Ic ane geseah idese sittan: The Woman and Women Apart in Old English Poetry

© 2019 by Alexandra Reider. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2019 by The Heroic Age.

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Abstract: Old English poetry does not particularly lack for women, but it does lack for relationships between women. The present article builds upon previous observations of this absence as it elaborates on the ways in which the depiction of such relationships is forestalled in the corpus: it establishes in detail how rarely women speak to each other, are named in each other's company, and indeed are shown to interact in Old English verse. The isolated woman tends to feature instead. This gendered asymmetry of social interaction is then, finally, considered in a literary-historical longue durée.

§1. All things considered, Old English poetry does not particularly lack for women. Juliana, Judith, and Elene are title characters, per the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records; Wealhtheow, the Frisian wife, Eve, and Beadohild have strong supporting roles in their respective poems; and two of the more famous Old English elegies have female narrators. These women are only some of the more notable of the Anglo-Saxon literary record, the full richness and variety of which is still coming to light.1 In a poetic culture that is usually understood as constructed around masculine-oriented heroic and monastic norms, this showing is not altogether poor—though nor, it must be said, is it especially strong.2 Notable gaps in the poetry's coverage of women remain.

§2. Where Old English poetry is wanting is in its depiction of female relationships. Helen Damico observes that "There are no intimate relationships between females in Anglo-Saxon poetry, not even between mother and daughter" (Damico 1984, 20) and Mary Dockray-Miller goes one further, noting that "[e]ven less specific female relationship … does not seem to be portrayed in Old English poetry" (Dockray-Miller 1998, 167). Indeed: I have found three instances of one woman talking to another woman in a poetic corpus of over 30,000 lines: in Judith, in Genesis, and in The Descent into Hell. In all of these scenes, the speech is only reported, not directly narrated, and the second woman does not reply; and in two of the scenes, the second woman is the subordinate of the first. Female "interaction" is not interactive; it is one-sided and hierarchical, construable either as directive or vitriol. These three moments do not meet even the qualified standard of what is considered dialogic in Old English poetry: dialogue typically involves only two or three exchanges and is generally patterned as action-reaction (Louviot 2016, 30). "The basic structural unit" of speech, we learn, is "not the exchange but the speech itself" (61). The relative rarity of linguistic exchange may contribute to its value: Robert E. Bjork argues that in Old English narrative poetry, language functions as a "manifestation of gift economy" whereby "reciprocal exchange" allows one to "solidify alliances and friendships within and between groups" (Bjork 1994, 995; emphasis mine).3 Seen in this light, the lack of reciprocal linguistic exchange between women would appear to preclude the formation of female alliances and friendships as a subject of Old English verse. The question then becomes how—and if—female interaction, to say nothing of intimacy, is depicted in that same poetry.

§3. Whereas Shari Horner's work traces an ideology of monastic enclosure that informs representations of individual women in Anglo-Saxon texts, the present study traces the narrative circumstances and rhetorical strategies that bring about and frame the representations of multiple women in Old English poetry (Horner 2001). But because the lack of female relationships in Old English poetry has already been acknowledged in scholarship, my objective then becomes to reveal the ways in which the depiction of female relationships is forestalled in the corpus, focusing on what happens textually when women do appear but with little narrative space given to any relationship that may exist between them. This essay will therefore take up three ways in which female interaction is, as it were, not-described. As outlined above and detailed below, women do not have proper conversations: they do not speak to each other. Furthermore, when two women appear together in a passage of Old English poetry, it is highly likely, and possibly a rule, that both are not named in the passage: it almost becomes tempting to ascribe powers of magnetic repellence to the female onomasticon. Last, women are described in ways that position them as apart even as they appear to be brought together: these are women who interact, almost. Readers will observe that there is some overlap between these categories in the passages discussed; their compounded reach is far indeed. To adapt a refrain from Silicon Valley, the lack of female interaction in Old English poetry is not a bug: it's a feature. This essay will chart some of the forms it takes and then turn to a small selection of the impressive—and isolated—women of Old English poetry to end.

§4. In Judith, the eponymous heroine's injunction to her handmaid—one of the rare times one woman speaks to another in the corpus—enables the final step in her victory over Holofernes, the drunken, lecherous Assyrian general she has decapitated. Upon her return to Bethulia and its rejoicing crowd, Judith sets her servant a gruesome task, the terms of which are relayed without direct speech:

Þa seo gleawe het, golde gefrætewod,
hyre ðinenne þancolmode
þæs herewæðan heafod onwriðan
ond hyt to behðe blodig ætywan
þam burhleodum, hu hyre æt beaduwe gespeow.

Then the wise woman, adorned with gold, ordered her intelligent handmaid to unwrap the warrior's head and exhibit it, bloody, to the city-dwellers as proof of her success in the struggle. (171–75)

The construction het…onwriðan reflects the social hierarchy organizing the scene: Judith "ordered" her handmaid—her subordinate—to carry out this gory display. Karma Lochrie has profitably read Judith's triumph over Holofernes and the subsequent exhibition of his head not as "a routing of the masculine economy exploited by Holofernes" but instead as "merely an inversion of [that economy's] customary power relationships" (Lochrie 1994, 13). We might add, in this analysis, that Judith's successful negotiation of one power structure comes from her negotiation of another.5 It is her assertion of authority over her handmaid that creates the public spectacle, and it is the public spectacle that, in Lochrie's words, stages "the violence of the gaze" that has been appropriated from "Holofernes's masculine culture" (13). The handmaid elevates the decapitated head and, in so doing, consolidates Judith's success. This act of elevation is in keeping with how helpful the handmaid proved previously: she was able to use a bag she had with her to carry Holofernes' head back to Bethulia (125–32a). The handmaid, approvingly described in the poem as ðeawum geðungen "distinguished in her manners" (129a) and þancolmode, "intelligent" or "astute" (172b), helps the narrative along at two critical junctures, but she does so, apparently, in silence. If there is any spoken back-and-forth between the two women, it is ours to imagine, not to hear. As the poem presents it, Judith speaks to her handmaid, and the handmaid does as she is bid.

§5. By contrast, an uncomfortable back-and-forth takes place between Sarah and Hagar, Sarah's slave, in Genesis, but only one half at a time. After Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham, Sarah's husband, her behavior toward Sarah changes:6

Hire mod astah þa heo wæs magotimbre
be Abrahame eacen worden.
Ongan æfþancum agendfrean
halsfæst herian, higeþryðe wæg,
wæs laðwendo, lustum ne wolde
þeowdom þolian, ac heo þriste ongan
wið Sarran swiðe winnan.
Her spirit exulted when she was made great with child by Abraham. Under the yoke of slavery, she began to harass her owner with insults, carried herself proudly, was hostile, did not want to endure her bondage gladly; instead she began to be combative toward Sarah, vehemently and shamelessly. (2237–43)

On one level, this passage is fairly informative. It relates that Hagar was insulting, proud, and hostile, presumably on various occasions. On another level, it lacks specifics, describing what seems to be a general state of affairs. When Sarah speaks to Abraham about Hagar's behavior, the poem moves toward direct reportage. The fact that Sarah is speaking is emphasized by the use of not one but two speaking verbs in a single line—sægde and cwæð (2246)—and her side of the story is then presented as direct speech (2247–55).7 Yet the narrator prefaces this direct speech with the qualification that this is what ic … gefrægn, "I have heard" (2244a). Relayed second-hand, Sarah's anguished words thus remain at a distance. When Sarah finally engages directly with Hagar, her anger and actions are described but her words are not repeated:

Þa wearð unbliðe Abrahames cwen,
hire worcþeowe wrað on mode,
heard and hreðe, higeteonan spræc
fræcne on fæmnan.
Then Abraham's queen became unhappy with her slave, angry in mind, severe and cruel; she spoke fierce insult to the woman. (2261–64a)

This passage could have narrated a true exchange by any definition of the term, but this "interaction" is, again, completely one-sided; Hagar's only response is flight into the desert, where she is then relatively prolix to an angel (2273–79). The two halves of a possible exchange are presented as if two acts in a play, but with Abraham at the intermission—separating these women, in conversation as in life.

§6. The final instance of one woman speaking to another resembles the two previous in its shape if not in all its particulars. To begin with, it has to do not with sex but with death. The Descent into Hell opens with a group of women preparing to go to Jesus' tomb and, a few lines later, renders a mourning Mary bidding an anonymous "earl's daughter" to accompany her on the sad trip:

Ongunnon him on uhtan æþelcunde mægð
gierwan to geonge …
Cwom seo murnende Maria on dægred,
heht hy oþre mid eorles dohtor.
Before dawn, noble maidens began to prepare themselves for the journey … The mourning Mary came at daybreak; she enjoined the earl's daughter to be with her. (1–10)

Mary's speech is, like that of Judith and Sarah, non-interactive. The earl's daughter does not reply; rather, her acquiescence is elided into the action of the next line: Sohton sarigu tu "the two, sorrowful, sought" (11a). Mary's speech, again like Judith's and Sarah's, is relayed indirectly; Mary's words are not provided, and speech is intimated only with the verb heht. Judith's injunction to her handmaid is also phrased as heht, but that heht is rounded out with the infinitives onwriðan and ætywan. Mary only "enjoined," and the sense of the elliptical sentence just about falls into place. The major departure from the other two moments is that Mary is speaking not to a handmaid or slave but to an earl's daughter, presumably one of the women described at the beginning as æþelcunde "noble" (1b). Even so, Mary retains a degree of especial authority in the situation, and the earl's daughter, like Judith's handmaid, does as she is bid.

§7. In Judith and Genesis, Judith beheads Holofernes at the time and in the place where he had intended to rape her, and Abraham has sex with Hagar so that he might father a child. In The Descent into Hell, Mary is preparing her visit to Jesus' tomb. In all extant Old English poetry, these are the circumstances that result in one woman speaking to another. Because the second woman does not reply, these moments do not fully participate in a gift economy of language ;8 to use unabashedly contemporary terms, these moments also mean that no Old English poem passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.9 I mention this not as a gimmicky connection to popular culture but rather as a significant and early example in the long history of Western art failing to show, let alone showcase, female relationships.

§8. As rare as it is for one woman to speak to another in the corpus, it is rarer still for two women to be named in each other's presence. While Alexandra Hennessey Olsen is right to emphasize that, in Beowulf, a character does not have to be named to be important, it is nevertheless much rarer for two named women to share a scene than two named men, in Beowulf or indeed in Old English poetry generally (Olsen 1997, 321). While the dialogue between two named men is the stuff of poetry itself in the Solomon and Saturn tradition, the two passages detailing the (non-)interaction of Sarah and Hagar (2237–43 and 2261–64a, cited above) are the only points in Old English poetry that I have found in which two named women are "on stage" together, in the physical presence of one another. Moreover, because the first passage can be read as the gradual onset of a "new normal" that develops with Hagar's pregnancy, it is distinctly possible that only the second of these passages presents a discrete, crystallized moment. In it, neither woman is called by her name. Sarah is described as Abrahames cwen "Abraham's queen" (2261b), and Hagar is referred to hire worcþeowe "her [i.e. Sarah's] slave" (2262a) and then more generally as fæmnan, "the woman" (2264a). The names Sarra and Agar appear both before and after this scene, but during it, these women exist in relation to each other: Sarah is described as something of Abraham's and Hagar as something of Sarah's. These designations assert the social hierarchy between mistress and slave, though the transitive property ultimately subordinates both figures to Abraham. It is fitting, then, that only he is actually named in this scene, despite his being absent from it. In Judith, meanwhile, the helpful handmaid remains anonymous. In these onomastic particulars, both poems correspond to their biblical source material: Hagar is named in the Book of Genesis and the handmaid is not named in the Book of Judith. But, although Mary's companion on her visit to Jesus' tomb is herself named as Mary in three of the Gospels, in The Descent into Hell, the eorles dohtor "earl's daughter" (10b) is anonymous.10 Scholars have, sensibly enough, referred to these two women in The Descent into Hell as the "two Marys," but the name of this second woman is not a matter of the Old English poetic record.11 This essay is invested in specifying what is and is not a matter of Old English poetic record.

§9. When named women are brought together elsewhere in Old English verse, it is due more to skillful evocation on the part of the poet than to the mechanics of the narrative. I say "when," but "if" would also be accurate: onomastic uncertainty marks the first such juxtaposition in Beowulf. Hygd, Hygelac's wife and queen of the Geats, is compared favorably—and suddenly—to Offa's future wife and queen, a petty and vindictive woman whose name might be Thryth(o), Modthryth(o), or Fremu (Fulk, Bjork, and Niles 2008, 224–26); her name might also be unknown (Weiskott 2011, 5–6).12 The ramifications of this uncertainty are considerable: this could be the only moment in Old English poetry in which both women are named as they are associated, or a further and potent example of such a thing not occurring.

Hygd swiðe geong,
wis welþungen, þeah ðe wintra lyt
under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe,
Hæreþes dohtor; næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
maþmgestreona. Modþryðo wæg
Fremu, folces cwen, firen ondrysne.
Hygd, Hæreth's daughter, was very young, wise, and accomplished, though she had spent few winters in the stronghold; she was nevertheless not close-fisted, not too sparing of gifts, of precious treasures, toward the Geatish people. Fremu, the people's queen, carried out terrible crime in her arrogance. (1926b–32)

The capitalization of the Old English and the translation above follow the editorial suggestions made in Klaeber 4. Eric Weiskott, however, offers a different translation of the final lines in which fremu is rendered as an ironic "brave," thus leaving Offa's future wife anonymous: "The brave queen of the people bore arrogance, (perpetrating) awful violence" (Weiskott 2011, 6). Weiskott's appealing argument for the woman's anonymity hinges upon the Beowulf-poet's strict adherence to several formulaic norms: proper names do not vary within a half-line and, over the course of a long line, a name and its epithet are always separated by a verb (Weiskott 2011, 5). In this instance, the Beowulf-poet might also be following a convention of the socio-poetic variety by not naming two women together, if such a convention could have existed. At any rate, this comparison of queens is spartan in form and content. It is achieved with no editorializing and with no transition. When the poet comments again, the name of the future wife is not clarified, and no further reference to Hygd is made:

Ne bið swylc cwenlic þeaw
idese to efnanne, þeah ðe hio ænlicu sy,
þætte freoðuwebbe feores onsæce
æfter ligetorne leofne mannan.
It is not queenly custom for a woman to do such things, though she be beautiful, for the peace-weaver to deprive the cherished man of life because of affected insult. (1940b–1943)

Details of the future wife's activities are then provided before the narrative returns to Beowulf's homecoming. The two women are separated as suddenly as they were brought together.

§10. The second time that Hygd is named in relation to a famed woman, she is an inheritor in a process that is, crucially, mediated by Beowulf. Beowulf gives Hygd a neck-ring that Wealhtheow had first given him: Hyrde ic þæt he ðone healsbeah Hygde gesealde, / wrætlicne wundurmaððum, ðone þe him Wealhðeo geaf, "I heard that he gave to Hygd the neck-ornament, a splendid wondrous jewel, that Wealhtheow had given to him" (2172–73). The introduction of Wealhtheow is a reminder of where Beowulf acquired such a treasure, but reference to her role also creates the closest thing to a bond between women in a poem that is otherwise acutely interested in male alliance and dynastic legacy.13 (Wealhtheow does presumably have a daughter, Freawaru, although Freawaru's mother is not specified: she is described only as dohtor Hroðgares (2020b).) The neck-ornament brings Hygd into Wealhtheow's orbit and vice-versa, and by supplying the neck-ornament's provenance, the poet likewise extends the reach (and success) of Wealhtheow's peace-weaving to Geatland. Even so, the "closest thing" to a bond between women is not actually a bond between women: the affiliation of the two women is owing to Beowulf, and the success of Wealhtheow's peace-weaving is most immediately reflected back onto him, not her.14 The connection between Wealhtheow and Hygd, of diplomatic significance within the poem and of social significance within Old English poetry, occurs not because these named women come into contact but rather because Beowulf acts as go-between.

§11. Some passing references to groups of women position them as satellites to a more notable woman, but the relationship between the woman and the women is not then developed further. In Beowulf, a mægþa hose "troop of maidens" (924b) walks with Wealhtheow to Heorot, and Elene's ship, as part of being prepared for the voyage to Greece, is loaded wifum "with women" (236a) (along with much else!). We do not hear of either group of women again: this is the extent of the poetic record. It is stripped of detail to the point that neither Wealhtheow nor Elene is named in conjunction with these groups: Wealhtheow is referred to simply as his cwen "his [Hrothgar's] queen" (923b) and the women in Elene are described as affiliated with idese siðfæt "the woman's expedition" (229b). That women inhabit the scenery as "extras" shows some care on the part of these poets to paint a precise picture, but in these instances, the precision of the picture goes only so far.

§12. At other points in Old English poetry, women are positioned primarily as separate from men, only secondarily as with each other. For example, when a covenant with God is promised to the Israelites at the end of the Old English Exodus, everyone begins to sing in praise of God, although that is not quite how it is described:

hofon hereþreatas hlude stefne,
for þam dædweorce drihten heredon,
weras wuldres sang; wif on oðrum.
The bands of soldiers raised a loud voice, praised the lord for that achievement. The men sang of the glory; the women did too. (575–77)

Both men and women sing, but the poet clarifies that women do so on oðrum, which translates literally as something like "in the second instance." The separation of the choirs is a detail taken from Christian exegetical interpretation of the Book of Exodus: the Old English poet was evidently familiar with at least some of the surrounding biblical commentary on this point (Irving 1953, 96; Earl 2002, 157–58). This circumstance may have been deployed for its fit into the gendered landscape of Old English poetry.

§13. Men and women are simultaneously linked and siloed again, and in the words of no less an authority than Mary herself, in Advent Lyric Four, which is modeled on a Marian antiphon (Clayton 1990, 184).15 When called upon to explain the mystery of her virgin pregnancy, Mary replies:

Hwæt is þeos wundrung þe ge wafiað,
ond geomrende gehþum mænað,
sunu Solimæ somod his dohtor?
What is this wonder at which you are amazed, and, mourning, lament in sorrow, sons of Jerusalem and its daughters? (89–91)

Mary's vernacular address to "the sons of Jerusalem and its daughters" is a significant departure from the Latin antiphon source, in which Mary speaks only to filiae Jerusalem, "daughters of Jerusalem," a citation of the Song of Songs (Clayton 1990, 184). The addition of sons displaces the daughters to line-final position. Thematically, this change may reflect the belief, glimpsed elsewhere in the lyric, that it is Mary's womanhood that enables Christ, a man, to save both men and women (Clayton 1990, 186–87), and formally, it may have been done with an eye to the alliteration of sunu, Solimæ, and somod. The effect of this change is not solely thematic or formal, however. As a consequence of this construction, Mary's original female addressees are now an afterthought, out of step with the rhythm and the alliteration of the line.

§14. There is, finally, the position of the intercessor, a kind of middle-woman. Nowhere is this mediating role more rhetorically marked and spatially described than when a mother, Eve, uses her "daughter," Mary,16 as an intercessor in her prayer to ascend into heaven in Christ and Satan:

Ræhte þa mid handum to heofencyninge,
bæd meotod miltse þurh Marian had:
"Hwæt, þu fram minre dohtor, drihten, onwoce
in middangeard mannum to helpe."
Then she reached with her hands to the heavenly king, asked the Lord for mercy through the person of Mary: "O, Lord, you were born from my daughter into the world as an aid to men." (435–38)

§15. This prayer for Marian intercession is not a prayer to Mary but a prayer literally through Mary, the ultimate and intended recipient of which is Christ. The rhetorical construction still invests Mary with considerable authority: Eve cites her in order to convey her prayer to Christ, and the poetic line sees her complete the alliteration begun by meotod and miltse. The desideratum of Eve's request, the recipient of that request, and finally the intermediary of the request all alliterate. Thematically as well as formally, Mary proves the linchpin for God's grace. The very next line relates a happy ending: Let þa up faran ece drihten, "Then the everlasting Lord let them ascend" (441). Invoking Mary—speaking through Mary, to use the poem's formulation—is enough for Eve because it is enough for Christ. There is no need to address Mary directly.

§16. The notion of speaking through women comes up again in conjunction with Mary in Advent Lyric Four. That lyric, which contains the address to the sons and daughters of Jerusalem discussed above, is itself structured as an address to Mary and her subsequent response. It begins:

Eala wifa wynn geond wuldres þrym,
fæmne freolicast ofer ealne foldan sceat
þæs þe æfre sundbuend secgan hyrdon,
arece us þæt geryne þæt þe of roderum cwom
O joy of women among heavenly glories, virgin most splendid over all corners of the earth, of whom mankind has ever heard tell, recount to us that mystery that came to you from the heavens (71–74)

The address to Mary continues for a dozen more lines and Mary's response then follows, preceded by a short introduction that marks it as speech.

Cwæð sio eadge mæg
symle sigores full, symle sigores full,
'Hwæt is þeos wundrung þe ge wafiað,
ond geomrende gehþum mænað,
sunu Solimæ somod his dohtor? …'
The blessed woman, ever victorious, holy Mary, said: 'What is this wonder at which you are amazed, and, mourning, lament in sorrow, sons of Jerusalem and its daughters?' (87b–91)

I treat this passage above as an example of rhetorical siloing, yet it could also theoretically be the one point in Old English poetry—that I have found—at which two women converse: a dohtor Solimæ speaks, and sancta Maria replies. This exchange, however, is not quite so straightforwardly an exchange. The prayer to Mary is not preceded by any speech markers in the way that her response is: the lyric does not present those crucial first words as speech. Any sense of this first half of the lyric functioning as an actual address to Mary depends, therefore, on the reader's or listener's ventriloquizing of it. The degree to which this moment then becomes an exchange between two women depends further on the ventriloquizer's identifying with the phrase dohtor Solimæ. While this poem can be understood as an exchange between two women, it is written more ambiguously: we cannot quite say, then, that two women converse in Old English poetry without further qualification.

§17. None of this is to discount the significance of the women around whom exciting and weighty Old English poetic narratives are constructed. The lack of female relationships in the poetic corpus need not be read in terms of a general marginalization of women per se or of their passivity.17 Much can be, has been, and will continue to be written on these women, on their analogues and adventures, and on their importance—and on the importance of feminist approaches to the field more generally.18 Rather, a woman's isolation can be a consequence of the exact opposite approach: elevation.19 In focusing only on a certain remarkable woman—on an Elene or a Wealhtheow—Old English poets systematically isolate that woman from other, more ordinary women. Elene speaks to men multiple times—at, for example, lines 404 and 1196–97. That they listen to her is a mark of her standing. But only once is she described as addressing women:

ond þa eallum bebead
on þam gumrice god hergendum,
werum ond wifum, þæt hie weorðeden
mode ond mægene …
and then she bid everyone in the kingdom who worshipped God, men and women, to honor with mind and strength… (1219b–22a)

This oration is actually addressed to men as much as women; the real recipient of her exhortation is everyone in the kingdom (or, depending on the translation of gumrice, everyone in the world) who worships God. Elene could hardly be casting a wider net, and only thus do her words reach any other woman.20 In other poems, it is structurally impossible for female interaction to feature. Not every poem has a woman in it, and not every poem that has one woman in it has a second, even cursorily. Take Juliana, the characters of which include multiple men and a devil but no woman apart from Juliana herself. That Juliana does not engage with other women is no slight to her in the world of the poem, but it does reflect a larger, gendered asymmetry obtaining in the world of the poetry.

§18. It is, of course, possible that we have lost entire poetic codices that celebrate female friendship and romantic love and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships in Old English. A related early vernacular poetry fares better in the detailed presentation of meaningful female relationships. In Guðrúnarkviða I, part of the Old Norse Poetic Edda, four named women are grouped around Guðrún, who has just lost her husband, Sigurðr. Three of them—Giaflaug, Herborg, and Gullrǫnd—encourage Guðrún to mourn Sigurðr's death by telling her about their own losses: hver sagði þeira sinn oftrega, þann er bitrastan um beðit hafði, "each of them voiced her grief, the bitterest she has borne" (st. 3/5–8). For two women, this "bitterest" loss is that of her husband (or, in Giaflaug's case, her five husbands (st. 4)), but the conversation moves beyond romantic love as the deaths of sons, daughters, siblings, and parents are also shared. These women, moreover, speak to each other. Gullrǫnd corrects Herborg's approach to the situation and puts Sigurðr's body on display for Guðrún to see (st. 12 and 13) and later hushes Brynhildr, who had been silent up to that point (st. 24). Brynhildr then responds to, or at least speaks after, Gullrǫnd (st. 25 and 26). In the mold of Louviot's assessment of dialogue in Old English poetry, one might struggle to call these exchanges "dialogue" in the realist-novel sense of the term, but they do create the poem's narrative momentum.21 The existence of this scene suggests that the lack of such scenes in Old English verse is not inevitable, is not a "given" in the context of early literature and early Germanic literature in particular—and that the search or desire for such a scene is not necessarily informed by a twenty-first century sensibility. If an intimate discussion among named women could be versified for an Old Norse audience, could something similar in Old English not have found an eager audience? Could the tableau of Mary requesting company on the way to Jesus' tomb in The Descent into Hell not have been made the subject of its own spin-off poem? The mournful woman was, after all, a mainstay in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. 22 If, however, such a scene were ever memorialized in Old English poetry, it has not survived.

§19. With this essay, I have tried to draw attention to the ways women are kept apart in early English vernacular poetry. Drawing further conclusions is difficult. We cannot, for instance, say that no early English poem ever featured two women talking to each other and, should this have been the case, we cannot say why it would have been. An additional unknown is whether it is mere coincidence that Judith, Genesis, and The Descent into Hell—the Old English poems that do have one woman talking to another—all derive from biblical material. And it should be stressed again that the isolated woman could be a figure of exceptional power and narrative importance in and beyond Old English poetry: a mother, a martyr, a mulier fortis, a mourner.

§20. Rather, my point in highlighting this gendered asymmetry of social interaction is to make explicit that the corpus of Old English poetry, as we have inherited it, suffers from a blind spot shared by a great deal of other Western literature, from classical to contemporary. As a case in point: Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, an Italian tetralogy that follows a female friendship throughout the lives of the two friends, has been critically acclaimed for its novelty. This sense of novelty stems, as much as anything, from the works' focus on—and realistic depiction of—female friendship. In 2015, the same year that the English-language publication of her novels concluded and roughly a millennium after the production of the Beowulf-manuscript, Ferrante was asked in an interview, "What do you think is so special about friendship between women? It's a subject that has barely been treated in literature; do you have any idea why?" She replied, "Male friendship has a long literary tradition and a very elaborate code of behavior. Friendship between women, on the other hand, has a rudimentary map that has only recently begun to be made more precise, with the risk that the shortcut of the edifying cliché might obstruct the effort involved in taking difficult paths" (Ferrante 2016, 346). For all its many maxims, Old English verse skirts even the edifying cliché on the subject of female friendship.23

§21. There is, however, a versified epigrammatic statement—more caption than maxim—that is not prescriptive but rather descriptive and exactly representative. Exeter Book Riddle 76 is only one line: Ic ane geseah idese sittan, "I saw a woman sit alone."24 In their content and in their own isolation, these five words offer an appropriate, and appropriately terse, expression of the gendered social asymmetry of Old English poetry. The woman is on her own, singular in her sitting and her setting, before a captive audience left with more questions than answers. Like the observing Ic, I am struck by this image too, by this poetic of female solitude.


Part of this research was originally presented at the “Feminism with/out Gender” BABEL roundtable at the International Congress for Medieval Studies in 2017; I thank Robin Norris for the opportunity to be a part of that discussion. I am also pleased to highlight the work of Brandon W. Hawk, who conducts an inquiry along similar lines in his blog post “Does Judith Pass the Bechdel Test?” (Hawk 2016). I am grateful for Daniel Cowling’s, Roberta Frank’s, Mary Kate Hurley’s, and Alastair Minnis’ careful readings of this material and for the support and feedback I received from the editors.


1. The forthcoming Anglo-Saxon Women: A Florilegium, edited by Emily Butler, Irina Dumitrescu, and Hilary E. Fox, foregrounds (as its title suggests) Anglo-Saxon women from the literary, historical, and archaeological records. [Back]

2. But works such as Lees 1994, Lees and Overing 2001, and Davidson 2005 expose that a masculine ontology of Anglo-Saxon literature—especially Beowulf—and its criticism is itself something of a construct. [Back]

3. Bjork's study focuses on Beowulf, which he cites as only the best example of a poem in which the gift-based nature of Anglo-Saxon society is what largely accounts for the prominence of speech" (Bjork 1994, 995). Of the other such poems Bjork lists, only Genesis A also features in this essay (as Genesis); but the insight that depicting linguistic exchange cements social contracts in Old English verse seems to me to be of wider importance and applicability. On the gift economy generally, see especially Mauss 1923–24. [Back]

4. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations of Old English verse come from the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR) and all numbers refer to line numbers. [Back]

5. My use of "negotiation" here is after Stacy S. Klein, who makes the point that "existing power structures can never be overturned or embraced fully, but only and ever negotiated" (Klein 2012, 48). [Back]

6. That Hagar "began" (ongan) to act in this way suggests that the dynamic between the two women may previously have been different. But because Hagar enters the narrative only as a potential solution to the problem of Abraham's lack of descendants, the relationship between Sarah and Hagar, as it exists in the poem, is triangulated with Abraham's presence from the start. [Back]

7. Louviot cites Genesis as atypical among Old English narrative verse in its inclusion of primarily private speech (as opposed to speech before an audience) and points to this exchange between Sarah and Abraham as especially rare for its intimate subject matter (Louviot 2016, 85). [Back]

8. As laid out by Bjork above, §2 and n3. [Back]

9. Named for the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace, the test consists of three questions: whether a given work of fiction has (at least) two women in it; if it does, whether they talk to each other; and, if they do, whether they talk about something other than a man (Jusino 2015). The test is not and cannot be the only way of determining a work's attitude(s) toward women, but its quantitative nature can disclose larger patterns that might be seen "to have a more objective, data-oriented quality than do interpretations regarding the political valences of representations of women" (Selisker 2015, 518). In performing this assessment, I have interpreted both the strictures of the Bechdel-Wallace test and Old English poetry literally: I consider only human women as opposed to animals or personified objects or phenomena. (This automatically removes many of the riddles from my purview.) [Back]

10. The Gospel accounts can be found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and Luke 24; the outlier is John 20. The "Mary" in all four accounts is Mary Magdalene, which suggests that she is the Mary in The Descent into Hell. [Back]

11. For references to the two Marys in The Descent into Hell, see, e.g., Fulk and Cain 2013, 170. [Back]

12. All citations from Beowulf come from Klaeber's Beowulf: Fourth Edition, hereafter Klaeber 4. The editors of Klaeber 4 lay out the case for taking "Fremu" as the queen's name in their survey of the secondary literature at 224–26. [Back]

13. Mention of Beowulf's gift of the neck-ornament also concludes the "ring composition" structure into which fit five stories of women in Beowulf, thereby linking women in a second way (Horner 2001, 86–92). [Back]

14. Nor is this success the final word in the neck-ornament's journey: that Hygelac wears the neck-ring in battle (1202–14) proves that Hygd did not keep it for herself but gave it to her husband, thus extending the jewelry's circulation and, as Andy Orchard puts it, the "alternate passing of the ring between men and women" (Orchard 2003, 115). Yet Wealhtheow's influence can be sensed in relation to the ornament throughout. John M. Hill reads the poet's explaining that Hygelac is ultimately killed wearing the ornament as "a kind of voice-over on Wealhtheow's behalf" in which she might be heard urging Beowulf away from such warlike paths (Hill 1997, 267–68). [Back]

15. In using this title for the poem I follow Bernard J. Muir: he calls the poem "Lyric Four" and treats the larger set of material as the Advent Lyrics (Muir 1994, 1:49, 46–65), whereas the ASPR presents all of the Advent Lyrics as part of the single longer poem Christ. The text and line numbering are still that of the ASPR. [Back]

16. Eve's motherhood of Mary is a motif also seen in Old English prose: see Clayton 1990, 256–57. [Back]

17. Indeed, the notion of a passive feminine ideal obtaining in Old English poetry has been corrected in scholarship for the past fifty years (Olsen 1997). I wish also to thank Marjorie Housley for mentioning to me in conversation that several Old English poems do pass what is called the "Mako Mori Test," which asks whether a woman is granted her own narrative arc, separate from a man's, within a given piece of media. [Back]

18. This bibliography is sizable and happily growing still: major titles include Damico 1984, Chance 1986, Damico and Olsen 1990, Overing 1990, Norris, Stephenson, and Trilling forthcoming, Butler, Dumitrescu, and Fox forthcoming, and Remein and Weaver forthcoming. [Back]

19. In poetry as in life: the "it's lonely for women at the top" phenomenon is well-documented in news coverage, particularly concerning women in business and science (Chira 2017, Macdonald 2017: only two recent examples from prominent outlets). [Back]

20. A version of this dynamic is also found in Judith. When Judith first announces her success to the Bethulians, before commanding her handmaid to display Holofernes' head (as discussed above, § 4) and launching into a second oration, she is described as speaking to ðam sigefolce "to the victorious people" (152a). After this initial address, the crowd is revealed to contain weras wif somod "men and women together" (163a) who þrungon ond urnon "thronged and ran to" (164b) her. But then, as Dana M. Oswald notes, Judith addresses only the sigerofe hæleð "victorious men" or "victorious warriors" (177b) when she speaks to the crowd again (Oswald 2004, 272–73). [Back]

21. Louviot attributes the dissatisfaction of early twentieth-century critics with the state of Old English speech to expectations "informed by classical rhetoric and the modern novel" (Louviot 2016, 1). [Back]

22. See, e.g., Desmond 1990, Bennett 1992 (in which Guðrúnarkviða I is also discussed at 45–46), and Frank 2013, 84. [Back]

23. The sayings in Maxims I present women in the company of men, ordaining that Tu beoð gemæccan; / sceal wif ond wer in woruld cennan / bearn mid gebyrdum ("Mates are two in number; woman and man shall bring a child into the world through birth") (23b–25a), and present men in the company of men, warning that Earm biþ se þe sceal ana lifgan, / wineleas wunian hafaþ him wyrd geteod; / betre him wære þæt he broþor ahte, begen hi anes monnes, / eorles eaforan wæran, gif hi sceoldan eofor onginnan / oþþe begen beran ("Wretched is he who must live alone; fate has decreed for him to live friendless. It would be better for him that he have a brother, that they both be sons of the same man, the same warrior, if they should both come upon a boar or bear") (172–176a). Further to this point, a few lines later comes an image of salutary community: Hy twegen sceolon tæfle ymbsittan, þenden him hyre torn toglide, forgietan þara geocran gesceafta, habban him gomen on borde ("Two shall sit around the tæfl board while their distress dissipates and they shall forget their sorrowful circumstances; they shall have for themselves amusement at the table") (181–82). The grammar of the sentence does not reveal anything specific about the tæfl-players, but I would imagine that they are understood to be men. By contrast, women are resolutely alone in Maxims I, as witnessed by the half-line Fæmne æt hyre bordan geriseð ("It behooves a woman to be at her embroidery") (63b) as well as by the starkly different scenes of pastime conjured up by borde in the former passage and bordan in the latter. The disparity is telling, even if, as one scholar has noted, the amount and degree of "moralising about women's conduct" in the Old English Maxims is "relatively mild" compared to what is found elsewhere in wisdom literature (Cavill 1999, 166). [Back]

24. In the ASPR, Krapp and Dobbie recognize Riddle 76 as consisting solely of the solitary woman, though some editors and scholars (as detailed and adopted by Muir 1994, 2:669–70) take Riddle 76 as a continuation of the previous riddle, which consists of the line Ic swiftne geseah on swaþe feran, "I saw a swift thing going on the path," and a runic inscription. The initial "I" in Ic ane, however, is large enough to mark the beginning of a new riddle: even if the Exeter Book scribe erred in presenting the two riddles as separate, the manuscript's mise-en-page nevertheless isolates this woman. [Back]

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