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 SKALDIC TECHNIQUE IN BRUNANBURH

John D. Niles

Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 59, No. 3, Anglo-Scandínavían England (SUMMER 1987),pp. 356-366.

According to established wisdom, the Scandinavian settlements in England left little imprint on the language of Anglo-Saxon literature even though English and Norse were long spoken side by side. As H. R. Loyn puts it, “Traditional literary Anglo-Saxon, affected by the conservatism of a mature written convention, shows (except in the legal field) comparatively little sign of this long linguistic symbiosis”. Although sound in the main, this negative judgment may have to be modified in the light of recent studies. Fred C. Robinson has pointed out a cluster of Scandinavian locutions in the Battle of Maldon that appear to add up to the first literary use of dialect in English. Roberta Frank, in a 1981 article as well as in her essay in the present volume, has called attention to apparent skaldic influence on Beowulf and a striking skaldic configuration in Exodus, among other possible points of Norse influence on the poetry. Joseph Harris has called attention to some skaldic passages that throw light on a noted crux in verses 12b- 13a of the Battle of Brunanburh. Following Harris in particular, I wish to suggest that the Battle of Brunanburh is best read within the context of an emerging tenth-century Anglo-Norse poetics. Given the haphazard nature of our literary records from the period before the Conquest, it is not clear that this poetics was ever much more than an inviting road not taken. Still, the existence of Brunanburh suggests that at least one Anglo-Saxon poet developed his language, verse technique, and authorial voice with some knowledge of Old Norse and some appreciation for the art of the skalds. Though often grouped with Maldon, Brunanburh is clearly a poem of a different order. Unlike neighboring prose entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the poem is not a summary of a military campaign but rather a panegyric composed on the occasion of the great English triumph of 937. More precisely, the author celebrates the victory that confirmed Athelstan’s control of a combined Anglo-Danish kingdom, including Mercia and York, in the face of an invasion by an allied force consisting of the armies of Olaf Guthfrithson of Dublin, Constantine II of Scotland, and (as we know from other sources) Owen of Strathclyde. The invaders’ local allies doubtless included Hiberno-Norse settlers who during the preceding decades had established themselves from the Wirral peninsula to the Solway Firth.

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