The Wanderer [10th Century]

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mead_hall_by_vonmurder

The theme of Exile…

Exile means “separation or banishment from one’s native country, region, or home.” The theme of exile recurs throughout world literature- the medieval Italian poet Dante wrote Divine Comedy after being banished from his beloved city of Florence- but this theme is expressed with memorable sadness and pain in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

We cannot understand what exile meant to an Anglo-Saxon warrior until we understand what he meant by “home,” While we identify ourselves as citizens of a certain country, an Anglo-Saxon warrior viewed himself as the follower of a particular lord or king. The notion of loyalty to one’s country, called patriotism today, did not exist. It was the lord himself who commanded allegiance, and of course there were many lords in what is now called England. The Anglo-Saxon word for “lord,” “hlaford,” came form the word “hlafweard,” which means “guardian of the loaf.” The lord was the dispenser of bread and the source of sustenance. He was also the dispenser of the booty won in raids and skirmishes, or a “gold-lord.” Perhaps more important, he guaranteed the security of his followers in a dangerous and uncertain world. In return, he expected loyalty in war. His followers would form his great shield-wall in the thick of battle.

The most important symbol of home was the mead-hall (mead was an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water), where the lord and his followers shared warmth of fire, the comfort of food and drink, and the pleasures of hearing poetry recited. Because we tend to identify home with individual families living in a house or an apartment, it is useful to keep in mind the image of the mead-hall while reading “The Wanderer.” Enlivened with a feeling of fellowship, the mead-hall was smokey, noisy, smelly, and crowded. It was home.

Imagine what it meant for a warrior to lose his lord and his place in the mead-hall. The Anglo-Saxon exile was indeed a “wraecca,” a word meaning “wretch, stranger, unhappy man, and wanderer.”

The artist of the picture is J-Humphries.

Read The Wanderer.

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