The Ravens Warband

Poetry in Anglo-Saxon England

To the Anglo-Saxons there was no distinction between poetry and song, A form existed, alliterative verse, which could be performed either unaccompanied or accompanied by a "harp" (or more properly a Germanic lyre). Indeed the phrase "singan and secgan", "to sing and say", is used several times in describing "poetic" performances.

It is not surprising therefore that most people were capable of reciting poetry - just as today most people can sing. In his "Life of Caedmon" Bede says of the seventh century poet: "He lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learnt any songs. Hence sometimes at a feast when for the sake of providing entertainment it had been decided they should all sing in turn, when he saw the harp approaching him, he would rise up in the middle of the feasting, go out, and return home."

The songs performed at such feasts were recited from memory. However there was also a tradition of improvised poetry, usually in the form of eulogy. A twelfth century work about the eighth century king Aethelbeoht tells how, before setting out on a journey, the king said to his companions: "For travellers it is often no small pleasure when divine poems are recited there rhythmically. And so the man who produces for us royal songs will be presented with a bracelet." Without delay, two who where endowed with the skill of singing began to sing in the joy of their hearts. They were songs about the king's royal ancestry. Delighted by this, the king immediately took a bracelet from his arm, gave it to those who were singing the songs, and promised them much more on his return to his own country.

The eulogistic tradition probably began on the continent. The early Germanic tribes were led by "sacral" kings; that is they had a religious as well as social position. They were seen as the embodiment of the tribe, which shared in their luck, good or bad. The role of the court poet or "scop" (pronounced "shop" and from the same root as the verb "to shape") was to eulogise both the king and his ancestors. An account by the Roman writer Priscus describes the court of Attila as he saw it while on a diplomatic mission in 448:

" As evening came on pine torches were lit up, and two barbarians, advancing in front of Attilla, sang songs which they had composed, chanting his victories and virtues in the war. Those at the feast looked at the men; some took delight in the verses, some, reminded of wars, were excited in their souls, and others, whose bodies were weakened by time and whose spirits were compelled to rest, gave way to tears."

Eulogy of the king re-enforced his position and so unified and strengthened the tribe. Repeated performances would also stabilise the eulogy so that it passed into the stock of remembered tribal history. Performance of the eulogies of past kings of the tribe would also unite the tribe by emphasising their common history. It may also have been thought to bring supernatural aid. Thus the scop had a very important and powerful position. He was knowledgeable and had frequent access to the king. It is likely that he therefore played a further role, that of counsellor of the king.

Few, if any, of these "great" court poets will have come to England, as few of the English kings came from reigning Continental dynasties. If anywhere they were most likely in Mercia, serving the court of the Iclingas.

In the migration period, the position of the scop survived, but simply as an entertainer. Some may have even taken to wandering from court to court, playing for whomsoever would pay them. Such is the poet described in the poem "Widsith".

Poetic performances were often associated with feasting. One passage tells of a meeting between Offa of Mercia and Aethelbeorht of the East Anglians:

"...the kings took their places at table for the feast, where they spent the whole day in great delight refreshed with royal meat and drink, with timbrels and harp and song."

Poetry was also associated with warfare. Tacitus describes how the German tribes chanted a "barritus" as they went into battle: "What they particularly aim at is a harsh, intermittent roar; and they hold their shields in front of their mouths, so that the sound is amplified by the reverberations." Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI.12.43) also mentions the "barritus" in an account of a battle between Goths and Roman troops, including some German units, which took place in 357: "At daybreak the Roman trumpets sounded and the Goths attempted to reach the high ground, after taking oaths together, according to their custom." At this point the Germans in the Roman army "in unison sounded their war cry, as is usual rising from a low to a louder tone, of which the national name is "barritus", and thus roused themselves to a mighty strength. But the barbarians sounded the glories of their forefathers with wild shouts, and amid the discordant clamour of different languages skirmishes were first tried."

The swearing of oaths has parallels in the "Battle of Maldon":

"Remember the speeches spoken over mead, battle vows on the bench, the boasts we vaunted,"


"This Offa had told him on an earlier day at the council-place when he had called a meeting, that many gathered who were making brave speeches would not hold in the hour of need.

Though by no means certain, these were conceivably poetic in nature; particularly those spoken at the mead-bench in times of peace.

The "glories of forefathers" are, however, almost certainly eulogies in poetic form. Probably memorised and traditional, they were designed to inspire friendly troops and demoralise the enemy.

With the advent of Christianity, secular poetry attracted religious censure due to its association with festivities (i.e. pagan) and drunkenness. Coupled with a shift in the basis if kingship from sacral king to Christian monarch, this spelled the end of the English scop. Wandering minstrels may have continued to entertain, but the age of the court poet was past.

Relaxation of church attitudes in the eighth century led to a huge revival in poetry. Now though, it had a different purpose. Christian monks such as Caedmon and Ealdhelm began composing poems on religious themes - eulogy of God rather than eulogy of kings.

At this time we also find the first record of narrative rather than eulogistic poetry. Though it may have existed previously it is more likely to have been due to the influence of Latin literature, both religious and classical.

Secular poetry was not eradicated however. It continued despite the Church's efforts, until it was revived by the arrival of the Vikings. In Scandinavia, the Germanic tradition of eulogistic poetry had developed independently, away from Christian influence. Norse poets of "skalds" still sang in praise of their lords. For a while then, Anglo-Norse poetry flourished. However with the Norman invasion, the Viking influence declined and so the Old English poetic tradition finally ended.

Dr Richard Underwood

© 1987

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