The years from the 400’s – 800’s CE is often called “The Dark Ages”. After the Romans depart, England is settled in the east by Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes, roughly from what today is northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Melvin Konner points to the chiefdoms in England and Ireland, and the invading Vikings during this time, as “the worst examples of males out of control”16. You might reference Game of Thrones. Women were wombs to be controlled, bartered as political chess pieces, raped, and captured as war prizes, with no rights, and little power.
Then, Anglo-Saxon England was struck by a ravaging pandemic of the bubonic plague in the mid-500’s, which women tend to survive in greater numbers than men17. Could women have gained legal ground with this plague?
As England rose up from this plague, the laws follow: women could not be forced to marry. They owned land, material possessions, and businesses. They could testify in court. A noble woman could rule jointly with her husband, and solely after his death. Although Christianity was late to come to England, Christian nuns during this time were educated and had a great deal of autonomy. One third of all surviving wills of this time were from women18. Women supported themselves as artisans and in trades, particularly as weavers. The “morning gift” paid upon marriage was a woman’s to keep and control. Women could divorce and keep their children, and were not condemned if they did not have children. They were literally worth the same as men, as the Germanic “wergild” tradition that attached monetary value to lives was in place. A pregnant woman was worth her own wergild, plus half of her child’s19.
As Anglo-Saxon England emerges as a thriving, intellectual place under Alfred the Great, the great poems of the language were written down. A fraction survive, but some are extraordinarily notable, including two that are testaments to the resilience of women even in a society that is “the worst examples of males out of control”.
Early Anglo-Saxon Poems
Two of these anonymous poems are Wulf and Eadwacher and A Woman’s Message20. In both, the women who voice the poems are exiles: In the first, the speaker has been plundered from her beloved Wulf and raped by Eadwacher. In A Woman’s Message, the speaker eloped, but was then abandoned by her lover when his family rejected her. While these scenarios are certainly dire, the voices of the poems are not.
The first poem’s speaker imagines infanticide of the “wretched suckling” that she bore her abductor. She ends the poem, “It’s easy to smash what never existed, / You and I together”. Her body might no longer be her own, but her fighting spirit is still hers. And while her womb might have been stolen, maternal care for an unwanted child of rape cannot be.
The woman in A Woman’s Message has been abandoned in what seems to be a Celtic convent, “In an earthen cavern under an oak”, but it begins with an affirmation of power, attesting, “This song of journeys into sorrow / Is mine. I sing it. I alone / Can ravel out its misery”, almost like a post-modern self-help guide to surviving a toxic relationship. She tells us her lover’s family forced the split, and in her heartache, she curses him with a most-satisfying fate: “May that man be always bent with misery, / With callused thoughts; may he have to cling / To laughter and smiles when sorrow is clamouring / Wild for his blood”. This independent spirit might fare better in the pre-Christian, Celtic world she alludes to where oak trees, and women, were sacred.
Of course, the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem is the epic, Beowulf, a work that on the surface reinforces a vision of a world of out-of-control males. The women of the text are largely there to pour mead, give out golden torques, and serve as “peace weavers” that is, forced political brides. The men drink a lot, do gory battle, boast, and participate in reckless swimming contests. Hrothgar’s thanes do nothing but party, drink, and make so much noise that it drives the indigenous denizen, Grendel, crazy. Grendel goes on a killing spree to get rid of this frat-house of a castle. What does this have to do with women’s power? First, this Viking kingdom is in deep trouble because the drunk frat-boys are powerless against Grendel. Using women as “peace weavers” is an utter failure as a political tactic, and backfires for the tribes. And then, there is Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf defeats Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, ripping off his arm. Grendel crawls back to his home under the swamp to die. But then – and initially everyone is surprised – the castle is attacked again by Grendel’s mother, who comes to retrieve her son’s arm, killing one guard, while the rest of the castle sleep off their partying. Beowulf follows her, and in her own watery world is almost defeated, since his weapons are useless against her. To kill her, he grabs one of her own weapons, a beautifully-crafted sword. The civilization of Grendel, apparently, is not a primitive one, but one with powerful female warriors, who were also fiercely protective mothers. Might they represent the former Celtic society, now being overtaken by a male-dominated culture?
The epic is often interpreted as an allegorical representation of a transition from a pagan tribal world to a Christian one. There are references that allude to the bible, and a shift in culture. The monsters in the first part of the epic, Grendel and his mother, are notably descendants from the biblical Cain, who are exiled from God’s chosen people. They are fully human, but “others” – indigenous beings on whose land Hrothgar’s castle sits.
Beowulf is different from this warrior culture. He embodies virtues that are often described as Christian: He exhibits justice, compassion, humility, and courage. He is praised because of his ability as a peacemaker, not by violence, not by forced marriages, but by political savvy. He is rewarded and respected by the queens in the epic. He never marries. In the second part of the epic, Beowulf defeats a dragon, another familiar symbol of paganism, but he dies from the dragon’s poison. Without his peacemaking qualities, the old code of warrior revenge will return, and his kingdom is predicted to fall.
But perhaps Beowulf’s qualities are more “feminine” than Christian, since Christianity doesn’t arrives full-force in England until the Norman Invasion in 1066. Perhaps Anglo-Saxon England unites partly because women survived the plague. Their greater numbers would have made needed contributions to the labor force and economy, reducing the need to fight for resources, or indeed, for wombs. Their legal protections and increase in power might be the unifying force at work, more Mother Goddess than Christian.
The Anglo-Saxon poems voiced by women can serve as discussion for modern context. When women suffer in abusive relationships, why is it difficult to leave? How does violence affect the spirit? How does it ultimately affect society?
Beowulf is really fun for guided reading, as students are asked to note the qualities that make a good civilization and a good leader. If you consider the freedoms that women have in later Anglo-Saxon England, compared to the bride-barter, mead-serving roles of women in the failing Viking cultures of the text, students can see that a culture that rules by values that have traditionally been pegged as “feminine” might have a better chance at success. And it is important to note that these are not particularly “female” qualities, but just good politics. And, to protect the home? Females can fight.