Englisc as she was spoke

So today I finally got around to doing something I have wanted to do for years – started teaching myself some Old English. Yup, that’s the kind of girl I am.

Anyway, it all started when I was a teenager studying for English O–level, as it was then. In fact, it seems so long ago we probably spoke Old English without knowing it. For some reason, one lesson the teacher decided to introduce us to Old English and quoted a couple of lines from a poem, with translation. Now I don’t know why, but these lines went into my head and stayed there, unlike alot of what I was supposed to be learning for the exams, and they have never quite left.

Before the miracle that is the brain-child of the mighty Tim Berners-Lee, finding out more about a line pf poetry was pretty hard. I couldn’t remember what the poem was called or much of what it was about (a battle – but then most of Old English poetry involves a battle at some point). For years I was unable to trace it, until I thought to try Google earlier this year.

Even by typing in the half-remembered phrases I was close enough to bring up links to the poem, and it turned out it was something called "The Battle of Maldon" which took place in 941. The lines are in fact from the rallying speech of Byrhtwold the retainer, as the men face certain death at the hands of the invading Vikings.

"Hige sceal þe heardra,   heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare,   þe ure mægen lytlað…. "

"Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less."

Then they all died heroically, demonstrating the loyalty to their lord admired by the Anglo-Saxons above all else.

Having tracked down the title of the poem, and some versions on-line, I was delighted to find a book of Anglo-Saxon poetry in a bookshop recently which included the Battle, as well as other classic poems (such as Caedmon’s Hymn, The Wife’s Lament, The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer etc).

Today I have spent a happy afternoon starting to get to grips with some of the pronunciations and odd characters in the alphabet, and signed up for a quarterly newsletter. Ah, the old joys of grammar!

So, wes thu hal. I’m off for a glass of mead after a hard day’s work.


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