"The Battle of a Maldon": Biography of an Old English Poem

“The Battle of Maldon” is a 325-line fragment of a poem written at the end of the tenth century. The battle occurred on the coast near the fortified town of Maldon (Laborde 165) in Essex in 991 CE. The poem narrates only one of many battles that resulted in the 1016 Danish Conquest of England. Its first audience would have been contemporaneous to the battle (Parker; Laborde 23), potentially including Viking settlers who may have fought in the battle and were living in the area as a result of King Æthelred’s policies of paying tribute to avoid war and integrating the Viking army into society as a means of protection (Neidorf 453; 454; 456). The poem is “of a peculiararly British character” as it celebrates losing a battle (“Commentary”), but Neidorf contends that the poem’s carefully neutral vocabulary (458) towards the Vikings indicates composition soon after a tribute payment, probably after payments made in 991 or 994 (454).

According to Gordon and Robinson, “The Battle of Maldon” was composed possibly within ten years of the 991 CE battle. Robinson posits a later composition due to the poem’s meter and notes that the poem’s details speak to “a decade or so of history” (32) between the poem’s events and composition, noting that the poem “was wrought and revised over a considerable period of time” (31). Niedorf believes the poem was composed between 991 and 996 with the poet commemorating Brithnoth as a national hero who could be admired for his bravery by Viking settlers. Keynes notes that “King Ælthelred’s Treaty with the Viking Army” should be dated 994 CE (104). Since the treaty states that “all the injuries which were committed before the truce was established. . . are to be dismissed, and no one is to avenge it. . .” (qtd. on 106), then it is likely that “The Battle of Maldon” was composed in 994 or later, given the poem’s neutral position towards the invaders but its admiration of the war-like qualities of both Vikings and Saxons (Gordon 21; Robinson 32, 29; Niedorf 469; Keynes 104).

Gordon believes that the unknown author was not at the battle because the poet says “I heard” of the killing. Gordon explains that while “I heard” is a conventional phrase in epic poetry, it is likely that the poet would not use it if he had been at the battle and seen the deeds himself. It is possible, Gordon continues, that that the poet knew the warriors himself and could have been part of Brithnoth’s group of noble warriors, and the poet-warrior missed the fight; Gordon deduces this from the few literary flourishes and careful record within the poem of how each noble kept his vow to remain loyal to Brithnoth. The author appears to be familiar with the battlefield, “the character and history of the English leaders,” and all of the battlefield events (Gordon 5). The author leaves out details, assuming that the audience knows the battle site and the warriors involved. And while the poet may very well have been part of Brithnoth’s army, Neidorf asserts that the poet delicately deals with a volatile political situation using mutually laudable warlike characteristics portrayed in Old English and Scandinavian heroic poetry and valued by Anglo Saxons and Vikings alike. Instead of seeking revenge for the Viking beheading of Brithnoth (which is not attested in the poem but is mentioned elsewhere (Gordon 20; Niedorf 455)), the poet portrays the Vikings “as a vague inimical force” (qtd. in Neidorf 452; Robinson 27) with the warriors of both sides worthy of battling each other (Gordon 22; Laborde 173; Niedorf 459).

Alfred the Great, king from 871 - 899 CE, believed in educating the people in vernacular English. He began a “campaign to record and transmit knowledge” (Naughton). This occurred from his capital at Winchester, located in Wessex where West Saxon was the standard dialect. Gordon believes that the first manuscript of “The Battle of Maldon” was from Worcester, a monastery in England’s southwest (1) that was in the same dialectical region as Winchester. It is probable that the monastery continued Alfred’s legacy of manuscript gathering and copying. The West Saxon dialect has two stages, an early one (about 900 CE) and a late one (about 1000 CE). In late West Saxon, the early West Saxon ie combination changes to y, as from fierd to fyrd. Also, in late West Saxon, the early West Saxon ea combination changes to e, as from sceap to scep (Jebson). In lines 1-103, a total of 685 words, there are no ie vowel combinations, but there are thirty-one words (or 4.5 percent) with y, excluding names. These include hyssa, afysan, yrhðo, and trymian in the first twenty lines (see appendix for words marked in blue). The first 103 lines contain forty-four words (or 6.4 percent) with an ea combination but there are also words with just e. Ea words include fleam, wealdon, ongeaton, and bricgweardas in lines 79-85 (see appendix for words, excluding names, with ea marked in purple). This indicates that while the text may be West Saxon, it is not as early as 900 (because the y change had occurred) and not as late as 1000 (because the ea change has not occurred).

Van Gelderen notes that southern texts use thorn þ and eth ð instead of the northern d (80). Essex, where Maldon is located, and Worcester are both in the south, and the multiple occurrences of thorn (106 instances, such as þam and þæt line 9) and eth (37 instances, such as stæðe, and stiðlice from line 25) clearly mark the poem as a southern text. Thus, we have a southern text (uses þ and ð) that uses a late West Saxon vowel change (ie > y) but keeps an early West Saxon vowel combination (ea instead of e), so a composition date close to the battle date is possible. Interestingly, Robinson notes that the “Maldon” poem “may contain the first literary use of dialect in English” (26). Robinson notes the preponderance of Scandinavian influenced words in the Viking messenger’s speech in lines 29-41. Out of ninety-eight words, Robinson is able to link seventeen (or seventeen percent) to Old Norse, a much higher percentage than in the rest of the text. These words are most, garræs, þon, hilde dælon, gif ge spedaþ to þam, grið, syllan, sylfra dom, and eow friþes (see appendix for words in bold).

Additionally, the “Maldon” poem displays other clear Old English characteristics such as an extensive case system, the use of coordination, hw- instead of wh-, eow for you, ne for negation, ge- as a verb prefix, and the poetic device of triple alliteration. Van Gelderen carefully explains the Old English case system, and the occurrences in the first 103 lines of “Maldon” show the use of case-inflected demonstratives. Se (5 times), þæt (16), þa (34), þæs (1), þære (2), þone (3) and þa (2), or sixty-three uses of Old English demonstratives in 103 lines further show that “Maldon” is an Old English poem. The text also uses coordination with eighteen instance of and in the first 103 lines and no instances of embedding. The text uses the Old English hw- instead of the later wh- combination in hwæne (line 2), hwile (14, 83), hwæt (45), hwænne (67), and hwa (71). Eow is an Old English pronoun that later becomes you and is used five times in the first 103 lines, when the Viking messenger and Brithnoth discuss paying tribute. The ne negation is also used three times as ne forhtedon (line 21), ne deah (48), and ne murnon (96). The “Maldon” poem also contains the prefix ge-, which disappears in Middle English, “going from ge- to i/y to nothing” (Van Gelderen 73). The twenty-four instances of ge- in the first 103 lines include gename (line 71), gewat (72), gearowa (72), and georne (73). The most complex Old English indicator is the use of triple alliteration in poetic verse. The first half line contains two words with similar consonants and the second half line alliterates its first stressed syllable with the sound from the first half line (Van Gelderen 58). In the poem’s first 103 lines, at least forty-nine lines (or forty-eight percent) use triple alliteration, sometimes with several lines combined alliterating different consonants as in lines 10-16: wacian æt þam wige, þa he to wæpnum feng. / Eac him wolde Eadric his ealdre gelæstan, / frean to gefeohte, ongan þa forð beran / gar to guþe. He hæfde god geþanc / þa hwile þe he mid handum healdan mihte / bord and bradswurd; beot he gelæste / þa he ætforan his frean feohtan sceolde. “The Battle of Maldon” is clearly an Old English text.

But the oldest manuscript does not help with dating the poem. In 1696 Thomas Smith catalogued a set of bound manuscripts (the poem was bound with several earlier and later texts) at the Cotton Library. Smith noted that at that time the start and finish of the poem were already lost. The original manuscript was destroyed by fire in 1731. Fortunately, before the fire, John Elphinston had made a copy for Richard Graves, who gave his copy to Thomas Hearn in 1725. Hearn printed the text in an appendix to his edition of John of Glastonbury’s Chronicle, acknowledging Elphinston, Graves, and the date he received the text (Gordon 30, 38, 34). Scragg, though, cites Rogers’ 1985 article that demonstrates that David Casley, who followed Elphinston as deputy keeper of the library, actually made the transcript (“Documentary Evidence” 35). Hearn left his transcript to W. Bedford, who sold it to Richard Rawlinson, who willed it to the Bodleian Library when he died in 1755. The Casley / Elphinston transcript was in the Bodleian Library and was discovered by N. R. Ker around 1937 (Gordon 34).

“The Battle of Maldon” is a Germanic-styled heroic poem (Robinson 39; Clark 52; Gordon 24, 26) that narrates an actual battle between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons led by an ealderman named Brithnoth near Maldon, Essex. The poem’s details are “part of the patterning of the artist” (Scragg “Documentary Evidence” 35), but some details are more than poetic elaboration. Laborde carefully debunks a previously uncontested battle site near Heybridge, north of Northey Island in the Blackwater River, by locating the battlefield southeast of the fortified town of Maldon. The battlefield was on the mainland southwest and across from Northey Island near a natural ridge that formed a causeway to the island at low tide. In 991, Laborde explains, this natural ridge was narrower and would permit only pedestrian traffic and could be easily defended. By 1925, Laborde says the causeway had been expanded so cars could cross the ridge at low tide (162; 165; 168; 170; 172), and Keynes provides aerial and ground photographs of the site (102-103).

According to Irving there are two main sections to “The Battle of Maldon.” The first section deals with the nobleman Brithnoth and his leadership activities, and the second section follows Brithnoth’s death and demonstrates what individuals choose to do when their leaders die (Irving 458; 464). The poet uses ofermod (line 89), or pride, to describe Brithnoth’s fatal mistake, not just for him but for the entire army as all who stay to fight seem to know that they will die (“Old English…”; “Introduction”). The poet’s use of ofermod is the poet’s “severe criticism” of Brithnoth’s giving up a fighting advantage over the Vikings (Tolkien as qtd. in Scragg “Supplement” 88) because of the warrior’s impatience for battle or his high courage, depending on the much disputed definition of ofermod one believes (“Commentary”; Parker). No matter the definition, as Neidorf explains in his analysis, both Viking settlers and Anglo Saxons could admire Brithnoth’s and his men’s loyalty (464) while disparaging Godric and his brothers who cowardly flee the battle as soon as Brithnoth is slain (Robinson 38).

Part two is lines 104-325 and describes Brithnoth’s death and final speech and how once he is dead Godric and his brothers flee, causing others to flee as well. It is this flight, not Brithnoth’s ofermod, that allows the Vikings to win against a reduced army. But the poet shows Brithnoth’s warriors encouraging each other to continue fighting despite their reduced numbers and inevitable deaths. This courage could be admired by Viking and Anglo-Saxon alike. It is here the poet lists men and their speeches, men whom the first audience very likely knew, men who all “sank down in the fight” (Berridge, line 321).

Laborde notes that up to the Battle of Maldon the English were “accustomed to do more than hold their own against the Northmen … [and] [i]t was only after Maldon that they lost their morale” (172). According to Irving, the freedom the men had to stay and fight the Viking force with Brithnoth and the freedom the men had to stay and fight until death are choices these warriors could admire (464-5). With an increase in Viking raids, King Æthelred, whose lands Brithnoth vowed to defend in 991 (lines 51-58), fled England as an exile in 1013-1014 CE, leaving his kingdom to the Viking Svein Forkbeard (Parker). “The Battle of Maldon,” instead of being forgotten as a humiliating defeat, survived as an Old English poem because of its neutral vocabulary and and epitomization of warrior characteristics that both Viking settlers and Anglo Saxons could admire. It is the poet’s skill and knowledge of both the combatants and his audience that have left us with 325 lines of much studied and debated Old English poetry.

Works Cited

Berridge, Wilfrid, translator. “The Battle of Maldon.” The Battle of Maldon, HJJB [Site Creator Humphrey Berridge], 2016, http://www.battleofmaldon.org.uk.

“Commentary.” The Battle of Maldon, HJJB [Site Creator Humphrey Berridge], 2016, http://www.battleofmaldon.org.uk.

Gordon, E. V., editor. The Battle of Maldon. “Supplement” by D. G. Scragg, Manchester UP, 1976.

“Introduction.” The Battle of Maldon, HJJB [Site Creator Humphrey Berridge], 2016, http://www.battleofmaldon.org.uk.

Irving, Jr., Edward B. “The Heroic Style in ‘The Battle of Maldon.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 58, no. 3, U of North Carolina P, July 1961, pp. 457-467. JSTOR, stable url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4173350.

[Jebson, Tony]. “The Origins of Old English.” Learning Old English, 13 Feb. 2012, http://www.jebbo.co.uk/learn-oe/origins.htm.

Keynes, Simon. “The Historical Context of the Battle of Maldon.” The Battle of Maldon: AD 991, edited by D. G. Scragg, Basil Blackwell / The Manchester Centre for Anglo Saxon Studies, 1991, pp. 81-113.

Laborde, E. D. “The Site of the Battle of Maldon.” The English Historical Review, vol. 40, no. 158, Oxford UP, Apr. 1925, pp. 161-173. JSTOR, stable url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/552378.

Naughton, Ryan. Email to heather.childree@asu.edu, 7 Feb. 2017.

Niedorf, Leonard. “II Æthelred and the Politics of The Battle of Maldon.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 111, no. 4, U of Illinois P, Oct. 2012, pp. 451-473. JSTOR, stable url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jenglgermphil.111.4.0451.

“Old English - The Battle of Maldon: Passage 1, The Battle of Maldon: Byrhtnoth’s Response.” ASNC Spoken Word, University of Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, https://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/spokenword/oe_maldon1.php.

Parker, Eleanor. “The Battle of Maldon.” A Clerk of Oxford, 10 Aug. 2014, http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-battle-of-maldon.htm.

Robinson, Fred C. “Some Aspects of the ‘Maldon’ Poet’s Artistry.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol 75, no 1/2, U of Illinois P, Jan.-Apr. 1976, pp. 25-40, stable url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27707983.

Scragg, D. G. “Documentary Evidence.” The Battle of Maldon: AD 991, edited by D. G. Scragg, Basil Blackwell / The Manchester Centre for Anglo Saxon Studies, 1991, pp. 1-36.

Scragg. D. G. “Supplement.” The Battle of Maldon, edited by E. V. Gordon, Manchester UP, 1976.

Van Gelderen, Elly. A History of the English Language. Revised Edition. John Benjamins Publishing, 2014.


brocen wurde.

Het þa hyssa hwæne hors forlætan,

feor afysan, and forð gangan,

hicgan to handum and to hige godum.

Þa þæt Offan mæg ærest onfunde, 5

þæt se eorl nolde yrhðo geþolian,

he let him þa of handon leofne fleogan

hafoc wið þæs holtes, and to þære hilde stop;

be þam man mihte oncnawan þæt se cniht nolde

wacian æt þam wige, þa he to wæpnum feng. 10

Eac him wolde Eadric his ealdre gelæstan,

frean to gefeohte, ongan þa forð beran

gar to guþe. He hæfde god geþanc

þa hwile þe he mid handum healdan mihte

bord and bradswurd; beot he gelæste 15

þa he ætforan his frean feohtan sceolde.

Ða þær Byrhtnoð ongan beornas trymian,

rad and rædde, rincum tæhte

hu hi sceoldon standan and þone stede healdan,

and bæd þæt hyra randas rihte heoldon 20

fæste mid folman, and ne forhtedon na.

Þa he hæfde þæt folc fægere getrymmed,

he lihte þa mid leodon þær him leofost wæs,

þær he his heorðwerod holdost wiste.

Þa stod on stæðe, stiðlice clypode 25

wicinga ar, wordum mælde,

se on beot abead brimliþendra

ærænde to þam eorle, þær he on ofre stod:

"Me sendon to þe sæmen snelle,

heton ðe secgan þæt þu most sendan raðe 30

beagas wið gebeorge; and eow betere is

þæt ge þisne garræs mid gafole forgyldon,

þon we swa hearde hilde dælon.

Ne þurfe we us spillan, gif ge spedaþ to þam;

we willað wið þam golde grið fæstnian. 35

Gyf þu þat gerædest, þe her ricost eart,

þæt þu þine leoda lysan wille,

syllan sæmannum on hyra sylfra dom

feoh wið freode, and niman frið æt us,

we willaþ mid þam sceattum us to scype gangan, 40

on flot feran, and eow friþes healdan."

Byrhtnoð maþelode, bord hafenode,

wand wacne æsc, wordum mælde,

yrre and anræd ageaf him andsware:

"Gehyrst þu, sælida, hwæt þis folc segeð? 45

Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan,

ættrynne ord and ealde swurd,

þa heregeatu þe eow æt hilde ne deah.

Brimmanna boda, abeod eft ongean,

sege þinum leodum miccle laþre spell, 50

þæt her stynt unforcuð eorl mid his werode,

þe wile gealgean eþel þysne,

Æþelredes eard, ealdres mines,

folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon

hæþene æt hilde. To heanlic me þinceð 55

þæt ge mid urum sceattum to scype gangon

unbefohtene, nu ge þus feor hider

on urne eard in becomon.

Ne sceole ge swa softe sinc gegangan;

us sceal ord and ecg ær geseman, 60

grim guðplega, ær we gofol syllon."

Het þa bord beran, beornas gangan,

þæt hi on þam easteðe ealle stodon.

Ne mihte þær for wætere werod to þam oðrum;

þær com flowende flod æfter ebban, 65

lucon lagustreamas. To lang hit him þuhte,

hwænne hi togædere garas beron.

Hi þær Pantan stream mid prasse bestodon,

Eastseaxena ord and se æschere.

Ne mihte hyra ænig oþrum derian, 70

buton hwa þurh flanes flyht fyl gename.

Se flod ut gewat; þa flotan stodon gearowe,

wicinga fela, wiges georne.

Het þa hæleða hleo healdan þa bricge

wigan wigheardne, se wæs haten Wulfstan, 75

cafne mid his cynne, þæt wæs Ceolan sunu,

þe ðone forman man mid his francan ofsceat

þe þær baldlicost on þa bricge stop.

Þær stodon mid Wulfstane wigan unforhte,

Ælfere and Maccus, modige twegen, 80

þa noldon æt þam forda fleam gewyrcan,

ac hi fæstlice wið ða fynd weredon,

þa hwile þe hi wæpna wealdan moston.

Þa hi þæt ongeaton and georne gesawon

þæt hi þær bricgweardas bitere fundon, 85

ongunnon lytegian þa laðe gystas,

bædon þæt hi upgang agan moston,

ofer þone ford faran, feþan lædan.

Ða se eorl ongan for his ofermode

alyfan landes to fela laþere ðeode. 90

Ongan ceallian þa ofer cald wæter

Byrhtelmes bearn (beornas gehlyston):

"Nu eow is gerymed, gað ricene to us,

guman to guþe; god ana wat

hwa þære wælstowe wealdan mote.” 95

Wodon þa wælwulfas (for wætere ne murnon),

wicinga werod, west ofer Pantan,

ofer scir wæter scyldas wegon,

lidmen to lande linde bæron.

Þær ongean gramum gearowe stodon 100

Byrhtnoð mid beornum; he mid bordum het

wyrcan þone wihagan, and þæt werod healdan

fæste wið feondum.

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