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Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf

Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf

Peter S. Baker
Volume: 20
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf
    Book Description:

    This book examines violence in its social setting, and especially as an essential element in the heroic system of exchange (sometimes called the Economy of Honour). It situates Beowulf in a northern European culture where violence was not stigmatized as evidence of a breakdown in social order but rather was seen as a reasonable way to get things done; where kings and their retainers saw themselves above all as warriors whose chief occupation was the pursuit of honour; and where most successful kings were those perceived as most predatory. Though kings and their subjects yearned for peace, the political and religious institutions of the time did little to restrain their violent impulses. Drawing on works from Britain, Scandinavia, and Ireland, which show how the practice of violence was governed by rules and customs which were observed, with variations, over a wide area, this book makes use of historicist and anthropological approaches to its subject. It takes a neutral attitude towards the phenomena it examines, but at the same time describes them fortnightly, avoiding euphemism and excuse-making on the one hand and condemnation on the other. In this it attempts to avoid the errors of critics who have sometimes been led astray by modern assumptions about the morality of violence. Peter S. Baker is Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-079-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Figures and Table
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. vii-ix)
    Peter S. Baker
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-x)
  6. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-34)

    There’s no getting around the fact that Beowulf is violent. As probably hundreds of commentators have observed,¹ the poem is organized around the hero’s battles with three monsters; further, the ‘digressions and episodes’ that frequently interrupt the action are more often than not tales of strife. It has been said that much of Beowulf consists of speech rather than action² and that it might more appropriately be described as an elegy than as an epic.³ There is much truth in these observations. But when the characters of Beowulf speak, they generally speak of fighting: they vow or elicit vows to...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Loot and the Economy of Honour
    (pp. 35-76)

    In the short Latin epic Waltharius, written in ninth- or tenth-century Germany, perhaps as an entertainment for clerics,¹ the eponymous hero, having killed eleven men in successive single combats—some while fleeing or begging for mercy—picks the corpses:

    Aggreditur iuuenis caesos spoliarier armis armorumque habitu, tunicas et cetera linquens: armillas tantum cum bullis, baltea et enses, loricas quoque cum galeis detraxerat ollis. Quatuor his onerauit equos sponsamque uocatam imposuit quinto, sextum condescenderat ipse.²

    The young man proceeds to strip the slain of their arms and armour, leaving their tunics and other things: from them he took just armlets and...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Unferth’s Gift
    (pp. 77-102)

    Critics who discuss Unferth, Hrothgar’s þyle, usually give most of their attention to the flyting, or verbal combat, in which he brings up an embarrassing episode from Beowulf ’s youth to support his prediction that the Geat will get the worst of his encounter with Grendel. This flyting is the most spectacular and substantial of Unferth’s appearances, occupying as it does 108 lines shortly after Beowulf ’s arrival in Denmark (499–606). But Unferth returns to the narrative four more times: after the first monster fight he boasts less of his own warlike deeds (980–90); after the performance of...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Angel in the Mead Hall
    (pp. 103-138)

    We often read that women in Anglo-Saxon England had an important role in making and maintaining peace. It is said that queens were often exchanged in marriage between hostile nations as a way of making peace and that they were expected to promote peace both internationally and within the kingdoms to which they had been sent.

    It is impossible to prove a negative; but having searched long and hard for evidence that would back up these claims, I have concluded that there is next to none. Rather, our received ideas about women in Anglo-Saxon England can be traced back to...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Three Queens
    (pp. 139-166)

    The preceding chapter should be understood not as seeking to replace one controlling narrative with another, but rather as offering an interpretation of several not-very-common compound nouns used of queens and angels in Old English poetry. It is no easier to generalize about the women of Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon England than it is about those of any place or time, and it is especially unwise to do so on the basis of words that occur so rarely.

    In Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition, Helen Damico looks at Wealhtheow’s epithet friðusibb in light of a statement by the early twentieth-century...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Perils of Peacemaking
    (pp. 167-199)

    Too much brooding over our inadequate scraps of evidence for the Finn tale has been one of the most unprofitable and time-consuming occupations of Beowulf scholars’, wrote Dorothy Whitelock of the song performed by Hrothgar’s scop during the celebration in Heorot after Grendel’s defeat.¹ Whitelock’s observation seems as true now as sixty years ago, and it is no surprise, for the narrative gaps and difficult readings in the textual record invite speculation and conjectural emendation. Our stock of heroic narrative from the early Middle Ages being meagre, the temptation is all the greater to complete the story by all means...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Beowulf’s Last Triumph
    (pp. 200-239)

    Defeat, according to J. R. R. Tolkien, is the theme of the last third of Beowulf. In a passage of his ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ that probably many readers of this chapter have got by heart, the great critic elaborates his idea of the poem as ‘a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting’ (p. 271):

    In the struggle with Grendel one can as a reader dismiss the certainty of literary experience that the hero will not in fact perish, and allow oneself to share the hopes and fears of the Geats upon...

  13. Afterword
    (pp. 240-242)

    Projects change under our hands. An early outline reminds me that what I had in mind when I began work on this book was a semiotics of conflict in Beowulf, starting from the conceit that the practice of violence is structured like a language, an exchange of blows or a feud like a dialogue. That book still seems worth writing, but I am almost certainly not the one to do it.

    What the project has become, instead, is a study of a social and economic system, here called the Economy of Honour, organized around the possession of treasure as a...

  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 243-266)
  15. General Index
    (pp. 267-277)
  16. Index of Passages in Beowulf
    (pp. 278-278)
  17. Index of Words
    (pp. 279-280)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-283)