The Exeter Book

By: Kelly Bray

         The Exeter Book is the largest existing collection of Old English poetry. The manuscript was given to the library of Exeter Cathedral by its first bishop, Leofric, at the end of the tenth century. The book consists of 131 parchment leaves which measure approximately 12.5 by 8.6 inches. The most famous works contained in the Exeter Book include “The Wanderer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Seafarer,” and “Wulf and Eadwacer.” In addition to the 31 major poems, 96 riddles are also included in the collection. The manuscript was likely copied by a single scribe in 975, though “The Wanderer” is though to date back to the Anglo-Saxon tribes’ conversion to Christianity in the sixth century. “The Wife’s Lament” may have pre-dated “The Wanderer” because “it offers none of the typical Christian consolation for her despair and appears to reflect a pre-conversion, pagan attitude towards ones’ fate” (The Exeter Book). Both poems are invaluable resources in their depiction of the precepts and roles of men and women in Anglo-Saxon society.

         “The Wanderer” is an elegy, or a lament for the dead and the glories of the past. The narrator of the poem has lost his kin in battle and is wandering alone and contemplating the temporal nature of life. It is clear that the narrator respects the comitatus, the bond of loyalty between a lord and his warriors, as is illustrated when he recalls “embracing and kissing his liege lord and laying his hands and his head on his knee” (Wanderer 101). The stoic attitude of the narrator is reflective of the Anglo-Saxon culture in which men were supposed to be brave and unemotional. Despite this convention, the narrator’s sorrow is strongly conveyed in the Ubi Sunt (‘Where are they?’) passage when he asks, “Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of the treasure?” (Wanderer 101). The narrator’s lament also displays the permeating cultural belief that everything in life is predetermined by fate. This is seen when the narrator envisions the end of the world in everlasting winter when “all the earth’s kingdom is wretched [and] the world beneath the skies is changed by the work of the fates” (Wanderer 102). The poem ends with a strong reference to Christianity in the lines, “It will be well with him who seeks favor, comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability resides” (Wanderer 102). It is possible that the mention of God was added to the poem at a later date because though there are many pagan references throughout, there are no obvious references to Christianity until the ending.

         The speaker of “The Wife’s Lament,” like that of “The Wanderer,” is lamenting her exile and isolation, though in this case, it appears that the speaker is lamenting her separation from her husband. The speaker is likely a “peace-weaver,” a woman who is married off in an attempt to create peace among warring tribes, as this was one typical role that women assumed in Anglo-Saxon society. She describes how the bond between herself and her husband has been broken, saying, “Our friendship is as if it had never been. Far and near, I must suffer the feud of my much-beloved” (Lament 103). As she is no longer useful to her tribe, the speaker has been sent away “to live in an earth-cave beneath an oak tree” where she weeps and reflects that she “can never set [her] cares at rest, nor still all this life’s longing, which is [her] lot” (Lament 103). This poem illustrates the limited role of women in a society which bases their value almost exclusively upon their ability to initiate peace during times of war.

         The Exeter Book is an extremely important collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry. By examining “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament,” readers are able to gain insight into the lives led by men and women in early Anglo-Saxon society. The importance of the comitatus, the belief that fate rules all things, the belief in the temporal nature of human life, the role of men as brave warriors and the role of women as peace-weavers are just some of the important themes found in these works. The common threads between “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament”—the sorrow felt over the loss of loved ones and the attempt to verbalize the resulting isolation—are still very relevant today.

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