Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 5063
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  • Title: Toward an Understanding of Hildeburh: The Tales of Branwen and Guthrun [Thirtieth International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 4-7, 1995. Thirtieth Symposium on the Sources of Anglo- Saxon Culture, co- sponsered by the Institute and CEMERS, Binghamton University. Session 244].
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 28, 3 (Spring 1995):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Hildeburh (Literary Figure) Literature- Verse Mabinogion, Welsh Collection of Tales Nibelungenlied, Middle High German Epic
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  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
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  • Abstract: Scholars have long noted the narrative similarities that Hildeburh's story in "Beowulf"'s Finnsburg Episode holds with the tale of Guorun in the Norse Volsung-Nibelung cycle and with that of Branwen in the Welsh "Mabinogi": each woman is given in marriage by her family to an overseas king; a visit by her kindred sparks violence; the consequent battle results in the death of her relations on both sides - brothers, husband, and her child or children. Recent study has downplayed these sinlilarities by focusing on differences in characterization, labeling Gu~run as vengeful, and Branwen and Hildeburh as passive and tragic peace-weavers. Such differences between the women, however, do not indicate a major difference in their stories. All these women are daughters, wives, and potential mothers of kings, and all their marriages, and tragedies, result from an attempted alliance between kings at a time when dynastic succession was perilous, and when internecine as well as inter-dynastic struggles for kingship were frequent and violent. This paper concentrates on the female function in this political network, and suggests that these tales are not simple revenge tragedies, but tell of complex intra- and inter-dynastic struggles for kingship. The narrative detail surrounding Branwen and Guorun, informed by historical and cultural analysis, reveals a ruthless internecine struggle for succession in each woman's homeland, and shows that the marriage-alliance intersection of this struggle with inter-dynastic strife between her own and her husband's kin propels the devastation in her husband's hall. Both tales address the risky and ambiguous differentiation between an alliance :md an over-lordship, and in both the women attempt to negotiate peace settlements, in both they are betrayed by their kin and their husbands, and in both the women's pre-warrior-age children are murdered in cold-blood by a maternal relative. Using correspondences between these narratives and the Finnsburg Episode (such as a shared hall and a pyre for the woman's son, brother, and husband), along with the text of Beowulf itself, I suggest that the scenario outlined above pertains as well to Hildeburb, whose tacit treatment by the poet may arise not only from an expectation of audience familiarity but also from suppression of direct discussion of bloody kin-betrayal associated with the maternal. The suppression of this subject matter is mirrored by its context - Wealhtheow's diplomatic speech regarding the problems of succession and the threat of kin-betrayal in Heorot - but this suppression fragments the discussion into multiple allusions and sub-narratives throughout the text (e.g., Grendel's sharing Hrothgar's hall, Hrothulf's eventual takeover, the bloody Swedish kin-struggle for succession, and Beowulf's own succession to the Geatish throne). I argue that the traditional assumptions that Hildeburh's marriage was to settle a feud, that her son was of warrior-age and fell in active combat, and that her marriage to Finn had been long and peaceful, are not explicitly supported by the text; on the contrary , the text is open to a reading that the Frisian conflict was precipitated by treachery on both sides, that Hildeburh had attempted a peace settlement, and that her son was cut down by a maternal relative in a contest for succession. Her retrieval to her homeland after the killing of her husband and children underlines the importance of the feminine to male sovereignty [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
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  • Year of Publication: 1995.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973