By Berit Ǻström
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 27 (1999)
Introduction: The Old English poem The Wife’s Lament, famously difficult to interpret, has elicited a number of conflicting readings, re-readings and interpretations. Some scholars have kept strictly to the text, while others have allowed themselves more leeway in their interpretation. The most commonly held view is that the poem is spoken by a woman, separated from her husband, who talks about her situation, past and present. A major question is the location of the narrator. What exactly is an eordscraef often translated as ‘earthhole’ or ‘grave,’ and what is the Wife doing in it? Why does she have to remain there?
Finding it difficult to understand why a woman would be living in a hole in the ground, in the middle of nowhere, with no apparent means of support, Elinor Lench advanced the idea that the Wife is dead and speaking from the grave. The Wife, Lench suggests, has been murdered by her husband; and the cause of her murder would most likely be that she has been accused of adultery. The reason for assuming that the Wife has been accused of adultery is, according to Lench, that the Wife’s seeking folgaþ ‘service’ caused dyrne geþoht ‘secret/dark thoughts’ amongst her husband’s kinsmen. Lench relies on the context of the lament in the poem to justify her assumption that dyrne gepoht in this case refers to accusations of adultery.’ In order to explain why charges of adultery led to murder, she states that in Anglo-Saxon society “Adultery … was punishable by death”. To support this statement she refers to Sharon Turner, The History of the Anglo Saxons from the Earliest Period to the Norman Conquest (Philadelphia, 1841), page 147, and to John Thrupp, The Anglo-Saxon Home (London, 1862), pages 26, 51, 318-19.
Lench’s theory of a ghost speaking from the grave proved attractive to subsequent scholars. Raymond P. Tripp Jr. (1972) and William C. Johnson Jr. (1983) have both written articles based on Lench’s theory of a dead narrator, and Johnson even states explicitly that the theory of the murdered Wife is valid. In the argument for the narrator’s being dead, all three scholars point to the “fact” that the Anglo-Saxons had a habit of killing their adulterous wives. They offer this reasoning with an authority that makes it appear that this practice is a wellknown commonplace about Anglo-Saxon society. However, it is not consistent with the sources used to support this “fact.” Lench bases her claims that the Anglo-Saxon men treated their wives this way on the words of Sharon Turner and John Thrupp, and appears to consider the authority of these two historians sufficient, almost as though the older the source, the more plausible it is.