Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 7595
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Olsen , Alexandra Hennessey.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Gender Roles [overview of recent scholarship with an emphasis on the active roles that women play in "Beowulf"].
  • Source: A Beowulf Handbook.  Edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles.  University of Nebraska Press, 1997.  Pages 311 - 324.
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Essay
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Gender Literature- Verse Women in Active Roles in Literature Women in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
  • Related Resources: "Alexandra Hennessey Olsen's chapter on "Gender Roles" notes the shift from an earlier assumption that female characters were passive and relatively unimportant in the male-dominated world of the poem, through a feminist critique of that passivity, to a recognition that such passivity is a misrepresentation by modern scholarship, not an accurate description of the poem's social world. Olsen notes that as cupbearers, giftgivers, "peaceweavers," mourners and counselors, women "play roles that are public and active rather than merely private and passive" (314). But perhaps the problem facing gender-conscious approaches to the poem lies in the word "merely." Recent studies by scholars like Carol Clover have suggested that modern assumptions about gender roles are not always appropriate to medieval societies; nor should an apparent lack of action in a character be equated to passivity -- speech is also action. Beowulf, it might be said, sometimes chooses to present the public, active world of its heroes through the eyes of the private and passive witnesses to and victims of that action -- Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, the nameless mourner at Beowulf's pyre. Their perspectives are crucial to our understanding of the poem's meaning, for they are in effect the perspectives of the poet and his audience. It is in some ways unfortunate that Olsen has been confined by the chronological boundaries of the volume as a whole; the cut-off date of 1994 forces her to omit the recent work of scholars such as Clare Lees and Allen Frantzen, who are bringing the insights of gender studies to Old English poetry in interesting and innovative ways. Their work suggests that the history of the study of gender roles in Beowulf is entering a new and most promising phase." From the review written by Roy Liuzza of "A Beowulf Handbook," "Medieval Review" (TMR ID: 96.12.11). [Reproduced by permission of the "Medieval Review."].
  • Primary Evidence:
  • Illustrations: Scholarly approaches to the depiction of women in Beowulf have changed substantially over the years. Until about 1970, most Anglo-Saxonists assumed that, since men were responsible for public functions like king, warrior, and avenger, and since women held roles viewed as purely private such as hostesses, peaceweavers, and ritual mourners, women were passive in the social world depicted in Beowulf. Anglo-Saxonists also assumed that women were therefore marginalized by the poet. After 1970, women in the poem and in Anglo-Saxon society have more often been viewed as active and powerful figures who function on a nearly equal footing with men. Among the several women of the poem, Grendel's mother, Wealhtheow, and Hygd have attracted the most critical attention. [Reproduced from A Beowulf Handbook edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 1997 by the University of Nebraska Press.]
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  • Author's Affiliation: University of Denver
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1997.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 0803212372
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