Historisk Tidsskrift
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Beowulf, Hygelac, and Chlochilaichus
On the Chronology in Beowulf

(105:1, 78-79)

The first printed edition of the Old English poem Beowulf was published in Copenhagen in 1815 by an Icelander, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin (1752-1829). After examining the content of the poem in a number of articles between 1815 and 1817, N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), published a Danish translation in 1820, the first ever in a modern language. Grundtvig was sure from the start that the poem dealt with real historical events, even though the centrepiece of the narrative was Beowulf's struggle against lake monsters and a dragon. Grundtvig, himself a poet and scholar, derived his vast knowledge of Denmark's earliest history from the books of Peter Friderich Suhm (1728-1798). It was on the basis of these writings that Grundtvig arrived at his renowned identification of Hygelac, Beowulf's King of the Geats, who fell in battle in Friesland, with King Chlochilaichus of the Danes, who fell in battle in the Kingdom of the Franks, a figure mentioned by Gregory of Tours (ca. 539-594) and others. Grundtvig's study claimed to show not only that the plot of the poem related real events, but that these could be dated on the basis of Gregory's text to about the year 515. "The identification of Chochilaicus with Hygelac is the most important discovery ever made in the study of Beowulf, and the foundation of our belief in the historic character of its episodes." (R. W. Chambers, 1921). This is still considered to be the "only certain fact in connection with the poem." (T. A. Shippey, 2001). The present study subjects this claim to closer scrutiny.

The first part of the study deals with the way in which Suhm reached his views on the history of the period in question. In fact, only little analytical effort is required to ascertain that Suhm, who used Gregory of Tours, also employed other sources, since Grundtvig's references to Suhm show that the latter's texts include much more than can be found in Gregory. Suhm dealt with the topic in two of his books: Critisk Historie af Danmark (1779) and Historie af Danmark (1782). In the first of these works, where he devoted forty-five pages to the subject, Suhm drew on all the relevant literature known at his time, but he made no distinction between medieval sources and more recent and modern treatments of the period. Of Beowulf Suhm knew nothing for the good reason that he was long dead when the poem was published. He began on the basis of Saxo Grammaticus' tale of King Viglet and wonderously worked his way through numerous, contradictory identifications of Viglet to the conclusion that Viglet was identical to King Guitlach, who is mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1155). Suhm's convolutions were wrapped in the context of a polemic directed against Claus Christoffersen Lyschander (1558-1624). According to Suhm King Viglet, alias Guitlach, was identical with King Chlochilaichus, who appears in Gregory of Tours. In analysing Suhm's attempt to support his claim the present study exams his various sources: Abbot William of Æbelholt (d.1203), Jacob Langebek (1710-1775), Johannes Meursius (1579-1639) and Hans Gram (1685-1748). Suhm contented that the king's campaign was waged to avenge Phinibertus, an otherwise unknown son of a Frankish king. For Phinibertus had fled to Guitlach for protection. The origin of this tale was most likely Jacques de Meyer (1491-1552), but it has to be rejected for lack of any basis in earlier sources.

[p. 79]

Suhm's treatment of the matter in Historie af Danmark is much shorter, covering only three pages. The context is entirely different, and without any explanation there is no longer any mention of King Viglet, but the identification of Guitlach with Chlochilaichus is upheld, and Phinibertus' plight is still the reason for the campaign. The whole episode, however, is based only on an erudite construction elaborated by Suhm, except perhaps for the direct quotations from Gregory. In the light of these facts, it must be asked whether it is still possible to uphold Grundtvig's identification of Hygelac with Chlochilaichus and therewith the chronology of events in Beowulf?

The second part of the present study focuses, therefore, on an analysis of the Frankish sources, which consist of three texts. The first and most fundamental is Gregory of Tours' Libri Historiarum X. Book Three, where the story of Chlochilaichus is found, can be dated to sometime in the seventies of the sixth century. The analysis demonstrates the difficulties in understanding this text, including the problem of where Gregory obtained his information. The problem of name forms (Chlochilaichus, Hygelac, etc.) is discussed on the basis of the scholarly literature. It concludes that an identification of Hygelac with Chlochilaichus is highly hazardous. Consequently, it is also difficult to establish a chronology of the events related in Beowulf.

The second text is Liber Historiae Francorum, which can be dated rather precisely to 726/727. Most of this text is copied from Gregory, but there is one particular piece of geographical information that has been used to decisively establish the link to Beowulf. The military campaign is situated in the land of the Attoarii, and Grundtvig was of the opinion that these were identical with the Hetware, mentioned in Beowulf in the context of Hygelac's campaign. This is still the conventional view of scholars. However, already in 1919 Godefroid Kurth showed that this geographical detail was no more than conjecture on the part of the anonymous author, albeit based on Gregory's text. The information is therefore merely of interpretive interest. Thus one of the major arguments for identifying Hygelac with Chlochilaichus proves invalid and with it the precise dating of events related in the poem.

The third Frankish text, also by an anonymous author, is the Liber Monstrorum, which cannot be dated precisely, but it is presumably from the second half of the eighth century. One of the monsters it mentions is a king whose name resembles Hygelac - provided it is slightly corrected. Name forms in the five extant manuscripts of the work evidence variations. Moreover, the text belongs within an Anglo-Saxon rather than Frankish context, as was previously held. It is thus equally useless for the purpose of dating the tales told in Beowulf.

The present study concludes that Grundtvig's identification of Hygelac with Chlochilaichus is no longer tenable, and as a consequence the events related in Beowulf can no longer be placed within a chronology of the sixth century. Beowulf remains what it always has been: a poem from the past, not a history of the past.

Translated by Michael Wolfe