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Comitatus Background

"The Comitatus Relationship"

Throughout history rulers have always been protective of their kingdoms. In hopes of always being in control of their territory, rulers develop special relationships with the people to protect them. This relationship was usually achieved by of instilling fear into the minds of their warriors, or instilling respect between each other. In the story Beowulf the relationship between the ruler and his thanes is that of honor, friendship, and respect.

In Anglo Saxon stories, the relationship between the ruler and his thanes is known as comitatus. The comitatus relationship requires that "the thane swear to defend a lord to their death, while he provides them with the protection and a share of his wealth and weapons." This sounds like a typical warrior defending master relationship, but the relationship between a lord and his thanes is far more complex than that. Along with the thane and lord each providing services for the other, there is also a great deal of comradery between the thanes and their lord: "Some of the native terms used for this group in Beowulf may suggest something of the nature of their relationship to each other and to their king or lord: Friends, kinsmen, table comrades, hearth comrades, hall-sitters, hand companions"(22). Similar in structure to many other protection relationships, the bond between the lord and his thanes was often family oriented. This always seems to be the case in a protective situation in which a lord's life depends upon the dependability of his/her warriors. Because Grendel is a descendent of Cain, and Cain being the most notorious brother slayer, shows that Anglo Saxon culture look very poorly upon a person going against his family. This social tie within the society makes the comitatus relationship even stronger. Furthermore, the lord and Thane relationship is represented well in Beowulf. In the first part of the story, the thane Beowulf protects the lord Hrothgar, Beowulf believes in what Hrothgar stands for and is willing to fight for him. Not only does Hrothgar give Beowulf treasures, but he also puts his trust into him: "Now Beowulf, best of men, I will love you in my heart like a son; keep to our new kinship from this day on"(Crossley,32). This is an excellent portrayal of the lord and thane relationship, and shows how much appreciation a lord has for his thanes.

The lord and thane relationship is possibly one of the closest bonds in a protector/protectee relationship. The comitatus code not only sets standards for the actions of the lord and thane, but also turns a relationship of services into a bond of love and friendship.

By Damian Nash

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