The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context
Dorothy Carr Porter
The Heroic Age: Issue 5, Summer/Autumn (2001)
This paper examines the roles of the women in Beowulf, focusing on those of hostess, peaceweavers, and monsters. When read through an anthropological lens, Beowulf presents the female characters as being central both in the story itself and in the society presented in the poem.
In her 1995 book article “The Women of Beowulf: A Context for Interpretation,” Gillian R. Overing writes that “[t]he women in Beowulf, whether illegitimate monsters or pedigreed peaceweaving queens, are all marginal, excluded figures . . .” . In this article, Overing’s approach is that of a literary critic, and although valuable for Beowulf studies (and required reading for anyone interested in the women in Beowulf) she fails to take into account possible anthropological approaches to the text. Read within the context of the society presented in the text, it is clear that the women are central and important to the poem as a whole. This paper will not take issue with Overing’s article or approach to the sources, but instead analyze these women in a complementary, anthropological fashion. Through these discussions I will show that, when read carefully, Beowulf presents the female characters as women central both to the story itself and within the society presented in the poem, and far from “marginal, excluded figures”.
Let us first examine the major female characters. There are six women in Beowulf who have major roles: Wealhtheow, Hygd, Freawaru, Hildeburh, Grendel’s mother, and Thryth, all of whom can be combined in corresponding pairs, and in this way I will examine the role of these women. Wealhtheow and Hygd are both queens and, as hostesses, they both exert influence in the hall (usually thought of as a masculine enclave), influence that does not always coincide with the wishes of their husbands. The first section will present Wealhtheow and Hygd as hostesses, discussing their place in the structure of the court society shown in the poem, a society that focuses on the hall and the words that are spoken within the hall. Hildeburh and Freawaru are both failed peaceweavers, Hildeburh in the past time of the poem and Freawaru in the future. “Peaceweaver” is a term in modern scholarship reserved for a woman married into one group from another, in an attempt to weave peace among them.