This article studies historical narratives about Hygelac’s failed raid in Frisia as analogues for the representation of the king’s treasure in Beowulf. Though the poet alters the raid’s sequence of events, he preserves the chief circumstances and major themes present in accounts of the attack, which strongly suggests that he knew a narrative about it not unlike what we find in historiography, and focuses on the treasure to illustrate a past rife with quarreling, as conflict revolves around Hygelac’s necklace. Furthermore, the author of Beowulf elaborated on the mobility of this treasure to compose a poem, which, if it cannot be called epic, has epic pretensions.
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Momigliano reminds us, in contrast to Hayden White, that since antiquity “what has come to distinguish historical writing from any other type of literature is its being submitted as a whole to the control of evidence.” Naturally, the quality of the evidence has changed over time.
Orchard (2003: 115) remarks that we “must assume that (in a curious continuation of the alternate passing of the ring between men and women) she [i.e., Hygd] gave it to her reckless husband for his final trip.”
Theodore M. Andersson believes that “To call the 3182 lines of Beowulf ‘epic’ testifies more to a wishful thought than to a generic reality. There is no magic number of lines to qualify for the epic class, but something closer to ten thousand might be a normal expectation.”.
“The Historiographic Dimensions of Beowulf.”.
Ibid., p. 290.
Ibid., p. 288.
Trans. Lewis Thorpe, A History of the Franks. The original Latin is in Gregorii episcopi Turonensis libri historiarum x., eds. Bruno Krusch and Wilhelm Levison. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, SSRM 1.1. ch. III.3.
See Thompson’s (2001: 12) “Rethinking Hygelac’s Raid”: “A comparison shows that the Liber Historiae Francorum is a reworking of the same story, if not a paraphrase of Gregory. It is medieval scissors-and-paste history with some cursory rewriting.”.
Niles (2015: 187) also believes that looting has centrality in the poetic version of the raid, as he argues that “what the incident undermines is the ethics of intertribal looting, not the ethics of the feud.”.
Beowulf, lines 1197–1201. Old English translations are mine, though I tend to follow the gloss of the most recent edition of the poem: Klaeber's Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg: Fourth Edition, eds. R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. “Nænigne ic under swegle selran hyrde/hord-maððum hæleþa, syþðan Hama ætwæg/to [þæ]re byrhtan byrig Brosinga mene,/sigle ond sinc-fæt--searno-níðas fleah/Eormenrices, geceas ecne ræd.” [I have not heard of any better/hoard-treasures of heroes under heaven since Hama carried off/the Brosing’s necklace to the bright city, the brilliant jewel. He fled the treacherous quarrels/of Eormanric the Goth [and] chose eternal reward.] .
Heusler (1929: 121) comments on the lack of heroism in the account. “Die kecke Fahrt des Gautenkönigs Hugileik an den Rheinstrand, sein Fall im Kampfe mit Friesen und Franken, der tapfere Rückzug der Überlebenden: dies hat nicht den Gehalt einer heroischen Fabel.” [“The Geatish king Hygelac’s bold journey to the beach on the Rhine, his fall in battle with Frisians and Franks, the brave retreat of the survivors: this is not the stuff of a heroic fable.”] My translation.
Beowulf, lines 2172–3. “Hyrde ic þæt he ðone heals-beah Hygde gesealde,/wrætlice wunder-maððum, ðone þe him Wealhðeo geaf.” [“I heard that he gave the wondrous treasure-ring, the golden necklace, to Hygd, which Wealhtheow gave him.”].
Bonjour (1952: 353) argues that this moment is a reminder of Beowulf’s superhuman strength. McNamara (1974: 2) thinks “it more plausible that Beowulf killed Dæghrefn in a demonstration of his power than out of revenge for his fallen lord.” However, Hill (1995: 33) argues “Beowulf avenges Hygelac’s death by killing everyone in Dæghrefn’s war-band, including Dæghrefn, whom he crushes to death.” .
Trans. Richmond Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, “He [i.e., Achilles] spoke, and Patroklos was helming himself in bronze that glittered./First he placed along his legs the beautiful greaves, linked/with silver fastenings to hold the greaves at the ankles./Afterwards he girt on about his chest the corselet/starry and elaborate of swift-footed Aiakides.” (lines 130–4, Book 16). In the next book Hector “stripped from Patroklos the glorious armor” (line 130).
Ibid., “He was eyeing Hektor’s splendid body, to see where it might best/give way, but all the rest of the skin was held in the armour,/brazen and splendid, he stripped when he cut down the strength of Patroklos;” (lines 321–3).
Ibid., lines 326–30.
Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, lines 692–4: “As he spoke/He [i.e. Turnus] pressed with his left foot upon the dead [i.e. Pallas]/And pulled away the massive weight of swordbelt.”.
Ibid., lines 1281–1298.
Scheil (2008: 283): “One of the puzzling aspects of Beowulf is simply its length. A secular vernacular poetic narrative on this scale is not widely attested in the earlier Middle Ages. Germanic material analogous to smaller elements of the poem (maxims, dramatic speeches, lays, 'elegiac' poetry, and so forth) are all of shorter length. What is the most likely inspiration for a more extensive treatment of a secular subject? An elusive and problematic answer has been the tradition of Latin epic poetry, particularly the Aeneid. However, with the Aeneid I would also include other long narrative treatments of past events: the narrative histories of late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages." Scheil’s argument to include histories as possible inspirations supports my readings of historiography with Beowulf, though I do not claim direct influence of a particular Latin history on the Old English poet.
Cf. the poet’s praise of Scyld Scefing, the founder of the lineage of Danish kings in Beowulf, who compels his neighbors to pay him tribute. The poet compliments with the memorable judgment “Þæt wæs god cyning.”, line 11b. (“That was a good king.”).
The object is frequently connected to potential strife. Aside from the examples we have considered, when Wealhtheow gives it to Beowulf scholars have detected her anxiety about future conflict between her sons and her nephew: e.g., Brodeur (1959: 120) writes, “Here is a clear appeal for help for her sons in the event that Hrothulf’s ambition should prick him on to seek the crown.”.
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Currie, E. Hygelac’s Raid in Historiography and Poetry: The King’s Necklace and Beowulf as ‘Epic’. Neophilologus 104, 391–400 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-019-09627-4
- Old English literature
- Medieval Latin historiography
- Epic poetry