The written word has existed for thousands of years, with the style and subject matter of literature changing to fit the times. English literature is no different, with three distinct periods of writing (Old English, Middle English and modern English). As the earliest period of documented literature, the Old English period is marked by the primitive styles and language of the Anglo Saxon people. Though they were sea-faring warriors, the Anglo Saxons were capable of strong emotions, best captured in poetry. However, these works were not written down. Rather, they were recited or sung. Some men even devoted their lives to this purpose. These skilled minstrels were known as scops.

The scop was an Anglo-Saxon poet who was commissioned by the early Germanic kings or soldiers to entertain them by reciting the poetry to the accompaniment of a harp or a similarly stringed instrument. From the Old English word “scieppan”, scop means to create, form or shape. The scop was also referred to as a gleeman, from the Old English word “gleoman”, who was a musician or performer. Though the scop was a performer, like the gleeman, the work of the scop was more artistic, as the name denotes. Unlike the gleeman, scops also wrote and performed their own poetry. Also, they had to be able to insert fitting verse where necessary, depending upon the occasion or celebration .

Scops were known to travel from village to village; however, many had permanent posts in the king’s court or mead halls. Usually, they performed for great feasts, celebrations, or the homecoming of soldiers from war. Their performances were usually short, but there were usually many lines of verse. Beowulf itself is over 3000 lines long. Any given song could deal with events from the present, such as battles won or recent adventures had. In Beowulf, the scop announced Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel the morning after the deed. Some songs might deal with figures from the past like the ancestors of the Anglo Saxons. Other subjects reflected in the poetry include the sea, brave deeds, glory of warriors, and the love of home. Scops were also commissioned to write elegies or songs for the dead. It was considered an honor to have a scop sing one's praise or mourn one’s death. But, regardless of the subject matter, the theme was lofty and its tone was earnest. The poetry demanded that the audience keep true to the values of loyalty, family, kinship, and religion, as in such works as the “The Wanderer” and “Caedmon’s Hymn”. In the warrior society, sacrifice was a theme that was central to the life the warriors lived. The poems that the scops read had a strength that stirred the hearts of their listeners. However, scop’s message was not idyllic or lighthearted. If the scop sang of heroes, he also sang of the hardship, wounds, and death that often accompanied them. The entertainment they provided was not meant to be relaxing; it was meant to produce thought and stern feelings.

The scops were very important to Anglo-Saxon society. The scops were messengers of traditional morality. They used the poetry to motivate their listeners to live good and honest lives. Also, because most of the historic events were recorded in poetry, they were carried by the scops to places far and near. By traveling with these stories, the scops helped to preserve the history of the Germanic people for generations later. The Anglo Saxon people believed that poetry was the closest thing to immortality. Thanks to the work of these oral historians, we can still read about their culture, achievements, and beliefs. The dream of being remembered has become a reality.

Created & Written by Judith Mathieu