The Battle Of Maldon
January 12, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

The Battle Of Maldon is an Old English poem (here in the original Old English, here in a modern translation) retelling the events of a battle that took place in England in 991, in which a small army of Saxons attempted to halt an invading Viking force only to suffer a crushing defeat. This battle, and the disastrous rout suffered by the Saxons, led to the introduction of the Danegeld, the payment of silver in tribute to the Vikings to buy off their invading forces.

The poem is incomplete, missing both the beginning and the end, and only 325 lines survive. The original manuscript, which even then was incomplete, was destroyed in the Cottonian Library fire of 1731, but fortunately a copy had been transcribed just 5 years previously, so the poem was not completely lost.

In 1953, JRR Tolkien wrote a short sequel to the poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm's Son.

In 2010, as is now obligatory, The Battle Of Maldon was re-enacted in Lego.
posted by dng (25 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating links. There's also Kipling's verse on the subject of the Danegeld, from his collection Songs Written for C.R.L. Fletcher's "A History of England":
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

posted by Doktor Zed at 10:41 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Relevant Python sketch.

"Yes, everyone is welcome to North Malden, none more so than the businessmen and investors who shape our society of the future."
posted by Chrysostom at 10:53 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's a metal song by Leaves' Eyes on the same topic, if that floats your flotation unit.
posted by Zarkonnen at 10:55 AM on January 12, 2012

I didn't know about the Cottonian library fire of 1731, so thanks for that link in particular.

Also, Aethelred the Unready may be my favorite king's name of all time.
posted by immlass at 11:09 AM on January 12, 2012

Sadly not anywhere with my Old English yet, but know that these are among the most famous lines from poetry of that time:

Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.

Also, on the Danegeld, 1066 And All That explained its history fully:

Ethelred the Unready was the first Weak King of England and was thus the cause of a fresh Wave of Danes.

He was called the Unready because he was never ready when the Danes were. Rather than wait for him the Danes used to fine him larges sums called Danegeld, for not being ready. But though they were always ready, the Danes had very bad memories and often used to forget that they had been paid the Danegeld and come back for it almost before they had sailed away. By that time Ethelred was always unready again.

Finally, Ethelred was taken completely unawares by his own death and was succeeded by Canute.

No mention of Maldon, maybe the poem was made up? which a small army of Saxons attempted to halt an invading Viking force...

By 991, they are best described as English rather than Saxon. Even Viking is a bit dodgy sometimes, but it is actually used in the poem.
posted by Jehan at 11:11 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the Cotton library is fantastic, as once the location system in explained, you can transport yourself back four hundred years and imagine what it must have looked like!
posted by Jehan at 11:13 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Relevant Python sketch .

posted by Chrysostom at 6:53 PM on January 12

Only slightly less relevant Python sketch.
posted by Decani at 11:28 AM on January 12, 2012

I'm fascinated by the idea that the Old English expression for dying is to "go forth", and our Modern English equivalent is "pass on".
posted by Sara C. at 11:41 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sir Robert Cotton had organised his library according to the case, shelf and position of a book. Each bookcase in his library was surmounted by a bust of various Caesars, and his scheme worked by Caesar-Shelf letter-Volume number from end. Thus, the two most famous of the manuscripts from the Cotton library are "Cotton Vitellius A.xv" and "Cotton Nero A.x." In Cotton's own day, that meant "Under the bust of Vitellius, top shelf (A), and count fifteen over," for the Liber Monstrorum of the Beowulf manuscript, or "Go to the bust of Nero, top shelf, tenth book" for the manuscript containing all the works of the Pearl Poet.

This is, by far, the best answer to "How do you organize your books?"
posted by steef at 12:12 PM on January 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

immlass, you'll be as disappointed as I was to discover that the 'unready' in "Aethelred the Unready" doesn't mean what you expect. I believe it's something like 'unadvised', or 'unwilling to take advice'.

And the interface at that link is fantastic! I wonder how much of the work it took to come up with translations for every single word was done by hand.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:14 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Bernard Cornwell books on Saxon England are pretty good.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:17 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Now we just pay it to Ikea.
posted by ciderwoman at 1:28 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This was mentioned in the BBC Learning documentary Blood of the Vikings, which was good watching.
posted by vanar sena at 2:07 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

AEthelraed Unraed does mean "unadvised", "ill-advised" or simply "unwise." Ironically, his given name means "noble counsel," which makes the whole thing funnier to your average Old English chap on the street.

The key bit of both names is "raed," which means, among other things, "advice, counsel, wisdom." It gave us Middle/Early Modern English "rede". It's related to the Old English verb raedan which gives us, among other things, the modern English verb "to read". German reden, "to speak or converse", shares a common root. I think there's a Dutch cognate too, but I don't speak Dutch.

(places language hat reverently back on shelf whence it came)
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:39 PM on January 12, 2012 [12 favorites]

"Raedan"? Sint we steorlease sæmenn? You have an ash key, why not use it?

You don't have an ash key? Wait, what timeline biþ þis?
posted by No-sword at 4:27 PM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Raad is the dutch cognate to ræd and it has the same meaning it had in old english: advice or counsel (and also counsil). Even better, in modern dutch the pun still works. AEthelraed Unraed can be rendered as Edelraad Onraad.

To my dutch ears it sounds a bit like a posh but clumsy cartoon character.
posted by Sourisnoire at 10:48 PM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Råd" is "council" or "advice" in modern Norwegian, and I think the other Nordic languages as well.
posted by Harald74 at 11:22 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, apart from "reden", German also has the verb "raten", which means "to advice" but also "to guess", and the noun "Rat" which can mean counsel, council or advice. Also, in German there is also the word "Unrat", which nowadays is mostly used with the meaning of "garbage" or "refuse", but originally had a wider meaning of "mess", "disaster". Germans would also find the name "Edelrat Unrat" quite funny.
posted by Skeptic at 1:08 AM on January 13, 2012

BTW, the original German title of the Heinrich Mann novel "The Blue Angel" (on which the Marlene Dietrich film is based) is "Professor Unrat", derived from just the same pun.
posted by Skeptic at 1:14 AM on January 13, 2012

Skeptic, I had totally forgotten about "raten"! I didn't know that about The Blue Angel, either. Excellent!

Thank you guys for the Dutch and Norse words, too.

No-sword, I just found an ash key. It has an even number of leaves on it and I am going to use it to find a husband.

Back on topic, I love this poem and am glad there's a post about it-- I especially love the image of the young lord letting the hawk fly from his wrist before going to battle:
hē lēt him þā of handon     lēofne flēogan 
 hafoc wið þæs holtes     and tō þǣre hilde stōp. 
He let there from his hands / the loved one fly,
The hawk to the forest / and to the battle strode.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:46 AM on January 13, 2012

I wonder if Rad has any connection to the German word Rath.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:51 AM on January 13, 2012

A fact which tickled me as a young history reader was that Aethelred the Unready peed in his baptismal font at his christening.
posted by titanium_geek at 3:28 AM on January 14, 2012

At least he managed to shake that story. The Byzantine emperor Constantine V has gone down in history with the moniker 'Copronymus' (shit-named), with a similar story about shitting the baptismal font.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:55 AM on January 14, 2012

Harald74: ""Råd" is "council" or "advice" in modern Norwegian, and I think the other Nordic languages as well."

... and that's where spare the råd and spoil the child came from.
posted by vanar sena at 10:32 AM on January 14, 2012

i'm always reminded of ernest gellner on danegeld in the modern world: "Industrial society is the only society ever to live by and rely on sustained and perpetual growth, on an expected and continuous improvement. Not surprisingly, it was the first society to invent the concept and ideal of progress, of continuous improvement. Its favoured mode of social control is universal Danegeld, buying off social aggression with material enhancement; its greatest weakness is its inability to survive any temporary reduction of the social bribery fund, and to weather the loss of legitimacy which befalls it if the cornucopia becomes temporarily jammed and the flow falters."
posted by kliuless at 12:11 PM on January 14, 2012

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