Anglo-Saxon literature depicts a male-dominated society with a strong warrior culture. Women are almost never mentioned. In fact, they are defined in this society by who their relatives are. Their position in this world, with a few exceptions, is mainly as peace-weavers and cupbearers in the mead hall.
The mead hall was an important place in the Anglo-Saxon world. In the hall, the king of the tribe and his thanes gathered to drink and listen to the stories sang by the cop. Women held the position of cupbearers; they were supposed to pass goblets of mead around to the warriors. In the epic poem Beowulf, several passages illustrate this idea. For instance, when there is a feast at Heorot: "Sometimes, Hrothgar's daughter distributed ale to older ranks, in order on the benches I heard the company call her Freawaru as she made her rounds, presenting men with the gem-studded bowl." (Beowulf ll. 2020-2025. 75) or "So the Helming woman went on her rounds, queenly and dignified, decked out in rings, offering the goblets to all ranks." (Beowulf ll.620-622. 45).
Nations or tribes are defined as groups of people related by kinship rather than geographical areas. During the fifth to eight centuries, there were many wars and feuds between tribes. Daughters of important men were married off to make peace between the warring nations. These women were called peace-weavers. This function is clearly defined in Beowulf: "A queen should weave peace" (Beowulf l.1942. 74) or there are the 'hopes this woman will heal old wounds and grievous feuds." (Beowulf ll.2027-2028. 75). The poem shows several examples of these political marriages as it mentions the different wars between tribes. For example, Hildeburh, the daughter of a Danish king, was married to the king of Friesland to help end a feud between the two nations. However, the peace this marriage had brought did not last long as a war between the two peoples broke out. It created a very dramatic situation for Queen Hildeburh as she lost her brother and son in battle. Freawaru, the daughter of the king of the Danes, who will marry the king of the Heatho-Bards to make peace between the two tribes, though Beowulf does not believe that the marriage will heap the rift between the tribes.
Indeed, the skepticism of Beowulf could be justified as history confirmed it wars between tribes broke out again. In the poem "The Wife's Lament," the female speaker says she was married to settle a feud between tribes, yet, in her case, too, this was not successful. She is left by her husband and sent to isolation by his kinsmen. Because she has been married to a man who has committed a crime, she has to accept the will of others and suffer. Because women are identified with their husbands, she has to share this collective punishment. In "The Wife's Lament," it is explained that women must also share some elements of that warrior culture, that is to say, to be stoic and suffer without complaining.
The only exceptions in the texts discussed in class where women are empowered in that society are an abbess and a female monster. In "Caedmon's Hymn," we learn that Caedmon works for a monastery ruled by abbess Hilda. The other exception is Grendel's mother who is compared to an Amazon warrior in Beowulf. It is understandable that these women have a special position as compared to most women because they are unusual. Indeed, Hilda is a respected member of the clergy, and Grendel's mother, a humanoid monster.
Women in Anglo-Saxon literature are, most of the time, defined in relation to their male relatives. Men always directed their life and position in society. Women had to be obedient and respectful of their husbands and kinsmen. The main position in that society that they had were peace-weavers and cupbearers. In fact, women, even a queen, had to serve the will and goal of the king, and in general, the tribe.
"Beowulf." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H.Abrams. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 29-99.
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