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Beowulf Notes Mrs. Nelson’s Notes


The TEXT 500 AD

Composed about people and life during this time (Before migration)

725 AD

Composed by people of this time (Had been circulating in oral form for years)

1000 AD Written down by people of this time (The oldest existing manuscript) Historical in parts--many of the Swedish and Danish royal family members correspond to actual historical figures. To the people who composed Beowulf, the work was an example of historical fiction not unlike some of the novels we read today or the movies we see (Titanic) Action takes place in Denmark (Danes) and Southern Sweden (Geats). For many years Southern Sweden was controlled by the Danes. Even today, this part of Sweden is more Danish than Swedish.


The manuscript was almost destroyed several times. The written word was preserved by the monasteries. Henry the VIII wanted the monies and the land of these establishments. He took control of the Church and dismembered the monasteries. The books that were once preserved were sold to butchers. Only a few survived. Beowulf among them. Lawrence Nowell saved them. The Puritans wanted to destroy the works. They tried to set fire to many books. Many were saved and are now stored in the British Museum. Who is the Writer??? Little is known about him. Was he a scop? Court poet? Associated with a monastery?


Culture The people about whom this poem was written were a warring people. Their lives were precarious--death was ever present--their view of life grim. They believed that their life was in the hands of fate--opposed to Christian view of free will. Their grim, humorless, harshness of life was reflected in their literature. Not a romantic picture of these great warriors.


Tribal Units Each tribe was ruled by a king chosen by a witan, a council of elders There were four distinct classes. 1.Earls: hereditary class of ruling warlords 2.Ceorls (Freemen): would have been thanes and barons. They owned land. Their goods were not hereditary. 3.Churls (Serfs): bonded servants who worked the land in return for military protection. 4.Thralls (Slaves): military prisoners or people being punished


At first there were many small kingdoms warring with one another. As time passed, kingdoms absorbed one another. •The tiny kingdoms had a strong king to help protect their people. The king expected bravery and loyalty from warriors. Kings in return repaid with war treasure. •The role of the warrior was to gain glory, defend his king, and give treasure to his king. •The role of the king was to protect his people and give treasure to his good thanes. You'll see a contrast to Beowulf with Hermod (page 76) who didn't reward his thanes. Also Siegmund page 51. They are NOT favorably remembered.


Mead-halls were places where warriors would gather with the king to drink, boast, tell stories, receive gifts from the king, and find sanctuary. This was a safe haven when returning from battle.


Wergild--Worth Money According to the code of the pagan era, one was duty-bound to revenge the death of a king or a kinsman. One killed a member of the tribe or family of the murderer. The wergild made it possible for the revenge to stop. One could honorably take the money as payment. Everyone had a price--from to king to servant.


Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, got his money to repay the murdered family from King Hrothgar.


Since the early Scandinavians as a people did not believe in an afterlife (Valhalla is often mentioned as the place for great warriors went after death--but later in the culture), the way for a man to gain immortality was through fame and glory. The heroes strove for fame, valor, loyalty, strength, and glory. The son carried on the name of the father. Fame and children brought immortality. Name during Beowulf's time were alliterated: sons of Healfdene: Hergar, Hrothgar, Halga. sons of Hrethel: Herbald, Hathcyn, Higlac Last names did not stay the same from father to son. The son took on the father's first name. Olaf Nelson's son Neal would be called Neal Olson--Olaf's son. Neal's son Anders would be Anders Nelson. It hasn't been until the last 3-4 generations that the Scandinavian countries have maintained the same last names.


Anglo-Saxon Religion The Britons (the early people of England) were first Christianized under Roman rule. When the Romans withdrew, the country slowly crept back to pagan culture-including the Celtic Druids. At the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon rule, the poetry was purely pagan. But through the work of St. Augustine and other Church fathers and monks, Anglo-Saxon England was converted again to Christianity--500's600's. The Church played a major role in the lives of the people. *Softened the harsh lifestyle of the warring Saxons. *Brought education and literature. *Monasteries were set up. *Recording and duplicating manuscripts. In the 7th century we see Christian influence in the poetry of Beowulf.


Controversy in Religion There are two camps concerning the Christianity in Beowulf. *The poem was originally purely pagan. The Christian parts were added later. *The poem was originally a mixture of pagan and Christian. There is tension between the two camps. *The poem is set in the Scandinavian pagan culture, but the narrative is Christian. *The pagan parts point out the good deeds bring glory in THIS life. *The Christian parts point out that glories lie in the afterlife. *The warring culture wants revenge. *The Christian culture says forgive. Some Christian elements: *In Christian medieval culture “monster� was the word that referred to birth defects--an ominous sign from God. *Grendel descended from the biblical figure of Cain. *Dragon--traditional folklore symbol and Christian symbol of sin or death.



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