THE DATING OF BEOWULF
The central text on which the ancient language myth was developed has always been Beowulf, not Anglo-Saxon recipes, chronicles, wills, charters, religious tracts and legal documents, nor even other Anglo-Saxon poems. The reason is obvious: Beowulf is considered to be an epic poem, which places English into the same illustrious league as the classical languages Latin and Greek. If the dating of Beowulf can push the genesis of the poem as far back into the Anglo-Saxon period as possible, the “classical”, literary prestige of English is greatly enhanced. English might then conceivably be presented as the oldest Kultursprache in Europe.
In the 1980s a dispute broke out over the dating of Beowulf following the publication of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript by Kevin Kiernan in 1981. As we know from Ker’s meticulous dating of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (Ker 1957), the Beowulf manuscript as we have it today was written within a fifty- year period from 975 to 1025. Ker was not able to be more precise than this, which has led Kiernan and his followers to propose that the manuscript dates from some time after the accession of Cnut to the throne of England in 1016 and some of Kiernan’s opponents to place it within the earlier part of the fifty- year period. A crucial factor in the argument has been the consideration of the sociohistorical, sociopolitical situation of England during that time.
In 978 ^thelrsd acceded to the throne as ^.thelred II upon the sudden death of his half-brother King Edward (referred to after his death as “the Martyr”). ^thelrsd was not beyond suspicion of having had Edward murdered, since Edward reigned only three years after the death of his father, King Edgar. ^.thelred earned himself the pseudonym “the Unready”, in Anglo-Saxon “Unrsed”, which means “ill advised” or “without advice”. Opinions are divided as to the success of ^thelred as a ruler (see Howard 2003), but one thing is certain; his reign was comparatively long, 38 years (to the year 1016) including a break of little more than a year after 1013, a period that ^thelred spent in exile in Normandy.
The bane of ^thelred’s reign was the resumption of Viking raids on England in 991, after a period of peace and consolidation following Alfred’s treaty with Guthrum around 890 and the establishment of the Danelaw in the northern and eastern parts of the country. There are a number of hypotheses as to why these raids resumed. The logical explanation is demographic: Scandinavia was again experiencing a population boom incommensurate with its ability to feed the population. Overpopulation often leads to migration, particularly the migration of surplus males. The victims of the Viking raids were generally more prosperous countries relatively nearby, which the raiders could plunder and, in the first stages of the migration, return home from readily. During the course of time, however, many of the raiders stayed in the territory they had plundered as mercenary troops, settlers and traders.
England, in other words, was wealthy enough to attract those in search of spoils, particularly silver bullion, plate and coin, and spacious enough to attract those looking for an opportunity to settle and make a better life for themselves. English military weakness, bad leadership and a complex system of payment (gafol “tribute”, metsunge “provisioning” and heregeld “payment of a foreign army as a mercenary force”), which was either designed as a ploy to entice the raiders to leave English shores or to induce them to stay as mercenaries in the service of ^.thelrad during the last decade of the tenth century, is assumed to have weakened the English economy considerably by creating a need for higher taxation. In 991, ?10,000 was granted as gafol and metsunge to the Viking raiders and, in 994, ?16,000 as gafol and metsunge and ?22,000 as heregeld. This rather ineffective method of keeping the Viking raiders at bay continued after the turn of the century. In the year 1002, ?24,000 as gafol and metsunge were paid out; in 1007, ?36,000; in 1009, ?3,000; in 1012, the astronomical figure of ?48,000; and in 1014, ?21,000 as heregeld (for details, see Howard 2003: 20). However, Howard argues that the overall effect of the Viking raids was to stimulate the economy:
Billeting Scandinavian forces upon the land would have increased the value of land, as would the demand for provisions for native and foreign forces. Paying them geld, whether by way of tribute for their mercenary activities, forced the government, nobility and the Church to bring back huge amounts of stored silver
into circulation as coin and it also drew silver into England from abroad____The
recipients of the payments were keen to acquire land, goods and services, and, even when the coins were taken back to Scandinavia, they served to benefit trade because they could be returned to England in exchange for manufactured goods and other produce, such as wheat, woollens, tin and honey. There was an encouragement to trade with England because the coinage had a fiduciary element and was worth more than its intrinsic silver content in England. (2003: 19-21)
During the first decade of the eleventh century, and in particular after the St. Brice’s day massacre of Danes in England in 1002, sanctioned by King ^thelrsd, the Danish raids on England began to take on a systematic character and, from 1003 on, were organised and led by Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, whose sister Gunnhild, a hostage in England at the time, had perished in the massacre. It gradually became clear that Swein’s ultimate ambition was the conquest of England, which was finally achieved at the end of 1013. However, Swein died in February 1014, a few weeks after the conquest, which immediately left the question of the succession wide open. Swein’s son Cnut had a claim to the throne, but the elders decided to call back ^thelrsd from his exile in Normandy. After a defeat at Gainsborough, Cnut returned to Denmark. In 1015, he was back with an army which attacked Wessex from the Dorset coast. ^.thelrad died in April 1016, leaving the kingdom to his son Edmund Ironside. Cnut and Edmund decided to divide the kingdom between themselves, but Edmund died in November 1016, and Cnut was proclaimed king of England, thus uniting England, Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway in a short-lived, embryonic
Anglo-Scandinavian “empire” until Cnut’s death in 1035. Cnut’s reign was peaceful, and he spent most of it in England promoting English traditions, the economy and the English Church and earning himself the pseudonym “the Great”.
Kiernan argues that “it is, at least, highly unlikely that a poem so obviously sympathetic to the Danes, and indeed extolling them for their peaceful foreign policy, could have been copied in Late West Saxon during the calamitous reign of ^.thelrad Unrad from 978 to 1016” (1996: 15). But if Howard is correct and the Viking raids had an overall positive effect on the English economy, it is not beyond belief that folk poetry extolling the Danes and Scandinavian legends might have flourished in precisely that part of the country that profited most during the reign of ^.thelrad and whose population expanded during that time, namely the Danelaw. The Beowulf epic, or rather its component parts, had probably been circulating orally in the Danelaw area for many years prior to the accession of Cnut in 1016. We know that Swein’s army enjoyed support from the population in the North and East of the country and that on his march south in 1013 Swein ordered that no looting or pillaging should take place in the Danelaw area. The freedom to do so was expressly given after Watling Street had been crossed. We also know that Cnut and Thorkell the Tall invaded Wessex from the south coast in 1015 because they could be absolutely sure of political support in the North and East.
Kiernan’s assessment of the reign of ^.thelrad as being “not years for Englishmen, least of all Anglo-Danes, to be openly betraying Danish sympathies in splendid epic poems” (1996: 16) is, on the face of things, sensible, but his systematic forensic analysis of the manuscript actually opens the way to retaining Ker’s 50-year period during which it was copied and, more intriguing still, allows us to surmise that committing Beowulf to written form was the life work of the second scribe.
This should not surprise us if we look more closely at the nature of folk literature. The concept of the “author” or the “poet” is simply not applicable to the genesis of the songs and stories of ordinary people. There is still a very rich folk tradition throughout the British Isles today in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The songs are frequently given new melodies appropriate to the musical tastes of the age. The texts are often fused and almost certainly adapted and changed through time and from performer to performer. Some do have identifiable authors but in the performance and in the communal enjoyment of the stories they tell, they are simply “traditional”. The identities of the original “authors” are not important, and the greatest accolade for anyone who has written a song is anonymity—to hear someone announce it and sing it as a song that they “picked up” from the singing of someone else in some other place. The song has then become the possession of the people. Committing such texts to written form raises the issue of authorship, and this is the issue that will be central to my deconstruction of the ancient language myth. Before we tackle that problem, however, we need to examine Kiernan’s arguments and some of the counterarguments that have been raised against him in more detail.