It is commonly accepted that the Beowulf epic was from the Anglo-Saxon period. It is so commonly accepted because of the strong evidence in the story. Then, because of all of these parallels that can be drawn it is safe to say that a reader who is unaware of Anglo-Saxon society cannot fully understand this epic. That is why I plan to explain the basic principles of this society to better comprehend the epic at another level. There is obviously very little reference to women in this story.
In class it was discussed that it may be due to the little importance of women during the time period. However, I have found that during the Anglo-Saxon period females were not of little significance. They believed that in women there was an element of holiness and prophecy. They even asked advice of their women. It is also true that women were often arranged in marriage to keep peace.
This may seem insulting but isnt it a compliment to believe that a woman can turn anger into an armistice. It is argued that perhaps women were mostly left out of the story because the poet chose instead to develop the meaning of male to male friendships. This is supported by many works of the era while many of them centered around male characters. The warriors in Beowulf did have wives and families but it is suggested that this was insignificant to the story. The male friendships were highly valued at the time.
Beowulf was surrounded by noble warriors who would have protected him with their lives. This sort of brotherhood is formed that is worth more than gold. One of the biggest debates surrounding Beowulf is that of religion. Did the poet intend for this to be a Christian based work. While I will not be discussing the issue in depth there is one aspect of it that had been bothering me.
It is that of the strong emphasis of revenge in the text. This makes it seem as though Beowulf does not fit the Christian value system at all. Yet I found that the tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye was not so literal at the time. It was strongly encouraged that instead of avenging the death of your kin by killing the one who had committed the crime that the killer should pay a werglid or “manpayment”. These werglids were based upon the deceaseds social standing.
An eorl or nobleman was worth twelve hundred shillings, a ceorl or ordinary free man was worth two hundred shillings, and a slave whether he was killed or just damaged beyond repair was worth only one pound. The church also declared that priests were equivalent to nobleman in these cases and their monasteries received any compensation. Anglo-Saxon culture placed value on public esteem. Many believe that treasure was very important. However, to be respected and loved by everyone was a mans worth. Treasure seemed to be accumulated from this love and respect.
But this treasure was not meant to be hoarded. Often a gift was given away. This helped a hero to stay well-liked. It is pointed out that in Beowulf he is buried with his treasure. This does not mean that the people placed importance on this.
They were simply making a point that a priceless ruler had just died. The hoard could have easily been used to buy peace. It was so hard in the 7th and 9th centuries to keep out of war that a peaceful king was the greatest wealth. Beowulfs people recognized this and that is why they buried his riches with him. Because they knew that he was worth it tenfold. All of these aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture make Beowulf a more credible and maybe even more interesting story.
It is a sort of James Bond. The hero is placed in an existing place and precise historical context which makes it easier to swallow. Since most people are aware of modern culture, James Bond is easily interpreted. Just these few Anglo-Saxon facts that have been discussed can also develop a better understanding of Beowulf. Bibliography Chickering, Howell D.
Readings on Beowulf. pgs. 38-44 San Diego:Greenhaven Press, 1998 Robinson, Fred C. Readings on Beowulf. pgs. 49-54 San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998 http://www.geocities.com/Athens/2471/beowulf.html.