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Identity in the Anglo-Saxon Society

The Greek philosopher Plutarch once said: “For myself, at any rate, I would rather people said that there is no one called Plutarch, and never has been, than that they should say that Plutarch is an unreliable, unstable man, swift to anger [...] who gets bitter over trifles.” This may very well be the case for 2nd century philosophers from Greece. But for Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century and onwards it holds only partially true, as having (or leaving behind) no identity at all was considered still considerably worse than being wrongly remembered. Indications of this excessive preoccupation with identity can be found in various texts from the Anglo-Saxon era; literary as well as factual. In this article I will focus on three specific texts: one factual and two literary.

One of the earliest documents which supports my theory is the Tribal Hidage, dated between the 7th and 9th century. Although it is as yet unknown what the exact purpose of this document was, or for whom it was made, many ascribe it to king Offa of Mercia, by whose request it might have been compiled. Others have argued that the text stems from the Northumbrian king Edwin (fun fact: His wife was the daughter of the famous St. Ethelbert, the very first king whom Au-gustine, on behalf of Pope Gregory, managed to convert to Christianity). The Tribal Hidage lists 35 tribes south of the river Humber. Based on this knowledge, conjectures can be made about the purpose of the document. It most likely was either a tribute list or early bookkeeping (Harrison). According to some scholars this grouping of tribes—who derive their identity solely from the territory they occupy—reveals that the micro-identity of tribe and family was important from the start.

Indeed, as identity is so strongly intertwined with one’s position in relation to a certain family or feudal lord, not having any kin or not belonging to any group would be tantamount to a social suicide. A great example of this is the poem The Wanderer, which describes a solitary, lonely person who is no longer accepted by his lord or others, but who does remember happier days in the company of kinsmen and his beloved lord. The poem is usually categorized as both an elegy and a wisdom poem, and the following can be said for both: analysing it as elegiac poetry would put the main focus on the feelings of loneliness and sadness which permeate the entire poem, especially when the speaker contrasts his current situation with the past one. The first spoken words of the solitary man are:

Often, at every dawn, I alone must
lament my sorrows. There is now no one living
to whom I might dare to reveal clearly
my heart (ll. 8-11)

At the same time, viewing the poem from a wisdom poem perspective would shift the focus to the underlying cheerful message of ‘who needs friends and family when you’ve got eternal bliss in the after-life to look forward to’, as illustrat-ed in lines 85-86: “The Creator of men thus laid waste this earth / until deprived of the joy of its inhabitants”, line 106: “All is hardship in the earthly kingdom”, plus in the final lines: “It will be well for him who seeks mercy, / consolation from the Father in heaven, where for us all security stands” (ll. 114-115). No matter how you prefer to analyse it, the truth remains that it makes for a rather cheerless and gloomy poem to be a solitary outcast-like figure in a society obsessed with identity solely derived from your social background.

Finally, the best poem to illustrate the importance of belonging to a social group is, how could it be otherwise, Beowulf. Entire books can, have, and will be written on this deservingly famous poem. Every self-respecting philologist of the English language must own copious numbers of academic works, all analyzing, scrutinizing, hypothesizing, or setting up established theories and refuting them. Even a young and keen first-year student, as I once was, will know quite a bit about this poem — and here I would like to clarify that in no way am I a qualified philologist, merely an enthusiast. Consequently, I shall limit my arguments to some quite basic and obvious points. Firstly, the importance of establishing your identity can be seen in the number of times Beowulf mentions his name and lineage. Sometimes even mentioning only his lineage will impress just about everyone, with of course the exception of Unferth, Grendel and his mum, and the fire-dragon. All important characters are defined by their ancestry; who their father was and who he was related to seems far more significant than actually knowing the present offspring. Secondly, the importance of lineage is juxtaposed in the figure of Grendel, who is fatherless and unable to properly introduce himself to others (of course his lack of speech does not help) and related to Cain, ogres, elves, and sea-monsters. These beings are all clearly not part of proper Anglo-Saxon society; they are outcasts and they behave as such. They live in, for humans, uninhabitable areas such as the marshes and have no real purpose besides doing evil deeds, such as randomly storming into mead halls and eating people. Grendel is the ultimate other: for Anglo-Saxons he is everything a good man wouldn’t be. Lastly, another indication of the real importance of identity can be seen in the concern for solidifying your reputation to the point of excessive reckless/heroic behaviour. Giving up your life in battle is a sure-fire way of establishing a long-lasting memory to your name and fame. Ensuring that your identity will continue long after you’ve passed away is the ultimate goal, so actually not much has changed from ancient Greek times where striving to die in battle was superior to safely reaching old age.

by Miriam Dieperink

Works Cited

“Beowulf.” Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450. An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Treharne. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 182-225.

Harrison, Julian. “The Tribal Hideage Online.” Medieval manuscripts blog. (2012) Web, 15 April 2015.

Rutherford, Richard. Classical Literature: Black-well, 2005. Print.

“The wanderer.” Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450. An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Treharne. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 54-61.