Asst. Prof. Eluru College of Engineering and Technology
Old English literature is very different from modern English. Old English was influenced by German, Latin and Greek languages. The Old English literature reveals the social set up of those times. As women play an important role in a society, Old English literature throws light on the women of that period. The women belonging to different strata enjoyed different status. The noble women enjoyed better amount of freedom and power, and the saintly women had rigid lives. The burden of chastity was borne by the women of Old English society. The common woman was free to express her will, she was not given special importance. Overall, the status of women in the Old English period is secondary and she was considered as an aid to man, although, she was presented with qualities like patience, mental acumen, innocence and feminine beauty.
Literature is considered as a mirror of society. The literature of a period throws light on the society and the way of life of its people. The old English period covers a span of 700 years from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century to the late 11th century, and the Old English literature reflects the men and matters of that period. Anne Lingard Klinck in Female Characterization in Old English Poetry has stated that a close study of Old English literature discloses the fact that the position of women in the Old English period was submissive and secondary. Most of the literature was written by males and this resulted in a lot of female stereotypes. The female characters in Beowulf are Wealhtheow, Hygd and Freawaru. The rigid form of stereotypes is found in the lives of saints. The women characters are close to life as in the lament poems such as ‘A Wife’s Lament’ ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’. In these poems the women are central characters. ‘Genesis B’ and ‘Division VII’ of Christ give a more realistic portrayal of women.
Beowulf is the specimen poem of Old English literature. Wealhtheow is the best example of an ideal queen in Beowulf. She is presented as a generous, kind and well-mannered lady. The stereotype of an ideal queen is also presented in the character of Ealhhild in ‘Widsith’, and the nameless lady in ‘The Husband’s Message’. Wealhtheow is presented as a sagacious lady, who counsels her husband, is cheerful, wise and well-loved. She joins her husband in a banquet and hands over the first cup to him. In Old English literature an ideal queen stereotype shares her husband’s prescribed qualities of generosity, kindliness, and popularity, but is not aggressive and is supposed to possess the feminine qualities of wisdom and good counsel. In the presentation of Wealhtheow the poet has used more imagination. She is presented as having shown discretion in stating her confidence in her nephew Hrothulf before the war and the poet has used the queen’s character for subtler effects. The other royal ladies in Beowulf are Freawaru, Wealhtheow’s daughter and Hildeburh in the Finnsburh episode. Freawaru is married to King Ingeld as a peace-maker. These three women are parallel figures used in the development of the tragedy of Beowulf.
The ideal queen presented in Beowulf could be contrasted with Thryth or Modthryth in Beowulf. Thryth represents everything that a good queen should not be. She is violent and disruptive and cruel. She is later reformed by her husband Offa. Thryth could be considered as the only wicked woman presented in Old English poetry. The only other wicked woman is Grendel’s mother. However, she is regarded as a special case as she is presented as a demon-exile and a loyal avenger. The royal women were presented as fair-haired and as a symbol of beauty and graciousness, while the servant girls referred to in the Riddles were presented as dark haired and hence ugly and menial.
The Roman tradition has influenced in the creation of woman saints in Old English literature. The best representations of this type are the main figures in Juliana, Elene and Judith. In these works the female saints are presented with holiness and are endowed with an authority that expresses itself in their relations with others. The miraculous element conventionally associated with saints in presented in the lives of all three women saints. However, the element is most predominant in Juliana, where the heroine is divinely preserved from her torments.
Each female saint is presented with leadership qualities. Helena is treated as the leader of her people in the account of Greeks’ expedition to find the cross. Judith is a martial heroine who inspires the Israelites and leads them to victory. She even slays Holofernes which marks her determination to protect her people. Juliana, another saint, displays an authority over people and she responds boldly to the threats of her father and suitor and dismisses the fiend sent from hell to tempt her. Although the women saints share the same qualities as their male counterparts, their feminine beauty is recognized and highlighted. The saintly women were forced to protect their armour of chastity. There are instances of saints who faced many problems and have secured their chastity. Their portrayal is one-dimensional and does not deal with the emotions of the women.
The later Old English poems ‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ are the only poems that employ a female narrator. These poems speak about the emotions and thoughts of women. They describe the misery of separation from their male partners and are found to be similar to the elegies of male speakers in ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’, where the male laments the separation from his lord or comrades. ‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ have an intimate and personal atmosphere and they lament the separation of their lovers. Another love poem Appolonius of Tyre speaks about the female approaching her suitor and asking him to marry him.
The female exile in ‘The Wife’s Lament’ is presented with passion. Another instance of female characterization is found in Eve’s character in ‘Genesis B’ and Mary’s in Christ. Both the scenes reveal intimacy and are realistic. In Christ the narrative connections are omitted in order to make the confrontation between the two speakers more vivid. The conversation between Mary and George, when George finds Mary pregnant and accuses her of adultery, are life-like. Mary is presented as modest, simple and filled with divine knowledge. In ‘Genesis B’, Eve is presented as innocent and goads Adam to commit the sin with good intentions. She is presented as a temptress, symbol of beauty and innocence. In both these works although the male characters are portrayed strong, the female characters are powerful.
The riddles and Maxims during the Old English period cover women. There are instances of obscene references to women made in the Riddles. In the Old English period women were mostly used as props in a drama and a female character was considered as an accessory to the male world. In ‘Maxim I and II’ a woman is presented as infected with a loud mouth but the virtues of a good woman are highly acclaimed. In ‘Maxim I’, a Frisian wife is presented as dutiful as she washes his clothes and gives him good ones to wear and also looks after his well-being. The Riddles and Maxims bring out only one dimensional aspect of females.
Although most of female characters presented in Old English poetry are close to stereotypes they are presented with certain traits that are not found in male characters. The queens in Beowulf are presented with dignity and grace. Thus, in old English poetry the female characters are presented with certain qualities. Although they are stereotypes they are not cold and lifeless. The queens are presented with mental acuteness, generosity and subtle feelings. Moreover, the female beauty is given special recognition in Juliana, Elene and Judith. The female saints are presented with rigidity and are not life-like. The normal women are limited to their families and husbands. With regard to Old English poems one can safely conclude that the women were secondary in the society and were treated as inferior to man. The treatment of the women was different and it depended on the social and economic position of the women. However the female persona during the Old English period are not fully represented and there are only traces and passing references from a male viewpoint.
Klinck Lingard Anne. Female Characterization in Old English Poetry, The University of British Columbia 1976 https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0093874
Davis, D R. Judith: An Old English hero?, Teaching College English March 27, 2009 http://www.teachingcollegeenglish.com/2009/03/27/judith-an-old-english-hero/
Vaishnavi. N is a soft skills trainer in Eluru College of Engineering and Technology. She has trained thousands of students and helped them to enhance their skills. She is pursuing her doctorate in KL University and has several years of international teaching experience and has also graded SAT preparation essays.