26 Oct 2019

Swedish Scholar Dates Beowulf to 550 A.D.

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Pictorial Stone from the Church in Bro in Gotland.

A year old story, but news to me. Bo Gräslund, a prominent Swedish archaeologist, published a book, arguing on several grounds for an earlier date of composition for Beowulf. What a pity that J.R.R. Tolkien is not here to critique and review it!

Medieval Histories:

[W]e are met with a catalogue of the material culture of the late migration to early Vendel period. With its gold, rings, ring-swords, swine-helmets, and chain-mails, we are obviously transported way back in time, either prior to or around the period 536 to 50. Secondly, it is demonstrated that several of these particular artefacts are virtually unknown in an early Anglo-Saxon context. Not until the Viking Age, do we meet “rings” in the archaeological assemblies in Britain. Nevertheless, they are mentioned 44 times in the poem, and whenever they are further characterised, they are made of gold. How should an English poet c. 700 be acquainted with this particular cultural item – golden rings – which is never found in a British context, and which disappeared in Scandinavia in the late 6th century, Gräslund asks? As for ring-swords, it is important to note, that while three ring-swords have been found in England, most (77) have been found in France, Germany, and Scandinavia. And one of those – the one from Sutton Hoo – is probably Swedish, he writes. At the same time, he notes that the only chain mail ever found in an Anglo-Saxon archaeological context is from the same grave, making it a unique item in an English context from c. 400 – 1000. Finally, Gräslund draws attention to the fact that the descriptions of the cremations of Hnæfs and Beowulf have a sensual character, which makes it mind-boggling to imagine that a Christian poet c. 700 was able to describe these events in such details. Thus, the material culture of the poem does not fit at all with an Anglo-Saxon origin, Gräslund concludes.

In the second part of the book, Gräslund discusses the ethnonyms in the poem and argues that the main group, to which Beowulf belongs – the Geats – in all likelihood came from Gotland. Seafaring islanders, known also as wederas, the latter epithet has been consistently translated as wind, weather, or storm. However, much more likely, writes Gräslund convincingly, the prefix in weder-geatas refers to Proto-Germanic wedrą, meaning ram – Old English weder, Old High German wetar, Old Norse veðr etc. It so happens, that rams were significant symbols of the people from Gotland, as witnessed in documents, sagas, and in the official seal.

Gräslund also touches upon the Christian varnish and concludes (as have others before him) that it seems to have been added as a gloss. In its core, the poem is heathen. This conclusion leads to Gräslund’s next hypothesis that the poem was composed as an oral epic in the mid-sixth century and probably in Gotland; but also that it would have circulated widely, for instance in a Swedish context at Uppsala.

We know Rædwald of East Anglia was married to a pagan princess who worked assiduously to make her husband relapse. We also know, that his presumed grave at Sutton Hoo held an assemblage of artefacts with a clear Swedish origin. Were these objects – the helmet, the chain-mail and the sword – bridal gifts of a Swedish princess? Did she bring a bard along in her entourage? After which the oral poem circulated until it was written down by an Anglicising and Christianising scribe c. 700? We shall never know, but the hypothesis fits the facts as well as Ockham’s razor.


No English translation of Beowulfkvädet. Den nordiska bakgrunden. so far. I looked.


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