The Music and ‘Scopic’ (Bardic/Skaldic) Elements of our Anglo-Saxon Ancestors
By Andrew R. Glover
Published Online (2013)
Introduction: As dawn breaks over yet another cold December morning two days before the great Winter Solstice and the beginning day of the 12 days of Yuletide it has made me wonder how our ancestors used to cope with the long dark terrifying nights of silence, storms and snow in a time when the world was viewed very differently to the way it is today. A world of Norse Gods, giants, dwarves, trolls, elves, and dark forces lurking in a world they could not control or even try to comprehend and guard against. Today science has explained many of the mysteries of nature and the world around us, as well as much of space, and has given us the capabilities to close off the natural harsh world outside and feel a part of a civilisation that is not just national but now global through the world of technological medias. We are able to shut a front door made in Germany and lock it with a key and lock made in China with steel supplied from India and watch a TV series made in America on a TV system made in Japan while eating a Thai take-away meal, and see people living and dying in Africa from famine or war from guns made in Russia that were diverted there instead of the death fields Afghanistan that were brokered by arms dealers in France to fight the invading armies of Britain and America soldiers…… and so on and so on. You get the idea!
Think of a world without instant communication, of no electricity or running water, of a world that lived in tiny villages with your food in the local fields and the livestock for your dinner either sharing your home or out in the yard or fields. A world where if you had been to the local sizeable town ten miles away you were considered travelled. A world of superstition and communal politics, a place of a simple but hard life to survive and live. A place where your entertainment was made by you or the ‘scop’ in your community, or by a travelling storyteller and musician. So step back thirteen hundred years and try to think of what our ancestors, who spoke the founding basis of our language, did for entertainment in a world where most never left their surrounds of more than a few short miles. Only the Housecarls and the Thegns knew the country outside their local environs and that for the reason of taxation gathering or levies and war. Our perception is that of the wild formidable hairy and warlike Vikingar. Stuffed with meats and drunk to the point of passing out on strong honeyed mead, listening to their skalds/scops tell tales of glorious fights that some of them never returned from against the next tribe who they have always hated, usually for no apparent reason, and will never trust. Well, to a point this is the truth, the warriors did do all this, and probably more besides, but not all the time or every night. They were also caring, loyal, religious, artisans and skilled craftsmen who loved trading and fine arts. Anglo-Saxon society of which we are/were the predominant race in Britain from the late 5th century had a social set up that was different to the one we now have and each tribe or community did have its social strata’s that had hierarchies with the peasant at the bottom rising to the local earl or king under which the Housecarls (professional fighting men) played an important role followed by the freemen and farmers of the area. They in turn had slaves captured in battle to help them work the land but each man was free to a lesser or greater degree owing fealty to the local lord. A farmer farmed his own land and paid a small levy to his local lord, earl or thegn. They were independently minded and were contracted to the local land owner/earl for a few weeks of the year to fight as part of their lords’ army (fyrd) when required to. So where did the “scop” (pro’ shop) bard/skald, who acted not just as story teller and song smith but also as the societies’ history keeper in a time of little literacy amongst the common folk, where did they fit in to the warrior farmer society? They were not seen as outcasts, scroungers, weirdo’s or nuisances and freeloaders as much of society sees musicians today, but were exalted as an integral part of the society, as story telling entertainers, comedians, singers of songs, makers of songs, keepers of the societies histories, laws, ways and lore of the people amongst whom they had grown up and lived. They played a central role within the world around them. Some were seen as witches who through their arts were in communion with the other world, the world of spirits and dark forces for good and bad. The Anglo-Saxon perception of a witch was very different to that cultivated by the Norman French church and successive eras after. They along with the spiritual wandering men made up the world of the Anglo-Saxons pre and post Christian eras.
Their role could be seen not only to entertain but also to connect and act as a bridge between the physical world and sometimes the spiritual through their music and through the skill of telling the great epic tales and poems of their world and society as well as the Norse legends, until Christianity banned them from being heard for being heretical.
Music was seen by our early Anglo-Saxon forefather settlers as something from another world or realm, and could be ‘magic’ in itself or imbued with magical properties. In this era magic was not seen as something that was evil as it was from the time of the Norman Conquest onwards, but could be good or malevolent due to nature and the world around it. The Angles and Saxons were much more attuned to the natural world around them than we have ever been, enclosed in our brick shells and metal vehicles. Theirs was a world of the full forces of nature be they beautiful, ugly, calm or destructive. Music had the power to alter mental states, to create moods in sound and to calm or cajole or to bolster warriors and people at important points in the individuals and societies times. It could be invoked and be full of special magic in the very existence of the sound. The sound-world was a magical place to dwell and reside, it was like smoke, something physical and yet intangibly unobtainable in its physical presence, and as Shakespeare was to write in the tempest many centuries later:
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices that if I then had waked after long sleep will make me sleep again.”