Monday, September 28, 2009

First Thoughts about the Hoard

Last evening, as I was sharing digital images of the Staffordshire Hoard with Rosemary, she said “It's too bad Nick didn't live to see this.” I agreed, and as I've thought about the hoard further today, I agree all the more. In this brief and informal essay, I hope to explore some of what the hoard may end up meaning for our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon past and of Beowulf in particular.

[For those who make it this far into this entry, but who still haven't heard of the Staffordshire Hoard, please check out this site, where the pictures are beautiful and brand new. The hoard was discovered in July 2009 and announced last week; it is the single largest discovering of Anglo-Saxon gold treasure of the modern era, with about eleven pounds of gold alone.]

Staffordshire hoard excavation from Dan Pett on Vimeo.

Nick Howe, of course, knew as well as anyone how problematic the date of Beowulf has been for Anglo-Saxon scholars, and how important: it was from Nick that I first heard the argument that the controversies over dating and historicizing the poem are perhaps our most productive strategy for making meaning from it. And as is well, known, Beowulf is a poem whose narrator seems fairly obsessed with golden treasure: the descriptions of treasure in the poem are frequnet, lovingly detailed, and thorough. What the Staffordshire Hoard tells us, if nothing else, is that hoards of (primarily) golden treasure were, in fact, possible in at least one seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and one at least partially accommodated to Christian monotheism, and at least in this case associated with war.

Elizabeth Tyler's wonderful discussion of treasure words in Old English poetry makes part of my point here beautifully: in her discussion of The Battle of Maldon (about a battle fought in 991), Tyler notes that Maldon uses a highly conventional vocabulary of treasure, in which references to gold far outweigh references to silver. Significantly, exactly the opposite situation obtained in reality at the time: when the Danes were bought off in 991 and succeeding years, the payoff was in silver, and the coinage of the time is exclusively silver, with little gold in evidence anywhere.

If Beowulf is as late as its manuscript, of course, then it too simply uses a conventional vocabulary for treasure, in which gold is far more prominent than silver, except when the two are linked in formulas like “silver and gold.” But it's the details of the Staffordshire Hoard that then stand out: the gold literally outweighs the silver, by a four-to-one ration. Further, the assemblage of materials seems clearly to have been made in the context of war: the prominence (and sheer number) of sword-fittings makes any other context seem unlikely. And sure enough, we see warriors stripped of their gear in the poem. Likewise, when Beowulf's troop arrives at Heorot, their spears are foregrounded, but when Weohstan kills Onela's nephew Eanmund, he takes the sword to Onela and is given it as a reward—the uncle rewarding the slayer of his nephew because of a family feud. Hrothgar's hilt, of course, is the sign of Grendel's mother's death (far more so than the head of Grendel), and we see in the Staffordshire hoard some 80 gold pommel mounts, stripped, it seems, from sword hilts.

And there are hoards in Beowulf: the dragon guards a hoard, and when Beowulf kills it, he believes that the hoard will be a treasure to buy his people's future safety: a doomed hope, as it turns out, but a clear claim is made about what a hoard might be thought to do. The dragon hoard, of course, has been laid in the ground by the “last survivor” the final living member of a now-long-gone tribe, the hoard a kind of national treasury, useless to an individual. Likewise, the hoard of the dragon slain by Sigemund provides an opportunity for a discussion of good and bad kingship: hoards are to be used by lords who are gold-friends to their thanes—a source of wealth to be shared.

When all we had of Anglo-Saxon treasure hoards was the Sutton Hoo burial (and other burials), we could look at Sutton Hoo as deeply continental in contents and significance and ultimately too poor to reflect the poem's gold obsession. But the Staffordshire material—some 1500 items, even if most of them are small—seems Saxon to the bone, and it's big, big, big. When Sutton Hoo is the only treasure on the horizon, we can look at the poem's depictions of gold, swords, and hoards as a highly fictionalized depiction of a golden age, a long-ago time in which gold was thick on the ground and heros could find monsters worthy of a battle. But the Staffordshire materials seem to open up a completely different perspective: as late as the seventh century real Anglo-Saxon kings (or as near to it as can be determined from stuff dug up in a field) really did or could collect remarkable hoards of gold, and presumably they usually spent them as wise gold-friends would. That is, the social economy depicted in the poem may be far more like a real, historical Anglo-Saxon social economy than has ever been realized.

When I teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I always point out the the historical King Arthur must have lived some eight or nine centuries before the poem, and that the poet freely anachronizes, dressing his characters in the armor, clothing, foodways, and social mores of the fourteenth century. What the Staffordshire Hoard may well suggest is that Beowulf might engage in an exactly parallel strategy: depicting a hero from centuries earlier, but dressed in gold, armor, and attitudes from very near the poet's present. It's a line of argument that Sutton Hoo does not make possible, I think: but the Staffordshire Hoard may well make it possible—the poem may get a surprisingly strong new argument for an early date: I'll go with the eighth century, putting the Hoard, perhaps, in the poet's grandfather's memory. Because what seems clear is that the conventional language of treasure may have been mobilized by the Maldon poet, but the practices (and the sheer wealth) that led to the Staffordshire Hoard seem so closely paralleled in Beowulf that it's hard to imagine that so many details are merely literary convention. The Beowulf poet's well known attention to gold may be its most remarkable point of historical accuracy. But the accuracy is not in how the fifth-century Beowulf and Hrothgar saw the world, but in how the seventh-century—and perhaps the eighth as well—saw and thought about war, treasure, and gold.

Perhaps in a year, or two, or twenty, I'll see more clearly than I do now if or how the Staffordshire Hoard changes our understanding of the poem. But right now, caught up in the excitement of the newness of discovery, it looks to me like Beowulf will never be the same. Because now we know just what an Anglo-Saxon could hoard (as opposed to bury in a grave, or lose, or throw away), and it's surprisingly like what the poem tells us. Who could have believed that the hoarding, of all things, was where the poem was telling us the truth?


ej said...

Fascinating post, Tom. And did I see some inscriptions on some of those objects? I'm wondering what they might tell us about literacy in the 7th century as well.

I'm so jealous of you Anglo-Saxonists right now. Maybe someone will discover a hoard of 13th century charters someday. A girl can only dream...

Pam said...

heard about this over the weekend and of course, immediately thought of you Tom. Thanks for all the information about it.

Kyle Banker said...

Thrilled that through the power of my feed reader, you're the one who's broken the story of the Staffordshire Hoard to me. Thanks for analysis. Will be geeking out on this for some time...

Tom said...

Erin--Yes, one inscribed strip--a good chance to try out one's palaeography skills. And Kyle, it's great to hear from you!

Jim said...

Great use of intransitive "obtain."