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Against the Heathen: Saints and martyrs in late Anglo-Saxon literature

Thomas Roswell

Published Online (2012)

Anglo-Saxon England suffered two Viking ages; both well documented in Anglo-Saxon literature. The arrival of the heathen raiders had political and religious significance for the history of the Anglo-Saxons and the clerical writing of the time reflects this. Vikings targeted monasteries and churches where wealth was to be found, monks responded through literature; demonising the Scandinavians and glorifying the martyred Christians who fought to defend their nation.

The second Viking age began under the reign of Æthelred II (d. 1016). Although it is during this time that Denmark was Christianised, it is also a time when heathens were arriving on the shores of the long since Christianised land of Anglo-Saxon England. It is during Æthelred’s reign that the battle of Maldon occurred in 991, and within a century of the composition of the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, which strangely depicts a Viking victory over defending Saxons. Scragg identifies the literary devices of the poem which serve to “contribute to the valour of the English and our contempt and mistrust of the Vikings.”1 Yet it is uncertain why the poet uses such a humiliating defeat as a means to glorify the Saxons who are depicted fleeing from battle. The poet’s task may be seen as to use Christian ideology to portray defeat as victory; the victory belongs to the Christian God. J.R.R. Tolkien argued that the defeat at Maldon is depicted as divine punishment for the East Saxon leader, Bryhtnoth’s ofermod, “pride” which is used as a pejorative.2 Pride is a deadly sin, but is also a common trait of many Germanic societies, whether Christian or heathen. Anglo-Saxon Christianity had not imposed the ideal of passive resistance on the warrior aristocracy; to fight and kill the heathen in the manner of Charlemagne and Ælfred was the natural way for a warrior king to demonstrate his allegiance to the church. But this poet is depicting a new kind of warfare that the English may employ by imitating the martyrdom of Christ and differentiating themselves from their heathen enemies. Despite the sin of ofermod,Bryhtnoth dies at the hands of the heathen, repeating the name of God, fighting for the Catholic cause and is thus glorified in his defeat. This literary device is also employed in Anglo-Saxon hagiography where martyrs and saints, though defeated in the physical sense, remain eternally triumphant through spiritual resolve and determination.

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