The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001

The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context

By Dorothy Carr Porter

Western Michigan University


ABSTRACT: This paper examines the roles of the women in Beowulf, focusing on those of hostess, peaceweavers, and monsters. When read through an anthropological lens, Beowulf presents the female characters as being central both in the story itself and in the society presented in the poem.



In her 1995 book article "The Women of Beowulf: A Context for Interpretation," Gillian R. Overing writes that "[t]he women in Beowulf, whether illegitimate monsters or pedigreed peaceweaving queens, are all marginal, excluded figures . . ." [1]. In this article, Overing's approach is that of a literary critic, and although valuable for Beowulf studies (and required reading for anyone interested in the women in Beowulf) she fails to take into account possible anthropological approaches to the text. Read within the context of the society presented in the text, it is clear that the women are central and important to the poem as a whole. This paper will not take issue with Overing's article or approach to the sources, but instead analyze these women in a complementary, anthropological fashion. Through these discussions I will show that, when read carefully, Beowulf presents the female characters as women central both to the story itself and within the society presented in the poem, and far from "marginal, excluded figures".

Let us first examine the major female characters. There are six women in Beowulf who have major roles: Wealhtheow, Hygd, Freawaru, Hildeburh, Grendel's mother, and Thryth, all of whom can be combined in corresponding pairs[2], and in this way I will examine the role of these women. Wealhtheow and Hygd are both queens and, as hostesses, they both exert influence in the hall (usually thought of as a masculine enclave), influence that does not always coincide with the wishes of their husbands. The first section will present Wealhtheow and Hygd as hostesses, discussing their place in the structure of the court society shown in the poem, a society that focuses on the hall and the words that are spoken within the hall. Hildeburh and Freawaru are both failed peaceweavers, Hildeburh in the past time of the poem and Freawaru in the future. "Peaceweaver" is a term in modern scholarship reserved for a woman married into one group from another, in an attempt to weave peace among them. As peaceweavers, these women have the potential to hold influence in both groups - potential which does not come to fruition for reasons that will be discussed in the second section, which will present Hildeburh and Freawaru as peaceweavers, discuss the effect of tribal loyalties on their marriages, and examine the general practice of peaceweaving. Grendel's mother and Thryth are both women of a monstrous type who are eventually "tamed", through death and marriage, respectively. These monstrous women serve as counter-examples of both the hostesses and the peaceweavers. The third and final section will present Grendel's Mother and Thryth as counter-examples of hostesses and peaceweavers; perhaps they can be considered hostile hostesses and strife-weavers.


I. Wealhtheow and Hygd: Woman as Hostess

First, let us examine Wealhtheow and Hygd, their actions, and how the poet describes them. They are both illustrated using positive terms that stress their prudence. Wealhtheow is "mindful of customs," (613), "of excellent heart" (624; can also be translated as "mature of mind"), and "sure of speech" (624), while Hygd is "wise and well-taught" (1927) [3]. The primary function of these women within the story is that of hostess: they carry the cup of mead around the hall and offer it to the warriors. This appears to be a relatively unimportant function until one reads carefully and examines how this duty is carried out. In Wealhtheow's first scene (612-641), after taking up the cup she first offers it to Hrothgar. After Hrothgar drinks she takes the cup to all his retainers until finally she reaches Beowulf. She greets him, he reasserts his promise, made in a previous scene, to rid the Danes of Grendel, and Wealhtheow, satisfied, returns to her seat.


Comparing Wealhtheow's second scene (1162-1231) to her first scene shows some of the importance of the queen's cup-carrying practice. Again Wealhtheow first approaches Hrothgar, who is sitting next to his nephew, but next instead of carrying the cup to all the other retainers she delivers it directly to Beowulf, who has been seated with her sons. This difference may show that Beowulf has risen in status in the court since he kept his promise to kill Grendel. However, it also calls attention to the parallel between the story that has just been told about Hildeburh and the death of her sons and brother and Wealhtheow's own sons and their uncle. But because the function of this change is unclear in the text itself, it is helpful to look to other sources for a possible answer.


Michael J. Enright, in the first chapter of his book Lady with a Mead Cup, discusses the place of women in the political society of the Germanic warband, making special reference to those scenes in Beowulf involving Wealhtheow [4]. Enright argues that, because she always offers the cup to Hrothgar first, Wealhtheow is an extension of and a support for his kingly power. He cites another Old English poem, Maxims I, that seems to confirm this argument. The section that he cites discusses the nobleman's ideal wife, how "at mead drinking she must at all times and places approach the protector of princes first, in front of the companions, quickly pass the first cup to her lord's hand . . ." [5]. The order of serving is then directly tied into the rankings within the warband. This argument makes sense in reference to the scenes in question: in the second scene, Wealhtheow serves Beowulf after Hrothgar as a representation of his newly earned status within the band.


Hygd, the other woman who plays the role of hostess in Beowulf, has a much smaller part. She is described as moving through the hall, carrying the cup, but no order is given for her rounds (1980- 1983. "The daughter of Hæreth passed through the hall, cared for the people, bore the cup to the hand of the hero"). The poet does not say whether or when she delivered to cup to Hygelac or to Beowulf. Considering the above argument for the importance of order in the cup-distribution, it seems that the lack of that information in the case of Hygd is just as important as the information included at Heorot. In the scenes involving Wealhtheow, Beowulf is a stranger in a rival hall, so it is necessary for Hrothgar to show his power. The poet illustrates this power through the passing around of the cup, and Beowulf knows that, because the king receives the cup first, he is the master of the hall. However, because Beowulf has returned to his own hall and to his own lord, there is no need for Hygelac to show that he is the master. We know that Beowulf is Hygelac's thegn: that is how he is first introduced in the poem (Higelaces ðegn, 194).


These examples of Wealhtheow and Hygd show them as instruments of the kings in the hall. Enright does disservice to them, however, by focusing only on their function as extensions of their husbands. Although he concludes that Wealhtheow's position as cup-bearer and supporter of the king gives her some power within the structure of the warband, Enright argues against her and other women in her position having a significant influence on politics. He does not take seriously enough the words spoken by Wealhtheow to Hrothgar and Beowulf during the celebration of Grendel's death (lines 1161-1187 and 1216-1231). In her speech to Hrothgar, Wealhtheow urges him to be gracious (glæd) to Beowulf and the Geats, but not to make him heir to the Danish kingdom (as she has heard he wishes to do) (1175-1180). Instead, she asks him to take Hrothulf (Hrothgar's nephew) as his heir, to hold the kingdom for her sons (1180-1187). In this act, Wealhtheow is actively protecting her own interests, and the poet gives no indication that her words were ignored or not accepted into consideration by Hrothgar [6]. Her words to Beowulf reflect the same concerns. First, she urges him to accept the gift she has just given him, a ring (beag), illustrating her own graciousness and generosity [7]. She then praises his deeds and urges him to be kind to her sons, reminding him of the truth and loyalty that exist in Heorot. Her final words illustrate her self-confidence: "the troop, having drunk at my table, will do as I bid" (1231). Again, the poet gives no reason for us to believe that her demands will go unheeded [8].


Hygd also held at least some political power, and this is shown most clearly when she attempts to deliver the kingdom of the Geats to Beowulf following Hygelac's death on the battlefield, in effect passing over her own son, Heardred. The poet says, "Hygd offered him [Beowulf] the hoard and kingdom, rings and royal throne; she did not trust that her son could hold the ancestral seat against foreign hosts, now that Hygelac was dead" (2369-2372). Perhaps she is acting as an extension of her husband's power (as she does during the cup distribution in the hall), doing what he would have wished her to do. However the poet does not say that she is acting on anyone's authority but her own - apparently it is Hygd and Hygd alone who does not believe her son is strong enough to hold the kingdom. Janemarie Luecke has examined historical and anthropological evidence and concludes that the social arrangement in Beowulf, though patrilineal, dimly reflects the matrilineal (the bloodline descending through the mother's line) and matrilocal (the household centered around women as opposed to men) organization of early Germanic society [9]. Stephen O. Glosecki (in an article reprinted in this issue) agrees that there are many references in Anglo-Saxon sources in general, Beowulf in particular, that may "persist as reflexes of a totemic system in which the basic exogamous group was both matrilineal and matrilocal" [10]. The lineage is traced through the women: a man belongs to his mother's line, and his son belongs to 'his' mother's line, not his father's. This would create a system of inheritance quite different from the later medieval system of primogeniture. In the totemic system, "if the father bequeathed his ancestral wealth and status upon his son, this patrimony would pass out of his own natal clan and into the matriclan of his affines" [11]. To avoid passing his ancestral wealth into another family, then, the father must choose another male relation related to his own mother through another female relation. The closest relation in this case would be the son of a sister (this relationship will be dealt with in greater detail in the next section), and, although referred to many times as the son of his father, Ecgtheow, Beowulf is also the son of Hygelac's sister. Return then to Beowulf and Hygd, and take into account the possibility of a reflexive totemic system. One can suggest that Hygd wishes to keep the kingdom in her husband's family, not because she or her deceased husband doubted the abilities of Heardred, but because the totemic system prescribes that it should be so.


II. Hildeburh and Freawaru: Woman as Peaceweaver


Let us now move from a discussion of relations within a group to that of relations between groups. A good place to begin this discussion is with an examination of the term "peaceweaver" and its use in Old English literature. It is commonly believed that the term freothuwebbe, "peaceweaver," is most often applied to women given in marriage in order to secure peace among enemy or rival peoples [12]. Freothwebbe, however, is only used three times in the Old English corpus, and Larry M. Sklute has thus concluded that the term "does not necessarily reflect a Germanic custom of giving a woman in marriage to a hostile tribe in order to secure peace. Rather it is a poetic metaphor referring to the person whose function it seems to be to perform openly the action of making peace by weaving to the best of her art a tapestry of friendship and amnesty" [13]. Using this definition, in their courtly functions both Wealhtheow and Hygd can be called freothuwebbe [14], and in fact Wealhtheow is referred to using a similar term, frithu-sibb folca (2017, peace-pledge of the nations). Although Sklute does not see a difference in the way the terms freothuwebbe and frithu-sibb are used in Beowulf, John Hill describes a distinction hinging on the second element in the compounds, "weaving concord in contrast to kinship peace alliance." Thus, Wealhtheow acts as both. "As a link between two peoples, Wealhtheow is obviously the latter [i.e., frithu-sibb]; as a personage in the hall she is the former [i.e freothuwebbe]" [15]. Though I use the modern English term "peaceweaver" for Hildeburh and Freawaru I want it to be clear that I am referring to their functions as frithu-sibb, women given in marriage as a peacekeeping force between rival groups.


The story of Hildeburh is told by a scop in Heorot following Beowulf's defeat of Grendel (1071- 1158). She was the daughter of the king of the Danes and was married off to Finn, king of the Jutes. In one respect she succeeded in her duty: she had at least one son, a representation of the mingling of the blood between the two tribes [16]. Unfortunately the match did not keep the tribes from fighting, and Hildeburh ended up losing her son, brother, and husband, and was taken back to her people, the Danes. Far from being simply a geomuru ides (mournful woman, 1075), Hildeburh and her position of being pulled, as it were, between two loyalties, is central in the story. The scop narrates the story in relation to her: the story begins and ends with her, and she is mentioned in the middle. Except perhaps for Hengest, the story tells us more about Hildburh's viewpoint than that of anyone else.


Reading from an anthropological point of view, Hildeburh's story illustrates the conflict between the peaceweaver's marriage tribe and birth tribe, and an answer (at least within the society of the poem) of which one was to take precedence. After the first battle, the one in which Hildeburh's son and brother are killed, the scop says, "blameless she was deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother; wounded by spears they fell to their fate. That was a mournful woman" (1072- 1075). The poet does not mention any grief resulting from the death of her husband, nor does he register any wish on her part that the murders of son and brother not be avenged. This indicates Hildeburh's continuing close relationship to her birth people [17]. If Hildeburh's loyalties were naturally with her people, then she would naturally mourn for those folks who shared her blood. Also, at the end of the story, Hildeburh returns to her people (leodum) - that is, the Danes. Although she was married into a non-Danish tribe (we do not know for how long - at least long enough to have a child of fighting age), she is still considered a Danish queen, and the Danes still think of her as one of their own [18].


The story of Hildeburh offers a doorway into discussion of an issue near to that of matrilocality and matrilinity mentioned above in relation to Hygd: that of the closeness between a woman's sons and her brother (SiSo-MoBr). This issue is discussed in detail by Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., who examines SiSo-MoBr in non-literary sources, as well as in Beowulf, and even suggests that Wiglaf is the son of Beowulf's sister [19]. Throughout Beowulf, the poet emphasizes this special relationship. Beowulf and Hygelac, one pair of SiSo-MoBr, are mentioned in detail above. Hildeburh is the one sister and mother in Beowulf who is active as the connection between her male sibling and child. Hildeburh's brother, Hnæf, and her son are killed in battle, and the poet does not say whether her son was fighting with his father or his uncle. He does say that, after Hnæf's pyre is built and his body set upon it, Hildeburh has her son laid with him and they are cremated together. "Then Hildeburh commanded at Hnæf's pyre that her own son be consigned to the flames to be burnt, flesh and bone, placed on the pyre at his uncle's shoulder . . ." (1114-1117). Through this action, Hildeburh emphasizes that her son is hers, not her husband's. Her son is to be associated with his uncle, her brother, and the Danish people.


Freawaru plays a much smaller role in the poem than Hildeburh [20]. After Beowulf returns to Hygelac he tells a story of perceived insult and revenge surrounding the marriage of Hrothgar's daughter to Ingeld, son of Froda, king of the Heathobards, whom the Danes have defeated in the past. The plan of marriage is clearly one of peaceweaving (2026-2029). Beowulf's description of Freawaru is fairly incidental to the story; she mainly serves as a way of introduction to the conflict. He tells how she went about the court, offering the cup to warriors [21]. He then describes what he fears the outcome of her marriage will be. At the feast following the wedding, an aging warrior will recognize the Heathobard treasures being carried by the Danes and will urge the younger thanes to battle, and not even the finest bride will be able to stop them (2029-2031). Though Freawaru's part in all this is admittedly quite small, she is nevertheless a character central to the story.


III. Grendel's Mother and Thryth: Woman as Monster

The final pair of women, Grendel's Mother and Thryth, are two very different types of monsters who act as counter-examples to the hostesses and peaceweavers. First, they act in a more masculine manner than do the other women. Rather than using words or marriage to exert influence, they use physical strength and weapons. They do not welcome visitors into their homes. They are hostile hostesses, "using the sword to rid their halls of intruders or unwanted "hall-guests"" [22]. They are strife-weavers who are content to use violence to settle their disputes. Thryth was a princess who used to kill the men who came into her hall. The poet comments that this sort of behavior, even by a beautiful queen, should not be tolerated (1940-1943). Grendel's mother also attacks anyone who would come into her hall, as she did with Beowulf. Both women are finally tamed, Thryth by her marriage to Offa, and Grendel's mother by the death inflicted upon her by Beowulf [23]. Grendel's mother and Thryth, however, are also very different from each other, much more different than either Wealhtheow and Hygd or Hildeburh and Freawaru.


Thryth is an evil woman, guilty of terrible crimes (firen ondrysne), but nevertheless she is also described as a famous folk queen (fremu folces cwen) [24], lady (idese), and even peaceweaver (freothu-webbe) [25], which she decidedly is not. These descriptive terms illustrate one major difference between Thryth and Grendel's mother: Thryth functions within society. As the daughter of a king she has social status, and although her actions are not praiseworthy the poet does not condemn her as a person. She is also capable of change through the influence of society. After her marriage, a social event, her attitude changes. "She caused less calamity to the people, less malicious evil . . . famous for good things, [she] used well her life while she had it, held high love with that chief of heroes . . ." (1946-1947 and 1953-1954).


Throughout her story, Grendel's mother is described as an evil, masculine, monstrous woman, and never with such positive terms as are used in reference to Thryth. She is described as a monster woman (or perhaps warrior-woman, aglæc-wif, 1259) [26], greedy, grim minded (gifre ond galg- mod, 1277), and is associated with the descendents of Cain (1260-1268), the ultimate (and first) evil human. She is also referred to using a term always used in reference to female humans, never animals, and usually reserved for noble women: ides (1351). The use of this term indicates that Grendel's mother, though she is in some way cursed by God, and monstrous, is nevertheless a human [27]. This fact brings up some problems related to her ability to avenge the death of her son. As it is stated at the beginning of the poem, Grendel and his mother are outcasts from society (106-114) and therefore, perhaps, are not held to the same societal expectations as other people. For example, Grendel is described as being unwilling (or unable) to receive treasure from the king because God, who banished Cain from humankind, likewise banished his offspring (168- 169 ) [28]. However a few lines earlier the poem says that Grendel did not wish to end the killing by a payment of wergild (154-158). Perhaps the banishment was in fact partially self-inflicted. In any case, some scholars have used these reasons to argue that Grendel and his mother were not considered as subject to the laws of society and were therefore unable to participate in the laws concerning wergild and vengeance killing [29]. Other scholars, from the evidence of the text itself, have argued that Grendel's mother was capable of and even respected for attempting to avenge her son [30]. Through my own familiarity with the text I am inclined to agree with those scholars who view Grendel's mother as law abiding, if not fully accepted by society, in her search for justice.


Grendel's mother, despite the poet's own words (1282-1284), is a hardier opponent than her son was, and she is certainly physically capable of carrying out her desired vengeance. Compare her entry into Heorot with that of Grendel [31]. Although when she approaches the hall Grendel's mother is frightened and wishes to leave as soon as possible, her presence has a stronger influence on the sleeping thanes than does Grendel's (1279-1295). When Grendel first enters Heorot (115-125) he takes 30 men, and yet his work is not discovered until the next morning. In his second entry (720- 749), he tears the door open and walks into the middle of a room filled with sleeping warriors. Not only were they able to sleep despite their knowledge that he was coming, they also apparently sleep through the destruction of the door. Grendel is able to grab one man and almost grab another before Beowulf begins their battle. It is only then that the sleeping thanes awake. When Grendel's mother enters, however, her mere presence awakens the men. There is no warning, they did not know that she was coming (as far as they knew, danger died with Grendel), and the poet gives no indication that she made any noise when she came into the hall. The warriors, however, wake immediately. "She reached Heorot, where the Ring-Danes slept throughout the building; sudden turnabout came to men, when Grendel's mother broke into the hall" (1279-1282). They are seized by a terror (broga) and do not even think of donning armor before they grab their weapons (1290-1291). This is only one example of the contrast evident between Grendel and his mother [32].


Through this short analysis of the roles of the women in Beowulf, I have endeavored to show the centrality of female characters to the poem. In the form of the work, the presentation of these women is purposefully symmetrical, inviting comparisons and contrasts. Those women who act as hostesses and peaceweavers, even while looking out for their own interests, are central to the poem, and an understanding of the functions of the women in Beowulf assists the comprehension of a complex poem. Those women presented as monsters, the hostile hostesses and strife-weavers, are interesting in themselves, and also serve as counter-examples to the other female characters. A thorough investigation of the relationships between the women and their men uncovers possibilities of a matrilineal undercurrent in the culture of Beowulf, which may indicate a dim memory of a pagan Germanic past for the Anglo-Saxon poet. Though they are all defined by the men that they are close to, either sons, fathers, or brothers, none of the women in Beowulf are marginal or excluded




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Copyright © Dorothy Carr Porter, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

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