Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 8508
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Gravlee , Cynthia A.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Circling the Entity: Power and the Feminine Principle in Old English Poetry
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 33, 3 (Spring 2000): Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, October 14-16, 1999, Session 45: "Representing Women."
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Femininity in Literature Literature- Verse Power in Literature Women in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
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  • Abstract: Old English literature has traditionally been deemed masculine in orientation because of the ostensible dominance of the heroic code. Even in the religious literature, men seem in control of the standards of chastity and passivity expected of women. Yet, I want to argue that this presumed authority is deceptive and that the current Lacanian contention regarding the predominance of phallic power across time is misconceived. In Old English texts, the power that is often gained through masculine violence is lost, resulting in self-destructive cycles. Although women seem suppressed, marginalized, or victimized by male violence, the feminine principle often counteracts and even overcomes the masculine. The power of the feminine is demonstrated in many ways, but primarily in rhetorical, structural, and symbolic depictions of the life cycle associated with women. The cycle of life perpetuated by women prevails as heroes and kingdoms fall. Men often recognize and fear the power of the feminine and try to thwart it by encirclement or imprisonment, but women continue to challenge their boundaries. After briefly examining poems where women are confronted by male power plays, I focus on Beowulf, since male violence is consistent; yet, female strength is evident, in the surface text and further implied by the subtext. It is my contention that Beowulf does not have a bipartite or a tripartite structure, but a circular one. It begins with the birth and the death of a hero, Scyld Scefing, and ends with the death of another hero, Beowulf. Within this larger cycle, there are many lesser cycles of fortune: rises to power and fame, and falls from glory to death. These power cycles are repeated through various generations. Although men seem foregrounded, women are present as mediators, advocates for peace and life, and mourners of death. Even when women cannot change the cycles of violence, they meet them with wisdom, dignity, and courage. Men are lauded as heroes, but females surpass the males in forebearance and foresight. The life cycles reflected in the text's structure and actions are symbolized by golden links: rings, crowns, and necklaces, such as Beowulf's neck-ring, which is compared to the necklace of the Brosings once owned by Freya, the goddess of love and fertility. Moreover, in the mead hall, women pass the golden cup, which traditionally stands for the feminine or life force; whereas the sword represents the masculine or destructive force. Cycles of violence and power engendered by the sword pass away, but the cycle of life, symbolized by the brimming cup, is continually renewed. Recognition of the feminine influence, whether overt or implied, verbal or silent, can result in a re-visioning of these texts and the themes they generate. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
  • Author's Affiliation: University of Montevallo
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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