Comitatus in Poetry


The Battle of the Maldon

1.      - Was broken.

2.      Then was commanded each young man to forsake his horse.

3.      To drive it far away, and to hasten forward by walking.

4.      Thinking on his hands, his courage, and goodness.

5.      Then when this kinsman of Offa first discovered

6.      That the warrior, Offa, did not wish to tolerate cowardice

7.      He let him that was familiar to his hand, his

8.      Beloved hawk, fly into the woods and advanced into the battle

9.      By this one could perceive this young man would not

10.  Grow weak in combat when he grasped his weapon.

11.  Moreover, Eadric wished to serve his [old]

12.  Lord in combat; beginning forth to carry

13.  His spear to battle.  He kept good thanks

14.  While he was able with his hands to wield his

15.  Shield and broadsword.


In the Battle of Maldon, we first read about Offa commanding his troops to drive their horses away in order to better fight in hand to hand melee combat (lines 2-5).  Offa’s kinsman makes a token symbol of his loyalty by sending his beloved falcon toward the woods (lines 5-7).  Eadric stood by his chief as well, pressing forward in battle.           Falcon



      The Battle of Maldon shows both sides of Comitatus, those that keep it and those that fail.

Byrhtnoth, the protector of warriors,  chose his best fighters, reminded all how to properly use sword and shield, and then fought a vain, hopeless battle, in spite of the possible “mercy” that had been offered them.  (lines 20-25)  He continued to fight when many others had fallen all around him.  When he at last receives his death-wound, he praises God, not once despising his death, while a stripling had up his position before and fought.

On the other hand, the son of Odda took flight, while Godric stole Byrhtnoth’s horse and “bravely ran away.”  (As in, he’s a branded coward and greatly frowned upon; lines 185.)  The brothers  Godwin and Godwig followed suit.

However, instead of following this cowardly deed, many others inspire each other to greater bravery.  Scorning death and retreat, they pressed forward to die.  Their sense of honor was so great, that they separated warriors with the same names (there were two Godrics; one fled, the other stayed). Lines 260 to end).

Another example of comitatus in poetry is that of The Dream of the Rood. 


Comitatus speaks about doing one’s duty, yet it never provides an “excuse” for anyone to get out of that duty.  Incredibly enough, even the cross that crucified the Christ, according to The Dream of the Rood, was only doing Its Sacred Duty.  (Line 73)  In that poem, the dreamer learns from the Cross and is reinvigorated to complete duties hinted at with greater zeal.  (Lines 122-126).

            It is insinuated that it’s okay to be afraid of performing our duty, (lines 111) so long as we don’t shirk what must be done.  The Dream of the Rood somewhat alters Christ’s more meek aspect into a wholehearted embrace (Line 43).

Perhaps the greatest show of comitatus, however, is found in the epic poem, Beowulf.  There are many plays of Comitatus, and they can all be interpreted differently, and yet they all still hold for the “code of honor.” 


For example, at the start, Beowulf plays off Hrothgar’s inability to defeat Grendel as an act of God, (Line 478) and yet he finds it necessary to go after the dragon himself, despite being Hrothgar’s age or older.  (Line 2530)  Wiglaf comes to his aid when he needed it.  (Line 2598.)  Not only did Wiglaf remain staunch in Beowulf’s hour of need, but he was ashamed of his comrades’ cowardice as well.

Another aspect of comitatus would be Beowulf’s confrontation with Unferth, and knowing who he was able to “mock.”  He asserts his own reasons for “losing” the race with Breca while questioning Unferth’s manhood in the same breath (587).  And yet he keep’s Hrothgar’s own honor intact.  (Line 610.)

Return to Front