By Eleanor Franzen
Beowulf is not what one might call a feminine poem. The women whose lives and sufferings are described within it are not the immediate focus. No one thinks of the agony of Hildeburh or the canny political maneuverings of Wealhtheow when they think of Beowulf. The Beowulf-poet, particularly in his exploitation and delicate textual balance of Christian and pagan values, demonstrates that he cannot have been unaware of the effect of the women within his narrative.
The engagement of female characters with their role in tribal society provides a counterpoint to the main narrative’s battle and bloodshed, casting doubt upon the value system of that warrior society. Given that Christianity was widespread but by no means dominant at the time of the poem’s writing, and given the increased power possessed by Christian noblewomen, one deeply compelling reason for the poet’s inclusion of these passively suffering female characters is the powerful indictment of pagan society proposed by their experiences. Their fates would only have sharpened the contrast to the relative freedom enjoyed by women in Christian societies. To an extent, the Beowulf poet is propagandizing, but seems nevertheless to suggest that, as European societies adopted Christianity, the influence of female actions increased dramatically.
The society in which Beowulf is set was obsessed with the notion of what is now called Otherness; individuals defined themselves in terms of family and tribe. The clan feuds were symptomatic of the tensions surrounding this concept. The constant threat of renewed hostilities in Beowulf’s society caused women to assume a specific function as “peace-weavers”, pawns whose marriages could create alliances between potential enemies. The queens or princesses, Hildeburh, Wealhtheow and Freawaru, are all assessed on the basis of their success or, rather, their failure, because failure is endemic to the enterprise as peace-weavers. The tactic is simple: marry a woman of one tribe to the prince or king of the tribe with whom they’re at war. Most of the dynastic houses of Europe adopted the strategy, and it continued to be an integral part of international relations for centuries. Maria Theresa, for example, Holy Roman Empress from 1745 to 1765, married thirteen of her children into various European royal lines, creating networks of alliances that lasted until the First World War. The marriage-alliance system in Beowulf, however, causes blame to fall upon the wife when things go wrong. Hildeburh, the queen who loses husband, son and brother in the fight recounted in the Finnsburg Fragment, is a textbook example of a woman functioning as a peace-weaver: sent to be the bride of Finn the Frisian, as a Danish peace pledge. Her brother Hnæf visits her and is killed and the Danes kill Finn in retaliation. This wholesale slaughter of her male relatives destroys her identity; her purpose was to create union, and she fails. Worse, her failure is built into the system: it worked for Maria Theresa only because the spouses of her children were willing to enter into a familial relationship with their in-laws. In a pagan society ungoverned by Christian notions of filial duty, the Beowulf-poet suggests there are no such guarantees.
Women who stray from their prescribed roles are summarily punished. Wealhtheow, the queen of the Danes dares to ask Beowulf to support her son’s claim to the throne following her husband’s death. Such an attempt to exercise influence over dynastic succession is hardly the action of a mild wife; her desire appears not to be for a tranquil kingdom, but for her son to rule. Her wish briefly comes true, but her son is soon killed in battle and Beowulf takes over in order to keep the tribe together. Grendel’s mother, meanwhile, rejects the societal feminine role so intensely that she is textually unsexed. In a long section of the poem as the Geats track her, the language styles her in a precisely masculine fashion, particularly in the use of the masculine pronouns “se” and “he”. Before her first attack, she is described as “se the wæter-egesan wunian scolde,” “he who must dwell in the dread waters.” When she enters a building, the word used, “fealh”, can be translated as “penetrated”, which has distinctly sexual overtones. Later, she “ofsæt tha thone sele-gyst” (sat upon her hall-guest), an action which Michael Alexander delicately footnotes as “both inhospitable and humiliating.” Nor does she stop there, but attempts to stab or symbolically penetrate him with a dagger: “hyre seax geteah…wolde hire bearn wrecan,/angan eaferan…” She acts, bound by both honor and feeling, to place vengeance above the woman’s duty of peacemaking. Therein is her monstrousness: by sidelining pacification, she repudiates entirely her identity as a female, and is punished by losing that femininity. Conversely, at the time of the poet’s writing noblewomen, though still expected to maintain the balance of power as peace-weavers, were no longer held solely responsible should an alliance fail. Moreover, once they had created that alliance, they were then capable of exerting influence over the powerful men to whom they were now linked.
There are obvious difficulties in dating the poem, but the generally accepted time frame spans from the eighth century to the early eleventh, a period in which women professing Christianity were beginning to be a powerful political force. Abbess Hilda of Whitby hosted the seventh-century synod that solidified orthodox beliefs and made Christianity a formidably unified religion in England. Clovis, king of the Franks, converted to Christianity in the late fifth century because of his Christian wife, Clotilde. King Æthelberht of Kent followed suit after his marriage to Bertha, Clovis’s great-granddaughter. Both of these men presided over powerful kingdoms, unified to a certain extent by the religion enabled through the influence of these women. These women functioned in pacifistic roles, but were crucially able to influence the policies of their husbands. Of course, they were by no means autonomous: power was traded and jostled for by political and religious authorities and the faith of political wives could be exploited by Catholic leaders, such as in the case of Pope Gregory and the wife of Aethelbert. Equally, their status with their husbands and within their nation made them ideally suited to prepare the way for Christianization. An exception to the female-as-peace-maker role in medieval Europe was a French nun in the time of Clovis named Genovefa, later known as Geneviéve. Her organization of Frankish resistance to the Huns in the fifth century preserved Lutetia (the forerunner of Paris) from being overthrown. Later, when Clovis was besieging Lutetia, Genovefa worked closely and is believed to have played a significant role in his conversion. Counselor to a king, soldier and leader of native resistance forces: it is not hard to see in Genovefa a forerunner of Joan of Arc. Although she too was a peace-weaver she was also a savvy politician, who eventually saw that it would be more practical to cooperate with would-be conquerors (and persuade them to wear their triumph lightly) than to antagonize them.
Why, then, if the influence of women was increasing in his day, would the Beowulf-poet include the constricted suffering of women in his poem? Firstly, there is the tension between pagan and Christian values in Beowulf. The poet tries to convince us that, even though his heroes are now damned, they would have been godly men if they’d known better and therefore deserve our sympathy. The poet cannot, however, applaud paganism; instead he demonstrates why it is self-destructive. The clearest illustration is its treatment of women and its imposition upon them of roles that they cannot uphold. The feuds that result when those roles are broken end up toppling pagan society. The nameless Geatish woman at the poem’s end wails at Beowulf’s funeral pyre not only because he was a beloved king, but because he was the only thing standing between his people and violent invasion by neighboring tribes: “Sæde geneahhe,/thæt hio hyre here-geongas hearde ondrede” (“She cried out again and again, that she sorely dreaded for her safety in the invasions of that army”) The sentiment is not quite feminist; but suggests that the suffering of the women is symptomatic of the suffering of the whole civilization. It does, however, see women as important contributors to the health of a society: a point which was becoming increasingly obvious both to the poet and to his audience. Although the Christian church is indeed responsible for much bloodshed over the centuries, and although its record regarding women’s rights is, in places, abysmal, it is important to note that the Christianization of medieval European tribes contributed to their development into nations, and that it did so in large part through the pressures exerted upon men by women. In the early medieval period, the female diplomatic function of peace-making became more sophisticated; no longer seeking peace merely for its own sake, these women took advantage of their circumstances and, by doing so, found a role which enabled them to shape the course of civilization.
Beowulf: a Glossed Text, Michael Alexander (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1995)
Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf, Gillian Overing (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990)
Women in Anglo-Saxon England, Christine Fell (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984)
The History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch (London: Penguin Books, 2009)
The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, R.A. Fletcher (London: Fontana Press, 1997)