The History Behind Beowulf

Out of the 30,000 lines of literature left from the Anglo-Saxon period, almost 4,000 lines are preserved in the text of Beowulf, the epic poem of the hero with the strength of 30 men in each arm. It is a story of the supernatural as well as a record of Anglo-Saxon history. Because there was little literacy and few books in Medieval England, scops were the key to recording history. They upheld the history of England since the very beginning, along with the ancestry of her first settlers.

Beowulf takes place in 6th century Denmark and Sweden. The Geats (Beowulf's tribe) inhabited the southern part of Sweden) and Hrothgar and his glorious mead-hall Heorot were from the Danish island, Sjaelland. Some historical digressions in the epic poem take place in other parts of Sweden, but also Denmark, Germany, Poland and "the Low Countries."

The first part of Beowulf takes place in Heorot, King Hrothgar's glorious mead hall. At the time this poem took place, research proves that the Danes held their throne on Sjaelland Island at Lejre. Archeologists who have worked there have discovered a number of magnificent halls that were built around the 500s and onward, any of which could have been Heorot.

Although there is no knowledge that Beowulf was a true man, there is certainly a great deal of Germanic history incorporated in the poem. Whether Beowulf was real or not, his character fit seamlessly into the context of his society and family tree.

Many of the characters were real: The Geat king, Hygelac, Hrothgar, Ongentheow, Haethcyn, Onela and Heardred. Also, the Ravenswood battle which took place in 510AD is true.
The Composition of the Poem
Although, much that is written about the creation of the story of Beowulf is speculation, it is known that the only manuscript that remains is from circa 1000AD. Although this work is venerated today, in Medieval England, it was viewed in much different light. Monster stories were quite common at that time; along with Beowulf, several prose works with supernatural characters were compiled in the manuscript. Also a poem "Judith" was found.

The author of Beowulf is a mystery, as most poets of the Anglo-Saxon period are. He might have been a court poet, or a monastic poet. Depending on the Christian interpretation of the poem, it could be either.

The date that Beowulf was conceived is uncertain, but can be narrowed down, depending on where it was created. It was definitely composed after Hygelac's death in 521AD, and most likely after 580AD, because that is the assumed date of Beowulf's death. It can't, though, be later than 1000AD, because the manuscript was already written by then. Although the four centuries in between these dates leave quite a vague answer, many scholars believe it was either the 600s or 700s. Because the poem makes many allusions to historical figures, it is thought that if the poem were any later, these figures would have already been forgotten. Scholars have recently begun to believe that Beowulf could have been composed in the 900s, much later than they first suspected.

If Beowulf were created in the 7th or 8th centuries, it can be further narrowed down by considering where the author might have lived. Scholars believe there are three possibilities: Northumbria, during the Age of Bede, in the late 7th and early 8th centuries; during King Offa's reign in Mercia, in the latter half of the 8th century; or East Anglia during the 600s.

Although the possibility that Beowulf begun in Northumbria is no longer a popular idea, it was at one time. The idea of Mercia is possible because of the references to the King in the poem may have been a tribute to the poet's patron. That the poem's origin comes from East Anglia is quite a popular notion comes with the discovery of the Sutton Hoo: the ship burial is extraordinarily similar to those mentioned in Beowulf, but, even more, the items found in the burial ship can be closely linked with the Uppsala, the royal court of Sweden at that time. It is thought that Beowulf and the East Anglians share some ancestral lines. Beowulf may have been means to define East Anglical history all the way back to Scandinavia.