Beowulf and Lejre

Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (ASMAR), Vol. 22

Beowulf and Lejre

By John D. Niles (University of Wisconsin, Madison )
2007 | 495 + xii pp. | 100 + 48 color ills. | 978-0-86698-368-6 | Hardcover 7 x 10 in
MRTS 323 |

Featuring contributions by Tom Christensen and Marijane Osborn
With a preface by John Hines and an afterword by Tom Shippey
Edited by John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn

On the basis of legendary analogues, specialists in the Old English poem Beowulf have long inferred that the action of the main part of that poem is situated at the village of Gammel Lejre on the island of Zealand, Denmark. Archaeological excavations undertaken from 1986 to 1988 under the direction of Tom Christensen of Roskilde Museum yielded spectacular confirmation of that inference by uncovering the remains of two great halls at Lejre dating from ca. AD 680 to 990, one built on the site of the other. At that time, this discovery had little impact upon Beowulf scholarship, in part because the chief monograph reporting on the excavations was available only in Danish. In 2004–05, however, a new round of excavations revealed that a still earlier hall had once stood elsewhere at Lejre. This hall has been dated to the mid-sixth century, very close to the time when the action of Beowulf is set. The question of the Danish origins of the Beowulf story is thus now highlighted.

The main purpose of this book is to bring these archaeological discoveries to the attention of a wider public, with analysis of their significance. The book consists of five parts:

    1. A translation into English of Tom Christensen's 1991 monograph Lejre—Syn og Sagn (Lejre—Fact and Fable), together with a new chapter by Christensen on the most recent excavations.
    2. A presentation of other important archaeological studies relating to Lejre, including reports on the Iron Age cremation mound named Grydehøj, which dates from ca. 630 to 660.
    3. Essays by John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn evaluating the significance of these finds from the perspective of Old English scholarship, with attention to the complex legendary history of Lejre.
    4. A presentation, in their original texts and in modern English translation, of the chief medieval Latin and Old Norse documents that mention Lejre as the seat of power of the early kings of Denmark.
    5. Some impressions of Lejre made by antiquarians, travelers, poets, and artists who have known that place during the modern period and have described or evoked it in various ways.

Translations of texts originally written in foreign languages are provided by Niels and Faith Ingwersen (Danish), Carole E. Newlands (Latin), William Sayers (German), and John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn (Old Norse and Danish). With 48 color plates and over 100 black and white figures.


This is to my mind one of the most important and original contributions to understand the South Scandinavian Late Iron Age I have come upon. By combining archeological and written evidence the historical conclusions are convincing. A major contribution to Danish prehistory.

Professor Lotte Hedeager
Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History
University of Oslo