How were women regarded in the Anglo-Saxon world? Besides playing
a very big role as mothers that produced more warriors, women were considered
also to be peace-weavers: they were often married by their fathers to sons
and brothers of the kings of foreign tribes. Women considered were
considered to be men's property and their opinion was of no real
significance. They carried a very difficult mission in the society,
but had no legal rights.
In the Anglo-Saxon warrior centered culture, a very important mission
of women often was limited to their function as bearers of young warriors.
In the epic Beowulf, the hero or a warrior is always said to be a son of
such and such king or lord, but the name of the mother is never mentioned.
The poet often proudly mentions that the hero, Beowulf, is the son of
Ecgtheow (such identification as a son of a king or a hero created a higher
status for a warrior). And, even praising the hero, when people say that
the woman who gave birth to such a warrior would be the happiest of them
all, the mother's name is never spoken, as, for example, in king Hrothgar's
praise of Beowulf: " Yes, she may say, whatever woman brought forth this son
among mankind - if she still lives - that the God of Old was kind to her in
her child-bearing" (Norton 39).
The other very important role assigned to women in the Anglo-Saxon
world was to be the peace-weavers. It was widely spread practice for
the king, in order to make peace with his enemies, to arrange marriage
of his daughter to a son of the king of the foreign tribe. A king's ransom -
a girl in this case was redeeming her people from being enslaved by the
enemy; she had no saying in the matter -- her feelings, her thoughts and
her free will were never taken into consideration. The examples of such a
practice are described by a scop at the Celebration at a Heorot. Hildeburh,
" daughter of the former Danish king Hoc and sister of the ruling Danish
king Hnaef, was married to Finn, king of Jutes" (Norton, 41).
Women often cheered the warrior after the battle and gave out rings as
rewards - such a practice was done to keeping the lord's and of the bargain
in the comitatus rules: in return for gifts and armor from the lord warriors
agreed to protect the kingdom. A vivid example of women performing such a
role is a daughter of Danish king Hrothgar, Freawaru: "At times the famous
queen, peace-pledge of the people, went through all the hall, cheered the
young men; often she would give a man a ring-band before she went to her
seat. At times Hrothgar's daughter bore the ale-cup to the retainers, to
the earls throughout the hall"(Norton, 53).
In this passage also the third important role of women is revealed as
well -- they often served the mead and gave gifts to the warriors during
the victory celebrations in the hall after the battle. Yet they were allowed
to make their speeches praising the hero (in case the woman was a queen) as,
for example, the queen Wealhtheow's speech at Heorot: "Wear this ring,
beloved Beowulf, young man, with good luck, and make use of this mail-shirt
from the people's treasure, and prosper well…" (Norton 43).
Many were standing against the practice of marrying the women in order
to bring peace, and Beowulf is one of them. A very difficult burden was
imposed on the women in these intertribal marriages because in many cases
they had to endure a great suffering of seeing their husband and brother
killing one another. Like, for example, Hildebuth: "blameless she was
deprived of her dear ones at the shield - play, of son and brother;
wounded by spears they fell to their fate. That was a mournful woman.
Not without cause did Hoc's daughter lament the decree of destiny when
morning came" (Norton, 41).
Thus, in the Anglo-Saxon culture the role of women was not a desirable
one: they were mothers, sisters, daughters, child-bearers, entertainers,
mourners or peace-weavers without any legal rights. The women's voice was
never heard in the patriarchal hierarchical society by the privileged of
this society -- the men. The struggle for survival was the main concern of
any tribe and the social machine used any and all the means possible to
achieve this main goal, even if the plan for survival included the use of
women as tools. Women were the servants of the men -- the men's property.