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Fore them neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnottura than him tharf sie,
to ymbhycggannae, aer his hiniongae,
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.
Before that needful-journey no-one becomes
wiser than it is necessary for him
to consider, before his going-hence,
what his soul by way of good or evil
may be deemed, after the death-day.
It is a long standing tradition that writers and the melancholy -and the two are often combined in the same human- turn to literature in times of mournful need. I know that I certainly do it, and if my preferred depression-times reading features rather more graphic novels than pretentious poetry, the works of Pratchett instead of Wordsworth, the point is still the same. Human creative endeavour has a way of easing the most painful of periods.
Except. Except when one’s mood, one’s sad song of oneself, is not created by the events of life, but instead by tiny monsters in the brain. One can read as many adventures of first-Sergeant-later-Captain-later-Duke Vimes as one wishes, but disease is a twisted, horrible thing that no amount of escapism can cure.
I generally avoid this sort of personal blather on For I Have tasted the Fruit, as it is generally more suited to the emocracy of Livejournalstan. Yet I wish to speak about it here. Here, I discuss everyone’s favourite medieval period, and regularly -well, back when my posts were regular- translate medieval and occasionally classical poetry. And the sentiments expressed in many of my favourite Anglo-Saxon pieces are, one would think, perfectly suited to this sort of mood.
The murnende mod of the woman in Wulf and Eadwacer; the weeping poet who laments the fall of the great past in The Ruin; the sea-weary soul of The Seafarer, with his ice-and-rain-soaked birds of prey: these are powerful images, powerful pieces of poetry, and one would think, expect, that reading them would make one’s own problems seem distant or petty- or, at the least, offer the consolation that such emotions are part of the broad spectrum of human experience.
I am sure that they do. Perhaps bound editions of the more misery-wracked of our period’s poetry could be bound and offered to depressives in psych wards. Read The Wanderer and appreciate loneliness, or Wulf and Eadwacer to help cope with abusive, ambiguous relationships. Unfortunately, when a key source of one’s stress is the very act of studying the period, one can stare at these carefully constructed words all day… and all one gets in return is a sense of growing unease.
I have not been able to write in months. I cannot remember the last time I set fingers to keys for anything longer than a status update- this post is approaching four hundred words, and the effort required to write it is exhausting. I am posting it today, a Monday, because the theme is so very medieval. I constantly find myself wondering- did Bede feel this kind of exhausted despair? Did Boethius? Is one of the much-vaunted ‘consolations’ of philosophy that it keeps one focused and energised? Because I have to say, as much as I try, my own scholarly efforts make me feel weak and inept, not focused and sharp.
Perhaps it is the summer. For all the misery some of the old English poets expressed, for all the hardship the icy-feathered eagle must endure, at least they did not have to survive the heat of Australia’s most hateful season.
Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg,
hwæt ic yrmþa gebad, siþþan ic up weox,
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu.
A ic wite wonn minra wræcsiþa.
Ærest min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum
ofer yþa gelac; hæfde ic uhtceare
hwær min leodfruma londes wære.
Ða ic me feran gewat folgað secan,
wineleas wræcca, for minre weaþearfe,
ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan
þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc,
þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice
lifdon laðlicost, ond mec longade.
Het mec hlaford min herheard niman,
ahte ic leofra lyt on þissum londstede,
holdra freonda. For þon is min hyge geomor.
Ða ic me ful gemæcne monnan funde,
mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne.
bliþe gebæro. Ful oft wit beotedan
þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana
owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen,
is nu swa hit næfre wære,
freondscipe uncer. Sceal ic feor ge neah
mines felaleofan fæhðu dreogan.
Heht mec mon wunian on wuda bearwe,
under actreo in þam eorðscræfe.
Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad,
sindon dena dimme, duna uphea,
bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne,
wic wynna leas. Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat
fromsiþ frean. Frynd sind on eorþan,
leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge
under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu.
Þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,
Þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,
earfoþa fela; forþon ic æfre ne mæg
þære modceare minre gerestan,
ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum life begeat.
A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod,
heard heortan geþoht, swylce habban sceal
bliþe gebæro, eac þon breostceare,
sinsorgna gedreag, sy æt him sylfum gelong
eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah
feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
on dreorsele, dreogeð se min wine
micle modceare; he gemon to oft
wynlicran wic. Wa bið þam þe sceal
of langoþe leofes abidan.
The Wife’s Lament
I recite this fully sad song of myself,
my own experience. I can say that,
what I endured of hardships, since I grew up,
new or old, were never more than now.
Ever I suffered the torment of exile.
First my lord departed hence from the people,
over the tumult of the waves; I had dawn-cares:
where may my prince be in the land?
When I went, departed to seek the retinue,
a friendless wanderer, for my necessary woe,
this one’s kin began to plan,
through secret thought, that they should separate us,
that we most widely in the world-kingdom
will live most wretchedly- and me afflicted with longing.
My lord commanded me to dwell in a grove;
I have few of beloved ones in this landstead,
few of loyal friends; for this is my soul sad.
When I found for me a fully suitable man,
concealing his spirit, violence plotted
with a blithe demeanour. Fully often we vowed
that we would never separate- ought else save
death alone. Afterwards is that changed:
it is now as if it never were,
our friendship. I must -far or near-
endure the enmity of my dearly-loved.
I am commanded by one to dwell in a wooded grove,
under an oak-tree in this earth-cave.
Old is this earth-hall, I am all seized with longing.
Dim are the dales, high the hills,
bitter cities overgrown by briars,
the dwelling joyless. Fully often the lord’s departure
cruelly takes hold of me. friends are on earth,
living lovers occupy their bed,
when I, alone, wander in the pre-dawn
under an oak-tree, through these earth-caves.
There I may sit the summer-long day;
There I can weep for my miseries,
many of hardships; thus I can never
ease my heart-care there,
nor all this longing which this life bequeathed unto me.
Ever must a young one be sad of mood,
hard of heart in thought; thus he shall have
a blithe demeanour and also breast-cares,
endure constant sorrow; let him be dependent on himself
for all his worldly joy, be very widely outcast
far from his folk’s land, so that my friend sits
under a stormy stone-cliff, frost-covered,
my lord weary in mind, drenched by water
in a desolate hall; he suffers, my friend,
with great heart-grief; he remembers too often
a more delightful abode. Woe be to him who shall
await for long the beloved.
Wulf ond Eadwacer
Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife.
Willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð?
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre.
Fæst is þæt eglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe weras þær on ige.
Willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð?
Ungelice is us.
Wulfes ic mines widlastum wenum dogode,
þonne hit wæs renig weder ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon, wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf, wena me þine
seoce gedydon, þine seldcymas,
murnende mod, nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer? Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð Wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.
Wulf and Eadwacer
For my people, it is as if one may give them a gift-
Will they feast him if he comes in force?
It is different, for us.
Wulf is on an isle, I on another.
Fast is that island, surrounded by fens.
There are bloodthirsty men on the isle;
will they feed on him if he comes in force?
It is different, for us.
I was hounded by far-tracked hopes for my Wulf;
when it was rainy weather and I, tearful, sat;
when the battle-bold one embraced me in his paws-
that was a pleasure to me, yet it was also loathsome.
Wulf! my Wulf! my hopes for you
sickened me, your seldom-comings,
a mourning heart- not at all a lack of meat.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Our wretched whelp,
the Wulf bears it to the woods.
That is easily torn apart, what was never united:
the song of us two together.
It is difficult to write on the topic of my thesis. The political history of 7thC northern Britain is complicated, with threads of alliances marking the map in my mind’s-eye like one of those webs spiders spin when on hallucinogens. Whenever I try and explain one piece of the puzzle, I find I must explain some half a dozen other items first- but in order to explain those, I must start with the first.
The human mind evolved to eat gazelle and flee lions, not think about things. Sheesh. This post is therefore awfully rough, and kept briefer than I’d like, stripped of my precious footnoes and the bibliography left to squint in the sunlight without any historiography to give the nuance. Questions would be helpful.
It has been some time since I wrote, so as a reminder: my thesis on the raid sent in 684 by Ecgfrith of Northumbria to Ireland- specifically, his soldiers raided the area called Mag Breg, a túath within the territories of the Southern Úi Néill. The month appears to have been June. The leader of the army/raiding party/gang of violent thugs was a chap called Berht whom I have mentioned previously. This raid is fascinating, not least because it is the first such recorded attack on Hibernia prior to Strongbow, but because we don’t know why. Bede just says that it was unprovoked and the Irish never did nothin’ to nobody.
A few scholars seem to suspect Ecgfrith’s successor and older half-brother Aldfrith. Certainly he had very close ties with Ireland -son of an Irish princess- and one could, as some have, make an argument that he was plotting against Ecgfrith and so the king sent troops into Ireland to take captives for use as hostages. Certainly the swift movement of Aldfrith from Iona to Northumbria to be crowned, after Ecgfrith’s death in (modern) Scotland is supicious.
The problem with this hypothesis lies in Aldfrith’s supposed connection to the area laid waste by the English swords. Mag Bega lay within the overlordship of the Southern Úi Néill, a group of people who claimed descended from Nial of the Nine Hostages. Aldfrith’s mother’s people, on the other hand, were among the Northern Úi Néill. Specifically, theCenél nEógain.
While in exile amongst the Irish, the father of Ecgfrith and Aldfrith, Oswiu (the famous ‘Synod of Whitby’ Oswiu) fathered a son on a daughter of the Northern Úi Néill king, Colmán Rimíd. The specific evidence for this must be considered very carefully, as the genealogies of royal families are suspect to tampering and this is particularly true when the king in question (i.e., Aldfrith) is famous. The specific genealogy in question reads as follows:
Cōic meic Bāetāin meic Muirchertaich .i. Fergus a quo Clann Fergusa, Forannān a quo Hūi Fairennāin, A[i]lill pater Cind-fāelad, Māel-huma in rīgfēinnid. Colmān Rīmid athair Fīna, māthair īside Flaind Fina meic Ossu regis Saxonum.
[Five sons of Báetán son of Muichertach; that is Fergus from whom [comes] Clann Fhergusa; Forannán from whom [comes] the Uí Fhorannáin; Ailill the father of Cenn Fáelad; Máel Umai rígféinnid. Colmán Rimíd the father of Fína, the mother of Flann Fína son of Ossu king of the Saxons.]1
Flann Fína is the Irish name for Aldfrith, and the two are specifically conflated in his obit in the Annals of Tigernach:
Altfrith mac Ossa .i. Fland Fína la Gaedhelu, echnaid, rex Saxonum.
[Aldfrith, son of Oswiu, called Fland Fína by the Gaels, a wise man, king of the Saxons.]2
Ossu is the Irish form of Oswiu, and can be verified by comparing Bede and the Annals of Ulster. Muirchertach can be traced back to the founder of the Cenél nEógain, Eógan, and thus to ancestor of the Uí Néill, Nial Noígiallach.5 While there is uncertainty about which túath Oswiu dwelled amongst while in exile, and therefore the specific political circumstances which led to the fathering of Aldfrith, this discussion is quite complicated enough. We can say with certainty that Aldfrith is descended on his mother’s side from a túath of the Northern Uí Néill, specifically the Cenél nEógain. Aldfrith therefore has close ties with the Northern Uí Néill.
It is tempting to conflate the Northern and Southern Uí Néill, but the two are titles claimed by overlordships. Connacht and Airgalla were also provincial overlordships, and one could not make this attempt to tie Aldfrith to them.
Túatha even within kingdoms were not completely unified, as the Cenél nEógain fought against their own cousins in the Northern Uí Néill during battle of Mag Roth (637). While there were alliances among the Uí Néill and people in (what is now) Scotland, all of these alliances -broken and otherwise- are among túatha of the Northern Uí Néill, not the Southern. Any connection between Aldfrith and the Irish of Scotland and Ireland does not lead us inevitably to Mag Breg.