"Cynewulf and Cyneheard": A Woman Screams

Article excerpt

The presence of the woman is not to be overlooked.

Sigmund Freud

"Cynewulf and Cyneheard" is the entry for 755/757 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record compiled during the reign of King Alfred (871-899 C.E.).(1) The 755/757 annal has attracted generations of scholars from several disciplines: political and social historians because it may shed some light on the theoretical movement from kinship to comitatus loyalty; linguists because it may contain a rare example of direct speech; and literary critics because it is an unusually engaging narrative, quite unlike the sparse entries ordinarily found in the Chronicle. (For a summary of the story, see the appendix.)

"Cynewulf and Cyneheard" is difficult to translate because of its "spontaneous syntax and free word-order" and, especially, its many ambiguous pronouns.(2) As Kevin Crossley-Holland remarks, its style is "colloquial, almost breathless," and "rather muddling to those unfamiliar with the circumstances. . . ."(3) Mitchell and Robinson speak for most other commentators when they describe "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" as "a narrative which exemplifies one of the cardinal virtues of Germanic society in the heroic age: unswerving loyalty to one's sworn leader, even when that loyalty is in conflict with claims of kinship."(4) However, there is considerable critical controversy on this and many other points. An abundance of translations has also followed this narrative through the years, many of them based on questionable assumptions. As Fredrik Heinemann observes, this little story "has had to endure" considerable "over-explication."(5) These controversies are beyond the scope of the present study: my concern in this essay is the woman Cynewulf was visiting at Merton. Although many "far-reaching assumptions" have followed her throughout the years,(6) to the best of my knowledge there has been no critical discussion about this woman in the extensive, predominantly male, commentary on "Cynewulf and Cyneheard." She has, however, "endured" several questionable translations.

We first meet the woman at Merton in the sentence, "Ond pa geascode he pone cyning lytle werode on wifcyppe on Merantune, ond hine paer berad ond pone bur utan beeode aer hine pa men onfunden pe mid pam kyninge waerun," which most twentieth-century translators render, "And Cyneheard discovered that the king was at Merton visiting his mistress with a small following, and he [Cyneheard] overtook him [Cynewulf] there and surrounded the chamber before the men who were with the king became aware of him [Cyneheard]."(7) We hear of the woman for the second, and last time during the first battle, when Cynewulf is slain by Cyneheard and his men: "Ond (a on paes wifes gebaerum onfundon paes cyniges pegnas pa unstilnesse, ond (a pider urnon swa hwelc swa ponne gearo wearp ond radost," usually translated as "Then, by the woman's outcry, the king's thanes became aware of the disturbance and went there, each as he got ready and as quickly as possible."

Traditional criticism of "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" has been content to keep the woman at Merton where the annalist left her, in the margins of a story about men. However, for a feminist reader, several urgent questions arise. First of all, what happened to the woman? The annalist reports of Cynewulf's party that, after the first battle, "hie alle laegon butan anum Bryttiscum gisle" [they all lay dead except for a British hostage].(8) Does this mean that the woman was killed too?(9) Who was this woman? What was she doing in Merton? What was her relationship to Cynewulf? Furthermore, the phrase on wifcyppe is disturbing. It denotes a masculine activity; it speaks of the woman as an event, not as an active and independent character, such as we have in Cynewulf and Cyneheard, or Osric, or even the British hostage. In their glossary, Mitchell and Robinson give "company or intimacy with a woman" for wifcyppu, thus raising further questions: Does this word appear in other Old English texts? …