Gender Roles Depicted in Beowulf and Augustine Term Paper

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Gender Roles Depicted in Beowulf and Augustine

It appears that Gender Roles were set out early in history (from before recorded history), in the delicate balance of roles, where men desired to dominate women physically and press them into servitude by marriage, yet women found ways to overcome physical dominance with wisdom and patience. As the tridition remains today in some countries, women had two recourses to domination by men: fight back or submit. The thesis for this paper is that pagan gender roles as described in Beowulf were different than those prescribed by St. Augustine in his Confessions, demonstrating that Christian beliefs may have eliminated the "warrior-woman" of ancient times, leaving only the submissive role as a model for women to follow.

Christianity reached England during the Roman occupation; however, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes (Germanic tribes) invaded Britain after the withdrawal of the Roman legions in the fifth century. The conversion of the Germanic people to Christianity began in 597, with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury. The story of the conversion is told in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731).

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Before Christianity, there had been no books, only oral tradition. The Germanic poetry was handed down, and eventually written down, though Germanic heroic poetry continued to be performed orally in alliterative verse. Christian writers wrote down the Beowulf epic, obvioiusly looking back on their pagan ancestors with admiration. But translators of Old English into modern English have also changed the story, as shall be described. During the Norman Conquest in 1066, linguistic and cultural changes were accelerated, yet English literature did not develop a unique character until Chaucer (Norton 2007)

TOPIC: Term Paper on Gender Roles Depicted in Beowulf and Augustine Assignment

Since the epic of Beowulf at some point was written down by a Christian, Grendel and Grendel's Mother are described as descendants of Cain, and share similarities with antagonists in medieval Christian stories, according to the Norton Anthology of English Literature. but, since it is obvious that the Beowulf poet was very knowledgeable about pagan beliefs, pagan beliefs about trolls were just as represented as Christian beliefs about demons in the descriptions of Grendel and Grendel's mother. Since Beowulf's cremation at the end of the poem is a pagan practice, it leads one to believe the poem is pagan in origin. As is typical of pre-Christian heroic narratives, Beowulf may have been "baptised," and was presented with references only to those features of historic figures consistent with the Christian tradition in the story. However the two traditions are combined, Beowulf results in a story that appeals to those inside and outside of the Christian belief system.

Professor Robert F. Yeager notes that the role of Christianity in a pagan context poses one of the mysteries surrounding Beowulf:

That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius a.XV were Christian is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Beowulf was composed in a Christianized England, since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. Yet the only Biblical references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters are demonstrably Christian. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are idol-worshipping pagans. Beowulf's own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the "Father Almighty" or the "Wielder of All." (Yeager 7)

Although there are six women named in Beowulf, there are two main women. The first is Wulfing (or Wealhtheow), queen of the Daner, who is married to Hroogar, the Danish king. While her name is disputed, Wealhtheow may be translated as "foreign slave," or "bearer of wealth." She is the mother of at least three children, two sons and a daughter, Freawaru. She acts the hostess, carrying the cup around to her guests. She is jealous of her children's place as successors of her husband's throne, and when Beowulf slays Grendel, awards him with three horses and a necklace (Beowulf 1161-1231).

Wealhtheow is, however, not a Christian nor a bourgeois mother; her concern is not with gentle interpersonal behavior but with the reins and passage of power and the treachery possible in such passage...Wealhtheow has a deeper and more serious concern for her sons: their survival in a tribal system where all but the most ethical are likely to break the basic social rules in the quest for power (Bloomfield 181).

The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts from shape to shape" (Ibid. 190). It does not extol Christian virtues or speak of conversion of the evil ones or victory for God.

The second woman mentioned in Beowulf is Grendel's mother (who is not named). When Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel's mother is then tracked down to her home under a lake. She finds out he is coming and traps him, dragging him down into her cave, where her son's body lies, and fights with him. At first she prevails, but Beowulf grabs one of her swords and beheads her. He also beheads the dead Grendel and returns to the great Hall of Heorot, where he is greeted and awarded many gifts by Hroogar.

Another woman named in Beowulf is Modthryth, the queen who arbitrarily executes anyone who displeased her. The women depicted in Beowulf are not the typical, modest and submissive Christian women. These are women who fight, who use cunning and brute strength against the men who try to dominate them.

Alfano claims that Grendel's mother has masculine behavior patterns (that of being a warrior) as she is not a bringer of peace, but is more related to her character as a "bold stranger" who brings a threat (Alfano 5). Alfano says that the true translation of Grendel's mother's description is "female water-wolf" (Alfano 8): "The ease with which [Edward B. Irving] relegates an unconventional queen to the realm of monstrosity underscores the unfair treatment of Grendel's mother has received" (Alfano 9).

Some scholars suggests that Wulfing (Wealhpeow) and Grendel's mother are two aspects of the feminine goddess of pre-Christian Norse mythology, described in the myth of the Valkyries (Damico 1984). Two other women in Beowulf are Hildeburh and Freawaru, two married women who have the role of peace-weavers, though their words of peace no longer have any power in the course of the story.

The final woman mentioned in Beowulf is Hildeburh, around whom the story begins and ends and mentions her in the middle. She is torn between loyalties to the Danes and the Jutes. Married to Finn, king of the Jutes, she bears him a son. In the tale she loses her son, her brother and her husband and is returned to the Danes. She is representative of the divided loyalties and bloody feuds between the tribes of the era and her story is that of the woman who is captured and forced into marriage, but escapes to return to her own tribe (Porter 140).

After 597, and about the time that Beowulf was copied into writing, Augustine's Confessions began to play a large role in the description and modification of women's role in Christian society. Using his own mother as a model, in Confessions, Book IX, Augustine holds up the virtues of his mother, Monica, to be emulated:

Being thus modestly and soberly trained, and rather made subject by You to her parents, than by her parents to You, when she had arrived at a marriageable age, she was given to a husband whom she served as her lord. And she busied herself to gain him to You, preaching You unto him by her behaviour; by which You made her fair, and reverently amiable, and admirable unto her husband. For she so bore the wronging of her bed as never to have any dissension with her husband on account of it. For she waited for Your mercy upon him, that by believing in You he might become chaste. And besides this, as he was earnest in friendship, so was he violent in anger; but she had learned that an angry husband should not be resisted, neither in deed, nor even in word. But so soon as he was grown calm and tranquil, and she saw a fitting moment, she would give him a reason for her conduct, should he have been excited without cause. And she admonished other wives "That from the hour they heard what are called the matrimonial tablets read to them, they should think of them as instruments whereby they were made servants; so, being always mindful of their condition, they ought not to set themselves in opposition to their lords (Confessions, Book IX, 19)

Monica also was a peacemaker, such as with her mother-in-law. who did not like her in the beginning. Augustine depicted her as "a peacemaker between any differing and discordant spirits, that when she had… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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