Hello again! It’s week two in our month o’ story, and since we looked at stories and storytelling in Anglo-Saxon culture last week, I’m moving on now to poems and poeming. (I think I’m supposed to call it ‘composing poetry’ or something, but really, it is a process deserving of its own present participle.) So our question for today is: What should we call poets? Incidentally, this is also the name of my favouite tumblr.
The most common Anglo-Saxon word for poet is scop. A quick pronunciation guide: sc is a sh sound in Old English, and the o here is like the o in option or pot, so the words sounds very much like the Contemporary English word shop. A cognate (meaning a word having the same linguistic derivation as another) exists in Old High German: scoph or scof. Remember when we talked about Proto-Germanic and Indo-European in this entry? Well, scop and scof may both be related to the Proto-Germanic verb *skapiz, meaning form or order. Both these words are also related to the modern English word scoff. Another similar word you might be more familiar with, especially if you’re a fan of German fanasty metal bands, is skald, which is the Old Norse word for the concept of poet. This word, etymologically, is linked to the modern English scold. Never get on the bad side of a poet, friends.
But what was a poet in Anglo-Saxon culture? How did you become one? It was quite easy, really – you had to die.
…no, no, wait, come back! Don’t hang up your iambic pentameter just yet. Let me explain: there is no written record of any real, historical person identifying himself, or herself, as a scop. Emily Thornbury, in her book Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, likens it to calling oneself a ‘statesman’:
The term [statesman] is not really a professional category, but rather a word for those who have excelled in politics and diplomacy. ‘Statesman’ is so commonly reserved for those retiring from public life – or, preferably, safely dead – because of the force it carries, and while one can aspire to be a statesman, declaring oneself actually to be one would smack of hubris…it was something one could hope to be called after death.
Scop, therefore, could be seen as a sort of title; if your work is strong enough, if it’s heard and repeated enough, if you excel a enough in the craft of composing verse, then you might be honoured with the title of poet after death. It’s a pretty idea – and a pretty motivating one. But it still doesn’t explain where this wide-spread idea of scop as record keeper, as entertainer, as prolific verse composer comes from. For that, we have to turn to the poems themselves.
I mentioned that there are no historical figures in Anglo-Saxon written record who refer to themselves as poets; this does not hold true for the fictional world. There are two poets who refer to themselves by that title in poems: Deor, and the speaker in Riddle 22 from the Exeter book, who uses the metaphor of himself as a scop to describe a nightingale. Widsith, from the poem of the same title, almost falls into this category; the poem opens with another speaker introducing Widsith as a poet, and then relating Widisth’s words about himself to the audience. The first two poems are poets speaking as a persona; the last one is a poet speaking as a persona about another persona. Oh, dear. Why all the obfuscation?
I’ll tell you a secret: the romantic idea we sometimes have of Anglo-Saxon scops functioning like the Germanic bards of old, relating stories of great deeds and important tribal histories around by the fire of a mead hall and being honoured by the ruling war lord, was also a romantic idea they had about themselves. Most of our written Old English record comes from a time when the old Germanic tribes had been long settled on their new island, and conversion to Christianity was happening rapidly, or had already happened. The idea of the travelling bard singing for his supper and containing within his songs the identity and culture of his people was a vital part of the Anglo-Saxon ideal of their own ancestral past – as can be so easily seen in poems like Widsith and Deor. Beowulf also epitomises this concept, and can be looked at as the story of a people struggling to preserve an identity, but unsure of what identity they are preserving: Germanic, or English? Pagan, or Christian? Tribal, or feudal? The desire to grasp onto something solid is palpable – and so is the tragedy of Bewoulf’s end. He dies childless, alone but for a single squire, leaving his leaderless people with a useless treasure – ancient gold will not help them against the Franks or the Frisians. It’s a grim view – what good are old stories against the onslaught of change? I suppose the answer to that question lies in the fact that we are still telling them.
And if you’re anywhere near Cambridge on the 25th of October, you’re cordially invited to come along to their Festival of Ideas and hear some of these stories told by participants in the Medieval Storytelling Project. You can find information about our event, and links to the programme for the whole festival, here.