Beowulf - Introduction

Beowulf was the first major poem in Old English. Beowulf is a legendary hero, exhibiting the ideal Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocratic values. The poem tells of his battles against the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother and a dragon. To some extent, it can also be seen as a teaching tool, with many passages setting out the moral obligations of an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat.

Although the name of Beowulf is not mentioned in other known stories, the character - a man as strong as a bear - is common in the Icelandic and Old Norse sagas. Heroic incidents in the poem show similarities to a range of North European tales, such as Grettir the Strong's battle against a monster troll family and Thor's battle against the serpent wrapped round Yggdrasil.

A translation of the poem is available on Project Gutenberg. (Even in translation and with limited understanding of the world it represents, it is a surprisingly enjoyable read, especially given that reading it in Middle English is generally considered one of the most tedious parts of University English courses.) These web-pages will discuss a few aspects of the poem, in particular, what light it sheds on Anglo-Saxon power relations and beliefs.

Social context

Angles, Saxons and Jutes made up the first wave of Northern European invasion of Britain, in the 5th century. They brought the "heroic" values that supported a warrior aristocracy. Apart from the surviving sagas, the best record we have of these values was written by Tacitus in Germania, 98 AD. Tacitus was using the supposed Germanic warrior virtues to criticise what he saw as Roman decadence, but many of his points are supported by evidence from within Beowulf.

The war band revolved around a chief (dryhten) , with by a troop of warriors (gedryht) sworn to protect him with their lives. A warband was divided into two groups - the experienced (duguo)and inexperienced (geogoo). The ideal was to earn a good name after death through one's actions in battle. The warrior's virtues were shown in recklessness, bravery and loyalty. The chief's virtues were seen in his generosity. He rewarded his warriors with gifts and is often referred to as the "gold-giver". According to lines 20 to 25 in Beowulf, a future leader should distribute gifts lavishly, so as to be certain of protection in the future.

Kinship was another crucial value. A man of any standing neded sons, in particular. A warrior must remain loyal to his kin.

..So ought a kinsman
always act, never weave nets
of evil in secret, prepare the death
of close companions. With war-bold Hygelac
his nephew kept faith, his man ever loyal,
and each always worked for the other's welfare
Chickering, p 177

An individual's kin had a duty to avenge any wrongs done to him. Thus, the death of one member of a family could lead to generations of reciprocal killings. Beowulf provides numerous examples of how kinship relationships interact with other duties and pleasures.

However, as a man's worth was symbolised by how much gold he could win through his deeds, feuds could be ended by a money payment to his kin, wer-gild as a substitute for seeking vengeance through blood. This made it possible to limit the impact of feuds without loss of social standing.

The value of a man's life reflected his social standing. The worth of an aristoocratic man was 6 times that of an ordinary freeman. A slave had no value but his owner had to be paid his cost. (Chickering p263.) Chickering does not mention the value of a woman's life, if any. The standing of women in Germanic society was probably higher than in Tacitus' Rome, but, being unlikely to lead warbands, Anglo-Saxon female aristocrats could not achieve very high status in such a society. Anglo-Saxon noblewomen owned their own property. However, they could be traded in marriage for political ends.

In the Beowulf poem, women provide a source of advice, suggesting that the thinking role might fall to women, in a glory-obsessed warrior aristocracy. Women are particularly souces of knowledge about cultural values, e.g. Wealtheow in lines 1161 to 1190

Accept this cup, my noble lord,
gold-giving king; be filled in your joys,
treasure friend to all, and give to the Geats
your kind words, as is proper for men;
in your generous mind, be gracious to the Weders,
remembering the gifts you have from all tribes.
Chickering, p 117

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4