Civilized Rage in ‘Beowulf’

Civilized Rage in ‘Beowulf’

Wymer, Thomas L., and Labbie, Erin F.

The Heroic Age Issue 7 Spring 2004


“Civilized Rage in Beowulf” argues that there is a difference between controlled rage and uncontrolled rage in Beowulf. Controlled rage is useful to the development of social relations and the nation; uncontrolled rage is damaging to civil interaction and the formation of society. We work with Norbert Elias’ work on Civilization to determine that evidence of the socialization present in 13th century court society is also incipient in Beowulf.

Norbert Elias’s notion of civility is based on the assumption that the nation as a social structure was not yet established in the Middle Ages, and that the historical development of civility led to the reigning in and subduing, indeed, sublimation, of emotions. For Elias, members of medieval cultures took social pleasure in the performance of violent battle. He claims that life in medieval societies was openly violent and lent itself to the satiation of instincts and drives fulfilling both pain and pleasure. “Rapine, battle, hunting of men and animals–all these were vital necessities which, in accordance with the structure of society, were visible to all. And thus, for the mighty and strong, they formed part of the pleasures of life” (Elias 1994, 1:158). Although much of his evidence for the blood-lust and pleasure taken in killing ostensibly rampant in the Middle Ages is taken from Troubadour songs, he does note that epics also are integral parts of social formations. “They express the feelings of the listeners for whom they are intended far more directly than most of our literature”.

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