It is commonly accepted that the Beowulf epic was from the Anglo-Saxon period.

It is so commonly accepted because of the strong evidence in the story. Then,
because of all of these parallels that can be drawn it is safe to say that a reader who
is unaware of Anglo-Saxon society cannot fully understand this epic. That is why I
plan to explain the basic principles of this society to better comprehend the epic at
another level.

There is obviously very little reference to women in this story. In class it
was discussed that it may be due to the little importance of women during the time
period. However, I have found that during the Anglo-Saxon period females were
not of little significance. They believed that in women there was an element of
holiness and prophecy. They even asked advice of their women. It is also true that
women were often arranged in marriage to keep peace. This may seem insulting
but isn’t it a compliment to believe that a woman can turn anger into an armistice.

It is argued that perhaps women were mostly left out of the story because the poet
chose instead to develop the meaning of male to male friendships. This is
supported by many works of the era while many of them centered around male
characters. The warriors in Beowulf did have wives and families but it is
suggested that this was insignificant to the story. The male friendships were
highly valued at the time. Beowulf was surrounded by noble warriors who would
have protected him with their lives. This sort of brotherhood is formed that is
worth more than gold.

One of the biggest debates surrounding Beowulf is that of religion. Did the
poet intend for this to be a Christian based work. While I will not be discussing
the issue in depth there is one aspect of it that had been bothering me. It is that of
the strong emphasis of revenge in the text. This makes it seem as though Beowulf
does not fit the Christian value system at all. Yet I found that the tooth for a tooth,
eye for an eye was not so literal at the time. It was strongly encouraged that
instead of avenging the death of your kin by killing the one who had committed the
crime that the killer should pay a werglid or "manpayment". These werglids were
based upon the deceased’s social standing. An eorl or nobleman was worth twelve
hundred shillings, a ceorl or ordinary free man was worth two hundred shillings,
and a slave whether he was killed or just damaged beyond repair was worth only
one pound. The church also declared that priests were equivalent to nobleman in
these cases and their monasteries received any compensation.

Anglo-Saxon culture placed value on public esteem. Many believe that
treasure was very important. However, to be respected and loved by everyone was
a man’s worth. Treasure seemed to be accumulated from this love and respect.

But this treasure was not meant to be hoarded. Often a gift was given away. This
helped a hero to stay well-liked. It is pointed out that in Beowulf he is buried with
his treasure. This does not mean that the people placed importance on this. They
were simply making a point that a priceless ruler had just died. The hoard could have easily been used to buy peace. It was so hard in the 7th and 9th centuries to
keep out of war that a peaceful king was the greatest wealth. Beowulf’s people
recognized this and that is why they buried his riches with him. Because they
knew that he was worth it tenfold.

All of these aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture make Beowulf a more credible
and maybe even more interesting story. It is a sort of James Bond. The hero is
placed in an existing place and precise historical context which makes it easier to
swallow. Since most people are aware of modern culture, James Bond is easily
interpreted. Just these few Anglo-Saxon facts that have been discussed can also
develop a better understanding of Beowulf.


Chickering, Howell D. Readings on Beowulf. pgs. 38-44

San Diego:Greenhaven Press, 1998

Robinson, Fred C. Readings on Beowulf. pgs. 49-54 San Diego:

Greenhaven Press, 1998