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Oaths in The Battle of Maldon
By Stephen Harris
The hero recovered : essays on medieval heroism in honor of George Clark, edited by Robin Waugh and James Weldon (Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2010)
Introduction: In 1968, in a remark as wise as it is learned, Professor George Clark wrote of The Battle of Maldon that “what the poet does not create does not exist even if history inspires his poem.” Readers of the poem have been mulling this over for forty years. The historical information the poem affords us has been subject, in some degree, to alteration by imagination, to the formulae of verse, and to the genre’s chartered streets, in William Blake’s phrase. Professor Clark has therefore asked readers to abstract “the meaning of the events the poem imaginatively recreates.”
Loyalty is one such abstraction. Readers ask whether this character or that character is loyal, and whether the poet implies something more generally about loyalty. Each character is imagined to choose to honor his obligation or not. Thus, the speeches of the retainers are often explained as each man’s declared choice to fight on, to be loyal. But Ælfwine, the first of the retainers to speak, does not argue for the right exercise of choice. He says, “nu mæg cunnian hwa cene sy” (line 215) [Now may be known who is brave].
In the world of Maldon, bravery and keen hearts are not so much an affect of choice as they are a manifestation of interior disposition, of who one is born to be. Deeds reveal the man, who in turn is defined by his status and family. Ælfwine thus goes on to recite his genealogy, to describe literally from whom he came, and the tradition and family that obliges him to act in a certain way. Similarly, Wulfstan, who guards the bridge, is “cafne mid his cynne (line 76a) [bold as his kin]. The phrase does not suggest that Wulfstan’s bravery is fully of his own making, but inherited. Nobles in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature demonstrate, rather than choose, bravery. As in Joseph Addison’s Cato, bravery results from a noble and selfless devotion to assigned duty, not from an extra-official choice.
My claim in what follows is that Maldon illustrates the demands of duty by exploring various oaths taken by various classes of men. The focus of the poem is therefore not on unallied individuals negotiating contracts (that is, on each choosing to act loyally or disloyally), but on the legal obligations of members of a community to one another. Maldon is a poem more interested in the oaths that bind a community than in individual characters and their choices.