The mead hall was not merely a place of retreat from a hostile world but was also the foundation and fulcrum of Anglo-Saxon life – for in addition to obvious benefits such as warmth and safety it was also a hub of group solidarity, where tribute was made and the bonds between lord and vassal were sealed and sustained.
Anglo-Saxon hall society had its roots in barbarian Europe where bonds of kinship were strongly encouraged and enforced. Tacitus noted in his book Germania that men were “bound to take up the feuds as well as friendships of father or kinsman,” and it was considered “impious to turn any man away from your door.” Gift-giving was also a highly cherished tradition: “The leaders take peculiar pleasure in gifts from neighbouring states, which are sent not only by individuals, but by the community as well.” In these societies, as well as in their Anglo-Saxon descendants, homage and condemnation were public, never private, affairs.
In such communities certain laws or customs were expected to be obeyed above all else. Internecine violence within the king’s circle was so repellent an idea that its accompanying punishment was severe – more severe, in fact, than those penalties meted out to anyone who happened to brawl within a holy place such as a monastery. The law code of King Ine of Wessex (composed circa 688 – 695 A.D.) demanded that:
If anyone fights in the king’s house, he shall forfeit all his property, and it shall be for the king to decide whether he shall be put to death or not […] If anyone fights in a monastery, he shall pay 120 shillings compensation.
The importance of keeping the peace in the hall was so vital that King Alfred transplanted Ine’s law regarding the issue, almost verbatim, into his own law codes of the ninth century. De duodecim abusivis saeculi, an anonymously authored tract that originated in 8th century Ireland, lays out twelve social and political ‘abuses’ that kings and their subjects were to be aware of. The tract frowns upon “the young man without obedience”, highlighting the importance of respect between elders and youths (or between ranks), and it also disapproves of “the rich man without almsgiving”, which stresses the importance of putting wealth to good and generous use. Additionally, the article abhors “the lord without strength” and “the unjust king”. It was the king’s duty to secure the safety of his people and to see them amply rewarded for their loyalty – or punished for their disobedience.
For those living under the protection of a hall and its lord, life was not only potentially prosperous but given heterogeneity as well. In poems like Beowulf warriors introduce themselves as the descendants of great soldiers and as the inheritors of great halls and legacies. The best that kings and warriors could hope for was that their reputations would survive even after their own lives or immediate glories had passed. Beowulf demonstrates to the reader how a good reputation can merit a king in troubled times by telling us that Hrothgar, despite being unable to stop Grendel, is still considered a good king because of his adherence to kingly manners. But unjust men, whether they were thegns or even rulers, like the historical Sigeberht of Wessex, could be deposed and driven from their lands for their iniquitous behaviour.
Such castaways and wanderers were social detritus and were to be treated with suspicion, even according to law. The law code of Wihtred of Kent demanded that “If a man from afar, or a stranger, quits the road, and neither shouts, nor blows a horn, he may be considered a thief, [and as such may] be either slain or put to ransom.” This law was also enforced by Ine of Wessex at roughly the same time.
For Christian soldiers the outcome of unlawful and shameful behaviour was especially stark due to its theological implications: Satan had been damned for his attempt at supplanting God, Adam and Eve were banished for their disobedience and Cain made an outcast and branded for the murder of his brethren. In the poem Christ and Satan the devil himself, the original exile, bemoans that “I shall not be allowed to enjoy a more promising home, neither city nor palace.” Linked to cowards and usurpers, demons and devils, an exile carried nothing but negative connotations. In Beowulf, they are literally monsters: the warped progeny of Cain as well as a dragon.
The precise physical nature of Grendel and his mother have been a point of contention for many years: are they monsters, or merely monstrous? But there is one aspect of their nature that is unambiguous, and that is their status as exiles. Beowulf makes it clear that the many ills and malevolent spirits in the world result from Cain’s murder of Abel and his subsequent banishment:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.
Grendel’s fury is instigated by the circumstances of his wretched existence, “he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters,” a condition of living which makes “the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet” utterly abhorrent to his ears. The fact that Grendel cannot be tied to any one homestead or hall, the mere fact that he is a homeless wanderer, inspires fear in the Danes upon whom he preys: “young and old were hunted down by that dark death-shadow who lurked and swooped in the long nights on the misty moors; nobody knows where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.”
When Hrothgar relates to Beowulf the rumours of Grendel and his mother much of the horror is concentrated not so much on their deeds or appearances, but where they dare to roam: “They dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland.” These creatures live and lurk on the periphery of civilisation, they are the ongoing survivors of a bleak and hostile world who have rejected or been rejected by all the pleasures of the hall. They suffer greatly from the absence of company and direct their fury upon the lucky and loyal retainers inhabiting Heorot. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, an exile was not only a damned spirit but a condemnatory one that would blame and wreak his misfortune on others if encountered.
But the loss of the hall and kinship with other men was deeply felt by the outcasts. Grendel and his mother lurk in an underwater, twisted facsimile of a hall, replete with “hall-roofing” to fight off the water current and a hoard of weapons and treasure. The dragon also dwells in such an environment, an ancient barrow laden with treasure, but he is a stowaway who has assumed ownership of the tomb and its riches. When he attacks the countryside due to the theft of one of his treasures we see that he is powerful and gluttonous, a monstrous counterpart to the worst of human corruption.
One of Beowulf’s other outcasts is not a beast, but the lone survivor of a destructed race. It is this last man who deposits his peoples’ “rich inheritance” in the barrow that the dragon later claims as his own. After burying the treasure hoard this “forgotten person” wanders the earth until his own death:
The language here evokes a solitary life as a slow drowning. Dying alone in the wild was an ignominious end for a warrior.
But sometimes fear presents a greater argument than honour, and warriors lose their mettle. At the climax of Beowulf the titular hero’s own war-band struggles to keep brave during their fight with the dragon and eventually flee:
Only one, Wiglaf, resolves to stay and fight. The text notes that “in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” After the battle ends the cowardly warriors (or as the text designates them, “battle-dodgers” and “tail-turners”) shamefully return to the field, and Wiglaf declares that foreign invasion will be imminent “once princes from beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We can deduce that abandoning the king or comitatus was considered not only a crime against individual members of the group but against the group, and nation, as a whole. Cowardice was a grave offence, and a coward’s lingering presence in a comitatus or hall would not only shame the group but potentially endanger it as well. Warriors in disgrace were obviously feared and hated whenever they came across honourable men.
The bleak and embattled mindset of an exile was often expressed in poems known as elegies; among them are poems like The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament. Elegies such as these take place nowhere and are narrated by no one – that is, there is no firm geographical locale indicated in the texts, and the characters refuse, or simply neglect, to identify themselves.
However frustrating this may be for a more historically-minded reader (or for those simply wanting to expand upon the narrative and its circumstances) this absence of localisation and identification adds to, rather than detracts from, the sense of being cast adrift in an impersonal and uncaring landscape. It is not surprising that poems such as The Seafarer, which contains no identifiable narrator or any specific seascape, are often thought of as psychological or even allegorical pieces. Critics like John C. Pope, writing in his essay ‘Second thoughts on the interpretation of The Seafarer’, assert that it “is no wonder” that the poem “at its conclusion should allow the literally conceived pilgrimage of the speaker to suggest the broader idea of allegorical pilgrimage.”
That the icy froth and spume could be figurative language denoting an elegiac psychological bombardment is not dissimilar from the use of storms, hail, rain, and thunder as metaphors for battle or weaponry in other Old English texts (for example, arrows are described as raining down in “showers” in Judith.) The Exeter Book’s third riddle speaks of clouds that “do combat” and also portrays lightning as “death-spears” and “a whistling weapon”. There’s no doubt that the outside world was often seen as a brutal and ever-present enemy to be contended with -an army of natural forces whose battlefield was everywhere- and that this assault took place in the mind as much as it did on the body.
There was one social group that rejected hall society and the practice of ring-giving and instead embraced exile, and that was the monastic orders. The practice of holy eremitism was not as old as Europe’s warrior society, but it did have a long and storied tradition with its own legends and, eventually, literature.
One of the earliest hagiographies of a saintly hermit was that of Martin of Tours (316 A.D. – 397 A.D.), written by Sulpicius Severus during Martin’s lifetime. Martin had left the Roman Army as a conscientious objector and settled as a hermit in Poitiers, France, gathering around himself a devoted group of followers who committed themselves to an ascetic life. Severus’ biography became “an immediate best seller” that “became a model for an immense flood of ‘Saints’ Lives’, popular literature published in Gaul and Britain during the next several centuries.”
The lives of many future saints followed the same guiding principles of Martin as outlined by Severus: the rejection of the world and its wealth, self-imposed exile and frugal living. Soon many hagiographies were borrowing miracles and events from their predecessors with little or sometimes no alteration.
Their aim was to get away from the ‘society of man’, to live alone with a few companions in caves or ‘desert wildernesses’ […] The saints did not set out to reform society. They gave it up as an evil to avoid.
~ John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)
The burgeoning popularity of monasticism among the holy orders (and even among the common folk who felt beleaguered by widespread strife and war) eventually brought paradox to the movement: hermits found themselves settling into the hills and caves of Britain with other hermits, forming small societies in the process. Michael Swanton, in his chapter ‘An Assured Heroism’, noted that “By the end of the seventh century monasticism was well established and even regally endorsed among the Anglo-Saxons as a socially acceptable mode of life.” John Morris writes in The Age of Arthur that:
Place names attest the scale of the movement and its locality. Sixth-century Latin usage calls the monastery claustra, enclosure, whence comes the English word ‘cloister’. Its equivalent in Welsh was llan, whose literal meaning is ‘enclosure’. Well over six hundred Welsh towns and hamlets bear the name Llan.
Gerald of Wales, on his tour of the country in the twelfth century, wrote of the abbey church Llanthony, “originally founded by two hermits, in honour of the eremitical way of life, in solitude and far removed from the bustle of everyday existence.” Social approval had done much to enlarge and institutionalise the monastic lifestyle, though this, as church luminaries like Gerald complained, would eventually serve to undo many of its positive and holy aspects. The brothers at Llanthony had struggled for generations to keep society from invading their solitude, and were:
greatly distressed when it began to be endowed with land and church benefices […] In their desire for poverty, they refused many offers of manors and churches in those early years. Situated as they were in the wilderness, they refused to permit the overgrown recesses of the valley, where it widened out into an impenetrable wood, ever to be cleared or levelled off to make an open meadow, for they had no wish to abandon their eremitical mode of life.
The hermits found themselves resisting well-intentioned lords and kings who attempted to bequeath gifts upon them. However the nobility valued it, the old practice of ring-giving was abhorrent to the monks. It could only invite sin. “There in Gloucester men strive for earthly possessions, “ writes Gerald, “but here in Llanthony let them rather turn their minds towards the promise of eternal bliss. There let them enjoy the company of mortal men, but here let them prefer the concourse of angels.”
In Anglo-Saxon Christian literature the fraternising and frolicking that occurred in the hall were also looked upon with disdain. When the heroine of the Biblically inspired Judith enters Holofernes’ tent she looks at the drunken warriors with scorn. Though words like “gold-giving” are used to describe Holofernes, the text displays none of the admiration and awe that we might expect due to a “powerful man” and “lord of heroes”. Instead it is clearly stated that the cavorting and drinking have made the warriors careless and foolish:
There are similar insinuations in Beowulf, where Unferth’s belligerence is attributed to drunkenness, and the poem does not fail to remind readers that the fate of Heorot is tied directly to its grandeur and the jealousies of those inside and outside its doors.
Both self-exile and the apparently disparate notion of a comitatus-themed community eventually reconciled themselves and came together in the form of the chivalric Christian Knight who leaves his band of brothers and goes into the misty and mysterious landscape, alone, to pursue a holy quest. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there are positive depictions of revelry in King Arthur’s Court, rather than the ominous forebodings and disapproval present in other Christian works.
It was fine to hear such glorious commotion:
lively uproar all day and dancing at night,
the sheerest indulgence in dance hall and bedroom
by the ladies and lords, whatever whim took them.
With all worldly pleasures they dwelt there together:
the most famous knights in all of Christendom
It would be hard nowadays
to find such fellowship.
Gawain tells us that the carousing at the court is not only bawdy and abundant, but also represents a golden age for chivalry and Christianity. When Gawain starts to leave for his journey in search of the Green Knight all of Arthur’s court sees him off with sadness: “Much deep sorrow was felt in the hall, that one as valued as him should go on this quest.” Many tales of the saints describe how crowds wept whenever they took their leave. The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith detailed that “As the ship sailed across the river, he looked towards the brothers mourning his departure and heard the sublime sound of their song mixed with grief.”
Similarly Gawain, like all holy or disgraced nomads before him, ventures out and finds the world unkind:
Separated from his band of fellow knights, Gawain is isolated in a world that will grant him no respect or quarter on account of his honour and title. Again, as in earlier literature, the natural world is constantly harassing and threatening our lone wanderer: “At every ford and stream that the warrior passed, it was rare if he found no foe to face him.” However, like the self-exiled saints, Gawain has God to protect him from the harshness of nature: “If he hadn’t been alert, and helped by the Lord, he would certainly have went to his death.” God had certainly intervened to help his most blessed of subjects before. In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert the saint is given a loaf of bread, ostensibly from God, when he is in need. Afterwards Cuthbert resumes his journey without fear of hunger:
now that he knew he had been fed in his solitude by Him […] His eyes are ever on them that fear Him and hope in His mercy, so that He may, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘snatch their souls from death and feed them in time of famine.’
Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid gives another example of Divine protection:
So Wilfrid and his companions left their native land and set off in exile for the kingdoms of the south. God, who does not leave his saints to endure alone, sent a kind-hearted man to meet them on their way.
To be stripped of one’s titles and honours, to be sent from the warmth of the hall, or to falter in allegiance during the thick of battle, was more terrible than death – but only for a few. Later Christian saints welcomed the wilderness, loneliness and limerance. They saw themselves as divorced from the pleasures and temptations of the hall; they walked not with men but were companioned by choruses of angels. After centuries of co-mingling the two modes of life found themselves reconciled in the form of the lone Christian Knight, a man loved by many but sometimes accompanied by few: he could find glory alone as well as among a brotherhood.
Art by Zdzisław Beksińsk