Battle of Maldon, The

Battle of Maldon, The
(ca. 1000)
   The Battle of Maldon is an OLD ENGLISH poem in ALLITERATIVE VERSE, composed shortly after the 991 battle between local English forces and Viking invaders. The anonymous poet wrote in the style of traditional heroic poetry about a contemporary, local event, thereby transforming an ignominious English defeat into a memorable representation of the Germanic warrior code.
   The historical setting of the poem is the England of King Ethelred the Unready (that is, illadvised). During Ethelred’s reign (978–1016), after a generation of peace, Norsemen had once more begun raiding the English coast. The ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE tells of Danish invaders bringing 93 ships to raid the southeastern coast of England in 991. After plundering several coastal towns, the Vikings came to Maldon, sailing up the estuary of the River Blackwater and setting up a base on the island of Northey near the river’s mouth. The island was an ideal sanctuary, being approachable from the mainland only by a narrow causeway that was accessible only at low tide. On August 11, Byrhtnoth, ealdorman (or earl) of Essex, led a group of his own loyal retainers and an army of untrained local peasants and farmers drafted into service for the occasion. Byrhtnoth was killed and his retainers slaughtered in the ensuing battle.
   In his own lifetime, Byrhtnoth was well known not only as a warrior but also as a protector of monasteries, so that he could be a natural hero for the Christian poet seeing him as a defender of the faith against the pagan Viking invaders. In the poem, which seems to depict actual events quite accurately, the English control the causeway, thus preventing the Norsemen from crossing to the mainland. But here Byrhtnoth makes what proves to be a fatal error. In order to break the stalemate and force a battle, Byrhtnoth allows the Vikings to cross over from the island—it is a rashness or overconfidence typical of the Germanic epic hero, like BEOWULF’s refusal to use his sword against Grendel. In the ensuing battle, Byrhtnoth is killed, at which point the majority of the English home guard flee from the battle. Only the earl’s personal retainers—his noble aristocratic retinue—adhered to the old Germanic heroic tradition and refused to leave the battlefield after their lord had fallen. The poem becomes a series of courageous speeches from the English nobles, followed by single combat with the enemy. Ultimately, the old retainer Byrhtwold delivers the most famous speech of all, a memorable summation of the heroic code:
   Hige sceal loē heardra, heorte
   loē cēnre,
   Mōd sceal loē māre loē ūre mægen lytla´?.
   (Cassidy and Ringler 1971, ll. 312–13)
   [Courage shall grow the harder, heart the keener,
   Spirit the greater, as our strength lessens.]
   The end of the poem is missing, and so the poet has not left any description of the ultimate slaughter of the English defenders. But the solemn tone of the poem makes it clear that such an end was certain. The manuscript of the poem (British Museum Cotton Otho A xii) was destroyed in 1731 in the same fire that damaged the Beowulf manuscript. Fortunately for modern readers and scholars, a transcript had been made of the poem by librarian John Elphinston about 1724, and all modern editions of the poem are based on that transcription.
   ■ Alexander,Michael, trans. The Earliest English Poems. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.
   ■ Cassidy, Frederic G., and Richard N. Ringler. Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader. 3rd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
   ■ Pope, John Collin, ed. Eight Old English Poems. 3rd ed. Prepared by R. D. Fulk. New York: Norton, 2001.
   ■ Scragg, Donald G., ed. The Battle of Maldon, AD 991. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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