The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer 2001

Wicked Queens and Cousin Strategies in

Beowulf and Elsewhere

Notes and Bibliography





1. The first four are listed in Klaeber 1950: 198-9. They are, very briefly: Modþryðo wæg... firen' ondrysne, "Modthrytho carried out terrible crime;" mod þryðo wæg..., "Thrytho displayed arrogance (and terrible crime);" mod þryð o wæg..., "Thryth always displayed arrogance...;" mod þryð[e ne] wæg..., "she (i.e. Hygd) did not display the arrogance of Thryth..." A fifth interpretation is given in Mitchell and Robinson 1994: 112. Here Hygd is the fremu folces cwen, who "weighed the arrogance of Thryth." This interpretation forms the basis of the argument in Marijane Osborn's recent article of 1999.

2. The subject of wæg remains fremu folces cwen, as is true of all the interpretations above. But the phrase is no longer appositional, as it is in all the other cases, and now refers to a nameless queen, not to Hygd, Thryth or Modthryth. Sisam's solution of 1946 is repeated by C.L. Wrenn in Chambers and Wrenn 1959: 541-2.

3. See Kemble 1837: 78-80, for his translation of the passage; and his "Postscript to the Preface," also in Kemble 1837: xxxiv-v, for his commentary on it. It may help to know that Kemble edited the poem, with a "Preface," in 1833; then re-edited it in 1835, by which time he had changed his opinions about it entirely; and then brought out his translation in 1837, with the "Glossary" to the editions attached to this, and a "Postscript to the Preface" in which he retracted his earlier views as passionately as he had held them. See further Shippey and Haarder 1998: 30-33.

4. Grein 1862: 26-85; or see again Shippey and Haarder 1998: 49, 329-34.

5. See Bonjour 1950: 53-5.

6. I have cited the third editions of Chambers and Klaeber above, but the first editions were 1921 and 1922 respectively. The two most recent editions of the poem are Jack 1994, and the edition by Mitchell and Robinson cited in note 1 above. The former sticks to the "Modthrytho" interpretation of Klaeber, with comment on Saxo's Hermuthruda derived from Chambers, see pp. 140-41; the latter, as mentioned already, re-translates the word wæg, see p. 112. One might note that W.F. Bolton, in his 1973 revision of C.L. Wrenn's edition, altered Wrenn's skeptical view of the passage (see note 2 above) back to the Klaeberian "Modþryðo... practiced terrible evil-doing," p. 168.

7. See Chambers and Wrenn 1959: 36-40, 229-35, 238-43.

8. The kernel of Earle's theories as regards King Offa of Mercia was given in the third of three pieces in the Times, on 29th October 1885, p. 3, reprinted in Shippey and Haarder 1998: 425-9. I would like to note here that the one reference in the latter volume which proved beyond recovery was Earle's to the Commendatore di Rossi's "pamphlet on the great find of Anglo-Saxon coins in Rome which took place in 1883." The Commendatore was a most prolific writer, Earle an incurably unprofessional one. I would be grateful for an accurate reference to di Rossi's piece.

9. Marijane Osborn 1998 also argues for this theory. She translates and discusses the "Modthrytho" episode on pp. 30-36, and in note 20 on p. 254 claims that the sinfrea "clearly must be the father, since he suggests that Thryth marry Offa." But it is not certain that the sinfrea of line 1934 is the same person as the fæder of line 1950.

10. Klaeber 1950: 199.

11. I take this phrase from Stafford 1983: 71-9.

12. If one accepts the standard conflation of Beowulf with the Ingeld story in Widsith and in Saxo, see Chambers and Wrenn 1959: 20-25.

13. See for instance Bennett 1989, or Welsh 1991.

14. Marijane Osborn sees this more one-sidedly, noting that "Thryth is the only woman in Beowulf reported to 'love' someone," though Offa gains this "by being worthy of Thryth's love," see Osborn 1999: 63. I take the word wið in hiold heahlufan wið hæleþa brego, "[she] held high love with the lord of heroes" to imply a reciprocal relationship.

15.Bremmer 1980. Bremmer's article attempts to rediscover the hidden relationships through the maternal line in the poem, with special attention to the rather large number of unidentified names.

16. The consensus view is once again presented by Chambers 1959: 25-31. It depends admittedly on threading together sometimes obscure references from Saxo Grammaticus, the Langfeðgatal, and the Hrólfs saga kraka, but has been very generally accepted. The sequence of events as reconstructed by Chambers is that Hrethric succeeded his father Hrothgar, but was killed and replaced by his cousin Hrothulf, who was then in his turn killed and deposed by his cousin Heoroweard, who however survived his victim by only a few hours. Norse tradition knows nothing of Hrethric's younger brother Hrothmund.

17. In this view Beowulf's hypothetical sister, grand-daughter and niece of Geatish kings, makes an "out-marriage" to Weohstan, who appears to be a Swede from the fact that he serves with the Swedes against the Geats and indeed against Heardred, who would be his wife's cousin. The question of whether Wiglaf, related only in the maternal line and at two removes to Geatish royalty, could be seen as a plausible successor to Beowulf (also related only in the maternal line but at only one remove) is a difficult one. It might be noted that Hrothgar, in what turns out to be a strongly prophetic speech, lines 1841-65, had said that if Hygelac were to die, the Geats "would not have any better king to choose" than Beowulf. He may mean that all rules are affected by necessity. Glosecki (1999:15) accepts Bremmer's view of Wiglaf, but comments that Hygd's offer "sounds strange for a number of reasons".

18. By Glosecki, who in the article cited immediately above makes a careful attempt "to reexamine aspects of the outmoded argument for the matriarchate" (note 1 on p. 37), laying stress on evidence for avuncular relations in Anglo-Saxon society, on the weakness of the set of kinship terms for paternal kin in Old English, and on the evidence of surviving wills for special treatment for the sister's son rather than the son. Very briefly, Glosecki regards Hygd's "strange" offer as an attempt by the poet to explain away what may at an earlier period have been a regular mode of inheritance.

19.Bremmer 1980: 22.

20. Eric John 1996: 9. John introduces (but does not explain) the concept of the "scatter feud," a disastrous consequence in his view warded off by this limitation placed on kinship.

21. The best recent comment on Alfred's Mercian policy is Keynes 1998.

22. For these events, see Stenton 1947: 317-36. I should note here that I have reluctantly accepted what seems now to be the historians' convention, as seen in Stenton's index, that Old English names which continue to be familiar (Alfred, Edgar, Edward, Athelstan) have their initial vowels simplified, but those less well-known remain in their West Saxon form (Æthelflæd, Eadgifu, etc.).

23. As recorded in the A MS of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the years 901, 905, see Whitelock et al 1961.

24. According to the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, year 958, for which see Whitelock et al 1961. Stenton (1947:361n.3) rejects the story about Eadwig and Archbishop Oda as being "too late to have authority on a subject which invited legendary accretions". Stenton's lack of interest in queens is however marked: his index makes no mention (among the historical ladies mentioned here) of Ælfflæd, Æthelgifu, Cynethryth, Eadburh, Ecgwina, or even Eadgifu.

25. For the text of Asser, see Stevenson 1959: 10-14. The work is translated by Keynes and Lapidge 1983. The Judith and Eadburh story is on pp. 70-72 of the latter. I have used this translation in my text.

26. For which see Chambers and Wrenn 1959: 238-43.

27. A point made by Dickins 1936: 54, and repeated more accessibly in Chambers and Wrenn 1959: 542.

28. There is a good account of her career in Stafford 1983: 148-9.

29. The story is told in one of the lives of St Dunstan, Vita Dunstani Auctore B, in Stubbs 1874. This was written a century after the event, and is self-evidently partisan, though Stenton gives it more credit than he does the account of the couple's separation.

30. In the short preface to his chronicle, the late tenth-century writer Æthelweard gives a brief account of family history to his cousin Matilda. He is well aware that Matilda is from the Alfredian line, while he himself is descended from Alfred's brother, presumably through Æthelhelm. See Campbell 1962.

31. Blame for the murder is first attached to Ælfthryth in the anonymous Passio Edwardi Martyris, edited by Fell 1971. Her reputation was further systematically attacked during the eleventh century, with accusations of adultery and witchcraft added to murder: see Stafford 1978: 79-100, especially pp. 80, 91-2.

32. The two ladies are discussed at length in Stafford 1997.

33. Æthelred II ("the Unready") married daughters to Eadric of Mercia, Uhtred of Bamborough, and Ulfketel of East Anglia, possibly to shore up uncertain loyalty.

34. The case for a literal reading is made by Rosier 1963: 8-14, esp. pp. 13-14. Marijane Osborn very strongly rejects the idea (Osborn 1999: 73n.55), arguing that it is not Thryth or "Modthrytho" who is onhohsnod, but the stories about her. It seems to me that what is "put a stop to" (Osborn's translation of onhohsnode) is neither the person nor the stories about her, but the person's bad behavior. This view would not entirely rule out some cruel play on words.



Bennett, Helen (1989) "From Peace Weaver to Text Weaver: Feminist Approaches to Old English Studies." Old English Newsletter 15: 23-42.

Bonjour, Adrien (1950) The Digressions in Beowulf. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bremmer, Rolf jr. (1980) "The Importance of Kinship: Uncle and Nephew in Beowulf," Amsterdamer Beiträge zur Älteren Germanistik 15: 21-38.

Campbell, Alistair, Editor (1962) The Chronicle of Æthelweard. London: Nelson.

Chambers, R.W. (1959) Beowulf: an Introduction..., 3rd ed. with supplement by C.L. Wrenn. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1959.

Dickins, Bruce (1936) "Queen Cynethryth of Mercia." Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical Society 4/1: 54.

Fell, Christine, Editor (1971) Passio Edwardi Martyris. Leeds: Leeds Texts and Monographs.

Glosecki, Stephen O. (1999) "Beowulf and the Wills: Traces of Totemism?" Philological Quarterly 78: 14-47.

Grein, Christian W.M. (1862) "Die historischen Verhältnisse des Beowulfliedes." Jahrbuch für romanische und englische Literatur 4: 26-85.

Jack, George. Editor (1994) Beowulf: A Student Edition. Oxford: Clarendon.

John, Eric (1996) Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester and New York: Manchester U.P.

Kemble, John Mitchell (1837) A Translation of the Anglo-Saxon Poem of Beowulf... London: William Pickering.

Keynes, Simon (1998) "King Alfred and the Mercians" Pp. 1-45 in Kings, Currency and Alliances: Southern England in the 9th Century Mark A.S. Blackburn and David N. Dumville, Editors. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge (1983) Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Klaeber, Friedrich, Editor (1950) Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. Boston: D.C. Heath.

Mitchell, Bruce, and F.M. Robinson, Editors (1994) Beowulf: An Edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Osborn, Marijane (1998) Romancing the Goddess: Three Middle English Romances about Women. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

--- (1999) "The Wealth They Left Us: Two Women Author Themselves through Others' Lives in Beowulf," Philological Quarterly 78: 49-76.

Rosier, James L. (1963) "The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf," PMLA 78: 8-14.

Shippey, T.A., and Andreas Haarder, Editors (1998) Beowulf: the Critical Heritage London and New York: Routledge.

Sisam, Kenneth (1946) "Notes on Old English Poetry." Review of English Studies 21: 266-7

Stafford, Pauline (1978) "Sons and Mothers: Family Politics in the Early Middle Ages." Pp. 79-100 in Medieval Women: Studies for Rosalind M.T. Hill Derek Baker, Editor. Oxford: Blackwell.

--- (1983) Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

--- (1997) Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women's Power in eleventh-century England. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stenton, F.M. (1947) Anglo-Saxon England', 2nd ed., Oxford History of England, Vol. 2, Oxford: Clarendon, 1947.

Stevenson, W.H. Editor (1959) Asser's Life of King Alfred, new impression with supplement by Dorothy Whitelock. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

Stubbs, William, Editor (1874) Memorials of St Dunstan. Rolls Series, London: Longman.

Welsh, Andrew (1991) "Branwen, Beowulf, and the Tragic Peaceweaver Tale," Viator 22: 1-13.

Whitelock, Dorothy, Editor, with David C. Douglas and Susie Tucker (1961) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode.

Wrenn, C.L., Editor, revised by W.F. Bolton (1973) Beowulf with the Finnesburg Fragment. New York: St Martin's Press.



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This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved.