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"Widsith" (Old English: Widsið), also known as "The Traveller's Song",[1] is an Old English poem of 143 lines. It survives only in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late-10th century, containing approximately one-sixth of all surviving Old English poetry. "Widsith" is located between the poems "Vainglory" and "The Fortunes of Men". Since the donation of the Exeter Book in 1076, it has been housed in Exeter Cathedral in southwestern England. The poem is for the most part a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe.

Date of original composition[edit]

There is some controversy as to when "Widsith" was first composed. Some historians, such as John Niles, argue that the work was invented after King Alfred's rule to present "a common glorious past", while others, such as Kemp Malone, have argued that the piece is an authentic transcription of old heroic songs.[2]: 181  Among the works appearing in the Exeter Book, there are none quite like "Widsith",[2]: 182  which may be by far the oldest extant work that gives a historical account of the Battle of the Goths and the Huns, recounted as legends in later Scandinavian works such as the Hervarar saga.[2]: 179  Archaeologist Lotte Hedeager argues that "Widsith" goes back to Migration Age-history—at least part of it was composed in the 6th century, and that the author demonstrates familiarity with regions outside of Britain, including Denmark and the Baltic coast.[2]: 184–186  Hedeager is here in agreement with R.H. Hodgkin[3] and Leonard Neidorf, who argues that "when situated within the history of Anglo-Saxon culture and identity, "Widsith" clearly belongs to a time prior to the formation of a collective Anglo-Saxon identity, when distinct continental origins were remembered and maintained by the Germanic migrants in the British Isles".[4]


Excluding the introduction of the scop Widsith, the closing, and brief comments regarded by some scholars as interpolations, the poem is divided into three 'catalogues', so-called thulas. The first thula runs through a list of the various kings of renown, both contemporary and ancient ("Caesar ruled the Greeks"), the model being '(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)'. The second thula contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, the model being 'With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)'. In the third and final thula, the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited, with the model '(Hero's name) I sought and (hero's name) and (hero's name)'.

The poem refers to a group of people called the Wicinga cynn, which may be the earliest mention of the word "Viking" (lines 47, 59, 80). It closes with a brief comment on the importance and fame offered by poets like Widsith, with many pointed reminders of the munificent generosity offered to tale-singers by patrons "discerning of songs".

Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar heoldon lengest
sibbe ætsomne suhtorfædran,
siþþan hy forwræcon Wicinga cynn
ond Ingeldes ord forbigdan,
forheowan aet Heorote Heaðobeardna þrym.

Hroðulf and Hroðgar held the longest
peace together, uncle and nephew,
since they repulsed the Viking-kin
and Ingeld to the spear-point made bow,
hewn at Heorot Heaðobards' army.

—lines 45–49

The widely travelled poet Widsith (his name simply means "far journey") claims himself to be of the house of the Myrgings, who had first set out in the retinue of "Ealhild, the beloved weaver of peace, from the east out of Angeln to the home of the king of the glorious Goths, Eormanric, the cruel troth-breaker". The Ostrogoth[dubious ] Eormanric was defeated by the Huns in the 5th century. It is moot whether Widsith literally intends himself, or poetically means his lineage, either as a Myrging or as a poet, as when "the fictive speaker Deor uses the rhetoric of first-person address to insert himself into the same legendary world that he evokes in the earlier parts of the poem through his allusions to Wayland the Smith, Theodoric the Goth, Eormanric the Goth, and other legendary figures of the Germanic past".[5] Historically, we know that one speaker could not travel to see all of these nations in one lifetime. In a similar vein, "I was with the Lidwicingas, the Leonas, and the Langobards", Widsith boasts,

with heathens and heroes and with the Hundingas.
I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians, and with the Egyptians...

The forests of the Vistula[6] in the ancient writing tradition (Widsith, v. 121) are the homeland of the Goths, the material remains of which are generally associated with the Wielbark Culture.[7]

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum,
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol Ætlan leodum.

I sought Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle did not abate
when the Gothic army with their sharp swords,
in the Vistula woods had to defend
their ancient seat against Attila's host.

—lines 121–

The poem that is now similarly titled "Deor", also from the Exeter Book, draws on similar material.

Tribes of Widsith[edit]

The list of kings of tribes is sorted by "fame and importance", according to Hedeager, with Attila of the Huns coming first, followed immediately by Eormanric of the Ostrogoths; by contrast, the Byzantine emperor is number five.[2]: 187 

Widsið maðelode,
     wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst
     mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde;
     oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum.
     Him from Myrgingum

Widsith spake,
     he unlocked his treasure of words.
He who among men
     had travelled most in the world,
through peoples and nations;
     he had often in the hall
earned valuable treasures.
     He was one of the Myrgings


æþele onwocon.
     He mid Ealhhilde,
fælre freoþuwebban,
     forman siþe
     ham gesohte
eastan of Ongle,
wraþes wærlogan.
     Ongon þa worn sprecan:

of noble blood.
     He together with Ealhhilde,
the friendly weaver of peace
     went for the home
of the king of the Goths (Hreiðgoths)
     he was searching
east of the Angles,
wrathful against traitors.
     He began to speak:

... 15

ond Alexandreas
     ealra ricost
monna cynnes,
     ond he mæst geþah
þara þe ic ofer foldan
     gefrægen hæbbe.
ætla weold Hunum,
     Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum,
     Burgendum Gifica.

and Alexander's
     whole kingdom
together with the men of his clan
     and he prospered most
of which I all over the world
     have heard the reports.
Attila ruled the Huns,
     Ermanaric ruled the Goths,
Becca the Banings,
     Gebicca the Burgundians,


Casere weold Creacum
     ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum
     ond Heoden Glommum.
Witta weold Swæfum,
     Wada Hælsingum,
Meaca Myrgingum,
     Mearchealf Hundingum.
þeodric weold Froncum,
     þyle Rondingum,

Caesar ruled the Greeks
     and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Rugians
     and Heoden the Gloms.
Witta ruled the Suebi,
     Wada the Hälsings,
Meaca the Myrgings,
     Mearchealf the Hundings.
Theuderic ruled the Franks,
     Thyle the Rondings,


Breoca Brondingum,
     Billing Wernum.
Oswine weold Eowum
     ond Ytum Gefwulf,
Fin Folcwalding
     Fresna cynne.
Sigehere lengest
     Sædenum weold,
Hnæf Hocingum,
     Helm Wulfingum,

Breoc the Brondings,
     Billing the Varni.
Oswin ruled the Aviones
     and Gefwulf the Jutes,
Finn Folcwalding
     the Frisian clan.
Sigar longest
     ruled the sea-Danes,
Hnæf the Hocings,
     Helm the Wulfings,


Wald Woingum,
     Wod þyringum,
Sæferð Sycgum,
     Sweom Ongendþeow,
Sceafthere Ymbrum,
     Sceafa Longbeardum,
Hun Hætwerum
     ond Holen Wrosnum.
Hringweald wæs haten
     Herefarena cyning.

Wald the Woings,
     Wod the Thuringians,
Saeferth the Sycgs,
     Ongenþeow the Swedes,
Sceafthere the Ymbers,
     Sceafa the Lombards,
Hun the Chattuarii
     and Holen the Wrosns.
Hringweald was called
     the king of the war-chiefs.


Offa weold Ongle,
     Alewih Denum;
se wæs þara manna
     modgast ealra,
no hwæþre he ofer Offan
     eorlscype fremede,
ac Offa geslog
     ærest monna,
     cynerica mæst.

Offa ruled the Angles,
     Alewih the Danes;
he was among all men;
     the bravest,
but was not braver than Offa,
     because the noble
Offa conquered,
     before he was a man,
in battle
     most of his kingdom


Nænig efeneald him
     eorlscipe maran
on orette.
     Ane sweorde
merce gemærde
     wið Myrgingum
bi Fifeldore;
     heoldon forð siþþan
Engle ond Swæfe,
     swa hit Offa geslog.

None of his age
     showed earlship more.
With single sword
     he spread his borders.
Against the Myrgings
     marked the bound
by Fivel dor.
     Henceforth 'twas held
by Sueve and Angle
     as Offa won it.


Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar
     heoldon lengest
sibbe ætsomne
siþþan hy forwræcon
     Wicinga cynn
ond Ingeldes
     ord forbigdan,
forheowan æt Heorote
     Heaðobeardna þrym.

Hrolf Kraki and Hrothgar
     held longest
the peace,
     uncle and nephew,
after having repulsed
     the Vikings
and Ingeld
     bowed down at spear-point,
he was cut to pieces at Heorot
     with the army of the Heathobards.

... 55

mænan fore mengo
     in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode
     cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum
     ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum
     ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum
     ond mid wicingum.

to this noble company
     in the mead hall,
how my worthy patrons
     rewarded me.
I was with Huns
     and with Goths,
and with Swedes and with Geats
     and with south-Danes.
With Vandals I was and with Varni
     and with Vikings.


Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum
     ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum
     ond mid ænenum.
Mid Seaxum ic wæs ond Sycgum
     ond mid Sweordwerum.
Mid Hronum ic wæs ond mid Deanum
     ond mid Heaþoreamum.
Mid þyringum ic wæs
     ond mid þrowendum,

With the Gepids I was and with Wends
     and with Gevlegs.
With the Angles I was and with Suebi
     and with Aenenes.
With the Saxons I was and with Sycgs
     and with swordsmen (Suarines?).
With the Hrons I was and with Deans
     and with Heatho-Reams.
With the Thuringians I was
     and with the Throwens,


ond mid Burgendum,
     þær ic beag geþah;
me þær Guðhere forgeaf
     glædlicne maþþum
songes to leane.
     Næs þæt sæne cyning!
Mid Froncum ic wæs ond mid Frysum
     ond mid Frumtingum.
Mid Rugum ic wæs ond mid Glommum
     ond mid Rumwalum.

and with Burgundians,
     there they gave me a ring:
there Guthere gave me
     a shining treasure,
as a reward for my songs.
     He was not a bad king!
With the Franks I was and with Frisians
     and with Frumtings.
With the Rugians I was and with Gloms
     and with Romans.


Swylce ic wæs on Eatule
     mid ælfwine,
se hæfde moncynnes,
     mine gefræge,
leohteste hond
     lofes to wyrcenne,
heortan unhneaweste
     hringa gedales,
beorhtra beaga,
     bearn Eadwines.

I was in Italy
     with Alboin too:
of all men he had,
     as I have heard,
the readiest hand
     to do brave deeds,
the most generous heart
     in giving out rings
and shining torcs,
     Audoin's son.


Mid Sercingum ic wæs
     ond mid Seringum;
mid Creacum ic wæs ond mid Finnum
     ond mid Casere,
se þe winburga
     geweald ahte,
wiolena ond wilna,
     ond Wala rices.
Mid Scottum ic wæs ond mid Peohtum
     ond mid Scridefinnum;

With the Saracens I was
     and with Seres.
With the Greeks I was and with the Finns
     and with Caesar,
he who a grand city
treasures and female slaves,
     and the Roman Empire.
With the Scots I was and with Picts
     and with Saamis.


mid Lidwicingum ic wæs ond mid Leonum
     ond mid Longbeardum,
mid hæðnum ond mid hæleþum
     ond mid Hundingum.
Mid Israhelum ic wæs
     ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum
     ond mid Egyptum.
Mid Moidum ic wæs ond mid Persum
     ond mid Myrgingum,

With the Lidvikings I was and with Leons
     and with Lombards,
with heathens and with heroes
     and with Hundings.
With the Israelites I was
     and with Assyrians,
with Hebrews and with Indians
     and with Egyptians.
With the Medes I was and with Persians
     and with Myrgings


ond Mofdingum
     ond ongend Myrgingum,
ond mid Amothingum.
     Mid Eastþyringum ic wæs
ond mid Eolum ond mid Istum
     ond Idumingum.
Ond ic wæs mid Eormanrice
     ealle þrage,
þær me Gotena cyning
     gode dohte;

and with Mofdings
     against the Myrgings,
and with Amothings.
     With the East-Thuringians I was
and with Eols and with Ists
     and Idumings.
And I was with Ermanaric
     during some time,
there the Goth king to me
     did his best to do good;

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anscombe, Alfred (1915), "The Historical Side of the Old English Poem of 'Widsith'", Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9: 123–165, doi:10.2307/3678298, JSTOR 3678298
  2. ^ a b c d e Lotte, Hedeager (2011). "Knowledge production reconsidered". Iron Age myth and materiality : an archaeology of Scandinavia, AD 400-1000. Abingdon, Oxfordshire; New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 177–190. ISBN 9780415606042. OCLC 666403125.
  3. ^ R.H. Hodgkin (1952). A History of the Anglo-Saxons. Vol. I (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Oxford University Press. p. 29.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  4. ^ Leonard Neidorf, "The Dating of Widsith and the Study of Germanic Antiquity," Neophilologus (January 2013)
  5. ^ Niles, John D. (2003). "The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet". Western Folklore. 62 (1/2): 7–61. JSTOR 1500445.
  6. ^ Viscla, 7 BC by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa on Porticus Vipsania
  7. ^ "Die Wilkinensage: Schlüssel zur unbekannten Frühgeschichte der Niederlande und Belgiens." Thidrekssaga-Forum E.V. 2006. p. 129


External links[edit]