Beowulf as historical source-material

Nov 2008
1,403
England
Aug 2011
1,621
Sweden
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.
To me it seems that the personal names in sagas are preserved better through time than the events they belong to. One example is Hugleik, who is a geatish king in Beowulf, a danish king in frankish sources, a swedish king in icelandic sources. In the latter example Snorri makes him a swedish king although he is not found in Ynglingatal, which Snorri uses as a source. Which means that Snorri must gotten the information on him from another source. Frankish, english, danish or oral? Anyway, Snorre twists the original story of Hugleik falling in Frisia by frankish swords into him falling at Fyris at Uppsala by Haki and Hagbard. Which perhaps could be confusion during 500 years making Frisia into Fyris and Hugas/Hetwarii into Haki/Hagbard.

Saxo is older than Snorri and mentions Hugleik together with Haki, but not at Fyris, so it is possible that Snorri had read Saxo and deliberately changed the story.

So in the same way, the names in Trojan war was perhaps easier transmitted than the geography or timeline.
 
Aug 2011
1,621
Sweden
There is some evidence suggesting Beowulf and Grendel lived in Wiltshire. A West Saxon charter from the year 931 AD mentions two boundary markers:

Beowan hammes hecgan "the hedges of Beowa`s meadow" and Grendles mere "Grendel`s lake".

Alas for this charming idea, grendles may derive from grundleas which means "bottomless". Nevertheless, you never know...…….
Or it is Grindelow in Yorkshire?
 
Nov 2008
1,403
England
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.
The problem we have with oral tradition, or even later written chronicles, stories, kingly lists and so forth is that they are all prone to legendary accretion and manipulation for various reasons. Folklore is the same, and Hilda Ellis Davidson warned against the willingness of some folklorists to accept to readily continuity.

"It does not require much thought to realize that the pre-Christian period of in Britain was of long duration, and likely to have been immensely rich, varied and complicated. But the popular folklorist conveniently forgets this: to him indeed a thousand years seems but as yesterday, and if he can find an isolated custom in the writing of some ancient historian or medieval chronicler and link it up with existing folklore , he will joyfully assume continuity without further ado."

Now this doesn`t mean we should not try to seek evidence. We can take a series of known facts and draw our inferences, building up a picture, but great caution is always needed. Davidson proposed three rules. The first one is to have familiarity of all the available evidence - archaeology, oral tradition, and anything else; the second rule is to have intimate knowledge of the history of religion and customs of a particular region; and the third rule is to consider only reliable evidence of traditions, and also to be aware of their context. As with folklore so with history.
 
Oct 2016
139
Ashland
The written Historical source for the main characters(the men and women, not the monsters) begins, to my knowledge, with the accounts of the Shielding Kings in Gesta Danorum. This was written many years after the poem. Yep; old Hrothgar was real.
In E.V. Gordon's An Introduction to Old Norse, a modestly convincing attempt is made to connect an earlier monster slaying in a Hall with Beowulf.
The written poem in the original Anglo-Saxon is wonderful, imo. It is the main reason I still persist in studying that language. In Modern English translation... I prefer the Graphic Novel on which the movie was based.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,626
Westmorland
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.
I hope that the defence of my position which follows is equally as respectful as your last post. It is certainly intended to be.

We can guess that something like the Trojan War might have happened (emphasis mine), but that is a world away from saying that the Trojan War did happen or that, even if it did, that the Iliad captures any true information about it.

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.
But it also describes a world in which the gods take an active role in human society. Was Achilles really the son of a goddess? Was he genuinely impregnable apart from his ankle? Was Ajax really that strong? But this tendency - to accept as factual anything which is conceivably possible but reject as fable anything which clearly isn't - is a huge trap for the unwary when it comes to using literature as historical source material. I have used the example before of me saying I keep a unicorn in my green shed. Now, in what world is that good evidence for the proposition that I actually have a green shed? If I'm inventing the unicorn, why would I not be inventing my colourful shed?

In any event, any unconscious reflection of dark age Greek society in the texts will most likely be a reflection of the society that existed at the time of composition of those texts, not of the time that the events described therein are supposed to have taken place.

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.
The Celtic druids are a fine case in point. The sad reality is that we know virtually nothing about them other than what Roman writers such as Julius Caesar told us. Pretty much everything we think we know about them is the product of the last century or two and nearly all of it was created as romantic whimsy. Adherents of New Age quasi-religions like to believe that they are keeping the old ways alive, but nearly everything they believe to be ancient is actually a modern confection. Take ley lines as an example. One doesn't have to go far back to discover who first came up with the idea. The idea of shimmering lines of earth energy connecting standing stones and capable of being tapped into by mystically attuned Celts represents an extremely fanciful development of the original theory, which is that ancient man liked to walk from A to B in straight lines where possible.

The active manipulation of oral source material is well attested. You might be interested to read some of the scholarship on the matter. It's a big subject, but the start point is that literature was there to entertain and teach. So, the point of this stuff was not to capture real events and pass them down unsullied to subsequent generations, but to manipulate real events - or just invent stuff - in order to achieve the desired objectives.

Let me give you a bad modern example. I once went to an event at Lincoln Castle where a troop of re-enactors were putting on a jousting and riding display. It was good fun. They turned it into a story, in which the fiendish bad guy abducted a maiden who then had to be saved by the great hero, Richard of Lincoln. But you can bet your bottom dollar that when the same troupe performed the same show in Nottingham two days later, the hero would be renamed Richard of Nottingham. And this is the point - the audience was a crucial factor in determining how a piece would be used or performed. It would be changed each time to reflect what the audience wanted. So, the only theme that needs to remain constant over years of reworking is the central narrative arc - that the good guy beats the bad guy. Nothing else needs to remain unchanged and, as such, there is no reason to assume that it did. To prove an element of a story is historically true requires one to find a contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous version of the story which is supported by some form of independent evidence (archaeology is good, as Aelfwine suggests), and then prove a link (known as a line of transmission) between the original and the extant version. Doing this takes up large amounts of time for a number of our foremost scholars.

I'd agree with you that some folklore - such as rustic medicine - was about passing down what was perceived to be genuinely true information. But the crucial difference was that this information did not derive from a literary context. It wasn't someone telling you a good story about brave Odysseus in order to while away the long dark nights until someone invented Netflix. It was about telling you what plants you could use for what purpose.
 
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