Medieval English Studies, vol. 8 (2000)
Abstract: Recently published studies in the early history of Britain tend to stress the complexity of what happened between the end of the Roman domination just after 400 and the Norman Conquest in 1066. Great transformations of culture were accompanied by great acts of violence. Whole peoples were annihilated, leaving only silence. Sometimes the literature of the Old English period is read against a rather too simple historical frame, largely based on Bede. It is important to recall how exceptional the surviving record is, whether documentary or literary, and how many stories and names have been lost forever. The exclusion of the Celtic side of British history and culture is only one example. The recent stress on how strong an impact the viking and Danish invasions had likewise suggests that there is a cultural and political dimension to the 10th-century monastic revival that underlies the surviving texts of Old English poetry. The many silences enrich our readings of the surviving texts.
Where is that horse now? Where are those men? Where is the hoard-sharer?
Where is the house of the feast? Where is the hall’s uproar?
Alas, bright cup ! Alas, burnished fighter!
Alas, proud prince ! How that time has passed,
dark under night’s helm, as though it had never been!
There stands in the stead of staunch thanes
a towering wall…
Those lines from the Wanderer in Professor Alexander’s translation serve to remind us of the value of memory and the ‘towering wall’ of oblivion that threatens all human realities. The poet is saying that the unrecorded dead of the past are ‘as if they had never been’. Instead of pages eloquent with records of their joys and sorrows, there is nothing but a towering wall of silence ‘wrought with worm-shapes.’ By contrast, many still remember the names and words of Caedmon and perhaps even Coifi, although they are long dead. The Battle of Maldon may not be a very great work of literature, but Byrhtnoth still lives because of it.
The telling of tales, and the subsequent writing and preservation of them by Church institutions, was an activity that effectively gave relative immortality to a few individuals who lived in Britain (and elsewhere, in the case of Beowulf) over a thousand years ago. No such memorial exists for the host of other folk who were not recorded, who are as though they had never been. Yet they once were and their lives were equally precious. Why were their tales never written? That eloquent silence surrounds and challenges the rare, recorded memories.