Doxey marshes near stafford web

Wulf and Eadwacer – New Research Shed Light on Riddle

Famous for being ambiguous and vexing in its enigmatic meaning new research into the Anglo-Saxon poem of Wulf and Eadwacer identifies a parallel text in the Vita Bertellini

An Analogue to Wulf and Eadwacer in the Life of St Bertellin of Stafford
By Lindy Brady, University of Mississippi
In: Review of English Studies, Vol 67 Issue 278 February 2016 pp. 1 – 20

Wulf eating the wife and child of Bertelin. Llam church
Wulf eating the wife and child of Bertellin. The beautifully carved font appears to illustrate episodes from the life of St. Bertilin. The first panel shows Bertilin and his wife newly married, while another panel shows his wife in labour. Two more panels depict the wolves eating the mother and infant. On stylistic grounds the font probably dates to the c. 1100. From Llam church in Staffordshire. Whether the font inspired the writing of the legend or vice-versa is disputed. Source: Wikipedia

This poem is one of the absolute stumble stones of students trying to come to grips with Anglo-Saxon poetry. There is hardly a line, which does not confound readers, whether well versed in Anglo-Saxon or not. Words, composition, structure represent a near unsolvable puzzle.

One of the challenges has until now been that the narrative has found no parallel. In a piece of new and fascinating research, Linda Brady, however, argues that there is a corresponding tale in the Vita of the little-known Anglo-Saxon saint, Bertellin of Stafford, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in the Nova Legenda Anglie (1516). In a new article, she discusses the source of this text, which she demonstrates” can be confidently dated to the twelfth century. Bertellin’s cult and church date to the Anglo-Saxon period; his singular legend is preserved in at least one iconographic representation from c. 1100, meaning that the core of this narrative is far older than its 1516 printing; and information in John Bale’s catalogue suggests that he examined a twelfth-century manuscript of this text”, she writes.

In the article she compares the two narratives and justifies that they may be seen as analogues. This is done through a very generous choice of three different “translations” of the poem, each arguing for an understanding of the poem as “spoken by a woman in the wilderness who is isolated from both her own people and the men, she addresses in her speech. She laments her situation and states that a wolf will bear her ‘wretched whelp’ to the woods” (p. 5) Opposed to this is the narrative told in the vita in Latin, where Bertellin is said to have seduced an Irish princess and carried her off into the wilderness where she gives birth alone. While he is seeking a midwife, she and her newborn baby is eaten by a wolf. In the article it is demonstrated that the legend was widespread in the localities around Stafford, which were home to a regional cult.

She concludes that that the Vita Bertellini preserves authentic Anglo-Saxon material and that it and Wulf and Eadwacer are two reflections of the same local legend from Anglo-Saxon England. That it pays, to read the two texts in tandem is witnessed by this thoroughly enjoyable research article.

Linday Brady explicitly states that she wishes to make it absolutely clear that she is “not suggesting that the many interpretative difficulties in Wulf and Eadwacer can be neatly ‘solved’ by the Vita Bertellini” (p. 8). But she claims that by treating the two texts as ‘analogues’ they are mutually able to shed light on each other.


Wulf and Eadwacer

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīc is ūs.
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Fæst is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum wēnum dogode,
þonne hit wæs rēnig weder ond ic rēotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð.
Wulf, mīn Wulf! wēna mē þīne
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nales metelīste.
Gehȳrest þū, Ēadwacer? Uncerne earme hwelp
bireð wulf tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.


According to legend St. Bertelin founded Stafford c. 700. Later he is said to have established a hermitage on a secluded marshy island called Bethnei in a crook in the river Sow in central Staffordshire. This photo is from the Doxey marsh near Stafford. © Clas Merdin –




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