Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Wife’s Lament

On of the poems contained within the Exeter book is one called “The Wife’s Lament”. It’s an elegy, a poem that is a melancholy lament on death or other such sorrow, In this particular poem, a wife laments her separation and exile from her husband. It is written in Old English. As the Exeter book dates back to the late 10th century, we know that this poem is at least that old.

I have given you some simple facts about this poem in that first paragraph, but actually some of them are not facts, they are conjecture. Which makes this poem very tricky to write about! Like the Franks Casket, this little poem (53 lines) is subject to many interpretations and much scholarly debate.

Before we get into the general murkiness of the poem’s meaning, I will start with the bare bones of what it is about, in the minds of most scholars. The poem begins with a woman’s general lament over the state of her life. Keeping in mind that Old English is very difficult to translate, and so there are many variations of translations available, here is one fairly easy to understand version of the first stanza:

I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
my own life’s journey. I am able to tell
all the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,
but new or old, never worse than now –
ever I suffer the torment of my exile.

The poem then gets into the details of her “life’s journey”. She is in exile because she has married into a different tribe/kingdom, and is without friends or family. And a secondary exile seems to take place in the poem, as he husband leaves her, the reason for which is unclear. Perhaps because of a feud, or a crime, we don’t know enough to say. The upshot of this is that the woman leaves as well, to look for her husband.  She is thwarted in this by her husband’s kinsmen, and is then commanded to live in a hole in the ground. Which leads her to pen this sorrowful poem. Can’t say I blame her.

There is also a section in the poem that could be about a tryst with another lover (perhaps that’s why she is put in the hole), or could also refer to a betrayal of her love by the husband. Some say that the “hole” is actually a grave, in other words, that the woman has been killed, and this is her ghost speaking. Either way, it’s all gloomy.

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Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

So, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, here’s a little more enlightenment on the controversies surrounding this poem:

The title – It is true that the poem is found within the Exeter Book, and is written in Old English. But, like the other elegies and poems in that book, it doesn’t actually have a title in the original manuscript.  The poem simply starts with the first line.  The first person to name it, Anglo-Saxon scholar Benjamin Thorpe, actually named it “The Exile’s Lament” in 1842. It wasn’t until eight years later that the title was changed to “The Wife’s Lament”. What’s going on, here?

Well, first of all, the Old English equivalent for the word “wife” does not appear in the poem. The poem is clearly meant to be in a woman’s voice, however, because the pronouns and adjectives in the poem are written in the Old English feminine form, rather than masculine. And by the way, this is one of the first pieces of English literature written from a woman’s point of view, which makes it pretty special aside from anything else, don’t you think? This is likely why Benjamin Thorpe did not ascribe it to a woman, because there isn’t much literature from a woman’s point of view that comes from this male-dominated era. Perhaps he was just not expecting to see that, and so he didn’t. And as I said, Old English, especially poetic Old English, is very tricky to translate.

The subject of the poem is of a more domestic nature, as compared to the heroic poems such as “Beowulf”,  with its monsters, fighting, and mead-halls. This also makes “The Wife’s Lament” stand out amongst the other poems we have from this era.

Of course, just because it’s in a woman’s “voice” doesn’t mean the creator of the poem was a woman. Don’t forget, very few people could read or write at the time. These poems were meant to be spoken, performed for an audience. It is possible that there were women who created poems, but it is likely that it would only be men who performed them. We only have a few poems from this era that were captured by a scribe at some point and written down. This scribe, however, could have been male or female, as this work was done pretty much exclusively in monasteries or nunneries.

Because of the female voice of the poem’s narrator, she is assumed to be a wife of the “lord” that she is mourning over in the poem. Hence, “The Wife’s Lament”.

The style of poem – although the interpretation of the poem being an elegy is the most common one, some scholars think that this is not an elegy, but is actually a riddle. They believe this because of a lot of complicated textual analysis that I can’t claim understand well enough to write about, so I will take their word for it. The poem ends, Woe to the one who must suffer longing for a loved one. This type of epitaph is typical of Anglo-Saxon riddles, which always end with these bits of what is called “gnomic” wisdom.  It is interesting that this poem, along with “The Wanderer “and “The Seafarer”, are found in the Exeter Book, which also contains 92 other riddle poems. So, I suppose it’s possible….

Unknown

Yeah. Basically. 

We have comparatively little extant written material from the Early Middle Ages, and so each piece we have is so very important to help us understand the culture and the times in which it was written. “The Wife’s Lament”, in particular, even with it’s difficulties, puts a small spotlight on a woman’s perspective (albeit a very sad one!), and that makes it very special, indeed.


Want more? Here are the posts in my Anglo-Saxon Literature series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics

Cynewulf the Poet

The Exeter Book

 

Feature image of the Exeter Book from exeter-cathedral.org

The Exeter Book

This post is part of an ongoing series of posts on literature from Anglo-Saxon England.

Lnks to other posts in this series can be found at the end of this post. 


 

One of the important sources of surviving literature from Anglo -Saxon England is the Exeter Book. There are only four surviving collections of Anglo-Saxon literature, and of these, the Exeter Book is the oldest, most varied, and the best preserved. I have mentioned this book before in posts on various manuscripts that are found within the book, and I will be highlighting more in the future, but I thought you might find it interesting to know more about the book as a whole.

The Exeter Book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral in 1072 AD by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, and there it has stayed ever since. In his will, which details the sixty-seven books and other objects he wished to be donated to the then-impoverished Cathedral, Leofric describes  “a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things,” which is believed to be what is now known as the Exeter Book, or as the Codex Exoniensis.  Scholars estimate that is was compiled somewhere between 960-990 AD, and is a collection of various works of religious and secular Anglo-Saxon poetry, including The Wanderer. In fact it contains over 1/6th of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry. It also includes over ninety Anglo-Saxon riddles. Several of the poems included in the book are much older than the tenth century compilation date; some go as far back as the seventh century. In many cases the Exeter book contains the only known source of these works. All in all it’s the largest known collection of Anglo-Saxon literature in the world, and as such was recognized by UNESCO in 2016 as one of the “world’s principal cultural artifacts.”

One of the most fascinating entries in the book is The Rhyming Poem, which dates to the tenth century. It consists of Old English rhyming couplets, which is quite different from any other Anglo-Saxon poetry, which was done in alliterative verse.

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This is an excerpt from Riddle 24 of the Exeter Book. Can you see the runes embedded in this it? They are towards the bottom.  This is an example of a riddle-within-a-riddle. In this case the answer to this riddle, which is “magpie” is spelled out by those runes. (see my post on Cynewulf the poet for another example of this). There are other riddles in the Exeter Book which also include runes as an aid for the reader who is able to read both Old English and the runes. Riddle 24 is fairly straightforward, but there are others, even with the aid of the runes, are still so obscure that the riddle has still yet to be solved. Cool, hey? If you want to read more about this, check out this fascinating article from the University of Notre Dame , which is where this image comes from. 

The book itself is visually unremarkable, however, especially compared with the beautifully illustrated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells.  It was inscribed with brown ink on vellum, likely copied from an earlier version, and has minimal decorations on a few leaves. A couple of initial letters are slightly ornamented. It has lost its original cover as well as the first original eight pages, which were replaced by others at a later date.

Exeter-Book

One of the ornamented letters. Image from exeter-cathedral.org

It’s been used as a coaster at some point, you can see the water ring left behind. The early pages are scored through with a sharp object, so perhaps it was also used as a cutting board. The final pages bear some scorch marks. So despite the value of its contents, perhaps its ho-hum appearance was the reason that it was left behind at Exeter Cathedral when a bunch of the Cathedral’s most precious books were donated to the newly founded Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1602 AD. It was obviously not deemed very valuable.

So, it is still at Exeter Cathedral. If you go to visit, you can see it on display there, along with a bunch of other intriguing books and manuscripts, including a Shakespeare Second Folio. But of all of them, the Exeter Book is the greatest treasure.

The Exeter Book still is not recognized today as the important work of literature it is. Most people have barely heard of it, compared with the Diary of Anne Frank or the Magna Carta, both of which have also been recognized by UNESCO and entered into their Memory of the World register.

But that might change. Exeter University professor Emma Cayley began developing an app in 2016 to make the book more accessible to the  public. I checked, but it’s not available yet. I hope it is soon! I can’t help but think that Leofric would be pleased.


Links to other posts in this series:

The Dream of the Rood

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Wanderer

What’s In a Word?

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Cynewulf the Poet

Beowulf Basics


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Featured image: The Exeter Book on display at Exeter Cathedral. The book is open to The Wanderer. Image from UNR English 440A, photo credit UMD iSchool