Brunanburh

Some recent posts and comments at Tim Clarkson’s Senchus and Karen Louise Jolly’s Revealing Words have instigated a discussion on the location of the battle of Brunanburh, which was celebrated in the entry for year 937 of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

While I have little to contribute to any scholarly discussion of the battle’s location, the 937 Chronicle entry has earned a certain amount of fame as the first “poetic” entry in an otherwise fairly sterile list of names and battles. (The word “poetic” gets irony quotes because the distinction between prose and poetry in Anglo-Saxon literature is not as clear as grammars and readers may sometimes imply; many “prose” texts exhibit poetic techniques, and in any case the convention of the period was to write both prose and poetry essentially as a wall of text, without the distinct lines and caesurae of modern editions.)

More personally, that entry, now included in most Old English poetic readers and titled “The Battle of Brunanburh,” was the first Old English poem I had memorized, back when I took my first serious stab at learning the language about a decade ago.  (OK, it’s also the only Old English poem I’ve memorized…)

“Brunanburh” has much to recommend it as a starting point for those who want to get a taste of OE poetry in the original.  Its author employs the basic rules of Old English alliterative style and much of the vocabulary seen throughout the OE poetic corpus, and the poem itself is short and straightforward, describing the victory of King Æthelstan of Wessex (grandson of Alfred the Great) and his Mercian allies over a combined force of Scots and Vikings.

Of course, there’s plenty for historians to dispute – the site of the battle is not made clear (at least for us moderns), and the extent and ramifications of Æthelstan’s victory are questionable.  So I’m eager to see the continued discussion on Clarkson’s and Jolly’s respective blogs.

For my part, though, I want to consider some of the literary qualities of the poem.  I know of no critics who would put the poem on the same level as a masterpiece like “Beowulf,” but I want to suggest that “Brunanburh,” in addition to being a battlefield for modern scholars, rewards a look at the words on the page in their own right.

In the next post, I’ll examine some of what I find noteworthy about “Brunanburh,” both as a work in itself and in comparison with some other, better-known Old English texts.

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