pandemic of the present, feeling of anxiety, loneliness, depression and feeling displaced are good to be explored and in some ways healthy to do.
Old English elegies summarise these feelings as being all about experience, wisdom, understanding the world around you and the stoic reassurance that across time written in alliterative verse someone understood exactly how to express their feelings.
“Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg”
All Old English translations are from Hamer (2015) A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse.
This fantastic resource breaks down the poem The Wanderer including an audio verse of it: http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/wanderer.php
The British Library’s short introduction to the Exeter Book: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/exeter-book#
Mental Health Services
NHS List of services for stress, anxiety and depression: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/
Mind Charity: https://www.mind.org.uk/
Please see the UCL Wellbeing pages at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/health-wellbeing/staff-wellbeing for resources to support mental and physical wellbeing.
Blair J., 2005. The Church in Anglo Saxon Society.
Brooks, N. (2013) “The social and political background,” in Godden, M. and Lapidge, M. (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Companions to Literature), pp. 1–18.
Carver, M., 1998. Sutton Hoo; Burial Ground of Kings? London: British Museum Press.
Fell C 2013, Perceptions of transience in Godden, M. and Lapidge, M. (eds) (2013) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gameson R., 1996. The Origin of the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry. Anglo-Saxon England 25. 135-85.
Greenfield, S and Calder, D., 1986. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York University Press: United States of America.
Hamer 2015. A choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse.
Klinck, A., 1992. The Old English Elegies; A Critical Edition and Genre Study. McGill- Queens University Press: Canada.
Leslie, R., 1961. Three Old English Elegies. Manchester University Press: London.
Muir, J., 2000. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, Volume II Commentary. University of Exeter Press: Exeter.
Sisam, K., 1953. Studies in the History of Old English Literature. Clarendon Press: Oxford.
Swanton, M., 2002 English Poetry before Chaucer., University of Exeter Press: Exeter.
Welch, M., 2011. The Mid Saxon ‘Final Phase’. In. Eds., Hinton D, Crawford S and Hamerow H., The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Oxford University Press.
Williamson, C., 1977. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. The University of North Carolina Press: United States of America.
Yorke, B., 2006. The Conversion of Britain. Pearson Education Limited: Great Britain.