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The masculine queen of 'Beowulf.'.

Recent Beowulf criticism, like most areas of medieval studies, has seen inquiry into female characters and the place of the feminine in the text. Critics in the 1980s like Helen Damico and Jane Chance focused for the first time specifically on the women in Beowulf, in 1990 Gillian Overing's Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf brought postmodern gender theory to the poem. These texts and others like them, however, leave intact the equation of women with the feminine and men with the masculine.

This equation is disrupted when the text is read within the rubric of gender performance as determined by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. Performativity enables a new way of interpreting the characters of Beowulf, specifically, in the world of the poem masculinity is power, most emphatically the power to control the actions of others. The violent queen Modthrydho illustrates the performative nature of the gender of power and shows that action, rather than biological sex, is the determinant of that gender. Modthrydho, though female, is ultimately masculine since she wields power in the same way that Beowulf does.

Butler's Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter clarify the notion of gendered performances that are repeated to the point where they seem natural or inevitable (although they are neither). Butler says that performance, not biology, determines gender: "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results" (Trouble 25). In Bodies that Matter, Butler expands upon this notion of performativity, which, she emphasizes, is not a subjective, conscious "choice" by an already essentialist, humanist "self." In Bodies, Butler corrects misperceptions by readers of Trouble, stating that by "performativity" she did not mean that

. . one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night. (Bodies x)

Rather than the subject deciding its gender, "gender is part of what decides the subject" (Bodies x). One cannot precede the other in some sort of linear progression. Genders are not constructed onto pre-existing sexed bodies; gender construction is not an act that can be deemed "finished" at a certain point (Bodies 9). The performativity of gender depends on an understanding of gender construction as an ongoing process (or performance) that is never ultimately complete:

That ongoing process depends on repetition and reinscription of "norms" of gender. Butler's arguments about the materiality of the body insist upon "the understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains" (Bodies 2). As such, what humanity has traditionally perceived as "the 'sexes'" are, for Butler, actually "normative positions" (Bodies 14). Such a position takes its place in a "citation" of previous performances, so that performances layer one upon another to posit an illusion of determined sex. For Butler, "Performativity is not a singular 'act,' for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition" (Bodies 12). While she is most interested in female and feminine performances, citations, and repetitions, Butler also briefly inquires into racial and rascist performance (Bodies 18).

Butler's main goal, if that term is not too teleological for such a philosopher, is examination of examples of "disidentification with those regulatory norms by which sexual difference is materialized" (Bodies 4); for her, it is those sites of disidentification that serve to undermine what she calls "the heterosexual imperative" (Bodies 2), "the regime of heterosexuality" (Bodies 15), or "compulsory heterosexuality" (Trouble viii) that reigns in contemporary Western culture. As such, norms of gender construction may seem inflexible when they are defined as "the repeated stylization of the body" (Trouble 33); yet disidentification, or slippage from those norms, is what reveals their very un-natural constructedness and provides ways to challenge those norms. Such an "enabling disruption" overlooks or resists citations of the norm, and refuses to cite such a norm, insisting on a performance without precedent.

Such performativity affords a new way of looking at the "evil queen" of Beowulf, Modthrydho, and watching her disruptive gender performance. Although Overing's discussion of gender in Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf ultimately focuses on women and the feminine, her discussion of the "masculine economy" of Beowulf provides entree into my analysis of Modthrydho as a figure who wields power to enact a masculine performance. In Overing's terms:

In the masculine economy of the poem, desire expresses itself as desire for the other, as a continual process of subjugation and appropriation of the other The code of vengeance and the heroic choice demand above all a resolution of opposing elements, a decision must always be made. (70, italics Overing's)

For Overing, masculinity in Beowulf entails dominance and resolution; no ambiguity of hierarchy, of gender, of decision, is permissible. She continues:

A psychoanalytic understanding of desire as deferred death, of the symbolic nature of desire in action, is often not necessary in Beowulf, death is continually present, always in the poem's foreground: the hero says "I will do this or I will die." Resolution, choice, satisfaction of desire frequently mean literal death. (70)

Men in Beowulf for Overing, live in a world of absolutes: they will fight the monsters or die, they will avenge a death or die. Overing reads Beowulf himself to test this absolute assertion, but acknowledges that the absolute resolution is intact even at the end of the poem. The masculine characters define themselves against an unfavorable Other: men are strong, noble, generous; the Other is weak, ignoble, miserly - and might as well be dead, for within the masculine economy of this poem, those attributes have no value. Within the terms of Overing's analysis, Modthrydho is masculine; she forces an acknowledgement that masculinity is not "natural" but constructed, since a woman can say, "I will do this or I will die."

After surveying critical views of Modthrydho and her role, I will examine two words, mundgripe and handgewrithene, which reveal Modthrydho's lexical association with Beowulf and show that she cannot merely be dismissed as an evil queen who becomes good after marrying the right man. She is neither a reformed peace pledge nor a heroic Valkyrie. Instead, her character both confirms and denies a masculine economy that depends on women as commodities. In the terms described in Luce Irigaray's Women on the Market, Mothrydho's masculine performance manages to subvert the usual use of women as objects in exchanges between men.

The brief episode in question tells the story of Mothrydho's actions before and after her marriage to Offa; it appears abruptly in the text after a description of the Geat queen Hygd. (Please see complete text with translation following the notes).(1) Unlike Hygd, Mothrydho was not initially good, wise, and generous, a model queen; the men who dare to look upon her in her father's hall are put to death. She "reforms," however, after her marriage to Offa, and the poet ends the brief section of narrative with praise of her that eventually turns into praise of her husband and son.

Critics have tended to view this story of Mothrydho only within the larger context of the poem, usually reading Mothrydho as a foil to Hygd, Higelac's queen, who is described as a good queen, young, beautiful, wise, and generous in the lines leading up to the Mothrydho episode (1925-1931). In contrast, Mothrydho orders men who dare to look on her to be killed (1933-1940). However, after her marriage to Offa, Mothrydho changes to become like Hygd, generous, loved, and fertile: a good queen who managed to overcome her wicked tendencies.(2)

A different "explanation" of the episode is patristic and reads the Mothrydho story as a Christian allegory, with Offa as Christ the bridegroom, to whom Mothrydho submits and finds happiness much like the good Christian does in submission to Christ.(3) Masculinist readings view the Mothrydho episode as a triumph, within the context of the poem, of the right, "natural" order of male over female, focusing on the "tamed shrew" aspect of the passage and revealing the critical desires of their authors to naturalize male domination of women, at least in the world of the text.(4)

Another focus of formalist critics is the abrupt transition to the Mothrydho story. In order to show the passage's stylistic similarity to the rest of the poem, critics have sought other points in Beowulf at which the subject matter swings suddenly from one narrative to another without warning.(5) Similarly, Klaeber and others fit the "digression" into a moral vision of the poem wherein the story of Mothrydho is an opportunity for the poet to make a moral exemplum like others in the poem.(6)

Mothrydho's name, her very existence, and possible historical precedents for her have provoked considerable critical discussion. The crux "modthrydho waeg" (1.1931) can be read to include or not to include a name; if there is a name, it can be read as Mothrydho or as Thrydho. Historical critics, who stress the documented precedents for a number of the characters in Beowulf, search for Mothrydho among a number of candidates, who include the violent and exiled Queen Drida; Cynethrydh, the notoriously cruel wife of Offa II; and Hermethruda, a Scottish queen who has a minor part in Saxo Grammaticus' story of Amleth.(7) This sort of thematic, structural, moral, or historical analysis illustrates Overing's postmodern contention about criticism of the Mothrydho passage, that "a place is found for the unmannerly queen in the larger context of the poem, one that connects, and assimilates her through opposition" (102).

The political aims of feminist critics are quite different from those of the traditional (mostly male) critics discussed above, but feminists, with the notable exception of Overing, also tend to shape Mothrydho and her story into a unified vision of Woman, be it in Beowulf, Old English Literature, or Anglo-Saxon culture at large, to "explain her."(8)

Mothrydho does act as a foil to Hygd and historical precedents for her character do exist. However, two distinctive if ambiguous words in the Mothrydho passage reveal a Mothrydho who is not so easily subsumed into patterns of the poem or of Old English literature that most critics present. These words, mundgripe (1938) and handgewrithen (1937), link Mothrydho with Beowulf in such a way that the categories of good and evil, masculine and feminine, become much harder to distinguish. Although lexically she is linked to the hero, the narrator tells us that she performed criminal acts (firen' ondrysne, 1932). She deprives beloved men (leofne mannan 1943) of life, but she is an excellent queen of the people (fremu folces cwen 1932).(9) It seems that even the poet cannot quite make up his mind about her.

Mothrydho's strongest lexical links with Beowulf appear in lines 1937 and 1938, handgewrithene and mundgripe, literally translated as "twisted by hand" and "handgrip." Handgewrithene describes a deadly bond, waelbende (1.1936). Klaeber says handgewrithene "seems to be meant figuratively" (199), since Mothrydho probably manipulated the events "by hand" and did not literally forge deadly bonds. However, the other two uses of forms of writhan in the poem are decidedly literal: in 1.963-4 Beowulf literally twists Grendel to his deathbed (Ic hine hraedlice heardan clammum / on waelbedde writhan thohte) and in 1.2982 the Geats, presumably including Beowulf, bind up the wounds and the corpses on the Swedish and Geatish battlefield (Da waeron monige, the his maeg wridhon).

Here, forms of writhan associate Mothrydho with Beowulf in instances where he is heroic (conquering Grendel, assisting his wounded comrades) and she is evil. Of course words have different connotations in different narratives, but the lexical association with the hero and his actions questions two usual critical assumptions: first, of Mothrydho's all-encompassing evil and, second, of a figurative translation of handgewrithene. Since Beowulf the noble hero is also associated with forms of writhan, the use of the word in the Mothrydho passage clouds a reading of her as a pure termagent. The other uses in the poem are literal; why must the word be translated figuratively here? Mothrydho, the queen with the ambiguous motives and character, could indeed forge or twist deadly bonds: literally put the men to death herself.

A similar problem with literal and figurative translations arises with the other word that associates Mothrydho and Beowulf: mundgripe (1.1938), both a clear link from Mothrydho to Beowulf and one of the most ambiguous words in the section. Mundgripe occurs only in Beowulf (Venezky, fiche M023, 164); there are no other usages in the Old English corpus that might guide us to a wider interpretation of the word. Beowulf is the only other character in the poem associated with mundgripe, twice in the fight with Grendel and once in the fight with Grendel's mother:(10)

1.379-81: he thritiges manna maegencraeft on his mundgripe heathorof haebbe (Beowulf has the strength of 30 men in his handgrip)

1.751-3: he ne mette middangeardes, eothan sceata on elran men mundgripe maran (Grendel has not met any man with a stronger handgrip than Beowulf)

I.1533-4: strenge getruwode, mundgripe maegenes (Beowulf rejects Hrunting for handgrip in the fight with Grendel's mother)

While it is easy to translate mundgripe in these instances, scholars have had much more trouble with it in relation to Mothrydho. Klaeber says that it could be "an allusion to a fight between maiden (or father) and suitor" (199) but prefers instead to translate it as "seized" or "arrested." Similarly, Constance Hieatt refers to it as "the method she uses, presumably by proxy, to pin down her victims" (177, italics mine); Jane Chance translates mundgripe as "arrest" (105), Helen Damico as "hand-seizure" (46). If there is bodily contact, Klaeber suggests maybe the father is involved (though he gives no reason at all for this speculation); Hieatt assumes that Mothrydho would not engage in physical contact with the men who dared to look at her.

Perhaps they do not want to think of actual contact between Mothrydho and her suitors. Even though the word is literal in reference to Beowulf the hero and his good deeds, it is assumed to be figurative when referring to a woman and her bad deeds. Hieatt does remark on the link between Mothrydho and Beowulf through the word:

Elsewhere, this word is associated with Beowulf alone, and its use here may be an indication of the misuse of strength and power in contrast to Beowulf's own exemplary use, recalling the contrast between Beowulf and Heremod. (177)

Contrast or no, mundgripe associates Mothrydho with the hero just as writhan does, and those associations suggest - but do not confirm - literal uses of the word in the Mothrydho story as well.

And what is the story of Mothrydho? The associations of these two words (which link Mothrydho to Beowulf) enable us to acknowledge and play with ambiguities rather than to resolve or eliminate them. Is Mothrydho really evil? did she wrestle with men? did her father pack her off to Offa? does she illustrate an antitype of peace weaver? is she an Eve figure who becomes a Mary figure? The ambiguities in the text show that Mothrydho cannot be dismissed as simply another example, albeit extreme, of a tamed shrew.

This ambiguity surrounding Mothrydho forces an examination of the construction of gender in the poem. After all, the usual assumption of Modthrydho's wickedness is that she has repudiated the conventional female role of passive peaceweaver and taken matters of violence, best left to men, into her own hands. The traditional view of the passive peace pledge complements the traditional view of the active hero in this male/female opposition. Within this opposition, power belongs to the masculine. Except for Mothrydho, only men have the power of violence and the power of wealth in the social systems described in Beowulf Overing points out that "female failure is built into this system" since women "embody . . . peace, in a culture where war and death are privileged values" (82). Men have the opportunity to succeed, while the most a woman can hope for is to delay the inevitable war and failure of her role as peace weaver. However, for Overing this tidy opposition of active, warlike man/passive, peaceful woman is actually disrupted by the feminine, which drives a "wedge of ambiguity and paradox" into the neat pairs (xxiii). While Overing discusses the other female characters in the poem as well, she highlights Mothrydho because "she escapes, however briefly, the trap of binary definition" (108).

Mothrydho, in the first half of her story - and in the second half, though less obviously - not only disrupts the construction of gender in the poem but manages to take control of it briefly. This control both comes from and produces the power she wields. Mothrydho has the ultimate power, that of life and death, over the men in her hall. This power is masculine in terms of the gender construction of the text; those who wield power are men, like Beowulf or Higelac, and those who are completely powerless are women, like Hildeburh or Freawaru. Although Hieatt thinks that Mothrydho's linguistic associations with Beowulf serve as a contrast involving the use and misuse of power, Mothrydho's lexical associations with Beowulf underscore the masculinity of her actions. Because she is wielding power as she arranges the deaths of the men who have offended her, she is constructing her gender, and that gender, within the terms of the poem, is masculine. Mothrydho is making an absolute, masculine statement, in Overing's terms, but with an interesting twist: You will not look at me or you will die.

As I noted earlier, Butler says that the construction of gender is an ongoing, repetitive, and circular process that builds upon itself: "'Intelligible' genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire" (Trouble 17). In these terms, it is usual to assume that Mothrydho is evil (as Hieatt does) since she is acting against the usual assumptions about females in Anglo-Saxon literature (and perhaps in late twentieth century Western culture as well). Butler remarks that

To the extent that the "I" is secured by its sexed position, this "I" and its position can be secured only by being repeatedly assumed, whereby "assumption" is not a singular act or event, but, rather, an iterable practice" (Bodies 108, emphasis Butler's).

Butler also emphasizes that gender is constructed by the discourse that contains it. To use Butler's examples, "the feminine" refers to very different ideas in the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Monique Wittig or, more strikingly, of Plato and Luce Irigaray. Simply because Anglo-Saxon scholars have always discussed the feminine gender in terms of passive peace pledges and a Mary/Eve opposition is no reason to continue to do so. We can view Mothrydho's gender as masculine, a gender she has the power to construct on her own. As Butler says, "gender proves to be performative - that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be" (Trouble 25). Mothrydho's assumed and repeated performances, her citations (to use Butler's terms), are masculine.

To say that Mothrydho has constructed a masculine gender for herself is to say that she acts, within the textually constructed world of Beowulf, like a man. To borrow a phrase from Allen Frantzen, Mothrydho is a "manly woman" because her actions, her performances within the text, are masculine (460). Butler says, "That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality" (Trouble 136). Viewed in this light, Mothrydho's gender is determined not by the author calling her a cwen, a queen (a noun feminine in grammatical gender as well definition),(11) but by her violent, authoritative, and powerful action.

While critics have not wanted to consider the possibility of literal contact between Mothrydho and men, a masculine construction of gender allows, even encourages that interpretation. If Mothrydho is masculine, why should she not attach waelbende (deadly bonds) to those who have offended her, literally put them in chains with her own hands? This would not be a feminine action, according to the text's definition of femininity, but I read Mothrydho to construct her own gender, to assume power that is unfeminine within the context of the poem. In doing so, she "reveals a trace of something that we know cannot exist in the world of the poem: the trace of a woman signifying in her own right" (Overing 106). To achieve power, Mothrydho has had to assume the masculine gender, for her society does not permit the feminine to put offenders in chains and cut their heads off.

The culture of the poem defines Mothrydho by her biological sex, sees her as feminine; her assumption of the masculine gender defines her deeds as firen' ondrysne, a terrible crime in her society. The ambiguity of her gender and her sex seeps into the poet's narrative. Modthrydho is evil but also fremu (excellent); she performs leodbealewa (harms to people) but is also aenlicu (peerless). The poet cannot condemn her completely with his language, though he sometimes presents her (and critics have read her) as an example of a bad woman.

Indeed, in the beginning of her story Mothrydho is a bad woman if considered within the gender-related values determined in the larger framework of the poem. Mothrydho does not even have a legitimate reason, in masculine terms, for killing the gazers, because she is not avenging the death of a kinsman. For Mothrydho, there is no reliance on "the familiar and familial vengeance code that pervades the poem" (Overing 105); although her actions show a masculine gender, the motives behind them do not. This sexual ambiguity (of her body, of her actions, of her intentions, of the language used to describe her) is too much for the narrative to bear, and Mothrydho, after 13 lines of disruption (1931-1944), seems to settle down into a more obviously feminine gender. She has disrupted the masculine economy, the binary definition of gender, on which the poem and its culture depend.

That economy is one that depends on women being defined as commodities to be traded between and passed among men. In "Women on the Market," Irigaray states that "The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women" (170). Butler has noted Irigaray's propensity to cite her philosopher-fathers not as "simple reiterations of the original, but as an insubordination" (Bodies 45). Irigaray's analysis of a male-based economy predicated on female exchange enacts Butler's claims that she cites insubordinately; in this essay, Irigaray reveals and insists upon the necessity of female exchange between men to what Butler would term the phallogocentric, heterosexual economy. While Anglo-Saxon England or early medieval Scandinavia may not be "the society we know," it is markedly similar in that an even more obvious exchange of women formed its basis. Freawaru and Hildeburh are traded like commodities to their families' enemies to buy an alliance, a tenuous peace. Irigaray says, "Woman has value only in that she can be exchanged' (176, italics hers); a woman is not an independent, signifying subject. Irigaray could be counseling Hrodhgar when she says, "Wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men" (172). Hrodhgar's wife, Wealtheow, his daughter, Freawaru, and his unnamed sister ("Healfdane's daughter") are all products in the masculine peace-pledge economy, traded for political alliance. Overing points out that women in Beowulf are so thoroughly objectified that most of them do not have names: of the eleven women in the poem, only five are named (Wealtheow, Freawaru, Higd, Hildeburh, Mothrydho); the rest remain nameless (the old woman at Beowulf's funeral) or are defined simply as a man's wife, mother, or daughter (73).

Irigaray points out that within this masculine economy a woman is worthless unless at least two men are interested in exchanging her (181). Mothrydho's marriage could be viewed in this light; she goes to Offa's hall be faeder lare, by father-counsel (1950). Lare could be translated here to mean an order of her father rather than advice;(12) Mothrydho seems to acquiesce to the masculine economy that defines her society and thus is exchanged between two men. In Irigaray's terms, Mothrydho could be read to have subscribed to society's version of normal womanhood, "a development that amounts, for the feminine, to subordination to the forms and laws of masculine activity" (187).

However, Mothrydho does rebel against that economy, especially in the first half of her story, when she performs within the masculine gender. Within the first thirteen lines of her narrative, she refuses to become a commodity like those defined in Irigaray's essay. Overing emphasizes that Mothrydho will not allow the men in the hall - presumably potential husbands - to gaze at her. While most women are commodities, "the gold-adorned queens who circulate among the warriors as visible treasure" (Overing 104), Mothrydho refuses to become one. "At the center of Mothrydho's rebellion is her refusal to be looked at, to become an object" (Overing 103). While Overing attributes Mothrydho's rebellion to her momentary disruption of the social and textual structures of Beowulf, I prefer to interpret Mothrydho more specifically as an active subject who has constructed her own gender. Her masculine gender both allows and forces her to be an active subject; thus, she cannot be an object. Mothrydho has the power to rebel, to refuse, since she has assumed the masculine gender.

Her refusal of commodification points even more strongly to literal readings of handgewrithene and mundgripe; the implications of bodily contact show the physical nature of the way the men wanted to view her and she refused to be viewed. Since Mothrydho performs within a masculine gender, we can now read the passage as a story of a queen who bound and decapitated with her own hands those men who offended her.

The literal translation of mundgripe allows even another interpretation of the story, and I wish to allow for a multiplicity of interpretations and acknowledge that version as well. While all critics assume that the mundgripe is probably figurative (even Overing translates it as "seizure" {104}) and either Mothrydho's or her father's, I would argue that the mundgripe is not only literal but could be the offending man's. This interpretation calls for a translation of aefter (aefter mundgripe, 1.1938) as "on account of" or "because of": because of an actual physical handgrip (a man touching or grasping this powerful woman), the sword was appointed. In this reading, Mothrydho has the power to refuse to be touched as well as looked at, which in Irigaray's terms rejects both the culture's definitions and commodifications of women. Irigaray says that woman has two bodies, "her natural body and her socially valued, exchangeable body" (180); in this version of the story, Mothrydho will not allow the men to touch her natural body nor to look at her as "visible treasure" to be socially exchanged.

The poet does not see the situation as a woman asserting her right not to be looked at and possibly touched: he refers to the men's actions as "pretended injury" (ligetorne, 1.1943). Ligetorne is unique in Old English to Mothrydho's story (Venezky, fiche L011,201); the narrator needs an unusual word, a compound of "lie" and "trouble" to emphasize that the actions of men concerning women's bodies are not injuries in the terms of the culture to which the men are accustomed.(13) Critics have tended to agree with the poet that these injuries are pretended; Edward Irving says "it is evident that these men are innocent victims of her accusations" (73). Evident? to whom? Perhaps to another man, within or without the text, who sees nothing wrong with examing the possible merchandise, as it were. Herein lies Mothrydho's ultimate disruption: she refuses to agree that the actions of the men are ligetorne and wields her power to punish the offenders.

However, it is generally agreed that Mothrydho changes into a more conventional Anglo-Saxon woman upon her marriage to Offa. Since she has been given to Offa, the poet tells us, the ale drinkers tell a different story; Mothrydho lives well on the throne, good and famous, loving her husband (11.1945-1953). Traditional critics call her change a reform: Mothrydho has become more like Hygd, the traditional gold-adorned queen. Feminist critics seem a bit saddened by the passing of the man-killer and the assumption of the traditional role; even Overing says that Mothrydho rebels against but does not conquer the masculine symbolic order (105). Overing attributes her "reformed wifely personality" to the flaw in her rebellion, namely that "the violent form of her rebellion confronts the system on its own death-centered terms" (105). However, I want to argue that Mothrydho not only disrupts the masculine symbolic order but continues to rebel against it even after her disappearance from her own story.

It is easy to see Mothrydho as a conventional woman, silent and passive at the end of her story. The traditional view sees Mothrydho sent to Offa be faeder-lare as a gold-adorned peace pledge. After three and half lines (1951b-1954) praising her as a good, traditional queen, the poet moves on to praise her husband and does not mention Mothrydho again. She has disappeared from a story which is supposedly hers. Her body disappears as well as her name; her son Eomer is born not from her but thonon (1.1960), from him, i.e. from Offa. There is no need to mention the passive woman who does her duty as gold-adorned, fertile queen.

However, after her marriage to Offa, Mothrydho may not be the conventional gold-adorned queen that she seems to be on the surface. Close examination of the description of her life at Offa's court shows her unconventionality in a continued "rebellion" against the binary oppositions that defined her as virago and now as passive peace weaver. First of all, although she went be faeder lare, she gesohte, sought, Offa's hall. I choose to translate lare as "advice," without the authority-laden translation of"order,"(14) so that considering advice from her father, Mothrydho actively sought (journeyed to) Offa's hall. Once there, she is in gumstole, on the throne, not walking among the warriors serving them drink; the tableaux shows her in the place of power, not in the position of servitude.(15) She is described as maere (famous) in line 1952, an adjective normally reserved for (male) heroes.(16) These words all hint that Mothrydho is not the typical queen the critics have taken her to be after her marriage.

Most important, however, is her success in marriage. Mothrydho rebels against the system by succeeding in its terms, terms that are (as Overing points out) set up to ensure women's failure within patriarchal society.(17) In a society that values war, killing, violence, and glory in battle, the peace-weaver actually strives against everything the society values. The other women in Beowulf, as numerous critics have noted, fail, as indeed they are destined to do. Wealtheow fails to prevent her nephew Hrodhulf from killing her sons and taking the kingship; Hygd's husband Higelac dies in a feud with the Frisians; Beowulf tells us how Freawaru will fail as a peace-pledge between the Hathobards and the Danes; Hildeburh loses her brother, son, and husband in the wars she could not prevent as peace pledge between the Frisians and the Half-Danes. All of these "conventional" women adhere to the role their society has determined is appropriate for them; all succumb to the failure built into that role.

The cornerstone of Mothrydho's unconventionality is her success in the role in which the others fail. She resists and disrupts the system both before and after her marriage. We have no sure evidence that Mothrydho was actually a peace-pledge. The text refers to her as a freodhuwebbe, peace-weaver, but this reference occurs before her marriage, when she is depriving beloved men of life (11.1942-43). We do not know her nationality and the text does not tell us whether her people were feuding with Offa's.

The only evidence that she may be a peace pledge, if it can be called evidence, is that Mothrydho is gyfen goldhroden like any other conventional woman. However, the treasure she brings with her to the marriage could be a dowry in a friendly alliance as well. Unlike the other marriages described in the poem, Mothrydho's succeeds both emotionally and politically. Offa is not embroiled in a blood feud; he is

thone selestan bi saem tweonum, eormencynnes. Fortham Offa waes geofum ond gudhum, garcene man, wide geweordhod, wisdome heold edhel sinne (1956-1960)

(the best of mankind between the seas. Because Offa was, with gifts and battles, a spear-bold man, widely exalted, he held with wisdom his native land).

With this great king Mothrydho hiold heahlufan (1.1954), held the high love. They obviously have a good marriage; their successful son, who is haeledhum to helpe (1.1961), a help to warriors, follows Offa as king. Mothrydho's supposed acquiescence to the status quo actually undermines it; her success as a queen (not a peace-pledge) defies the system that devalues yet necessitates the woman as peaceweaver.

Clare Lees has discussed the fragility of father-son bonds and successions in her work on the male characters of Beowulf, only in Mothrydho's case does the "patrilineal genealogy" (Lees' term) work without a hitch and the crown pass from father to son within a strong paternal bond. I suggest that this bond is strong because Eomer has two masculine parents, both watching out for him. Patrilineal genealogy cannot work when the mother is a peace-weaver; she will inevitably fail, as Overing has shown. Mothrydho's masculine performance strengthens this most masculine of bonds within the poem. Her actions are not "feminist," an inapplicable word, but assert a masculinity surprisingly like Beowulf's. In Beowulf, the ultimate masculine act may be to leave one's kingdom intact to one's son - and in this as well Mothrydho has succeeded as she performs her masculine gender.

Mothrydho's gender performance confirms that gender is not "natural" within the world of Beowulf, but dependent upon agency and power wielded over others. Mothrydho fights her own battles and her son succeeds to the throne. By discarding traditional assumptions about masculinity and feminity in the poem - the active hero, the passive peace pledge, the tamed shrew - and by investigating lexical associations of Mothrydho and Beowulf, I have shown in Beowulf a textual culture fraught with tension where gender is determined not by sex or status but by action.



1. All text cited by line from Fr. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co.) 3rd ed., 1950. Translations are my own.

2. Such comparisons can be found in Adrien Bonjour, The Digressions in Beowulf (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950, repr 1965); Constance Hieatt, "Modthrytho and Heremod: Intertwined Threads in the Beowulf Poet's Web of Words," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 83 (1984): 173-182; Howell D. Chickering, Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition (New York, Anchor Books, 1977), 349352; Norman Eliason, "The Thryth-Offa Digression in Beowulf" in Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., eds, Jess Bessinger and Robert Creed (New York: New York University Press, 1965) 124-138

3. See, for example, David Allen, "The Coercive Ideal in Beowulf" in Literary and Historical Perspectives of the Middle Ages, eds. Patricia Cummins et al. (Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 1982), 120-32.

4. See, for example, Edward Irving, Rereading Beowulf (Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1989), 73 and Randall Bohrer, "Beowulf and the Bog People" in Literary and Historical Perspectives of the Middle Ages, eds. Patricia Cummins et al. (Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 1982), 142.

5. Chickering (op.cit.) discusses these stylistics in depth.

6. For moral analyses of the passage, see Klaeber, op.cit., 198-200; Norma Kroll, "Beowulf: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity," Modern Philology 84 (1986): 117-129; and Bruce Moore, "The Thryth-Offa Digression in Beowulf," Neophilologus 64 (1980): 127-33.

7. See Chickering for summaries of the onomastic and historical arguments about Mothrydho.

8. For instance, Mary Kay Temple analyzes Mothrydho as one of a group of ides or noblewomen in Old English poetry in "Beowulf 1258-1266: Grendel's Lady-Mother," English Language Notes 23 (1986): 10-15; Jane Chance analyzes her within the rubric of an Eve/Mary opposition so that Modthydho starts out like Eve and ends up like Mary in Woman as Hero in Old English Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986); Helen Damico reads her as a valkyrie-type who can be both terrible and welcoming in Beowulf's Wealtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

9. Kemp Malone argues in "Hygd," Modern Language Notes 56 (1941): 356-58, that fremu folces cwen refers to Hygd, not to Mothrydho, but he is alone in this reading; the phrase is in apposition to mod thrydho waeg.

10. The other use of mundgripe listed in the concordance is actually an emendation of the manuscript reading handgripe at 11.965-66: he for handgripe minum scolde licgean lifbysig (In Beowulf's handgrip, Grendel struggles against death). All editions I have examined accept this emendation. Although this emendation reinforces my argument, I have not included it in my text since the manuscript reading makes sense as it stands.

11. Interestingly enough, in light of feminist arguments about women being defined only in terms of their relations to men, Klaeber's primary definition for cwen is not queen but "wife (of a king)" (314).

12. Klaeber suggests "bidding," with its connotations of compulsion, as a possible translation (366).

13. In a way, this "case"" is not so different from discussion in the 1990s about sexual harassment. To many men, sexual harassment is a "pretended injury" while to many women it is a wholly legitimate grievance. It seems that Mothrydho has something in common with Anita Hill.

14. Klaeber suggests not only "bidding" (mentioned in note 12), but "instruction," "precept," and "counsel" (366).

15. The unusualness of this tableau within West Saxon culture is made apparent by Asser's comment in chapter 13 of his Life of King Alfred that Gens namque Occidentalium Saxonum reginam iuxta regem sedere non patitur, nec etiam reginam appellari, sed regis coniugem, permittit (For the race of the West Saxons does not allow the queen to sit next to the king, nor even to be called 'queen' but concede [her to be called] 'wife of the king'). Latin text from William Henry Stevenson, ed., Asser's Life of King Alfred, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904; repr. 1959). Translation is my own.

16. Forms of maere occur 31 times in Beowulf, of these, 15 references are to theoden, a (male) prince (Klaeber 371).

17. It should be noted that Overing reads the women of Beowulf as hysterics who trouble rather than sanction that society, and as such questions the validity of their "failures".


Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge, 1993.

-----. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Chance, Jane. Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986.

Damico, Helen. Beowulf's Wealtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1984.

Frantzen, Allen. "When Women Aren't Enough." Speculum 68 (1993) 445-471.

Hieatt, Constance. "Modthrytho and Heremod: Intertwined Threads in the Beowulf Poet's Web of Words." Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 83 (1984): 173-182.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. trans Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Irving, Edward. Rereading Beowulf. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1989.

Klaeber, Fr., ed. Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co, 1950.

Lees, Clare. "Men and Beowulf." Medieval Masculinities. ed. Clare Lees. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1994, 129-148.

Overing, Gillian. Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf Carbondale: U Illinois P, 1990.

Venezky, Richard, and Antonette diPaulo Healey, eds. The Microfiche Concordance to Old English. Newark: U Delaware Microforms, 1980.

Mary Dockray-Miller teaches in the College of Advancing Studies at Boston College. She is currently working on a book on motherhood in Anglo-Saxon England.
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