The Anglo-Saxon Scop and Gleeman.—Our earliest poetry was made current and kept fresh in memory by the singers. The kings and nobles often attached to them a scop, or maker of verses. When the warriors, after some victorious battle, were feasting at their long tables, the banquet was not complete without the songs of the scop. While the warriors ate the flesh of boar and deer, and warmed their blood with horns of foaming ale, the scop, standing where the blaze from a pile of logs disclosed to him the grizzly features of the men, sang his most stirring songs, often accompanying them with the music of a rude harp. As the feasters roused his enthusiasm with their applause, he would sometimes indulge in an outburst of eloquent extempore song. Not infrequently the imagination of some king or noble would be fired, and he would sing of his own great deeds.
We read in Beowulf that in Hrothgar’s famous hall—
“...eth=aer was hearpan sw=eg,
swutol sang scopes.”
...there was sound of harp
Loud the singing of the scop.
In addition to the scop, who was more or less permanently attached to the royal court or hall of a noble, there was a craft of gleemen who roved from hall to hall. In the song of Widsieth we catch a glimpse of the life of a gleeman:—
“Sw=a scriethende gesceapum hweorfaeth
gl=eomen gumena geond grunda fela.”
Thus roving, with shaped songs there wander
The gleemen of the people through many lands.
The scop was an originator of poetry, the gleeman more often a mere repeater, although this distinction in the use of the terms was not observed in later times.
The Songs of Scop and Gleeman.—The subject matter of these songs was suggested by the most common experiences of the time. These were with war, the sea, and death.
[Illustration: ANGLO-SAXON GLEEMAN. From the tapestry designed by H.A. Bone.]
The oldest Anglo-Saxon song known, which is called Widsieth or the Far Traveler, has been preserved in the Exeter Book. This song was probably composed in the older Angle-land on the continent and brought to England in the memories of the singers. The poem is an account of the wanderings of a gleeman over a great part of Europe. Such a song will mean little to us unless we can imaginatively represent the circumstances under which it was sung, the long hall with its tables of feasting, drinking warriors, the firelight throwing weird shadows among the smoky rafters. The imagination of the warriors would be roused as similar experiences of their own were suggested by these lines in Widsieth’s song:—
“Ful oft of eth=am h=eape hw=inende
giellende g=ar on grome eth=eode.”
Full oft from that host hissing flew
The whistling spear on the fierce folk.
The gleeman ends this song with two thoughts characteristic of the poets of the Saxon race. He shows his love fur noble deeds, and he next thinks of the shortness of life, as he sings:—