A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250)

Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf
Defense Through Compound Words

A shield from the Anglo-Saxons' Britain, likely what would be called "bord-wudu."

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The poet details how those left in the hall arranged their weapons before bed.

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“They set at their heads their battle-shields,
the bright shield-wood. On the benches behind the
princes who’d watched the waves
were the helmets that towered in battle, ringed mailshirts,
glorious spears. Such was their custom,
to be always ready for war,
whether at home or out plundering, or at any time
that their lord showed signs of
need for rallying; that was a brave people.”
(Beowulf ll.1242-1250)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Serial-Inspired Thoughts on the Military of Beowulf

This passage, though brief, tells how the people it’s referring to are a brave and war-ready people. They’re constantly ready to defend their safety and repel danger. But, more interesting is their being ready to rally around their lord.

I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, and recently heard of how this season’s subject, Bowe Bergdahl, saw himself as an idealistic soldier, as someone who was supposed to be fighting for a noble cause that he himself believed in. However, as Sarah Koenig (serial’s host) points out, modern armies don’t work like the armies of old on which Bowe had modelled his ideas of soldiering. Modern day privates aren’t individuals fighting for a single cause that brings them together, but are instead tools for the higher ups to send out and fight for them and for their ideas — whether or not the individuals agree with them.

There’s definitely still the mist of nobility around the martial sentiments presented in Beowulf. Whether Anglo-Saxons actually regarded being a warrior as fighting for a single ideal or not, I can’t help but think of these men, “always ready for war” (“oft wæron an wig gearwe” (l.1247)), being like Bowe. Not because they’re fighting for some uniting ideal, but because they’re fighting for individual reasons that happen to align with what their lord can offer them. After all, when society’s on the level of clans and groups (or even city states) rather than centralized massive populations, it’s hard to imagine that the greater good extends beyond defending what you have and maintaining order within the group.

Ultimately, the better a warrior in a lord’s comitatus fought, the better his reward would be either because of merit or just because there’d be more spoils — so it would have been directly in warriors’ (soldiers’) best interests to fight well for their lord. Plus, in a sense, warriors paid their lord in kind, returning the favour of a lord’s political or social protection with physical protection on the battlefield. But even then, squaring up such a deal would be a way of clearing individual (*maybe* familial) indebtedness. But in the end, the warriors in Beowulf seem to fight for individualistic to a greater extent than those from later in history who are remembered for fighting for entire nations or the fates of mass political movements.

That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxon warriors were petty.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves, as unsure of their identity as most teens are, probably saw a grat deal of good in fighting to defend the integrity of what they regarded as theirs and as meaningful to them. Hence the emphasis on honour in Beowulf, and on fighting bravely in this poem and in other major Anglo-Saxon works (like the Battle of Maldon).

But the Anglo-Saxons were, nonetheless, a people who’d left their native Anglia and Saxony, who’d mixed with Celts and met and mingled with Romans, both of which I’d expect had a huge impact on how they saw themselves and how they subtly changed before ultimately being melded with the French, Spanish, and countless other world cultures to become the English that we know today.

So what’s my point here? Simply that among Anglo-Saxon warriors I think there was a strange and unique sense that protecting your individual needs and wants was somehow more in line with, if not entirely synchronized with, the greater good of the group. After all, if all Anglo-Saxons kept up their own business and concerns, then surely the mass of them together would be Anglo-Saxon, right?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Defense Through Compound Words

Whatever the ideals or orders behind it, war-time combat’s always been fairly simple at its heart.

For example, When someone strikes out with their “þræc-wudu” (l.1246), or spear, you need to defend yourself. Especially if you consider what’s gone into make that “þræc-wudu”: “þræc” (“throng,” “pressure,” “force,” “violence,” “equipment”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”), turning the component parts into a kind of “force wood.”

And how better to defend yourself than with a “hilderand” (l.1242)? This kind of shield would be especially helpful in combat in general, at least if you translate “hiderand” literally. Doing so combines “hilde” (“war” or “combat”) and “rand” (“border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler”), giving you “war shield.”

Though if you’re trying to escape a mortal wounding from a “þræc-wudu” in particular, why not block wood with wood and use a “bord-wudu” (l.1243)? The word “bord-wudu” also means “shield,” but as a compounding of “bord” (“board,” “plank,” “table,” “side of a ship,” “ship,” or “shield”) and “wudu” (“wood,” “forest,” “grove,” “tree,” “the cross,” “Rood,” “wood,” “timber,” “ship,” or “spear shaft”) it sounds much more natural, like a simple “wood shield,” though maybe it’s so simple it’s mystical like a “board from the cross,” a shield perhaps more emblematic than physically effective.

Simpler even than defending yourself in combat, though, is figuring out the size of your weapons and armour. Something small might not be that useful in a pitched battle or melée, but something that’s “heaþu-steap” could be very handy indeed.

Whether it’s a spear or a shield, if it’s “heaþu-steap” (l.1245), then it’s “towering in battle.” Or, more specifically it’s “steap” (“precipitous,” “deep,” “high,” “lofty,” “prominent,” “projecting,” “upright,” “bright,” or “brilliant”) in “heaþu” (war).

While “bord-wudu” sounds like a simpler shield to me, I think that even if a “bord-wudu” were to be “heaþu-steap,” it could be beautifully decorated or something more like a tower shield than a simple buckler.

If you were in a pitched battle with opponents and allies all around you would you rather have a small weapon or a big one? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week the poet goes to Biblical lengths to describe who pays a nighttime visit to Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250)

  1. Pingback: The Danes and Geats bed down with fate, the bench boards’ destiny (ll.1232-1241) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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