, Volume 97, Issue 1, pp 165–183 | Cite as

The Dating of Widsið and the Study of Germanic Antiquity

  • Leonard Neidorf


A consensus once existed in support of the claim that Widsið is the oldest extant poem in English and one of the earliest substantial documents written in any Germanic language. This consensus came to an end in the 1980s, when scholars became more skeptical about the dating of Old English poetry. Recent work on Widsið contends that there is little evidence supporting the presumed early date of composition. This essay argues, however, that four categories of evidence can be brought to bear on the dating of Widsið—orthographic, lexical, onomastic, and cultural—and that all four of these categories agree in support of an early date of composition. It also argues that, as an early poem, Widsið has much to contribute to the lively discussions of early medieval historians concerned with Germanic identity and the ethnogenesis of early medieval gentes.


Widsið Old English Heroic poetry Onomastics Bede Beowulf 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.



I thank Joseph Harris and Michael McCormick for reading this paper in draft and offering helpful suggestions.


  1. Amory, P. (1997). People and identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Amos, A. C. (1980). Linguistic means of determining the dates of Old English literary texts. Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, G. K. (1957). The literature of the Anglo-Saxons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Anscombe, A. (1915). The historical side of the Old English poem of Widsith. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9, 123–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Attenborough, F. L. (1922). The laws of the earliest English kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Benham, A. R. (Ed.). (1916). English literature from Widsith to the death of Chaucer. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bethurum, D. (Ed.). (1957). The homilies of Wulfstan. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  8. Binz, G. (1895). Zeugnisse zur germanischen Sage in England. Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur, 20, 141–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brandl, A. (1908). Zur Gotensage bei den Angelsachsen. Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, 120, 1–8.Google Scholar
  10. Briggs, E. (2004). Nothing but names: The original core of the Durham Liber Vitae. In D. Rollason, A. J. Piper, M. Harvey, & L. Rollason (Eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae and its context (pp. 63–86). Woodbridge: Boydell Press.Google Scholar
  11. Campbell, A. (1959). Old English grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  12. Carr, C. T. (1939). Nominal compounds in Germanic. London: H. Milford.Google Scholar
  13. Chadwick, H. M. (1907). Early national poetry. In A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller (Eds.), The Cambridge history of English literature (pp. 21–44). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Chadwick, H. M. (1912). The heroic age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Chambers, R. W. (Ed.). (1912). Widsith: A study in Old English heroic legend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Chase, C. (Ed.). (1981). The dating of Beowulf. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (reprinted with new afterword in 1997).Google Scholar
  17. Colgrave, B., & Mynors, R. A. B. (Eds.). (1991). Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Rev. Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  18. Conner, P. W. (1986). The structure of the Exeter book codex (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS. 3501). Scriptorium, 40, 233–242.Google Scholar
  19. Conybeare, J. J. (Ed.). (1826). Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon poetry. London: Harding and Lepard.Google Scholar
  20. Cronan, D. (2004). Poetic words, conservatism, and the dating of Old English poetry. Anglo-Saxon England, 33, 23–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dobbie, E. V. K. (Ed.). (1942). The Anglo-Saxon minor poems. ASPR IV. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Dumville, D. N. (1976). The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists. Anglo-Saxon England, 5, 23–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Dumville, D. N. (2007). The Northumbrian Liber Vitae: London, British Library, MS. Cotton Domitian A.vii, folios 15–24 & 25–45, the original text. In his Anglo-Saxon essays, 20012007 (pp. 109–82). Aberdeen: Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies.Google Scholar
  24. Emerton, E. (Ed.). (2000). The letters of Saint Boniface. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Faull, M. L. (1975). The semantic development of Old English wealth. Leeds Studies in English, 8, 20–37.Google Scholar
  26. Foot, S. (2002). The making of angelcynn: English identity before the Norman Conquest. In R. M. Liuzza (Ed.), Old English literature: Critical essays (pp. 51–78). New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Frank, R. (1991). Germanic legend in Old English literature. In M. Godden & M. Lapidge (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Old English literature (pp. 88–106). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Fulk, R. D. (1982). Review article: Dating Beowulf to the Viking age. Philological Quarterly, 61, 341–359.Google Scholar
  29. Fulk, R. D. (1992). A history of Old English meter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  30. Fulk, R. D. (2003). On argumentation in Old English philology, with particular reference to the editing and dating of Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon England, 32, 1–26.Google Scholar
  31. Fulk, R. D., & Cain, C. M. (2003). A history of Old English literature. Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  32. Gerchow, J. (2004). The origins of the Durham Liber Vitae. In D. Rollason, A. J. Piper, M. Harvey, & L. Rollason (Eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae and its context (pp. 45–62). Woodbridge: Boydell Press.Google Scholar
  33. Gillespie, G. T. (1973). A catalogue of persons named in German heroic literature (700–1600), including named animals and objects and ethnic names. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  34. Godden, M. R. (2002). The Anglo-Saxons and the Goths: Rewriting the sack of Rome. Anglo-Saxon England, 31, 47–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Goffart, W. (1981). Hetware and Hugas: Datable anachronisms in Beowulf. In C. Chase (Ed.), The dating of Beowulf (pp. 83–100). Toronto: University of Toronto Press (reprinted with new afterword in 1997).Google Scholar
  36. Goffart, W. (1995a). Conspicuous by absence: Heroism in the early Frankish era (6th–7th Cent.). In T. Pàroli (Ed.), La funzione dell’eroe germanico: Storicità, metafora, paradigma: atti del Convegno internazionale di studio, Roma, 6–8 maggio 1993 (pp. 41–56). Roma: Calamo.Google Scholar
  37. Goffart, W. (1995b). Two notes on Germanic antiquity today. Traditio, 50, 9–30.Google Scholar
  38. Goffart, W. (2006). Barbarian tides: The migration age and the later Roman Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  39. Harris, J. (1985). Die altenglische Heldendichtung. In K. von See (Ed.), Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft: Band 6—Europäisches Frühmittelalter (pp. 237–275). Frankfurt am Main: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft.Google Scholar
  40. Hill, J. (1984). Widsið and the tenth century. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 85, 305–315.Google Scholar
  41. Hill, J. (Ed.). (2009). Old English minor heroic poems (3rd ed.). Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.Google Scholar
  42. Howe, N. (1997). The uses of uncertainty: On the dating of Beowulf. In C. Chase (Ed.), The dating of Beowulf (pp. 213–20). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  43. Insley, J., Rollason, D., & McClure, P. (2007). English dithematic names. In D. Rollason & L. Rollason (Eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae: Volume II, linguistic commentary (pp. 81–165). London: British Library.Google Scholar
  44. Ker, N. R. (1957). Catalogue of manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  45. Kershaw, N. (Ed.). (1922). Anglo-Saxon and Norse poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Kitson, P. R. (2002). How Anglo-Saxon personal names work. Nomina, 25, 91–131.Google Scholar
  47. Klaeber, F. (Ed.). (1950). Beowulf and the fight at finnsburg (3rd ed.). Boston: Heath.Google Scholar
  48. Langenfelt, G. (1959). Studies on Widsith. Namn och Bygd, 47, 70–111.Google Scholar
  49. Langenfelt, G. (1961). Some Widsith names and the background of Widsith. In G. Rohlfs & K. Puchner (Ed.), IV Internationaler Kongress für Namenforschung, vol. III (pp. 496–510). Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaftern: Munich.Google Scholar
  50. Lapidge, M. (1986). The school of Theodore and Hadrian. Anglo-Saxon England, 15, 45–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Levison, W. (1946). England and the continent in the eighth century. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  52. Malone, K. (1938). Widsith and the critic. English Literary History, 5(1), 49–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Malone, K. (Ed.). (1962). Widsith. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger.Google Scholar
  54. Malone, K. (1968). The Franks Casket and the date of Widsith. In A. H. Orrick (Ed.), Nordica et Anglica (pp. 10–18). The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar
  55. Malone, K., & Baugh, A. C. (1967). The Middle Ages (to 1500). In A. C. Baugh (Ed.), A literary history of England, vol. 1, 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.Google Scholar
  56. Megginson, D. (1995). The case against a ‘general Old English poetic dialect’. In M. J. Toswell (Ed.), Prosody and poetics in the early middle ages (pp. 117–132). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  57. Moulton, W. G. (1988). Mutual intelligibility among speakers of early Germanic dialects. In D. G. Calder & T. C. Christy (Eds.), Germania: Comparative studies in the Old Germanic languages and literatures (pp. 9–28). Wolfeboro: D.S. Brewer.Google Scholar
  58. Muir, B. J. (Ed.). (1989). Leoð: six Old English poems—a handbook. New York: Gordon and Breach.Google Scholar
  59. Neidorf, L. (2010). VII Æthelred and the genesis of the Beowulf manuscript. Philological Quarterly, 89, 119–139.Google Scholar
  60. Niles, J. D. (2007). Widsith, the Goths, and the anthropology of the past. In J. D. Niles (Ed.), Old English heroic poems and the social life of texts (pp. 73–109). Turnhout: Brepols.Google Scholar
  61. Pohl, W. (1997). Ethnic names and identities in the British Isles. In J. Hines (Ed.), The Anglo-Saxons from the migration period to the eighth century: An ethnographic perspective (pp. 7–40). Woodbridge: Boydell Press.Google Scholar
  62. Reynolds, R. L. (1953). Le poème anglo-saxon Widsith: réalité et fiction. Le Moyen Age, 59, 299–324.Google Scholar
  63. Schönfeld, M. (1911). Wörterbuch der altgermanischen Personen- und Völkernamen. Heidelberg: Carl Winter’s Universitätsbuchhandlung.Google Scholar
  64. Sedgefield, W. J. (Ed.). (1922). An Anglo-Saxon verse book. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Sisam, K. (1953a). Dialect origins of the earlier Old English verse. In K. Sisam (Ed.), Studies in the history of Old English literature (pp. 119–39). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  66. Sisam, K. (1953b). The Exeter Book. In K. Sisam (Ed.), Studies in the History of Old English Literature (pp. 97–108). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  67. Ward-Perkins, B. (2005). The fall of Rome and the end of civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  68. Weisgerber, L. (1953). Deutsch als Volksname: Ursprung und Bedeutung. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.Google Scholar
  69. Wolfram, H. (1994). Origo et religio: Ethnic traditions and literature in early medieval texts. Early Medieval Europe, 3, 19–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Woolf, H. B. (1939). The Old Germanic principles of name-giving. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.Google Scholar
  71. Wormald, P. (1983). Bede, the bretwaldas and the origins of the gens anglorum. In P. Wormald, D. Bullough, & R. Collins (Ed.), Ideal and reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon society (pp. 99–129). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  72. Wormald, P. (2006). Beowulf: The redating reassessed. In S. Baxter (Ed.) The times of Bede (pp. 71–81, 98–105). Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations