Time Team: The Hollow Way; Michael Wood on Beowulf

We decided to watch a couple of programmes that we’ve had on our PVR for 3 or 4 years and somehow never got round to actually watching before. First was an episode of Time Team about a medieval village that used to exist around a farmhouse at Ulnaby, County Durham. Obviously being Time Team they only had 3 days to do a fairly superficial excavation of a handful of areas around the site. But what they did manage to discover was that the peak of the occupation seemed to be around the 13th to 14th Centuries – finding pottery & house walls, and also references in documents. The original assumption had been that it had been deserted in the Black Death (1348) or as land use throughout the country was re-organised in the 15th Century with many villages evicted. However their digging found evidence of occupation up to the 17th Century (lots of tobacco pipes) and there was also documentary evidence for the village up till then as well (names of people pardoned for being involved in the Rising of the North in 1569 (by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I). So their conclusion was that it had petered out gradually around & after that time.

And not really much else to say about it – Time Team tends to be fairly superficial, but it’s normally fun to watch.

Another programme we’d had sitting around for a while was Michael Wood on Beowulf. This was partly a retelling of the Beowulf story and partly about the poem & the world the poem was written for. The retelling part of the programme featured Julian Glover reciting/acting a modern English translation of the poem to an audience of Anglo-Saxon re-enactors in Kent who were all dressed up in their reconstruction royal hall, and had just had a feast. So that was very much “as it would’ve been” (except cleaner, lighter, politer & less drunk, I expect! 😉 ).

For the parts of the programme about the world of the Anglo-Saxons & the origins of the poem Wood spent a lot of time in East Anglia, where the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England were. As he said, the Anglo-Saxon presence here was an immigrant one, and the poem looks back to their ancestral homelands in Denmark & Sweden. He compared it to tales of “the Old Country” told by Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans these days. He visited Sutton Hoo (of course) and talked about how there are ship burials in the poem and that’s what was famously discovered at Sutton Hoo. The King who was buried there was probably Rædwald who was not just a local King but was overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. And he & his lineage (and subjects) were probably the target audience for the original incarnation of the poem. Wood told us that there are references to ancestors of Rædwald at various points in the poem, so it seems likely the original poet was well informed about Rædwald’s genealogy (and wanted to associate him with the heroes of old).

One of the things that is interesting about Beowulf in context is that the world it was composed for was a Christian world, but the world it was about was a pagan world. So the hero Beowulf & his companions are all presented as old pagan heroes, but there is some interestingly Christian imagery & crossover. For instance the monsters, Grendel & his mother, are referred to as the seed of Cain (so the descendants of Adam’s son Cain who kills his brother Abel). Wood visited Northumberland to talk about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is a very Christian & Anglo-Saxon history. And also to tell us about The Dream of the Rood, which is an Anglo-Saxon poem which is overtly Christian & about a dream about talking to Christ on the Cross. It has a certain amount of pagan imagery, in a sort of mirroring of the Christian imagery in Beowulf. Wood was explaining this sort of cross fertilisation between the pagan & Christian worldviews as being part of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and of fitting the new religion into their history.

So the programme has visited areas near where we currently live and areas near where J grew up, and in discussing the relationship of the Anglo-Saxons to the history of the world around them Wood visited Weyland’s Smithy which is in Oxfordshire which completed the set (as it’s an area near where I grew up). What Wood was talking about here was that the Anglo-Saxons knew they lived in an old world – they saw the Bronze Age monuments & burial mounds in the landscape & peopled them with gods & heroes. And it is this old world that Beowulf fits into & explains.

The poem was written down around 1000AD, but was probably composed some time earlier & passed down orally. Despite being an East Anglian work (probably) the version that’s survived is written in a West Saxon dialect, as part of a compilation of “texts about monsters”. Wood visited the British Library to see the original manuscript, which was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century and is very fragile.

A good programme, I’m glad we kept it. I do have one quibble about the filming of it – all the exterior shots were very heavily processed & vignetted. Sometimes that worked (particularly on shots of bleak fenland while Wood was telling parts of the Beowulf story), but often it felt overdone.