Friday, January 06, 2006

The "Trophy Wife" ...continued

The previous excerpt emphasized the lady's duty to perform public duties, the passage also distinctly implies that her position is one of respect, some authority and no little influence. She assures loyalty with generosity and "wise in speech" smoothly concocts her own treaty for the protection of her sons and a peaceful succession.
And it is indeed odd, if women are of no account, to find her present in the mead hall when Beowulf returns with Grendel's head, at what appears to be a council of war among the Danes, called in the belief that Beowulf is dead.
Later, Hygd, we are told, offers Beowulf the kingship of the Geats, fearful that her young son could not hold the land against hostile invasion.
The offer of kingship is a serious matter, especially in a quasi-hereditary society. It could hardly come from a woman, if that woman had no authority in that society, if she were not the de facto, as well as the de jure, regent.
Elsewhere in Beowulf we find an account of Thrth, whose word is enough to cause the death of any one of the king's closest nobles. Considering the bond between king and thanes, it is strange that a woman's word is enough to dissolve that bond, if women had no position of influence.
The textual inferences are at variance with the often expressed summation, expressed by Anderson (George K., The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons): For it was then an overwhelmingly male society. Women were necessary to the home, as household functionaries, marriageable commodities, biological accessories.
I don't think so.

P.S . Sorry about repeating the cartoon from yesterday. I screwed up.


Carla said...

Is Thrth the lady who's contrasted unfavourably with Hygd, around line 1930? Sometimes her name is given as Modthryth, sometimes it's thought to be a not a name at all but a description - the translation I have says 'proud young queen'. I read her as a stirrer-up of trouble, perhaps leading young men into fatal fights over her favours, and she apparently settles down after marrying Offa. I read her more as an example of women's power to provoke men into doing stupid things :-)

It seems to have been expected that the queen ran the kingdom when her husband was away at war (possibly most of every summer, given the endemic nature of warfare and raiding), probably as a sort of 'chairman of the committee' of the Witan or council. There are one or two references in Bede that can be interpreted as supporting this. We don't know for sure how kingship was transmitted; my reading of the evidence is that the Witan chose the best man for the job out of the adult males of the royal family. The dowager queen may well have had an influence on this, possibly even the casting vote? We don't know, and anyway it probably varied according to the capability of the queen concerned. In fact, I wonder if the Witan took the wife into account when choosing the king, and elected the best couple for the job? That's a thought.

Secondary sources for this period have to be taken with a shovelful of salt. Some of them are so speculative they might as well be fiction, with footnotes.

Dennie McDonald said...

For it was then an overwhelmingly male society. Women were necessary to the home, as household functionaries, marriageable commodities, biological accessories.

Oh, but we can still feel like that today - w/ four boys and a husband who acts like them - yeah - I know the feeling!

Bernita said...

That's the one.
The deliberate contrast with Hygd makes me think it is a proper name.
Some do suggest she is a moral device a la Taming of the Shrew.
On the other hand, there are women with that vain - or perhaps irresponsible - tendency.
I used Fr. Klaeber's version, along with a facsimile of the Cotton Vitellius A. XV - with transliteration by Zupitza.
"Fiction with footnotes" - I like that.

Rick said...

Perhaps the "overwhelmingly male society" stereotype is the byproduct of a society - and literature - lacking our convention of romance?

My impression - I'm sure you'll tell me if I'm all wet! - is that Anglo-Saxon literature is largely about war, or politics related to war, or deeds with a warlike flavor, like killing monsters. Women are going to show up a bit incidentally in war stories - especially when there's no convention of shoehorning in a love-story angle. When they do show up, it's in an unromantic, practical way, and a mid-20th c. male scholar might miss them because they're not highlighted in the ways we are accustomed to in later literature.

Or, it could just be a matter of which material we are looking at. To take another heroic-age society, if you looked at the Iliad you would think that women in Homeric Greece are highly significant, but only as trophy cups. But then you can turn to the Odyssey and find Penelope, and Nausicaa, a teenage Penelope-in-the-making. No mere trophy cups there!

Bernita said...

Certainly, Dennie, but today we can choose and not have a choice imposed upon us.
Very true, Rick. It is as correct to assume an inferior position for women in the twentieth century on reading an account of the St.Nazaire raid as it is to assume the same on reading the Battle of Maldon.The conclusions may be correct but the premises are wide open to argument.
Incidentally, we do have some examples of warrior women in A-S literature, Judith, for example.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Uh, huh....uh, huh...I'm just listening....this period of literature makes my eyes cross, but atta' girl Carla!

Bernita, you found someone who speaks the same language!

Carla said...

Quite right, Rick, the bulk of the surviving literature falls into your categories. Considered in this light, it's remarkable that women feature as prominently as they do. (Your comment about women being incidental to war stories struck a chord, as I have a character make just such a humorous comment on the same subject).

There are other fragments of literature that cover other aspects of the society, but they tend to be less well-known, 'The Wanderer' for example is about the misery of exile. There's the strange fragment of poetry called 'Wulf and Eadwacer', spoken by a woman who is evidently involved in a love triangle with two men. The 'Exeter Book Riddles' are a window into domestic life and the Early English sense of humour. There's a poem called 'The Husband's Message' in which an exiled man who has become a successful lord (possibly even a king) asks his beloved to come to him because without her his life is not complete.

I thought you might like 'fiction with footnotes'. The teetering houses of theoretical cards that get built on one line in one source really exasperate me.

Dennie McDonald said...

You mean I had a choice in all this?!?!?

My momma never told me that. Get married, have babies and die - that was pretty much it - I love my momma but she didn't push me to aspire to be much!

Imagine, I became a writer all on my lonesome - I guess at an early age I aspired for more but with out direction - I wrote about it rather than ... well you get the picture

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Psst...Bernita, go check out Ric's site. He's telling people that WE (me and you) think he's grumpy!! (insert maniacal laughter here)!

Bernita said...

Un-huh, Bonnie, but Carla just made my next two posts repetitious and unnecessary.
There is some fragmentary evidence that our concepts of love and romance are not entirely a later invention.
Dennie, you listened to your mother?

Bernita said...

Saw that, Bonnie, I was trying to ignore his self-justification. I think he wants to temp us into stereotyping him.

Carla said...

Sorry, Bernita.

Rick, your comment about male scholars reminded me of something else. I recall reading somewhere that boys educated at single-sex boarding schools (which covers a sizeable fraction of the English middle and upper classes in the early-mid 20th C) only come into contact with two sorts of female; the formidable middle-aged schoolmistress or matron, and the nubile bimbos of their heated dreams. Consequently they have no clue how to relate to or understand women. I once saw an interview with the Monty Python team where they confessed that they had no idea how to write good parts for women because they didn't know any women. If you look through adventure stories written by men in the late 19th/early 20th C there is a group that clearly regards women as incomprehensible alien species, as fascinating as elves and dragons (Rider Haggard leaps to mind, as do John Buchan and Arthur Conan Doyle. I shall have some acid things to say about John Buchan's 'Greenmantle' in this regard, when I get round to it). So I wonder if a sizeable proportion of the secondary sources written by male scholars are projecting this attitude back onto the history?

Bernita said...

I loved being regarded as "fascinating" in my hey, nonny, nonny days.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Bernita....I've always been a sucker for temptation(que the music for JAWS)

Rick said...

Bernita -

"... evidence that our concepts of love and romance are not entirely a later invention." Certainly human beings didn't need the troubadour tradition to discover some emotional connection with members of the opposite sex they had the hots for! ;)

I'm thinking more of literary conventions that pushed the love-story theme right to the forefront, and also, well, romanticized it. "The Husband's Story," from your one-line description, is a natural human situation, and Anglo-Saxons presumably could feel for the guy. But notice that he's not giving up his throne for the Woman He Loves.

Think of the Arthurian triangle. It could easily present Guinevere as a cheap tramp, or Lancelot as a damn fool to turn against his king because of a broad. Many examples of both interpretations! But the "received" version elevates their forbidden love to Grand Tragedy, in spite of the truly disastrous consequences. (Compare the contemptuous treatment of Paris in the Iliad; he's no Hector.)

In the modern happy-ending version, Casablanca, Rick Blaine as Lance doesn't just blow off Ilsa/Jen to do the right thing. Instead, "we'll always have Paris." Still, I suspect the Anglo-Saxons would have understood Casablanca much better than Camelot.

Carla -

LOL. And it isn't just the boarding school experience, though no doubt that accentuates it. American adventure writing of the era shows the same tendency.

For that matter, it is still pretty much a theme - among men - that we don't understand women. "Women: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." For me, writing a female protagonist feels like a high wire act: Yeah, I'm faking this! I don't get the impression that women writers feel quite the same way in doing male protagonists.

-- Rick

Carla said...


Re Arthur and the Iliad, agreed about Paris, but then Menelaos is no Arthur either, is he? The whole Arthur story is Grand Tragedy - the just and noble king destroyed by the petty rivalries of lesser men - so maybe the love triangle gets swept up into the tragic theme? In the Iliad the cuckolded husband gets his wife back and the illicit lover and all his people get destroyed. In the Arthurian cycle the cuckolded husband is destroyed (along with pretty well everyone else). Maybe that has something to do with the difference? No idea.
I also don't know enough about the development of the story through the various French romances to judge where the 'received version' came from. Certainly there seems to be real anger against Guinevere in the Welsh Triads 'And worse than these three was Gwenhwyfar, wife of Arthur, for she shamed a better man than these'. I can't find my notes so the quote may not be exact, but that's the gist, and you can Google for the original. Not much sympathy for Guinevere there in my reading - you could almost read that as a 'cheap tramp' if you chose.

In some ways I think women have it easier than men in writing about the opposite sex, because there is more material available. Writing about a soldier in battle, I can go to soldiers' diaries, memoirs and letters home from various wars and get an idea of their thoughts and experiences. I don't think there's anything like as much available on the domestic front that a man could work from in a similar way?
It may be true that women writers feel more confident writing male characters than men do about writing women; I have no idea how other writers feel. But it's certainly not a given that women writers automatically write good male characters; I have read several published female authors who could write quite believable women but whose men were much less convincing.

Robyn said...

The only thing I can possibly add is that I'm absolutely stoked Gerard Butler is going to play the lead in the movie version of Beowulf.

And you are fascinating, Bernita.

Rick said...

Carla -

No, Menelaos is no Arthur. (Is anyone? Homer doesn't seem to have either just and noble kings or wicked ones, just kings. Even Priam doesn't save his people by making his kid hand back that stolen piece of booty.) But Paris is definitely a cut below other heroes, a mediocre fighter and pretty boy who gets all the girls - a still-familiar stereotype, the sort other guys suspect of being gay, rather illogically under the circumstances. Certainly he is no Lancelot.

You're right that the early Welsh triads are not sold on Jenny. I don't know the development of the romances either, only that somewhere along the way the affair got more or less the treatment we now know. I assume it was in medieval France - after all, there's a reason "romance" acquired its usual modern meaning!

Incidentally, the detestable (because she beat me to it) Debra Doyle has an excellent essay on how "the genres," or at least most of them, are really subgenres of romance in the older sense of the word, tales of adventure with characters a bit larger than life. Romance in the love-story sense is integral to that tradition (at least in its post-medieval Western form), though often just part of it. You especially see that now in movies, "romantic suspence," etc.

Writing the opposite sex - yes, lots of material about war to draw on. And that other great Xtreme sport, power politics. But I don't see the challenge of writing women as the practical experiences of domestic life (a royal heiress isn't thinking how bored she is with ironing anyway). It's more trying to get social relations - and especially anything sexual - through female eyes, without sounding phony.

And yeah, I've read plenty of women-written male characters who don't exactly ring true, but men are notoriously bad at doing women. Coming from an SF background, Robert Heinlein is the classic example that comes to mind.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I find it more difficult to write women. That's why the first bunch in Kings and Rebels was so clich├ęd and several had to be replaced. My men are a lot more fun. :-)

Bernita and Carla, you really make me want to read up on Anglo-Saxon history and literature (except for Beowulf, I somehow got stuck with the Old Norse and Ancient French stuff). Any good books out there?

It's interesting to note that the greatest example for love in the French chansons de geste is found in the oldest surviving text that was not influenced by the romans cortois of a Chretien de Troyes like some later epics: Aude's death after she hears his betrothed has fallen at Roncesvals, in the Song of Roland. Though Roland didn't think that much about her during the tale. We also have Guillaume's wife Guiborc who defends the castle in his absence and recruits an army for him, or Girart de Roussillon's wife who shares his exile instead of seeking shelter with her sister at court, and several other examples of not so Sit At Home and Trophy women. But we also have the recurring motive of the Saracen princess who falls in love with a captive knight and helps him to escape - with her. Since the audience for the chansons de geste ranged from the castle hall to the town or village place, there seems to have been a bit for everyone in those songs. Including lots of battles.

At the Karlsruhe/Stuttgart exhibitons about the Romans in Germany, they presented proof that there had been female physicians in the Roman border settlements. There were some in Rome, too, but to move into a potentially insecure area requires some spirit, I'd say. Hm, what about a Roman lady physician falling in love with a Germanic tribal warrior .... The German author Iris Kammerer already has the opposite variant: Roman officer falling in love with a German chieftain's daughter - well researched and well written books (with a lot more than just the romance going on). Her female MC is no mincing flower at all, she even stands up against Arminius and accuses him of having broken the law of hospitality.

Tsavo Leone said...

Woah! Some heavyweight stuff flying about around here.

As a FYI there are two versions of Beowulf being made last I heard (Ray Winstone is appearing in one of them), although there is already one film based on that tale in existence (13th Warrior, with Antonio Banderas).

I'm curious concerning the continued references to Anglo-Saxon literature, as I was under the impression that there isn't actually a great deal of it left, and that Beowulf makes up at least quarter of what does exist.

Considering the topic of this particular post and the direction the comments have taken, might not a study of the evolution of the Arthurian 'legend', be of some assitance? I've always felt that each era has reinterprated these 'legends' in accordance with the perceived virtues of the day (a variation of Chinese Whispers if you will) which, in turn, has been compounded by documents such as Le Morte d'Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure...

Rick said...

Gabriele -

I ought to add that women are more fun to write than men, even if tricker - after all, no one made me choose a female protagonist at gunpoint.

I just recently read a post by fantasy author Jane Yolen (I think it was her!), saying that she found writing men liberating, because it distanced her just enough from her characters to loosen her imagination. Maybe that's a factor in the pleasures of cross-gender writing.

The cynic in me suggests that the women physicians were taking jobs near the frontier because of more opportunities - bias making it easier for men to get the cushy practices nearer Rome. On the frontier, even a grizzled old centurion - probably not your Sensitive Male type - couldn't afford to be a porcus when he needed a doc.

-- Rick

Rick said...

Tsavo -

A study of Arthurian evolution would indeed be useful, and doubtless illuminate changing attitudes. I do get the impression that in the last few decades there's been a distinct trend toward more active female characters. No surprise.

Slightly a different topic, but another interesting trend in Arthurian fiction is setting it more or less in in its original historical (or para-historical) context.

The high-medieval romances put it in an idealized form of their own world, with knights and castles and such. That setting "froze," and was still evoked - now as an idealized past - by Tennyson and on up to about TH White. Then there was an abrupt shift to post-Roman or Celtic Myst settings. I'm not even sure you could do an Arthur book with high-medieval trappings any more; the reader knows there weren't any knights c. AD 500. Movies followed the old course for a while longer, but the recent King Arthur flick also switched.

I'm not quite sure what this means, but it probably means something. :)

-- Rick

Bernita said...

Some additional stuff about Middle Ages attitudes regarding women and sex should include, besides Chretien de Troyes and Lancelot-Guinevere, De Amore by Capellanus and the verses of Count William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor's grandfather)
Medieval ideas were sophisticated and far from the Victorian dictum that nice women did not enjoy sex.
A quote: "In the fabliaux and in the satiric writings of the medieval moralists women were constantly portrayed as lusty and even insatiable." Lamentations of Matthew" (13th c.) and Albertus Magnus ( also 13th c.)goes on at great length in "The Secrets of Women".
One has to lift the covers of the chivalric conventions of the "Roman de la Rose" and look underneath, so to speak.

Robyn, thank you. I can't see it though.

Yes, Tsavo, there isn't a lot of A-S lit, most other surviving stuff was in monkish latin. From a quick peek at the net, I think discussions on the evolution of the Arthurian cycle is in full swing.

Rick, there were "knights" in 500 A.D if you allow for the term to mean horseman, which most do.

Re: characters. male/female/whatever. The difficulty lies in walking the fine line between recognizable gender characteristic without slipping off into cliche.

Carla, Gabriele,well done. Carry on.

Carla said...

I count Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History' as part of Anglo-Saxon literature, even though strictly speaking it isn't, because Bede wrote in Latin and it was only translated into Old English in Alfred the Great's reign.

Gabriele - you ask about reading up about the period. I'd suggest you have another go at Beowulf, perhaps in a verse translation. Verse translations are to my mind more vivid than prose. I like the Penguin Classics version because I'm familiar with it, but I believe a fellow called Seamus Heaney has produced one recently :-). Beowulf is such a vivid evocation of the warband and the mead-hall that it would be shame to miss out on it. The second I'd recommend is Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People'. Because Bede was a contemporary writer (731 AD), he provides glimpses of his society as a matter of course, even though the focus of his narrative is Church history. Book I is to my mind the least interesting because he seems to be re-hashing late Roman sources and Gildas, but he comes into his own from Book II onwards. There are numerous translations into modern English and there may be some in German? Some are available free on university sites on the net, if you Google.
I've already recommended Kathleen Herbert's survey of the role of women on my blog. She packs a lot of information into a small space, and the references and bibliography will take you further if you get interested. You can mail-order direct from the publisher (they take international credit cards) and it will only cost you £4.95 plus the postage, as it's quite a small book. There's a link to the publisher's site on my original post.

Rick said...

Bernita --

Yes, knights = cavalry is the standard dodge, and it works rather elegantly by positing that Arthur organizes a rapid response force of elite cavalry. It is just the thing a ruler or "leader of battles" c. 500 might have found useful to have.

By "no knights c. 500" I really meant the whole set of high-medieval trappings that typified Arthurian tales from about 1150 till 1950, but has pretty much vanished from written Arthuriana and now even from film.

walking the fine line between recognizable gender characteristic without slipping off into cliche

Nicely put!

Carla said...

Gabriele - in addition to the books, you'll probably find this radio programme interesting, from the BBC's masterly 'In Our Time' series. Here's the link
It's about Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edington. As long as your computer has speakers and can play sounds, you should be able to listen just by clicking the 'Listen Again' link. While you're there, you may want to look around the rest of the 'In Our Time' archive, as there are all manner of interesting things. All free and (as far as I know, 'cause obviously I haven't tried it personally) available anywhere in the world. Hooray for the BBC and the license fee.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, thanks you, I'll check those links out.

I have a good bilingual (Saxon/German) edition of Beowulf, with comments and all. And the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (Scientific Book Society) has a bilingual Beda edition for only 20 € - hehe, that membership surely pays off.

Tsavo Leone said...


Following on from Carla's comment there's also a piece lurking somewhere on the BBC site that you might find interesting (damned if I can locate it though). My sister (who works for the BBC) did a piece on Arthur based on then recent investigations in to where the historical Arthur might actually have been buried, resulting in speculation that it may have been somewhere in Cumbria.

Whilst this may seem slightly strange to anyone else reading this (the principle/only city in Cumbria started life as a Roman encampment in roughly 81AD, about ten-twenty miles to the east of Gabriele's Lost Fort), the region's name, along with the name of one of it's main market towns (Penrith) and it's principle source of income (sheep farming) have led many to cite the region as having been settled and/or shaped by Welsh 'migrants'. Considering that the earliest Arthurian tales appear to have been Welsh rather than English...

Rick said...

Tsavo - Not so much Welsh "migrants," I think, but that Cumbria remained non-anglicized and cohesive long enough to undergo the linguistic and cultural transition from Briton to early Welsh. In fact, ISTR that the elites, at least, migrated from Cumbria to Wales when they could no longer hold out.

Does anyone know if "Cumbria" is related to Cymry/Cymru? The appearance of the word suggests it might.

The Arthurian tradition is certainly of Welsh origin (maybe mixed in with Cornish/Breton). Whether or not there was a "historical Arthur," the role he was cast in was champion of the Britons against the encroaching Saxons.

Carla said...

Yes, Cumbria, Cumberland is from the same root as Cymru or Cymry. Some of the place names there are still Brittonic too, e.g. Blencathra, Glenderamackin, Glencoyne, Penruddock, Penrith, Carlisle, though most names in the area now are Norse (from Norwegian Viking settlement in the 10th C).
Carlisle was probably the 'capital' of the King Urien of Rheged lauded in the Canu Taliesin praise poetry and mentioned in Nennius' Historia Brittonum. Some people think he may have been either the origin of the Arthur stories, or that his story became linked with and rolled up with them. There are striking parallels; according to the story Urien led a successful alliance of North British kings against the Angles of Bernicia, but at the height of his triumph he was treacherously murdered by one of his own allies. Kathleen Herbert told his tale in fiction in 'Bride of the Spear', now sadly out of print but worth looking for in libraries or second hand.
I don't know of a migration from Cumbria to Wales, but I believe there is documentary evidence of an elite migration from Strathclyde (around Glasgow; also a Brittonic kingdom in origin) to Gwynedd in the 9th C.
The hill pastures of Cumbria are hopeless for arable so the subsistence economy must have been based on livestock rearing, but I don't know if it would always have been sheep. The traditional livestock in the Scottish Highlands are cattle, which were replaced by sheep in quite recent times (Hence the lament in the Clearances 'the sheep drive out the people'). My understanding is that the Herdwick sheep breed that is so ubiquitous in Cumbria today was introduced by the Norse settlers, and that the dominance of sheep farming may relate to the activities of the Cistercian monasteries in the 12th/13th C when the English economy was dominated by the wool trade.