The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf

The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf

The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf

The Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf


This book suggests that the Old English epic Beowulf was composed in the winter of 826-7 as a requiem for King Beornwulf of Mercia on behalf of Wiglaf, the ealdorman who succeeded him. The place of composition is given as the minster of Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire and the poet is named as the abbot, Eanmund. As well as pinpointing the poem's place and date of composition, Richard North raises some old questions relating to the poet's influences from Vergil and from living Danes. Norse analogues are discussed in order to identify how the poet changed his heroic sources while three episodes from Beowulf are shown to be reworked from passages in Vergil's Aeneid. One chapter assesses how the poem's Latin sources might correspond with what is known of Breedon's now-lost library while another seeks to explain Danish mythology in Beowulf by arguing that Breedon hosted a meeting with Danish Vikings in 809. This fascinating and challenging new study combines careful detective work with meticulous literary analysis to form a case that no future investigation will be able to ignore.


The Kingdom of God is to be sought above all earthly gains, for Paul the
Apostle is witness that 'what is seen is transient, but what is not seen lives for
ever'. What does it serve a man to gain the whole world if his soul should
suffer harm?

Wiglaf, king of Mercia, 836

This book suggests that Beowulf was composed in the winter of 826–7 by Eanmund, abbot of the minster of Breedon on the Hill in north-west Leicestershire, not only as a requiem for King Beornwulf of Mercia who was killed in battle earlier that year, but also as a work of recommendation for Wiglaf, an ealdorman who was plotting to succeed him.

If I sketch out my view of how Beowulf was composed, the story goes something like this. The poet had seen a few changes by the time he wrote Beowulf. Forty years earlier, when he was a child, his country was rising, jubilant under King Offa (757–96), but there was a purge of princes in Offa's last years. After the heady days of having Cenwulf as a new king (796–821), Mercia fell into such wrangling and torpor that under King Beornwulf (823–6) she slid into economic decline. In 826 memories of Offa were positive, despite his murder of the king of East Anglia more than thirty years earlier; those of Cenwulf were bitter, because he and his family robbed the Church of land; on Beornwulf's death in East Anglia, few Mercians had any hope for the future unless this was in the West Saxons ruling for them. In Mercia the true line of kings was broken.

The good news in 826 was that the Franks had baptized the king of Denmark. Here at last was a chance of the Danes staying at home, rather than coming here to sack one minster after another. Not that Breedon had missed (or would miss) the Vikings. In 809 an early band of them sold an important captive there, a papal envoy, back to the king of Northumbria. Hosting the deal was the abbot, Wigmund (c.792–814 × 816). Both Priest Abbot Wigmund and the monk Eanmund had grown up with verse on Danish kings. Back in the days of Unwona, bishop of Leicester (c.785-c.800), Wigmund had heard the performance of a great poem on Ingeld, king of the Heathobards, and his wedding to a Danish princess in Norway. There had been complaints, but if Ingeld was a damned heathen, still he was the ancestor of Ealdorman Æthelmund of the Hwicce. Wigmund passed the poem on to Eanmund. When Wigmund died, the monks elected Eanmund to the abbacy (814 × 816–848), although he had gone further with heathens than Unwona ever did: at the meeting of 809, Eanmund had questioned the Danes about their gods; and in 826, when the news arrived confirming the baptism, Eanmund hoped that more heathens could be saved.

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