“Sam Hit sy Sumor Sam Winter”: Considering Alfred’s Inclusion of “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” in his Compendious History of the World

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

As an addition to Paulus Orosius’s Compendious History of the World, which King Alfred had translated into Anglo-Saxon, “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” mark not only the burgeoning English cultural identity, they also mark a transnational conception of history and an anthropological interest in customs of various societies.  Although scholars have pointed out that Alfred himself did not translate The History of the World (Frantzen 7-10), the editorial decisions in the work’s English translation display a rhetorical arrangement that reveals a particularly Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism.  It may not be completely accurate to refer to “Alfred’s translation,” yet the Anglo-Saxon Compendious History does display a kind of nationalism traditionally associated with myths about King Alfred.  When combined with the spatial imaginary present in text, these myths become more elucidated and the voyages reveal more uniquely literary qualities than have been discussed.   

In Alfred’s translation, the voyages are placed in the first chapter of the book, which begins with an account of how ancestors “divided the world” into Asia, Europe, and Africa.  Geographical regions establish the conception of the world, and one still feels the Roman center of this description.  However, Alfred follows this with a description of his reign, which the voyages follow.  Alfred’s history, therefore, does not proceed chronologically according to the history of the world; it first establishes Alfred’s England.  Book Two then traces the origins of Rome, and thus the layout of the text moves the center of the cosmopolitan world to England.  In establishing England as the center in Chapter I, Alfred proceeds by describing the (scholarly) known world, beginning with an account of Germany, then north to Scandanavia, then southern Europe.  While geographic region structures the layout of the chapter, it becomes more detailed in Ohthere’s narrative and becomes especially anthropological in Wulftan’s narrative directly following.  Wulfstan gives accounts of people and various customs, with particular attention given to funeral customs.  Why was this information deemed important enough to add to Orosius’s book? 

As characters added to the History of the World, Ohthere and Wulfstan receive a certain elevation in status.  As Fabienne Michelet argues, “the two travellers’ accounts present it as an attractive centre of power and culture, as a place where the explorers find an audience and where the information they gathered in the course of their expeditions will be preserved” (26).  Scholars have also noted that “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” give us an account of a more prosaic, and less literary, style which may have been closer to the way Anglo-Saxons spoke in everyday life.  King Alfred’s agenda was of course to have important texts translated into Anglo-Saxon as a way of increasing effective governing, so there is also linguistic status to the voyages because they were composed or transliterated into Anglo-Saxon, giving the two accounts a certain linguistic privilege. 

Ohthere’s accounts are written in the third person in almost a journalistic manner.  The scribe often gives attention to what “Ohthere said.”  The authority rests with Ohthere, not the scribe, and with him we see an early example of a true thane, who has had many travels.  Jonathan Scolum identifies Ohthere as “a Norwegian hunter, whaler, and trader who tells among other things of his voyages north and east of the Scandinavian peninsula, round the Kola peninsula to the White Sea (all of these terms being modern).”    But Ohthere’s status of having lived farthest north is also given special status in the text.  In line six the scribe writes, “He saede ϸæt he æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hu long ϸæt land on norϸryhte læge, oϸϸe hwæðer ænig man be norϸan ðæm westenne bude.”   Toward the end of the passage, in line eighty-one the information is repeated: “He cwæð ϸæt nan man ne bude be norðan him.”  It is not just that he is a trader or a whaler; Ohthere’s status seems to be partially based on his being an adventurer, that he is an extremist.  Despite the non-fictional narrative, in the context of the larger history Ohthere radiates a certain literary status as well.

It makes sense that Alfred would want to know as much as he could about places and people with whom the Anglo-Saxons could have commerce.  The passage has a kind of meticulous detail that is astonishing to consider when one thinks of the time it must have taken to write down an oral account.  That alone seems to attest that this was serious business.  The information in the accounts may well be tactical in terms of both commerce and “national” security.  E. D. Laborde has noted that the voyages are an especially important addition to Orosius’s history because of their accuracy and because “the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan are the earliest accounts in our language of the voyages of discovery, and [they] indicate the methods employed by the great king in collecting information about foreign lands” (133).  What seems rather remarkable, however, is its inclusion in the history if it was only for this purpose.  As part of the history, the status of the travel narrative is elevated into the larger work’s official historical narrative.  As characters in Alfred’s history, Ohthere and Wulfstan are elevated as well.  While scholars naturally tend to focus on the historical accuracy of the detail in the texts, it is worth considering how the attention to anthropological material in the voyages evidences a perspective which values details relating to class and custom as important for documentation.  This perspective, when compared with literary material, helps us understand the overlap between “literary” and “non-literary” Anglo-Saxon works, both in language and content, as well as in providing clues as to the editorial rhetoric behind the Anglo-Saxon version of The History.

Wulfstan’s voyage celebrates the Eastern lands.  Unlike Ohthere’s passage, only the first two sentences are in the third person.  In the third there is a shift to the first person. The writer says, “And thonne Burgenda land wæs us on bæcbord.”  There is a different level of intimacy between the writer of the Wulfstan passage and the content of the text than there is between the writer of the Ohthere passage.  That the two passages have different authors is not remarkable, but the attention given to what Ohthere said seems to give him more of a special, one might say heroic status.  What is particularly striking with the Wulfstan passage, on the other hand, is the amount of detail Wulfstan gives to customs and funeral practices.  He says, “ϸæt Estland is swyðe mycel, and ϸær bið swyðe manig burh, and on ælcere byrig cyningc.  And ϸær bið swyðe mycel hunig, and fiscað, and se cyning and ϸa ricostan men drincað myran meolc, and ϸa unspedigan and ϸa ϸeowan drincað medo” (lines 122-125).  This passage reveals not only the abundance of the lands but the division between social classes according to what they drink.  Just as tea, because of its foreign origins became a symbol of class status which resounds culturally among people of English descent today, the “mycel hunig” and the “myran meolc” reflects what signified the status of upper classes. 

Class and rank also appear to be of concern to Wulfstan as he describes funeral horse races and the redistribution of a dead man’s wealth.  According to Wulfstan, mourning periods for someone echoed the importance and wealth he had in his community.  Wulfstan says the “unforbærned” body of a rich man could lay above ground for even six months after death.  In “Wulfstan’s Voyage and Freezing,” A. Macdonald cites Sir Aurel Stein’s study, Ancient Khotan, which discusses how keeping a body cool enough not to spoil, “sam hit sy sumor sam winter” (line 162). Stein’s study discusses ancient refrigeration practices in certain parts of Eastern Europe still present in the early twentieth century in which an ice pit was dug and covered with leaves.  Macdonald speculates that Wulfstan was probably unaware of the ice beneath the corpse (73).  Along with the preservation practices, Wulfstan remarks on funeral games, where a dead man’s property was divided into sections according to value and then distributed as prizes to the man with the fastest horse.  The value of a horse can be seen as important so that one may participate in such games, and the practice also shows an emphasis on skill and ability over inheritance.  The cultural practice shows a society which favors physically skilled men competing with one another through their strength.  Commerce alone did not preserve the community.  Wealth was redistributed among those capable of providing protection to the community.  As with the heroic nature of Ohthere’s status, Wulfstan’s description of the winner of the games being decided by the one with the fastest horse evidences a culture where heroism was particularly valued.  This becomes more evident when considering Alfred’s legal codes, because Alfred’s laws protect the Judaic tradition of patriarchal lineage in which a family’s property is passed onto the next generation.  Allen J. Frantzen has pointed out that in Alfred’s introduction to the Law Codes (which he definitely wrote) Alfred takes pains to situate the work within the biblical tradition (14-15).  It would not be logical for Wulfstan’s passage to be included in the history if it were to celebrate funeral practices which contradicted Anglo-Saxon law and Christian practices. The anthropological material must have served another purpose, one related to the literary power of myth.

Scholars have attempted to destabilize the mythological status of King Alfred as an innovative leader, claiming that he added little to existing laws.  In “The West Saxon Inheritance,” Nicholas Brooks argues:

We find no truth in the medieval myth that [Alfred] invented the hundred and tithings of England; nor did he give any new shape to the West Saxon shires; nor, it would seem, to the ancient hidage assessment that formed the basis of public obligations.  His achievement lay rather in getting more service out of his nobles and out of the ceorls on the warland than his predecessors had managed, in getting boroughs not only built but also garrisoned, and thereby in making the first tentative steps toward an urban future. (173)

These achievements are still in line with Alfred’s comments on the state of learning in England and his pains in the introduction of the Law Codes to situate England as a Christian nation.  In light of this, Wulfstan’s observations seem particularly notable because burial practices were quite different for Christian Anglo-Saxons. 

Even for pagan Anglo-Saxons, an important person (or in some cases persons) was buried above ground in a mound.  While the absence of bodies in many of these mounds may suggest that the physical remains were burnt, many mounds have, as Hilda R. Ellis Davidson has catalogued in “The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds and Archaeology,” contained the treasure and personal items belonging to the dead person.  Davidson also suggests that “the most likely explanation seems to be that the bodies of the king and queen were removed to be given Christian burial” (172).  While the dead men in Wulfstan are eventually burned with their weapons, Davidson’s study discusses undisturbed Anglo-Saxon graves both with household items such as bowls and at times extravagant items, such as ships. Davidson claims “In these tombs men (and at Oseberg a woman) were buried with rich possessions, usually with sacrificed animals and possibly human beings also, in sea-going vessels or smaller boats. Ship-funeral was regarded as pre-dominantly Scandinavian, yet the Sutton Hoo grave, dated at about 650, is as early as any dateable.”  The shift from ship-burials to mound burials and eventually away from cremation accompanies the shift from pagan to Christian ritual practices (174).  Moreover, it was believed that evil spirits and dragons, as in Beowulf, guarded the mounds from grave-robbers.  Davidson writes the following about the end of Beowulf:

Besides the usual ritual at the death of a king and hero, the burning of arms and treasures on the pyre with him, there is a new factor, since the Geats decide to sacrifice the great treasure he has won from the dragon and commit it again untouched to the earth from which it came. They were wise in this, for we are told that a curse had been laid on it. (183)   

Wulfstan’s observations of funeral practices on the continent are more radical when compared to such information.  Wulfstan notices the redistribution of an important man’s wealth, rather than a sacrifice of that wealth.  Although the funeral games still evidence a kind of hero worship, the social-practices are more civic.  Alfred’s task was certainly a Christianizing one, yet his conservative approach to maintaining the laws of his Anglo-Saxon ancestors displays a simultaneous reverence for the pagan Geats.  Along with his Christian agenda, it is important to Alfred to trace the lineage of the Saxons back to the continent and the Germanic heroic code.

While the voyages remain notable for their more mundane language, they also reveal aspects of culture that resonate in the more literary accounts of the period.  Davidson argues for archaeological evidence’s potential to shed light on the poetry of the period, yet if one compares the non-fictional voyages with the poeticized account of “The Battle of Maldon,” one sees an amplification of the heroic code.  Dorothy Whitelock claims the poem “proves that the ancient Germanic heroic code was not dead” in the battle, which occurred in 991 (116).  Since Kemp Malone has dated Ohthere’s voyage to before the 870s and noted little disagreement among scholars that Alfred’s literary period was probably during the 880s, this puts the voyages well within the heroic period, allowing comparison of the themes and language with the poetic account of the “Battle of Maldon” a century later (80).  Interestingly, if Malone is correct in dating Ohthere’s account before 870, then it occurs before Alfred became king, making the editorial decision to include the voyages in the history more striking.  It is worth considering that the inclusion of the voyages in the history was because according to the heroic code, they had literary value, not only in terms of language but also in terms of content.  Their prosaic language gives modern scholars an example of “every day” Anglo-Saxon while also marking a shift into documented-centered literature.

Anglo-Saxon poetic amplification occurs with the repeated addition of descriptive clauses, often unified by alliteration, which hold the audience’s attention by focusing on a particular image.  In “The Battle of Maldon,” for example, the hero, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, is introduced thusly: “Đa ϸær Byrhtnoð ongan beornas trymian, / rad and rædde, rincum tæhte, / hu hi sceoldan standan, and thone stede healdan, / and bæd ϸæt hyra randas rihte heoldon / fæst mid leodon, and ne forhtedon na” (lines 17-21).  In the voyages, and particularly in Wulfstan, clauses tend to be joined either by coordinating conjunction “and” or the subordinating “ϸa.”  These connectors give a fluid rhythmic feel to the prose absent in the poetry.  In the poetry the caesura leaves a pregnant pause which has an unfinished nature to it, having the result of keeping the listener attentive to the continuation of the story.  The shift to prose leaves the language less episodic and less dramatic, but the content remains rather heroic, and it simultaneously tells the ethnic history of the Anglo-Saxons.

More recently scholars, in addition to giving lie to ancient myths about King Alfred, have also noted that modernist scholarship imposed Enlightenment centered ideas of nation states to their examinations of medieval governance.  This perspective results in the perspectives like the one above, where rather than being a “founder” of English governance, Alfred is read as a stabilizer of older traditions.  This perspective is accurate for Alfred the man.  But the tendency to elevate historical narrative to myth also acts as a culturally binding force, and that same tendency to mythologize – no matter how “constructed” – is itself organic to the sense of community.  Thus, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as Hugh Magennis notes in his review of Michelet’s Creation, Migration, and Conquest: the Anglos Saxon Chronicle   

Simplifies the history of pre- and early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but contrasts with Bede’s treatment in that it draws attention to the violence of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, which comes across as a brutal process.  The Chronicle stresses Anglo-Saxon power and presents the Britons as a shadowy people who are defined as the enemy, deprived of a history and an identity. (184)

When read alongside the voyages, and particularly Wulfstan here, the Chronicle and the Compendious History validate northeastern European, Danish, and Germanic geographies and customs while drawing an identity distinction with Britons, who were perhaps a more prevalent military threat.  In any case, the inclusion of Wulfstan and Ohthere may very well have been to establish ethnic and pre-Christian lineages for the Anglo-Saxons.  This view resonates with Stephen J. Harris’s findings in “The Alfredian World History and Anglo-Saxon Identity.”  Harris proposes that the idea of Christendom fuels “a religio-ethnic order altogether distinct from Christianity” (482).  Harris notes that Alfred’s historical conception both builds from and differs from Bede’s.

Whereas Bede appears to have maintained an almost exclusively Anglian view of ethnic identity, an identity extended to Saxons and Goths only in its religious aspect […] Alfred seems to see one common identity as extending ethnically and religiously to all Christian Germanic inhabitants of Britain.” (483)

Perhaps inadvertently then, Alfred’s translation carries on Augustinian rhetoric in its conception of history.  Harris notes that Augustine asked Orosius to compose the Compendious History in order to function, like De Civitate Dei, as a version of history as a moral lesson.  However, Harris also notes that in Alfred’s translation, “the passages extolling the centrality of Rome to God’s plan are excised entirely.”  Thus idea of Christendom, if Harris is correct, acts as a kind of geographical and psychological kora.  For Christendom remains an invisible identity construct, and the imposition of a current sense of cultural imaginary itself superimposes a current conception of identity construction onto studies of medieval material.  Such a conception, since it is itself constructed, should not be distinguished too critically separate from the myths it seeks to deconstruct.  If we are to study historical texts, we must attend to their literary qualities as unifying ethnic identities.  

It is worth considering that “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” were included in Alfred’s history, not merely for tactical reasons, but because the sociological information in the accounts seemed important at the time to a sense of ethnic identity that existed alongside religious conceptions of identity.  The Germanic heroic code provided a literary elevation to Ohthere’s and Wulftan’s voyages which helped maintain an historical narrative that was ethnically grounded.  Religious conceptions of identity transferred from Roman works show there malleability here and when combined with ethnic history they produce a sense of citizenship loosely bound to geographic space.  The great contribution sustained in English law appears to be the Judeo-Christian conception of a patriarchal transfer of property.  When combined with developing market-oriented culture, it seems that funeral practices where an individual’s wealth was transferred to progeny (instead of being guarded by dragons or evil spirits) allowed for the material wealth to be redistributed to the community.  While the heroic culture remains evident in the games of the towns on the continent that Wulfstan observed, there is a general shift toward a transfer of resources which function competitively among individuals for the greater wealth of the community.  Whether it be conceived of in terms of community wealth or Harris’s “Christendom,” it seems that the shift toward a market economy expressed by Alfred’s inclusion of the voyages in his Compendious History allow us to see both a linguistically “practical” shift away from deed-based, heroic poetry as well as a sense of collective identity.  Along with the creation of liberal subjectivity and national narratives of the freedom of that subject must remain the collective and mythological narratives that maintain something beyond the identity of the subject.  To speculate on the editorial reasons for including Wulfstan and Ohthere’s voyages in Alfred’s history and what their observations offered the Anglo-Saxon’s beyond merely military intelligence does not only give lie to myths about King Alfred, it allows us to speculate on the limits of subjectivity and the necessary elevation of narratives into myths which stabilize collective identities beyond geography.     

Works Cited

“The Battle of Maldon.”  Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. 15th ed. Oxford UP, 1967.

Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis. “The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology.”  Folklore. 61.4 (1950): 169-85. Taylor & Francis Limited. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

Frantzen, Allen J. King Alfred. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Harris, Stephen J.  “The Afredian World History and Anglo-Saxon Identity.”  Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 100.4 (2001): 482+. Web. 30 March 2011.

Laborde, E. D. “King Alfred’s Geographical Description in his version of Orosius.” The Geographical Journal. 62.2 (1923): 133-38. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

Macdonald, A. “Wulfstan’s Voyage and Freezing.” The Modern Language Review. 43.1 (1948): 73-74.  Modern Humanities Research Association. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

Malone, Kemp. “The Date of Ohthere’s Voyage to Hæthum.”  The Modern Language Review. 25.1 (1930): 78-81. Modern Humanities Research Association. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

Michelet, Fabienne L. Creation, Migration, and Conquest : Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2006. Web. 27 March 2011.

Scolum, Jonathan. “Old English Online: Lesson 4.” University of Texas Austin Linguistics Research Center. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

“The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan.”  Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. 15th ed. Oxford UP, 1967.

Whitelock, Dorothy. “Introduction to ‘The Battle of Maldon.’” Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. 15th ed. Oxford UP, 1967.

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