Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 10090
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Drout , Michael D. C.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Blood and Deeds: Gender, Inheritance, and Death in "Beowulf"
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 33, 3 (Spring 2000): Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association of America, Chicago, December 27-30, 1999, Session 314: "Ways of Reading Old English Texts: Colonialism, Gender, and Identity."
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Gender in Literature Inheritance in Literature Masculinity in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
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  • Abstract: Beowulf is a man, wrote J. R. R. Tolkien. "And that for him - and many - is sufficient tragedy." Tolkien may not have intended to bring gender into the critical discourse on Beowulf but his comment shows that masculinity ("Beowulf is a man") and its teleologies ("sufficient tragedy") have had a long history in our readings of the poem. In this paper I use some aspects of contemporary gender theory to help illustrate the ways masculinity works to create both Beowulf and his tragedy, tracing the ways the gender requirements of inheritance lead, throughout the poem, to the deaths of leaders and the dissolutions of kingdoms. Beowulf illustrates two competing modes of inheritance, which I call inheritance by blood and inheritance by deeds. Blood inheritance is genetic and, obviously, requires the participation of women. Inheritance by deeds is behaviorally based and works to actively exclude women from its workings. Both forms are necessary for the succession of kings and the maintenance of peoples. Ideally there is no conflict between inheritance by blood and inheritance by deeds: the successor is worthy in both categories (see lines 53-63). But few situations in Beowulf are ideal. Hrothgar's sons are heirs by blood but too young to inherit by deeds. Hrothgar tries to "adopt" Beowulf on account of the hero's deeds, but Beowulf's lack of kingly Danish blood (and his duties to his own blood relations) prevents such an inheritance. Wealhtheow's resistance to Hrothgar's adoption demonstrates the differing stakes men and women have in different blends of inheritance. Hybrid inheritance from uncle to nephew shapes the relationship between Beowulf and Hygelac and (in a weaker form) influences Beowulf's bequest to Wiglaf. If we examine these relationships in the context of tenth-century Benedictine reformed monastic and aristocratic culture (which at the very least received and copied the poem and may well have produced it), striking parallels between the concerns of the poem and the concerns of the culture become apparent. The reassertion of celibacy required by the reform generated for monks the same sorts of difficulties Beowulf faced. Since Beowulf did not reproduce himself biologically, he had to try to reproduce indirectly or culturally. Both paths are constrained by the requirements of masculinity, and by recognizing these requirements as - to use the terminology of Judith Butler - "performances," we can see that HygeJac's, Hrothgar's, and Beowulf's "fatherings" in the poem are constructed by a certain set of gender expectations directly linked to the control of the female body's physical reproductive power. We can also see that these required performances shape the behavior of the characters (both male and female) along what Butler calls "grids of identity." Combining Butler's work with that of Clare Lees leads us to a clearer understanding of the final tragedy of the poem: Beowulf's death and the death of his people. As Lees notes, in the masculine world of Beowulf "the only good hero is a dead one." Drawing on Lees' work, I show how the masculinity of the poem's world and the culture of both the monastery and the aristocratic warrior bands all combine to lead inexorably to the death of the noble hero. In my paper then, I combine three ways of looking at the poem: first, I conceptualize the process of inheritance as being divided into two types, blood and deeds (though these are later hybridized), and explain this process using gender theory; second, I show how such inheritances were a significant concern of the real people who made up an (if not the) audience for the poem; third, I discuss the ways that the interests of the cultural institutions and the ideology of gender combine to require the death of Beowulf and the destruction of the Geats. In the end, the reason for Beowulf's "sufficient tragedy," as Tolkien pointed out, is that "he is a man." We understand a lot more about the poem, however, when we problematize and critically examine exactly what, in Beowulf's world, it means to be one. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
  • Author's Affiliation: Wheaton College
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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