Comitatus in Beowulf: Meaning & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Comitatus?
  • 1:05 Beowulf and Hrothgar
  • 2:05 Beowulf and His Warriors
  • 2:57 Beowulf and Wiglaf
  • 3:39 Literary Functions of…
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

In Anglo-Saxon literature, comitatus is a term used to describe a mutually beneficial relationship between noblemen and landholders. In this lesson, we will discuss the importance of a comitatus in 'Beowulf.'

What Is Comitatus?

Life in Anglo-Saxon times was hard in many ways, even for kings and noblemen. The richer or more powerful they were, the more they needed to protect their property and themselves. There were also freemen who wanted to make more than a subsistence living. The noblemen and freemen needed each other.

In Anglo-Saxon literature, comitatus refers to a relationship that benefited both noblemen and freemen. According to the comitatus relationship, nobleman provided the freemen with land in exchange for protection and loyalty. For freemen, it was an opportunity to rise in social status while the nobility gained protection and loyalty. Eventually, the freemen became known as thanes.

The expectations of the comitatus were rigorous, but there were some great benefits. The thane must agree to defend the king or nobleman to his death if necessary. In return, the nobility shared their wealth and provided weapons. Perhaps more important is the mutual respect, friendship, and honor that the nobility and thanes shared.

Beowulf and Hrothgar

An early example of comitatus in Beowulf occurs when Beowulf answers King Hrothgar's call for help. A really bad monster named Grendel has plundered Hrothgar's mead hall. Grendel's presence makes it impossible to drink mead in peace without the fear of being eaten alive. Equipped with a ferocious appetite, Grendel consumes at least one or two of Hrothgar's warriors every night. Beowulf is more than willing to do whatever is necessary to help Hrothgar euthanize the monster, even if it means dying in the process:

'My purpose was this: to win the good will
Of your people or die in battle, pressed
In Grendel's fierce grip.

In return, Hrothgar gives Beowulf treasures and pronounces his appreciation for Beowulf's loyalty:

'Now Beowulf, best of men,
I will love you in my heart like a son;
keep to our new kinship from this day on.

According to the code of comitatus, the close relationship between lord and thane is often one of close kinship.

Beowulf and His Warriors

Comitatus also clearly exists between Beowulf and his warriors. When Beowulf fights Grendel his own warriors stood strong beside him:

'All of Beowulf's
Band had jumped from their beds, ancestral
Swords raised and ready, determined
To protect their prince if they could.

This behavior is, of course honorable and much appreciated, but Beowulf still took care of Grendel barehanded, and without help.

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