Anglo-Saxon and Germanic Culture: The Historical Setting in Beowulf

Updated on September 21, 2016
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The Society of 8th Century Germanic Warrior Culture

The historical setting of the epic Beowulf

Germanic warrior culture is the main backdrop of the epic Beowulf. The epic begins with Beowulf, the king of the Geats, as he comes to the aid of the aging king of the Danes, Hrothgar. It follows the titular hero form this point through to his crowning as the leader of the Geats, and ends with his untimely death defending his people from a terrible dragon. Although the hubris of Beowulf is undoubtedly the most important aspect of the story, the progression of the epic relies heavily on the aspects of Germanic warrior culture in which the epic takes place. Thus, understanding this society is essential to the story's analysis.

Germanic culture

There are four major parts of Germanic culture that will be discussed:

  1. Bards
  2. Paganism
  3. The warrior-king
  4. Christianization

This list is by no means an all encompassing description of the time period. But these topics are the most basic for an analysis of the backdrop of Beowulf; pervasive in the culture, interconnected by defintion, and influential to the direction of the story.


The Geography of 8th century Germanic tribes

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The historical setting of Beowulf

Germanic vs. Anglo Saxon

The term Anglo Saxon will be used almost exclusively in this article from now on, unless referring to a specific Germanic tribe. Anglo Saxon is a typical blanket term for Germanic tribes, like the Geats or the Danes, who arrived from modern-day Denmark and Sweden to conquer much of southeast England in the early 5th century and is the most appropriate term for this article because it best describes both the people from where Beowulf( the epic, not the character) originated and the characters of the epic.

Origins of the epic

Beowulf was originally written in Old English, a language that developed after the Anglo Saxons conquered southeastern England. Scholars debate the exact date of the conquest, but it is rather reliably placed around the 5th or 6th century. Old English is the precursor of modern English spoken today throughout much of the world. Not surprisingly, it is much more closely related to the Germanic languages of the conquering Anglo Saxons than to modern English, which in later centuries was subject to increasingly heavy influence from French and Latin. In the time period that Beowulf was written, it was a fledgling language that was seldom written down, and which came from Anglo Saxon languages that were almost never recorded orthographically. This gave Old English little literary clout compared to surrounding languages.

Area conquered by the Anglo Saxons

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Anglo Saxon culture

The Bard

Stories from Anglo Saxon languages were not written down in this time period because they were originally passed on orally through Bards. These great speakers were an integral part of Anglo Saxon society, responsible for preserving and reciting the heroic legends of their ancestors: great warriors, noble kings and familial lineage. Bards would tell tales with such prowess that their subjects would often gain mythical qualities. They functioned as the tribes historian in that the history their people was a vital theme in a Bard's verse.

Bards also had a connection with the society's pagan gods. As professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University writes in his guidebook to the Vikings, "the Germanic gods were closely associated with veneration of the ancestors...social customs and perpetuation of family traditions". Bards required an intimate connection with their pagan gods to tell their mythical tales.

Paganism

Paganism, at least in this context, refers to the native pre-Christian Anglo Saxon gods. As like any other polytheistic religion the Anglo Saxon gods represented specific phenomena observed by the tribes. WIthout the advent of scientific inquiry they created stories to explain the seeming randomness of their world. Many Bards undoubtedly wove these myths into beautiful prose that the tribe would invoke whenever they required outside help in their brutal, hostile, and uncertain world.Thus enchanting stories about the gods moving the moon or creating thunder entralled the tribesmen who gathered at the feet of the bards who told the tales.

Literary critics of the epic Beowulf, for example, cite elements of the god Ragnarok in Beowulf's actions. Ragnarok represents the end of the world in which all gods and warriors fought and died for their faith. Although Beowulf fights for the Chrsitian God, something that will be discussed later in the article, the theme of finding glory in fighting to ones death for your faith is evident in the way Beowulf fights Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon.

One can even find aspects of Paganism in Beowulf's Death.

Warrior culture and the warrior king

Beowulf also fights these monsters because he is part of a warrior culture. In Anglo Saxon hierarchy warrior kings reigned supreme. The leaders of Anglo Saxon tribes; like Hrothgar, king of the Danes; and Beowulf, king of the Geats were exalted to mythical status by their people because of their unmatched bravery, strength and vigor.The warrior king protected his people. He also served the important function of uniting the tribe into a cohesive family as a god-like figure. Therefore, Bards would speak of current and former warrior-kings with an exalted status.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature notes in its introduction to the epic notes that the most important relationship to a warrior king was a union with the gods. The gods imbued the warrior king with the skills to win in a battle and rewarded the king with riches upon victory. This union was purportedly the ultimate endowment of the warrior king's status. Elements of this pagan idea are replete in Beowulf. There are continuous allusions to beowulf's mythical abilities, like his swimming match with Breca, his hubris (which would lead Beowulf to his death) and to the riches that the gods will bestow upon the warriors after winning hard fought battles alongside their warrior king. The companionship between fellow warriors and the gods were among the most vital attributes to a tribes military prowess.

Christianization

Beowulf was written in a unique time period in Anglo Saxon history. By the 8th century, coinciding with the authorship of the epic, Anglo Saxons had largely converted to Christianity, casting away the polytheistic gods of the ancestors. But as previously mentioned, bards had been telling tales, the tale of Beowulf included, since before the masses were converted to Christianity. So the stories of old had to be fitted into the teachings of the new religion. The result is a blend of both religions. References are made to christian teachings, Beowulf invokes the monotheistic God of Christians, yet aspects of the pagan warrior culture remain as described above.

The Setting of Beowulf: Modern-day

Beowulf Today

Beowulf in modern-day Scandinavia

Interestingly, the pagan warrior culture that made the area known as Scandinavia possible is a far cry from its culture today. Modern-day Scandinavia is known for being among the most socially equal areas in the world. Furthermore, Denmark pioneers design that focuses on simplicity and functionality known as functional design, something that is the exact opposite of the hubris of a warrior-king.

The Epic has been recognized for its brilliance by modern scholars throughout the world. It abounds in linguistic, historical and artistic significance. The documentary below provides proof of its importance to posterity. Only the first part has been provided, but the other three parts can be found at the end of the video

Questions & Answers

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      • RyanBuda profile imageAUTHOR

        Ryan Buda 

        5 years ago from Windsor, Connecticut

        Norse and germanic culture is very fascinating indeed! Sometimes I feel that Anglo saxon history and culture doesn't get its proper respect. I became Very interested in it after being blown away by Beowulf. I just had to know more about the historical time period from which the book came. Thanks for the comment!

      • Spongy0llama profile image

        Jake Brannen 

        5 years ago from Canada

        A very nice read. I'm well educated in Norse history and mythology, mainly fueled by my intense interest in Scandinavian languages and their Germanic origins in relation to the origins of modern English, German, and Dutch... As a former English lit major, I never took up the opportunity to study anything earlier than the Early Modern Period. I would really like to delve deeper into older Anglo-Saxon tradition! I'm currently learning Icelandic and Faroese, which should make Old English a piece of cake ;P

      • LA Elsen profile image

        LA Elsen 

        5 years ago from Chicago, IL

        This is very useful information. Beowulf can be confusing if you do not know the backround. Will share with my husband. He loves Beowulf. Voted up!

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