The Women in Beowulf and in Other Anglo-Saxon Poems
Are women in these poems active equals of the men? Or are they passive victims of the men? The roles of the women in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems are not always stereotyped ones of passive homemaker and childbearer and peaceweaver, but sometimes ones giving freedom of choice, range of activity, and room for personal growth and development.
Beowulf makes reference to Ingeld and his wife and the coming Heathobard feud:
in that hot passion
his love for peace-weaver, his wife, will cool (2065-66)
This is a rare passage, for Anglo-Saxon poetry rarely mentions romantic feelings toward women. In fact, one’s marital status wasn’t even considered significant. For example, with the hero himself the poet never mentions whether he is married or not, likewise with most characters in the poem. Because this is a poem about the heroic deeds of men, Hildeburh excepted, the feeling between man-and-woman is downplayed, and the feeling among warriors is emphasized. Remember that the poem opens with Scyld Scefing, who came motherless to rule the Danes:
than those at his start
who set him adrift when only a child,
friendless and cold, lone on the waves. (44-46)
Scyld’s motherlessness perhaps tells the reader that the heroic, superhuman, violent deeds about to transpire are perhaps not all that compatible with women and womanly qualities like passivity, gentleness, compassion. It is a predominantly masculine, rough and tough narrative which would only be detracted from by the presence of many women.
Chickering says that women in the poem had “all the dignity and standing they commanded in Tacitus’ day,” when they were greatly respected and sought for their sound advice (264). Queen Welhtheow was giving such advice to King Hrothgar concerning his sons’ succession to the throne:
Accept this cup, my noble lord,
gold-giving king; be filled in your joys,
treasure-friend to all, and give to the Geats
your kind words, as is proper for men;
in your generous mind, be gracious to the Weders,
remembering the gifts you have from all tribes.
I have been told you would have this warrior
for your son. Heorot is cleansed,
bright hall of rings; use while you may
your gifts from so many, and leave to your kinsmen
the nation and folk when you must go forth
to await your judgment. Full well I know
of my gracious Hrothulf that he would rule
the young men in honor, would keep all well,
if you should give up this world before him.
I expect he will want to repay our sons
only with good once he recalls
all we have...