"Beowulf" as a Conduct Poem for Anglo-Saxon Princesses

"ne bið swylc cwénlic þéaw idese tó efnanne"

Term Paper, 2016

20 Pages, Grade: 1



1 Introduction

2 The Maternal Ideal

3 The Peace-Weaver and The Hostess as Social Ideals

4 Men as the Corrective Element

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Conduct guides for young princes and princesses have a long history in western culture. Although their heyday was between the 13th and 15th century, their roots can be traced back to Roman and Greek antiquity (Krueger 2009: XIff.). The works of pagan authors like Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and Cicero served as the basis for the discourse of early church fathers who, in turn, laid the foundation for medieval conduct literature. This kind of literature exists in many different forms and it deals with several topics which makes it “impossible to categorize these works as belonging to a common literary family based on stylistic features alone” (Krueger 2009: XXII). What all of them have in common, however, is their conservative intention (Krueger 2009: XI). Conduct literature is rather made to transmit traditional teaching than to introduce new ways of behavior. The authors of such texts focused on correct behavior, service, etiquette, etc. (Kline 2012: 6) and they tried to hand down the moral attitude of one generation to the subsequent one. To achieve this aim, they repeatedly used citations from authorities, dialogues, rhymes, repetitions, figurative language, well-known pro verbs and a wide range of exempla (Krueger 2009: XXIII).

Ordinarily, conduct literature was made for young men. They are seen as the main target group of these educating texts because such treatises often describe the manners of knights or leaders (Krueger 2009: XVII). ‘Beowulf’ contains many parts that fit into this category and it was Levin Schücking who first examined these parts against the background of conduct literature (Schücking 1917: 400). He analyzed the depiction of male characters like Beowulf and Hrothgar, and he came to the conclusion that the epic of ‘Beowulf’ was made to teach young princes about loyalty, generosity, good leadership and virtue (Schücking 1929: 144ff.). Furthermore, he mentions the possibility that this epic was also written for the education of young princesses since simultaneous education of boys and girls was not unusual in medieval royal families (Schücking 1917: 400). A closer investigation on this topic, however, has not been undertaken until now. This being the case, I want to throw some light on this dark spot of ‘Beowulf’ research with this treatise. The analysis of the depiction of four central women - Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, Modthryth and Grendel’s mother - is supposed to show that these characters are presented as good respectively bad exempla for appropriate female behavior. I want to demonstrate that the stories about these four ladies are topically connected to each other and that they may have served as conduct stories for Anglo-Saxon princesses. To achieve this aim, I am going to concentrate on the three ostensible female ideals depicted in ‘Beowulf: the queen-mother, the hostess and the peace-weaver (Haruta 1986: 1).

2 The Maternal Ideal

The concept of Motherhood in ‘Beowulf’ is often tainted with loss. This finds its expression especially in the characters of Hildeburh, Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother. Each of these women has to cope with the impending or already occurred bereavement of her son in her own way. But while Hildeburh and Wealhtheow remain true to their social position as queen and peace-weaver by doing so, Grendel’s dam overrides the Anglo-Saxon gender boarders in her desire for revenge.

One of the most unfortunate of the three women is Hildeburh. Her story is told by Hrothgar’s minstrel during the hall scene after Grendel’s defeat. He performs the saga of Finn and his son and familiarizes the audience with the sad destiny of Hildeburh, a Danish princess that was married to the Frisian King Finn (ll. 1070). Through her marriage, the lady lives up to her purpose as a peace-pledge between the Danes and the Frisians. But just like so many other women in ‘Beowulf’, she is intended to fail as well. First, her brother Hnæf and her son are killed by her husband at his court. With this act of violence, Hildeburh loses two important parts of her identity: the peace-weaver and, probably more hurting from her point of view, the queen- mother. The subsequently declared truce between the two tribes is only short-lived and so Hnæf’s retainer Hengest attacks and kills Finn after the winter was over. He deprived Hildeburh from her last remaining function as a hostess (Haruta 1986: 2). Afterwards, the Danes loot the Frisian stronghold and carry Hildeburh back to Denmark. As Overing puts it: the “Queen loses all.” (Overing 1995: 231) This loss and the handling of it seems to be the central element of this saga. The poet does not focus on the heroic element of battle but on Hildeburh and her role during the feud. She is the central element at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the song (Overing 1995: 234). In the beginning, her name is the first to be revealed and the saga starts from her point of view. This first part clearly addresses the maternal loss because it is a perspective in which her brother’s and her son’s is as much emphasized as her sad feelings towards it (ll. 1070-1078). The poet’s focus on the consequences of the attack rather than on the attack itself underlines Hildeburh’s maternal sorrow (Chance Nitzsche: 1980b: 290). But her reactions to this tragedy are restricted to lamentations and her command to bury her son’s body together with Hnæf’s corpse (ll. 1075, 1115-1119). From this point on, she remains silent. Although it was her own husband who killed her son, she does not seem to be angry with him. From the modern point of view, this reaction seems strange. But in the Anglo-Saxon society, this behavior totally corresponds to the expectations placed on queens because the system demanded full obedience to the husband and not to the son (Adams 2011: 266). Even during her journey back to the Denmark as “a nameless queen among a list of war trophies” (Overing 1995: 235), she silently accepts her destiny (ll. 1156-1158). Actually, her opportunities are quite limited. As a peace-pledge she must accept her role as a passive griever since she is bound to both sides of the conflict. Furthermore, she failed in this profession, lost her identity and has no one to blame but herself. Passivity is her only opportunity in the patriarchic and belligerent society of ‘Beowulf. Thus, the saga of Finn emphasizes the social ideal of the mother that passively accepts the loss of her son (Chance Nitzsche 1980b: 290 f.).

But this short episode was just the first part of a trilogy about maternal loss. Subsequently after the bard has finished his song, Wealhtheow appears. In some respect, the saga of Finn foreshadows Wealhtheow’s sad destiny (Haruta 1986: 6). Although her skills as a hostess and peace-pledge make a positive impression, she will not be able to prevent feuds that will probably threat her sons’ lives. There are several interpretations that evoke the possibility that “perhaps all is not well in the Danish court” (Schrader 1983: 42) and that, besides Beowulf, Hrothulf or Unferth may pose a threat to Wealhtheow’s sons (Dockray-Miller 1998: 36; Schrader 1983: 42) However, she does not know about this fate when she enters the hall. But the minstrel’s song may have worried her. So, she does what she does best: peace-weaving. And in contrast to Hildeburh, Wealhtheow is anything but mute and passive by doing so.

First, she addresses Hrothgar in her attempt to dissuade him from his adoption-plan because it would cost her son’s claims to the throne and possibly their lives (ll. 1178-1179). Next, she reminds her nephew Hrothulf of his commitment towards her sons and his duty to treat them well if the king died before him (ll. 1180-1187). Wealhtheow’s oldest son is still too young to take the leadership and Hrothulf could easily get shot of both of the princes to lead the clan (Haruta 1986: 6). Thus, Wealhtheow emphasizes his oath. In her analysis of the French conduct book ‘Livre des Trois Vertus’, Tracy Adams founds a similar situation and she points out that in case of the king’s death “it is up to [the mother] to mediate between her children and those who would snatch everything they possess from them, keeping the family estates intact until her children can fend for themselves” (Adams 2011: 271). Wealhtheow’s preventive efforts must thus be seen as exemplary. Eventually, the queen turns towards Beowulf who is symbolically placed between Hrethric and Hrothmund (ll. 1187-1190). In Wealhtheow’s eyes, he is about to be adopted by Hrothgar. It just depends on him to agree. Thus, Beowulf constitutes the most imminent danger to her sons. Skillfully, Wealhtheow tries to protect her sons against him in three ways. First, she bestows him an impressive torque and a chainmail as parts of his reward for his victory over Grendel (ll. 1215-1218). But this bestowal may be seen as an act of bribery as well. She wants him to be satisfied with his new treasures and his reputation, and not to involve in the Shieldings’ succession (Enright 1988: 191f.). To reach this goal, she bribes him with two of her presumably most valuable possessions. At least the lofty description of the torque implies that (Haruta 1986: 8). Second, she tries to screw a promise out of the Geat by asking him to teach and treat her sons well (ll. 1219f., 1226f.). Third, she even utters a subtle threat. Although she knows that her husband’s retainers are only pledged to him, she casually remarks that the drunken soldier do as she bids (ll.1230f.). This can be seen as a subtextual threat against Beowulf (Enright 1988: 192) and it also includes a veiled plea to the retainers. She reminds them “of how she wants them to behave and to continue to behave” (Haruta 1986: 7; ll. 1228-1231). However, Wealhtheow’s efforts are in line with her social role. As a peace-pledge, she is allowed to adopt preventive measures in order to protect her sons as long as they serve the security of the whole clan. The contrast between the passive Hildeburh and the active Wealhtheow must rather be seen in context of the respective points in time and perspectives. In her son’s lifetime, Hildeburh probably had the same position and strategy like Wealhtheow. But in the saga of Finn, she represents the unsuccessful queen-mother who lost everything after the death of her beloved ones and disappears into the kingdom of oblivion, as traditions and social norms require it (Chance Nitzsche 1991: 256). Wealhtheow, on the other hand, represents the concerned queen-mother who has to exercise her duty as a peace-weaver very assiduously if she wants to protect her sons. So both of them embody the ideal role-model for prospective queens. As mothers, they are supposed to protect their offspring by preserving peace within the comitatus and between the tribes. But if one of them dies, they have to remain silent and passive. Predominantly because of their failure as a peace-pledge and, furthermore, because there is no latitude for any other feelings than sorrow. The ideal queen is socially not allowed to feel hate or the desire for revenge. This is an exclusively male domain although it has a determining influence on every character of the epic “as long as the system of revenge of kin is in place.” (Acker 2006: 705) When children were killed, fathers would be allowed to claim wergild or to seek revenge. This is daily practice in the society of this epic but not allowed to mothers (Chance Nitzsche 1991: 256). There is one mother, however, who does not adhere to these social norms.

Of course, the talk is of Grendel’s mother. After her son’s violent death, she is not content to merely act as the mourning mother. She seeks for revenge. Shortly after Wealhtheow has left the stage, she appears at Heorot and the third part of the mentioned trilogy begins. Driven by fury and sorrow (l. 1277), she infiltrates the mead-hall and manages to kidnap and kill Hrothgar’s counsellor and dear friend Aeschere (ll.1294f., 1328). His death serves as compensation for her loss. According to the Anglo-Saxon sense of justice, this reaction was coherent because no wergild has been offered to her. Even Beowulf shows a hint of sympathy for the reactions of Grendel’s mother when he describes her attack as a “revenge for injury” (Chance Nitzsche 1980b: 292; l. 2118). Nevertheless, there is one big problem: vengeance and violence are male jurisdictions and thus not granted to women. By taking the law into her own hands, Grendel’s mother infringes the social standards of the Anglo-Saxon society. Thus, she can be seen as the dissuasive counterpart of the preceding queen-examples.

In order to point out her faulty behavior, the poet starts the description of Grendel’s dam with focus on her two incompatible roles. First he calls her an avenger, two lines later he describes her as Grendel’s mother (ll. 1256-1258). This juxtaposition is very revealing because Grendel’s dam is one of the two female characters in the epic who is explicitly described as a mother, although there are more of them. Furthermore, there is no other name for her. Despite her importance for the epic, she remains anonymous and is only identifiable either through her mothership or her desire for revenge. So, directly with her first appearance, the poet wants the audience to be aware of her maternal role in a situation when she, as an avenger, totally offends against the social norms (Chance Nitzsche 1991: 253). Thus, her attack at Heorot must not be equated with her son’s assault, although both seem to be similar. Since Grendel’s motivation for the raid is unclear, his violence is regarded as purely mean-spirited. The violence of his mother, however, arises from her cravings for revenge (Schrader 1983: 40). She probably preferred to stay at home and to leave violent acts to her son. Before her retaliation, she is not even mentioned in the epic. If there were two menacing monsters in the neighborhood, Hrothgar probably would have mentioned this to the Geats. He certainly knows about her but he does not consider her as dangerous (ll. 1255ff.) There are new circumstances, the loss of her son, that requires her belligerent behavior.

The otherness of her attack is explicitly illustrated before she even puts one foot in the hall. Grendel’s mother is described as guiltless and sad, her journey to Heorot is sorrowful and she seems to hold herself at fault for this misery (ll. 1277f., 1259). This description resembles that of Hildeburh and it puts her on a level with this grieving human queen-mother (Chance Nitzsche 1991: 256). Grendel, however, is more a ravager than a revenger. Although he is joyless like his mother (l. 720), he seems to feel a certain anticipation for his attack and when he finally sees all the sleeping and helpless warriors, “his heart laugh[s]” (l. 730) because his evil intention is to kill every one of them. The subsequent killing and devouring of his victim Hondscioh is described in detail (l. 739-745). This is another contrast to his mother’s attack.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


"Beowulf" as a Conduct Poem for Anglo-Saxon Princesses
"ne bið swylc cwénlic þéaw idese tó efnanne"
http://www.uni-jena.de/  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Literary History: Beowulf
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Beowulf, Conduct, poem, anglo-saxon
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Sebastian Flock (Author), 2016, "Beowulf" as a Conduct Poem for Anglo-Saxon Princesses, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/346860


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