‘The Battle of Maldon’ and Byrhtnoth’s ‘ofermod’

‘What we must applaud is the poet’s selection of material which fits his structure and the presentation of his theme’. Is this a valid response to The Battle of Maldon

The Old English font employed throughout for particular characters is Junius by Peter S. Baker. Downloaded on 14 September 2016 from fontspace.com. [Please note it has not been possible to accurately reproduce some characters, and the quotations appearing here in Anglo-Saxon should be verified against the original.] 

All translations my own except for the quotation from The Wanderer translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

The historical battle of Maldon took place in 991 and was one of numerous viking attacks in England in the later decades of the tenth century. The policy of paying the sums of money demanded by the vikings in return for peace did nothing to deter further attacks and resulted only in yet more demands for steadily increasing amounts, from £10,000 in 991 to £72,000 paid in 1018 (Keynes, 1991: 100). The Battle of Maldon is not an accurate historical account, but a literary composition intended to inspire its contemporary audience and provide a behavioural model to emulate. I focus on the critical debate surrounding Byrhtnoth’s ofermod and the necessity of assessing the meaning and implications of this word both in its context and according to the conventions of the heroic genre adopted by the poet. I discuss how alternative readings of ofermod can alter a perception of the poem’s structure, its overall effect and its purpose. As part of this discussion, I describe the relationship between lord and retainer according to the heroic code, and the role played by the poem in immortalising the battle’s participants. I suggest that the poem’s major theme is loyalty, and I have argued for a positive reading of ofermod which pinpoints the crux of the poem as Byrhtnoth’s death and Godric’s disloyal flight for the safety of the woods. Following this climactic moment, the rest of the poem sets up the behavioural model Godric should have followed and the fragment ends with the loyal retainers engaged in their heroic final stand.

Years of relative peace and prosperity had made England an attractive prospect to would-be Scandinavian invaders (Keynes, 1991: 84), and the battle which took place at Maldon was among the first of a series of attacks which meant that ‘the vikings maintained an almost constant presence in Æthelred’s kingdom’ (Keynes, 1991: 98). The invading forces demanded increasingly large sums of money or ‘tribute’ in return for peace, but the policy of paying tribute instead of mounting a military resistance was one which subjected the English people to ‘an intolerable burden of taxation’ and constituted an unsustainable drain on economic resources (Keynes, 1991: 99). Keynes suggests that The Battle of Maldon was composed ‘against the background of such a debate’ (1991: 91). The viking messenger in lines 29-41 sets out the argument for payment instead of bloodshed in battle, but Byrhtnoth’s spirited response is to offer tribute in the form of ‘gäras syllan / åttrynne ord and ealde swurd’, or ‘poison-tipped spear and seasoned sword’ (Baker, 2012: 230, lines 46b-47, all subsequent quotations taken from the same edition). It is not to be supposed, after E. D. Laborde, that the words of the battle’s participants have been accurately transcribed (Clark, 1968: 54); the Maldon poet has naturally invented the text of all the various monologues, which, as Pope notes, would be ‘implausible’ in a battle situation (2001: 76). Nevertheless, Byrhtnoth’s reply is in essence historically accurate. Tribute was refused and the vikings’ offer was met with resistance, and it is this heroic resistance which the Maldon poet sets out to celebrate.

The date of the composition of the poem is uncertain and opinion is divided as to whether the poem was written soon after the battle or some years later (Pope, 2001: 78). Scraggs adopts a position of sensible compromise when he suggests that the poem should be considered a contemporary account of the battle ‘until safe evidence of a later date is produced’ (1991: 32). The contemporaneity of the text should not, however, encourage the reader to mistake The Battle of Maldon for reportage (Clark, 1968: 54). Indeed, in noting the textual lack of specific strategic information, Pope suggests that ‘as a historical source the poem is a poor one’ (2001:76). The poet’s overall concern is not to provide the reader with an accurate military report of this crushing defeat for the English forces, but to depict events in a manner befitting a quite different agenda. The Battle of Maldon is a reimagining of the battle rendered according to the conventions of the heroic genre, and the poet’s role is that of ‘an omniscient narrator [who] judges the poem’s actions from a vantage point appropriate to heroic legend’ (Clark, 1968: 55). This nostalgic invocation of an ancient and more glorious past is made to serve a contemporary purpose: against the backdrop of an increasing number of similar viking attacks, the text provides a model of behaviour for the English armies to emulate. It is propaganda designed to inspire loyalty, to glorify those who fought to the end and to vilify those who fled.

Much of the debate surrounding the poem has centred on Byrhtnoth’s problematic ‘ofermöde’ in line 89 (Cavill, 1995; Clark, 1968, 1979; Gneuss 1976). If ofermod is to be understood as something akin to ’excessive pride’ (Baker, 2012: 348), it is difficult to reconcile the poet’s portrayal of Byrhtnoth as an otherwise faultless hero with the image of a vainglorious man who makes a disastrous tactical blunder that costs him his life and the lives of those who fought beside him. Moreover, it has been suggested that in accusing Byrhtnoth of having committed the sin of pride, the poet leaves him ‘in danger of damnation’ (Clark, 1979: 265), but this clearly runs counter to the poet’s objective of pitting the Christian Byrhtnoth, a man who prays for his soul at the point of death, against the pagan vikings, whose heathen status is spelled out as they cut Byrhtnoth down in line 181: ‘Ðä hine hëowon håðene scealcas’ (‘Then the heathen warriors cut him to pieces’). Byrhtnoth’s ofermod must be set in context. Clark criticises what he terms ‘the school of lexicographical criticism’ (1979: 276) and argues that ‘[t]he meaning of a word in a work can only be ascertained in its context; other contexts of the same and closely related words can only suggest, not determine, the significance of ofermode in Maldon’. Clark concludes after an extended discussion that ‘evidence for a “good sense” of ofermod exists, and in human languages speakers force new meanings on old words’ (1979: 280). It is true, however, that Anglo-Saxon scholars are disadvantaged in that they are working with a limited corpus of written material and the scope for lexicographical error is therefore greater. Gneuss observes that scholars ‘should patiently try to analyze the meaning of Old English words with the help of all available philological tools and all textual evidence, and…to avoid producing what Professor Robinson has very aptly called “a bit of literary criticism posing as lexicographical fact.” ’ (1976: 137). Nevertheless, the inherent and patently false assumption in this line of argument is that word-meaning is both fixed and constant according to its appearances in a concordance. Clark’s observation that language users develop the meaning of existing words through usage is particularly true of those who write in a literary register and it makes for an attractive argument in this instance: there is, after all, no reason why a poet should not adopt an existing word for new purposes, nor why a critical insight should not shed new light on the way in which a particular word has been used. This line of reasoning renders it necessary to consider the use of ofermod in context, and to examine the motivation behind Byrhtnoth’s decision in the light of the heroic genre adopted by the poet: ‘[t]he ofermod which impells [sic] Byrhtnoth to let the vikings cross the Pante is the same heroic spirit which drove him to choose battle instead of tribute; the second decision is implicit in the first’ (Clark, 1979: 71). Having committed to the battle, it is unlikely that Byrhtnoth will refuse the vikings’ request for safe passage, and simply wait for them to leave the scene only to launch an attack somewhere else. Whatever one may conclude about Byrhtnoth’s ofermod, and even if it was the poet’s intention to criticise his decision, the ‘reverence and admiration’ for the eorl is otherwise unequivocal (Pope, 2001: 78).

However, the tussle over the exact meaning of ofermod has greater ramifications than may at first appear. Critical opinion is divided over whether the poem – and the battle – turns on either the episode of Byrhtnoth’s ofermod in lines 89-90, or Byrhtnoth’s death and Godric’s subsequent flight in lines 181-201 (Clark, 1979: 259). Those who incline to a negative view of ofermod favour an interpretation in which the moment when Byrhtnoth allows safe passage to the vikings is pivotal to the structure of the poem, but in countenancing a more positive interpretation, Clark necessarily takes the view that Godric’s flight from the battlefield after Byrhtnoth’s demise clearly marks a decisive turning point in the action. In support of his argument, Clark points to Offa’s speech as confirmation that it is Godric’s cowardice which decides the eventual outcome of the battle: ‘Godric, the cowardly son of Odda, has deceived us all. Because he rode away on [Byrhtnoth’s] splendid mare, many men believed he was our lord and for this the army has become divided in the field, and the shield-wall broken’ (lines 237b-242a). Here the consequences of Godric’s flight are spelled out in detail for the poem’s audience, and Offa’s words are followed by the speeches of those who, according to the codes of honour and loyalty, remain on the battlefield and fight to the end, revealing in their own behaviour what Godric’s should have been. It is true that the English defeat is foreshadowed from the poem’s outset in such formulaic phrases as ‘þä hwïle þe hë mid handum healdan mihte / bord and bräd swurd’ (‘for as long as he might wield his shield and broad sword in his hands’, lines 14-15b) which naturally implies that the time will come when the warrior will no longer be able to hold his weapons, but Clark suggests that it is not until after Godric’s flight that the tone of the poem changes to one of ‘fighting without hope’ (1968: 57). Furthermore, Clark is keen to emphasise that even though Byrhtnoth allowed the vikings ‘landes tö fela’ (‘too much land’) in line 90, the outcome of the battle is not a foregone conclusion at this point. Gneuss attempts to pin down the actual historical size of the invading force the English were facing, but the confusion which exists in primary sources makes this an impossible task (1976: 133). The traditional view is that the English army was vastly outnumbered, but there is little, if anything, in the text to support this claim. The poem is, of course, only a fragment of the original text, but even if the numbers involved had featured in the missing lines, this does not constitute historical fact and cannot be taken as such. It should not be taken for granted, then, that in allowing the vikings safe passage, Byrhtnoth was necessarily dooming his men to destruction.

The argument so far can be summarised as follows. The way in which Byrhtnoth’s ofermod is understood is potentially crucial to a reading of the poem. If the pivotal moment of the poem is taken to be Byrhtnoth’s poor decision as a result of his ofermod, then everything that follows is merely the inevitable outcome of that early decision and the poem feels unbalanced. In a negative-ofermod reading, the poem is structured as follows: two opposing armies line up and verbally challenge one another, one over-confident leader throws away a tactical advantage as early as line 90, and the remaining 235 lines list those who were slaughtered, including the brash leader. Godric’s flight is rendered merely incidental. However, if a more positive, ‘heroic’ interpretation of ofermod is accepted, the poem’s turning point is identified as Byrhtnoth’s death and the emphasis switches to one of the poem’s most important themes: the loyalty owed to the lord by his retainers. Godric’s subsequent flight acquires both narrative and thematic weight as a result. The poem is now structured like this: a lord and his band of warriors (or ‘comitatus’, Scraggs, 1991: 33) refuse to submit to the demands of an invading force and prefer battle to paying tribute. Finding themselves at a tactical disadvantage, the vikings parley their way across the causeway; Byrhtnoth cannot ‘refuse the Viking request without failing in his duty’ (Clark, 1979: 258). Byrhtnoth fights bravely, but is killed in the ensuing battle. Godric, who is cowardly and disloyal, flees the battlefield on Byrhtnoth’s horse and many men follow him, believing Godric to be Byrhtnoth. The shield-wall is broken, the English army in disarray, and the action of the poem is henceforth concerned with extolling the virtues of those who choose to stay and die beside their fallen lord instead of running for the safety of the woods. This reading not only directly links structure to theme, but is more in keeping with the poem’s rhetoric which strongly favours honourable death over dishonourable cowardice; furthermore, this more positive reading is more appropriate also to the Maldon poet’s over-riding agenda: to inspire the beleaguered English to emulate an honourable tradition of heroism.

To fully understand the concept of loyalty as set forward by the Maldon poet, it is necessary to explore further the relationship between lord and retainer as understood in heroic literature. The comitatus system mentioned above was a ‘ “social contract” in which the lord bought the loyalty and the love of his followers with generous gifts, distributed at a feast when they vowed their allegiance publicly’ (Scraggs, 1991: 33). Such a feast is recalled by Ælfwine in lines 212-214 in words which are designed not only to inspire the men to honour their former vows, but to serve as a reminder of Byrhtnoth’s hospitality and the debt of loyalty owed to their fallen lord. Noblemen in Byrhtnoth’s position were expected to be generous with their gifts and are synonymously named in contemporary texts as ‘bëahgifa’ or ‘ring-giver’. In return for his gifts and hospitality, the lord expected loyalty: ‘[i]n the transaction of the gift, the object given – ring, armour, horse or weapon – becomes the material reminder of the retainer’s reciprocal obligation when war service or vengeance is required’ (O’Keeffe, 1991: 108). Against this background of comitatus, the depth of Godric’s dishonour is made manifest. His theft of Byrhtnoth’s horse is made all the more despicable because Byrhtnoth had in the past given Godric horses as gifts: ‘þone gödan forlët / þe him mænigne oft mearh gesealde’ (he ‘abandoned the good man who had given him many a horse’, lines 187b-188). Byrhtnoth’s generous gift of horses is repaid with theft of the same to compound Godric’s cowardly act.

O’Keeffe locates the ‘touchstone’ of heroic life in ‘the vital relationship between retainer and lord’ (1991: 107). To be lordless (‘hläfordlëas’, line 251), could mean isolation and dishonour, and the sorrow felt by one such lordless man is poignantly expressed in The Wanderer: ‘I mourn the gleaming cup, the warrior in his corselet, / the glory of the prince. How that time has passed away, / darkened under the shadow of night as if it had never been’ (Crossley-Holland, 1982: 52). When Byrhtnoth falls, variation across stressed alliterative lifts directs the listener’s attention to the pathos of the moment. Byrhtnoth is described in terms of the roles he held, and the poet spells out what he represented to the various groups named and what they have now lost: ‘Þä wearð äfeallan þæs folces ealdor, / Æþelrëdes eorl; ealle gesäwon / heorðgenëatas þæt hyra heorra læg’ (‘The army’s leader had fallen, Æthelred’s nobleman; everyone saw that the hearth-retainer, their lord was down’ lines 202-204). Byrhtnoth was a military leader, a civic ruler, a loyal subject, a friend, patron and host, and for all this he expected the loyalty of his men in return. It can be seen, then, that the lord-retainer relationship was central to heroic convention, and to return to the discussion of ofermod, O’Keeffe adds her voice to those who claim that Byrhtnoth’s ofermod is more likely to be viewed in a positive light if it is considered in its proper context: ‘the note of complaint which the text seems to make in lines 89-90 arises out of the nature of the code which it ascribes to Byrhtnoth and his loyal retainers. The realm of the heroic lies apart from the mundane, and the poem locates the nobility of the English precisely in their excess’ (1991: 123). Seen in this light, Byhrtnoth’s ‘excessive pride’ is what one would naturally expect from a man in his position.

To conclude, it should be noted that The Battle of Maldon has its own part to play in cementing the reputations of the English fighters: on the English side, heroes and villains alike are named, regardless of rank. It should not be forgotten that although the poem itself is a literary creation, the events described have their basis in historical fact and some of the men named can be positively identified as real individuals (Locherbie-Cameron, 1991: 238-249). In her discussion of heroic values, O’Keeffe notes that ‘[i]n the poetic articulation of the heroic ethos, a warrior’s paramount goal is the achievement of a lasting reputation’ (1991: 108). The Maldon poet bestows on the doomed men a succession of memorable monologues. Offa is permitted to denounce those who fled, thus ensuring their infamy, whilst Godric and his followers are denied a voice and the opportunity to explain their actions.

The ideals endorsed by the Maldon poet were not reflected in history. The attacks continued with ever-increasing ferocity and the scanty resistance put up by the English was plagued with treachery (Scraggs, 1991: 93). The viking onslaught eventually forced Æthelred to make a treaty with the Danish Cnut, who became England’s king after Æthelred’s death.

List of references


Baker, P.S. (2012) Introduction to Old English. (3rd ed.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Cavill, P. (1995) Interpretation of The Battle of Maldon, lines 84-90: a review and reassessment. Studia Neophilologica 67: 149–64.

Clark, G. (1979) The hero of Maldon: vir pius et strenuus. Speculum 54: 257–282.

Clark, G. (1968) The Battle of Maldon: a heroic poem. Speculum 43: 52–71.

Crossley-Holland, K. (Ed.) (1982) The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gneuss, H. (1976) The Battle of Maldon 89: Byrhtnoð’s ofermod Once Again. Studies in Philology 73(2): 117–137.

Keynes, S. (1991) The Historical Context of the Battle of Maldon. In D. Scragg. (Ed.) The Battle of Maldon AD 991. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 81–113.

Locherbie-Cameron, M.A.L. (1991) The Men Named in the Poem. In D. Scragg. (Ed.) The Battle of Maldon AD 991. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 238–249.

O’Keeffe, K.O. (1991) Heroic values and Christian ethics. In M. Godden & M. Lapidge. (Eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 107–125.

Pope, J.C. & Fulk, R.D. (Eds.) (2001) Eight Old English Poems. (3rd ed.) New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Scragg, D. (1991) The nature of Old English verse. In M. Godden & M. Lapidge. (Eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 55–70.

Scragg, D. (Ed.) (1991) The Battle of Maldon AD 991. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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