Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, men played a dominant role in society. They were seen as the central leaders in their society. They were the heads of their household and represented the strength and wisdom of their society. Their main role was to protect and provide for their family. Man’s role in Anglo-Saxon society was so prevalent that much is written about them, so much so that they overshadow their counterpart – women. Women unlike men had a more submissive and subservient role in the Anglo-Saxon era. They were seen as “peace weavers,” motivators, cupbearers and memory keepers. Although not much is written on the role of women in the Anglo-Saxon era, a few texts such as Beowulf and “The Wife’s Lament” demonstrate their role in society.
Anglo-Saxon women assumed specific roles in their society. One of these roles was that of a peace weaver. A peace weaver was a woman who was married off to make peace between warring tribes. An example of a woman as a peace weaver is seen in “The Wife’s Lament” where the narrator writes, “I must suffer the feud of my much beloved” (Norton, p. 114). Here it can be inferred that the narrator was married into a warring tribe to settle a feud, and now she suffers the pain of her husband who has left her. Although the role of a peace weaver is supposed to bring peace to warring tribes, that is not always the case. This misfortune is seen in Beowulf with the marriage of Hildeburh and Finn. Hildeburh, a Danish princess, marries Finn, a Frisian king to end a feud between the two nations. However, the peace between the nations does not last very long and war breaks out. Hildeburh must mourn both her brother and son, along with her husband.
Another role that women assumed during the Anglo-Saxon period was that of a cupbearer. A cupbearer was a woman who passed cups of mead or beer around to the men as they frolic and rejoice in merriment. An example of this is seen in Beowulf when Wealhtheow enters the mead hall for the first time and passes around the cup full of mead to the men:
Wealhtheow went forth, Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of customs; adorned with gold, she greeted the men in the hall, then the courteous wife offered the cup first to the guardian of the East Danes’ kingdom, bid him be merry at his beer drinking, beloved by his people, with pleasure he received the feast and cup, victorious king. The lady of the Helmings then went about to young and old, gave each his portion of the precious cup. (Beowulf, lines 611-621, p72)
Here we see Wealhtheow, queen of the Danes, in the role of a cupbearer as she passes the cup first to Hrothgar the King and then to other thanes and later to Beowulf.
Women in the Anglo-Saxon period also assumed the role of motivators. They would try to inspire the men in the mead hall. They would praise them and give them encouragement and support. An example of this is again seen in Beowulf where Wealhtheow praises Beowulf for killing Grendel and bringing peace to the kingdom:
Beowulf, beloved warrior; […] You have made it so that men will praise you far and near, forever and ever, as wide as the seas, home of the winds, surround the shores of earth. Be while you live blessed, o nobleman! I wish you well with these bright treasures (Beowulf, lines 611-621, p72).
Here Wealhtheow’s role is clearly evident. She gives him encouragement, support and praise. She tells him that because of his valiant and courageous act of killing Grendel, he will be widely known and revered through many lands across the seas.
One final role assumed by Anglo-Saxon women was that of memory keepers. They are called memory keepers because unlike men they do not fight in battle, and because they do not fight in battle they are the ones that are left behind to mourn and bury the dead and are left with the memories of the ones they bury. Women in Anglo –Saxon period carried this heavy burden with them; they keep with them the spoils of war and the destruction and carnage that have led to the death of their loved ones. An example of this is yet again seen in Beowulf, where the Geatish woman sings a song as Beowulf’s body is engulfed in flames:
With heavy spirits they mourned their despair; the death of their lord and a sorrowful song sang the Geatish woman, with a hair bound up, for Beowulf the king, with sad cares, earnestly said that she dreaded the hard days ahead, the times of slaughter, the host’s terror, harm and captivity (Beowulf, lines 3148-3155 p. 149 -150).
Here we see that the Geatish woman is left to mourn the loss of her lord. She is also left with the memories of his death. In addition she predicts the outcome of her people. Her people will faces hard days ahead because invading forces will come and terrorize their kingdom and destroy them. Her prediction is probably based on her previous knowledge and previous memories that she has carried with her. Her memory reminds her that after a noble king dies, his remaining kingdom is left for the spoils of invaders who only seek to destroy and conquer it. Henceforth, we see that the history of Beowulf’s people is held in the memories of this Geatish woman.
The Anglo-Saxon society was a predominately patriarchal society. Men played a more dominant role in society. They assumed the roles of leaders, warriors, providers and protectors of their society. Their dominating role in society overshadowed the role of their counterpart – women. Women unlike men had a more submissive and subservient role in the Anglo-Saxon era. Women in Anglo Saxon society like men assumed many roles. These roles ranged from “peace weavers” and motivators to cupbearers and memory keepers. These roles which may seem insignificant were a vital and important part of the Anglo-Saxon culture. Although not much is written on the role of women in the Anglo-Saxon era because of the dominance of the men and their war culture, women are still mentioned in few literary texts such as Beowulf and “The Wife’s Lament.”