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The role of women in Beowulf

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Some critics have argued that “women had no place in the masculine, death-centered world of Beowulf”[1]. Probably because of the importance of male heroism in this poem, the significance of women is minimized. Even though it is true that their appearance is limited and brief, they do play fundamental roles in it. This essay will introduce women and their roles in Beowulf , giving examples that clarify the centrality and prove the importance of female characters in the poem. All future quotations are based on Swanton’s edition translated into modern English.

The women that appear in Beowulf are: Wealhtheow, Hygd, Hildeburh, Freawaru, Thyrth and Grendel’s mother. There are two queens among them: Wealhtheow and Hygd. They are both queens in that they are married to the king, and they are hostesses in that they receive people in the hall and make sure that everyone is drinking and having a good time. Noble women played an important role in heroic Anglo-Saxon society and had an essential influence in the hall, especially in hall ceremonies, though they also played an active role in diplomacy. The hall is presented as the central social element in the poem, where people gathered together to talk about the major events of the court.

The poet always makes use of positive words to describe them. Wealhtheow is “mindful of etiquette” (613), “a noble-hearted queen” (624), and “perfect in speech” (624).

Their role as hostesses has to do with the duty of carrying the mead cup and pass it to the king and warriors. This apparently unimportant task is more revealing than we may think; it establishes a hierarchy in the hall.

The idea of a nobleman’s ideal wife was reflected in the poem Maxim I: “at mead drinking she must at all times and places approach the protector of princes first, in front of the companions, quickly pass the first cup to her lord’s hand[2]. So this role of cupbearer assigned to noble women was directly linked to the status within the hall.

The first time Wealhtheow makes her appearance in the poem (612-641), she offers the cup to Hrothgar first, making clear that he is the most powerful figure in the hall, the king:  þa freolic wif ful gesealde ærest East-Dena eþelwearde (615-616) “the noble woman gave the goblet first to the guardian of the East Danes’ homeland”. According to Michael J. Enright, because of this she is seen as “an extension of and a support of his kingly power”[3].  Then, she passes it to the rest of the knights, and finally to Beowulf. He promises to get rid of Grendel, and Wealhtheow, pleased with his words, returns to her seat. He is the last man to receive the cup because he is a newcomer, a foreigner that just arrived to Heorot. Because of this, Hrothgar needs to show his power, by receiving the goblet first, in the presence of the stranger Beowulf. This act makes Beowulf aware of who is the master of the place.

However, things change the second time she appears (1162-1231), when Wealhtheow offers the cup to the king first, as usual, and right after that to Beowulf.

Since he kept his promise and killed Grendel, he has risen in status now. He has the honour to receive the mead cup right after the king, in representation of his newly earned status.

The other hostess-queen is the young and beautiful Hygd, king Hygelac’s wife. Because of her gentleness and kindness, she is contrasted in the poem with the legendary queen Modthryth and her innate cruelty and wickedness.

The importance of order in the distribution of the cup is present again in Hygd’s first appearance (1980-83): “Hæreth’s daughter moved through the spacious building with mead-cups, cared for the people, carried flagons of drinks to the hands of the Hæthnas”.

These two women also have some influence on politics. During the celebration of Grendel’s death, Wealhtheow addresses her speech to Hrothgar (1168-1187) and then to Beowulf (1216-1231). In the first speech, she urges him to “be gracious towards the Geats” (1173)but not to make Beowulf heir of the kingdom, as she has heard “they told me that you wish to take the warrior to be a son to you” (1175-76). Instead, she encourages him to make Hrothulf his heir, to protect her sons: “I know my gracious Hrothulf that he will treat these youths honourably if you […] should leave the world before him”. (1180-83). With this, she is clearly protecting her own interests, since she wants to make sure that someone from the family inherits the kingdom, and not an outsider. Because there are no sings that the king ignored her petition, we can say that she has some influence on Hrothgar’s decisions.

In her speech addressed to Beowulf, Wealhtheow urges him to accept the presents she has given to him: “Beloved Beowulf, enjoy this collar with good fortune […] , and make good use of this garment” (1216-17). With these words she proves she is such a great hostess, showing her generosity and kindness through her presents. In Old English poetry, noble women in their role of hostesses, also gave gifts. This act of gift giving established reciprocity, an important mutual exchange between the giver and the receiver, and played an essential part in dynastic succession. At the end of the speech, her final words reflect self-assurance and confidence, and illustrate her power over people and her right to command them: “the noble men, having drunk, will do as I ask” (1230-31).

Another example of political power lays on Hygd. After her husband’s death, she tries to pass the kingdom on Beowulf (“there Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings and a princely throne” 2369-70), since she thinks her son isn’t ready to rule the Geats (“she did not trust that her son knew how to hold the throne of his homeland against foreign nations” 2373-76). She’s taking her husband’s role, doing what he would have done, in making this important decision. This shows that women in Beowulf are not marginal at all, but they have central public roles as hostesses, gift givers and also have some influence in politics, taking their own decisions and giving orders as they please.

Then we have the two peaceweavers, Hildeburh and Freawaru. They are called peaceweavers because they were given in marriage to someone from a group considered the “rival” in order to make peace with them. Once the groups were united, these

women had an influence on both of them. As Pauline Stafford points out: “She is a link between hostile peoples united by marriage. […] this makes her a living reminder of past defeats […]”[4].

Hildeburgh, daughter of the Danish king, married the king of the Jutes, Finn, in order to establish peace between the two groups. We know about her through a story told by a scope (1071-1158), after Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel. Eventually, her task as

peaceweaver is successful: she marries someone from another tribe and has a son with him, blending together the blood of the Danish and the Jutes. However, this union did not last long, since the two peoples kept fighting, resulting in the death of Hildeburh’s husband, son and brother.

Another failed attempt to unite two peoples is the case of Freawaru, king Hrothgar’s daughter. She has an even smaller appearance in the poem than Hildeburh, but again, her role as peaceweaver makes her important. Her marriage to Ingeld, the king of the Heathobards, is seen as an insult, because these two tribes had been enemies for many years. This is another example of a “story within the story”, just like it happens with Hildeburh. In this case, Freawaru’s story is told by Beowulf to his king (2020-2069), Hygelac, after he returns to his land. He doubts that this story will be successful, given the tension existing between the two tribes.This marriage was so desired by the Danes because they had killed Ingeld’s father in one of the battles, and were trying to avoid their revenge. Finally, it is Ingeld himself who decides to avenge his father’s death killing those who destroyed him.

Finally, we find the two monster-like women in the poem, namely Grendel’s mother and Thryth. These women are monstrous in that they are all the opposite to peaceweavers and hostesses: they are comfortable and satisfied using violence to solve their disputes and they do not welcome anyone that comes into their houses. They can be considered violent and cruel because they rather make use of weapons and their physical strength rather than using words or marriage to influence other people, just like Wealhtheow or Hildeburh.

Grendel’s mother is another example of powerful woman. She’s independent, as she lives in her house alone and protects it herself. She confronts Beowulf on her own to take revenge for Grendel’s death.

Thyrth was an evil princess, guilty of many wicked crimes, who used to kill anyone that came into her hall. The main difference between these two monster-like women is that while Grendel’s mother is a monster herself, Thyrth is human. Because she is a princess, she functions within society and has a social status, which Grendel’s mother will never have. That society within which she functions will finally have an influence on her and will help her change her attitude: “famous for virtue, while living made good use of the life destined for her, maintained a profound love for the chief of heroes” (1951-54). Finally, both of them are tamed: Thyrth finds love in Offa and marries him (“she brought about fewer acts of malice, injuries to the people, as soon as she was given […] to the young champion, the dear prince” 1946-49), and Grendel’s mother is affected by her son’s death.

Women in Beowulf are not insignificant excluded figures, nor is their role limited in the poems. Sometimes they are peace weavers, hostesses, cup bearers, etc. They also have some influence on politics and take their own decisions which concern the fate of a kingdom. They can be independent like Grendel’s mother, evil like Thyrth, gracious like Wealhtheow or s, but they are all powerful queens, mothers or wives.

Bibliography:

Bjork, Robert E. & Niles, John D. (Editors). A Beowulf Handbook. (1997). University of Nebraska Press. p.313

Enright, Michael J. Lady with a Mead Cup. (1996). Four Courts Press. p.14.

Stafford, Pauline. “Emma: the powers of the Queen in the eleventh century” article included in the book Queens and Queenship in medieval Europe.(1997). Edited by Anne Duggan. The Boydell Press.

Swanton, Michael. (ed. & trans.) Beowulf. (1997) Manchester University Press.


[1] Bjork, Robert E. & Niles, John D. (Editors). A Beowulf Handbook. (1997). University of Nebraska Press. p.313

[2] Old English Maxims I, 88-92

[3] Enright, Michael J. Lady with a Mead Cup. (1996). Four Courts Press. p.14.

[4] Stafford, Pauline. “Emma: the powers of the Queen in the eleventh century” article included in the book Queens and Queenship in medieval Europe.(1997). Edited by Anne Duggan. The Boydell Press.

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