In Beowulf, the Old English concepts of thanes and their loyalty to a lord (comitatus) key the reader into the social and cultural constructs of the early Middle Ages. Thanes were part of the aristocracy, but not too far up the chain. They ranked above free men and were land holders, or rather, caretakers of the lord or king’s land. Thanes were loyal to a lord or chief, which is where comitatus comes into play. Comitatus refers to a unit of men, usually warrior thanes, who have made a bond of loyalty to a lord or leader. The comitatus consisted of a lord’s kinsmen but was not limited to blood relations only. This kind of loyalty and overall organization is similar to the modern-day Mafia.
Although I can only speculate as to the actual organization of the Mafia, based upon movies, documentaries, dramas and news, it seems that the Mafia is one of the only groups still in existence today to practice such rigid oaths of loyalty. In early sections of Beowulf, we see that Hrothgar is having some issues in maintaining his men’s loyalty due to the monster Grendel. The men fear for their life and refuse to sleep in the mead hall after a mass slaughtering of their brethren. Comitatus includes an oath to protect the lord one serves, also to avenge his death if he should be slain. Hrothgar’s men show none of this solidarity but act only out of their own fear, “my warriors, are decimated; wyrd has swept them away into Grendel’s terror” (Liuzza 68), which undermines the idea of comitatus.
Hypothetically, if Tony Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos, a popular cable television show, suffered a loss of men (soldiers) due to, let’s say, a New York boss’s orders, he would have Paulie Walnuts go whack the triggerman. In other words, Paulie would follow orders without question. Hrothgar’s men seem to lack this ability to switch the brain off. This is what the military does during boot-camp. Boot-camp serves two functions: one is physical training, and the other is brainwashing the troops into not questioning orders and simply executing their commands which produces effective soldiers. The Danes are ineffective soldiers because after thirty thanes are slaughtered in one night, they are unable to put a stop to Grendel’s murderous rampage twelve years later.
The Mafia has been known to call itself a family, which I think derives from the medieval idea of comitatus. Thanes and warriors were chosen to be a part of a select group who were to protect a lord or leader. The lord would then treat these men well, giving his men some, but not all, the spoils of war in appreciation for their service and protection. In the Middle Ages, war was a good way to get rich quickly. Raiding and conquering other tribes may not be a legitimate business, but it certainly is a means to an end. The illegitimate businesses associated with the Mafia are a modern parallel to medieval warfare. If a lord ordered his men to loot and pillage a village, his men would certainly bring the bounty to the lord to be divided up. Of course, they probably each took a taste of the spoils before presenting the lord with the booty. Then the lord would divide up, as he saw fit, the booty among his men. The first example in the text of this is Scyld Scefing:
Scyld Scefing seized the mead-benches from many tribes, troops of enemies, struck fear into earls... until every one of the encircling nations …had to obey him, …grant him tribute. That was a good king!(Liuzza 53)Scyld Scefing is considered by the author to be a good king because he is able to conquer and tax; from this, his people flourished.
The Mafia operates no differently, from what I have seen on television, in that, Paul Walnuts and Silvio each have their respective enterprises, to which they keep the main profit, but kick up a percentage to Tony. In organizations such as these, the lord never goes hungry and the lords are never overfed; grunts are given enough to keep them hungry for more while the lord sits back and feasts. In the opening lines of Beowulf, we learn:
Thus should a young man bring about good with pious gifts from his father’s possessions, so that later in life loyal comrades will stand beside him when war comes, the people will support him—with praiseworthy deeds a man will prosper among any people. (Liuzza 53)Scyld Scefing’s son redistributes his inheritance to ensure loyalty, protection and solidarity from his thanes, in other words -- comitatus.
One may find many parallels between the ancient system of thanes and comitatus to the Mafia today: power struggles exist for territory; lords get richer and keep their hands clean while the grunts get down and dirty, and loyalty is, was and always will be of utmost importance. Leaders need men who “will not flee a single foot, but…shall be at the walls as wyrd decrees” (Liuzza 130).