Anglo-Saxon women spent their whole lives under the protection of their menfolk. As young girls, they lived in their fathers’ halls and were under their protection. When they came of age and got married, Anglo-Saxon women would be sent to their husbands’ households. A woman’s first loyalty was to her husband, whom she had to obey. She was expected to see to his comfort and bear his children. In “The Wife’s Lament,” (Norton, pp.102-103) the narrator feels sorrow for her isolation but more importantly, she laments the separation between her and her husband. Despite whatever troubles she has with her husband and their separation, the narrator continues to obey her husband. The narrator says that “My lord commanded me to stay in this place,” and so she does.
Another role that some Anglo-Saxon women had was that of peace-weaver. Of all the roles an Anglo-Saxon had to assume, being a peace-weaver was perhaps the most difficult. A peace-weaver was a woman who would be married to a person from an enemy tribe in the hopes of ending a feud. However, peace was not always the result of such a marriage, and the peace-weaver inevitably had to bear a double burden. Such is the case of the peace-weaver Hildeburh, mentioned in Beowulf. Hildeburh is a Dane who is married to an enemy Frisian and during a feast she is “deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother” (Donaldson, pp.20). In the end, Hildeburh’s marriage costs her a son, a brother and a husband all in vain, for peace is never achieved.
A more positive role and perhaps the most powerful role that women had was the role of mistress. The mistress of the hall was in charge of all household matters with her husband’s permission. The mistress presided over the hall table with her husband during mealtimes. She made sure that everyone had enough to eat and was comfortable. In Beowulf, Heorot’s mistress is Wealhtheow, the wife of Hrothgar. Wealhtheow has been described as “mindful of customs, gold-adorned,” and as the “ring-adorned queen, mature of mind” (Donaldson, pp.12-13). As Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow wears the jewelry that bespeaks her rank and as mistress she “greeted the men in the hall ... and...offered them the costly cup” (Donaldson, pp.12-13). Wealhtheow brings grace and dignity to Heorot and her position enables her to thank Beowulf for his help and to remind her husband of their sons when he is about to adopt Beowulf as his heir.
While Anglo-Saxon women did not get to play a major role in their society like the kings and heroes of their culture, their roles, nevertheless, were important in holding the society together. When the men were off fighting it was the women’s duty to keep the household intact. In a society that frequently saw the ravages of war, women, whether they acted as peace-weavers or healers were often the ones who brought a measure of peace. They held or tried to hold the tribe together as Wealhtheow tries with her injunction that each earl remain true to the other and be loyal to his lord. The lot of Anglo-Saxon women was never easy, but they upheld their duty and served their tribe.
By Renee Yewdaev
Beowulf. Trans. E. Talbot Donaldson. Ed. Nicholas Howe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
However, women were taken into consideration and valued when their marriages were arranged to promote the physical or economic well-being of their family and tribe. In Anglo-Saxon culture women were at times engaged in marriage to a family that would bring forth fortune and wealth. At other times, a family would marry a daughter to an enemy family in order to secure peace or safety and wealth among the joined families. In such a role, women in Anglo-Saxon culture were referred to as the “one who weaves peace,” making them known as “peace weavers.” We can see an example of this in Beowulf, when Hildeburgh, a daughter of the former Danish king, is married to Finn, who was king of the Jutes. Because the Danes and the Jutes are enemies, Hildeburgh has to witness the burial of her son and brother who are killed fighting on either side of the feud.
Although women did not have much influence as men did, they had a lot of influence on the family-related issues. One example may be found in Beowulf, in the character Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is the wife of Hrothgar. She is portrayed as aware of the politics of the court and cautious for the well-being of her family. In Beowulf, she foreshadows some events that later happen to her family. An example of such an instance would be when she foreshadows the fall of the Great Hall caused by her family. We know this when she says, “Here is each earl true to other, mild of heart, loyal to his lord; the thanes are at one, the people obedient, the retainers cheered with drink do as I bid” (Donaldson, p 22 Beowulf).
Anglo-Saxon women had the responsibility of seeing over their children. If they had to speak up for their children, they had no fear in doing so. In Beowulf, we see again Wealhtheow speak up to her husband, Hrothgar, reminding him that he has his own children to worry about when Hrothgar wants to adopt Beowulf as his son.
Even though times have changed and the
roles of women have developed from the Anglo-Saxon time to the present today, women still do not
have the same level of equality to that of men in modern society. The roles and responsibilities of
women are still for most part the same as they were in the Anglo-Saxon period. Women today are the
ones who still care for their children and oversee the safety of their family. Although men help more
with the home responsibilities and it has become more of fifty- fifty percent or an equal responsibility
between the man and women, I feel that the women still plays a very important role in the part of
“The family.” In Beowulf, Hildeburgh and Wealhtheow are good character sources in which that we
can use and see roles that Anglo-Saxon women had during their period.
By Yesenia Vivar