This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine
On the banks of the river Blackwater, near Maldon in Essex, stood an array of Anglo-Saxons, weapons drawn. Facing them, on the tiny Northey Island, was a band of Vikings. They had come to harry and pillage, but could not cross a narrow tidal causeway to the mainland without confronting the Anglo-Saxon army.
Attempts to bribe their way across had failed and so, on this day in August 991, the Vikings now readied themselves for the inevitable. Raising their shields, they waded to the shore and lined up in formation. On both sides, the soldiers sized up their foes and tightened their grips on their weapons. Loud cries erupted over the battlefield – not from the soldiers, but from the ravens and eagles that wheeled overhead, already in position to feed on the imminent corpses. They had arrived there, the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon tells us, because “wæs seo tid cumen þæt þær fæge men feallan sceoldon” (the time had come for doomed men to fall).
The arrival of these birds before the fighting had even begun reads like something out of myth or legend, and stands out starkly from the gritty, matter-of-fact account of the battle presented throughout the poem. Yet time and again, in the writings left to us by the Anglo-Saxons, we hear of three particular animals – the raven, the eagle and the wolf – possessing the uncanny ability to presage death.
(Illustration by Ross Craig for BBC History Magazine)
The animals that could do this were universally known as scavengers. The raven and wolf are still well known for this; it is not as well known today that the white-tailed eagle (the largest British bird of prey) also scavenges when possible. It was commonplace in Anglo-Saxon texts to convey the desolation of war by presenting the corpses of men as mere food for the raven, eagle and wolf, and for this reason they are called the ‘beasts of battle’. Sometimes, they were noted for arriving after the armies had fought, to graze on the slain. This is the case in another memorialising poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, celebrating an Anglo-Saxon victory over an array of enemies in 937. More often than not, however, they emerge on the edges of the battlefield, as they do in The Battle of Maldon, before the fighting begins.
Old English epic
Historians have tended to dismiss as mere poetic licence accounts of animals arriving on the scene in advance of the fighting. This is because, outside of the two memorial poems mentioned already, such descriptions appear in works that today we might deem literary rather than historical. These include the old English epic Beowulf; versified biblical stories; and an account of the legend of Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who supposedly found fragments of the True Cross.
For the Anglo-Saxons, however, these texts were repositories of historical knowledge, and imposing our sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction is anachronistic. The biblical accounts of Judith defeating the Assyrians or Moses leading the tribes of Israel out of Egypt were, to the Anglo-Saxons, unquestionable truths. And despite the fact that it contained trolls and a dragon, Beowulf described ancestors who were well known and whose deeds were recorded elsewhere.
(Illustration by Ross Craig for BBC History Magazine)
There are plenty of reasons why we should believe the Anglo-Saxons when they say the beasts of battle appeared before combat. After all, they would have frequently encountered them: the Anglo-Saxons lived closer to nature than we do, and all three creatures were once ubiquitous throughout Britain. The beasts have since experienced destruction of their habitats and persecution; raven populations have fallen drastically, while the wolf and white-tailed eagle were hunted to extinction (though the latter was reintroduced in 1975). This means modern science has never had the opportunity to study the behaviour and interaction of the three species in the British Isles.
The raven, wolf and white-tailed eagle do, however, coexist in parts of northern and eastern Europe, and in North America the raven and wolf live alongside the white-tailed eagle’s close relative, the bald eagle. What we see in these areas is a scavenging community active during the daylight hours, with all three foraging alongside each other, and an especially close (if one-sided) relationship between ravens and wolves. Wolves do the hard work of finding and opening carcasses, while ravens follow, observe whether the meat causes death or illness, and then feed on the leftovers.
The raven and wolf are also prolific learners. In Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after a 70-year absence, ravens immediately learned to follow them. Where there are no wolves, ravens have learned to follow other apex predators, such as polar bears. Scientists who work with young ravens often exclaim – and sometimes lament – the efficiency with which the birds learn new behaviours. The famous zoologist Konrad Lorenz once inadvertently trained his pet raven Roah to steal laundry when he was trying to reward him for returning when called, and subsequently had to endure countless items of his neighbours’ garments being delivered to him whenever Roa got peckish. Wolves are consistently observed outperforming their domestic counterparts in problem-solving and flexible learning tests, and demonstrate the ability to modify their behaviour individually and as a pack. Between wolf and raven, then, it would have been straightforward to learn that groups of unusually shiny, metal-clad people heading in the same direction meant food. And so they would have followed them to battle sites before fighting began.
Awaiting the kill
In the absence of laboratories and controlled conditions for testing, the Anglo-Saxons came up with their own explanation for the animals’ portentous appearances: that they could foretell the loss of life. In Judith, an epic describing the Old Testament heroine’s beheading of the Assyrian general Holofernes, a raven and wolf watch eagerly as Judith’s countrymen close in on the fleeing enemy, because “they knew that the men of the [Jewish] nation intended to serve them their fill in doomed men”. We see the same reasoning in Beowulf, where the impending annihilation of the hero’s kingdom of Geatland by its neighbours is portrayed by the beasts zeroing in while discussing past banquets: “The raven, eager for the fated to die, shares many conversations with the eagle about how he succeeded at the feast when he plundered the corpses against the wolf.”
Eerily, the Anglo-Saxons also seem to have believed that the beasts had some capacity to choose who would die. This latter idea is only implicit in The Battle of Maldon, when they appear at the moment the poet proclaims that all the doomed men there must fall.
Elsewhere it is explicit. In Exodus, a poem about Moses’s departure from Egypt, the raven tailing the pursuing Egyptians is called wælceasega: “chooser of the slain”. Elene, the poem recounting Helena’s discovery of the Cross, has numerous battles. At the outset of one, the wolf howls “did not conceal any wælrune”. Wælrune is a difficult word to translate, but means something like “the hidden secrets of slaughter” – ie who would die. Indeed, this belief seems to have been so widespread that a philosophical rumination of loss called The Wanderer includes the following, in a list of the various ways people could die: “One was taken by war… another the grey wolf chose for death.”
Today this may all seem like quaint superstition, but on that fateful day in 991, on the banks of the river Blackwater, the Anglo-Saxons facing the Viking band knew that not all of them would survive the coming skirmish. Overhead, ravens and eagles soared, patiently waiting for their next meal. What else were they supposed to think?
Eric Lacey is a lecturer in English language at the University of Winchester
You can read more about the Anglo-Saxons HERE