What are the strengths and failures of the Battle of Maldon and the related texts' as evidence for the structure of English Society
The Battle of Maldon is a medieval text depicting a battle between English warriors and Danish invaders. Earl Byrtnoth was commanding the warriors in the name of King Æthelred. The poem portrays the heroism of the bravest warriors and the sheer cowardice of those that fled. Controversy over the aim of the poem is apparent as Sragg says that the poets "style of writing is so hyperbolic that it robs what little of trustworthiness there is." On the one hand there is little doubt that the battle happened and in this sense the poem is accurate, however very little archaeological evidence has been found around that historical sight to consolidate the poems content. Another problem may well lie in the later translations of the text especially before 1725 and the Cotton Library fire. When copyists began to copy the text they may well have lost some of the meaning of the poem by the way they understand it, they are likely to translate the text to fit contemporary understanding.
It is possible to see that the church appears to play a major role in the society of the English in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Lines one hundred and one to one hundred and five display a deeply engrained belief in fate and God's hand in it,
"There against the fierce ones stood ready
Byrtnoth with his men
Then the fight was nigh,
glory in combat: the time had come
when fated men must fall there."
It is possible to see that there was a deeply engrained belief, in the higher circles of society especially, that if you died on the battle field then God had fated you to do so. Also the use of glory indicates a connection with religion as glory and glorification are synonymous with Christ, God, and religion in general. This idea is backed up by lines one hundred and seventy three to one hundred and eighty whereby a fallen warrior believes that they will reach heaven in God's peace. This idea would no doubt be reflected through society as lines two hundred and five to two hundred and eight suggest that society acknowledges the bravest, a lord would expect his warriors to avenge his death or lose his life in the process. The church also played a major role as a buttress to the King's legitimacy and power. Often the king was associated with God and heaven. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles report that in 979 King Edward died and it goes on to link the late king with God, "in life was an earthly king; he is now after his death a heavenly saint
his heavenly father has greatly avenged him
those that would not bow to his (God's) living body will bow humbly to his dead bones." Further evidence of the churches role in society can be found in Byrtferth's Life of Saint Oswald. The king's godly status is again referred to, "it was the lords manifold mercy which sustained him because he was most worthy of it...he struck blows with his right side not paying heed to the swan white hair of his head, since alms and holy masses comforted him". Such a belief that the king had God on his side no doubt trickled down through society, the English with their godlike king were living, socialising and fighting in the name of the Lord. At a time when heathen kings were becoming Christian kings, such as Edwin, Oswald, Osius and Ecgfrith, more and more monasteries and religious houses sprung up. Such an existence of these places meant that the king could exert more power on the local population through his loyal monks. Such advances in local organization began to make it easier for the king to govern as there was much more political continuity. Such was the strong connection between the people and the church, in particular the upper echelons of society, that many people gave away land to the church to return goods "which God has lent him" The Battle of Maldon and its related texts do show us a great deal about the role of the church in...
H R Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 1961/1986, chs 5-7
R Abels, Lordship and Military Organisation in Anglo-Saxon England, 1988, chs 4, 7-8
E James, Britain in the First Millennium, 2001, chs 9-10
DG Scragg, Battle of Maldon, AD 991, 1991, 15-36
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