The battle of Maldon was a true historic event which took place in the year 991. From the entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is impossible to ascertain the events that occurred during the battle nor anything of the nature of the people involved. It is a simple, superficial, historical account which reveals very little. In Medieval English Literature Trapp, Gray and Boffey state “The annalists’ bare words give the dismal facts, but nothing about the battle itself and next to nothing about the English leader…“ The anonymous poem The Battle of Maldon reveals much more. It gives an insight into the culture, people and literary traditions of the era.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the poem is that which it reveals about the Anglo-Saxon culture. By demonstrating the heroic deeds and loyalty of Byrhtnoth and his men it conveys the hierarchical, warrior culture known as the ‘heroic ethic’. T. B. Montague states “…the poet dramatizes the battle in a way that emphasizes the moral aspects of heroic action.” The heroic code revolves around the relationship between lord and retainer. It is a relationship based on mutual respect, loyalty and generosity. In exchange for gifts (horses, rings and weapons etc.), success in battle and hospitality, the retainer rewarded his lord with loyalty and bravery on the battlefield. The Battle of Maldon is a vivid account of this relationships- “Eadric too was firmly resolved to follow his leader into the fight…he kept his word / that he would pierce and parry before his prince.” Another understanding between lord and retainer was that the lord would lead his men by example on the battlefield and demonstrate bravery- “…Byrhtnoth spurred them on/…Then the brave warrior raised his spear,/ gripped his shield and stepped towards a seafarer;” The social standing of a retainer depended on his courage. He was expected to stand and fight to the death. If his lord was slain he had to continue fighting to avenge his lord’s death- “And now the folk’s father had fallen lifeless,/…uncowed the warriors crowded eager/ for one of two things: each man wanted/ either to requite that death or to quit life.“ The Battle of Maldon demonstrates both perspectives of this relationship. The first half of the poem depicts Byrhtnoth as a confident leader who rallies his men in battle until he is killed. The second half contains tales of his brave retainers fight to avenge his death.
An additional element of the heroic code which is demonstrated in the poem is the shunning of any retainers who did not display the appropriate loyalty and bravery to his lord. Any who had deserted the battlefield were rejected by their community. In the poem, Godric and his brothers flee the battle scene. One of Byrhtnoth’s comitatus states “Godric, the cowardly son of Odda, has betrayed us all./ …may fortune frown on him/ whose cowardice has caused this catastrophe.” This demonstrates the moral aspect of the heroic code.
The characterization of people in the poem further highlights the importance of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code. The forceful words spoken by Byrhtnoth to the enemy demonstrate the concept of ofermode. This is the desire of glory and excessive pride and courage “…a noble earl and his troop stand over here-/…- who will defend this land/ to the last ditch.” It also demonstrates the concept of ‘wyrd’. This is the acceptance of fate demonstrated by Byrhtnoth’s retainers- “…I will not go from here,/ but I mean to lie by the side of my lord,/ lie in the dust with the man I loved so dearly.”
The characters also demonstrate the hierarchical society that they lived in. The leader of the men is Byrhtnoth, he is the lord. The poem then mentions his hearth-companions such as Offa and Byrhtwold, the rest are his levied army. The poem also speaks of “a lowly churl” called Dunnere. The inclusion of all these people highlights the loyalty that was shown from every tier of society. It also gives different perspectives of the battle....
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