The Battle of Maldon Background

The Battle of Maldon Background

The Battle of Maldon refers to an alliterative poem glorifying an actual historical engagement which shares its name. The actual battle of Maldon occurred in 991 and pitted valorous Anglo-Saxon warriors against the Danish Vikings. The poem is considered by many scholars to the crowning achievement of Old English epic battle poetry and central to serious academic study of the genre precisely because it so artfully introduces standard conventions of the form which takes as its central premise the glorification of sacrifice on the battlefield.

The fact that the end of the poem is missing and yet to be found is almost beside the point. The narrative makes clear that the Danish warriors are an indomitable opponent. The absence of any actual description of the inevitable slaughter at the hands of their enemy actually has served to enhance the tragedy of the historical fact while also contributing to the acceptance of thematic interpretation as one in which knowing that such a fate was unavoidable serves the form’s function to pluck from the ignominy of defeat the greater victory of heroism.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Battle of Maldon from the perspective of manuscript scholarship is just how close it came to be one of the great “Lost” epics of the past. The original written manuscript of the poem credited anonymously to its unknown creator had by October 1731 been preserved in what had been deemed safer confines within the Cotton library. On October 23, however, a fire broke out threatening hundreds of priceless original manuscripts and valuable copies. In an effort simply to save at last some parts of much of this extensive collection those arriving to help were urged to simply start tossing books through windows or carry as many as they could to safety. One of the unlucky 13 works which the fire left as nothing but burning ashes was the manuscript of The Battle of Maldon. Nearby was a manuscript that managed to survive intact because it had been so tightly bound: the only known original written copy of Beowulf.

So if the only known original written copy of The Battle of Maldon was nothing but a pile of cinders, how can it still be read today in the same incomplete state it was in at the time of the fire? A single transcript had been copied from the original at some point before the fire and it has since become basis on which every subsequent translation has been made. Adding even more drama to the story is that the original copy was subsequently lost following publication of it in 1726 and that manuscript would remain a “Lost” epic until its rediscovery within Oxford University’s Bodleian Library just a little more than 200 years later.

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