Hostages in Old English Literature

Byrhtnoth - photo by Andrew Barclay / FlickrHostages in Old English Literature

By Melissa Bird

Master’s Thesis, Georgia State University, 2015

Abstract: “Hostages in Old English Literature” examines the various roles that hostages have played in Anglo-Saxon texts, specifically focusing on the characterization of Æscferth in The Battle of Maldon. Historical context is considered in order to contextualize behavioral expectations that a 10th century Anglo-Saxon audience might have held. Since the poem was composed during the reign of Æthelred the Unready, an examination of hostages and incidents recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle during his rule helps ground a socio-cultural approach. Furthermore, since Æscferth is among only a handful of named hostages in Old English literature, these other hostages have been analyzed and compared with him in order to further contextualize the hostage character. These hostages have been identified based on a broadened concept of the term “hostage” to include the social expectations of a medieval stranger. Through a consideration of these other hostages, a continuum for changing hostage loyalty emerges and reflects the evolving warrior ethics at the end of the 10th century. Based on the presented evidence, this thesis concludes that Æscferth, as a hostage, best symbolizes The Battle of Maldon’s call for English unity at the end of the 10th century.

Introduction: After Byrhtnoth falls on the battle field in The Battle of Maldon, Godric forsakes his oath of loyalty, mounts Byrhtnoth’s horse, and flees. In the confusion of the fight, other thanes mistakenly believe that Byrhtnoth is retreating and leave the battle as well. Those who remain have no doubts about their fates as their numbers dwindle and the Viking horde drives on. Nevertheless, the remaining Anglo-Saxon warriors stay and fight to the best of their ability until, as history tells us, the Vikings emerge victorious. When describing the men in turn, the poet leaves no question about their bravery and courage in the face of death as he frequently relies on such characteristic language as “feaht eornoste” (“fought earnestly”), “heardlice feohtan” (“fought hardly”), and “cene hi weredon” (“bravely defended themselves”) (lines 281, 261, and 283, respectively).


Amongst Byrhtnoth’s loyal thanes, one character is singled out from the others by his station: Æscferth, a hostage from Northumbria. His brave acts are recorded as follows:

He did not turn aside from the war-game, but he hastened arrows forth in abundance; sometimes he hit a shield, and sometimes he wounded a man, ever and again he gave some wound, wielding his weapon while he was able.

Click here to read this thesis from Georgia State University


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