Sorry for my long absence- personal stuff has kind of interfered with my levels of functionality lately. But I’m here again, at least for the next half an hour. And the reason why I’m here is that I had a massive geek-out tonight and blathered for half an hour at my long-suffering friend K about Widsith and the character of Ealhhild. Having inflicted my nerdery upon her, I thought I would inflict it upon you in turn.
SOOO. Widsith is a poet’s boast, all about how the Poet has been with every awesome man in history and every group of people on the face of the earth. Clearly not this poet, but The Poet as a typical figure. It’s a piece of self-advertising, if you like: oy! All the great people of the past had poets! So you should pay me to write praise poetry for you too! Also, poets are really great because we preserve memories and history! Did I mention that a lot of people gave me very expensive jewellery in return for my poetry? (This reminds me in a way of the theory Bo advanced that the later, ‘mystical’ Taliesin poems are self-advertisment on the part of eleventh century poets. Anyway.)
Widsith goes on at great length about all the awesome people he ‘was with’ and all the cool peoples he met- some of them are just in the form of lists, and some he elaborates on a tiny bit. He makes mention, for example, of the feud between Hrothgar and Ingeld that the Beowulf poet notes in a few places.
At the very beginning of the poem, the character of Widsith is introduced: his family were of thte Myrgingas, and he was sent with ‘the beloved peace-weaver’ Ealhhild (ie, a diplomatic bride), when she went to marry Eormanric of the Goths, who was apparently not a nice man and prone to breaking his troth. From there, Widsith goes on to tell us all about his adventures, and around line 88 he returns to telling us about Eormanric, who may have been a nasty bloke but he did certainly know how to treat a poet, giving Widsith a big shiny ‘beag’ (ring, collar, bracelet- something round and expensive).1 Widsith, being a good retainer, took the shiny back home to his lord Eadgils because Eadgils has been a generous lord to him and his family.
Next, Widsith goes on to tell us about Ealhhild:
Ond me þa Ealhhild oþerne forgeaf,
dryhtcwen duguþe, dohtor Eadwines.
Hyre lof lengde geond londa fela,
þonne ic be songe secgan sceolde
hwær ic under swegle selast wisse
goldhrodene cwen giefe bryttian.
And I quote the translation from Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry, because I’m too lazy to do my own:
And then Ealhhild, Eadwine’s daughter, the queen of the people, gave me another. Her praise extended through many lands, whenever I was to say in song where below the sky I best know a queen ornate with gold, bestowing gifts.
Now, a queen all decked out in gold is a good queen- the Beowulf-poet makes the same emphasis when he introduces Wealtheow. Ornately dressed queen= a wealthy and powerful people. However, unlike Wealtheow, who passes the cup and then retires, Ealhhild is also praised for distributing wealth, praise otherwise reserved by both poets for generous kings.
Gift-giving is the means by which a lord maintains the loyalty of his retainers: so here, we have Ealhhild rewarding her own retainers, or perhaps rewarding her husband’s retainers and claiming their loyalty in her own right.
Furthermore, the poet calls Ealhhild the dryhtcwen duguþe. Bradley’s translation here (the people’s queen) is pretty uninspiring, so let us take a moment to consider the implications of dryhtcwen first. Drihten is the AS term for lord, often used for God in the sense of capital-L Lord; the word dryht is defined by Bosworth and Toller as ‘a people, multitude, army’, but the impression I had from studying Genisis B and the Gospel of Nichodemus was that dryht carries an extra sense of ‘social order’ or perhaps ‘the body politic’. I’m not sure how I’d translate dryhtcwen– it could be something like ‘Lord-Queen’, or ‘the Queen of nation’, but at any rate the term carries a lot more authority than regular old cwen.
Secondly, she’s not just dryhtcwen but dryhtcwen duguþe: Dryhtcwen (to the) host. Duguþe doesn’t mean ‘people’, as Bradley’s translation has it. It means either ‘manhood/ all those who have reached manhood’ or ‘multitude, troops, army, people, men, attendants’. It has an overtly masculine and militaristic association- I’ve found it used in two contexts, firstly to identify a troop of warriors, and secondly to identify a group of grown men and seasoned warriors (ie, those who have reached manhood), as opposed to the young men in a king’s service.
So here we have a powerful queen distributing gifts to military retainers. Pretty awesome, no?
What else is Queen Ealhhild doing? Why, she’s commissioning praise-poetry in her own honour, just like the enormous list of male rulers Widsith gives. As Widsith explains at the end of the poem, one who wants to exalt his reputation and sustain his heroic honour will be generous to poets. It can be assumed, then, that not only did Ealhhild want to exalt her reputation, but that she already had a reputation and heroic honour to sustain.
Now, some thoughts about why Queen Ealhhild might be commissioning praise poetry and distributing gifts, as well as being recognised as Queen of the Host. First up, she’s a diplomatic bride, a ‘peace-weaver’ between her father’s people and Eormanric of the Goths. Although the marriage contract is made between her father and husband, diplomatic brides seem (perhaps only under certain circumstances- but it’s those circumstances we hear about) to have had an active role as, well, diplomats. Their job is to ‘weave’ peace between their husband’s court and their fathers’. Exactly what this usually entailed, I can’t say.
However, in this case, I would suggest that by commissioning praise poetry, Ealhhild is busy spreading her own fame, with two intents: one, to cement her own position in her husband’s court by establishing herself as a famous and honourable queen; and two, to increase the honour of her father and his court in the eyes of her husband’s people by association.
By distributing gifts, Ealhhild would be rewarding and shoring up the loyalty of the host which she has apparently already drawn around herself. It might not be a personal host, it might be her husband’s host who are accepting her leadership as his wife and queen. Eormanric is probably still their ultimate leader, but nevertheless, by creating for herself a loyal following in her husband’s court (could she be distributing treasure brought from her father’s court?) Ealhhild is creating (weaving) a network of loyalties and honour gifts which bind her husband’s people to her father’s.
There must have been many diplomatic brides who did all this and were never remembered. There must have been many who never commanded any personal loyalty or power. But the names that come down to us, even small mentions like these lines in Widsith, are evidence that the position of diplomatic bride could be used by a powerful woman, and that she would apparently be respected by her contemporaries for this. One reasonably well-documented example is that of AEthelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, who was a generally awesome sort of person and a formidable military commander into the bargain.
Here Endeth the Geekout For Today.
1. You know the word ‘beag’ in Anglo-Saxon comes from the same Germanic root as the word ‘bagel’? Bagel comes into Modern English via Yiddish, but its origin was apparently Old High German. The Bocera told us this in Beowulf class the other day and now we have a fabulous mental image of Hrothgar distributing bagels in the hall. Much easier to break up than gold circlets, don’t you think?