Reevaluating the Role of Women in Beowulf
This essay explores the roles of women in Beowulf in a contextual assessment. It is often an incorrect assumption that women within Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon culture are subservient to a patriarchal culture that places little to no value on them. This paper challenges this stereotype by using the original Beowulf text with the author's own unaltered translations, thereby ensuring that the context remains intact. By limiting the influence of a modern translation, this essay avoids stripping the poem of its Anglo-Saxon verbiage, inflection, power, and meaning. Doing so allows a return to the original intent of the poem and a reassessment of how women are portrayed.
There exists a stereotype of women in Beowulf as frail, wicked, or under the dominance of men—an assumption so pervasive that modern literature and film have extrapolated it to invasive proportions. However, the female presence in Beowulf is far from a subservient one and must be revaluated from an Anglo-Saxon perspective. Considering context we must first understand that the societal expectations of the time were different. In the Laws of Aethelbert we are given several rules regarding behavior and legal ramifications for crime. Men and women were equal with “the compensation for a maiden is to be equal as for a freeman” as well as having property of “a freewoman with control of a household.” Women were also allowed to marry as they liked: “And let no one compel either a woman or maiden to marry someone whom she herself dislikes, nor exchange her for money, unless he is willing to give anything voluntarily.” Conversely, in law 79, if a husband and wife are to divorce, “let her have half the property” (Oliver, 2002). While each gender was considered free and equal, they were also deemed suitable for certain roles within the society. Typically men were looked on for their physical prowess while women were the focus of fertility, which can be seen in the titles they are given: men were referred to as wæpnedhealf (weapon-half) or sperehealf (spear-half) and women were wifhealf (wife-half) or spinelhealf (spindle-half). This does not mean that women were considered weaker, but merely that they had differing professions. In the mind of the Anglo-Saxons, what a person possessed outwardly was the way in which they were identified.
Perhaps the most extensive source of literature from the Anglo-Saxon period comes in the Beowulf epic. Though there is no knowledge of who first transcribed it, it remains the primary example of old English poetry as reflective of the society. Yet the common assumption that often comes from the reading of this text is that the women are believed to take on the predictably subservient role. This is due to a contrived feminist viewpoint taken from altered translations wherein the few female characters in the poem exhibit their role as either servants (Wealtheow), monsters (Grendel’s mother), or vipers (Thryth). It is not difficult to understand how the poem has been liberally altered from the original text. For example, in the unaltered poem Wealtheow is described as “noble lady” (þá fréolíc wíf)1“ Lady of the Helmings” (mb-éode þá idesHelminga) and “ Gold-adorned” (goldhroden) whereas in a modern translation she is mentioned in passing only as either giving men drinks or silently sitting beside Hrothgar (Ringler, 2005). It is in the dissonance between the original text and the modern ones that lead to the incorrect assumptions regarding the women in Beowulf.
To look at the poem from this perspective degrades it of context and power, thus lessening its importance and connection to the Anglo-Saxon world. On the surface it only appears that the women of Beowulf have only minor roles because their significance is either glossed over or specifically put down by scholars and analysts. To look at the poem from this perspective degrades it of context and power, thus lessening its importance and connection to the Anglo-Saxon world. On the contrary, in early Anglo-Saxon literature there is a stern representation of the strong woman in Beowulf. We are shown several female roles within the text, but none are more telling than those of Wealhtheow and Hygd. Although it can be assumed that these women have a lesser position given the little that is said about them in comparison to Hrothgar and Beowulf, they nevertheless have imperative roles within the tale whether positive or negative. Through the narration we can see the central positions that women hold within the society and the hall. Wealhtheow is Hrothgar’s wife and as such is expected to act as her position requires. She is known as “The woman of the Helmings” (Ymbeode þa ides Helminga),”clan host” (medostigge mæt mægþa hose) and the “great gold-adorned lady of the hall” (grette goldhroden guman on healle)2 “Her wisdom and ability to weave through the etiquette of court is central to the liquidity of the kingdom as seen during the passing of the cup. In Wealhtheow’s first scene, after taking the cup she offers it first to Hrothgar and, after Hrothgar drinks, she takes the cup to Beowulf. She asserts her power in this scene by visually displaying that Hrothgar is of the highest status in the court since he is given the cup first and that Beowulf has risen to higher place by Wealhtheow offering the cup after the king drinks. Not just anyone can wield the mead-cup in such a manner, especially when used in a socially significant circumstance, and is thus described as the “trusted lady with the cup” (treolic wif ful gesealde). She carries the ability to make decisions for the court, bestowing Beowulf with the grace and trust of Hrothgar.
Beowulf understands the significance of the gesture and thereafter promises that he will complete the task set before him, or else die in battle. His proclamation does not go unnoticed, as he is held to his words by those in the hall, particularly Wealtheow who “pleased with those words,/ With the boastful speech of the Geat; the gold-adorned lady went/ Glorious queen to sit with her lord.” (Ðam wife þa word wel licodon, gilpcwide Geates; eode goldhroden, freolicu folccwen to hire frean sittan).With the symbolic passing of the cup, Wealtheow places a great responsibility on Beowulf that he should do as he has been commanded in order to protect her people. Her position as the ring-giver, the gift-giver, places her in a unique place because it is she who has the power to bestow Beowulf with the rewards that comes from his killing of Grendel. Though Hrothgar is the one who promises Beowulf riches if he should be successful, it is Wealtheow who decides what gifts he will receive and if he will receive them at all. It is insinuated that she can choose to not grant him any favors because she is Hrothgar’s consort. However, the strongest display of Wealtheow’s power comes during the celebration of Grendel’s death. Independent of counsel, the queen rises in the hall to address the warriors and hail Beowulf for keeping his bargain. Again, this is done visually with Beowulf seated next to Wealtheow and Hrothgar’s sons and a cup being passed to him along with ornaments and jewelry. She is the supreme gift-giver, but does not reveal her true autonomy until she delivers a commanding speech to the company in the hall:
Ic þe an tela
I who am the ring-giver3
She makes a very powerful assertion that they will obey her desires because she is in just as high of a status as Hrothgar, and her command of speech confirms this. Moreover, she displays the value of doing as she says by rewarding Beowulf for protecting their people after she had laid the responsibility on him, but she also warns him that with his new status he is expected to behave in a certain way and she will hold him accountable if he wavers from this role. She acts of her own accord in this section, as she does often during the prose, without the influence of Hrothgar or any man. To suggest that Wealtheow is acting as a mere instrument of Hrothgar is to ignore the weight of her words and her clear authority over Beowulf and the other warriors in the hall.
The influence that women have transcends the queen of Hrothgar, specifically in the case of the peace-weaver wives as portrayed by Freawaru. Peace or discord due to a peace-weaver’s influence on politics and the amount of gravity that is bestowed upon this position cannot be overstated. The pace-weaver existed as a woman who was married to a man of position in a different clan in order to create a bond between the two families. War is something to be avoided in Beowulf, something that nearly every character treats heavily: Hrothgar speaks of Beowulf’s father instigating a feud between clans and they conceded to him to forgo invasion as well as recalling with sorrow the days when his houses and other were bathed in blood and the poet comments on Hildeburh’s loss as being a sorrowful circumstance that no one would wish another kinsman to endure. The entire purpose of the Beowulf epic is to show how he restored calm to the kingdom of Hrothgar from the monsters who kill without distinction. The deaths of any members of the clan are taken seriously because every life is worth something and the figures that are able to stave off feuds and death are women as peace-weavers. Nevertheless, the pristine argument for peace-weavers are that the exist in a patriarchal system which only allows women a pretense of authority, or that they are just figureheads of peace without doing anything significant to ensure it. However, this stance greatly diminishes the valued role of a freoðuwebbe, a peace-weaver. Since women serve as the central power that can determine peace or discord, even Beowulf exalts:
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
That she among all women a great many of the deadly feuds,
Without the position of these women there are feuds that must be fought, people who die, because a treaty cannot be established. Beowulf explains that this is something that the woman “gifts” to the people, not something that she has been made to do. A woman is the key to mending these disputes. They are far from background ornamentation, but characters who carry the weight of their social and political positions both symbolically and realistically.Continued on Next Page »