Historical Context in Beowulf

The events of Beowulf took place in the 6th century CE. The character of Hrothgar is often connected to a historical figure of the same name who reigned in Denmark in the early 6th century. The poem was written between 700 CE and 1000 CE by an anonymous poet referred to as the “Beowulf poet” out of convenience. The poem blends historical events and figures with mythic elements such as Grendel and his mother, as well as the dragon. It prominently features both Pagan and Christian symbolism and represents the effects of the Christianization of England. The poem was composed in Anglia—a region in southeast England—and was drawn from the the stories of the Saxon and Scandinavian peoples who settled there. Beowulf was almost lost to the ravages of history. The poem happened to be included in a volume known as the Nowell Codex, housed in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton in London. When a fire broke out in 1731, a quarter of the library was destroyed. Fortunately, the Nowell Codex received little enough damage that Beowulf remained readable.

Historical Context Examples in Beowulf:

I 4

"friendless and wretched..."   (I)

Scyld's former status as "friendless and wretched" is very important because in this society, family is everything. In many cases, being born as an orphan or to a family without any connections is a death sentence because there is no one for protection. This makes Scyld's rise to greatness and power all the more impressive because he began life in such a dangerous situation.

"mead-benches..."   (I)

These mead-benches came from mead-halls, which were fortresses and gathering places for medieval Norse and Germanic tribes. Members of society gathered there in safety under the king's protection so that they could feast, share stories, and receive gifts. It is also notable that Valhalla and Folkvang, two divine mead-halls from Scandinavian mythology, are the places where dead souls go in the afterlife. The mead-hall is the center of society, making any attack on the hall, therefore, an assault upon the fabric of society itself.

"Scyld the Scefing..."   (I)

Scyld of Scefing translates from Old English to "Shield, son of Sheaf." In Old English (Anglo-Saxon), an -ing after a name indicates "son of." In honor of Scyld's leadership, the Spear-Danes are also called "Scyldings."

"Danes..."   (I)

The Danes are the residents of Denmark. The Hrothgar, Hrothulf, and Scylding dynasty of kings mentioned are actually spoken of in other Danish and Germanic sources (such as the poem Widsith). Some believe that Heorot, the hall of the Danes mentioned in Beowulf, was located on the island of Sjaelland, near the modern-day city of Roskilde, Denmark.

"Four bairns of his body born in succession..."   (II)

Among the Geats and Danes, there were two main sources of personal worth: glory through heroic feats and honor through one's bloodline. In a fashion similar to stories in the biblical Old Testament, the poet recounts the children and heirs of Scyld. Here, Hrothgar's worth is presented through his ancestry. Additionally, such a style of introducing a story would have been a familiar approach for the poet's Christian audience.

"Beowulf..."   (II)

This is not the titular Beowulf. This is the son of Scyld Scyf. To avoid confusion, some later translations have shortened the name to Beow. The poet continues to tell his audience the historical context of the Beowulf epic as a means of building authenticity to his narrative.

"love of Him knew not..."   (III)

In this passage, the poet tells us that Grendel rules Heorot through terror but is unable to kill Hrothgar or approach the throne of the mead-hall. The poet indicates that Grendel is incapable of doing this because the king possesses a divine right to rule, as bestowed on him by God's grace. The role of the king as a medium between the gods and society is an ancient one and has precedent in both Christian monarchies and pre-Christian pagan kingdoms.

"for money to settle..."   (III)

In the wake of a killing, Scandinavian societies forestalled vengeance by using money to settle the death. Sometimes translated as “paying blood-gold,” this practice prevented endless cycles of honor killings to avenge family members. The payments financially compensated the relatives of the killed. Grendel's refusal to conform to such customs of the land is further evidence of his evil and inhuman nature.

"Plainly to tell me what place ye are come from..."   (IV)

The presence of an unannounced ship full of heavily armed and armored men threatens Hrothgar's coast-guard. However, he does notice the regal bearing of their leader, our hero, and asks the group to declare their peaceful intentions before he allows them safe passage. This caution is not only appropriate with historical accounts, but it also illustrates how wary Hrothgar’s people have become since Grendel began his attacks.

"the Wielder they thanked..."   (IV)

In some translations, the men thank God, which is another indication of the dichotomy between paganism and Christianity in the story. This version acknowledges that the Geats would have praised one of their own Norse gods, named here as the Wielder, for safe passage.

"Geatmen..."   (IV)

According to the poem, the Geats are a seafaring tribe from the south of Sweden; they appear to have been conquered at some point in the early Middle Ages. Gregory of Tours, a Gallo-Roman historian, mentions that a group of “Danes” led by “Chochilaicus” (a possible Latinization of “Hygelac”) attacked the Franks around 520 A.D. Little other historical information is written about the Geats.

"a liegeman then showed them, 20      A sea-crafty man, the bounds of the country...."   (IV)

Medieval Scandinavians did most of their sea travel by following coastlines. Although they were capable of open-ocean sailing, they preferred the more reliable navigation offered by coastlines.

"till he stood at the shoulder..."   (VI)

Wulfgar, as Hrothgar's subject, instinctively makes sure that he positions his own body lower than Hrothgar's as he addresses him. To address one's king while standing at a higher level would violate customs and traditions.

"The work of Wayland..."   (VII)

The fact that Beowulf has a piece of chainmail armor made by Wayland, the legendary smith of Norse mythology whose armor was highly valued for its protective abilities, increases his status in this warrior culture. The figure of Wayland in Anglo-Saxon mythology is analogous to the Greek god Hephaestus (Vulcan, in the Roman) in Homeric literature, who makes armor for gods and selected demigods like Hercules and Achilles.

"I dared as a stripling..."   (VII)

Displaying the characteristic values of his time, Beowulf boasts about his youthful exploits when he introduces himself to Hrothgar. This is expected of him because he needs to declare his intentions and explain why he has taken it upon himself to aid Hrothgar against Grendel.

"And as bid of the brave one the battle-gear guarded..."   (VII)

Despite the Geats’s appearing to be among friends, Wulfgar has them leave their shields and weapons behind. Likewise, Beowulf commands several Geats to stay behind with their gear just in case something goes wrong. Both of these actions represent an aspect of the warrior culture at the time; namely, that until loyalty is demonstrated and trust earned, both sides will keep their guards up.

"Thou needest not trouble           A head-watch to give me;..."   (VII)

Beowulf’s warning may allude to a still-controversial theory concerning the practices of a head-taking cult in Scandinavia that took warrior's heads as trophies. It was important to guard a fallen warrior's head to prevent it from being removed, stolen, and/or desecrated. In this case, the kenning head-watch can be read as helmet.

"God can easily hinder the scather           From deeds so direful...."   (VIII)

The dichotomy between God’s will and the forces of Wyrd (or fate, or destiny) on the surface appear to be very similar. However, the important thing to notice here is that Christianity emphasizes the existence of only one God while paganism includes a pantheon of gods and accepts the existence of others. While paganism could feasible include the Christian god as an element, the Christian faith cannot acknowledge the existence of other gods. The narrator’s lack of consistency with framing story elements relays the tension and difficulty at the time England was undergoing Christianization.

"'Mid all the liegemen lesser and greater: 65      Treasure-cups tendered..."   (X)

In this culture, drinking and bonding went hand in hand. Wealhtheow's creates a sense of unity between the Danes and Geats by making sure they all drink from the same drinking horn or bowl.

"Wealhtheow advanced then,           Consort of Hrothgar, of courtesy mindful,..."   (X)

In Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies, women were viewed as peace-makers. In fact, women were often called "peace-bringer," and the fact that Wealhtheow immediately steps forward after an aggressive exchange of words between Beowulf and Unferth indicates that she may have wanted to defuse the situation.

"as to Sigmund's           Mighty achievements..."   (XIV)

The poet links Beowulf with the the legendary hero Sigemund, from a series of tales from the Old Norse Volsunga Saga that an Anglo-Saxon audience would know. The effect is to build on an existing narrative and perhaps foreshadow coming events in Beowulf's own story.

"The bard after 'gan then Beowulf's venture..."   (XIV)

Crafting stories from the heroic exploits was expected at the time for sharing in the mead-halls. The poet sharing this story is possibly commenting on his own skill, and having some fun, when he describes this thane as singing "quite cleverly".

"racing on roadsters..."   (XIV)

Note that this chapter is unified by horse racing. This is a device commonly used in Old English poetry, often referred to as the envelope, to provide unity or symmetry in sections in which major or minor digressions occur.

"What woman soever in all of the nations           Gave birth to the child..."   (XV)

This may be the poet's way of linking Beowulf's mother, who gave birth to the savior of his people, to Mary, mother of Jesus, who gave birth to the savior of mankind. Whatever the reason for this statement, it does reflect the importance of women in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies.

"I'll love thee in spirit           As bairn of my body..."   (XV)

This line has caused a lot of discussion among literary critics. If Hrothgar were to consider Beowulf his bairn (or son; see “List of Words and Phrases not in General Use”), this would have very serious implications for the line of succession to Hrothgar's throne. Having a Geat on the Danish throne would be a problem for the Danes.

"falsehood and treachery           The Folk-Scyldings now nowise did practise...."   (XVI)

The poet foreshadows dynastic problems that are yet to come for Hrothgar's Danes. The mention of Hrothulf, Hrothgar's nephew, may support the belief of some scholars that the foreshadowed treachery involves both Unferth and Hrothulf against Hrothgar. This lends the poem an ominous mood that contrasts with the feasting earlier mentioned.

"Prepared for the pile..."   (XVII)

Various pagan funeral rites included burning the deceased, whereas Christians believed the only proper funeral was burial. This image would have drawn a sharp distinction for the poet's audience between their new religion, Christianity, and the old pagan beliefs. The distinction emphasizes that such practices are in the historical past.

"the Frisians..."   (XVII)

One of the more advanced societies in the time period known as the “Dark Ages," the Frisians were an early medieval tribe of people who occupied parts of what are the modern-day nations of Denmark, the Netherlands, and northern Germany. They traded with silver coins instead of bartering and engaged in maritime trade from the Baltic region to England. They were often rivals of the Franks, who lived to the southwest of their lands.

"Measures recited..."   (XVII)

In a typically Scandinavian / Anglo-Saxon style, Hrothgar's storyteller performs another story for the audience, known as "the Song of Finn and Hnaef” and sometimes called “the Finnsburg Fragment" or "Fight at Finnsburg." The story he shares doesn't include much detail beyond summarizing main events, which is likely an indication that the audience would be familiar with it.

"Hengest..."   (XVII)

This is the Hengest of "Hengest and Horsa" fame who was invited into England by Vortigern to help fight the Picts, a northern tribe from what is now Scotland. Hengest and Horsa are considered the founders of the Anglo-Saxon race in England.

"the queen made a prisoner...."   (XVIII)

This queen is Hildeburg, who had been given as a "peace-weaver" between the Danes and the Frisians when she married Finn. The poet exaggerates the situation by saying that she "was taken." She is merely returned to her own people, the Danes, after this violent episode in which her son and husband were killed.

"As best for their ruler; that people was worthy...."   (XIX)

They are "worthy" because, as warriors in a society always at war, they are always prepared for battle even when, as here, they have no reason to believe an attack is imminent. Their experience tells them that life is always hanging by a thread, and when that thread is cut by a monster or a human enemy, they must be ready to fight for themselves and their king.