Scops were both poets and performers in Anglo-Saxon culture. The appearance of the scop is thought to date back to when the Angles had not yet come to the British islands and were still living on continental Europe (Taylor). Scops were the keepers of tribal histories as well as influencers of tribal values. These poets had high status within their communities because they affirmed and promoted ideas the Anglo-Saxons found important. They also often had high status in their communities due to acquired wealth and land (Taylor). Scops fulfilled the duties of “court singer,…historian, genealogist, teacher, composer,… and reporter” in Anglo-Saxon culture; their existence is the reason scholars know about Anglo-Saxon history. Scops carried information about Anglo-Saxon culture in their minds until it could be written down long after the first scops lived.
Scops were important presences in their tribes. References to scops first appear in poetry that originated in the fourth century C.E. Hence, scholars know that scops existed at least a century before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in what is now Great Britain in approximately 450 C.E. Scops then disappeared sometime in the Middle Ages (Taylor). The presence of the scop was a fixed institution that spanned many generations even after their knowledge began to be recorded. Because of their importance as teachers, scops were rewarded for their poems. According to Kelly S. Taylor, they received gifts “according to the amount of generosity, gratitude, or prudence” their poems inspired among the people. In the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy, scops were equal to thanes and received rings and gold from different kings; they could hold land or pass it to their children (Taylor). This information illustrates that scops had access to their culture’s form of capital, and therefore, had some power within their societies as land holders as well as teachers of cultural values (Taylor).
Scops composed and memorized poems that told the stories of heroic epics, which recorded the history and main ideals of Anglo-Saxon culture. Scops’ songs promoted values like bravery, loyalty, fame, and self-sacrifice (Malone 77-78). In his essay, “The Old English Scop and ‘Widsith,’” Kemp Malone quotes “Maldon,” a poem that originated with the scops:
Here lies our earl, all hewn to hearth, the good one, on the ground. He will regret it always, the one who thinks to turn from this war-play now, My life has been long. Leave I will not… (Malone 78).
In this example the warrior mourns his fallen king. Out of loyalty and bravery he will continue to fight his king’s wars. The warrior is willing to sacrifice his safety and possibly his life to promote the dead king’s interests out of love for the king. That scops wrote songs that preserved the actions of kings and warriors emphasizes the importance Anglo-Saxons placed on fame and warriors being known as heroes. According to Kemp Malone, heroes wished most to acquire good reputations among the people (78). These reputations were created by scops, who in valorizing certain people also preserved Anglo-Saxon history and ancestry. They reiterated the importance of Anglo-Saxon heritage and beliefs.
Scops’ songs were delivered in a dynamic, interactive style and had the power to inspire the Anglo-Saxon people to act (Taylor). Performances were usually given in mead halls among “feasting, mead drinking, gift giving, harp playing, and displaying of trophies” (Taylor). The original listening experience is not thought to have been peaceful and calming; it demanded “keen participation in thought and feeling” from the audience (Malone 77). The scops’ poems often dealt with war and death as well as celebration and heroism. The songs inspired strong feelings in their listeners of pride, sadness, or fear about events in Anglo-Saxon culture. The listeners were expected to respond by singing themselves as evidenced by “Caedmon’s Hymn,” in which Caedmon would leave feasts to avoid singing because he could not sing well (Bede 25). Often listeners responded to songs about heroism and war by boasting. The men’s boasts not only highlighted their personal attributes, but the boasts “launched men upon and held them to courses of action, which had life and death consequence” (Taylor). Scops’ songs could inspire pride in warriors, which emboldened them for battle. Scops played important roles in shaping Anglo-Saxon history as well as telling about it.
Anglo-Saxon scops played important roles in preserving and influencing their culture. Talented scops inspired tribal pride in their listeners and got them to adhere to and act on Anglo-Saxon values such as loyalty, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Scops created and remembered songs that provided accounts of Anglo-Saxon history. In modern-day America, a scop would be comparable to a librarian/teacher/musician/propagandist with very high status. The scops’ job was multifaceted and extremely influential to the Anglo-Saxon people.