26 November, 2007

The Poetry of History: Battle of Maldon

"Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength grows less.
Here lies our prince all hewn,
a good man in the dust. He will always mourn
who from this war-play thinks now to turn.
My life is old. I will not fly;
but I myself beside my lord,
so loved a man, think to lie."


So speaks the old warrior Byrhtwold, resolving to fight and die beside his dead lord Byrhtnoth, at the Battle of Maldon in 991. The battle was a crushing defeat for the men of Essex and their ealdorman Byrhtnoth, at the hands of a Viking raiding party on the marshes of the Essex coast. But the commemorative poem manages to turn the defeat into a heroic last stand. The values of the warrior ethic - courage in battle, loyalty to a lord and one's companions, contempt for those who flee - echo those in Wiglaf's angry speech to the cowards who abandon Beowulf in his last fight with the dragon (in the poem at least; I can't speak for the recent film).

The Battle of Maldon was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Poetry of History, broadcast on Sunday 25 November. A historian and a professor of English discuss the poem and its context, with splendid readings from a modern translation and from the Old English original. You can listen to it here for seven days after broadcast (so up to Sunday 2 December).

14 comments:

Alianore said...

I read The Battle Of Maldon at university, and really liked it. Will be great to hear it read in the original!

Carla said...

Alianore - stirring stuff, isn't it? Even after a thousand years. They don't read the whole poem - I suppose that would have taken the entire half-hour slot! - only excerpts, but it gets the flavour.

Julie said...

....Interesting blogs (and I'm still trying to resist the flapjack recipe)!

Tried to listen to the programme but ran into difficulties installing Real Player unfortunately.

I'm originally from Yorkshire and have a passing interest in Brit history and archaeology generally.

Have enjoyed looking in,

Julie

Carla said...

Hello Julie, and welcome. Why resist the flapjack? A little of what you fancy does you good, and all that. Just don't eat the whole tray at once :-)

Bad luck with Real Player. It worked first time for me so I've no idea what might have gone wrong. If you can't get it to work, you'll be pleased to hear that the Battle of Maldon programme is repeated on Radio 4 on Saturday 1 Dec at 11.30 PM.

Gabriele C. said...

I love the motive of following a fallen leader into death which emphasizes the personal bond between both in the Germanic cultures. It's quite common in the Icelandic sagas as well.

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, it was an ideal that had extraordinary longevity, wasn't it? Several centuries at least.

Julie said...

Thanks, Carla - will make a note of that. And of the flapjack recipe!

Julie said...

PS - re former post

Assume you know that Lullingstone Roman Villa (Kent)shows evidence of having one of the earliest places of Christian Worship in Britain...?

Carla said...

Julie - yes, the house church at Lullingstone is reckoned to be 360 or so, isn't it? There's a debate about whether Christianity disappeared from lowland Britain along with Roman government, or whether it continued in some form during the fifth and sixth century before Pope Gregory sent St Augustine to convert the English kings of Kent in 597.

Julie said...

Built AD 75 originally - 300 yrs occupation - and closed at the moment for conservation.

We regularly walk on the golf course above it.

Dark ages literally?

My area of recent interest has been one mixing history and sculpture; I found a stunning carving in St Mary's on Lindisfarne by Fenwick Lawson - called the Journey.

Six monks carrying the body of Cuthbert fleeing from Viking Raids c875
Carved by chainsaw out of elm trees
if they raise 200k it will go in front of Durham Cathedral.

Seen Chedworth, Bignor etc etc -
browse widely rather than in depth, but can always add to it!

Thanks for the info.

Carla said...

Lullingstone villa is a great site to have on your doorstep! It's a fascinating site, starting out as a large farm and being rebuilt several times until it ended up as a luxury stately home. The house church room is usually dated to about 360 and the room underneath still had a pagan shrine to some water nymphs at the time - so nobody could accuse the owner(s) of dogmatism!

Dark ages literally - not in my view. Poorly recorded, yes, but not 'dark'.

That sounds like an impressive carving! Durham would be a highly appropriate place for it, since St Cuthbert, St Oswald's head and Bede himself all ended up there. Why do they need 200K to put it in front of the cathedral?

Bernita said...

The raw emotion of that passage still comes through, whether in OE or in translation.

Julie said...

Cost of bronze casting is prohibitive. I saw some of the processes involved when I was on a course at the Slade, and can understand why. This is big piece of work as the figures are more than lifesize - startling if you stumble into it into the twilight like I did! It's buried in archives now but I briefly mentioned it with pic on first post I did on VJ; or web pages if its of interest.

Lived in Durham for four years and went to Uni there. Massive local earthworks - rich area for archaeologists?

Interesting aside on the dark ages (which I've always seen as a nebulous area re dates given different historians place varying emphasis)but will read your link thoroughly.

Once went to a cleaning session on a dig on a 14th C merchant's house in the old town of Hull. Loved the graphic pen drawing of artefacts.

Cheers, Julie

Have church connecions so faith background crosses over as well.

Carla said...

Bernita - yes, it's remarkable.

Julie - Oh, I see, a bronze casting. That explains the expense. I thought the wooden carving was the finished piece, like the carving of St Bruno at the monastery in the Chartreuse - which is also rather startling when you come on it unexpectedly in the half-light under the trees - so I couldn't understand how it could cost 200K to move it. Thanks!