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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Attitudes to War'
Dr Stuart D Lee
University of Oxford
May, 2001

I. A Simple Exercise

'Troops Parading', 1918
© Imperial War Museum, taken from the Wilfred Owen Multimedia Archive

Look at the picture in the above link and then return to this page. What do you see? On the literal level you will see a parade of soldiers standing in front of a statue. The latter is in fact the statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester, erected on the anniversary of his death. Now look again and begin to deconstruct the picture as you would a poem. You will find that there are many levels to this image:

  • soldiers parading;
  • soldiers parading in front of the statue of another soldier;
  • black soldiers parading and saluting in front of a statue to one of the great icons of Anglo-Saxon culture;
  • as the photograph was taken in 1918, we have black American soldiers parading in England beneath the statue of the Anglo-Saxon king remembered in history as the saviour of England; soon these soldiers will be going to France to fight against modern day Saxons (i.e. the Germans) to defend England once again.

Now ask yourself who is saluting who? What would Alfred have made of the soldiers parading at his feet?

II. The Barbarian Hordes?

Anglo-Saxon culture, with relation to warfare, is often viewed as being remote from our own ideas of 'civilization' in this post-Somme, Guernica, Auschwitz society. The Anglo-Saxons seemingly celebrated the act of violence, cloaking its reasoning for this in an unfathomable matrix of heroic values, classical/pagan/and biblical allusions. In short, it is argued, their love of violence is 'repulsive', and because of this repulsion we find it difficult to understand the literature or to relate to it. In the article 'The Battle of Maldon and Heroic Literature', part of a series of publications in the early 1990s to commemorate the 1,000 year anniversary of the defeat of the East Saxons in 991 (as related in the Old English poem of the same name), R. Frank stated that:

'Heroic literature is temporarily out of fashion, at least in the west. The First World War brought about a change in attitude towards war and soldiering...' (p.196).

The article, having presented a good analysis of the hero, states that the Germanic warrior and associated ideals presented in Anglo-Saxon literature (akin to the Japanese Samurai concept of 'giri') collides with our modern views of warfare. It notes that the hero has to be ferocious (almost barbaric) in their adoption of violence, and at the same time brave, loyal, honorable, and strong. The article's thesis, therefore, is that the heroic literature of the Old English period, and by extrapolation their attitudes towards war and violence, are alien to the modern reader. This it will be argued is not necessarily true. It is suggested that by using modern popular icons of heroism and warfare one can achieve a clearer understanding of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to war.

To do this we will look at three concepts surrounding war:

  • The hero
  • The complexity of war
  • The justification for war

III. The Hero

Let us start with the hero. Many readers will be familiar with the scene in Beowulf in which the Geatish hero dons his armour before entering the mere:

Gyrede hine Beowulf
eorlgewædum, nalles for ealdre mearn;
scolde herebyrne hondum gebroden,
sid on searofah sund cunnian
seoþe bancofan beorgan cuþe,
æt him hildegrip hreþre ne mihte,
eorres inwitfeng aldre gesceþan;

Beowulf ll. 1441b-1447

Continuing, using Clark Hall's translation:

'That, too, was not the least of mighty aids, which Hrothgar's spokesman lent him in his need. Hrunting was the name of that hilted sword, which was one among the foremost of ancient heirlooms. The blade was iron, patterned by twigs of venom, hardened with blood of battle. Never had it failed any man in time of war, of those who grasped it with their hands, who dared enter upon perilous adventures, the meeting-place of foes'

This is a familiar scene of the hero preparing for battle. Parallels in Old English can be found in the poem Judith, for example, where the widow prepares herself to go on her mission to Holofernes's camp, in this case with jeweled rings as opposed to ring-mail. Similarly one can look at the figure of Christ preparing himself to mount the cross in The Dream of the Rood as another example. The importance of these actions to the Anglo-Saxon audience should not be underestimated. They were essential ingredients in the overall recipe, and their omission would have been noticed. To understand this more clearly, let us look at a modern day use of the same 'scene'.

Many readers will be familiar with the series of films focusing on the British spy James Bond. Clearly, with the exception of minor variances in the villain or locations, there is a ready-made formula for a successful Bond movie which involves repetition of several tried and tested scenes: the casino, the car chase, the opening and closing action sequences, and so on. For the purposes of this article the scene of most interest is the one where 007 is taken by Q through the various weapons and secret gadgets he will be allowed to use. Although the scene is often interspersed with comic dialogue, the audience is under no doubt that each weapon or gadget will appear later on in the film, usually rescuing Bond from certain death. This scene appears in every Bond film and has been mirrored in most spy films. The scene then is important, in fact it is crucial as it turns out, usually providing the lifesaving gadget that brings about the film's denouement and the hero's survival. A similar example, though this time from a more serious film, is the treatment of the exact same idea in High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper. Here the final 'arming' of the hero, i.e. the act of putting on the holster and picking up the gun, is extremely important. Not only does it illustrate that the main character has decided to return to violence (a sign of weakness?) it also seems to state that fighters or warriors must inevitably act that way. In both cases also the act of arming the character adds to the power and professionalism of the hero. Needless to say, these are exactly the types of ideas that would have intrigued the original audience of Beowulf.

Let us look the other way now and see if we can utilise ideas promoted by Old English literature to understand something about the modern day. Here, as in the rest of this essay, I will draw on the example of the First World War. This was the first all-encompassing European War since the Napoleonic conflict, and it was to eventually engulf every populated continent in the World. Thus it is a good example to use in this world-wide web essay. The War has influenced greatly many people's attitudes to violence, conflict, society, class, and so on up to the present day. It is easy to understand why. In terms of combatants the number of casualties experienced by all armies was unprecedented. There were many reasons for this, indeed too many to be explored in this short discussion, but one clear explanation for the high mortality rate was the tactics employed to try to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Regardless of training or support, soldiers invariably were asked to leave the trench (go ‘over the top’- see this MPEG or QuickTime Clip), and cross no-man’s land facing artillery bombardments and heavy machine gun fire. Literally wave upon wave were sent to their deaths. To a modern observer this is both staggering, in terms of the sheer numbers of casualties, and at the same time puzzling. The question of why the soldiers continued to press the attack when they had seen the first wave, and the second wave fail, remains often unanswered. The soldiers knew that the chance of them surviving an attack was often as little as one in five; and indeed they could see the piles of dead and wounded ahead of them as proof of this. Yet, when ordered to, they still attacked. The reason why they did this is somewhat alien to a person of the 2000s, yet it is quite simple: they did it out of loyalty. Loyalty not to their country, or to their rulers, or even to their commanders, but to themselves and to their comrades. They were concerned that they might fail, or even worse be judged as failing themselves and their friends. Is this so difficult to understand? Not if we look to Old English for an answer. Again turning to Beowulf, one is presented with as clear an exposition of the values held dear by the soldiers of 1914-18 as one could ask for:

'Sorrow not old man. Better it is for each one of us that he should avenge his friend, than greatly mourn. Each of us must expect an end of living in this world; let him who may win glory before death: for that is best at last for the departed warrior.'

Which bit of this would we consider alien to the present day? Revenge? Clearly not. Expectancy of death? Again, no. Desire to gain glory before death? Possibly, but not if we mirror this with the attitudes of the soldiers of the First World War whose definition of ‘glory’ would have meant feeling that you had come through to the satisfaction of your comrades.

Cross, in 'The Ethic of War in Old English' stated:

'Earlier scholars, writing before even the desolation of the First World War, saw nothing of surprise in the...Anglo-Saxon poetic attitude deriving from a reality around our Germanic pagan ancestors who thought fighting as natural as living' (p. 269)

Taking this together with the Frank quotation it would appear that the Great War is important in the development of cultural attitudes towards conflict (undoubtedly true), and hence the heroic ideals espoused in Old English poetry. Cross and Frank suggest that after 1918 the world could no longer look on any celebration of heroism the same way again, and that as Anglo-Saxon poetry often concentrates on this it is difficult to relate to their enthusiasm for the hero and the battle.

If this is true then our enjoyment of the poetry must surely be diminished; yet clearly for most of us who read Old English, it is not. How do we explain this? Does the literature of the Anglo-Saxons simply attract bloodthirsty people who are interested in tales of heroism? Again I would suggest this is not true. How then, in this age of anti-violence and increased sensitivity could anyone possibly admit to liking poems that detail beheadings, monster slayings, superhuman endeavours, blood feuds, and so on?

To begin to answer this one needs to reassess the values portrayed in Anglo-Saxon poetry. A single example of this will do. Although it is clear that many works in Old English celebrate 'heroism', it is also clear that they do not celebrate violence (in fact some authors like Ælfric, go out of their way to avoid it as we will see below). To put it simply there is no equivalent in the Old English corpus of Quentin Tarantino. Instead Anglo-Saxon literature tends to focus on the struggle of the individual, or the relationship of the individual to his comrades (though battles between armies do occur, it is often in the background). The poetry focuses on bravery and loyalty; indeed on exactly the same concepts explored in Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan', where the perspective shifts from the massed armies of the D-Day landings to the struggles of the handful of soldiers, i.e. to their personal acts of bravery and loyalty.

Let us consider this further by looking at a few lines of verse:

And then our fights; we've fought together
Compact, unanimous;
And I have felt the pride of leadership (ll. 15-17)

Is this the death speech of Byrhtnoth in The Battle of Maldon or a line from The Finnsburgh Fragment (two Old English 'battle' poems)? On sentiments expressed alone it could be (and that is the crucial point), but the structure clearly gives the game away (it does not adhere to the standard rules of Old English verse). The lines are in fact from a poem entitled 'My Company' by Herbert Read dated 1917, in which the poet, an officer in the Great War, expresses his love and admiration for his soldiers. The bond experienced by many men who fought in the First World War, built up by living in the degradation of the trenches, was one of the main memories that many veterans retained long after the fighting had stopped. As Read suggested:

You became
In many acts and quiet observances
A body and soul entire (ll. 1-3)

Before moving onto a wider discussion of warfare, what I have been suggesting so far is that the presentation of the hero in Old English literature is similar to the treatment to be found in modern poetry and films in terms of both the stock scenes used and the attitudes expressed. At the very least, by demonstrating a few simple correlations, I have shown that it is possible to approach their standpoint with an understanding drawn from our own culture.

IV. The Great War

Before proceeding any further though, I should make a further effort to justify my continued use of the First World War as an example of modern day experiences and attitudes. The Great War was one of the most cataclysmic events to have occurred in British history, and its repercussions are still felt today. It changed society in many ways, moving women up the social status, pushing the country into full industrialization, not to mention the fact that nearly one million men in Britain alone were either killed or wounded. Every year the country comes together on Armistice Day on the 11th November and Remembrance Sunday, and it is the one national event that seems to bring together generations. Every town or village will have a war memorial at its centre to the fallen of both wars, but it is of course the red poppy that is used on the wreaths of remembrance, calling to mind the poppies of Flanders. I would argue therefore that it is a very suitable point in modern history to use (in the UK at least), as a mirror to the Anglo-Saxon period for comparison and illumination, by virtue of the fact that it is so well known. More importantly it is in the First World War that attitudes to warfare changed in Britain from early enthusiasm to bitter cynicism. I would go so far to suggest that it was only by the end of 1918 that the vast majority of the British public had reached the same understanding of the complexities of war that the Anglo-Saxons had settled on almost 1,000 years ago. (The use of the poem by Read in the above discussion of the hero was, of course, no accident!) In the US one might use the Vietnam War as a similar milestone; or in Spain, the Civil War, and so on.

We have already seen that in their articles both Frank and Cross indicated that the First World War was a turning point in popular perceptions of battle. To read further into their discussions, it appears that they were both of the opinion that any affinity we might have had for the values the Anglo-Saxons attached to warfare died in the trenches on the Somme; i.e. after 1918 the combatants could never look on battle again as being glorious , and thus any empathy with Old English literature (or at least that part of the corpus that dealt with warfare) was lost forever.

This chain of thought is at first convincing, and indeed has duped many modern literary critics into dismissing Old English literature as irrelevant. As Kingsley Amis notes in his savage attack entitled 'Beowulf':

Someone has told us this man was a hero,
Must we then reproduce his paradigms,
Trace out his rambling regress to his forbears
(An instance of Old English harking-back)?
(ll. 13-16)

Yet on further analysis the argument is shown to be inconclusive. It will be argued that the messages we often take from that war (that it was futile, unjustified, and wasteful as exemplified by such writers as Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg) are very much akin to the attitudes of the Anglo-Saxons. If Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg can be viewed as acceptable then why not Old English?

Before proceeding, as a digression it is worth noting the links already forged by writers from the War with the early medieval period. Siegfried Sassoon whilst reflecting on the War wrote his poem '878-1935' musing on how different the attitudes were in the reign of Alfred to those of the 30s with the march towards a second conflict, finishing with:

I'd rather die than be some dim ninth-century thane;
Nor do I envy those who fought at Eathandun.
Yet I have wondered, when was Wiltshire more insane
Than now - when world ideas like wolves are on the run? (ll. 9-12)

It is interesting to question why Sassoon chose to think back to the ninth century as a point of reference. Undoubtedly location had something to do with it (he was, one assumes, near the site of the battle), but then England is littered with ancient battlefields which he must have walked across time and time again. Perhaps Robert Graves, Sassoon's contemporary, friend, and comrade-in-arms, points us to another possible answer in Goodbye to All That (1929). In this he recalls how the study of Old English after he left the Army brought back his memories of the War:

'Beowulf and Judith seemed good poems to me. Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for a promenade to Holofernes's staff-tent; and Brunanburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fighting - all this was closer to most of us at the time than the drawing-room and deer-park atmosphere of the eighteenth century. Edmund and I found ourselves translating everything into trench-warfare terms'.(Chapter xxvii)

Yet to anyone who knows the literature of the First World War, the methodology of this essay will recall most readily David Jones's In Parenthesis. This modernist epic was written by Jones in the 1920s and 30s and sets out to describe his experiences (although he uses fictional characters) prior to, and including the first day of the Battle of the Somme. What is interesting in this context is the way Jones uses the past as a mirror for the present. The poet saw the Somme battle as an event of such magnitude and importance that it can only be understood by looking at an equally important period of history (where events were literally in parenthesis) where the future of nations hung in the balance. Drawing on his own Celtic roots (Jones saw has nationality as Welsh first, British second) the poet brings in material from Welsh mythology, Anglo-Saxon (e.g. The Battle of Maldon), Arthurian Romances, but most importantly Aneirin's Y Gododdin. The latter poem, one of the most important in early Welsh literature, depicts the annihilation of the tribe of the Gododdin at the hands of the Saxons. Jones saw this as a period of history where the whole future of Britain was determined (from then on the Saxon advances were matched by the decline of Celtic power) and sees this as an excellent mirror to the experiences of the soldiers on the Western Front. It could be suggested that if three writers like Sassoon, Graves, and Jones felt at ease with the Anglo-Saxons, three men it must be remembered who had come to despise war (having experienced it first hand), then surely modern-day readers should not be frightened off the period by claims that it is overtly militaristic.

V. Poetry to Prose

The discussion of the representations of the hero in both popular culture and Anglo-Saxon studies is a vast subject and this article has only skimmed the surface of the pool of ideas and theories one could offer with relation to popular medievalism. The next two sections present a more complete analysis: namely looking at the cross-cultural attitudes to war, in terms of its complexity and its justification. In looking at such broader issues one has to move away from Old English poetry. Griffith notes:

'Beowulf centralizes single combat, whilst full battle is referred to rather than narrated'

One could go further by stating that war in Old English poetry is either referred to (as above), treated in a documentary fashion (as in The Battle of Brunanburgh, and rather poorly at that), or 'mythical/legendary' as in Finnsburgh or Exodus. Even with the great battle poem of Old English, The Battle of Maldon, the conflict itself is marginalised and the central focus is on the individual: Byrhtnoth, his retainers, or the Viking messenger. To fully understand attitudes to warfare in Old English, as opposed heroism (which is what poetry is interested in) one has to turn to prose, and in particular a writer from the end of the tenth century, and beginning of the eleventh, Abbot Aelfric.

Ælfric is for many reasons the most obvious choice. He is prolific, astute in his observations seeking to explain rather than frighten into obeying, and historically of interest. For the most part Ælfric lived in times that were both savage and brutal with England under almost constant attack from outside forces. Whilst still in his early to mid-twenties he saw the succession of Æthelred to the throne and then the calamitous years of the renewed Viking onslaught. Around the time of writing his First Series of Catholic Homilies there was the disaster at Maldon, and by the time he had finished the Second Series, and the Lives of Saints, the whole of the southern coast had been attacked by ever growing raids. Although we have only rough estimates of his career and the times when he finished each of his series of writings, a quick glance at any map shows that he was at best only 20 to 25 miles away from some of the major battles that took place in modern day Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire. Indeed, it is very possible that in the last months of his life he saw the whole nation called to alert in an attempt to repel Thorkel the Tall's army (which landed at Sandwich). A campaign which ultimately led to the burning of Oxford, only a few miles away from Ælfric's residence in Eynsham.

In this climate then, and bearing in mind the observational skills of Ælfric, it would be odd if he ignored what was going on around him. Here we have a writer who was constantly in touch with his audience's needs. True, he wrote predominantly for the religious community, but one only has to look at his Letter to Sigeweard (the ‘Treatise on the Old and New Testament’) to see that he was also willing to liaise with local politicians.

In the context of this essay we need to look particularly at war and warfare, two themes which appear frequently in Ælfric's writings. Naturally, many of the situations depicted are driven by his source material, but what is clear is that he was not merely interested in translating or composing material for the sake of a monastic audience, but was in fact also directing his attention outside of the monastery walls and towards the brutal conflict that surrounded him . Malcolm Godden in 'Apocalypse and Invasion in Late Anglo-Saxon England' convincingly moves Ælfric's sphere of influence into contemporary politics through his close links with Æthelmær. Godden gives an account of the effects of the new Viking invasions on the writings of Ælfric (amongst others) citing De Oratione Moysi (LS XIII) where the Viking raids are seen as divine punishment for recent attacks on the power of the monasteries; plus the Life of St Edmund (LS XXXII) and the Homily on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost where the troubles of the day are also alluded to.

Aelfric was a learned writer who explored the concepts he was discussing with great thoroughness. Bearing this in mind, the fact that he was living in a period of extreme political instability and military necessity, and his bridging of the secular and political worlds, it is safe to single him out as representative of attitudes to warfare in late tenth-century England. The question is, seen through the eyes of cultural studies, how do Ælfric's attitudes relate or differ to our own?

VI. Complexities of War

We probably feel that after such theorists as Clausewitz, and this century's bloodshed, the modern day reader has a deep understanding of war. The term 'total war' is familiar to us all, in the sense that one realises that is very hard to contain war. No longer is it fought on battlefields between two semi-professional armies, but more often than not in streets, towns, cities, causing floods of refugees, widespread famine, and so on. War is waged on the civilian as much as the soldier. In our terms war can be fought in several theatres:




How does this compare to warfare in the Anglo-Saxon period? Certainly there were military conflicts, a fact which can not be disputed. Furthermore there was a level of economic warfare with the Viking attacks. Originally designed as raiding parties and then as pre-runners to a settlement one need only note the considerable financial tributes paid to them, often known under the term 'Danegeld' which indicates the economics of the conflict. We know of alliances, marriages of state, treaties (often broken) which illustrate that there was clearly a political agenda to war also.

Yet in addition to this, there was a further theatre of war, that of the spiritual conflict. Leyser notes that:

'We must not see the institutions of the Church as an antithesis to the rise and development of the military strata...On the contrary, in the time span here under review, that is to say from the mid-ninth to the early eleventh century, a process of mobilisation and militarisation inescapably became part of the church's experience'. (p. 90)

That the affairs of state became intertwined by the time of Ælfric with the affairs of the church is easy to understand bearing in mind Edgar's devotion to the Benedictine Revival. Yet what is surprising, and perhaps difficult to understand from a modern perspective, is the lengths to which this was explored with relation to warfare. Aelfric approaches this in two ways. The first is easily understandable and has a long history. This is the idea that the Lord is all-powerful and can and will intervene to save his followers. Therefore, if you keep your faith with him, you will ultimately triumph. As noted the mingling of the Lord with battle has precedent (e.g. Exodus 15 'Thou stetchedst out thy right hand, the earth swallowed them') and Aelfric is keen to explore this theme (as are others, of course, most notably Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi). In his homily on Judges (Crawford, 1922, p. 416), for example, he states 'On Engla lande eac oft wæron cyningas sigefæste þurh God' listing Alfred, Athelstan, and Edgar as examples.

This mixing of religion and warfare should not, on reflection, seem strange to modern observers. Nowadays chaplains, priests, rabbis, etc., are all often serving members of the military, and religious services are still held regularly for front-line soldiers. It was during WW1, for example, that the popular inscription among the Central Powers 'Gott Strafe England' made its first appearance, not too dissimilar from the plea on a tenth-century Seax in the British Museum (M&LA 81 6-231.1) of Christ 'GEBEREHT MEAH'. Furthermore, we only need to think of the conflicts in some Middle Eastern countries to see that the link between war and religion is almost mandatory.

Yet where we clearly differ from the Anglo-Saxons with relation to the mixing of religion and war is in the concept of ‘spiritual warfare’. To the English of the tenth century the idea that there were other planes of conflict beyond the physical location of the battlefield was part of the complex matrix of war they had built up. To the Anglo-Saxons those involved in the struggle could be categorised into three roles: 'Oratores, Laboratores, and Bellatores'. Alfred discusses this, as does Wulfstan, and it has precedents in the writings of mainland Europe. More importantly Ælfric looks at it three times, first in his Letter to Sigeweard (Crawford, 1922, pp. 71-2) next in a Letter to Wulfstan (possibly influencing the Archbishop's exploration in his Institutes of Polity, see Powell's recent discussion of these), and more completely in the 'Item Alia' that closes his Homily on the Old Testament Books of the Maccabees (LS XXV, which is Ælfric's exploration of war at its most developed). In categorizing these three levels of society, Ælfric states which conflict is applicable to each. The 'laboratores' are involved in the war against nature and hunger, for 'swincþ se yrþlincg embe urne bigleofan' (Maccabees, l. 730). The 'bellatores' face the physical threat, and the 'oratores' face the 'ungesewenlican' enemy (Maccabees, l. 733). It is impossible to identify one role as more important than another, for each party needs to triumph for all to avail (Maccabees, ll. 737-43). Taking the role of the 'oratores' further Aelfric develops the level of spiritual warfare beyond anything we can relate to today. It is true that at times of national uncertainty the churches are never so full, and prayers are offered up to look after loved ones, or for a speedy end to hostilities. But in Western Society throughout this century it would be difficult to identify anyone that felt that whilst soldiers were engaging in front-line combat, priests and other religious men were engaging in an equally grueling conflict on a spiritual level – exactly the idea put forward by Aelfric. To illustrate the level of seriousness with which Aelfric treated this topic one can look to his homily XII Dominica in Media Quadragesime in which he states:

Cristene men sceolon gastlice feohtan ongean leahtrum. swa swa Paulus þeoda lareow us tæhte þisum wordum; Ymbscrydaþ eow mid godes wæpnunge. þæt ge magon standan ongean deofles syrwungum. (ll. 464-67)

Or in XXV Dominica VIII Post Pentecosten:

'Se þe wile campian ongean þam reþan deofle mid fæstum geleafan. and gastlicum wæpnum. he begyt sige þurh godes fylste. And se þe feohtan ne dear mid godes gewæpnunge ongean þone ungesewenlican feond. He biþ þonne mid þam deofellicum bendum gewyld and to tintregum gelædd.' (ll.129-34)

To Ælfric and his contemporaries the enemy lay not only in a heathen army invading the coastland but also 'þa ungesewenlican and a swicolan deofle' (Maccabees l. 612), who seek not to conquer physically, but to 'ofslean ure sawla' (Maccabees l. 613). This represents a complete caesura in our perception of war and theirs. Struggling for an analogy, the nearest thing one can come up with is that the spiritual war has been replaced with the technological war. Whilst the soldiers keep the enemy at bay, scientists work on the latest super weapon, or will wage Internet-based battles attempting to bring down each others communication systems. Ælfric's 'ungesewenlican' enemies could well be digital as opposed to demonic.

VII. Justification for War

So far this article has looked briefly at the representation of the hero arguing that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated certain qualities which we in turn can still respond to. The discussion then moved to the complex structure of warfare, arguing that the Saxons, like us, recognised that nearly all war was total (or had the potential to be), and had to be fought on various levels and with varying weapons. More importantly it has been noted that an extra theatre of war - the spiritual conflict - which they saw to be extremely important, is something which we now consider irrelevant. To conclude this discussion we need now to consider the arguments surrounding the justification for war - did they, or can we, ever see a reason for a war being acceptable? The earlier comments by Frank imply that this is not a question which would have troubled the Saxons much. They fought for sake the sake of fighting, almost seeing war as a natural state of affairs. Again I will attempt to argue that this is far from true.

Let us return to the First World War before considering the views of the Anglo-Saxons. It is a well-worked theory that the Great War saw the death of romanticism in English literature. In the early part of the war jingoism was rife, patriotism had been swamped by nationalism (in all countries), and therefore it is not surprising to find the poet Julian Grenfell writing in 1915 in his famous poem 'Into Battle':

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees to newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done
great rest, and fullness after dearth

Grenfell celebrates the act of battle showing how man grows in stature by participating in the violence. Yet all this was to change with the continual attrition of the Western Front and the slaughterhouses of the Somme and Paaschendaele. After the Somme in particular, where nearly 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day, attitudes notably changed. People focused more on the justifications for the war, questioning its continuation, asking themselves what the continued carnage was meant to achieve? Siegfried Sassoon, possibly the most outspoken poet of his generation, eventually began to snap and snarl with cynicism at the war and those who sought to continue it. Typical of this is his poem 'Base Details':

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

Wilfred Owen expresses similar sentiments but, more effectively, tempers the anger by combining it with a profound sense of pity, as seen in such lines as the opening of his 'Anthem for Doomed Youth':

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Yet it is to Sassoon that one needs to look to for help in comparing twentieth-century attitudes with those of the Saxons. In 1917, suffering from shell-shock and distraught at what he had witnessed in battle, Sassoon threw his Military Cross away and wrote a lengthy condemnation of the war which he sent to his Commanding Officer, The Times, and to his Member of Parliament. He declared:

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest...I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed...

In a sense this typifies the changing attitudes of the participants in the War. Namely an awakening to the true harshness of war. For the most part in the nineteenth-century wars were alienated from the general public, fought by soldiers (who most people distrusted) in distant countries; and a civilian had to be very unlucky (e.g. a French peasant in the wrong area of the Franco-Prussian war) to be involved in war directly. With the eventual imposition of conscription in the First World War, however, war suddenly touched everyone. People were either fighting, knew someone who was fighting, were engaged in some war supporting activity, or at the very least were suffering the economic effects of war. Not unexpectedly the initial enthusiasm for the war gradually faded to a grim determination to carry it through. Yet in those directly involved in the fighting this was further replaced by an outspoken questioning of the war, and a need to seek justification for the slaughter they were witnessing all around them. It could be argued that the lessons of this period have stayed with Britain, and probably France, throughout the great part of the twentieth-century. For example, there was no national rejoicing in either country at the outbreak of the Second World War. In this sense then a parallel of Britain's experience in the 1914-18 conflict could be the US's' experiences in Vietnam. That was another war which, in a sense, saw a country maturing in its realisation that war should be avoided, and only undertaken if it could be (and was) truly justified.

I would argue that what we are seeing here is an acceptance of a moral code that would have been very familiar to learned Anglo-Saxons. Although the following should not be taken as a declaration that all Saxons were good, that all were approaching a level of pacifism, or that all the ills of the tenth and eleventh centuries could be attributed to the raids and invasions of foreign powers; it is suggested that many Anglo-Saxons thought very deeply about the reasons why war was was being inflicted upon them, and whether it was acceptable or not. Before returning to Aelfric, one can look to earlier writers who bear witness to such deliberations. Cross in 'The Ethic of War' notes that it was Ambrose who began to attempt to justify war (ultimately drawing on Cicero), but also points to St Augustine's statement that 'a desire to injure, cruelty in revenge, a warlike and implacable spirit, savagery in revolt, lust for mastery, and such like are rightly condemned in war' (Contra Faustum Manichaeum, xxii). Here all defensive war could be considered 'just' and Cross further points to Isidore's similar declarations in the Etymologiarum (XX, xviii) and Bede's urging of 'secular' support for a defensive war against the 'barbarica incursione' in his Epistola ad Egbertum Episcopum (ll. 414-5). Cross summarizes this by stating that 'influential Christians held an orthodox view about the necessity of war, yet the right kind of war' (p. 273).

As with his predecessors, it is clearly obvious that Ælfric did not agree with unjust wars, or wars of aggression/violence. He explains this in his homily XII Dominica in Media Quadragesime (ll. 439-45), and more illustratively in his exposition of the four types of war mid-way through his translation of the Maccabees. The latter, taken ultimately from Isidore's De Bello, and described by Cross as the only 'categorized definition of the kinds of war in Old English', states:

There are four types of war, justum that is just, injustum, unjust, ciuile, between citizens, plusquam ciuile, between relatives. Iustum bellum is the just war against the cruel seamen or against other nations who wish to destroy the country, Unjust war is that which stems from anger. The third war, which comes from accusation, is between citizens and is very dangerous; and the fourth war, which is between friends, is very wretched and endless sorrow.

This is not a reluctance to engage in warfare, merely a reluctance to engage in the wrong kind of war, e.g. one of aggression, or against one’s own citizens, and so on. Aelfric was clearly not a pacifist, and indeed his homily on the Maccabees is as clear a call to armed resistance as one could hope to find in Old English. Yet he was aware of the complicated nature of war (as noted above), its far reaching consequences, and thus the need to only engage in it if it is justifiable (as was the resistance against the Vikings). Ælfric, it should be noted, was also widely read and highly regarded by his contemporaries and thus his arguments above would have had great influence in Anglo-Saxon circles of power. This, I would argue, is clearly the level of understanding which Sassoon and his contemporaries reached in the First World War. In other words Aelfric, had he been alive in 1917, would have agreed entirely with Sassoon's declaration against the War, but would not have been too enamoured with Grenfell's glorification of battle. Even Beowulf, one would suggest, the clearest symbol of heroism from that period, might have questioned Grenfell's egotistic, almost hedonistic celebration of violence.

VI. Conclusion

In summary then, this article began by outlining some of the problems besetting the study of Old English at the moment. It was argued that part of the reason for this is that the history and culture of the Anglo-Saxons is perceived as being too distant from our own to have any relevance. Using the model of 'cultural studies' it has been shown that many of the concepts the Saxons were struggling with have direct echoes on our own experiences in the last century. Using the subject of warfare, it has hopefully been demonstrated that by implementing a comparison between modern cultural attitudes (focusing on the Great War as a seminal moment of the twentieth-century) and those expressed by the English of the tenth and eleventh centuries one can see clear similarities in attitudes to the hero, and to the complex nature of war. In addition, this century has seen a growing awareness of the need to only enter into justifiable conflicts, which has direct parallels with the level of enlightenment witnessed in the writings of such luminaries as Ælfric.


Cross, J. E. ‘The Ethic of War in Old English’ in England Before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources Presented to Dorothy Whitelock, (eds.) Clemoes, P. & Hughes, K. (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 269-82

Frank, R. ‘The Battle of Maldon and Heroic Literature’ in D. Scragg (ed.) The Battle of Maldon AD 991 (1991).

Griffith, M. ‘Convention and Originality in the 'Beasts of Battle' Typescene', Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), pp. 179-97.

Leyser, K. 'Early Modern Warfare' in The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact ed. J. Cooper (London, 1993).

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