Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”

Paper Info
Page count 7
Word count 1965
Read time 7 min
Topic Literature
Type Term Paper
Language 🇺🇸 US

Beowulf (literally “beewolf,” or “bear”) is an Old English epic poem; the action takes place in Jutland before the migration of Angles to Britain. The name of the poem is after its main character Beowulf. Some researchers believe that the poem was created at the end of the 7th – beginning of the 8th century, preserved in a single copy of the 11th century. This edition was almost destroyed during the fire at the library of Robert Cotton in 1731, and the text was considered to be firstly published in 1815.

Beowulf is the oldest fully preserved epic poem of “barbarian” or Germanic Europe. It is the only extant memorial of the Anglo-Saxon epic; most researchers have a consensus that the poem was created in the 8th century. According to some versions, the author was an English pope who had a good command of Latin and Old English languages and literature. Some scientists believe that there is only a 10th-century copy in Old English. The research of the Beowulf poem began in 1815, after its first publication. The poem is sculpted in alliterative verse and contains 3182 lines.

The paper’s primary purpose is to compare the description of women and men and analyze women’s roles in Beowulf. In addition, the goal is to reveal how the attitude towards women of that time influenced their reflection in literature. After analyzing the phrasings by which women were described in the poem, it is clear that the patriarchy has somewhat reduced its influence. The work will carry out a descriptive analysis based on information and quotes from the poem. After analyzing passages from the poem containing the description of women and men, it will be concluded what role women play in work.

Beowulf: the portrayal and role of women

In Beowulf poem, the readers are presented with a depicting of the lifestyle of the early Middle Ages. At that time, the role of women was insignificant; however, later, the woman acquired some rights, following the development of pre-renaissance sway. Therefore, such transformation was imaged in the literature of the reviewed period. The approach applying in the paper makes it possible to compose an entire portrait of a woman and its different depictions. In addition, it will help to notice the changes that occurred in people’s minds while thinking about the issue of woman’s role and their rights.

While analyzing the poem, the main task is to reveal the author’s depiction of a woman. In addition, one has to identify the role women play in the poem and their contribution. Queen Wealthow is one of the main female characters of Beowulf. In order to characterize her in the context of the poem, one should figure out who the queen was to Celts. The motive for the abduction of the royal wives is undoubtedly based on the Celts’ beliefs, customs, and very nature.

The wife of the Celtic king during the betrothal ceremony (and later) symbolizes the Earth ruled by the king. Consequently, “seducing a wife” is a fact that not only undermines the king’s authority as a man but also calls into question his ability to exercise power. However, one can say about the importance of a queen in the early Middle Ages. In addition, one may emphasize again that an ordinary woman was powerless; she is not even mentioned in the literature of that period.

Allegories and references

Although superficial, Christianity’s influence in Beowulf is palpable; Grendel, for instance, is Cain’s offspring. The enemies in Beowulf poem are not people from another breed, like in most other works. They are enemies of humanity as a whole, the bloody creatures who murder and terror. The poem can be expounded as a Christian similitude of the world, the fight between good and evil, life and death; in addition, the work includes allusions to the Old Testament. Although the poem’s general tone is elegiac, the author is not immersed in the desperate pessimism of some Icelandic sagas.

“Beowulf” is the only surviving poem of the “barbarian” peoples of Europe, the main backbone of which was formed before the adoption of Christianity. Although Beowulf is not referred to in other sources, the world described in the poem is historically precise. Loyalty to the leader and tribe, intrepidness in battle, and ruthless revenge on enemies are glorified in the work. Such episodes as the cutting off the monster’s hand, descent into the sea’s abyss, the battle with the dragon echo some Germanic peoples’ legends. It was customary to explain Christian implications by later processing the text when rewriting by monks for a long time.

Theoretical framework

A discussion about the uncertainty of some Old English words associated with Grendel’s mother or her dwelling (lake) present in the original Beowulf copy took place even among medieval scholars. Researchers can not agree about aspects of its emergence and patterns as these terms are ambiguous. Some of the discussions concentrate on what one knows about her since the author has never exactly described her outward. This knowledge includes Grendel’s mother origin from the biblical Cain (according to Abrahamic religions, he was the first murderer).

As some academics inform, her descent connects Grendel and her with giants and beasts of the so-called Mark of Cain. Others argue that the lack of a detailed description of Grendel’s mother makes her, in fact, a secondary hostile character and not a monster figure. Researchers have written many studies related to this topic as there was a lack of consent among them. Most of the researches and books have a similar key point, namely numerous translations of the equivocal Old English phrase des aglæcwif; in some cases, its translations were even opposite to each other.

The image of women and men in Beowulf

At the time of writing Beowulf, absolute patriarchy reigned in Anglo-Saxon society. The woman was deprived of any rights and privileges; unlike men, she had neither the right to vote nor even the opportunity to express her opinion on certain issues. Thus, a woman had a secondary role not only in the family but also in society. The main things that were parts of her duties included procreation and housekeeping.

Thereby, one has written a little about women during the Anglo-Saxon period of literary development. Thanks to the kennings found in Beowulf, one can judge what image of a woman was characteristic of that time and the attitude towards them. Among these are “spinner of consent,” “decoration of the home,” “keeper of the hearth,” “spinner the world “- a woman. However, such an attitude was manifested mainly towards ordinary women; queens were treated much better and had more rights. According to some scholars, queens were treated like goddesses, they could choose any man to be with, and warriors had no right to refuse.

The way Beowulf died shows the value of victory in the defeat, his portrayal is rather mystical. All treats of characters, in particular Beowulf’s, in the poem are hyperbolical. The main character is bold, and fearless, and at the same time respectable hero whose dignities have no reason to doubt. On the contrary, Grendel is depicted as a butcherly monster who kills just for his delight and feels neither mercy nor doubts. Such a contrast helps the author highlight their positive and negative treats.

Changes are not inherent in the ideal hero – changes in Beowulf do not occur throughout the entire narrative. The portrait of Beowulf as an equitable and kind governor is shown as a statement of the fact but not through the prism of description. The poem is perceived even more seriously since one has not much information about Beowulf’s changes from his adolescence to when he became a king.

Beowulf’s honesty and maturity appear when he helps Higelak, the real heir, take the throne instead of doing it by himself. His braveness and justice are tempted constantly, but Beowulf consistently demonstrates dignity. Personal renown and prosperity are much less crucial for Beowulf than people’s wealth; his death illustrates it. One often compares Beowulf to Odysseus; however, the difference is that Odysseus was a hero with a lost soul and of honorable birth. In each of his actions, the main hero represents the victory of good over evil, symbolize a strength that serves light and heroic spirit.

The peculiarities of women portrayal in the poem

The first of the women we meet in this work is Queen Wealhtheow, the wife of Hrothgar. Apparently, she is a stranger since the first part of her name (Walch) means “Celtic.” Some researchers point out that the Helming tribe to which she belonged comes from East England. She first appears at a feast in honor of Beowulf: “Came Wealhtheow forth, queen of Hrothgar, heedful of courtesy, gold-decked, greeting the guests in the hall.” (Beowulf, 2007). However, despite the secondary role, Wealhtheow is still the first to greet Beowulf at the feast, and, what is more important, she utters a prayer to help their savior, and not her husband. “God she thanked, in wisdom’s words, that her will was granted, that at last on a hero her hope could lean for comfort in terrors.” (Beowulf, 2007).

On the pages of “Beowulf,” one can also observe the images of other women. Hildeburh, whose son and brother were killed in the battle, is described as an unhappy wife. “Innocent both were the loved ones she lost at the linden-play, bairn and brother. “(Beowulf, 2007). The portrait and the fate of Hygd most clearly prove the work’s argument that the role of women in that time was rather controversial. Namely, nothing depended on her, and she had nothing to do but accept her fate, although she was young and beautiful. “Hygd, his queen, was young, a few short years at court; her mind was thoughtful and her manners sure.” (Beowulf, 2007).

One can see what the attitude towards women in those days was. It was also reflected in the literature, namely in Beowulf poem. The woman had few rights; they often suffered from the battles and been captured. It happened to ordinary women, but there was a different attitude towards queens. They were endowed with some power, and they were treated better, respected, and allowed a lot of things. All this was conveyed in literature through the portrayal of women and their images.

One can also establish the women’s part in the poem: they reflected both the general attitude towards them at that time and the bad aspects of war and hostilities. For example, through the suffering of a woman when she lost her family to the battles. In some cases, the woman may even symbolize the fight between good and evil, like Grendel’s mother, with whom Beowulf combated after defeating her son.

Results of the study

Consequently, one may notice that the attitude towards women when the poem was written has undergone some changes. These transformations are reflected in the literature, in the current case in the poem Beowulf. Namely, women were not even mentioned in writings before; now, they are given more attention. Likewise, the attitude towards them has changed, especially if it is a queen: she was endowed with many rights and treated with great respect. In other words, total patriarchy has somewhat weakened its position.

All this can be seen in the interpretation of the thesis in work: namely, based on the author’s strategies and remarks through the descriptive analysis method. Woman’s role in the poem and the way to portray them were analyzed. They served as a symbol of the fight between good and evil and symbolized the horrors of war. The topic seems to be interesting for further researches in the social context. Speaking precisely, how the evolution of attitude towards women was displayed in literature beginning with Middle Ages, ending with present days.


Beowulf. (2007). (F. B. Gummere, Trans.). Red and Black Publishers.

Cite this paper


EssaysInCollege. (2023, January 20). Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”. Retrieved from


EssaysInCollege. (2023, January 20). Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”.

Work Cited

"Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”." EssaysInCollege, 20 Jan. 2023,


EssaysInCollege. (2023) 'Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”'. 20 January.


EssaysInCollege. 2023. "Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”." January 20, 2023.

1. EssaysInCollege. "Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”." January 20, 2023.


EssaysInCollege. "Role of Women in the Early Medieval Epic Heroic Poem “Beowulf”." January 20, 2023.