The Battle of Maldon

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The Battle of Maldon

as translated by Michael Alexander


A poem set in England on August 11, 991; probably written in the 990s; first published in 1726.


The English lord Byrhtnoth leads an army to confront an invading force of Vikings; after a heroic battle, he is slain and the English army is defeated.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

The author of The Battle of Maldon is unknown, though many have speculated that he may have participated in the battle itself. His intention was twofold—to document a specific battle between his English countrymen and an army of Viking invaders, and to celebrate the heroic virtues exhibited by the English soldiers in the face of annihilation. As such, he looked at both the immediate past (the poem was probably written very shortly after the battle itself in 991) and at the age-old cultural legacy of the Germanic warrior, the origins of which stretched far back to the time before the forefathers of the English crossed the English Channel in the fifth century to occupy a land inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. The army that faced the Viking threat in 991 was no tribal band; the Anglo-Saxon society that suffered annual plundering by Scandinavian raiders was cultured and literate, and had been for many centuries. The English were known throughout Europe as exemplars of Christian scholarship and learning, in direct contrast to the Scandinavian raiders, who were despised as brutish and uncivilized pagans. Nevertheless, the English and their Viking foes descended from a common Germanic culture, and their codes of military conduct were very similar. Despite the firmly established Christianity of the English, on the battlefield they held fast to the same ancient standards of conduct that motivated their opponents—faithfulness to their leaders unto death, selfless bravery, and fierce delight in killing their foes.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Battle of Maldon in history and legend

In the late tenth century, England was accustomed to annual raids by organized groups of Scandinavian warriors. Such raids had in fact been going on for two centuries. Known now as Vikings, the warriors were called “Danes” in England at that time, even though their bases of operation extended beyond Denmark throughout Scandinavia. While often brutally violent, their raids were generally not conducted for purposes of conquest; rather, the Vikings sought gain—they would plunder towns and monasteries, taking away anything portable and valuable. Often they offered to spare the lives and property of their victims in exchange for gold, and the English frequently accepted these offers, since the Vikings had demonstrated a tendency to carry off not only material goods on their raids, but also people to be sold as slaves. This was the threat facing Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, in the year 991. Leader of the English force, Byrhtnoth was the country’s most powerful nobleman, next to the king.

The town of Maldon is situated northeast of London, a short distance up the Blackwater River (called the Pant in the poem) from the coast. Maldon is not mentioned in the poem (modern editors gave it the title The Battle of Maldon), but the town was probably the object of the Vikings’ expedition. One of their raiding parties landed on Northey Island in the estuary of the river (between the ocean and Maldon), judging it to be a safe locus for collecting their forces at a prudent distance from the fortifications of Maldon. Upon learning of their arrival, Byrhtnoth, as the military commander of highest rank in the area, gathered an army and set out to confront them. His decision to face the invaders on foot was not out of the ordinary; the English army used cavalry in battle on occasion, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Another factor in his decision to lead foot soldiers may have been the marshy ground near the estuary, which would have made cavalry maneuvers difficult. The Vikings offered Byrhtnoth peace in exchange for gold, which the defiant Byrhtnoth rejected. Instead the battle was joined and the English force utterly defeated. Its defeat had something to do with the readiness of Englishmen in the next several years to buy off raiders with the gold they sought, rather than oppose them militarily.

Other details about the battle are provided by Latin and English historical records, some roughly contemporary with the battle, and some from much later; the most important of these are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a year-by-year account of noteworthy events kept by English monks throughout the later Anglo-Saxon era), the Vita Oswaldi (an early-eleventh-century biography of Oswald, bishop of York), and the Liber Eliensis (a late-twelfth-century history of the monastery of Ely). The date of the battle can be determined from a record of Byrhtnoth’s death, recorded as August 11, 991, in an early-eleventh-century calendar of Winchester (Scragg, p. 10). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains in its several versions a fair amount of corroborating information, although the discrepancies among these versions have caused historians to treat the Maldon material with caution. Still, we learn that the Viking forces may have been led by Olaf Tryggvason, who later became king of Norway and the hero of an Old Norse saga; one version of the chronicle reads for the year 993 (a mistake for 991):

In this year Olaf came with 93 ships to Folkestone, and ravaged round about it, and then from there went to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran it all, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there and with his army fought against them; and they killed the ealdorman there and gained control of the field.
(Greenfield and Calder, pp. 150-51)

The chronicle reports the size of the Viking army to be variously 93 or 94 ships, which would make the number of Viking soldiers 2000 to 2500 (Gordon, p. 11). However, many scholars believe that these chronicle entries conflate the events of 991 with a later Viking raid, so the exact size of the invading force remains uncertain. The Vita Oswaldi tells of Byrhtnoth’s unusual physical size, his advanced age, and his piety, and says that despite their victory the Vikings had barely enough men left after the battle to man their ships. The Viking leader, Olaf, had not yet converted to Christianity; thus, the battle did not just pit the English against an enemy, but a specifically pagan enemy.

However, the Vita Oswald also mistakes the date of the battle by several years. This and its highly exaggerated style have led to its information being treated with suspicion. The Liber Eliensis contains a lengthy account of the battle—or, rather, battles. It is possible that the author knew The Battle of Maldon, because of certain echoes of verbal detail, but in the Eliensis account the simple narrative of the poem describes not one battle but two; in the first, Byrhtnoth decisively defeats the Vikings, but then is persuaded to accept their challenge for a rematch four years later. The second battle lasts two weeks, and Byrhtnoth is killed along with his men. Clearly, the Battle of Maldon, while relatively insignificant in terms of the overall English-Viking strife, evolved over the years into an event emblematic of the English heroic ideal. Byrhtnoth may have lost the fight, but for the English he stood for all that was most noble and admirable about their national character.


One of the remarkable things about The Battle oj Maldon is how much we know about its hero, Byrhtnoth. He was an important man in late-tenth-century England, and had been for decades. He was an ealdorman, one of four or five noblemen in the kingdom whose stature was second only to the king. An ealdorman’s authority was regional; Byrhtnoth was responsible for Essex, in which the town of Maldon was located. Thus, when the Vikings made their appearance there, it was only natural that he would be called upon to lead the defensive forces. He moved in the highest circles; his wife’s sister married King Edmund of England around 945, and both his father and his father-in-law held the title of ealdorman of Essex before him. When he succeeded to the title in 956, he already had held an important political and military position in England for some time, and his 35 years of service as ealdorman would be markedly successful. He enjoyed the friendship of kings and other ealdormen, especially Aethelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia. Together they promoted the interests of the “reformed” monasteries, which practiced a stricter form of religious observance than had been common before a wave of reform swept through many English monasteries in the mid-tenth century, under the leadership of Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury. In 975, when King Edgar (who had supported the reform movement) died, the then-senior ealdorman Aelfhere of Mercia sought to return the monasteries to their former, less strict, mode of observance. Byrhtnoth and Aethelwine stood firm in opposition, and their victory in this matter (accomplished with the threat of violence) greatly increased Byrhtnoth’s stature.

By 991, Aethelwine was gravely ill, and Byrhtnoth stood alone as the most powerful ealdorman in the kingdom (Scragg, p. 18). He was a wealthy landowner with estates throughout England, and was a great financial supporter of religious houses and monasteries. The monastery at Ely alone received 13 properties upon his death, and he also left generous bequests to Ramsey, Mersea, Abingdon, and Christ Church, Cambridge (Scragg, p. 15).


After not many months had elapsed [since a battle in Wessex where the Danes were beaten], another heroic battle occurred in the east of this famous region. The renowned ealdorman, Byrhtnoth, was in charge of the battle along with his fellow warriors. Who can trust that his style is elegant enough to describe how gloriously, how bravely, how courageously Byrhtnoth urged his war captains into the battle-line? He stood there, his tall height eminent above the rest.… With his right hand he struck again and again, oblivious of the gray hair (like swan’s down) on his head; for his alms and holy masses strengthened him. With his left hand he defended himself, mindless of his failing body; for his prayers and good deeds supported him. When he, the field’s noble general, saw the enemy charging down and his own men fighting bravely—killing many of the enemy—he began to fight for his country with all his might. An uncountable number of the Danes and our own men fell; Byrhtnoth himself fell and the rest fled. The Danes were so incredibly wounded that they could scarcely man their boats. (Calder and Allen, pp. 188-89)

Thus, the Battle of Maldon, while strategically a relatively minor incident in the long history of English-Viking conflict, must have shocked the nation. Byrhtnoth was not young (he was probably about 65 when the battle took place), but he was the premier military commander that the English possessed, and his death was a great loss. The chroniclers of Ely and Ramsey made much of the battle and Byrhtnoth’s martial valor; their exaggerations are perhaps to be expected, in view of his longstanding patronage of these monasteries. The Ely account says that after the battle, the Vikings took away Byrhtnoth’s head in triumph. He was buried in the church at Ely (the tombs of important persons were often within the church), where he remained until 1769, when a building project disinterred his body. It was reported that no skull could be found, that the collarbone had been nearly cut in two, and


There follows a memorable account of Byrhtnoth, a remarkable and famous man, whose life and deeds receive no small praise in the English histories.… Because of the extraordinary wisdom and bodily strength with which he firmly defended himself and his men, everyone called him “ealdor-man” in English, that is, an elder or leader. He was eloquent in speech, robust in strength, large of body, unremitting in war and campaigns against the kingdom’s enemies, and bold beyond measure, neither regarding nor fearing death. Moreover, he honored Holy Church and God’s ministers everywhere and gave the whole of his patrimony for their use. He always made himself a bulwark for the religious orders against those who tried to cause trouble in holy places. … As long as he lived, he devoted his life to defending his country’s liberty, and he was totally committed to the standard that he would rather die than injuries to his country go unavenged. (Calder and Allen, pp. 190-91)

that the bones were those of a man 6 feet 9 inches in height (Scragg, p. 20).

The Vikings

Since classical antiquity, the peoples of northern Europe had been known as wide-ranging seafarers and tradesmen. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the first century c.e., remarked on both their skill as shipbuilders and the unique design of their ships, which allowed them to land virtually anywhere, without needing to find a harbor. This enabled them to travel not only over the ocean, but far inland. No site on the coast or on a navigable river was safe—a fact made abundantly clear throughout Europe when, beginning in the late eighth century, the Vikings burst forth from Scandinavia to kill, burn, and plunder virtually at will.

Ireland and the British Isles were hit first, but in the course of the ninth century Viking raiders made attacks throughout Europe and the East. They ransacked Paris, burned Hamburg, harried the Moslem caliphate in Spain, attacked Italy, and reached as far east as Kiev, Novgorod, and Constantinople. For the most part the Vikings did not remain in the territories of their victims. Viking kingdoms were established in Ireland and northern England, and the Normandy region of France still bears the name of the Vikings (“north-men”) who settled there, but these were the exception rather than the rule. Again, the practice of the Vikings was to raid rather than to decisively conquer. Their object was wealth, and their tactics were admirably suited to this goal. The mere rumor of their arrival sent people into a panic, prompting the local citizenry to hand over to the Viking force all their valuables, grateful to escape with their lives. The Vikings seemed ever ready to resort to violence if necessary, usually without warning. A particularly vivid account of the Viking attack on Constantinople in 860 is recorded in Russian and Byzantine chronicles. Constantinople was by far the largest, wealthiest, and most cultured city in all of Christendom at the time. On June 18, 860, some 200 Viking ships suddenly appeared, staging a surprise attack. Nearby monasteries were sacked without opposition. The Vikings’ timing was perfect—the emperor was on campaign with his army, engaged in one of an endless series of battles against Moslems. Photius, the supreme bishop of the eastern Christian Church, lamented the calamity:

Woe is me that I see a fierce and savage tribe fearlessly poured round the city, ravaging the suburbs, destroying everything, ruining everything—fields, houses, herds, beasts of burden, women, old men, youths—thrusting their swords through everything, taking pity on nothing, sparing nothing. The destruction is universal. Like a locust in a cornfield, like mildew in a vineyard, or rather like a whirlwind or a typhoon or a torrent or I know not what to say, it fell upon our land and has annihilated whole generations of inhabitants.
(Photius in Logan, pp. 189-90)

Such were the raids that the Vikings carried out, or threatened to carry out, in England virtually every year for two centuries.

By the late tenth century, the Viking attacks had tapered off somewhat. In fact, Maldon was one of the last battles fought on English soil against a force of pagan Vikings raiders. Soon afterwards, the kings of Norway and Denmark converted to Christianity, and (perhaps more importantly) entered mainstream European political and military activity. The Scandinavians still were formidable opponents—the Danish king Cnut conquered and ruled England from 1016-1035—but their Viking raids ended.

The heroic ideal

The values expressed in The Battle of Maldon are part of a code of behavior that stretches far back into the prehistory of the Germanic peoples. There are two operative principles: first, that a warrior should exhibit absolute bravery on the battlefield, and indifference to his own fate; and second, that he should defend his leader unto death—surviving a battle in which one’s leader perished was considered the ultimate disgrace. These principles inform virtually every action described in the poem.

Ancient historians agree that these values permeated primitive Germanic society; in a famous passage from his Germania, the first century c.e. Roman historian Tacitus comments: “to survive the leader and retreat from the battlefield is a lifelong disgrace and infamy” for the Germanic warrior (Woolf, p. 63). Julius Caesar, Sallust, Ammianus Marcellinus, and other ancient Roman writers express similar evaluations of the “barbaric” peoples to the north, noting with amazement their ferocity, indifference to pain and death, and determination not to survive their fallen leaders in battle. That such values should appear virtually unchanged in a people fully civilized (by Western standards) and Christianized a millennium later shows how deeply embedded in their culture these values were. It is instructive to note that Byrhtnoth dies a little over halfway through the poem; the remainder consists of speeches by the surviving English warriors about their determination to fight on until they too are killed. Such standards of conduct were more than simple ideals—they defined the essence of what it meant to be a warrior.

The Poem in Focus

Plot summary

Due to the loss of some of the original manuscript, The Battle of Maldon begins in the middle of a sentence, and also ends abruptly, before its original conclusion. Most scholars believe, however, that not more than a page or two was lost at either end, in view of the fact that the description of virtually the entire battle remains intact, from the initial contact with the Vikings to the death of Byrhtnoth and the last stand of his retainers. The first lines of the poem as we have it tell of the English army releasing their horses, and proceeding to meet their foe on foot. In a sporting mood, one soldier releases his hawk for a bit of hunting before the battle, while another advances grimly; “he made good his boast / to stand fast in fight before his lord” (The Battle of Maldon, p. 102). Byrhtnoth


The force commanded by Byrhtnoth was in all likelihood a typical Anglo-Saxon military force, variously called a here or a fyrd in eleventh-century records. It consisted of a commander, an elite force of usually aristocratic thegns (lieutenants to the commander, usually bound in personal as well as military service to him), and an army composed of both freemen (landowning farmers) and peasants. Most were armed with swords, shields, and spears, but since each person had the responsibility of arming himself, and both weapons and armor were expensive, it was the nobility who came to battle best equipped. Indeed, the Bayeux Tapestry—a large embroidered pictorial account of the Battle of Hastings (1066), in which the English were defeated by the Norman army of William the Conqueror—depicts a number of English soldiers fighting with only clubs and stone-headed sticks (Hollister, p. 31). Nevertheless, large fyrds were effective and highly mobile military forces, and they often included archers as well as mounted cavalry. They could execute complex tactical maneuvers, borne of centuries of keeping Scandinavian invaders at bay. It has even been suggested that Byrhtnoth’s fatal decision to allow the Vikings across the causeway to the mainland was part of a larger strategic policy: if the Vikings had decided to sail away due to the unfavorable conditions for battle at Maldon, they might have gone on to attack areas less well defended.

addresses his troops, instructing them on proper battle formation, and encouraging them to fight without fear.

The Vikings, who have landed on an island in the middle of the river Pant, send an emissary to parley with the English on the other shore. Calling across the river, the Viking emissary threatens violence unless a ransom is paid:

The swift-striking seafarers send me to thee,
bid me say that thou send for thy safety
rings, bracelets. Better for you
that you stay straightaway our onslaught with tribute
than that we should share bitter strife.
     (Maldon, pp. 102-103)

This challenge enrages Byrhtnoth, who answers: “Hearest ’ou [thou], seaman, what this folk sayeth? / Spears shall be all the tribute they send you, / viper-stained spears and the swords of forebears” (Maldon, p. 103). Ordering his army to the bank of the river, Byrhtnoth is confronted by rushing water; at high tide, there is no way to march to the Vikings’ encampment on the island. Impatiently the two sides wait for ebb tide, passing the time by ineffectually shooting arrows at each other.

Finally the tide goes out, exposing a narrow causeway between the island and the riverbank. The Vikings immediately prepare to advance across it, but are compelled to go single-file, due to the narrowness of the causeway. Byrhtnoth orders the warrior Wulfstan to hold the causeway against the invaders. With the support of two fellow English soldiers, Wulfstan strikes to the ground the first Viking to step onto the causeway. Realizing their tactical disadvantage, the Vikings “began to plead with craft,” and ask to be allowed safe passage across the causeway before the battle commences (Maldon, p. 104). Byrhtnoth agrees, “overswayed by his heart’s arrogance / to allow overmuch land to that loath nation” and calls out to the Vikings: “The ground is cleared for you: come quickly to us, / gather to battle. God alone knows / who shall carry the wielding of this waste ground” (Maldon, p. 104).

As the enemy advances, Byrhtnoth again instructs and encourages his men, while crows and eagles circle, waiting to feast on carrion. The armies clash furiously, with losses on both sides. Wulfmaer, a kinsman of Byrhtnoth, is wounded, but the English warrior Edward has better luck, for he kills his opponent. Byrhtnoth again encourages his men (not forgetting to thank Edward for his valor), and wades into the battle. A spear flies through the air and wounds him. In a fury he attacks the Viking who threw the spear, killing him with a mighty blow that passes through armor to lodge in the enemy’s heart. Laughing, Byrhtnoth calls aloud his thanks for “the day’s work the Lord had dealt him” (Maldon, p. 106). Suddenly a spear soars through the air and strikes him. Wulfmaer pulls the spear out and throws it back at its owner, killing him. Another Viking comes forward, trying to rob Byrhtnoth of his valuable weapons and armor; Byrhtnoth strikes at him with his sword, but the blow is checked by another Viking, who disables Byrhtnoth’s sword-arm. Now powerless, Byrhtnoth nevertheless continues to encourage his men and, looking to heaven, he prays. The English leader is then cut down by the enemy. He has company in death; Wulfmaer and another faithful warrior fall at his side.

The loss of Byrhtnoth would not necessarily have been disastrous for the English army if Godric had not deserted. Leaping on Byrhtnoth’s riderless horse, he fled the battlefield with his brothers Godwine and Godwiy, as well as a number of others who “wheeled from the war to the wood’s fastness, / sought shelter and saved their lives” (Maldon, p. 107). Many in the English ranks see the familiar horse retreating, and, believing the rider to be Byrhtnoth, follow suit. The diminished army is now in considerable peril. On an earlier day, notes the poem, Byrhtnoth had been warned by his lieutenant Offa that “many gathered there who were making brave speeches / would not hold in the hour of need” (Maldon, p. 107). A faithful remnant now remains, each man vowing to fight to the end. The young warrior Aelfwine calls out: ‘“Remember the speeches spoken over mead, / battle-vows on the bench, the boasts we vaunted, / heroes in hall, against the harsh war-trial! / Now shall be proven the prowess of the man’” (Maldon, p. 108). He advances into the fray, and kills a Viking with his spear. Responding to Aelfwine’s heartening words, Offa brandishes his own spear and speaks:

Now that the Earl who led us
lies on the earth, we all need
each and every thane to urge forth the other
warriors to the war while weapon lives
quick in hand, hardened blade, spear or good sword.
     (Maldon, p. 108)

Lifting his shield, Leofsunu vows not to give up a foot of ground to the enemy—he will avenge his fallen lord. Dunnere too proclaims his determination: “A man cannot linger when his lord lies / unavenged among Vikings, cannot value breath” (Maldon, p. 109). Others voice similar resolve; the death of Byrhtnoth must be avenged at all costs.

The battle begins to turn. Offa kills his foe, but blows rain down on him, and he falls to the ground, dead at Byrhtnoth’s side. Wistan kills three men before the breath leaves Offa’s body, but other Englishmen fall. Still the beleaguered English call out words of encouragement to each other; in the poem’s most memorable passage, the aged warrior Byrhtwold declares:

Courage shall grow keener, clearer the will,
the heart fiercer, as our force faileth.
Here our lord lies levelled in the dust,
the man all marred: he shall mourn to the end
who thinks to wend off from this war-play now.
Though I am white with winters I will not away,
for I think to lodge me alongside my dear one,
lay me down by my lord’s right hand.
     (Maldon, p.111)

The poem’s final lines tell that Godric (not, the poet assures us, the Godric who ran away) attacks the enemy, until he too is cut down.


By far the most perplexing interpretive problem of the poem centers around a single word: the Old English term ofermod. Occurring in line 89 of the poem, it refers to Byrhtnoth’s state of mind when he allows the Vikings to cross the causeway prior to the battle. The section of the poem in which the word appears is as follows:

Tha se eorl ongan for his ofermode
alyfan landes to fela lathere theode…
     (Scragg, p.60)

A literal translation would be: “Then the earl began, because of his ofermod, to allow too much land to the hateful people.” Since the Vikings are victorious because they were allowed to cross to the mainland, and since ofermod describes why Byrhtnoth did this, it is critical to the poem’s meaning to understand the word. Its two components have Modern English descendants; ofer simply means “over,” and mod survives now as “mood,” but in Old English it had more of a sense of “spirit” or “mind.” Thus, ofermod (“over-mood”) could simply be translated as “high-spiritedness,” but that is not what the word means in the other instances in which it occurs in Old English. In these other instances (an Old English paraphrase of the Bible’s Book of Genesis, a text called Instructions for Christians, and an eleventh-century Latin-English glossary) the word means the sin of pride (Gneuss, pp. 126-27). That this word is applied to Byrhtnoth in line 89 of the poem brings many readers up short; is he not the hero of the poem? Is the defeat, then, all his fault—a fault made all the worse because it stems not from error of judgment but outright sin? Such a judgment would seem to call into question all the praise given him throughout the rest of the poem. Since the overall presentation of Byrhtnoth’s character in the poem is that of an admirable man who is worthy of the respect and devotion of his soldiers, some have seen his ofermod as something of a heroic flaw. The Anglo-Saxons were capable of admitting serious character flaws in their heroes while at the same time admiring them for those very flaws. Certain qualities unacceptable in normal men (such as arrogance, boastfulness, reckless bravery, and so on) were considered to be almost inevitable byproducts of the heroic character. In a way, this makes perfect sense—Byrhtnoth is the only person mighty enough to defeat Byrhtnoth.

Sources and literary context

Most scholars believe that The Battle of Maldon is our earliest and best account of the battle—that it is a primary historical document as well as a carefully-crafted poetic artifact. Its source, then, is the battle itself. Whether the author was present at the battle or relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses, the basic material of his narrative was the historical battle fought in 991. This does not mean, though, that the poem lacks a literary context—far from it. The Battle of Maldon was composed in a style already centuries old, and one of the most characteristic features of this style is a highly standardized body of descriptive terms or formulas. In the earliest days of Germanic alliterative poetry (presumably before it was ever written down), poets employed such formulas both as an aid to memory and as a means by which they could, in a sense, recompose the poem every time they recited it. Certain groups of words appropriate to given contexts could be retained by the poet in his memory, and applied to episodes of the poem at will during a performance. Thus, a ship could be called a “foamy-necked floater,” a sword a “battle-hardened edge,” and a hero a “victory-bright warrior” in poems throughout the poet’s repertoire, and such formulas would probably be expected by the audience in much the same way as modern moviegoers might expect the hero of an action film to be handsome and fit.

The Battle of Maldon exhibits a number of epic verbal formulas found in other Old English poems, primarily Beowulf (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). For example, in line 163 Byrhtnoth’s sword is described as “brad and bruneccg”; this same construction (meaning “broad and bright-bladed”) appears in line 1546 of Beowulf, in reference to a knife (Scragg, p. 62). Other shared formulas link The Battle of Maldon to the Old English poems Exodus and Judith (verse adaptations based on the narratives found in the Old Testament) and to Andreas, an Old English epic about the missionary activities of St. Andrew. By the time The Battle of Maldon was written, this mode of composition was in the past, but formulaic patterns were still very much evident in later Old English verse. Writers of the time invoked these epic formulas because this was how poetry was expected to sound, rather than as an aid to memorized performance. Works like The Battle of Maldon, Andreas, and Beowulf are clearly the products of a sophisticated and literate culture, but highly elaborate patterns of verbal formulas abound. In the case of the longer poems, repetitive images and verbal patterns extending over hundreds of lines may be discerned, patterns that would be extremely difficult for a listener to grasp, but could readily be apprehended by a reader. Such patterns of repetition also appear in The Battle of Maldon, despite its brevity; for example, line 42 reads “Byrhtnoth mathelode, bord hafenode” (Scragg, p. 58) which means “Byrhtnoth spoke, raised [his] shield.” At this point, Byrhtnoth is giving his scornful reply to the Viking herald’s challenge before the battle commences. Much later in the poem, line 309 reads “Byrhtwold mathelode, bord hafenode,” the same action being attributed to the aged warrior Byrhtwold, who is showing courageous defiance in the face of certain death (Scragg, p. 67). The lines are clearly meant to echo one another. Such verbal echoes are in keeping with the age-old literary traditions of the Anglo-Saxon people, while the careful repetition of words (separated by 166 lines) that appear nowhere else in the poem clearly makes a literary point—that the spirit of warlike ferocity lives on in Byrhtnoth’s men despite his death. As the English soldiers themselves make clear, it is not their individual fates that matter, but rather their single-minded adherence to a heroic ideal that valued courage and loyalty above all else.

Reception and impact

The manuscript from which the text of The Battle of Maldon derives no longer exists; it was consumed in the fire that swept through the library of the British antiquary Sir Robert Cotton in 1731, the same fire that damaged the Beowulf manuscript. It seems that when Cotton acquired the manuscript it was already incomplete, and no record of it exists before its appearance in the Cottonian collection. Fortunately, a transcript of it was made in 1725 by John Elphinston, a curator of Cotton’s library. The historian Thomas Hearne published the text in 1726 as an appendix to the monastic chronicle of John of Glastonbury, and this was the only authority for The Battle of Maldon until the early 1930s, when the Elphinston transcript was discovered. This transcript has been the basis of all subsequent editions.

The content of The Battle of Maldon in the history of English literature is distinctive. Very little Old English verse deals with events contemporary to its composition. Works like Beowulf, Deor, and Widsith involve the distant, mythical past, and other poems celebrate the lives of long-dead figures from sacred history, such as the Roman martyr Juliana, Helen (the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine), and the English hermit Guthlac, who died in 714. Only The Battle of Maldon (and The Battle of Brunanburh, which celebrates an English victory over Danish and Scottish forces in 937) provide insight into how an Anglo-Saxon poet might view his own age in the light of Germanic literary and cultural tradition. A great number of Latin and vernacular religious prose texts survive from the later Anglo-Saxon period, and their view of warfare and the pursuit of martial glory is for the most part negative; churchmen saw the warlike aspects of the English national character as a fault, and sought to suppress it by preaching the Christian virtues of humility, tolerance, and meekness. The poet of the Battle of Maldon saw things differently. For him, Byrhtnoth’s heartfelt religiosity and bellicose spirit could coexist admirably. This is recognized by most critics, but the extent to which the poem may also contain implied criticisms of Byrhtnoth is a matter of some debate.

The hero’s ofermod, or pride, has been variously interpreted as a moral failing, a tactical error, and a heroic virtue; thus, depending upon how one translates this word, he could be an arrogant and blameworthy sinner, an unwise military commander, or a fair-minded warrior who does not wish to wield an unfair advantage over his opponents. Further, some have seen the immediate narrative juxtaposition of his killing his opponent (and then laughingly thanking God for the victory) with his receiving the spear-wound that leads to his death as an indication that his joy in bloodshed is inappropriate to a Christian. On the other hand, his final prayer as he lies dying on the battlefield is devoid of irony; he thanks God for a long and happy life, and prays for salvation. Clearly the poet still viewed Byrhtnoth as heroic, if flawed; in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, “Byrhtnoth was wrong, and he died for his folly. But it was a noble error, or the error of a noble” (Tolkien, p. 16). Tolkien’s view of Byrhtnoth is as about as negative as one can find among major critics, and even he notes that the poem cannot be read as a wholehearted condemnation of Byrhtnoth. The evaluation of the poem’s most recent editor strikes a middle ground:

The poet makes a moral comment on Byrhtnoth’s decision to allow the Vikings too much land, and he makes another, through his structure, on the tragedy of a man cut down at the moment of his triumph. But ultimately the audience is called upon to admire the hero, commanding, fighting, and dying bravely with God on his lips.
(Scragg, pp. 39-40)

Important too is how The Battle of Maldon provides a commentary of sorts on the Old English epic Beowulf, and vice versa. Critics have long seen parallels between the fates of Byrhtnoth and Beowulf; both live lengthy and illustrious lives as able and respected defenders of their people, and both are killed in old age as a result of questionable judgment, with dire consequences for the very people they sought to protect. Beowulf insists on facing a dragon alone—a brave deed to be sure, but one that leads to his death and the certain destruction of his people. Byrhtnoth, through his ofermod, gives the Vikings a needless tactical advantage; and the result is the destruction of the English army. Both poems also illustrate failures of the heroic ideal; Godric and his brothers flee the battlefield to save their lives, to the poet’s manifest scorn, and Beowulf is twice abandoned by faithless warriors. That two Christian Anglo-Saxon poets from (perhaps) roughly the same era would apply the same standards of behavior to a legendary hero of pagan antiquity and a contemporary governor-general tells a great deal about the self-image of this society. Their Christianity was by no means a simple veneer; it is important to remember that Byrhtnoth’s last words are not warlike or defiant, but prayerful—his eyes are not on the enemy, but on God. Still, the heroic past was in a profound way fully present to them, and provided a sense of legitimacy to personal acts of warlike heroism and self-sacrifice.

—Matthew Brosamer

For More Information

The Battle of Maldon. Trans. Michael Alexander. In The Earliest English Poems, 3d ed. London: Penguin, 1991.

Calder, Daniel, and Michael J. B. Allen, trans, and ed. Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry: The Major Latin Sources in Translation. Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer, 1976.

Gneuss, Helmut. “The Battle of Maldon 89: Byrhtnoth’s Ofermod Once Again.” Studies in Philology 73 (April 1976): 117-37.

Gordon, E.V., ed. The Battle of Maldon. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966.

Greenfield, Stanley. The Interpretation of Old English Poems. London: Routledge, 1972.

Greenfield, Stanley, and Daniel Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. 2d ed. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Hollister, C. Warren. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1962.

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Logan, F. Donald. The Vikings in History. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1992.

Scragg, D. G., ed. The Battle of Maldon. Manchester, N.Y.: Manchester University Press, 1981.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son.” Essays and Studies 6 (n.s.) (1953): 1-18.

Woolf, Rosemary. “The Ideal of Men Dying with the Lord in the Germania and in The Battle of Maldon.” Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976): 63-81.

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