The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

III. Early National Poetry

§ 6. Widsith

The rest of the poems which we have to treat in this chapter are preserved in the Exeter Book. It will be convenient to take Widsith first; for, though not an epic itself, it contains much matter in common with poems of that type. Indeed, so many princes and peoples are mentioned in the course of the poem that its importance for the history of the migration period can hardly be overestimated.

In the introduction (11. 1–9) it is stated that the poet belonged to the Myrgingas, a people or rather dynasty whose territories, apparently, were conterminous with those of the Angli (cf. 11. 41 ff.), and that, in company with a princess named Ealhhild, he visited the court of the Gothic king Eormenric. Then, in 11. 10 ff., he begins to enumerate the princes with whom he was acquainted. This list contains the names of many kings famous in history and tradition, together with those of the peoples which they governed, the formula employed being “A. ruled over B.” Among them we find Gifica (Gibicho), Breca, Finn, Hnaef, Saeferth (Sigeferth?) and Ongentheow, who have been mentioned above, as well as Attila, Eormenric, Theodric (king of the Franks) and others, some of whom are not known from other sources. In 11. 35–44 there is a reference to the single combat of Offa, king of Angel, a story which is given by Saxo (pp. 113 ff.), Svend Aagesen and theViœ Duorum Offarum. In 11. 45–49 we hear of the long and faithful partnership of Hrothgar and Hrothwulf and of their victory over Ingeld, an incident to which Beowulf (11. 83 ff.) has only a vague allusion. Then, in 11. 50 ff. the poet again speaks of his journeys and gives a list of the nations he had visited. This list is twice interrupted (11. 65–67, 70–74) by references to the generosity with which he had been treated by Guthhere, king of the Burgundians, and by Aelfwine (Alboin) in Italy. In 11. 76–78 there is another interruption referring to the power of Casere, i.e. the Greek Emperor. Then, in 11. 88 ff., the poet tells of the gifts he had received from Eormenric, from his lord Eadgils, prince of the Myrgingas, and from Ealhhild, and also of his own skill as a minstrel. At 1. 109, he begins an enumeration of the Gothic heroes he had visited, most of whom are known to us from Jordanes, Völsunga Saga (probably also Hervarar Saga), Vilkina Saga and German traditions. In 11. 119 ff. he speaks of the ceaseless warfare round the forest of the Vistula, when the Goths had to defend their country against the Huns. The list closes with a reference to the martial deeds of Wudga and Hama, who are mentioned also in Waldhere and Beowulf as well as in Vilkina Saga, the former also in many other continental authorities. The epilogue consists of a short reflection on the life of wandering minstrels and on the advantages gained by princes in treating them generously.

Apart from the introduction and epilogue, which may originally have been in prose, this poem appears to have been composed in strophic from. Its date cannot be determined with certainty. There is nothing, however, to prevent us from assigning it to the seventh century or even an earlier date; for, though a Christian element is present (11. 15, 82–87, 131–134), it is very slight and may be removed without affecting the structure of the poem. Alboin, who died about 572, is probably, the latest person mentioned. Now Ealhhild’s father bears the same name (Eadwine) as Alboin’s father, i.e. Audoin, king of the Langobardi, a fact which has led many scholars to believe that Ealhhild was Alboin’s sister, and, consequently, that the poet lived towards the close of the sixth century. This hypothesis, however, involves, practically, the reconstruction of the whole poem; for the poet repeatedly speaks of his visits to Eormenric who, as we know from Ammianus Marcellinus (xxxi, 3. 1.), died about two centuries before Alboin, and clearly implies that Ealhhild was his contemporary, whereas he only once alludes to Alboin, in a passage covering five lines. The identity of the two names is, therefore, probably a mere coincidence. As a matter of fact, the heroes commemorated in the poem lived at wide intervals from one another, though Eormenric and persons apparently contemporary with him figure more prominently than the rest. With greater probability one might suppose that traditions existed of a famous minstreal who lived at the court of a prince named Eadgils, and that on the basis of these traditions later minstrels built up lists of the chief national heroes known to them. Against this suggestion, however, stands the fact that the minstrel’s name is really unknown, for Widsith is an obviously fictitious name (meaning “far-travelled”) and must be explained by the statement in 11. 2 f. as to the extent of the poet’s journeys. On theother hand, any hypothesis which would represent the minstrels as a fictitious character is open to the objection that, in that case, he would hardly have been associated with so obscure a person as Eadgils, prince of the Myrgingas, a family not mentioned except in this poem. On the whole, then, the hypothesis that the kernel of the poem is really the work of an unknown fourth century minstrel, who did visit the court of Eormenric, seems to involve fewer difficulties than any other. In that case, of course, such passages as 11. 82 ff. must be regarded as merely the last stage in a process of accretion which had been going on for some three centuries.