As the Charms preserve remnants of ancient mythical conceptions and pagan cult, so the poem of Widsith, preserves the memory of heroes sung in the earliest epic lays of the Germanic peoples. Around the names of the leaders of Goths and Vandals, Lombards, Franks, Burgundians, and Huns, who collided with each other and with the waning power of Rome from the fourth to the sixth centuries, the great cycles of Germanic Epic tradition arose. The earliest home of this tradition was the hall of the king, where among heroes and nobles the gleeman chanted his lay. It was not a poetry of the people in the true sense, but a poetry of the fighting class, for the fighting class and by the fighting class. The form of the epic lay, in continuous verse chanted or recited to the accompaniment of the harp, as distinguished from earlier choric songs in strophic form mentioned by Tacitus, seems to have been first developed among the Goths, and to have spread from them to the Franks and other West-Germanic tribes. Cassiodorus, a historian of the sixth century, tells how Chlodwig, the founder of the Frankish kingdom, asked Theodoric the Ostrogoth to send him a gleeman practised in the art of chanting lays to the accompaniment of the harps, and the Old English Widsith is a striking testimony to the large contribution made by the vanished Goths to Old Germanic Epic.
The Epic Lay, at first a recital of actual occurrence, became in time overlaid with legendary and mythical material. Names and events were confused; where memory failed, imagination supplied color and detail, until often there was little left that was historic but the names of the heroes themselves looming dim through the centuries. Out of such historic and legendary lays of the great halls, poets of a later generation wove long and stately epics, to be read and recited, but no longer sung as of old. The Byzantine historian Priscus gives 385 an interesting picture of a Germanic hall of the 6th century, and of the gleeman’s song. Sent as an emissary to the hall of Attila, whose court was patterned after the Germanic fashion, Priscus describes how her and his companions, before entering, were offered the drinking cup and uttered the ancient Germanic greeting “wæs hæl” (wassail). Then they passed to the seats ranged along opposite sites of the hall. In the centre raised above the others was Attila’s seat, and on his right was the seat of honor. The guests were greeted in order by the king, who drank the health of each, and was greeted standing by each in return. When evening came, torches were lighted, and two gleemen standing opposite to Attila, recited lays in which they praised his victories and his prowess in war. “All the guests gazed upon the gleemen; some were pleased by their lays, others were reminded of their own battles and were filled with enthusiasm, but some wept, the strength of whose bodies has been sapped by time and whose fiery spirits age had subdued.”
The poem of Widsith owes its preservation to the fact that it was copied into the Exeter Book, an important Ms. collection of Old English poems given by Archbishop Leofric to the cathedral library at Exeter about 1050, and still preserved there. Widsith comprises 143 lines. Our selection gives 111-119, 88-111, 127-43. Widsith is the name of a typical and imaginary gleeman or minstrel, who has visited many lands and sung in the halls of many kings. (Old English wid, far, wide; sith, journey.) In Old English the singers was called “scop,” form Old English scieppan, to shape, to create (cf. derivation of poeta). The catalogue of tribes and rulers that forms the cores of the poem points to the period before the English left their continental homes on the Elbe and Weser. It is customary to refer to these lists as having merely an antiquarian value. But in the days when Attila, Ermanric, Theodoric, Offa, Hrothgar, Gunther, Wudga, Hama, and the rest of them were heroes of well-known lays, the mere mention of their names must have had an imaginative and 386 emotional value entirely lost to us. “Bare lists of words,” says Emerson, “are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind.” These memories of the heroes of Germanic Epic preserved in a long tradition of oral lays, running back to continental times, and variously modified in transit, were finally written down by a monkish scribe who could not resist the temptation of extending the itinerary of Widsith by including the Israelites and the Assyrians, the Medes and the Persians, the Saracens, and the Moabites, and sundry other impossible bookish tribes and countries. In spite of these incongruities and interpolations, Widsith remains one of the most interesting records, as it certainly is the oldest, in the literature of the Old English, dealing with the Epic memories common to all the Germanic races. Cf. Professor Gummere’s Oldest English Epic, where the whole of Widsith is translated and commented on. For a recent discussion of the philological and archæological problems involved, see article by Dr. W. W. Lawrence in Modern Philology, 1906, Vol. Iv, p. 329.
3. — 1-9. The first nine lines form an introduction written in England, probably in the eighth or ninth century, and consequently much more recent than the cores of the poem, which antedates the Anglo-Saxon settlement. “Widsith,” the far-wanderer, is described as belonging to the Myrgings, a Low-German tribe dwelling near the mouth of the Elbe, the old home of the Angles. He undertakes a journey to the court of the Ostro-Gothic King Ermanric, in the company of his queen Alhild. The object of this journey seems to have been the marriage of Alhild to Ermanric; hence she is called weaver-of-peace. She leaves her home to become the bride of the Ostrogoth, just as in the Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild leavers her brothers to marry Attila the Hun. Ermanric, king of the Ostrogoths, is a historic figure. He died by his own hand in 375 A.D., on account of the destruction of his kingdom by the Huns. In early Gothic tradition he as remembered as a great and famous king, whose tragic death, so unlike that of the typical Germanic hero, made a profound impression on the 387 people, and naturally lent itself to the transforming touch of the imagination. Jordanes, a Gothic historian writing nearly two hundred years after the death of Ermanric, still calls him the noblest of the Amalungs. In later West-Germanic and Norse epic tradition his character was entirely changes, and he became a type of the tyrant and traitor, cruel and faithless. According to Deor’s Complaint, he had a wolfish heart, and the writer of the Widsith prologues calls him ruthless traitor and treaty-breaker. This later tradition represents him as having killed his own son, and having his innocent wife Swanhild torn to pieces by wild horses. For the story of him see Northern Hero Legends, pp. 29 ff. Translated from the German of Jirizcek by M. B. Smith in the Temple Primers, Dent and Co.
4. — 10. I was with Ermanric, etc. Lines 9-87, omitted in the translation, comprise list of tribes and rulers supposed to have been visited by Widsith. Line 88 returns to the subject of Ermanric, and this makes so close a connection with the prologue that one wonders whether the intervening portion were not interpolated. Dr. Lawrence, in his exhaustive study of the structure and interpretation of Widsith, says: “This is perhaps the most important division of the poem.” It is noticeable that the character which Widsith himself gives to Ermanric differs from that ascribed to him by later tradition, for the “ruthless traitor” of the prologues is here pictured as a noble and generous king. This in itself is an evidence that the core of the poem is older than the prologue. — 11. Gave me a ring. One of the commonest kennings or descriptive epithets applied to the king in Old English poetry is ring-giver, bracelet bestower. Professor Gummere notes that the heavy gold ring is marked with its value, and that spirals of gold twisted about the arm were broken off by the king, each round having a definite value. Hence the king is also called the ring-breaker. — 19. Edwin’s Daughter. Edwin, a Langobard or Lombard king, known to history as Audoin. The original home of the Lombards was on the Elbe, near the Angles or Myrgings. 388 Edwin’s son, Alboin, invaded Italy in 568. In a passage omitted in the translation, Widsith says, “I was with Ealfwine [Old English for Alboin] in Italy.” Paul the Deacon, a Lombard historian, tells how Alboin forced his wife, Rosamond, to drink from a cup made from the skull of her own father, whom he had killed. (See Swinburne’s tragedy, Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards.) Historically it is of course impossible that Alhild, Edwin’s daughter, hence sister of Ealfwine or Alboin, who invaded Italy in the sixth century, should have been a contemporary of Ermanric, who dies in the fourth, and that Widisth, whosays he was with Alboin in Italy, should have been with Ermanric “all that while”; but Epic tradition has no sense of historic perspective. The heroies of he past are contemporary in the great Epic cycles, — they are senn on the same plane, just as the distant mountain ranges, fold on fold, merge into one sky-line for the eye. So in the Nibelungenlied, Theodoric, the great Ostrogoth, is present at the court of aTtila the Hun, who died two years before Theodoric was born. — 35. Wudga and Hama. According to Jordanes, Widigoi (Old English Wudga, Widga) was a Gothic hero who fell in the wars against the Sarmatians before the time of Ermanric. There were lays about him, and he was soon drawn into the cycle of Ermanric’s heroes, and together with Hama became champion of the Gothic king in his wars against the Huns. The battle near Wistlawudu, i.e. Vistulawood, here alluded to (the place is mentioned in l. 121 of the original), seems to be a reminiscence of the ancient homes of the Goths on the Vistula, before they wandered south to the Danube. If this be so, it is the most ancient historic reminiscence in Germanic Epic. Hama is the Heime of Middle High German Epic. He is mentioned in Beowulf as the captor of a famous necklace, “Brisingamene.” As champions of Ermanric, this pair underwent the same process of moral deterioration as their leader, and in later tradition become the types of brave but cruel and ruthless slayers. In this capacity they figure in the fine Middle High German poem of Alphart’s Death. (See Northern Hero Legends, p. 112.)
5. — 42. Thus fated to wander. The poem closes on the minor chord that rings through so much of Old English Poetry. So Beowulf says:
“Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam.” But the Germanic conclusion is not Horace’s or Omar’s “Let us fight and win fame, for to-morrow we fall.” See also the closing lines of the Ballad of Maldon, and the fine stanza in the Norse Lay of Hamthir:
It is the same note that Tennyson strikes in the Ballad of the Revenge; and the brave speech of Sir Richard Grenville seems to echo the very words of the old Germanic hero: