Say What I am Called: A Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Self-Referential Inscriptions
By Sean Russell Mock
Master’s Thesis, University of Oregon, 2016
Abstract: This thesis compiles a working corpus of Anglo-Saxon self-referential inscribed artifacts to examine how the inscriptions and supports utilize self-reference to push the viewer to understand the social and cultural significance of such objects. The inscriptions fall into two broad categories: personal inscriptions reinforce the prestige of the makers, owners, and commissioners associated with them, while impersonal inscriptions authorize philosophical and social discourse through the adoption of literary and oral types (i.e. genres). In addition to an analysis of specific artifacts—ranging from diminutive rings to monumental stone crosses—I provide a quantitative analysis that illustrates the different uses of languages, scripts, and object types. As opposed to literary texts, self-referential inscribed objects create internally complete hermeneutic units that connect the text’s discursive meaning with the function and significance of the thing itself. The inscriptions and their supports structure knowledge about Anglo-Saxon social relationships, liturgical practices, and cultural wisdom.
Introduction: “Hrothgar spoke; examined the hilt, old treasure. On it was written the origin of ancient strife, when the flood destroyed, ocean rushed, the race of giants fared terribly. That was an alien people to the eternal Lord. The Ruler gave them final retribution for that through water’s waves. Likewise, on the plate of metal, gold’s shining, through runic letters rightly marked, it recorded and stated for whom that sword was made, it first was best of swords, the serpentine-twisted hilt” ~ Beowulf, ll. 1687-1698
In the Old English epic Beowulf, after the sword Hrunting fails to harm Grendel’s mother, the hero Beowulf stumbles upon the giant’s sword in the mere; he uses the magical weapon to dispatch the hag and to behead Grendel. The hero returns and presents the treasured heirloom to Hrothgar. Though the above passage’s opening suggests that Hrothgar will speak about the hilt, his speech is delayed for eleven lines as the artifact presents its origins through its inscription. Much of the scholarly attention to the giant’s sword hilt refers to the poem’s narrative to identify the inscription’s language and the identity of the person who owned it. There is no clear identification in the poem, but Anglo-Saxons would likely have had a solid understanding about how the inscription functioned on the hilt.