5 The Cotton Maxims

“God as Architect” by unknown artist. 13th c. France. Wikimedia Commons.


by Cassidy Arnett


The Cotton Maxims are a series of gnomic or wisdom poems–poems that relay wisdom to the reader through broad and universal connections–that were written by unknown authors sometime during the Middle Ages, estimated around the 7th or 8th centuries for Maxims I and the 11th century for Maxims II (Cocco; Finty Trust). Though they may share common themes and look similar at first glance, these two collections are separate entities published in separate manuscripts and share no apparent connection other than their assigned titles. “Maxims I” are broken up into three subsections: A, B, and C, while “Maxims II” are undivided and do not share the same structure. The first Maxims start with a narrator offering their wisdom or their “olden words” on human behaviors and God’s expectations of humankind, then gradually transition to laws of nature, and in the final section compares differences between the Germanic god Odin to the Christian God and discusses human needs. In Maxims II, although common in theme to  Maxims I, it is comparably generalized and feels much more loosely organized. Some critics argue that the poems in Maxims II read more like a list of unconnected verses with little to no structure, while others believe they are all related and that the verses are linked (Jackson).



Regarding the Maxims and their authorship, little is known about who may be responsible for their composition, although “obsolete” speculation points to a poet “Cynewulf” for a possible creator (Cocco). Other skeptics suggest that the gnomes were written by an unknown woman, pointing to the wisdom on parenting and wifely duties as evidence of this. Regardless, it is apparent that these are compilations of generations of wise proverbs lying somewhere between the “heathenistic” Germanic pagan belief systems and the conservative Christian ideology (Cocco). We know that because of the contrasting belief systems present in the gnomes, they were likely tampered with or influenced by the Christian clergy who transcribed them, especially evident in Maxims II when Odin is described as the “creator of idols” where the Christian god is proclaimed the creator of “glory” and the universe and is described with much more emphasis in order to portray his apparent superiority (Cocco).



These poems go into detail about a broad spectrum of universal themes to mankind, ranging from morality to aristocratic expectations, and to the duties of a wife.  The maxims often illustrate societal expectations of men and women in these times and discuss how people were supposed to behave; for example, women were expected to “be with a man…and birth children for the world” just as “a tree must stand out of the ground and watch its leaves disappear.” These maxims serve to offer a series of truths about the world around us and expectations of human behavior, and in doing so commands the reader to adhere to these same rules to those that bind their very surroundings. The frequent juxtapositions of “what is” and “what should be” help to suggest that in order to survive and live a good Christian life, one must adhere strictly to these rules in the same way that a star must only live in the heavens.

Works Cited

Cocco, Gabriele. “The Old English Gnomic Poems Maxims I and Maxims II in the Exeter Book and MS. Cotton Tiberius B.i: A Critical Edition with a Variorum Commentary. [Ph.D. thesis].” Padua@Research, n.d. paduaresearch.cab.unipd.it/2769/ Accessed 23 July 2020.

Fintry Trust. “Old English Wisdom: Maxims II and The Wanderer.” Youtube, 04 Nov. 2105. www.youtube.com/watch?v=eC4rszy7zvM&feature=youtu.be Accessed 23 July 2020.

Jackson, Elizabeth. “Not Simply Lists: An Eddic Perspective on Short-Item Lists in Old English Poems,” Speculum,  73, 2 (Apr., 1998): 338.

“A Page from the C Manuscript of the en:Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” Wikimedia Commons, 11 March 2017. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anglo-Saxon_Chronicle_-_C_-_871.jpg Accessed 23 July 2020.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do the authors frequently connect the natural world with human life? What connections are made between these two themes?
  2. Do you believe the maxims in Maxims II are connected, or are they merely a broad list of separate ideas? Why do you feel one way or the other?
  3. Would the ideas and wisdom presented in these gnomes stand true today? Or are they exclusive to the era in which they were written?
  4. In Maxims I, why might the author feel the need to compare the Germanic god Odin (Woden) to the Christian God?
  5. Compare and contrast Maxims I and Maxims II. In which ways are they similar? In which ways are they different?

Further Resources

  • A lecture on Maxims II by Dr. Eleanor Parker of the University of Cambridge, recorded on Youtube
  • Encyclopedia Britannica article on gnomic poetry
  • Aaron K. Hostetter’s translations of Maxims I & Maxims II (contemporary translations) from Old English Poetry Project

Reading: Maxims I



Question me with wise words. Do not let your mind be hidden,
or the mystery that you know most deeply. I will not tell you my
if you conceal me from your wisdom and your heart’s thoughts.
Wise men shall exchange sayings.

First of all one shall fittingly praise
God, our Father, since in the beginning He ordained us
life and fleeting joy; He will claim those gifts from us.
God shall exist in glory. Man shall live on the earth,
and the young man grow old. Our God is external;
the Fates do not change Him, and He, the Almighty,
is not afflicted at all by disease or age.


He does not grow old in spirit, but He is still as He was,
the long-suffering Prince. He give us thoughts,
different dispositions, many languages.
Many an island holds in its wide embrace
many kinds of life. The Judge, Almighty God,
established for the sake of mankind
the broad lands, and equally many
of both peoples and customs. Sage shall hold
a meeting with sage; they are congenial spirits.
They ever settle disputes, and advise peace,
which evil men have previously rejected.
Good counsel shall go with wisdom, justice with the wise,
a good man with good men. Two are consorts;
woman and man shall bring children into the world
by means of birth.

The tree shall suffer
the loss of its leaves upon the earth, and lament its branches.
The dying man shall depart, the doomed man die,
and every day struggle
at his parting from the world. God alone knows
where goes the pestilence that departs out of a land;
He multiplies children when an early disease is taking them away,
and thus there e come to be so many of mankind upon earth.
There would not be any limit to the population on the earth
if it were not diminished by Him who created the world.


Foolish is he who knows not his Lord; often death comes unexpectedly upon him.
Wise men protect their souls and duly maintain their righteousness.
Happy is he who prospers in his home, wretched he whom his friends deceive;
never shall he be happy whom his store fails, for a time he shall be bound by distress.
The innocent shall be glad. The blind man shall be without his eyes.
he is deprived of clear sight; his eyes cannot observe those radiant stars.
the sun and moon. That is grievous and distressing to his mind.
when he is aware of his loneliness, and has no expectations that his sight will return.
The Lord appointed him that punishment, and He can grant him recovery,
healing in his head’s jewel, if  He knows his heart to be pure.


The sick man needs a physician. The young man shall be taught,
encouraged and incited to have good knowledge, until he has been civilized.
Let him be given food and clothing until he has been brought to understanding.
He shall not be rebuked when young until he ma show his character.
he shall then prosper among the people, because he will be firm of purpose.
One shall restrain a violent mind. In seasons of fierce weather
the sea, the ocean, often brings the storm. The dark waves begin
angrily to hasten on from afar towards the land, as if to know
whether it will stand firm;
the cliffs resist them, and they both endure the wind.

Just as the sea is serene

when the wind does not rouse it,

so peoples are peaceful when they have settled their disputes;
they live in safety, and then amid their comrades
brave men hold a natural sovereignty. A king is eager for power.
Disliked is he who claims land, popular he who offers more.
Majesty shall go with pride; bold men with brave men;
those together shall quickly join the battle.
The earl shall be on horseback, the cavalry shall ride in company,
the infantry stand fast.

A woman is in her fitting place at her embroidery;
a gadding woman causes talk to spread, she is often accused of vices;
men speak of her with contempt; often her beauty fades.
A man who feels shame shall walk in the shadow, an upright man
has his place in the light.
Hand shall lie upon head, the treasure remain in its resting place,
the throne stand arrayed until men distribute the treasure.
Eager is he who receives the gold, of which the man in the high seat has abundance.

There shall be recompense, if we will not prove false, to him who did us this favour.


All frost shall freeze, fire consume wood,
Earth grow its fruits. Ice shall bridge water,
Which shall carry its cover and cunningly lock
The herbs of earth. One only shall loose
The fetter of frost, the Father Almighty.
Winter shall away, the weather be fair,
The sun hot in summer. The sea shall be restless.
The deep way of death is the darkest of secrets.

Holly flames on the fire. Afar shall be scattered
The goods of a dead man. Glory is best.
A king shall with cups secure his queen,
Buy her with bracelets. Both shall at first
Be generous with gifts. Then shall grow in the man

The pride of war, and his wife shall prosper,
Cherished by the folk; cheerful of mood,
She shall keep all counsel and in kindness of heart
Give horses and treasure; before the train of heroes
With full measure of mead on many occasions

She shall lovingly greet her gracious lord,
Shall hold the cup high and hand him to drink
Like a worthy wife. Wisely shall counsel
The two who hold their home together.
The ship shall be nailed, the shield be bound,
The light linden-wood.

When he lands in the haven,
To the Frisian wife is the welcome one dear:
The boat is at hand and her bread-winner home,
Her own provider. She invites him in
And washes his sea-stained garments and gives him new ones to wear:
It is pleasant on land when the loved one awaits you.

Woman shall be wedded to man, and her wickedness oft shall disgrace him;
Some are firm in their faith, some forward and curious
And shall love a stranger while their lord is afar.
A sailor is long on his course, but his loved one awaits his coming,
Abides what can not be controlled, for the time will come at last

For his home return, if his health permit, and the heaving waters
High over his head do not hold him imprisoned.


One shall utter good counsel, write runes,
sing poems, desire a friend,
expound judgment, be diligent daily.
A good man does not forget a good and tame horse,
known and tried and round of hoof.
No man requires too much.


On every journey one shall hold to a friend closely;
often one goes far around the village where one knows no certain friend.
The friendless and unfortunate man makes companions of wolves,
very treacherous beasts. Very often that companion tears him.
There shall be a tear of the gray wolf, and a grave for the dead man;
it grieves because of hunger, and does not circle round that grave in lamentation,
and certainly the gray wolf does not weep over the slaughter
and sudden death of men, but always wishes it more.


The bandage shall be wound, the cruel man have punishment.
The bow shall have arrows, and man be comrade alike to both.
A gift of treasure deserves another;
gold shall be given away, and God can grant
possessions to the wealthy and take them away again.
The hall shall stand and itself grow.
A fallen tree grows least.


Trees shall spread out and the faith increase
That arises in the breast of the innocent.
A man false and reckless,
Venomous and faithless—
God cares not for him.


God created much that was from the beginning,
and bade it afterwards continue to exist.


For every one wise words are fitting,
for the gleeman a lay, and for man prudence.
There are as many thoughts as there are men upon the earth;
each has an individual mind.


He has then sad longing the less who knows many poems
or can greet the harp with his hands;
He has his gift of music which God has granted him.


Wretched is he who must live alone;
fate has ordained him to remain friendless.
It would be better for him that he had a brother, and that they both were
the sons of the same man, if they should attack a boar,
or both of them a bear—that is a beast with cruel paws.
Let those warriors always bear arms
and sleep in company.
never let them be separated at an assembly
until death part them.


Two shall sit at a game at the board, until their sorrow slips away from them;
they shall forget harsh fate, and enjoy themselves at the table.


The idle hands of a man shall have leisure enough at a board when he throws the dice,
but seldom in a broad ship, unless it is running under sale.


He shall be weary who rows against the wind; very often he is freely accused
of being slack, so that he grows disheartened, and his oar becomes dry on board.


Guile shall go with wickedness—hence a jewel is stolen—
And skill with what is fitting.
Often men bandy words
before they turn their backs on each other;
the resolute man is always ready.


There has been a feud among mankind ever since the earth drank the blood of Abel.
That was no mere hate of a day from which arose far and wide among men,
among many nations,
drops of blood due to strife, great crime,
hatred blended with harm. Cain slew his own brother,
devised that murder. Afterwards it became widely known
that constant hate did hurt to men, so that the peoples
endure the clash of weapons all over the earth,
and devised and hardened the destroying sword.


The shield shall be ready, the arrow-head on its shaft,
an edge on the sword, and a point to the spear,
courage in a brave man, and a helmet for a bold man,
and always the least treasure for the coward of soul.

Reading: Maxims II

The sword shall lodge in the bosom, that noble iron.
The dragon shall dwell on the mound, old, and proud of
his treasure.
The fish in the water shall bring forth his kind.
The king in his hall shall deal out gifts. …

Good striveth with evil; youth with age;
Life striveth with death; light with darkness;

Army fighteth with army. Foe with foe
Throughout the land shall ever urge conflict.
Ever the wise man ponders the strife of this world.

The outlaw shall hang, justly pay for his crimes against man.

Knoweth the Maker alone whither the soul shall fare —
All the spirits of men who fare to the Lord at the death-day,
and await, in the Father’s keeping, their doom.
Dark and secret the future !
God alone knows it, our Father the Savior.
None shall come hither beneath these roofs
Who can riddle to men the Lord*s creation —
The seats of the nations, the place of God’s dwelling.

Source Texts:

Maxims I: A & C

Mackie, W.S, editor. The Exeter Book: Part II: Poems IX-XXXII. Oxford University Press, 1934, licensed under No Known Copyright.


Maxims I: B 

Faust, Cosette and Stith Thompson. Old English Poems. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1918, licensed under No Known Copyright.


Maxims II

Cook, Albert. Select Translations from Old English Poetry. Boston, Glinn and Company, 1902 , licensed under No Known Copyright.



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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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