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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:


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"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.

"I know good Hrothulf..."   (XVIII)

Wealhtheow’s speech clearly indicates her concern regarding Hrothgar's earlier statement that he views Beowulf as his son. She reminds Hrothgar that his own children are the rightful heirs, and that Hrothgar will succeed Hrothgar's throne should he die unexpectedly. Her speech is another example of how much power and involvement the queen has in political matters, and her advice is designed to avoid a potential struggle between the Geats and Danes.

"When Hun of the Frisians the battle-sword Láfing,..."   (XVIII)

Hengest, whose slain leader has not been avenged, thinks of revenge but is trapped by the truce with Finn not to fight. The poet implies that when Hun gives the sword Láfing to Hengest, he is subtly reminding Hengest that he must renew the fight with Finn because of the pagan code of loyalty to king and kin. The sacred duty to avenge his lord conflicts with another sacred duty to abide by his oath. However, loyalty to king is a much stronger duty in this warrior society.

"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.

"last had this jewel..."   (XIX)

Treasure, material goods, and gift giving play an important role in this culture. The poet takes a moment to reaffirm the importance of this collar by interrupting his story to tell his audience its story. Since possessions and treasures were highly valued, each item of value has its own story, which helps create continuity for the poet’s audience. Since Higelac (also transcribed as Hygelac) dies wearing it, we know that Beowulf will present it to him eventually. This detail reminds the audience of Beowulf's loyalty to his king.

"Doomed unto death..."   (XIX)

The poet uses the concept of fate to foreshadow the death of one of the warriors at the feast. For those living during Beowulf's time, when a man is fated to die, he will die, and there is no action the man can take that will alter his fate; this is why the man is “doomed unto death,” giving the end of this section an ominous tone.

"Since Hama off bore the Brosingmen's necklace,..."   (XIX)

To better describe the gifts bestowed upon Beowulf to his audience, the poet alludes to the tale of Hama, a heroic character in Germanic legend. Hama entered the castle of King Eormenric, a very oppressive Goth leader, and stole a priceless gold necklace, once thought to have belonged to the Norse goddess Freyja. In order to escape Eormenric's vengeance, Hama spent the rest of his life in the safety of a monastery.

"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.

"the fear was less grievous..."   (XX)

The poet describes a cultural reality for Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies at the time: women are viewed as peace-makers, not peace-breakers. As terrible as Grendel's mother is, she is not as powerful or threatening as Grendel was.

"mindful of vengeance           For the death of her son..."   (XX)

The poet briefly retells the story of Grendel, likely to remind his audience, and includes evidence that Grendel and his mother were once human. Grendel's mother's desire for revenge also represents a human, rather than beastial, trait. Christian translators inserted the notion that Grendel and his mother are descended from Cain, a biblical figure who slew his brother, Abel. This not only associates them with humanity but also with monsters and sin.

"The hell-spirit humbled..."   (XX)

The repetition of all the initial h sounds is a good example of alliteration. A commonly used device in Old English and other poetry, some believe that techniques like this help both the poet and the audience remember the words.

"So any must act whenever he thinketh           To gain him in battle glory unending,           And is reckless of living...."   (XXIII)

The poet makes a very important cultural statement to his audience: Brave deeds—gaining “battle glory”—are more valuable and long lasting than one's life. Beowulf, like many poems about life and its struggles, is meant both to entertain and to instruct. In this case, modern readers gain insight into the cultural instructions and beliefs at the time this story was written.

"Then a day's-length elapsed ere           He was able to see the sea at its bottom...."   (XXIII)

This has been a controversial line in the poem for decades because it states that Beowulf swam underwater for "a day’s-length”; other translations state a similar length of time, with Seamus Heaney’s translation claiming that it took Beowulf “the best part of a day” to reach the bottom. Some Beowulf critics have argued that the line should be translated to say that Beowulf dived into the mere in full daylight and not that he swam underwater for a full day.

"the bill..."   (XXIV)

As mentioned on the List of Words and Phrases not in General Use page, a “bill” is another word for a sword. In Old English poetry, the specific type of sword could vary between a long, straight broadsword and a shorter, slightly curved falchion. In this encounter, the bill is likely a massive broadsword, made by giants.

"Peace-tie of peoples..."   (XXIX)

This refers to the practice of marrying a royal woman from one clan into the family of a rival clan in the hope that, through her influence, peace will be the result. This is why, in Old English, a royal woman is often referred to as "peace-bringer," a kenning for a queen.

" *       *       *       *       *       *       *..."   (XXXI)

In this translation, these asterisks indicate parts of the epic that are not legible or were burned during the fire in 1731 when the poem was included in the Nowell Codex, housed in Sir Robert Cotton's collection in London.

"Seven of thousands, manor and lordship...."   (XXXI)

Land in medieval England was measured in “hides.” One hide was the amount required to support a family, or approximately 60-120 acres, depending on the quality of the land. The ownership of land was considered necessary to advancement in this society—the greater the land, the greater authority for the owner.

"So a kinsman should bear him..."   (XXXI)

By stating what a kinsman ought to do, this line implies that there is much betrayal and treachery in this society. In addition to providing entertainment, the poet is also trying to instruct his listeners in proper behavior by sharing a tale with themes that advocate for honorable behavior, one of the main goals of tales like Beowulf.

"I'll bring them to thee, then,..."   (XXXI)

Beowulf demonstrates his fealty and loyalty to Higelac. In this feudal society, Beowulf is obligated to give to Hygelac, his king, the gifts he was given by Hrothgar. Then Higelac, as a good king, will re-distribute the wealth to his retainers, giving the most precious gifts to Beowulf and retaining some for himself.

"They had stirred a revolt 'gainst the helm of the Scylfings,..."   (XXXIII)

The poet alludes to a multi-generational dynastic struggle between the Swedes and the Geats. As of the telling of Beowulf, the Geats, led by the members of the House of Hrethel, were prevailing in this struggle. Hrethel’s descendants include both Beowulf and his uncle Higelac.

"Had to part from existence with vengeance untaken...."   (XXXIV)

Haethcyn accidentally killed his older brother Herebeald with a misplaced arrow. Even this accidental killing had to be avenged according to the code of this society, but because the killer was Hrethel's youngest son, Haethcyn, the killing couldn't be avenged. In this society, even an accidental killing was a serious matter, and revenge was expected.

"When I proved before heroes the slayer of Dæghrefn,..."   (XXXV)

Beowulf refers to his killing of the Frankish warrior Dæghrefn, whom he calls a “Knight of the Hugmen” (another name for the Frisians), who may have been Higelac's killer. Little historical information appears to exist regarding the Hugas, apart from what is written in Beowulf.

"The battle-famed bid ye to build them a grave-hill..."   (XXXVIII)

Beowulf requests to have his body burned and placed within a “grave-hill,” or a burial mound. This poet's choice to state this request for a pagan burial is interesting, because in Christian societies, burning the dead was forbidden and burial with Christian rites was the only appropriate funeral. This serves as evidence for the Christian translators’ having infused Christian elements into the story because such aspects are not entirely consistent with the characters’ behavior.

"Frankmen..."   (XL)

This is the name given to an aggregation of tribes that once inhabited the region of the Roman province of Gaul, an area containing roughly the modern nations of France, Belgium, and parts of western Germany. Much of what we know of the Franks comes from The History of the Franks (Historia Francorum), written by Gregory of Tours, the Bishop of Tours, who lived between 538 and 594 CE.

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