Beowulf as historical source-material

Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
To what degree is the world of Beowulf historically real? When was it written? Is it really the product of an oral tradition (similar to Homer) or a written one? How christian is it? What can we actually learn from it?

I got all these questions in my head after attending a seminar with a relatively unknown but seemingly competent octogenarian Swedish archaeologist yesterday... so I'm curious what the world of Historum has to say about the issue. :)
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,479
Dispargum
Not an expert on Beowulf, but I have encountered in my readings the claim that only one event in Beowulf can be independently verified - the death of Hygelac near the mouth of the Rhine circa 528 at the hands of the Franks. This event is mentioned by Gregory of Tours and one or two other independent sources.
 
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Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,626
Westmorland
The events celebrated in literature and poetry are not generally suitable for use as historical source material. That doesn't mean that such works cannot contain genuinely true information, but it does mean that it is often virtually impossible to winnow out what is true and what is not.

Literature and poetry can, however, shine a light on the society in which it was created.

So, Beowulf is virtually worthless as a historical record of sicth-century events but is a useful source for tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England.
 
Aug 2011
1,621
Sweden
To what degree is the world of Beowulf historically real? When was it written? Is it really the product of an oral tradition (similar to Homer) or a written one? How christian is it? What can we actually learn from it?

I got all these questions in my head after attending a seminar with a relatively unknown but seemingly competent octogenarian Swedish archaeologist yesterday... so I'm curious what the world of Historum has to say about the issue. :)
Aha you met Gräslund? His new book on Gotland is certainly interesting to read, but I don't agree with his conclusions. What I remember he interpreted Grendel and his mother as bad weather events around 536 AD, which to me is very far fetched indeed. But as new Swedish books on Beowulf are very rare, his interpretation has gained quite a publicity here. Beowulf's own hall was located at Burs on Gotland.

To answer your first question: yes I believe some main characters and events could be historically correct, including Beowulf, Grendel and his mother, pictured by the poet as superhumans or giants. The poet has probably taken existing earlier written versions based on oral tradition which was transported early by Anglo-Saxons to England. If you read parallel stories you get a better picture of the events, where for example Grendel is a simple outlaw hiding in the forest.

People will continue for a long long time to give their version of Beowulf.
 
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Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
Similarly, I don't understand
Aha you met Gräslund? His new book on Gotland is certainly interesting to read, but I don't agree with his conclusions. What I remember he interpreted Grendel and his mother as bad weather events around 536 AD, which to me is very far fetched indeed. But as new Swedish books on Beowulf are very rare, his interpretation has gained quite a publicity here. Beowulf's own hall was located at Burs on Gotland.

To answer your first question: yes I believe some main characters and events could be historically correct, including Beowulf, Grendel and his mother, pictured by the poet as superhumans or giants. The poet has probably taken existing earlier written versions based on oral tradition which was transported early by Anglo-Saxons to England. If you read parallel stories you get a better picture of the events, where for example Grendel is a simple outlaw hiding in the forest.

People will continue for a long long time to give their version of Beowulf.
I met Gräslund, yes. I found his thesis pretty convincing to be honest, but I have to admit to a rather paucity of background knowledge on the subject. Saying that the interpretation is "bad weather events" seems (from his description anyway) to be a bit like calling the Black Death "a bout of cold" - according to him Scandinavia (along with much of the rest of the northern hemisphere) suffered "massive famine and croploss of biblical proprotions" which, according to him, killed off half of the population. Provided his description is true, I do not see why such a metaphorical interpretation of Grendel and Grendel's mother couldn't be plausible.

As for the rest of what you said, I agree - based on what I know. His connection to Gotland seemed the most tenuous to me, given that from what I've understood one of his strongest pieces of evidence is a Gutish seal from the early 13th century of a "Vädur" - which at that point looks a lot like a very domesticated, christian lamb. All things considered it was still more convincing than not though, given the linguistic and other factors he brought up (what exactly a "geat" is etc.)...

What do you think of that? Are you from Gotland - I'm thinking that you might have some more insights into local Gutish history and archaeology in that case :)
 
Last edited:
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
The events celebrated in literature and poetry are not generally suitable for use as historical source material. That doesn't mean that such works cannot contain genuinely true information, but it does mean that it is often virtually impossible to winnow out what is true and what is not.

Literature and poetry can, however, shine a light on the society in which it was created.

So, Beowulf is virtually worthless as a historical record of sicth-century events but is a useful source for tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England.
Are the Iliad and the Odyssey useless? Despite difficulties at verification, some parts (the catalogue of ships come to mind) seem to be rather useful, even when interpreting Dark Age (and not just Archaic) Greece. I am also not entirely convinced the words "poetry and literature" are totally apt (but yes, I am aware that I am arguing against recieved wisdom).

Also, is "created" is the right word? As starkodder alluded to, isn't it also plausible that Beowulf is the result of a longer oral tradition?
 
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Aug 2011
1,621
Sweden
Similarly, I don't understand


I met Gräslund, yes. I found his thesis pretty convincing to be honest, but I have to admit to a rather paucity of background knowledge on the subject. Saying that the interpretation is "bad weather events" seems (from his description anyway) to be a bit like calling the Black Death "a bout of cold" - according to him Scandinavia (along with much of the rest of the northern hemisphere) suffered "massive famine and croploss of biblical proprotions" (source, Gräslund) which, according to him, killed of half of the population. Provided his description is true, I do not see why such a metaphorical interpretation of Grendel and Grendel's mother couldn't be plausible.

As for the rest of what you said, I agree - based on what I know. His connection to Gotland seemed the most tenuous to me, given that from what I've understood one of his strongest pieces of evidence is a Gutish seal from the early 13th century of a "Vädur" - which at that point looks a lot like a very domesticated, christian lamb. All things considered it was still more convincing than not though, given the linguistic and other factors he brought up (what exactly a "geat" is etc.)...

What do you think of that? Are you from Gotland - I'm thinking that you might have some more insights into local Gutish history and archaeology in that case :)
I am from Scania, so my focus is old Denmark. But according to my interpretation Beowulf was Norwegian and part of the heruli tribe. You should be able to find traces of him along the coast in Norway, through Västergötland to Denmark. And the Grendel episode was probably two episodes originally (hall wrestling plus fight in the wood) which was turned into one by the poet. Read Rolf Kraki's saga, Bjarkarimur and Thidrekssaga also. One main objection against Gotland is that a expedition to Frisia from Gotland is highly unlikely in the 6th century.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,626
Westmorland
Are the Iliad and the Odyssey useless? Despite difficulties at verification, some parts (the catalogue of ships come to mind) seem to be rather useful, even when interpreting Dark Age (and not just Archaic) Greece. I am also not entirely convinced the words "poetry and literature" are totally apt (but yes, I am aware that I am arguing against recieved wisdom).

Also, is "created" is the right word? As starkodder alluded to, isn't it also plausible that Beowulf is the result of a longer oral tradition?
The Iliad and the Odyssey are amongst our finest works of literature, but I do believe they are useless as sources for understanding what actually happened in any Trojan War and its aftermath. Both works are full of narrative and literary trope and are designed to celebrate the deeds of heroes in a glorious neverland in which (as was said of the Idylls of the King) one can hear the horns of Elfland faintly blowing.

'Created' is, I think, the right word. Oral tradition involves an active process of manipulation and reworking. It isn't the slavish or automatic regurgitation of what went before.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
The Iliad and the Odyssey are amongst our finest works of literature, but I do believe they are useless as sources for understanding what actually happened in any Trojan War and its aftermath. Both works are full of narrative and literary trope and are designed to celebrate the deeds of heroes in a glorious neverland in which (as was said of the Idylls of the King) one can hear the horns of Elfland faintly blowing.

'Created' is, I think, the right word. Oral tradition involves an active process of manipulation and reworking. It isn't the slavish or automatic regurgitation of what went before.
You have a strong position, but I respectfully disagree.

To take the Iliad: yes, it certainly can't be read as a manual for exactly how the Trojan War went about or when it happened... but we can guess that some kind of sacking of a city called something like Troy is not too unlikely to have happened. More importantly though - what different does it make? I think we can deduce quite a lot of things about Greek Dark Age Society overall indirectly, by comparing the Iliad to 1) the archaeological record and 2) later periods that we know more about 3) asking ourselves whether certain parts of the oral tradition are more likely to remain constant over time.

For example, take the catalogue of ships. That is a suspiciously detailed list of Greek cities you have there, and if it would merely have been the product of the archaic age then it seems quite strange that some parts of the Greek world that were quite important at that time is more or less missing from the document.

More usefully, we can perhaps infer with some reason also that the world it describes is one where political power is somewhat decentralized among different actors. Agamemnon does not simply command and all others obey unquestioningly. Etc. Etc.


As or oral tradition being modified over time... yes, we usually suppose that today, and I am sure you have a point. On the other hand, how constant is information over time today? We are bathing in information, not realizing what is valuable and what is not. In an oral culture, can't the exact opposite also be true - that information is simlply valued much more because of its scarcity, and great pains are taken to commit some things to memory: the celtic druids spring to mind.