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Dr. J. Michael Stitt
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Beowulf and its Historical Context
Sixth Century DenmarkAnglo-Saxon Britain Date and AudienceLinks
Sixth Century Denmark

Beowulf's youthful exploits against Grendel and his mother are set in sixth century Denmark. The key to the dating is the death of Beowulf's chieftain, the Geatish King Hygelac. Hygelac (or Chochilaicus) is referred to in a Latin chronicle by Gregory of Tours as having been slain during a raid against the Hugas (Franks) in the year 520 CE. He is still alive when Beowulf visits the Danish King Hroðgar. Archeology places the Spear-Danes near the present-day village of Lejre, several kilometers west of Roskilde on the main island. Most of the figures are historical, and the names occur in numerous documents. A notable exception is Beowulf himself. Likewise, the provenance of his tribe, the Geats, cannot be pinpointed with certainty.

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Anglo-Saxon Britain

Beginning in the mid fifth century CE, Celtic Britain experienced an influx of Germanic-speaking peoples. In a short time their language and culture supplanted that of the Romano-Celtic peoples. Although many tribes were represented, the Angles and the Saxons became the most prevalent (and the locale came to be known as the "land of the Angles," hence England). Although slightly earlier, the culture was in many respects similar to that of the sixth century Danes. Originally pagan, the Anglo-Saxons were soon Christianized. A Kentish king married a Frankish noblewoman from across the English Channel. Part of the marriage contract specified that she be permitted to bring Roman Catholic priests with her. The king and his followers soon converted, and the Christianization of England had begun. As Christianity spread north and west from Kent, Irish monks made inroads into the north of England and worked south. By the end of the sixth century Anglo-Saxon Britain was Christianized.

Over the following centuries English monasteries would produce some of the finest scholars of Western Europe. During those centuries the center of political, economic, and social influence rotated slowly counterwise, from Kent in the southeast to the far north (Northumbria), the west central area (Mercia), and the southwest (Wessex). The kings of Wessex came into power in 825 and ruled until the end of the Anglo-Saxon reign in 1066. It was during this time that Anglo-Saxon literature flourished. The Wessex dialect of Anglo-Saxon, called West Saxon, is the dialect of virtually all Anglo-Saxon literature, including Beowulf.

Shortly before 800, Scandinavian vikings began to raid along Anglo-Saxon shores. Scandinavians eventually colonized a large portion of northeastern England. The Danelaw, as it came to be known, was always a political consideration for the Wessex kings. The Danish King Knut actually ruled as King of England for a period in the early eleventh century, and the last Viking activity in Britain, The Battle of Stamford Bridge, occurred in 1066, just shortly before William of Normandy ended the Anglo-Saxon rule with his victory at the Battle of Hastings.

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Date and Audience

Traditionally Beowulf has been dated to the latter half of the eighth century. The date is based largely on the assumption that after the beginning of the Viking raids Anglo-Saxons would have had no interest in a story set in Scandinavia. This assumption no longer seems viable, and various other considerations suggest a date of the ninth or early tenth centuries. One radical theory suggests that the composition of the poem was tied to the manuscript that we have, thus placing the date in the early eleventh century. This theory associates the poem with the reign in England of the Danish King Knut (1016-1035).

Clearly the audience of the poem was Christian, and certainly included the warrior-nobility, but probably not exclusively so. Field studies of epic show that they regularly gain widespread popularity. Also, epics held an appeal for English monastic audiences. Around 800, the English monk Alcuin was called to Charlemagne's court. He corresponded with his old monastery, and when he learned that they were listening to epics, he wrote back "What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?" Ingeld appears in Beowulf as the son-in-law of Hroðgar.

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Links, etc.

An excellent place to begin is Robert F. Yeager, "Why Read Beowulf?"  Beowulf is a popular subject, so there are lots of sites out there, and the quality varies considerably.  One of the best overall is maintained by our sister institution in Reno.  It contains much information and copious links.  There is also a nice student-created site with basic information and some interesting and eclectic links.  To hear passages of the poem read in Anglo-Saxon, go to this University of Virginia site, or to recordings by John Niles.  Go here for a good overview of the manuscript's history.  A discussion of the problems and issues connected with editing the manuscript is by Michael Aaij, "Editing Beowulf," in the journal Maželiende.  One way to gain a sense of the religious attitudes of the audience is to read a contemporary sermon, and one of the best is Sermo Lupi Ad Anglos.  Finally, for fun, check out the illustrated Beowulf parody.

For an overview of Anglo-Saxon material culture, visit the British Museum's website on Sutton Hoo, the unplundered Anglo-Saxon ship burial that was discovered in 1939.

Print materials provide the best sources on the dating of the poem. Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford, 1951) first argued a Mercian provenance for the poem.  Kevin S. Kiernan, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (Ann Arbor, 1996) is a revision of his 1981 argument for an early 11th century provenance.  The book also surveys much of the earlier work on dating the poem.  Colin Chase, ed. The Dating of Beowulf (Toronto, 1981) contains a variety of essays, mostly arguing for a ninth or tenth century provenance for the poem, based on several different kinds of evidence.  A good overview of the issues (with bibliography) is in Roy Michael Luizza, “On the Dating of Beowulf,” in Peter S. Baker, ed., Beowulf:  Basic Readings (New York:  1995).

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