DURING THE PAST THIRTY YEARS, scholars have spilled considerable ink over the date of Beowulf's composition, and cogent arguments for both early and late dates have emerged. (1) Considerably less ink has been spilled, however, concerning the date of the Beowulf manuscript's production. Neil Ker's dating of "s.x/xi" (ca. 975-1025) has for the most part held. (2) Kevin Kiernan argued that both the poem and the manuscript belong after 1016, but his claims have been rendered highly improbable by Michael Lapidge and David Dumville, among others. (3) Dumville, in fact, makes the most important advance on Ker's dating: by reinterpreting the birth and death dates of Anglo-Saxon vernacular and square minuscule respectively, he concludes that the manuscript was most likely copied out between the years 997 and 1016. (4) This is a period for which a vast written record survives and about which much is known, and yet few have asked what exactly Beowulf might be doing there. In this paper, I intend to offer a few hypotheses as to why an Anglo-Saxon audience might have had interest in a poem like Beowulf during this period. I will suggest some of the purposes for which the poem might have been intended and looking to VII/AEthelred, show how the Viking invasions could have provided an impetus for a scriptorium to produce a poem of this nature. I will then test my hypotheses through an examination of the manuscript, to see what it can tell us about the concerns of the scribes, their interest in the material, and the importance of this text to an eleventh-century audience.
While The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS C/D/E) depicts the reign of King AEthelred "Unraed" (978-1016) as a continual series of disasters leading inevitably to the ascension of King Cnut of Denmark, Simon Keynes has offered a more nuanced account of the reign. He contends that during the 990s, conditions of life in England were generally good and the Vikings would have seemed like a manageable threat. Keynes demonstrates that it is only during the first decade of the eleventh century, particularly after the devastating raids of 1006, that English affairs became increasingly turbulent and desperate. (5) The most powerful record of English desperation during these years is the law code known as VII AEthelred, promulgated at Bath in 1009. Surviving in both an English and a Latin version, the code propounds an elaborate program of public prayer and penance in order "paet we Godes miltse 7 his mildheortnesse habban moton 7 paet we purh his fultum magon feondum widstandan" [that we may have God's mercy and his compassion and through his help withstand our enemies]. (6) It then lays out a plan in which the entire population (eal folc) would contribute to the effort: on the three days before Michaelmas, there is to be fasting, almsgiving, and confession, as well as a barefoot procession with relics in hand; from every hide, a penny is to be rendered; every thegn is to give a tithe of his property and each of his dependents is to contribute a penny; every priest is to sing thirty masses and every deacon and cleric must sing thirty psalms. Furthermore, every religious foundation is to direct their attention to the present crisis: the mass contra paganos is to be sung daily; the psalm Domine, quid multiplicati sunt is to be chanted at regular hours; and both are to be performed on behalf of the King and his nation ("pro rege et omni populo suo; for urne hlaford 7 for ealle his peode"). (7)
For my purposes, the importance of VII AEthelred rests in its call for the entire English population to contribute in a variety of ways to a national effort. As Simon Keynes writes, "the directive known as VII AEthelred bears eloquent testimony to the involvement of laymen, secular clergy, and members of religious houses in an orchestrated response to the Viking invasion of 1009." (8) In this respect, VII AEthelred seems to enact a spiritual or ideological version of AEthelred's shipbuilding project of 1008. In that year, according to the Chronicle, "her bebead se cyng paet man sceolde ofer eall Angelcyn scypu faestlice wyrcan, paet is donne of prim hund hidum 7 of tynum aenne scegd, 7 of .viii. hidum helm 7 byrnan" [here the king ordered that we must incessantly build ships over all England, that is then one warship from every 310 hides, and a helmet and a mail-sheet from every eight hides]. (9) By 1009, "hiora waes swa feala swa naefre aer, pees de us bec secgad, on Angelcynne ne gewurdon on nanes cyninges daege" [there were more of them (ships) than ever were before, according to what books tell us, among the English in the day of any king]. Although these efforts proved ineffective due to internal dissension, during these years the minds and bodies of much of England's population clearly were concentrated on the war effort. It is in this climate of national galvanization and defense preparation that I believe we find a likely context for the production of the Beowulf manuscript. Every individual was exhorted or commanded to contribute in his or her particular way, and I believe that for one particular monastic community, the production of the Beowulf manuscript was undertaken as their contribution to the king's efforts. VII AEthelred's deployment of a topically relevant mass (contra paganos) and psalm (Domine, quid multiplicati sunt) reveals that English leaders were fully aware of the ways in which cultural products could assist their efforts. AElfric shows a similar awareness when he claims that he translates the Book of Judith into English "eow mannum to bysne paet ge eowerne eard mid waemnum bewerian wid onwinnende here" [as an example to you men, so that you will defend your country with weapons against the raiding army]. (10) I'd like to posit that Beowulf was also intended "eow mannum to bysne."
A CRISIS OF GETREOWPA
But why Beowulf? What relevance could this poem, possibly hundreds of years old, have had for a people at war? To illustrate the questions or issues to which Beowulf could have spoken, it is necessary first to suggest how English men and women living through these years understood their tumultuous times. In the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Wulfstan critiques contemporary mores and asserts that the Vikings were sent as divine punishment for English sinfulness. More specifically, however, Wulfstan identifies a decline in getreowpa, or "loyalty," as one of his eras central problems. (11) He begins the Sermo with the claim "paet lytle getreowpa waeron mid mannum" [that there has been little loyalty amongst men], and concludes with the exhortation "utan ... sume getrywpa habban us betweonan butan uncraeftan" [let us ... have some loyalty between us without deception]. (12) Throughout the text, Wulfstan laments the dissolution of the social bonds that once held Anglo-Saxon society together. Paraphrasing Mark 13:12, he states: "Ne bearh nu foroft gesib gesibban De ma pe fremdan, ne faeder his bearne, ne hwilum bearn his agenum faeder, ne bropor oprum" [Now, very often, kinsman has not protected kinsman more than a stranger, nor has father protected son, nor sometimes son his own father, nor one brother another brother] (Beth.XX.EI, 269). Further, Wulfstan inveighs against a long list of crimes, ranging from fratricide to prostitution to perjury, bur he heaps extended scorn on the crime of hlafordswice, [treachery against one's lord]. He states that it has appeared in a great number of forms (on mistlice wisan), but that the worst of all lord-betrayals (ealra maest hlafordswice) are incidents like the murder of King Edward the Martyr. An indication, perhaps, of Wulfstan's contempt for hlafordswice is that he introduces it as an example of ungetreowpa micle [great disloyalty], positioning it as the antithesis of the word upon which he builds the sermon (Beth.XX.EI, 270).
Wulfstan's contemporaries also seem to have understood their nation's crises in terms of getreowpa and hlafordswice. In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the entries for AEthelred's reign are pervaded with instances in which the English defense efforts are undermined by hlafordswice, by men turning their backs on their lord or their king, and fleeing to save their lives. (13) Similarly, in The Battle of Maldon, the flight of three retainers is represented not as a consequence of imminent defeat, but as the cause of the defeat itself: one retainer uses the horse of Byrhtnoth, the army's leader, and many more men then flee under the assumption that their leader is retreating. (14) The significance of the overlap in emphases between the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the Battle of Maldon is that whatever the real causes of English defeat--Simon Keynes suggests they were simply overwhelmed (15)--contemporary Englishmen were understanding and representing their defeat in terms of loyalty …