By Alice Jorgensen
Oral Tradition, Vol.24:2 (2009)
Introduction: Battle and warfare are prominent topics in Old English poetry, reflecting their importance to the self-conception as well as the practical concerns of the warrior class who governed Anglo- Saxon England. The representation of warfare in poetry constitutes both a codification of experience, a means of reflecting on contemporary events such as Scandinavian raiding and invasion,1 and at the same time an idealization, part of a shared imaginary centered on the heroic, migration-age past, lordship and comitatus bonds, courage and violence, and the material culture of treasure, weaponry, and the hall. The poetry is traditional in its diction and themes. Old English poems portray battle and warfare in ways that are sometimes highly stylized but also have aspects of realism.
The present essay focuses on one element of battle-description in Old English poetry that is both conventional and to some extent realistic: the portrayal of battle as noisy. Noise is a very common ingredient in Old English poetic battle scenes and perhaps an unsurprising one, but it is not inevitable. Classical and medieval Latin poetry often mention noise as part of battle, but historical writings do so much less often. Moreover, as we shall see, noise emerges in Old English battle poetry in distinctive and sometimes strikingly non-naturalistic ways. A focus on noise can afford an interesting avenue into Old English battle poetry for a number of reasons, of which I here highlight two.