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Breaking with tradition(?): Female representations of heroism in Old English poetry

Breaking with tradition(?): Female representations of heroism in Old English poetry

By Kathryn A. Green

PhD Dissertation, University of Louisville, 2018

Abstract: For the Anglo-Saxons, strength, bravery, and the willingness to put oneself in harm’s way for king and kingdom were not only part of contemporary society but recurring themes in Old English literature. Poems like Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon reinforce the important bond between lord and retainer and the heroic ethos key to that relationship. Women were not historically part of this relationship and, therefore, not subject to the heroic code in the same way; consequently, they are rarely seen as anything more than conventional mothers, queens, wives, sisters, daughters, and virgins, all identified by their relationships to men, the “real” heroes in the literature. The poets of BeowulfJudith, and Juliana, expanded this tradition by introducing the Anglo-Saxon world to a new kind of female character, a physically powerful heroine. By constructing heroines that connect Germanic tradition with changing Christian sensibilities, poets not only reveal their appreciation for strong women in literature but their willingness to afford women the opportunity to break with tradition and perform autonomously.

The characters of Grendel’s mother, Judith, and Juliana serve as primary examples for this analysis. This dissertation identifies these three figures as exhibiting a heroic ethos, explores how they fit into and deviate from the defined Old English heroic ideal, and examines select character traits in order to reveal how their unique performances broaden the conventional definition of a hero.

Chapter I centers on the Anglo-Saxon heroic ideal and situates both men and women within the tradition. It emphasizes how the motivational factors driving heroic behavior differ between the sexes by examining specific performances within the genre. Chapters II, III, and IV, are individual case studies focusing on Grendel’s mother, Judith, and Juliana, respectively, emphasizing one significant way each serves to shape a new version of the heroic ideal.

Chapter V focuses on four of the major similarities identified between the characters and the texts in which they appear—the trope of self-sufficiency, the “manly” woman, the symbol of the head, and the female voice—which demonstrates how these specific females engage with certain themes and symbols embedded within heroic poetry. Finally, the conclusion provides a collective view of the three characters which shows how Old English poets created powerful, engaging female heroines that audiences could believe in.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Louisville

See also: The Old English Judith: Can a Woman be a Hero?

Top Image: From a page of the Old English Judith in British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV fol. 202v



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