‘None Shall Pass’: Mental Barriers to Travel in Old English Poetry

‘None Shall Pass’: Mental Barriers to Travel in Old English Poetry

By Jennifer Neville

Freedom of Movement in the Middle Ages, ed. Peregrine Horden (Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2007)

none shall pass

Introduction: According to Monty Python’s Holy Grail, in the year 932 AD Arthur meets a mysterious Black Knight as he travels around the country looking for recruits for his Round Table. When Arthur invites this impressive figure to join him, he receives no reply: the knight stands motionless and apparently dumb. When Arthur attempts to ride past him, however, the knight bars his way and says menacingly, ‘None shall pass.’ He provides no reason or explanation, nor will any reasoning move him, not even the rather reasonable fact of having had his arms and legs cut off. I make no claim for the validity of this portrayal of Arthur or the Anglo-Saxon period. Nevertheless, in his unrelenting and unreasonable negativity, the Black Knight can serve as an image of the barriers to travel imagined in Old English poetry, for travel in Old English poetry is, with some important exceptions, imagined as unrelentingly negative, mainly because of the way in which foreigners are presented. In this paper, therefore, I shall be exploring a xenophobia so extreme that it is a wonder that anyone went anywhere.

In reality, of course, travel did occur in Anglo-Saxon England. Like Arthur, kings rode around their realms. Irish hermits, among others, lurked in the countryside. Kings and others made their way to Rome. Material objects arrived from many places, even from as far away as Byzantium. This paper is not about that reality, however; this paper is about poetry. In their poetry, the Anglo-Saxons told and heard stories that reflected what they thought the world was like or should be like. As is well known, their poetry is almost exclusively composed in a heroic idiom that includes few female labourers, for example, but many warriors.


In the real world, there necessarily were female labourers, but the poetry does not so much describe a world as create one—a world in which what the Anglo-Saxons believed about themselves and about the world was less obscured than in the real one. While we can note what we think we know about Anglo-Saxon reality, study of Old English poetry shows us not so much facts as attitudes, feelings, and expectations. All of these can constitute barriers to travel, albeit ones difficult to document. In the absence of many specific comments regarding Anglo-Saxon feelings about travel, this paper outlines the barriers to travel created by the connotations associated with foreigners in Old English poetry.

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