Gender roles are based on what the social norms deem appropriate, which is based on the culture of each society. The gender roles of women in Beowulf and The Wife of Bath were very different because the culture in which these two poems were written valued different ideals. For the Anglo-Saxons, the gender role women followed was that of being submissive and servants to the opposite sex. For the Middle English community, women were deceiving and manipulative. In this paper, I will explain the shift of how women were first viewed as subservient to how they became to be viewed as deceiving and wicked based on what was taking place during that period.
To begin, Beowulf was written approximately ca. 500-700 A.D., during the period in which England was ruled by the Germanic tribes from Denmark who became known as the Anglo-Saxons (Rougeau-Vanderford and Page). The Anglo-Saxons were warriors whose cultural values were all about being heroic, brave, and loyal. These values made up the heroic ideal that every Anglo-Saxon man aspired and the main theme of Beowulf. In the epic poem, we learn that the society at the time was dominated by man, it was all about fighting for territory and for defending it against any harm as well. So, since women weren’t needed at all because they weren’t warriors, they were only mentioned or acknowledged if they were married or daughters of important figures like kings. It was a patriarchal society, so it was no surprise women were inferior and when they were mentioned they took roles of serving their husband and his guests like queen Wealhtheow and Hygd did.
First, we have queen Wealhtheow who was married to the king of Danes, Hrothgar (Beowulf li 612-613). As any married woman, Wealhtheow played the role of being the hostess of her home:
She greeted the men in the hall,
then that courteous wife offered the full cup
first to the guardian of the East-Danes’ kingdom, […].
The lady of the Helmings then went about
to young and old, gave each his portion. (Beowulf li 614-621)
However, being a good hostess doesn’t mean she’s a servant or submissive, it’s the way in which she does it. This is because she first served her husband and then the rest, which symbolizes she was submissive to her husband in attending his needs first. Not to mention, she doesn’t sit down to enjoy like her husband or the other males in the room until she finishes serving everyone, which represents she was also inferior to the opposite gender because their needs came before hers. In the same way, queen Hygid helps reinforce the gender role of women in the Old English community. She was the wife of king Hygelac (li 1926) and just like Wealtheow, she is described as serving her husband’s guests, as it states “passed through the hall, / cared for the people, bore the cup” (li 1981-19820). It is important to mention that both of these women were portrayed as “mindful of customs” (li 613), “courteous wife” (li 615), and “wise, well-mannered” (li 1927), which can help serve that the reason they were seen in such a positive manner was because they were so submissive to the dominating role of their society. This submissiveness can help explain one of the reasons why women in the Middle English community were seen so negatively, maybe rebellion against kneeling upon the male sex begin in this period.
As mentioned above, in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue women were seen negatively, portraying them as deceiving and manipulative. From Beowulf to the Middle English Period, about six hundred years passed, which means the society had evolved and with it the role of women. From the Old English period to the Middle English period people became more sophisticated considering England was no longer ran by a warrior society but instead by the rule of nobility, since at this point England was taken over by the Normans in 1066 (Rougeau-Vanderford and Page “Unit 4”). In a society that is no longer completely dependent on males, women had a little more space to be noticed, which was good and bad. Becoming acknowledged meant they could be heard, but at the same time that they would be critiqued for speaking up. When a specific role in society is taken, people become accustomed to that role, especially the role of women considering they were seen as submissive to their husbands. In the Middle English community, women are no longer seen positively but rather negatively, which means they no longer went by the norms of their old social role during Beowulf. Not to mention, during this new period the Church became a very important institution ((Rougeau-Vanderford and Page “Unit 4”) which meant women were now going to be held accountable to the standards of the bible according to the Christian church.
The gender role women played as described by Chaucer in The Wife of Bath Prologue was manipulative and wicked. The poem introduces a woman who has had more than enough experience in marriage, since she has been married five times (Chaucer li 6). Her 1st three husbands are good men who she simply manipulates and treats as she wishes for monetary purposes:
Me neded nat do lenger diligence […]
But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,
What sholde I taken heede hem for to plese,
But if were for my profit and myn ese? (Chaucer li 205-214)
Here, we can see that her role was no longer being submissive, she was the one controlling her husbands. She would manipulate them by sexually pleasing them ( li 202), it was through this method that she was able to control them by making them think she loved them when in reality all she cared about was getting profit out of them. This could also mean that women might have started gaining some control in their husbands, causing them to be accused of being manipulative like Chaucer stated to find a reason as to why they were beginning to dominate the stronger sex. Not to mention, calling back on the fact that The Wife of Bath was now a Christian society, she tries using verses from the Bible to justify her actions as acceptable when she states that God wants the society to increases and multiply (li 28), which can only be done by having sex through marriage. Also, that king Solomon married more than once (li 35-36), St. Paul who states she can get married as she wishes (li 49-50), and finally using Abraham, Lamech, and Jacob who were all holy men that married more than once (li 54-57). We can see that by trying to justify her actions in her multiple marriages, the church has condemned her behavior. This helps to explain why women were seen as wicked, anything that went against the norms of the church, opened the door to condemn non-Christian behavior. Also, noticing how she uses men to justify her actions can be seen as the start of a fight for equality and since considering women were seen as inferior, it only helped to add why they were seen so negatively. They were stepping out of the social acceptable norms causing them to no longer be seen as good due to their rebellion.
To conclude, the social ideal of 2 different periods in time helped the role of women move from submissive to becoming viewed as wicked. In Beowulf, women didn’t count for much unless they were married to a king or the daughter of a king. Their purpose was to be the hostess of the home and assume the role of obeying their husbands in their needs, it’s the fact that they were submissive that allowed them to be viewed as good wives. However, as time moved and progressed into a less violent and more church based culture, women in the Middle English community were seen as wicked and deceiving because the church condemned them for trying to get equality in marriage or in being able to have control in the marriage. It was these different cultural ideals that gave women a different gender role in their society.
- Beowulf. Trans. Luizza R.M. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition. Vol. A. Gen Eds. Joseph Black, Katherine O. Acheson, et al. 2th ed. Broadview Press, 2014. 65-106. Print
- Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise edition. Volume A. Gen Eds. Joseph Black, Katherine O, et al. 2th ed. Broadview Press, 2014. 300-313. Print
- Rougeau-Vanderford, Nichole and Maureen Page. ‘Lecture 1: Old English Literature.’ ENGL 2322.702. University of Texas – Permian Basin, Spring 2020.
- Rougeau-Vanderford, Nichole and Maureen Page. ‘Lecture 2: Old English Period.’ ENGL 2322.702. University of Texas – Permian Basin, Spring 2020.
- Rougeau-Vanderford, Nichole and Maureen Page. ‘Unit 4: Lecture 1: Backgrounds to Chaucer and Middle English.’ ENGL 2322.702. University of Texas – Permian Basin, Spring 2020.