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:

Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House 4
"HARK!..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

Although this version of the tale is written in prose, the story of Beowulf is typically shared as an epic poem from the point of view of a poet. Throughout the piece, the poet will call to the audience directly, as done here, and comment on aspects of the story, as shown later.

"No man can truly say..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

In a Christian world, God would receive the ship, but in a pagan world, it's unknown where the ship goes. While the poet's audience would have recognized sending the ship into the ocean as a pagan burial, the poet prefers to describe the burial of Scyld in strictly pagan terms.

"foundling..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

Scyld's status as an orphan is very important because in this society, family is everything. In many cases, being born an orphan is a death sentence because there is no family for protection. This makes his rise to greatness and power all the more impressive because he began life in such a dangerous situation.

"mead-benches..."   (Prelude of the Founder of the Danish House)

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.

"On the kin of Cain..."   (Chapter I)

The poet alludes to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which after Cain killed his brother, God cast him out of human society. All of Cain’s descendants also became outcasts and eventually monsters. Grendel is established as a kinsman of Cain, supporting the idea that he was human at one time.

"moors and secluded fens..."   (Chapter I)

Swamps, marshes, and bogs are often depicted as the lairs or habitats of evil creatures in stories, likely due to their being sparsely populated by humans and the lack of visibility and unseen dangers from animals, disease, and the terrain.

"lives of men..."   (Chapter I)

The poet means to say that the lives of everyone would be saved. During the time this tale was told, it was common to use the word men to refer to all people. This has fallen out of favor in recent years, as words that include all genders are preferred.

"Four children in succession..."   (Chapter I)

In a similar fashion to stories in the Old Testament, the poet recounts the children and heirs of Scyld to establish the line of genealogy for his audience and establish Hrothgar's role in the tale. This creates a familiar approach to beginning the story for the poet's Christian audience.

"Beow..."   (Chapter I)

This is a different Beowulf, the son of Scyld Scyf, as opposed to the titular character Beowulf. To avoid confusion, some translations have shortened the name to Beow, as done here.

"blood-gold..."   (Chapter II)

A method of forestalling vengeance in Scandinavian societies, paying blood-gold was a way to avoid endless cycles of honor killings to avenge family members by financially compensating the relatives of the killed. Grendel's refusal to conform to such customs of the land further evidence his evil and inhuman nature.

"Geats..."   (Chapter III)

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 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.

"he knew the customs of court..."   (Chapter V)

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.

"Wéland..."   (Chapter VI)

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

"I have gained much fame..."   (Chapter VI)

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

"as their leader commanded..."   (Chapter VI)

Despite the Geats 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 around the other.

"Frisian..."   (Chapter XVI)

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.

"playing the song..."   (Chapter XVI)

In a typically Scandinavian / Anglo-Saxon style, Hrothgar's storyteller performs another story for the audience, known in the poem as "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.

"when Hunlafing gave the scintillating blade..."   (Chapter XVII)

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 Hunlafing gives the sword 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.

"not since Hama bore away the Brisings' necklace..."   (Chapter XVIII)

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.

"Her terror, however, was less..."   (Chapter XIX)

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 threatening as Grendel was.

"felled the fiend; that foe of man fled forlorn..."   (Chapter XIX)

The repetition of all the initial f 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.

"It seems better that each man avenge his friends than to mourn them to no end...."   (Chapter XXI)

Beowulf reaffirms his own values and the values of the culture at the time. Vengeance of a friend or loved one is the appropriate response, not mourning. He is not only reminding Hrothgar of this, but he is also consoling Hrothgar and vowing to kill Grendel's mother. Beowulf's values underscore a major theme in the play: the importance of being honorable through glory and valor.

"he will not fear for his life!..."   (Chapter XXII)

The poet makes a very important cultural statement to his audience: Brave deeds are more valuable and lasting than one's life. Beowulf, like many poems about life and its struggles, is meant both to entertain and to instruct.

"You have brought about mutual peace..."   (Chapter XXVI)

While Beowulf's fight with Grendel and his mother is a significant part of the story, the more important result, at least from society's perspective, is that Beowulf has achieved a strong alliance with a traditional enemy and stabilized relationships between them.

"seven thousand hides of land..."   (Chapter XXIX-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.

"not weaving a net of wiles for one another or secretly contriving treacherous death..."   (Chapter XXIX-XXXI)

This line implies that there is too much betrayal and treachery in this society. In addition to providing entertainment, the poet is also trying to instruct his listeners in proper behavior, one of the main goals of tales like Beowulf.

"the prince must die unavenged!..."   (Chapter 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.

"champion of the Hugas, was killed by my hand...."   (Chapter XXXV)

Beowulf refers to his killing of the Hugas (another name for the Frisians) warrior Daeghrefn, who may have been Hygelac's killer. Little historical information appears to exist regarding the Hugas, apart from what is written in Beowulf.

"But Nægling was splintered; Beowulf's blade..."   (Chapter XXXVI)

While in this prose version Naegling is described as a glaive (a spear with a knife or dagger-sized blade attached to its point), Naegling is more often described as Beowulf's sword--possibly the sword of Hrethel that Hygelac gave to him.

"And so is the feud and the foeman's grudge..."   (Chapter XLI)

The messenger recounts this tale to as evidence for the prediction that the Swedes will retaliate against the Geats. In addition, this section also provides the audience with the details of what happened during this conflict.