How Women Are Portrayed in Old Literature
At a time in history in which war was rampant and conquering lands and enemies seemed a priori, the period’s hero tended to follow suit. Beowulf, as a prime example of Old English literature, is set in this highly male-dominated world governed by violence, honor, and doom. The role of women in this world also follows a clear pattern: chattel to be used as marriage chips to link warring tribes in order to achieve peace, or Madonnas to be placed on a pedestal and worshiped from afar. Men tend to occupy both the literature and thought of the Old English world, while women are scarcely to be seen in a hero’s role. Therefore, such characters as Grendel’s mother, Thrith, and Welthow in Beowulf fall victim to the lens of misogyny used to view women in Old English literature, as their strength is viewed as negligible, depicted from the perspective of men.
Grendel’s mother is a strong example of this misogynistic view. A horrible monster, she descends on Herot in a frenzy of grief and rage, seeking vengeance for her son Grendel’s death. “She’d brooded on her loss, misery had brewed/ In her heart, that female horror, Grendel’s/ Mother?” (ll. 1258-1260). Claire A. Lees, in her essay At a Crossroads: Old English and Feminist Criticism, points out that “where Anglo-Saxon society is concerned [?] the lives of the women we do know about are bound up with those of their families”.(Lees, 155) While men are known by their strength and cunning in war, women are recognized in relation to their family. Perhaps that is why Grendel’s mother is not given a name of her own, and is simply referred to in relation to her son. Even her motivation for utilizing her strength is that of a grieving mother demanding revenge. She is strong enough to capture men, yet her position is still that of a woman. Though a monster herself, she is nevertheless viewed as a woman in the eyes of men, as it is written that “no female, no matter / How fierce, could have come with a man’s strength,/ Fought with the power and courage men fight with ?” (ll. 1282-4). Imbued with a supernatural strength, only then could a woman possibly reach the strength otherwise reserved for men. Nevertheless, she is described in regard to her strength only in comparison with the strength of men. “Like a man but mightier than any man.” (l. 1352) Finally, she is captured and killed, and “Her body fell/ To the floor, lifeless?” (ll. 1567-8). Though her strength is admitted, it is always in comparison to men, and despite it all, she is inevitably conquered by a man.
Thrith falls privy to the same misogyny. The story of Thrith comes only to highlight the positive qualities of Hygd, Higlac’s wife. Hygd is presented as a positive example of proper behavior in women?she is gracious, attentive to the men around her, and loyal to her husband and lord. Thrith, however, like Grendel’s mother, is introduced by her unwomanly characteristics:
But Thrith was too proud,
An imperious princess with a vicious tongue
And so fierce and wild that her father’s followers
Averted their eyes as she passed, knowing
That if anyone but their king watched where she walked
Her hands would shape a noose to fit
Their necks. (ll. 1931-7)
And how great a sin for a woman,
Whether fair or black, to create fear
And destruction, for a woman, who should walk in the ways
Of peace, to kill with pretended insults.” (ll. 1940-3)
Thrith is considered a threat to men, for acting with a pride unnatural to women. Just as Grendel’s mother’s strength was conquered by a man, so was Thirth’s, as “Hemming’s Kinsman tamed her.” (l. 1944) “They praised her, now,/ For her generous heart and her goodness, and the high/ And most noble paths she walked, filled/ With adoring love for that leader of warriors,/ Her husband.” (ll. 1951-5. Emphasis mine.) Like Grendel’s mother, she is also referred to in relation to the men in her life, such as her husband Offa. Her behavior only improved upon her marriage. Like Grendel’s mother, she is conquered by a man, and only then falls into the position of a natural women, filled with adoring love for a warrior, her husband.
In contrast to Grendel’s mother and Thrith, Welthow, Like Hygd, is an example of a perfect woman in that age. Hrothgar’s queen and the mother of his two sons, she plays the role of the typical Anglo-Saxon woman subservient to men. She is thus victim to the same misogyny as Grendel’s mother and Thrith. She is often praised for her womanly attributes as a “noble woman who knew/ What was right” (ll. 613), and does her duty correctly, serving her king and lord and all his men, going “from warrior to warrior,/ Pouring a portion from the jeweled cup/ For each, till the bracelet-wearing queen/ Had carried the mead-cup among them and it was Beowulf’s/ Turn to be served.” (ll. 620-3). She is displayed as a member of the weaker gender, her place only to serve drinks to the warriors who will become the heroes, and she “thanked G-d for answering her prayers/ For allowing her hands the happy duty/ Of offering mead to a hero who would help.” (ll. 624-8) Her only contribution in the warrior world is to serve the warriors. She is also referred to in relation to a man, her husband Hrothgar, as “his famous queen” (l. 2017). Welthow’s strength is that of a mother and a queen. As a mother, she ensures that the throne will not be stolen from her children, by telling the king in front of everyone that she has faith that Hrothulf will take care of them in case of any trouble, silently forcing his acquiescence. Yet the very way in which she enforces this is through the meek cover of a woman, especially as she ends it by “sitting quietly at [the] side [of men]” (l. 1191). As a queen, she serves as the peacekeeper in Herot and the warrior culture in general. Many a quarrel are hope to be “settled by a woman” (l. 2028), as “a bride can bring a little/ Peace, make spears silent for a time” (l.2030), though of course, even that strength of a woman is muted, because “how many wars/ Have been put to rest in a prince’s bed?/ Few.” (ll. 227-9).
The role of women in Old English literature, and Anglo-Saxon society as a whole, is well-represented by these three women in Beowulf, Grendel’s mother, Thrith, and Welthow. Though each of the women is found with her own respective strength, each is constantly referred to in relation to the men in her life, muting her own capabilities, and subsequently overpowering her. Throughout the poem, there is a constant description of the proper woman, often contrasting this behavior with the impropriety of other women. This is the ideal woman, one characterized by subservience and meekness, the only characteristics which women are allowed in this male dominated culture.
Lees, Claire A. “At a Crossroads: Old English and Feminist Criticism.” In: Reading Old English Texts. Ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe. Massachusetts: Cambridge UP, 1887. 146-169
Beowulf. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York. The New American Library of World Literature, inc, 1963
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