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The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Anglo-Saxon
Trial by Jury

Edited by Eric Gerald Stanley

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ERIC STANLEY has an international reputation as a leading
Anglo-Saxonist, and his perceptive and original contributions to
the field continue to offer valuable correctives to prevailing views
and to show how scholarly predilection can easily become
prejudice and orthodoxy. The two issues under scrutiny in this
book are the tendency among some writers to exalt whatever is
primitive and supposedly pagan or crypto-pagan in the surviving
Old English texts of the early Christian Middle Ages (for ex-
ample, Tolkien on monsters or Jacob Grimm on everything
Germanic), and the idealism of some advocates of political and
legal reform that leads them to identify the beginnings of trial by
jury (and hence the first step on the way to democratic rule by
law), in Germanic or Alfredian institutions.

Eric Gerald Stanley is Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor
Emeritus of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford.

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mearcweardas I take to be one of those terms which have their roots in
paganism. The borderland, the common land of the marches, did not
merely serve to separate neighbouring tribes, but was regarded as ‘the
unifying principle the hallowing and consecration of which was of the
highest importance in our antiquity’ (cf. J. Grimm, Kleinere Schriften,
vol. II, p. 31). The marches stood under the protection of the gods,
especially under that of Woden (cf. Kemble, Saxons in England, I, 43
and 52). No literary monument survives which mentions the wolves
under Woden’s special orders as guardians of the marches; but if we
consider how firmly Anglo-Saxon popular imagination must have
adhered to the idea of the wolves as beasts sacred to the highest
god, and further, if we remember the meaning of the march the
protection of which was in the hands of this god, we will readily
regard the name mearcweard as an emanation of pagan religion in that
the wolves protect the march under Woden’s direction. Thus we find in
this word one of those reminiscences of paganism which we owe to the
conservatism of language, recalling for us manners and customs that
have long disappeared.

In the opinion of these investigators it was not merely linguistic
conservatism that allowed the pagan past to gain some place in these
Christian poems. As Miss Bentinck Smith said in discussing the groups
of poems associated with Cædmon and Cynewulf:202

It is safe to say that, in both groups, there is hardly a single poem of
any length and importance in which whole passages are not permeated
with the spirit of the untouched Beowulf, in which turns of speech,

the search for anglo-saxon paganism


fasse ich als eine jener bezeichnungen auf, deren entstehung im heidentume seine
wurzeln hat. Das grenzgebiet, die allen gemeinsam gehörige mark, trennte nicht
nur die nachbarstämme, sondern wurde auch als ‘‘einigendes princip’’ betrachtet,
‘‘dessen heiligung und weihe unserm altertum aufs höchste angelegen war’’
[footnote: vgl. J. Grimm, Kleinere Schriften, B. II, 31]. Die mark stand daher
unter dem schutze von göttern, und vor allem unter dem Wodens [footnote: vgl.
Kemble, Saxons in England, I 43 u. 52]. Es ist uns keine dichtung überliefert,
welche die wölfe als hüter der mark im besonderen auftrage Wodens erwähnt.
Wenn wir jedoch erwägen, wie fest im angelsächsischen volksgeiste die vorstellung
der wölfe als heiliger tiere des höchsten gottes gehaftet haben muss, und ferner der
bedeutung der mark eingedenk sind, deren beschützung in der hand dieses gottes
lag, so werden wir gern den namen mearcweardas als ausfluss des heidnischen
glaubens betrachten, dass die wölfe im auftrage Wodens die mark schützen. So
finden wir in diesem worte einen jener nachklänge des heidentums, welche wir
dem konservativen geiste der sprache verdanken, die uns an längst verschwun-
dene sitten und gebräuche erinnern kann.’ The references are to J. Grimm,
‘Deutsche Grenzalterthümer’, Philologische und historische Abhandlungen der
KoÈniglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Aus dem Jahre 1843
(Berlin, 1845), p. 110, a lecture on Germanic border antiquities, reprinted in
Kleinere Schriften, II (1865), p. 31, and to J.M. Kemble, The Saxons in England,
ch. ii, ‘The Mark’, I, pp. 43 and 52.

202 Bentinck Smith, Cambridge History of English Literature, I, p. 63.

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stock views disintegrating old english poems

ideas, points of view, do not recall an earlier, a fiercer, a more self-
reliant and fatalistic age. God the All-Ruler is fate metamorphosed;
the powers of evil are identical with those once called giants and elves;
the Paradise and Hell of the Christian are as realistic as the Walhalla
and the Niflheim of the heathen ancestors.

Miss Bentinck Smith’s criticism of Andreas gives us a good idea of how
she applied her generalities to a specific Christian poem:203

Andreas is a romance of the sea. Nowhere else are to be found such
superb descriptions of the raging storm, of the successful struggle of
man with the powers of the deep. It illustrates, moreover, in an unusual
degree, the blending of the old spirit with the new. St Andrew, though
professedly a Christian saint, is, in reality, a viking, though crusader in
name he is more truly a seafarer on adventure bent. The Christ he
serves is an aetheling, the apostles are folctogan – captains of the
people – and temporal victory, not merely spiritual triumph, is the

In a context systematically disparaging Christianity the overtones of
merely, in ‘merely spiritual’, must be taken to be the intended expression
of a characteristic attitude to a saint’s life, here desacralized as ‘a
romance of the sea’.

Such out and out disparagement of the fundamental Christianity of
Cynewulf and his ‘School’ is less common than hostile criticism of the
diffuseness and repetitiousness of the poems, combined with praise of the
Anglo-Saxon colouring. Adolf Ebert’s criticism of the third part of
Christ is a good example of the kind of thing of which we have had a
taste above (pp. 10–13):204

In his description of a subject like the Last Judgement, which is the
common property of all Christendom and has been treated of so
frequently, our poet, as a result of the strong national consciousness
that governs him, nevertheless knows how to achieve originality, at the
same time enhancing the liveliness of his effects. Though his descrip-
tion is, in all essentials, in the outlines of the delineation, founded on


203 Bentinck Smith, Cambridge History of English Literature, I, p. 54.
204 Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters im Abendlande, III,

p. 51: ‘in der Schilderung eines so oft behandelten Gegenstandes, der christliches
Gemeingut ist, wie das jüngste Gericht, weiss doch unser Dichter durch die Stärke
des ihn beherrschenden Nationalbewusstseins Originalität zu erreichen und
zugleich die Lebhaftigkeit der Wirkung zu erhöhen. Ruht auch die Schilderung
in allen wesentlichen Momenten, in den Umrissen, der Zeichnung, auf der
christlichen Ueberlieferung, so ist doch das Kolorit ein angelsächsisch-nationales.
So erscheint Christus wie ein angelsächsiser König, der zu Gericht sitzt, die Engel
als seine Degen. . . . Aber auch die Schwächen der Nationaldichtung seines Volks,
Weitschweifigkeit und Wiederholungen, zu denen der Stabreim so leicht den
Anlass gab sind seiner Darstellung keineswegs fremd geblieben.’

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general index

consciousness: 68; 71–2; 80; 114;
126–7; 133

nature in Old English poetry, natural
order, natural description: 3–5; 11;
39; 59; 62; 68–9; 71; 78

Niflheim: 71
Nimrod: 81
Ninus: 81
Norman Conquest: vii; 7; 113; 117; 119;

120; 136
Normandy: 136 and 60; 138
Norman kings; their legal institutions:

120; 136; 145
Norns; Ur�, Ver�andi, Skuld: 87–9 and

274; 90; 92–3; 94; 109
Northumbria, its language: 141

oath: 113; 114; 120–1; 124; 129; 137;
143; 145; 147

oath-helpers (compurgators), not
jurymen: 114–15; 117; 118; 119–21;
126; 129; 132; 133; 137. See also
judging, above; and words, below

Odin, Othin, see Woden, below
Old English: 7–8; 67–8; 77
Old High German poetry: 16; 27
Old Norse poetry: 16
Old Saxon: 8
oral formulas, poetic formulas and

motifs: 21; 60; 81; 91
ordeal, God’s judgement: 120; 129; 134;


Parcae: 85; 87–8
patriotism, German (Vaterlandsliebe):

viii–ix; 132; English patriotism,

peers, judgement by one’s peers; peers
of litigants deliver the truth: 115–17;
122; 124; 135

personification: 88–9; 109. See also s.v.
mythologizing etymologies, above

poetic imagery: 68
poetic vocabulary: 18–19; 21; 33; 60;

73; 75; 81; 91; 109; poetic language
distinct from that of prose: 68. See
also oral formulas, above

predestination: 86; 99; 100
providence, divine; fate and providence:

56; 58; 85; 92; 98–102; 105; 109
public (or open) and oral trial: 127; 129

44, 45; 131 and 48

Ramsey versus Thorney: 137
recognitor, recognition: 121; 133
reeve sits in judgement: 72
Roman law: 143
Rome under Domitian: 64
royal power limited: 64–5; 117
rules of proof, of evidence: 130
runes, rune-magic: 83–4

sagas: 109
Saturn: 81–2
Scandinavia: 139; Scandinavian

influence on Anglo-Saxon institutions
and laws, 137; 143–4; Scandinavian
loanwords in III Æthelred: zu
Wantage, 141; 142 and 75; 144

SchoÈffe: 124 and 33; 133
scop, gleoman, minstrel: 11; 21; 48–50;

53; 60; 68; 95
sentence and verdict: 125 and 35
Settlement, Anglo-Saxon: 8
sins: 105
sovereign as judge: 125
sum-catalogues: 62
sylvan deities: 75–6

thegn; king’s thegn: 117; 135; thanes of
the Wapentake: 115; 136; 139; 142–3

Thǫkk: 78–9
Thunor, Thor, Donar: 62; 82; 83 246
�yrs: 97
Tiw: 82
transubstantiation as expressed by the

Anglo-Saxons: 26
travel in Anglo-Saxon England: 141
truth in legal process: 113; 114–15; 121;

123–4; 129; 134; 147
twelve men in legal process: xi; 113;

114; 115; 117; 118; 120–2; 124; 130;
135; 137; 139; 145 and 83; 147

twilight of the gods: 54

Ultrices (Furies): 85
unanimity of verdict: 120; 130; 147

Valhalla: 71; 77
Valkyrie: 19–20
verdict, ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’: 115; 118;

120; 125 35; 129; 134; 135
Verdun, Treaty of (843): 35–6 and 98
vicinage from which jurors are drawn:

113; 118; 122; 124; 134 55; 135; 147;


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vicinetum where court of law is held:

victory: 77; 109

Wantage, birthplace of Alfred the
Great: 134–5; 140–1; 144

warfare and a warlike spirit in poetry:
11; 17; 20–21; 27–8; 39; 50; 52; 58;
66–7; 69; 72; 73; 74; 75; 79. See also
beasts of battle, above

warning, OE warnung: 86; 105
Wayland: 52
Weird Sisters: 88, 269; 89; 98
white god: 78
William the Conqueror: 7
Wish, supposedly a Germanic god: x
Woden, Othin: x; xiv; 17–18; 19; 62; 68;

70; 79–80; 82–4 and 246

wolf: 70. See also beasts of battle,

words (Old English, unless otherwise
specified): bñl, 20; broga, 19;
compurgator (MnE), 114 and 6;
egesa, 19; empanel (MnE), 138 63;
fri�, 144; gri�, 144; hild (see also
woma, below), 19; 91; oath-helper
(MnE), 114–15 6: -scrifan, forscrifan,
gescrifan, 98–9; sweg, 19; twelfa sum,
145 83; Unready (MnE sobriquet of
Æthelræd II, 144 and 79; verdict
(MnE), 124 and 34; woma, hilde
woma, wiges woma, xiv; 19–20; 68; 69

Wyrd, see fate, above

Yggdrasil: 109

general index


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