Medieval Women

By: Kelly Bray

         The roles of women in early Anglo-Saxon culture were strictly defined. Women were viewed as possessions and served the function of the peace-weaver. In this role women were married off to warring tribes to promote peace and were to perform duties such as passing the cup from warrior to warrior during ceremonial functions. Women in Anglo-Saxon culture possessed virtually no autonomy and consequently were consistently at the mercy of their lords or husbands. The sense of isolation and desperation felt by these women is captured in the “The Wife’s Lament” as the speaker describes her inability to control her own situation. The female characters Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Freawaru in Beowulf also display the limited role of women as peace-weavers. The only female character with some power in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother, who retaliates for the death of her son.

         The speaker of “The Wife’s Lament” is a peace-weaver who has been abandoned by her tribe. She describes how she has been separated from her husband and sent away “a friendless exile—to seek a household to shelter [her] against wretched need” (103). The exiled woman lives alone in the wilderness and reflects about how the vow between she and her husband to remain together forever has been broken. The implication is that war has likely driven the couple apart as seen in the lines, “Far and near, I must suffer the feud of my much-beloved” (103). It is clear that this woman has no control over what has happened to her and consequently is left to lament the loss of her love. Because she no longer has a husband, the speaker is without a role or place in society, and she cast out on her own.

         The stories of Hildeburh and Freawaru, as told in Beowulf, illustrate the negative consequences that occur when women are married off as peace-weavers. Hildeburh is a Danish princess who was married off to Finn, king of the Jutes. Hildeburh is torn away from her loved ones and forced to witness her son and brother killed during a battle between the Danes and the Jutes. Hildeburh has absolutely no say in the marriage (as was the custom) and cannot do nothing to prevent the tragedy. The scop in Beowulf describes how Hildeburh mourned the loss of her relatives as she watched “fire [swallow] them—greediest of spirits—all of those whom war had taken away from both peoples” (21). In the case of Freawaru, Beouwulf prophesizes that Hrothgar’s daughter will marry the son of Froda in an attempt to create peace but says, “Most often after the fall of a prince in any nation the deadly spear rests but a little while, even thought the bride is good” (35). The implication here is that another marriage based on peace-weaving will create hardship and war.

         Wealhtheow of Beowulf is another example of a woman who lacks power in her role as a peace-weaver. Wealhtheow is the queen and wife to Hrothgar, so she is considered to be a noblewoman. Accordingly, her role in the kingdom is ceremonial, bit though distinguished, is lacking any real consequence. Wealhtheow greets Beowulf and warriors and in the hall and offers up the mead-bowl with the help of her fellow women. Once Beowulf has defeated Grendel, it is Weahltheow’s responsibility to give him thanks and present him with a ring and mail-shirt. She says, “Here is each earl true to other, mild of heart, loyal to his lord; the thanes are at one, the people obedient, the retainers cheered with drink do as I bid” (22). Wealhtheow represents what would be considered as a good queen because like Hygd, daughter of Haereth, she “was not niggardly, nor too sparing of gifts to the men of the Geats” (33). These two women are in contrast with Modthryth, a folk-queen who orders any man (other than her lord) who looks at her to be killed and is viewed negatively because “one who weaves peace should [not] take away the life of a beloved man after pretended injury” (33). In other words, it is unacceptable for a woman to have a mind killed for unjust reasons. This is particularly important when the woman’s central role in society is to keep the peace, rather than disrupt it.

         The only woman who appears to possess power in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother. It must be noted that Grendel’s mother is described as an evil “monster-wife,” and this likely accounts for behavior which would not have been viewed as acceptable by Anglo-Saxon society. Grendel’s mother fiercely attacks and kills one of Beowulf’s men and reclaims Grendel’s arm that had been ripped from his body. When Beowulf seeks out revenge on Grendel’s mother she puts up admirable fight, determined that “she would avenge her child, her only son” (27). Though she is defeated by Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is unique in that she takes matters into her own hands, defies customs and laws, and seeks out revenge.

         The women of “The Wife’s Lament” and Beowulf are representative of the role of women as peace-weavers in Anglo-Saxon culture. These women lived in a society in which their worth was assessed by their ability to achieve peace in times of war. The women have no real rights and are at the mercy of the needs of both their husbands and tribes. Though queens such as Wealhtheow have a higher social standing due to their nobility, the role of the women (in the literary works of the time) remains ceremonial. It is interesting, and telling, that Grendel’s mother, the only woman in Beowulf who is autonomous and aggressive, is considered a monster.

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