Beowulf

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Beowulf Formal Essay

The Role of Women in Beowulf

The roles of women in early Anglo-Saxon culture were strictly defined. Women were viewed as possessions and served the function of the peace-weaver. In this role women were married off to warring tribes to promote peace and were to perform duties such as passing the cup from warrior to warrior during ceremonial functions. Women in Anglo-Saxon culture possessed virtually no autonomy and consequently were consistently at the mercy of their lords or husbands. Out of three thousand lines of poetry, only a handful describe women and their activities. Despite this parsimony, an adequate portrait of the role of women emerges. Having neither privilege nor practice in becoming warriorlike, the woman is relegated to a relatively minor social position. Wealhtheow, for example, serves as an embellishment in her husband's household, a hostess during frequent social events. Despite having limited power, women exert influence in their roles as peace keepers, tender foils to the often overly aggressive medieval warrior men. Wealhtheow takes this role further and even counsels her husband on select subjects. However, the author prophecies that women will always fail in maintaining peace: "But generally the spear is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed, no matter how admirable the bride may be"(2030). The author allows an exception when Grendel's mother attacks men with their brand of violence, yet she, too, ultimately falls to the embodiment of the perfect male, Beowulf. Women, strive as they might, fail to be effective in male-dominated society. In Beowulf, these women will respectfully remain in their assigned roles as wife, mother, homemaker, and peace keeper.

The stories of Hildeburh and Freawaru, as told in Beowulf, illustrate the negative consequences that occur when women are married off as peace-weavers. Hildeburh is a Danish princess who was married off to Finn, king of the Jutes. Hildeburh is torn away...
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