Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Little Enfilade


One of the synopses to emerge unmangled from the jaws of Miss Snark's Crap-o-meter marathon, was Carla's tale set in 6th century Britain.
Subsequent discussion engendered (ha) comments on the role(s) of women in ancient societies and the paucity of historical records to support either women's prominence or their irrelevance.
Foot soldiers on both sides of the Patriarchy Wars tend to agree on the whole that women's role was much less uppity than in our present Enlightened Age.
Being guerilla minded, with a lettre de marque, I tend not to roar down the feminist highway except behind a fully loaded salt truck.
Setting aside the august records of Bede and the Chronicles for a moment, let's have a look at the literature of the periods before the Conquest.

With minor exceptions, such as the" a dark-haired slave woman" of the Flail Riddle, the women in Anglo-Saxon poetry seem to be all queens and princesses, high-born and beautiful "ring-givers", like the Ealdhild praised by the Widsith scop ( poet/skald):

And Ealdhild gave me another ring
The fair folk queen, the daughter of Eadwine
To many people her praise I published
Whenever in song my task was to tell
Of a gold-decked queen most kind under heaven
Best and most gracious in giving of gifts.

I think this implies a little more about the beauteous Ealdhild and her role in society than a claim she was a good tipper.

Wealhtheow of the Beowulf Saga ( most critics agreeably posit the work to the early 8th century) emerges as the most gracious and queenly of all the Anglo-Saxon women lauded in the era's poetry.
During the welcoming feast for Beowulf and the Geats we find her stately form treading through the hall of Heorot in the capacity of "cup-bearer."
This is an important, even vital, ceremonial role in context and not reductum to that of a waitress at a Rotary banquet. In fact, she forcefully reminds us of the Grail Maidens of the Middle English romances.

Wealhtheow went forth, Hrothgar's queen, gold adorned, mindful of courtesy, greeted the men in the hall; and the noble woman offered the cup first to the guardian of the Danes, bade him, beloved of his people, be of good cheer at the mead drinking... that the noble, ring decked queen bore it to Beowulf; she, wise in words, greeted the lord of the Geats, she thanked God that her wish had been fulfilled, that she might trust in some earl for relief from trouble.

Now there's a speech from the throne for you.
Nor, when this office has been performed does the lady retire, like a well-trained above-stairs servant. Wealhtheow "went and sat by her lord."
Just a trophy wife? A bimbo?
I don't think so.

28 comments:

jason evans said...

You're on a roll with thought provoking posts!

...I tend not to roar down the feminist highway except behind a fully loaded salt truck.

Loved that line.

Rick said...

I wouldn't for a moment mistake Wealhtheow's cup-bearer role for "waitress." It sounds like a traditional lady role, showing hospitality to her guests, with a status marker not unlike a dinner host today carving the roast.

On a somewhat related point, Arab Muslim chroniclers of the crusading era were astonished and scandalized by the roles and conduct of "Franj" women. I posted some excerpts and commentary here:

http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Lyonesse/sexyfranks.htm

Or to take another and familiar example, Saladin's mother is never mentioned (at least that I could find), while Richard the Lionheart's mother ... well, need I say more?


Not quite on this topic, but I got a big chuckle out of your remarks (in your Margaret Atwood post) about Mary Queen of Scots. Your admiration is comparable to mine. :) The strangest thing, though, is that while the protagonist in my novel mentioned at Carla's was ultimately inspired by Elizabeth, she has turned out to be more like MQS with a brain (and sense of responsibility).

Robyn said...

I agree, no trophy wife there, just a gracious lady. We could use more of them on the feminist highway. ;)

M. G. Tarquini said...

Hee! in the Knight's Tale, dear little Emilye not only has two fools killing each other over her, she also never ages. The story takes place over years and years and I sometimes wondered if Emilye was about 8 years old when it all started because I'd have figured Theseus would have married the little darling off long before he became aware of Arcite and Palomon.

However, I had a point. Emilye married on order of Theseus and had no say in the matter. And she had to marry one of the fools.

In another of the Tales, another gal's virtue was touted as she was tossed from shore to shore in shipwreck after shipwreck.

I dunno - Chaucer was male. They were all male. And he's centuries later. Any women writers from the period?

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think the role of women changed around the time they had to go out and start making a living.

The gracious women of your tales didn't have forty or fifty hour a week jobs, four kids to ferry to soccor, basketball and dance practice, in addition to shopping,cleaning and everything else.

I've noticed in literature, the more women were brought into the mainstream and breadwinning roles, the further from gentile they moved.

Bernita said...

%$#@&^^%*#%!!!!!!
My internet provider is usually very good, but this morning!!!!
Similar to the sensation when your hither-to obedient body betrays you and you find yourself flat on your ass having rolled an ankle...

Thank you, Jason.

Of course you wouldn't, Rick, you've taken the trouble to investigate past the conventional wisdom(?)Thank you for the link.

A lady like you, Robyn.

There's always Hilda of Whitby, M.G. Must say I was severly disappointed to read that "Florence of Worcester" was apparently male.

Bernita said...

Um, Bonnie,"bread-winning" used to be done at home, where they had to spin, weave, make soap, till,butcher, etc. etc.
Please don't think the "high-born" women lallygagged around the castle solar doing embroidery and listening to minstrels all day either.
They was often responsible for just about everything except the armoury - and sometimes even that.

Rick said...

Bernita - Yes, household economy. The upper-class lady whose sole role was to sit around and have the vapors was a product of the Victorian era. I seem to recall that medieval housekeeping manuals routinely had a chapter on how to defend the castle in a pinch.

MG Tarquini - Chaucer was male, but don't forget the Wife of Bath's Tale, and perhaps even more relevant the Franklin's Tale, which has a distinct whiff of equality within marriage.

Just a bit later than Chaucer, though not English, is Christine de Pisan, who is firmly proto-feminist, and among much else wrote a book on the art of war. (As I mentioned in Carla's blog, Henry VII reputedly had it translated for his generals, leaving off the author's name.)

Bernita said...

I beg your pardon.
I changed "she" to "they" and didn't alter the verb from "was" to "were.
I hate that."

Bonnie Calhoun said...

since I don't read in that time period, I had no clue that women did all that. I guess maybe I'm thinking of when women used little umbrellas because the least bit of sun on their shin was considered lowly!

Bernita said...

That's why I avoid some time periods.

Ric said...

There's something wrong with Trophy Wives?......

Just a tad bit of stereotyping there, girls.

Smile.

Bernita said...

Just in time, my provider is behaving itself again.
The sound you hear is the sound of a whet stone.
Did anyone say anything was wrong with trophy wives?
Certainly, some feminists do designate some women that way.The classification is, I believe, theirs, implying that certain power relationships derived from more freebooting ages still persist.
During the Dark Ages in question, wives were sometimes literally trophies.
The name Wealhtheo(w) actually means "wealth of war", a captive, a trophy.

Savannah Jordan said...

"Foot soldiers on both sides of the Patriarchy Wars tend to agree on the whole that women's role was much less uppity than in our present Enlightened Age." So... does that mean we're stuck up bitches now?? lol

M. G. Tarquini said...

Trophy wives...

gotta tell ya, Ric. I live in a place where the trophy wife is common, and never have I met a more miserable lot. They obsess over every wrinkle, every imperfection, real or imagined. They do not eat. Seriously. I went to a 'Pampered Chef Party' (don't ask) at one of THOSE houses. Taking myself out of the equation, I don't think there was a thousand pound of women in that room and there were a lot of women in that room.

They get botox and plastic surgery. They exercise like crazy women. They buy 400 dollar jeans. They get their boobs made bigger. They actually allow their husbands to put restrictions on them like they can't weigh over 115 pounds. They spend all their time decorating the house, getting their nails and hair done, rearranging their wardrobe, and wandering upscale malls. They buy overpriced togs, toys, cars, and educations for their little darlings, abuse their household help, also the yard man. They'll talk at length over the color of their lipstick.

I don't dislike them. I pity them. They live in fear of the day their husband trades them in for a younger model, one who is a little less wrinkled, five pounds thinner, just a little blonder.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Ric, buddy...LOL...you seem to have a case of foot-in-mouth disease, or do you just like to be abused.

I get it! You're writing a new novel, and you need real women quotes!LOL

Oh, Bernita, I keep forgetting, until I click...but I love those cartoons!

Ric said...

Very nice, Bernita. You managed to return the conversation to the original topic. Gee, you're good!

Bonnie, I was picking on the throw away line at the end of the post in which, intentional or not, Bernita grouped trophy wives with bimbos.

I'm sure she is correct in the interpretation of the origin of the term. And M.G. added a marvelous anecdote as well.

As for the new work, yes, I'm fleshing one out now. Got the story line, got the characters, got the suspense, can't figure out how to end it though. Unless I bring aliens in around chapter 14

Bernita said...

So some seem to claim, Savannah. Of course, those are the same ones who claim we were always "bitches" and they have just replaced the adjective.

!!!!, M.G.,!!!!

Thank you, Bonnie!
Ric needs a hug.
Ric is grumpy.
Ric may be grumpy because he has a full out and waiting is hard.
The difference between a bimbo and a trophy wife, Ric, may be simple economics - one sells it retail and one sells it wholesale.
Let the aliens arrive, Ric, then go back and insert little clues about their arrival in the previous chapters, and then, voila!they have their immigration papers and are no longer aliens.

Carla said...

Oooh, enfilade. And after 'A Male Cliche' I thought this round of the Battle of the Sexes was being fought with peashooters instead of heavy artillery.

You're too kind to my synopsis, Bernita. Miss Snark said it was so-so, there were others she liked a lot better.

Don't forget that the household management all had to be done without shops, freezers or tins. If the lady of the house didn't manage the food supplies and storage properly, her household would starve in the winter. She couldn't just pop out to the supermarket. There's an incident in 'Njal's Saga' where a woman (Hallgerd) runs out of butter and cheese in the winter due to careless housekeeping, steals some from a neighbour, and triggers a whole blood feud.

The Icelandic sagas are full of strong women. Hallgerd and Bergthora between them drive most of the action in 'Njal's Saga', Freydis dominates the Norse colony in the 'Vinland Sagas', and Gudrun Osvifsdottir is the most memorable character in 'Laxdaela Saga'. I get all her four husbands muddled up, but I always remember the image of her as an old, old woman being asked by a grandson which man she loved the best and replying (with tears in her eyes, I imagine)"I was worst to the one I loved the best."

Rick is spot-on with the cup-bearer role as analogous to the dinner host carving the roast. The dispensing of food and drink was a major status symbol, perhaps because this was a subsistence society where starvation was only one bad harvest away. The word 'lord' derives from 'hlaford', which means 'loaf keeper'.

Bernita, I didn't know Wealhtheow meant 'wealth of war'. What's your source for that, if you don't mind me asking? I've seen an academic historian arguing that 'Wealh' was from the word 'wealhas' meaning 'Britons', and arguing that she was a Brittonic princess. Considering that her family are mentioned somewhere in Beowulf as the Helmings, which is certainly not a Brittonic name unless it's a translation, I don't buy his explanation. Yours sounds much more likely, so I'd like to know where it came from. In Dorothy Dunnett's 'King Hereafter' (about the historical Macbeth and a first-rate read), Macbeth's wife Groa comes to him as a prize of war after he defeats her first husband in battle. They later develop their marriage into a partnership of equals, and she runs his kingdom when he is incapacitated by injury and while he goes to Rome on pilgrimage for more than a year. I'd never thought of it before, but the possible parallels with Wealhtheow are striking.

Did Hilda of Whitby write? What?

We don't actually know the sex of the anonymous scop who first wrote down the Beowulf poem. Some academic historian has argued, reasonably plausibly in my view, that the poem was written by one of the early 8th-C kings of Northumbria, perhaps the Ceolwulf to whom Bede's History was dedicated. But why not by Ceolwulf's queen?

Bernita said...

Carla, I have no idea now where I got that particular interpretation, any notes are long lost.
I have seen also the argument that it meant "Celtic" or "foreign".Have also seen it attributed to East Anglia, but to mean simply she was of foreign descent.
It is always possible I simply ignored the first part of the compound as being too uncertain and based it on "theo(w)" as "captive" > carried off in war, ie. booty, prize - which unequivocably contains the concept of wealth.

Bernita said...

Re: Hilda. Nothing that has survived, as far as I know. But we can safely assume that she did.

Carla said...

Ah, I think I recognise the source of the East Anglian attribution. It sounds like Dr Sam Newton's book. Here's the link.
http://www.wuffings.co.uk/BookSection/AboutmyBook.html
I haven't got a copy and can't check it, but I think he makes the link via the Helmings, Wealhtheow's family, and the Swedish provenance of some of the items in the Sutton Hoo ship burial, notably the helmet.

Bernita said...

Actually, the Anglia association was raised - if I'm interpreting Klaeber's notes correctly -by both G. Binz,"Zeugnisse zur germanischen Sage in England" in 1895 and Gregor Sarrazin,"Beowulf-Studien:ein Beitrag sur Geschichte altgernabischer Sage und Dichtung" 1888.
Mind you, since they were both prolific I may not be sourcing the correct treatise.

Carla said...

Or maybe Sam Newton picked up the idea from them and expanded it? I haven't got a copy of his book so I can't check the bibliography.

Bernita said...

He probably brings something new to the argument.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, the Icelandic sagas are wonderful stories with strong female characters. Unn from the Laxdoela saga is another good example, and Melkorka, the Irish slave and "trophy woman" who refuses to play that role.

I picked the name of my MC Kjartan from the Laxdoela saga, and for a reason.

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