The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001

Hwanan sio fæhð aras:

Defining the Feud in Beowulf


Notes and Bibliography


1. I am indebted in general and particular to both John Hill and Wade Tarzia for their patient reading, rereading, and suggestions for improvements to this text.

2. The best statement of this general view is still, to my mind, that of Berger and Leicester. For other similar views, see Karhl, Liggens, Harris, Atkinson. All references to Beowulf are to Klaeber's third edition.

3. (Hill 1989, 1995). Hill relies on Max Gluckman's notion of "peace in the feud," formulated by observation of the way feud works in various African tribal societies: "by this he means that in long-settled areas, with much intermarriage between groups as well as close working arrangements between neighbors . . . nearly everyone will be related in some way to nearly everyone else. This limits the taste for prosecuting feuds and increases pressure for and the likelihood of peaceful settlements that 'attempt to reconcile parties in permanent relationships'" (1995: 30). Gluckman's ideas have also appealed to other researchers working on medieval Germanic culture, such as Miller 1984, 1990; and Wallace-Hadrill 1982.

4.For example, the term osveta among the Albanians does not translate easily into our English word feud: the parameters of what is meant by each term do not match exactly, the Albanian term coming closer to the English "vengeance" than to "feud"; specialized terms are used to distinguish the various modes of vengeance; see in this regard Boehm p. 51-53. Interestingly, Miller (1990: 181-82), has noted similar diffuse semantics in the Icelandic sagas; the Icelanders in the family sagas have no distinct term for feud, although they clearly practice it, referring to various aspects of its prosecution with specialized words.

5. (Gould and Kolb 267-68). For effective critiques of this model, see Black-Michaud 1-32; Boehm 191-227; and White 198-199. While accepting the idea that the classification of conflicting groups can play a useful role in distinguishing feud from war, Black-Michaud rejects the idea that the presence of settlement mechanisms help in defining it, since in his view the feud is ongoing and interminable. White, in his study of feuds in the Touraine around 1100, casts doubt on the first component of this definition as well, noting that "in medieval France, where boundaries between distinct societies are hard to locate, the commonplace anthropological distinction between feuding and warfare is often difficult, if not impossible to make" (n. 18, pp. 198-99). White's point is also important for the situation in Beowulf, where the precise nature of the groups feuding with one another is often difficult to define. I have opted in this article to bracket this question in the interest of space, calling these various groups by the rather colorless term of "peoples," but it is certainly an area for further research.

6. There is also the question of how the Dragon's disproportionately harsh vengeance for the theft of the cup fits into observable patterns of "acceptable" retaliation within the feud. Miller (1990: 203) notes that in the Icelandic feud "the idea of balance, of equivalence, as has been noted, assumed that responses would be of roughly equal gravity to the offense." And Hill, 1995, argues the Beowulf poet distinguishes acceptable feuding behavior, justified juridically and proportionate in scope, from the tendency of the monsters and some of the human actors (notably the Swedes and Geats) to seek unlimited vengeance without the possibility of settlement. This may be, although I would contend the poet still focuses on the inherently unfortunate nature of the underlying feuding structure itself, regardless of who is prosecuting it or how.

7. This feature of the feuds in Beowulf, particularly the long standing conflicts between the Geats and Swedes or Danes and Heathobards, fits them remarkably well into Peters' and Black-Michaud's delineation of the "interminable feud" among the Bedouin of Cyrenaica and in the Mediterranean and Middle East. As Peters says of the Bedouin feuds: "These hostilities are of a sort that cannot be terminated; feud is not a matter of a group indulging in hostilities here at one moment and there the next, but a sequence of hostilities which, as far as the contemporary Bedouin are concerned at least, know no beginning and are insoluble." Furthermore, the existence of compensation mechanisms does not really mitigate these feuds. Black-Michaud notes that among the feuding groups he studies, compensation forms not a substitute for vengeance but rather an episode in the larger feuding relationship that can itself keep the feud alive. He cites Peters' statement of the Bedouin prescription that "a horse bought with blood money will be used to ride when 'bringing vengeance'" (Black-Michaud 12). Such a conception may lie behind the fatalism with which Beowulf predicts the failure of Hrothgar's attempts to buy peace with the Heathobards through the marriage of Ingeld and Freawaru.

8. I wish to acknowledge my debt to Miller for the general idea that the feud played such a role in some Germanic cultures: of Iceland, he notes "the social structures produced and enabled by the systems of reciprocity, that is, by feud and gift-exchange, produced, in Foucault's terms, a regime of truth" (Miller 1990: 186).

9. That Grendel's mother is a female avenger somewhat complicates her actions, marking them as aberrant and further increasing the shame of the Danes at their inability to deal with her themselves. For a full discussion of these issues, see Day 105-27.

10. Interestingly, the poet refers to the accidental killing of Herebeald as a potential stirring up of the feud, although what makes this situation so terrible for Hrethel is the fact that he cannot "fæghðe gebetan; / no ðy ær he þone heaðorinc hatian ne meahte / laðum dædum" (lines 2465-2467; "settle the feud; not at all could he pursue the warrior with harmful deeds").

11. Miller (1990: 200-202) notes in the sagas a similar propensity for vengeance to coincide with political opportunity, for example in Hrafnkel's Saga, Hrafnkel's choice of targets and the moment he strikes to avenge himself on Sam by killing Sam's brother Eyvind, the more dangerous and socially prominent member of Sam's family.

12. Interestingly, White (237) notes a similar tendency of feuds to grow out of raids and warfare in 11th-12th c. France; it is clear the scribes he deals with see a continuum between these various modes of conflict just as the Beowulf poet evidently does: "any armed conflict was likely to trigger secondary conflicts, since the fact that a killing had occurred in an open military confrontation did not exempt the slayer from a retaliatory attack by his victim's kin" . Nor are vengeance motives and military or economic motives clearly differentiated in an individual conflict: "the process of raiding and plundering an upper-class enemy's lands and subject peoples was so closely associated with efforts to take vengeance against that enemy as to make one wonder whether feuding or plundering was the more important activity" (White 202).

13. Among the societies of the early Middle Ages, such raids with their feuding rationale probably also served as an economic resource; see in this regard Grierson. Such a "plunder and raid" economic impulse may also underlie some of the violence between the societies the Beowulf-poet describes; see Berger and Leicester 42-43; Silber 11-19.

14. The feud is thus similar to other cultural institutions that serve as explanatory devices for unfamiliar concepts: I am thinking here of the mead hall and the way its construction functions in works such as "Cædmon's Hymn," or even Beowulf itself, as a metaphor for the creation of the world by God. See in this regard Calder 23. Interestingly, Wallace-Hadrill (127) notes that Frankish churchmen, among them Gregory of Tours, had no problem conceiving of God as an active participant in feuds, in spite of the official church position against them: "Look through his writings for the view of Gregory of Tours on divine vengeance and it will be found that he visualizes it as nothing less than God's own feud in support of his servants, who can have no other kin".

15. A similar melding of "negative" and "positive" terms of exchange occurs in Icelandic literature, indicating that the idea is widespread in Germanic culture and literature. Miller notes the same tendency among saga Icelanders to ironically express feud exchanges using the verbs launa (to repay, requite), gjalda (to repay, return and repay), and gefa (to give). He points to Bergthora's taunt to her sons in Njal's Saga, when they are given an insulting nick-name: "Gifts have been given to you, to father as well as sons, and your manhood will suffer unless you repay them" (Miller 1990: 182).

16. It is not at all unusual for the Beowulf poet to engage in precisely this kind of linguistic conflation of hospitality and violence; it has been well documented by critics working with the range of "fatal feast" metaphors used in the battle between Grendel and Beowulf. See in this regard Irving, De Roo, De Lavan Foley.

17. Part of my disagreement in degree with Dr. Hill comes from his overall conviction that the feuds in Beowulf are not unrelentingly negative as Berger and Leicester among others would have it, but rather that "Beowulf clearly countenances the good of violence in situations where one seeks a justifiable settlement rather than dark pleasures" (Hill 1995: 31), and furthermore that "for many societies, including Germanic ones, revenge can be jurally definitive" (Hill 1997: 266). While I agree with this formulation as far as Germanic society goes, I am less sure the Beowulf poet is interested in it, as he seems far more focused on the catastrophic and regrettable aspects of the phenomenon, perhaps as much for literary effect as anything else. Even Beowulf himself expresses little faith in attempts to settle feuds: "Oft seldan hwær / æfter leodhryre lytle hwile / bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!" (2029-31; Seldom anywhere after a prince's fall will the deadly spear rest even for a little while, though the bride is good.)


Atkinson, Stephen C.B. (1987) "Oð þæt ongan . . . draca ricsian: Beowulf, the Dragon, and Kingship." Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 11:1-10.

Berger, Harry, Jr., and H. Marshall Leicester, Jr. (1974) "Social Structure as Doom: The Limits of Heroism in Beowulf." Pp. 37-79 in Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope. Robert P. Burlin and Edward B. Irving, Editors. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Black-Michaud, Jacob (1975) Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. New York: St. Martin's.

Boehm, Christopher (1984) Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Calder, Daniel (1972) "Setting and Ethos: the Pattern of Measure and Limit in Beowulf." Studies in Philology 69:21-37.

Day, David (1992) 'Hafa nu ond geheald husa selest: Jurisdiction and Justice in Beowulf.' Ph.D. diss., Rice University.

De Lavan Foley, Joanne (1981) "Feasts and Anti-feasts in Beowulf and the Odyssey." Pp. 235-261 in Oral Traditional Literature: Festschrift for Albert Bates Lord John Miles Foley, Editor. Columbia: Slavica.

De Roo, Harvey (1979) "Two Old English Fatal Feast Metaphors: Ealuscerwen and Meoduscerwen.'" English Studies in Canada'3:249-261.

Gould, Julius and William R. Kolb, Editors (1964) A Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Grierson, Phillip (1959) "Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence." Transactions of the Royal Society 5th series 9:123-140.

Hill, John M. (1989) "Revenge and Superego Mastery in Beowulf." Assays'5:3-36.

Hill, John M. (1995) The Cultural World in 'Beowulf.' Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hill, John M. (1997) "Social Milieu." Pp. 255-269 in A Beowulf Handbook. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, Editors. Lincoln: U. of Nebraska Press.

Irving, Edward B., Jr. (1967) "Ealuscerwen: Wild Party at Heorot." Tennessee Studies in Literature 12 :161-68.

Karhl, Stanley (1972) "Feuds in Beowulf: A Tragic Necessity." Modern Philology 84:117-129.

Klaeber, Fr., Editor (1950) Beowulf. 3d edition Lexington: D.C. Heath.

Harris, Anne Leslie (1982) "Hands, Helms and Heroes: The Role of Proper Names in Beowulf." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 83:414-421.

Liggens, Elizabeth M. (1973) "Revenge and Reward as Recurrent Motives in 'Beowulf.'" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 74:193-213.

Miller, William Ian (1984) "Avoiding Legal Judgment: The Submission of Disputes to Arbitration in Medieval Iceland." The American Journal of Legal History 27:95-134.

Miller, William Ian (1990) Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law and Society in Saga Iceland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peters, E.L. (1967) "Some Structural Aspects of the Feud Among the Camel-herding Bedouin of Cyrenaica." Africa 37:261-282.

Silber, Patricia (1977) "Gold and Its Significance in Beowulf." Annuale Mediaevale 18:5-19.

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. (1982) "The Bloodfeud of the Franks." Pp. 121-147 in The Long Haired Kings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

White, Stephen D. (1986) "Feuding and Peace-making in the Touraine Around the Year 1100." Traditio 42:195-263.


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