Widsith is an Old English poem of 144 lines that draws on earlier oral traditions of Anglo-Saxon tale singing. The only text of the fragment is copied in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century containing approximately one sixth of all surviving Old English poetry. Widsith is located between the poems Vainglory and The Fortunes of Men. Since the discovery of the Exeter Book in 1076, it has been housed in the Exeter Cathedral in southwest England. The poem is for the most part a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe: see Tribes of Widsith. Excluding the introduction of the scop Widsith, the closing, and brief interpolated comments, the poem is divided into three 'catalogues', so-called thulas. The first thula runs through a list of the various kings of renown, both contemporary and ancient ("Caesar ruled the Greeks"), the model being '(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)'. The second thula contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, the model being 'With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe).' In the third and final thula, the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited, with the model '(Hero's name) I sought and (hero's name) and (hero's name).'
The poem refers to a group of people called the Wicinga cynn, which may be the earliest mention of the word "Viking" (lines 47, 59, 80). It closes with a brief comment on the importance and fame offered by poets like Widsith, with many pointed reminders of the munificent generosity offered to tale-singers by patrons "discerning of songs."
|Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar heoldon lengest
||Hroðulf and Hroðgar held the longest
|sibbe ætsomne suhtorfædran,
||peace together, uncle and nephew,
|siþþan hy forwræcon wicinga cynn
||since they repulsed the Viking-kin
|ond Ingeldes ord forbigdan,
||and Ingeld to the spear-point made bow,
|forheowan aet Heorote Heaðobeardna þrym.
||hewn at Heorot Heaðobards' army.
The widely-travelled poet Widsith (his name simply means "far journey") claims himself to be of the house of the Myrgings, who had first set out in the retinue of "Ealhild, the beloved weaver of peace, from the east out of Angeln to the home of the king of the glorious Goths, Eormanric, the cruel troth-breaker." The Ostrogoth Eormanric was defeated by the Huns in the 5th century. It is moot whether Widsith literally intends himself, or poetically means his lineage, either as a Myrging or as a poet, as when "the fictive speaker Deor uses the rhetoric of first-person address to insert himself into the same legendary world that he evokes in the earlier parts of the poem through his allusions to Weland the smith, Theodoric the Goth, Eormanric the Goth, and other legendary figures of the Germanic past" (Niles 2003, p 10). Historically, we know that one speaker could not travel to see all of these nations in one lifetime. In a similar vein, "I was with the Lidwicingas, the Leonas and the Langobards," Widsith boasts,
- "with heathens and heroes and with the Hundingas.
- I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
- with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians..."
The poem that is now similarly titled Deor, also from the Exeter Book, draws on similar material.