43 – c. 420: Roman invasion and occupation of Britannia (the modern day island of Great Britain, which encompasses England, Wales, and Scotland)
307 – 337: Reign of Constantine the Great leads to adoption of Christianity as official religion of the Roman Empire and the Christian conversion of the inhabitants of Brittania
c. 405: Completion of Latin translation of the Bible that becomes standard for the Roman Catholic Church
c. 450: Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain begins after Roman occupation recedes. Several Germanic peoples from the northwest coast of Europe and Scandinavia begin migration to the British isle. Primary kingdoms in Beowulf include the Danes (Sheildings), the Geats, and the Swedes (Shylfings). Others tribes include the Angles, Franks, Frisians, Heatho-Bards, Jutes, Waegmundings
c. 450 – ? c. 600: Historical setting of Beowulf (after beginning of Anglo-Saxon migration but before it is completed). Sometimes called the Germanic Heroic Age. The events of the poem, though not all are historical, take place on the Frankish and Saxon coasts of northern Europe, and in Scandinavia.
597: St. Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to Kent (south east England) begins conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity
c. 658-680: “Caedmon’s Hymn,” earliest poem recorded in English, composed
c. 700: Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity largely completed
731: Bede completes Ecclesiastical History of the English People
? c. 750: Beowulf composed. Author unknown
c. 1000: Beowulf transcribed into manuscript form
Germanic Heroic Poetry and the World of Beowulf
The age in which the historical events of Beowulf may be dated is sometimes called the Germanic Heroic Age. The poetry of this age was disseminated through an oral tradition by bards called scops (pronounced “shops”). Scops were both composers and storytellers who travelled from court to court. They were expected to know a broad range of tales and also to create new ones as tribute to the patrons who financed them. We can only imagine, with the help of the text of Beowulf and a few other, shorter heroic poems in Old English, and later works of poetry and prose in Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and Middle High German, what Germanic oral epic must have been like when performed. The Beowulf poet was, in effect, reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of his characters.
Germanic heroic poetry depicted a warrior society in which the most important human relationship was that between the warrior (the thane) and his lord, a relationship based less on subordination of one man’s will to another’s than on mutual trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion, one who would take pride in defending him and fighting in his wars. In return, the lord was expected to take care of his thanes and to reward them richly for their valor; a good king, one like Hrothgar or Beowulf, is referred to by such poetic epithets as “ring-giver” and as the “helmet” and “shield” of his people. Glory or fame—the reputation of the individual warrior, leader, or tribe—was also of the utmost importance for it secured the place of a warrior or king in relation to his people.
Wergild or the Man-Price
The relationship between kinsmen was also of deep significance to this society. If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild (man-price) in compensation. Each rank of society was evaluated at a definite price, which had to be paid to the dead man’s kin by the killer if he wished to avoid their vengeance—even if the killing had been an accident. In the absence of any legal code other than custom or any body of law enforcement, it was the duty of the family (often with the lord’s support) to execute justice. The failure to take revenge or to exact compensation was considered shameful. Hrothgar’s anguish over the murders committed by Grendel is not only for the loss of his men but also for the shame of his inability either to kill Grendel or to exact a “death price” from the killer. “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (lines 1384-85) Beowulf says to Hrothgar, who has been thrown back into despair by the revenge-slaying of his old friend Aeschere by Grendel’s mother. Yet the young Beowulf’s attempt to comfort the bereaved old king by invoking the code of vengeance may be one of several instances of the poet’s ironic or critical treatment of the tragic futility of the never-ending blood feuds.
An epic is a long narrative poem celebrating the great deeds of one or more legendary heroes, in a grand ceremonious style. The hero, usually produced or even descended from gods, performs superhuman exploits in battle or in marvellous voyages, often saving or founding a nation–as in Virgil’s Aeneid (30-20 BCE)–or the human race itself, in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Virgil and Milton wrote what are called ‘secondary’ or literary epics in imitation of the earlier ‘primary’ or traditional epics of Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey (c.8th century BCE) are derived from an oral tradition of recitation. They adopted many of the conventions of Homer’s work, including the invocation of a muse, the use of epithets, the listing of heroes and combatants, and the beginning in medias res. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is a primary epic, as is the oldest surviving epic poem, the Babylonian Gilgamesh (c. 3000 BCE). The action of epics takes place on a grand scale, and in this sense the term has sometimes been extended to long romances, to ambitious historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1863-9), and to some large-scale film productions on heroic or historical subjects.
Beowulf may be distinguished from the classical epics for the poems depiction of a distinctly Germanic hero (of the Germanic Heroic Age), as opposed to the classical hero. The Germanic hero is a warrior concerned with loyalty, honor, fame and often revenge. His death tends to be heroic rather than tragic, and often brings with it destruction rather than restoration or renewal.
A kenning is a stock phrase of the kind used in Old Norse and Old English verse as a poetic circumlocution in place of a more familiar word. Examples are banhus (bone-house) for body, and saewudu (sea-wood) for ship. A true kenning is one in which neither word on each side of the hyphen names the object being metaphorically described.
The repetition of the same sounds–usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllables–in any sequence of neighboring words: ‘Landscape -lover, lord of language’ (Tennyson). Now an optional or incidental decorative effect in verse or prose, it was once a required element in the poetry of Germanic languages (including Old English and Old Norse). Such poetry, in which alliteration rather than rhyme is the chief principle of repetition, is known as alliterative verse; its rules also allow a vowel sound to alliterate with any other vowel.
The distinctive verse form of Old Germanic poetry, including Old English. It employed a long line divided by a caesura (a break or complete stop) into two balanced half-lines, each with a given number of stressed syllables (usually two) and a variable number of unstressed syllables. These half-lines are linked by alliteration between both (sometimes one) of the stressed syllables on the first half and the first (and sometimes the second) stressed syllable in the second half.
The Influence of Christianity on the Text
The characters of Beowulf and the Danish society on which the poem is based were definitively pagan in their religion. However, as you read you will notice many references to biblical texts (for example, when the monster Grendel is described as a descendent of Cain–see below) and to Christian ideas. This is because the poem was most likely written by a Christian inhabitant of the British island, probably descended from the Anglo-Saxon invaders, who is looking back several hundred years and across the sea, to the pagan, warrior culture of the people of Europe’s northern coast. Scholars actually debate about the precise date the poem was composed and this may significantly affect our sense of the poet’s attitude toward the Danes. At the end of the 700s, descendants of this society, known as Vikings, began to raid the British Isles. Whether or not the poem was composed before or after its author’s society would have been exposed to incredible violence at the hands of the the Vikings changes the way we read the text. If composed before the raids, the author may have been expressing sympathy with Danish culture. If composed after, then perhaps the poem’s representation of the warrior culture in the text is more negative or ironic than one might suspect upon first read There are, for example, many passages in the poem that seem to directly conflict with the Christian worldview: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning / For every one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark” (lines 1384-85). These lines directly conflict with the Christian faith in spiritual salvation in the afterlife. So there is an ideological struggle in the text as well as a series of physical ones, a struggle between competing belief systems that very much recapitulates the actual transformations occurring within Anglo-Saxon society during the early Middle Ages. A good question to ask is why and to what extent does the author of Beowulf choose to depict its protagonist in a relatively heroic light? Is Beowulf a pagan hero or a Christian anti-hero?
Genesis 4.1 – 16: Cain and Abel
4.1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; who conceived and brought forth Cain, saying: I have gotten a man through God. 2 And again she brought forth his brother Abel. And Abel was a shepherd, and Cain a husbandman. 3 And it came to pass after many days, that Cain offered, of the fruits of the earth, gifts to the Lord. 4 Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. 5 But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceeding angry, and his countenance fell. 6 And the Lord said to him: Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen? 7 If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? but the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it. 8 And Cain said to Abel his brother: Let us go forth abroad. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him. 9 And the Lord said to Cain: Where is thy brother Abel? And he answered: I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?10 And he said to him: What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth. 11 Now therefore cursed shalt thou be upon the earth, which hath opened her mouth and received the blood of thy brother at thy hand. 12 When thou shalt till it, it shall not yield to thee its fruit: a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be upon the earth. 13 And Cain said to the Lord: My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon. 14 Behold thou dost cast me out this day from the face of the earth, and from thy face I shall be hid, and I shall be a vagabond and a fugitive on the earth: every one therefore that findeth me, shall kill me. 15 And the Lord said to him: No, it shall not so be: but whosoever shall kill Cain, shall be punished sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him. 16 And Cain went out from the face of the Lord, and dwelt as a fugitive on the earth at the east side of Eden.
Matthew 6:19-21: On Earthly vs. Heavenly Wealth
19 Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. 20 But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. 21 For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.
Matthew 5:38-39: On Revenge
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. 39 But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Bede’s Anecdote of the Mead-Hall
The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
Beowulf reading questions
- (A.) Consider the distance and differences (temporal, geographic, and cultural) between the Beowulf poet’s world and the world in which the poem is set. What are the clues that help us to discern these differences? How does the poet create this sense of distance between the characters and himself? Is there irony or criticism in this vision of the past? (B.) Now consider the continuities between these two worlds. What aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture does the poet affirm and how well do these integrate with what seems to be the value-system of his present?
- What is the status of gold and gift giving in the poem? Does this status change? If so, how? Are the modern concepts of wealth, payment, monetary worth, and greed appropriate for the world of Beowulf?
- Do some research and/or think back to what you know about the genre of epic poetry. (You’ve probably read epic poems like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, or Virgil’s Aeneid in the past.) What makes a poem epic and how does Beowulf fit into this category? What kinds of values does the poem promote, and how does it promote them? What sort of social order produces epic poetry? What sorts of conflict with or resistance to the ideology of epic can be expressed and how, if at all, does Beowulf express them?
- Consider the religious references in the poem. What are the names for god? What biblical events are mentioned and who mentions them? What specifically pagan practices (sacrifice, burial, augury etc…) are described? How do the characters see their relationship to god (or the gods)? Why would a Christian author write a poem about a pagan hero?
- Does the heroic code expressed in Beowulf conflict with a Christian sensibility?
- Look back at the roles of Wealhtheow, Hygd, Hildeburth, and Grendel’s mother. What do the female characters in Beowulf do? How do they do it? Do they offer alternatives to the heroic world, which seems to be centered around male action?
- Discuss the nature and significance of social behavior and manners in the poem. Describe specific episodes. Why do you think courtly manners might have been important to Anglo-Saxon culture? Why does the poet, who seems otherwise concerned with narrating scenes of action, focus on these issues?
- Every culture makes distinctions between what is inside the social order and what is outside, between the human and the non-human (a category which can include animals, plants, natural processes, monsters, and the miraculous). Cultures organize themselves to exclude these “outside” things; social organization also works to control certain violent human tendencies inside culture (anger, lust, fear, greed, etc…) How does the social world depicted in the poem do this? That is, what does it exclude, and why? What is its attitude toward the “outside” of culture? How does it control the forces of social stability within the hall?
- Describe in detail the different architectural and social spaces depicted in the poem. How do these spaces and the way they are used reinforce the culturally constructed distinction between “inside” and “outside” outlined in the previous question?
- Consider the narrative structure of Beowulf. The manuscript of the poem is divided into forty-three numbered sections (plus an unnumbered prologue); most critics, however, view the structure as either two-part (young Beowulf / old Beowulf) or three-part (the three main battles). What grounds do critics have for these arguments? What are some ways the poem suggests its structure? Are there other seemingly intentional structural aspects that you notice? What purpose do these structural elements play in the poem?
- The three major battle scenes in Beowulf differ greatly. Do a close reading of each of these scenes. Consider the differences in circumstance (action leading up to the battle), setting, fighting method, tone, and outcome, and what kind of progression or narrative arc this trajectory constructs. How is the nature of each battle distinct and why does the poet choose to render these distinctions?
- There are several poems performed by “scops” within Beowulf. What are these poems about, to whom and for what purpose are they presented? Often, when an author includes references to her own medium within a work, we can read these moments as indicative of that authors ideas about the proper form and function of literature. What might the poems within Beowulf say about the poet’s ideas about poetry?
Audio of a segment of Beowulf read in the Old English
An animated version of Beowulf from 1998
 Given here in the “douay-Rheims English translation of the Latin Bible known to the medieval audience of Beowulf