This poem--or rather fragment of a poem--is typical of Anglo-Saxon literature in many ways. It existed in only one manuscript, and that manuscript was destroyed in the famous Cotton Library fire of 1731 (See Bradley's introduction to the poem.) Luckily someone had made a copy of it before the fire, so, unlike many other Anglo-Saxon poems, it survived the ravages of time, war, fire, neglect, disintegration or reuse of parchment, and the Protestant Reformation's destruction of the monasteries' large manuscript libraries.
The Anglo-Saxon literature that we study in our colleges and universities today has been described as "a small body of literature entirely surrounded by critics," and in fact there are definitely more critical works about these poems than there are poems themselves. There is quite a large body of Latin literature still surviving, but most of it is religious poetry, sermons, saints' lives, treatises, business records, and other such things that until recently scholars have not found particularly beautiful or interesting. Interest in the Latin literature of the early Middle Ages is growing, however, but I haven't studied enough of it myself, so you are spared reading it.
The vernacular (written in Old English rather than in Latin) literature is grouped according to the manuscripts in which it is found. There are four main manuscripts and a variety of shorter pieces. Anglo-Saxon manuscripts usually contain not just the poem itself but more practical works all bound together to save space and materials (parchment is cow's or calf's skin beaten thin and isn't easily made or available in the great quantities that paper is.) Some of the works exist on scraps of parchment or fragments of manuscripts. I have a facsimile of the Vercelli manuscript which I will show you in class sometime; in the meantime, it's in The Writing Lab if you'd like to take a look at it to see what happens to text written in ink on parchment--holes, burns, water stains, smudges, tears, disintegrative damage, and texts washed out and covered with other texts. Reading Medieval manuscripts is an area of study called paleography and believe it or not, there are scholars who spend their whole lives studying manuscripts for various purposes.
The poem itself is about a battle between a comitatus of Anglo-Saxons and a comitatus of Viking invaders that actually took place in 991. If you want more information about the actual historical battle and all sorts of other things about the poem, Byrhtnoth, Maldon, or Vikings, check out this Battle of Maldon Web site: http://www.airflow.demon.co.uk/byrhtnot.htm
The poem gives a pretty accurate picture, we think, of a comitatus in action, and explores the theme of loyalty to one's lord with all of its ramifications and complications. From the young man who releases his beloved hunting hawk to demonstrate his willingness to accept death rather than hope for a safe return to his favorite pet (but see Shannon Holmes' essay on birds and horses in the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Lit forum for a different interpretation of this passage), to the young Wulfmaer who kills his lord's slayer with the very spear that the slayer threw, to the aged Byrhtwold who utters what have become the most famous lines in the Anglo-Saxon corpus--lines which capture the heart of comitatic loyalty-- the poem is full of examples of that loyalty in action. So pay attention to each warrior named and described, and notice the various ways in which the comitatus were expected to demonstrate their loyalty to lord and tribe.
Bradley argues that "The Battle of Maldon" demonstrates "a victory of the national spirit" (Anglo Saxon Poetry 519) that is part of the larger propagandistic tendency of Anglo-Saxon chronicles and records to treat "the Danes as a trial of the nation," but it seems to me that the poem is not so much concerned with nationalistic pride as with simply exploring the demands of comitatic society and the response of individuals to those demands. It is my understanding that the concept of nationalism and loyalty to one's country developed much later in Medieval times--probably not until the late 1300's. About the only textual evidence I find in the poem to support Bradley's point is in lines 50-53 where Byrhtnoth tells the Vikings ". . .here stands a worthy earl with his troop of men who is willing to defend this his ancestral home, the country of Aethelraed, my lord's nation and land." I'd have to check the grammar of the Anglo-Saxon original to be sure that "who" is singular and refers to Byrhtnoth rather than to his whole troop, but if that is indeed the case, then it is Byrhtnoth who feels loyalty to Aethelraed, not his comitatus. There is no real sense that I see here of national pride, but simply the early development of feudalism, with Byrhtnoth in the same relationship to Aethelraed as Byrhtnoth's comitatus is to Byrhtnoth himself. But see what you think as you read the poem for yourself.
There are many other topics you could consider as you prepare your recitations on this poem. What does it seem to tell us about Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards your research paper topic? Even silence on such a topic is significant--why, for example, is there no discussion of women, sex, health? The answers might seem obvious at first, but if you follow thorough on the implications of those answers, you can discover interesting insights about the similarities and differences between Anglo-Saxon culture and our own.
What kinds of topics are mentioned? How are they treated? And why do you think they are treated that way? Look particularly at family relationships, class differences (notice the function of the hostage in the poem), attitudes towards age. Consider the politics of the situation--was Byrtnoth at fault for letting the Vikings cross the bridge rather than picking them off one by one as they came across? See the Battle of Maldon Web site for discussion of that question, one of the main topics of critical discussion about the poem.
What attitude towards comitatic loyalty does the poem seem to have--is it entirely supportive of the comitatic mindset, or is there anything in the poem that makes you feel that maybe the poet thought his people should be looking for a different way to cope with life? How are the cowards treated--how do you feel about them first when their running away is described, and then later when the faithful warriors talk about them? What seems to be the attitude of the warriors towards their comrades' desertion? What would you have felt and done if you had been a warrior at that battle?
Finally, don't forget the artistry of the poem. We will be reading all our works this semester in translation, which is sort of too bad, because you lose much of the beauty of the language and imagery that way, but there is still plenty to find. Pay attention here to the description, the word choice and syntax of the sentences, and the use of irony and understatement so typical of Anglo-Saxon writing. Think about your intellectual and emotional reaction to what you are reading and feel free to develop your recitation or responses around what you like or dislike about the poem's use of language and poetic techniques.
Most of all, relax and enjoy this poem as you read it!