The Word Made Flesh: Christianity and Oral Culture in Anglo-Saxon Verse


This paper considers the interface between the native, inherited, secular, vernacular, and oral legacy in Anglo-Saxon poetry and that of the foreign, imported, Christian, Latin, and written tradition that subsumed and largely supplanted it, at least in the extant record. A variety of Anglo-Saxon poets and poems are considered, including Aldhelm, Bede, Alcuin, and Boniface in Latin, and C├Ždmon and Cynewulf in Old English, as well as a range of anonymous poems including Beowulf, Andreas, Guthlac B, The Seafarer, and The Paris Psalter. The shared roles of memory, imitation, and self-conscious coinage in both Latin and Old English are considered, and it is suggested that traces of a once-thriving oral tradition that was partly shared by literate and illiterate poets alike can still be detected in the surviving written record.


Proverb from Winfrith’s time (Tangl 1955:283 [no. 146]; Dobbie 1942:57; Stanley 1987:121-23):

Oft daedlata    domę foręldit,
sigisitha gahuem,    suuyltit thi ana.

Often a deed-slack man puts off glory, every chance of winning: for that, he dies alone.

Beowulf (lines 953b-55a; Fulk, Bjork, and Niles 2008:34):

                                “Þu þe self hafast
dædum gefremed    þæt þin [dom] lyfað
awa to aldre.”

“You yourself have brought about by your deeds that your glory will live forever.”

Beowulf (lines 1386-89; Fulk, Bjork, and Niles 2008:48):

“Ure æghwylc sceal    ende gebidan
worolde lifes;    wyrce se þe mote
domes ær deaþe;    þæt bið drihtguman
unlifgendum    æfter selest.”

“Each of us shall experience an end of life in the world: let him who can gain glory before death: that is the best thing afterwards for the noble warrior once he is gone.”

Beowulf (lines 884b-87a; Fulk, Bjork, and Niles 2008:31-32):

                        Sigemunde gesprong
æfter deaðdæge    dom unlytel,
syþðan wiges heard    wyrm acwealde,
hordes hyrde.

On Sigemund there fell after his death-day no small judgment (or “glory”), after the man keen in battle killed a serpent, the guardian of a hoard.

Beowulf (lines 2855-59; cf. Fulk, Bjork, and Niles 2008:97 and 258):

Ne meahte he on eorðan,    ðeah he uðe wel,
on ðam frumgare    feorh gehealdan,
ne ðæs wealdendes    wiht oncirran;
wolde dom godes    dædum rædan
gumena gehwylcum,    swa he nu gen deð.

He could not, much as he wanted to, keep life on earth in that chieftain, nor change anything of He who Rules, but the judgment (dom) of God would govern every man’s deeds, just as it does now.

Bede’s Death Song (Dobbie 1942:107; Smith 1968:42; Stanley 1987:131-33):

Fore thaem neidfaerae    naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra,    than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae    aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae    godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege    doemid uueorthae.

In the face of that needful journey no one turns out to be wiser in thought than that it is necessary for him to ponder before his journey hence as to what may turn out to be the doom on his soul of good or evil after the day of death.

Cuthbert's account of the death of Bede (Plummer 1896:I, clxi):

O uere quam beatus uir! Canebat autem sententiam sancti Pauli apostolici dicentis: Horrendum est incidere in manus Dei uiuentis, et multa alia de sancta scriptura, in quibus nos a somno animae exsurgere, praecogitando ultimam horam, admonebat. In nostra quoque lingua, ut erat doctus in nostris carminibus, nonnulla dixit quod ita latine sonat: “ante necessarium exitum prudentior quam opus fuerit nemo existit, ad cogitandum uidelicet antequam hinc proficiscatur anima, quid boni uel mali egerit, qualiter post exitum judicanda fuerit.” Cantebat etiam antiphonas ob nostram consolationem et suam, quarum una est: “O rex gloriae, Domine uirtutum, qui triumphator hodie super omnes celos ascendisti, ne derelinquas nos orphanos, sed mitte promissum Patris in nos, Spiritum ueritatis. Alleluia.”

O truly what a blessed man! He used to sing the thought of the blessed Apostle Paul saying: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other things from Holy Scripture, in which by drawing attention to our final hour he used to urge us to rouse ourselves from the sleep of the soul. Likewise in our own language, since he was learned in our poems, he spoke some words, and it sounds like this in Latin: “Before the necessary exit no one exists who is wiser than that he needs to ponder, before his soul departs hence, what good or evil it has done, how it will be judged after death.” He also used to sing antiphons to console both us and himself, of which one is “O King of Glory, Lord of Might, Who didst this day triumphantly ascend far above all heavens, we beseech Thee leave us not comfortless, but send to us the promise of the Father, even the Spirit of Truth; Hallelujah.”

Solomon and Saturn (lines 362-63; Dobbie 1942:44):

“Ne mæg mon forildan    ænige hwile
MS forildo
ðone deoran sið,    ac he hine adreogan sceall.”

“No one can delay for any time the precious journey, but he has to endure it.”

Guthlac B (lines 1325b-35a; Roberts 1979:122-23 and 179-80):

           Beofode þæt ealond,
foldwong onþrong.    Ða afyrhted wearð
ar, elnes biloren,    gewat þa ofestlice
beorn unhyðig,    þæt he bat gestag,
wæghengest wræc,    wæterþisa for,
snel under sorgum.    Swegl hate scan,
blac ofer burgsalo.    Brimwudu scynde,
leoht, lade fus.    Lagumearg snyrede,
gehlæsted to hyðe,    þæt se hærnflota
æfter sundplegan    sondlond gespearn,
grond wið greote.

That island trembled, the earthly plain burst up. Then the messenger, deprived of courage, became afraid, went in haste, the hapless warrior, so that he embarked on the boat. The wave-stallion stirred, the water-speeder went, swift under sorrows, the hot sky shone, bright over the dwelling-places. The timbered ocean-vessel hastened, light, keen on its course. The flood-horse scudded, loaded to the harbor, so that the wave-floater, after the water-play, trod on the sandy shore, ground against the gravel.

Andreas (lines 422b-425a; Krapp 1905:17; Brooks 1961:14; parallels are highlighted in bold italics):

                        Mycel is nu gena
lad ofer lagustream,    land swiðe feorr
to gesecanne.    Sund is geblonden,
grund wið greote.

There is still a great journey over the ocean-stream, land very far to seek. The sea is stirred up, the deep with gravel.

Cynewulf’s Elene (lines 225-55; Krapp 1932:72-73; Cook 1919:10-11; Gradon 1958:36-37; parallels with other Old English poems extant are given in bold italics):

Ongan þa ofstlice    eorla mengu
to flote fysan.    Fearoðhengestas
ymb geofenes stæð    gearwe stodon,
sælde sæmearas,    sunde getenge.
Ða wæs orcnæwe    idese siðfæt,
siððan wæges helm    werode gesohte.
Þær wlanc manig    æt Wendelsæ
on stæðe stodon.    Stundum wræcon
ofer mearcpaðu,    mægen æfter oðrum,
ond þa gehlodon    hildesercum,
bordum ond ordum,    byrnwigendum,
werum ond wifum,    wæghengestas.
Leton þa ofer fifelwæg    famige scriðan
bronte brimþisan.    Bord oft onfeng
ofer earhgeblond    yða swengas;
MS altered from fæmige
sæ swinsade.    Ne hyrde ic sið ne ær
on egstreame    idese lædan,
on merestræte,    mægen fægerre.
Þær meahte gesion,    se ðone sið beheold,
MS fægrre
brecan ofer bæðweg,    brimwudu snyrgan
MS spellingum
under swellingum,    sæmearh plegean,
wadan wægflotan.    Wigan wæron bliðe,
collenferhðe,    cwen siðes gefeah,
syþþan to hyðe    hringedstefnan
ofer lagofæsten    geliden hæfdon
on Creca land.    Ceolas leton
æt sæfearoðe,    sande bewrecene,
ald yðhofu,    oncrum fæste
on brime bidan    beorna geþinges,
MS yð liofu
hwonne heo sio guðcwen    gumena þreate
MS hwone
ofer eastwegas    eft gesohte.

Then a multitude of men quickly began to hasten towards the ocean. Sea-stallions stood poised at the edge of the deep, surge-steeds tethered alongside the sound. The lady’s expedition was widely known, once she sought the wave’s protection with her war-band. There many a proud man stood at the edge, by the Mediterranean. From time to time there traveled over the coast-paths one force after another, and loaded the wave-stallions with battle-shirts, shields and spears, mail-coated fighters, men and women. Then they let the steep ocean-speeders slip, foam-flecked, over the monstrous waves. The ship’s side often caught the billows’ blows across the surge of the deep; the sea resounded. I never heard before or since that a lady led on the streaming ocean, the watery way, a fairer force. There, one who watched that journey, would be able to see forging through the streaming path the timbered ocean-vessels scudding under the swelling sails, the surge-steeds racing, the wave-floaters wading on. The warriors were happy, bold-hearted, the queen delighted in the journey, after the ring-prowed vessels had crossed over the watery fastness to the harbor in the land of the Greeks. They left the keeled boats at the sea’s edge, driven onto the sand, ancient wave-vessels, fast at anchor, to await on the water the outcome for the warriors, when the warlike queen, with her company of men, should seek them out again along roads from the east.

Cynewulf’s Christ B (lines 850-66; Krapp and Dobbie 1936:26-27; Cook 1900:33; parallels with other Old English poems extant are given in bold italics):

Nu is þon gelicost    swa we on laguflode
ofer cald wæter    ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ,    sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen.    Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta    þe we her on lacað
geond þas wacan woruld,    windge holmas
ofer deop gelad.      Wæs se drohtað strong
ærþon we to londe    geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg.    Þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo    hyþe gelædde,
godes gæstsunu,    ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun    ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon    sundhengestas,
ealde yðmearas,    ancrum fæste.
Utan us to þære hyðe    hyht staþelian,
ða us gerymde    rodera waldend,
halge on heahþu,    þa he heofonum astag.

Now it is most like when on the liquid-flood, over the cold water, throughout the wide sea, we journey in ships, ocean-horses, travel flood-wood. The surge is perilous, waves beyond measure, that we ride on here, throughout this frail world, windy swells over the deep water-way. That plight was severe, before we had crossed to land over the rough ridge. Then help came to us, so that there led us to the safety of harbor God’s spiritual son, and gave us the grace that we might know beyond the ship’s planking where we ought to tether ocean-horses, ancient wave-steeds, secured with anchors. Let us fix our hope on that harbor, holy on high, that the ruler of the firmament opened up for us, when he ascended into the heavens.

Homily on the Ascension by Gregory the Great (Homeliae in euangelia XXIX, lines 248-52; Étaix 1999:254):

Quamuis adhuc rerum perturbationibus animus fluctuet, iam tamen spei uestrae anchoram in aeternam patriam figite, intentionem mentis in uera luce solidate. Ecce ad caelum ascendisse Dominum audiuimus. Hoc ergo seruemus in meditatione quod credimus.

Although the soul may still waver from the disturbances of things, nonetheless fasten the anchor of your hope on the eternal homeland, and make firm the aspiration of your heart on the true light. Behold, we have heard that the Lord ascended into heaven; let us keep this in contemplation, as we believe it.

Alcuin (Godman 1982:134):

Haec ego nauta rudis teneris congesta carinis,
Per pelagi fluctus et per vada caeca gubernans,
Euboricae ad portum commercia iure reduxi;
Utpote quae proprium sibi me nutrivit alumnum,
Imbuit et primis utcumque verenter ab annis.
Haec idcirco cui propriis de patribus atque
Regibus et sanctis ruralia carmina scripsi.
Hos pariter sanctos, tetigi quos versibus istis,
Deprecor ut nostram mundi de gurgite cymbam
Ad portum vitae meritis precibusque gubernent.

I, an inexperienced sailor, steering through the ocean’s waves and dark channels, have rightly brought cargo packed in a vulnerable ship back to the harbor at York, who fostered me as her own product, and reverently raised me from my earliest years, and therefore it is for her that I have written these crude verses concerning her own bishops, kings, and saints. Likewise it is to those saints, whom I have touched on in these verses, that I pray to steer our vessel by their merits and prayers from the whirlpool of the world to the harbor of life.

The Seafarer (lines 117-24; Krapp and Dobbie 1936:146-47; Gordon 1960:48):

Uton we hycgan    hwær we ham agen,
ond þonne geþencan    hu we þider cumen,
ond we þonne eac tilien,    þæt we to moten
[MS se for second we]
in þa ecan    eadignesse,
þær is lif gelong    in lufan dryhtnes,
hyht in heofonum.    Þæs sy þam halgan þonc,
þæt he usic geweorþade,    wuldres ealdor,
ece dryhten,    in ealle tid.  Amen.

Let us consider where we have a home and then think how we may arrive there, and then we may strive that we are allowed to enter the eternal blessedness, where there is life derived from the love of the Lord, hope in heaven. For that let there be thanks to the holy one, because he has honored us, the prince of glory, eternal lord, forevermore. Amen.

Paris Psalter (Psalm 106 verses 22-29; Krapp 1932:88-89; the parallels with Christ B are given in bold italics):

22 Þa þe sæ seceað,    mid scipe liðað,
wyrceað weorc mænig    on wæterðyrþum.
23 Hi drihtnes weorc    digul gesawon
and his wundra wearn    on wætergrundum.
24 Gif he sylfa cwyð,    sona ætstandað
ystige gastas    ofer egewylmum,
beoð heora yþa    up astigene.
[MS æt standeð]
25 Þa to heofenum up    heah astigað,
nyþer gefeallað    under neowulne grund;
oft þa on yfele    eft aþindað.
26 Gedrefede þa    deope syndan,
hearde onhrerede    her anlicast,
hu druncen hwylc    gedwæs spyrige;
ealle heora snytru beoð    yfele forglendred.
[MS for gledred]
27 Hi on costunge    cleopedan to drihtne,
and he hi of earfeðum    eallum alysde.
28 He yste mæg    eaðe oncyrran,
þæt him windes hweoðu    weorðeð smylte,
and þa yðe    eft swygiað,
bliþe weorðað,    þa þe brimu weþað.
[MS hi]
29 And he hi on hælo    hyþe gelædde,
swa he hira willan    wyste fyrmest,
and he hig of earfoðum    eallum alysde.

Those who seek the sea, travel on ships, they work many works in the rush of waters.
They have seen the secret works of the Lord, and the multitude of his wonders in the watery depths.
If he himself speaks, straightaway there stand up stormy spirits over terrifying surges, the waves of which are raised up.
Then they rise up high to the heavens, fall back down to the hidden depths; often they fall away into evil.
Then they are deeply disturbed, sorely stirred up, here just as any drunken fool would weave his way; all their sense has been evilly swallowed up.
In their trials they called out to the Lord, and he set them free from all their hardships.
He can easily turn the storm, so that for him the wind’s gusts grow calm, and the waves are silent again; they grow benign, that settle the waters.
And he led them to the safety of harbor, just as he knew was their most fervent wish, and he set them free from all their hardships.

Paris Psalter (at Psalm 142.9; O’Neill 1988; the text here follows the Paris Psalter, as in Krapp 1932:140):

Do me wegas wise,    þæt ic wite gearwe
on hwylcne ic gange    gleawe mode;
nu ic to drihtnes    dome wille
mine sawle    settan geornast.

Make the paths known to me, so that I know clearly on which I walk with a knowing mind; now I will most eagerly set my soul to the glory of the Lord.

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