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Nicholas Boccali


Dr. Sistrunk


Beowulf is a poem of leaders, warriors, evil, and good. It is also a poem of heroes and tragic losses. What kind of a community is revealed from these subjects if it is the community itself, which provokes peace and violence for these warriors to be hailed by? What organization and values does the community hold in this poem?

Throughout the poem there is reference to kings and lords. In the first chapter it is revealed that it is a feudal society. “Then Beo was king in that Danish castle, Shild’s son ruling as long as his father and as loved, a famous lord of men.” (Beowulf, 25/53). Kings and lords are the ruling class in this noble society.

It is a male dominated household with the father passing his legacy to the first son at his death. Inheritance was the key to success in the community as Timothy Rueter explains how Charles the Fat gained his titles in the early Middle Ages. “…The Alemannic kingdom which he inherited from his father in 876 and the remainder of the east Frankish kingdom which he inherited from his older brother…in 882.” (Germany, 115).

Whenever Beowulf travels to a land he is always asked to state his father’s name and sum his life into an opening statement before procuring his business. “We are Geats, men who follow Higlac. My father was a famous soldier, known far and wide as a leader of men. His name was Edgetho. His life lasted many winters; wise men all over the earth surely remembers him still. And we have come seeking your prince, Healfdane’s son, protector of his people, only in friendship.” (Beowulf, 31/260). This quote furthers the notion that the male controls the society and the family name must be maintained to gain power. Ancestors are held in a religious fashion among the family.

Beowulf also shows us that it is a warrior community. It is built around soldiers who will do anything for their homeland and travel far across the seas to spread their revenge and honor. “And then there was war between Geats and Swedes, bitter battles carried across the broad sea, when the mighty Hrethel slept and Ongentho’s sons thought Sweden could safely attack, saw no use to pretending friendship but raided and burned, and near old Rennsburg slaughtered Geats with their thieving swords. My people repaid them, death for death, battle for battle…when dawn came the slayer was slain, and Higlac’s soldiers avenged everything with the edge of their swords.” (Beowulf, 100/2472).

The poem also lets us know that not everyone is prosperous like the great warriors who receive gifts from their Kings. Poverty and slavery are also an issue in the story of Beowulf. “But the thief had not come to steal; he stole, and roused the dragon, not from desire but need. He was someone’s slave, had been beaten by his masters, had run from all men’s sight, but with no place to hide; then he found the hidden den.” (Beowulf, 92/2221). This community is organized on the basis of a small elite group who controls the majority of the population. Norman F. Cantor argues that everybody was a slave, legally or empirically, unto a small elite. “In these early societies there were, in essence, only two social groups, or classes. One class was the elite: the aristocratic group that controlled both rural and urban wealth and dominated. The other class was a mass peasantry, who may or may not have been slaves, but in any case were bound to the interests of the ruling elite.” (The Civilization, 2).

Another value of the community is its jewelry. Gold and gems are held as a sign of your nobility and generosity. King Hrothgar is known throughout the poem as the great ring giver. These riches were guarded with the highest of honor. “Years before by the last survivor of a noble race, ancient riches left in the darkness as the end of a dynasty came. Death had taken them, one by one, and the warrior who watched over all that remained mourned their fate, expecting, soon, the same for himself, knowing the gold and jewels he had guarded so long could not bring him pleasure much longer.” (Beowulf, 93/2233). Hrothgar earned his status among his people and foreigners by his generous giving of his riches and possessions.

Religion in the community is not well defined in the poem and it is hard to tell if Beowulf is following the beliefs of Paganism, Christianity, or a combination of both. He often refers to his “almighty God” when he is preparing for a battle or has guilt upon him. This could be referring to Christianity but throughout the poem there is no reference to Christ or church, although he mentions his “Lord” often. It is more likely that Beowulf is following a Pagan belief.

The hatred of Germanic tribes by the Romans towards may also dispel the notion that the Geats were Christian. Though Beowulf takes place during the 5th and 6th centuries it should also be noted that it was written in the 8th century when Christianity was bringing Europe into the early middle ages. This could be cause for Beowulf’s references to “Lord” and “God.” Jaques Le Goff explains these changes during the barbarian invasions; “The face of the barbarian invaders had been transformed by another crucial fact. Although some of them had remained pagan, another part of them, not at the least, had become Christian. But, by a curious chance, which was to have serious consequences, these converted barbarians had been converted to Arianism, which had become a heresy…Thus what should have been a religious bond was, on the contrary, a subject of discord and sparked off bitter conflicts between Arian barbarians and Catholic Romans.” (Medieval Civilization, 14). Having to look at historical aspects of the time only gives us a thought into the religion of Beowulf. It is difficult to say if the community was Pagan or Christian in this poem.

We can say that the community is based on a warring society under feudal law with values for riches and reputation as its basis. We can also say that the community has belief in God as another basis for the society.


Reuter, Timothy: Germany In the Early Middle Ages 800-1056. (Longman, London & New York, 1991.)

Collins, Roger: Early Medieval Europe 300-1000. (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999.)

Le Goff, Jaques: Medieval Civilization. (Basil Blackwell, 1988.)

Cantor, Norman: The Civilization of the Middle Ages. (HarperPerenneal, 1993.)

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