112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Beowulf beside the Thames? An Estate Boundary Description as Evidence for the Influence of Old English Heroic Poetry upon Late Anglo-Saxon Prose Writers

Robert Briggs, University of Nottingham (UK)

This paper seeks to highlight and explain the lexical and thematic connections between works of Old English heroic poetry, notably Beowulf, and a Late Anglo-Saxon estate boundary description for Battersea in what is now south-west London, suggesting authors of such "functional" prose not only had knowledge of such verse, but actively sought to emulate it in their own use of language.


Poems such as Beowulf and Widsith are celebrated as prime examples of Old English heroic verse which, alongside their literary qualities, afford valuable windows into the real and imagined worlds of the Anglo-Saxons. Although they are preserved in manuscripts indisputably written in the Old English period, they have no independently-recorded link to the traditon of poetic composition, performance and reception that is known through contemporary records to have been a significant element of Anglo-Saxon cultural life.

The possibility of a link between the two is suggested here by careful analysis of an Old English description of the boundary of a large landholding at Battersea, originally in the shire of Surrey but nowadays part of inner south-west London. This short, ostensibly-functional peice of prose is preserved in the cartulary of Westminster Abbey among the copied texts of its earliest land charters. Contrary to the norm, it is not associated with a Latin diploma text, but from its style can be dated to the later Anglo-Saxon period, making it roughly contemporary with the earliest manuscript versions of the main Old English heroic poems.

Within the corpora of Anglo-Saxon diplomas and writs, signs of artistic use of language seemingly at odds with the formal legal nature of the relevant documents are increasingly being identified. This applies to the Battersea bounds, yet the text has much more to contribute in this regard than has been noted previously. Close readings of the ways in which several of the points along the line of the boundary are described reveals affinities in word choice and imagery with episodes from poems like Beowulf and Widsith. This is not to say the composer of the boundary description was directly influenced by the aforementioned poems, rather that particular elements common to these and analogous lost poems were adopted and adapted, arguably to elevate a run-of-the-mill perambulation of the limits of the estate by its holder to the status of a "heroic" journey during which, at various points, things occurred or were recalled - much as in the course of a Germanic verse epic.

The influence and attractions of imitating heroic models may have another dimension, inasmuch as the reference in the boundary description to a bill (almost certainly meaning a sword) thrown into a watercourse can be correlated with a number of later Anglo-Saxon-era swords and other weapons recovered from the Thames at Battersea. This opens up the possibility that the boundary description was not distended with pieces of fanciful fiction, but represents a broadly accurate record of a perambulation made by a weapon-bearing individual - doubtless accompanied by a retinue of some sort - who identified (or was identified by the author of the text) with heroic warrior characters such as Beowulf or Offa of the Angles. Taken together, the various strands of evidence mark out later Anglo-Saxon Battersea as an unusually well attested (but surely not unique) locus for the meeting and melding of temporal seigniorial culture with that described so vividly in Old English heroic poetry.