The Anglo-Saxon period began in 449 A.D. This period began the invasion and migration of the island of Britain by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. These groups that invaded the Roman Empire, now Great Britain, brought their own traditions, language, and religion. Many historical events during this period greatly influenced literary events. Battles and crusades were an integral part of daily life. The religious and royalty rulers were held in high esteem. Literature depicted these events and devotions. Literary inventions evolved due to the popularity and need to reach many people with the teachings and entertainment of literature.
Epic poetry became an important form for recording legends. Many of these legends had been handed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years or written on scrolls. The inventions of vellum books and a printing method from the Chinese increased the availability of reading material. Epic poetry also gave the Anglo-Saxons an outlet for their many years of oppression. Beowulf, first recorded in c. 700, was one of the first great works of English literature. This epic glorified the quests of a hero. Creating poetry about heroes was as important as fighting, hunting, and farming.
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Narrative stories of adventure, crusades, and knightly love grew in importance from the 900’s through the 1200s. Chivalry and feudalism dominated this period and literature reflected this domination. The Celtic stories of King Arthur and his Knights became popular. People have been singing war songs in his honor for probably more than 1,500 years. King Arthur was a war leader in post-Roman Britain He fought against the invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, c. 449.
Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Elegies and Their Functions
According to the OED, elegy means a song of lamentation, especially a funeral song or lament for the dead. They were popular form in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry. Elegies gave peace weavers a voice when they had to face the hardships of living with men with immense power.
An elegy discusses losing something and how much they are mourning from the result of it. “The Wife’s Lament” was one of the first elegies. A reader can feel the sadness and grief the wife was feeling. When an elegy affects you deep down, you connect to the story and the character more as a result of it. Being isolated to her is the worst fear and she is having a hard time coming to turns with it. She states: “Hiding their thoughts, the man’s kin folk hatched a plot to separate us so that we two should live most unhappy and farthest from one another in this wide world” (6-9).
The wife has a husband who has turned his back on her, and she feels that she is alone with no friends and no protection: “For this my heart grieves that I should find the man well matched to me hard of fortune mournful of mind hiding his mood thinking of murder” (8). This poem, however, lets the reader ask many questions about what happened to her husband and tribe: “First my lord went away from his people here across the storm – tossed sea” (4). She does discuss how she keeps herself safe as she writes her lament, which shows immense courage and determination—she even hides in a forest grove in a cave under an oak tree.
This elegy also shows how much pain and torture Peace weavers had to face. They married men not based on love and respect but for power and silence. Women were second-class citizens, and they took the roles of peacekeepers, mistresses, and most importantly, wives and mothers. Women were given to men who could ensure them a rich life filled with fortune. Sometimes, they bought wealth into the marriage. The men were very protective of their women, as they were of their husbands.
The men made the decisions for the women. Elegies allow readers to explore the minds of these “peace weavers” and truly know what they had to endure. This woman had to deal with a hostile tribe, and she had to sever ties with her family and move to a new land with no one she knew. This wife is a hero because she has to deal with everything by herself—while dealing with the harsh consequences. This poem is concentrated on the experience of a female outcast who defines her predicament in a melodramatic poetic soliloquy interspersed by remarkable emotional language.
Another example of a peace-weaver who had a lot of pressure on her was Hildeburh. She was the daughter of a Danish king, who married the King of Jutes, Finn. She at first is a happy queen. She is “deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother” (121). Her marriage to Finn, from a hostile tribe, costs her him as well as her son and brother. She lets go of her passivity and attempts to take on her role as the peace-weaver. Hildeburh shows her distaste for the social norm when she takes complete control of her elegy.
Although we do not hear her voice, she brings the peace symbol to light and stresses how they might not be able to make peace out of the hostility. She mourns with songs or “geomrode giddum.” Some might say that Hildeburh did not fulfill her role as a peace weaver—however, she shows her power when she orders the burning of the bodies. The elegy in “Beowulf” was used by Hildebruh to combine a hostile and peaceful tribe to each other.
Judith, the Anglo-Saxon heroine is a very distinctive character that is separate from past peace weavers. As a widow, she has her own unique household, with servants and immense power. She also has money and she uses it to cover herself with gold to seduce the evil ruler Holofernes. She is described as being “laden with rings” and “bedecked with ornaments.” She uses her power to order the Jews to battle against Holofernes’ army. What drives her to fight is the love and guilt she has over her husband and how she could not save him.
Her elegy is touching and meaningful and sparks the fire she needs to defeat Holofernes. She says: “Lord God of Israel, she said, give me strength! Now guide these hands aright, and give Jerusalem the relief thou hast promised; now be the task performed, but for the hope of thy aid, undreamed of! 8 With that, she went to the head of the couch, and unfastened the scimitar that hung there; 9 unsheathed it, and caught the sleeping man by the hair; Lord God, she said, strengthen me now!” (134). Judith finds the strength to decapitate Holofernes after her powerful elegy.
These women use Elegies as their way of coming to terms with tragic events in their lives as well as motivation to keep living them. Even though the elegies were incredibly sad, these women showed hope and courage throughout them. Women had lack of power during the Middle Ages; Elegies let them express themselves with no limitations.
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