The Battle of Maldon Pages

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Maldon’s Call to Honor

    Most people’s exposure to Old English starts and stops at Beowulf. Yet, the Anglo-Saxon period of England’s history is rich with other texts with lessons. One of these great lessons is about the Germanic code of honor, Comitatus. Comitatus is best seen in poems centered on combat. The Battle of Maldon is a great example of this. While the existing remnant is only about a third of the length of Beowulf this poem holds as much culture and context about Anglo-Saxon England. The Battle of Maldon (Maldon) is an Old English poem written shortly after 991 c.e., the poem contains examples of the Germanic code of honor, these examples show how Anglo-Saxons view honor during a time of great change in English history.
    While this poem centers around a battle, Maldon only makes sense when taken in context of the history and geography. Maldon is a town located in Essex on the Blackwater River. Part of the importance is due to Maldon’s location and function. Maldon is a fortified town (Laborde 165). These fortifications help to explain why a battle took place here.  Maldon is not only a fort, but also a camp for the extended army (Reston 2). The camp’s presence explains why the army is so easily called up. Together the fort and larger army camp show Maldon’s significance. While some of the geography might be the same, it is hard to take the poem as an exact description of the area. However, reading the poem and looking at a map show that the land is not very different. Furthermore, a fortified area is likely to have trade and therefore money, and goods, to take. Thus giving a natural draw for the Vikings, but strategically it is not the obvious choice to attack.
    The history, of the poem, itself also provides insight. Many people take the poem to be a historical account of the events, forgetting that it is a poem first. The reason is due to the detailed account the poem gives of the battle. Exact names and relations are given, so it is most likely that an eye witness account constructed the poem. Also the poem is one of the few Old English event poems that can be dated; because of the dating the consensus is that the poem was written shortly after the actual battle (Donoghue 15). The actual battle happening in 991 c.e. Understanding that the poem was written around 1000 c.e., by most likely an eyewitness, dictates that the poem’s concept of Comitatus is fairly accurate.
    Also important is the manuscript that contains Maldon. The singular copy of this poem is not complete. That is why it starts on a two word half line. The end of the poem cuts off as well, although less abruptly. The surviving section is in an 18th century copy that was in a fire in 1731 (Donoghue 19). Because only a portion survives the full length of the poem and the complete style etc. are unknown. The remaining focuses on the heroics deeds done for honor.
    Extreme honor, even to death, is what makes Maldon stand out among battle poems. Honor is perceived in different ways by different cultures. Here Anglo-Saxons give honor center stage. While other battle/ hero poems focus on events, and then the honor that comes to the hero, Maldon places the honor first and then talks about the battle (Bessinger 35).  Everyone originally hearing this poem knows the outcome. When being penned all knew that Maldon had already fallen to the Vikings. So the poem does not need to describe, in detail, the battle and the heroics of the English. Instead Maldon focuses on how the English have more honor than the nameless Vikings. Rather, it focuses on how glory is held out to the end.
    The concept of honor runs deep in the old Germanic culture. The name of this warrior ethos, Comitatus, is first given by Tacitus, in 98 c.e. as he describes the retinues around each of the Germanic war chiefs (Donoghue 16). This ideal of loyalty to your chief becomes central to all of the Germanic tribes. As one Germanic branch, the Anglo-Saxons shifted Comitatus from their tribal chiefs and thanes to their larger lords and nobility. Maldon shows this with Byrhtnoth and his retainers.
    In most battle epics it becomes obvious who is going to win the fight. Maldon is no exception. As they break through the shield-wall, it becomes evident that the Vikings have a greater force. At this moment Byrhtnoth and his men chose to stay even though they know it is probably death for them. Professor Donoghue explains best how the poem focuses heroic honor “The poem expends most of its rhetorical energy, however, on the heroic conduct of Byrhtnoth and his followers who chose to stay on and fight even after their army’s defeat and their own death was assured” (16). The poem then talks less of actual battle tactics and more about the speeches given progressively by each of the retainers glorifying their honor and their lord prior to dying in battle. Each warrior’s speech works to build higher the Comitatus and the honor that it brings.
    So if Maldon has a different focus than other heroic poems, how then does it compare to them? Overall each heroic poem focuses on what exalts the hero, or group. The individual construction and workings of each heroic poem varies but the idea of a triumphant theme is consistent. In this manner Maldon bears a familial resemblance to other heroic poems (Hill 111). It just happens to be that in Maldon’s case the poem is about the losing side. So the Comitatus receives the focus instead of the hero, giving the feel of ‘we lost, but man did we do it well’.
    What Maldon has in common, with other heroic poems, are the motifs. Other poems of the time have similar ideals, just not always exemplified by dying. Specifically Maldon shares several ideals with other northern Germanic poems; these include valiant leaders, loyalty till death, and desertion being cowardly (Bessinger 33). A strong tie with the Comitatus can be seen because these similarities are between Maldon and other Germanic poems. All of the Germanic tribes are concerned with honor and doing what they consider to be right. If Maldon were an isolated incident, or dissimilar to other Germanic poetry, then Maldon would be considered some form of propaganda. Instead it shows how the Anglo-Saxons, as a part of the Germanic family, highly view honor and duty.
    The values put forth, in Germanic hero poems, are all part of what makes up the Comitatus. Maldon is no exception to this. The exception comes in that the losing side is the one showing the values. This shift away from victors being the “heroes” comes from a couple of things. The first is the idea of putting the Anglo-Saxons in the best light possible. But more importantly is the idea that by making the Anglo-Saxons unexceptional fighters their heroism comes instead from their honor and the vows they make and keep (Donoghue 22).  Whether Byrhtnoth and his men win or lose becomes secondary, in the poem, to the fact that they fight when they said they will. Here honor is valued above money and even life. Maldon is less a poem about battle deeds and more a poem about how to live properly.
    The concept of proper living is what moves Maldon from being an epic battle poem to being a morality tale. When comparing it to other Old English texts then it has to not only be compared with battle stories but with writings about morality. This can be done through literary conventions instead of straight text. In tone Maldon is very similar to The Dream of the Rood. Byrhtnoth’s acceptance of fate that he cannot change bears remarkable resemblance to the Cross and its acceptance of fate (Hill 124-125). Maldon’s tone then pushes these ideals forward perpetuating Comitatus for more generations listening. Through tone then Byrhtnoth’s heroics in death are not shown as how many he slew, but instead how well he praises God and fulfills his vows.
    Another literary element to look at with Maldon is style. By looking into the style the intent of the message becomes more apparent. The question of why so much focus on vow keeping and the Comitatus, is answered by the intent of the poem. The overall style of Maldon is unique as it is one of nostalgia for a heroic past (Donoghue 19). Whether this past really exists or is one being superimposed is questionable. However, the poet definitely wishes to see a return to it. As such the poet places the morals above the traditional battle heroics probably in hope of shifting a younger generation’s view.
    The style and tone combine to create a poem that elevates loyalty to higher level. Maldon does not have a single protagonist hero. Byrhtnoth falls to battle and the action keeps moving forward. In fact Byrhtnoth’s death becomes the beginning of a long sequence of deaths. Each of his retainers is named, as they give a form of vow or speech, they then throw themselves against the unrelenting Viking force. The action sequence of the poem then becomes one of suicidal revenge. Here Maldon is unique, among Old English poems, because it is the only one about suicidal revenge of a group (Hill 112). Again here is evidence of pushing the Comitatus as the main idea. In Maldon even self preservation is accounted as lesser than the fulfillment of vows. While this is extreme, it is in line with the idea of the poet trying to influence a younger generation. Probably trying to give them the extreme and hope that they land in the middle.
    All of these examples come together in the demonstrating the Comitatus. Suicidal revenge is even in line with the Comitatus. Because, honor and keeping vows take first position for Anglo-Saxon people. Family even takes a back seat to them. The bonds to the lord or chief outweighed both wealth and family (Donoghue 17). Maldon shows this during the dialogue between the Viking messenger and Byrhtnoth. The messenger calls upon treasure as a way to insure the Anglo-Saxon’s survival. Byrhtnoth turns him down by citing honor. Then later as the deserting happens Godric’s brothers are considered guilty for fleeing with him, instead of standing to fight without him.
    The Comitatus that is put forth in Maldon calls for a higher level of commitment than even other Anglo-Saxon poems. Beowulf is a good comparison poem for Comitatus elements. Beowulf himself exhibits this honor ethic as he places his loyalty at home above the monetary offers of Hrothgar.  In Beowulf, and other Old English poems, when a lord dies it is acceptable to flee and avenge the lord another day, however in Maldon when Godric flees even after Byrhtnoth’s death it is seen as cowardice (Hill 117). As Godric flees on Byrhtnoth’s horse the retainers are exemplified as they step up and seek to fulfill their vows against all odds. Maldon seeks to take Comitatus and elevate it on a plane above other values.
    All of this reinforcement of the Comitatus shows a deeper aspect of Anglo-Saxon society. When an aspect of a culture receives heavy focus it is usually because either there is a falling away from that aspect, or people are hanging on to that aspect in hope of preserving against change. Either of these options shows a shift in culture. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles place the time of the actual Battle of Maldon at a turning point in the culture from honor and glory to economics and money (Donoghue 17). The poet is calling for a renewal of Comitatus because they see a loss of it. Anglo-Saxon culture is shifting from the idea of protecting home and country to buying off the Vikings. How deep this shift runs in the culture is hard to tell. However what can be seen is that Maldon clearly lays out how one view of the Comitatus should be directing the culture.
    Being that Maldon is written late in the Anglo-Saxon era it provides a unique snapshot of the direction that Comitatus is going. Within the Anglo-Saxon culture, as with all ideas the Comitatus evolves over time. Maldon reflects a late development in the heroic code that moves the loyalty of a retainer onto a spiritual plane (Hill 112). Prior texts show loyalty existing until death of either party. The higher plane is shown in part by each retainer as they give a speech that borders on a spiritual experience. This level of spirituality can be compared with other Germanic texts of a similar timeframe.
    Scandinavian texts are a good place to look for comparison texts. The heroic ethos is spread throughout much of the Old Norse texts. In comparing between these and Maldon similarities in the treatment of death can be seen. Snorri Sturluson’s account includes Harald’s warriors choosing to die with him rather than except peace or mercy; as such the idea of loyalty till death may be owed to something picked up from Scandinavian influence (Hill 115). In Scandinavian history dying in battle carries a form of salvation. While this is not Christian doctrine, Byrhtnoth exhibits similar belief in his dying prayer, asking “…God grant my soul/ that to thee may my soul travel/ to thine rule king of angles” (176-8). Transcendent or spiritual loyalty can be Scandinavian influence, or the poets call to renewal of Comitatus. Either situation is a shift in the culture.
    One thing that stands out about the vows and speeches given is that they are limited to the retainers and the noble youth from Northumbria. Even though Godric, and others, is chided for fleeing there is still a distinction made between them and the retainers. In this case the retainers are more along the lines of professional army-men, while Godric is a form of local militia. The English army is composed of two parts the lord and his personal warriors or retainers and the fyrd which is composed of the local militia (Bessinger 24). A distinction on this part is interesting, because while there would be different levels of training, the level of oath keeping uniformly applied to all. Godric has the same chance to act just as nobly as any of the retainers regardless of social status. However, it is the retainers that follow through and are exemplified for it.
    Godric becomes then example of the opposite. He is used to show exactly how not to act at a time of battle. This how not to act is just as important to the poet’s presentation of Comitatus as a how to act is. Godric then acts as a counterpoint to Byrhtnoth and his retainers (Hill 118). As much as these actions are elevated Godric’s actions are debased. Godric not only flees he goes a step further and takes Byrhtnoths horse. Then others follow, and so Godric’s actions affect the whole battle. As such his counterpoint example shows both actions not to take and possible consequences of such actions.
    However, Godric’s actions are not totally out of line. During battle many men are known to flee. Maldon just sets this natural action up as a lesson. Other Anglo-Saxon texts have cowards fleeing. Comparisons can be drawn with the retainers who flee during the dragon scene of Beowulf (Bessinger 30-31). Here the retainers, except one, who are supposed to be acting nobly, are fleeing. In fact they flee at the beginning of the fight before Beowulf’s death has happened. Godric at least flees after Byrhtnoth’s death and most likely considers his oath fulfilled. Once more the poet is trying to raise expectations by calling for a rededication and elevation of Comitatus.
    A major piece to how all of this plays out is Byrhtnoth himself. Byrhtnoth’s background is not given in the poem, however as a major figure it would have been known to the Anglo-Saxon people. Byrhtnoth held the position of Ealdorman of Essex, a position in political power just under the king (Donoghue 15). In this position he would be responsible for protecting places such as Maldon. Also part of his personal Comitatus would be fulfilling his oath to the king. If he had allowed the Vikings to go in a monetary exchange he would have avoided battle, but would have lost honor before the whole country.
    Commonly in epics the great hero has a tragic flaw, Byrhtnoth is no exception to this. As he has to make a choice about how to face the Vikings he decides to meet them head on, on his ground. He allows the Vikings to come aground in a moment of what the poet calls ofermode. Byrhtnoth’s ofermode then becomes his tragic flaw (Bessinger 31). Ofermode can be translated a few ways. The word can mean pride, arrogance, insolence, or overbearing. By the tone in Maldon the word is usually taken to mean arrogance, an interesting counterpoint to the humility Byrhtnoth posses at his death.
    Byrhtnoth then is not elevated to a superhuman level. He falls relatively early in the poem. The action moves past him and focuses just as much on his retainers and how they exhibit Comitatus.  As a result this poem is labeled about the event, and not an individual, the way Beowulf is. The poem is about the events and not the people, a rarity for this type of poem. Because “Historical poems like these are only secondarily about events; they are rather about men seen and heard in typical heroic action, and on this subject they have much to tell us that a chronicle could not” (Bessinger 35). The focus, on the events instead of the individual, is what allows the poet to put their view of Comitatus in the front. A reader, or listener, becomes more focused on what is happening than who it is happening to. This results in the theme being what is remembered and taken away from the poem.
    Maldon stands out among Old English poems because of its examples of the Germanic Comitatus; these examples illustrate a call for renewal of Comitatus during a time of cultural shifting. By viewing these examples in comparison to other Old English and Germanic texts a fuller view of Comitatus and what it means to Anglo-Saxons emerges, thus resulting in a broader understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture.

Works Cited

Battle of Maldon. Trans. Ian Mounteer.

Bessinger, J.B. “Maldon and the Olafsdrapa: An Historical Caveat.” Comparative Literature 14.1 (1962): 23-35.  Web. 10 Mar 2014.

Donoghue, Daniel. Old English Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.

Hill, John M. The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic: Reconstructing Lordship in Early English Literature. Gainsville: UP of Florida, 2000. Print.

Laborde, E.D. ”The Site of the Battle of Maldon.” The English Historical Review 40.158 (1925): 161-173. Web. 10 Mar 2014.

Reston, James Jr. The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the year 1000 A.D. New York: Doubleday, 1998. Print.