The Scop in Beowulf and Widsith.
The scop in Anglo-Saxon times had a very defined role. A comparison between the scop in Beowulf and the scop in Widsith will more clearly define for us what that role was.
The 142 verses of Widsith are the oldest in the English language, and form the earliest output in verse of any Germanic people. Widsith contains a huge catalog of 70 tribes and 69 important people, many of whom are proven to have lived in the third, fourth and fifth centuries. The vast knowledge of history which was required of a good scop, just amazes the reader. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature(v1,ch3,s6,n30) states that so many princes and peoples are mentioned in the course of the poem that its importance for the history of the migration period can hardly be overestimated. This Old English poem was transcribed by a monk around the year 1000. Widsith tells the story of the scop Widsith, who accompanies Ealhhild, a Lombard princess, on her journey eastward from Angel to the court of Eormanric the Goth. Ealhhild, the sister of Aelfwine, King of the Lombards, is made to marry Eormanric. In this poem the geography and the chronology are not precise or accurate.
“At an early date Germanic kings began to keep professional poets, with functions not wholly unlike those of the poet laureate or official poet of later times” (Malone 75). This pretty well expresses the life of Widsith, except that he was not located at any one court, rather he travelled from the country of Egypt, India and Israel to Britain and to northern Europe, going from court to court. His home court, if it can be called such, was with King Eadgils. But Widsith travelled to all the “heathen” and non-heathen kingdoms of the day. It shows a dimension of the scop which scholars are generally unaware of, and that is that he had to be a linguist of sorts, conversant in all the different dialects of the Germanic nations, and in the different languages of faraway places like India and Egypt.
Widsith brags in verse six that he had knelt more often than any living man “for the holy stone,” revealing the really high esteem in which kings and queens held the scop. The stone would be some ring or necklace encasing a precious stone in gold or silver. In the poem he records:
Six hundred shillings worth of sheer gold
were wound into the ring he reached to my hand. . . .
Ealhhild also, before all the company
gave me another, Edwin’s daughter(91ff.)
Upon returning home, Widsith gave the larger ring to his king in payment for a grant of land which Eadgils had made to him earlier, which is reminiscent of the gift-giving mentality prevailing among the nobility in Beowulf.
In Widsith the poet states his two main functions: “So I may sing, and stories tell” (54). And he expressed the general attitude of the nobility toward himself: “how men of kingly birth were kinglike towards me” (56). The...