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Role of Women in Beowulf

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  • 0:03 The Role of Women
  • 0:28 Hildeburh, the Peaceweaver
  • 1:42 Wealhtheow, the Hostess
  • 2:46 Hygd, the Hostess
  • 3:27 Grendel's Mother, the Monster
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

'Beowulf' is an epic poem that focuses on the heroic male, but it would be remiss to overlook the women who play important roles as peacemakers and entertainers, as well as work to contradict social expectations.

The Role of Women

In the epic poem Beowulf, the women presented are central to not only the story but also to society itself. They present voices that offer influence over the predominately male group and often are the voice of reason with their husbands. These women should not be taken lightly. They include a peaceweaver, hostesses, and a monster. Let's look at each in further detail.

Hildeburh, the Peaceweaver

A peaceweaver is a woman whose role is to marry someone from a rival tribe to bring peace between the enemies. The power of the woman in this role is historical, and it's as the peaceweaver that she makes her place in the hall. She has a talent for keeping peace among the warriors, and between her husband and others, and, in general, it is her peaceweaving skill that brings harmony.

An excellent example of a peaceweaver in Beowulf is Hildeburh, a Danish princess married to Finn, king of the Jutes. It's expected that she will bring about an alliance between the Danes and the Jutes, and she is successful in her task. Hildeburh and Finn have a son, whom she later loses in battle along with her brother and husband. She mourns these losses. The scop, or poet, tells us, 'blameless she was deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother; wounded by spears they fell to their fate. That was a mournful woman.' She returns to her homeland, where she's still considered a queen. The story of Hildeburh is central to Beowulf since it demonstrates the important role of the peaceweaver, who helps maintain loyalty between her homeland and her husband.

Wealhtheow, the Hostess

Wealhtheow is an excellent example of the medieval hostess who upholds social customs and demonstrates publicly the status of the men surrounding the king. In the beginning of the poem, Wealhtheow serves her husband Hrothgar, the king, from the mead cup. She then gives the cup to each of the men in order of their importance. Beowulf is given the cup last because he's new to the hall. In the final scene, after Beowulf returns a victor, he's given the mead cup after the king, indicating the dramatic rise in his status.

When Beowulf returns, Wealhtheow asks the king not to make Beowulf the heir to the throne, something she feels is the birthright of her sons. While Beowulf does become king, it's only as a placeholder until Wealhtheow's sons are of an age to assume the throne. The role of the hostess is powerful, and her voice is one that strikes a chord with the king. The scop refers to her this way:'Wealhtheow is mindful of customs, excellent of heart, and sure of speech.'

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