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"The Husband's Message" is a 54-line poem contained in a mid 10th-century manuscript called the Exeter Book, a collection of anonymous poems written in Old English (a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon). Before the French-speaking Normans invaded England in 1066, the people living there spoke an entirely Germanic language. Although we call it "Old English," it really looks nothing like the English we speak today (unless you understand stuff like this: "Nū iċ onsundran þē." Yeah, we didn't think so).
Why do we even call it any kind of English, then? Well, mainly because after the Norman Conquest the Germanic language spoken in England mixed with French to become the delightful Latin-influenced mishmash we call English. That's why most people need a translation to understand Old English, which is what we'll be using here.
And the language isn't the only weird thing about this poem. The first part of "The Husband's Message" is spoken by a piece of wood. Yep, you heard that right – a piece of wood. It carries a message from a lord to his lady, asking her to join him in a faraway land to which he's been forced to flee because of feud violence. This messenger/piece of wood pulls out all the stops to convince the lady to come, assuring her of her lord's continued love and devotion, alluding to his great prosperity, flattering her, and reminding her of the vows the couple made in better times.
In the manuscript in which it was found, "The Husband's Message" comes immediately after 60 Anglo-Saxon riddles. Like this poem, the riddles are spoken by non-human objects or animals. They ask the reader to "say what I am." That's the question we're initially wondering about as "The Husband's Message" begins. Who is this speaker, who claims he grew up from a "kind of wood"? But as the poem progresses, it becomes as much about the message this piece of wood carries as about the speaker. This focus sets it apart from the riddles that come before it, making it a love-lyric or lament as much as a riddle.
At the end of the poem, after his message has been delivered, the speaker voices several runes – mysterious pictograms that may once have been part of a rudimentary Anglo-Saxon written language, and may even have had magical associations for their users. Although their specific meaning has been lost to us, the speaker says these runes guarantee the lord's vows to his lady.
With these runes, the poem uses writing to convey a vow that would normally be spoken aloud, in effect speaking for the lord. This situation returns us to the one at the beginning of the poem. There, too, an inanimate object "spoke." In fact, the runes of "The Husband's Message" train our focus on the act and meaning of writing itself. Although we take writing for granted as an ordinary, everyday thing, "The Husband's Message" reminds us that writing, which enables those who are separated by an ocean to speak to one another, is actually kind of mysterious and magical.
All right, here's the situation: your sweetie has just broken up with you, even though the two of you pledged undying love for one another just a few weeks ago. You're consumed with sadness at your separation. Woe is you. All you want is to be together again. How can you convince him or her to come back to you?
If you're the guy in "The Husband's Message," you start out by telling her how you're feeling, that you're still hopelessly, helplessly in love. But that may not be enough. After all, your ex is pretty hot and has a lot of options as far as people to date. And they live right next door, whereas you live all the way across town. What do you have to offer that the others don't? Good looks? A great sense of humor? Or perhaps you hang with a great crowd and can tempt her with all the fun you'll have once you're back together again.
Our speaker in "The Husband's Message" entices his ladylove with the promise of lots of bling and fun parties at which she'll be the belle of the ball. But his trump card is definitely the fact that he and his lady have a history together. They spoke vows. Were those just empty words? Did they mean nothing to her? Mix this guilt-trip in with a little bit of flattery and you've got a recipe for a pretty darn convincing let's-get-back-together text message.
Translation of "The Husband's Message"
This is the translation we used in this guide. It comes from Old and Middle English c. 890 – c. 1400: An Anthology, edited and translated by Elaine Treharne.
Another Translation of "The Husband's Message"
This 1911 translation is from Early English Poems, selected and edited by Henry Pancoast and Duncan Spaeth.
England c. 450 -- 1066 In a Nutshell
At anglo-saxons.net you can find information about the history, culture, and famous figures of Anglo-Saxon England. It also links to side-by-side translations of four old Germanic poems, "Deor," "The Seafarer," "The Wanderer" and the Old Norse "Havamál."
British Museum Anglo-Saxon Holdings
Explore the British Museum's collection of Anglo-Saxon artifacts, from a spooky-looking knight's helmet to beautiful, ornate twisted-gold jewelry of the sort the messenger describes in the poem.
The Staffordshire Hoard
Anglo-Saxonists were bowled over by the recent discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest gold-hoard ever to be unearthed. This site collects information about its discovery and history and allows you to view hundreds of objects from the hoard.
Before the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo burial site was the largest source of Anglo-Saxon artifacts. The Sutton Hoo Society's website provides images of the site and artifacts as well as its own, extremely comprehensive "best of the web"-like page for Anglo-Saxon literature, history, and archaeology.
Old English Aerobics
Professor Peter Baker's online "workout room" for learning Old English provides a guide to the grammar and vocabulary of the language accompanied by game-like exercises to reinforce the lessons.
Professor Michael D.C. Drout reads "The Husband's Message" aloud in Old English. The "Anglo-Saxon Aloud" project aims to provide online recordings of the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record, as well as some prose works.
The Exeter Book
Although we weren't able to find a picture of "The Husband's Message" in its manuscript form, you can view other similar poems from The Exeter Book, including "The Wanderer" and "Deor."
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The history of Anglo-Saxon England as written by the Anglo-Saxons themselves.
Riddles from The Exeter Book
Interested in reading more of the poems in The Exeter Book? Check out this website, which provides the texts of other "riddles" plus modern English translation.
Anglo-Saxon Poetry, edited and translated by S.A.J. Bradley
This anthology contains prose translations of a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry. These translations are probably the most faithful to the originals in terms of word choice and syntax.
The Anglo-Saxon World, edited and translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Young-adult fiction author Kevin Crossley-Holland's interpretations of Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose are beautiful but not faithful translations. They provide a good, accessible introduction to the Anglo-Saxon literature.