Hostages in Old English Literature

Melissa Bird


“Hostages in Old English Literature” examines the various roles that hostages have played in Anglo-Saxon texts, specifically focusing on the characterization of Æscferth in The Battle of Maldon. Historical context is considered in order to contextualize behavioral expectations that a 10th century Anglo-Saxon audience might have held. Since the poem was composed during the reign of Æthelred the Unready, an examination of hostages and incidents recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle during his rule help ground a socio-cultural approach. Furthermore, since Æscferth is among only a handful of named hostages in Old English literature, these other hostages have been analyzed and compared with him in order to further contextualize the hostage character. These hostages have been identified based on a broadened concept of the term “hostage” to include the social expectations of a medieval stranger. These other hostages create a continuum for changing hostage loyalty to his new community that reflects the evolving warrior ethics at the end of the 10th century. Based on the presented evidence, this thesis concludes that Æscferth, as a hostage, best symbolizes The Battle of Maldon’s call for English unity at the end of the 10th century.