Beowulf: Female Roles in Warrior Culture

In the medieval warrior epic Beowulf, the role of the woman is small but variegated: the woman simultaneously plays the role of decorative accessory, immaculate hostess, advisor to husband, and most importantly, the promoter of peace and goodwill. The women as ornamental items help glorify their husbands, and as hostesses they provide ritual services at regularly occurring social events. Occasionally, some women are called upon to perform additional duties such as the peace keeping or, more rarely, advising their husbands. Ultimately, however, with the triumph of Beowulf over the only strong, independent female in the story--Grendel's mother--and the inevitable lapsing of peace, the author hints that male warriorhood will still prevail and become the lasting legacy of the era.

As decorative items, the medieval noblewomen depicted in Beowulf are primarily responsible for appearing "queenly and dignified"(621), thus reflecting well on their husbands' status and image. Hrothgar's queen Wealhtheow, who first appears during the reception feast Hrothgar gives in honor of Beowulf, is portrayed as such an accessory. Phrases such as "adorned in her gold"(614) and "decked out in rings"(621) emphasize Wealhtheow's role as a glittering ornament rather than a queen, wife, or mother. Similarly, the author emphasizes the "gold-trimmed attire"(2025) of Wealhtheow's daughter, foreshadowing the daughter's role as a "young bride-to-be"(2024), a Wealhtheow to another Hrothgar. Indeed, a woman who is loyal and serves her king well is a valuable woman, as valuable as gold possessions. Later, the author echoes this sentiment with his description of the Queen Modthryth: "She would . . . grow famous for her good deeds and conduct of life, her high devotion to the hero king who was the best king"(1955). Noblewomen in medieval society were valued as devoted, decorative wives.

In addition, the women as exemplified by Wealththeow play traditional roles much similar to the roles of hostesses today. When Wealththeow appears during the feast, the author describes her "observing the courtesies"(613), which consist of saluting the men at the feast and offering drinks to all the men present. Her daughter Freawaru and Hygd, queen to Hygelac, also perform the duty of distributing ale, and Wealhtheow repeats her actions in later banquets. The women in Beowulf are apparently assigned to perform these routine and practical social rituals.

As Wealththeow distributes food and drink, she not only serves as a hostess but also as a promoter of goodwill and peace. Evident from the turbulence depicted by the author of Beowulf, medieval tribes and nations quarreled and fought often: thus women were seen as important "peace-pledgers"(2017) and hopes of healing the chasm between two nations or tribes were often hinged on women of stature. Wealththeow, for instance, counsels her husband to "entertain the Geats duly and gently, discourse with them, be open-handed, happy and fond"(1169); in turn, she encourages their Geat guest Beowulf to treat her sons "with tender care, be strong and kind"(1227), thus fostering harmony between the two tribes. In addition, young noblewomen of one tribe were often encouraged to marry princes from other tribes to promote accord between the two warring tribes. Freawaru serves this function as she is destined to marry an enemy King Ingeld: "The guardian of the kingdom sees good in it and hopes this woman will heal old wounds and grievous feuds"(2027). In the "Finnsburgh Episode" that Hrothgar's poet tells, Hildeburh, daughter of a king, also marries in this manner in hopes of making amends. As the author stipulates, "A queen should weave peace"(1942): the warrior men wage war, and the young brides attempt to bring reconciliation.

Rarely do women overstep their defined roles as wives, hostesses, or peace-weavers. However, Wealhtheow takes her function a step further and acts as counselor to Hrothgar in one instance. Aside from once again cautioning her husband to maintain peace between the two tribes, Wealhtheow reminds Hrothgar to "recollect as well all of the boons that have been bestowed on [him]"(1172) and to "bequeath kingdom and nation"(1177) to his nephew Hrothulf, as she believes he is honorable and noble. Therefore, the author points out in his portrayal of Beowulf society at least one women who has the intelligence and courage to do more.

As the women in Beowulf demonstrate, women in medieval society present a strong contrast to men of the era. The women are comparatively weak and passive, showing none of the traits of warriorhood that the men displayed. Instead, they are merely decorative items, social necessities, and objects promoting peace. The men fight for honor and vengeance; in contrast, Hildeburh, who has lost son and brother, can only remain passively "bereft and blameless"(1073) and "[wail] and [sing] keens"(1119). Assertiveness and violent reaction are not qualities deemed appropriate for women: the author warns of the "terrible wrongs"(1933) that Queen Modthryth perpetrated in sentencing to death men who dared steal a look at her. "Even a queen outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that"(1940), the author asserts. Thus an underlying dimension to the role of women becomes evident: that of passiveness and obedience, antitheses to warrior virtues extolled in men.

Significantly, Grendel's mother seems to contradict the roles of women in Beowulf that have been examined thus far. Instead of passive and placating, Grendel's mother is aggressive and belligerent; she is "ravenous, desperate for revenge"(1278). Accordingly, the author endows her with many qualities similar to that of the strong male warrior: she has a "brutal grip"(1502), "savage talons"(1504), and "terrible strength"(1519). However, Grendel's mother ultimately embodies the traditional role of the matriarch not only because she is merely known as "Grendel's mother," but also because her viciousness stems from her desire to "avenge her only child"(1546). Above all, the author seems to assert, Grendel's mother fulfills her duty as a mother, and thus still fits one of the assigned roles of women.

Descriptions of women and their functions in medieval warrior society are scarce in Beowulf: 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. Despite their best efforts, male warrior culture will triumph over feminine virtues of peace and docility, and the violent feuds characteristic of medieval society will continue.