Tuesday, July 12, 2011


‘Widsith spoke, unlocked his wordhoard ...’. Travel and knowledge come together in a very different way from that found in Masudi’s work in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as Widsith (‘wide-traveller’). Widsith is simultaneously travelogue, ethnographic catalogue, and an argument for the scop’s importance to society. ‘Widsith’ himself, and some of the groups ‘he’ mentions, are evident fictions, and quite scholarly ones at that. An early date for the poem was once more widely accepted than it is now. Relatively recently John Niles (Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts, Brepols, 2007) has made a strong case for it being seen as a product of a tenth-century cultural context, a reading that also serves to move its date of composition nearer the date of the manuscript in which it survives, the Exeter Book. Coincidentally, this also serves to render the poem contemporary with Masudi’s Meadows, the subject of the previous post. 
 For all the excellent recent work on the poem, R.W. Chamber’s Widsith, a Study in Old English Heroic Legend (Cambridge, 1912) remains the starting point. Of it, C.J. Sisson writes, in his  PBA obituary of Chambers: “His first published book under his own name was his well-known and fundamental study of Widsith, which appeared in 1912. Chamber’s text and commentary ... and his treatment in this volume of old Germanic heroic poetry and saga in general, established his reputation at once, and gave new life to Anglo-Saxon studies in England... .” ‘Raymond Wilson Chambers, 1874-1942’, Proceedings of the British Academy 30 (1944). 
R.W. Chambers, Widsith, a Study in Old English Heroic Legend (Cambridge, 1912)

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