While the world today seems filled with aggression and fighting, in the world of an Anglo-Saxon warrior fighting was a way of life. Whether to avenge the death of someone close to them or to honor an oath sworn to a “tribe”, battles were an enormous part of their lives. To not seek revenge was considered a disgrace, hence the never-ending excuses to rush headlong into a bloody feud (Delahoyde). The word “warrior” brings to mind images of great battles, and the Anglo-Saxon warriors were at the heart of many such skirmishes.
These great warriors held loyalty in the highest regard and swore an oath of loyalty to their lords. While at first glance this oath appeared to be a one-sided win for the lords, it was actually a mutually beneficial relationship.
The earliest records of the Saxons, a Germanic tribe from what is today known as the North Sea coast of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, are found in Roman writings discussing troubles during the second and third Century CE (Violatti).
The term “Anglo-Saxon” was not used until sometime in the eight century when it began being used in order to distinguish them from the Saxons who had stayed in Germany from those who inhabited Britain.
The epic poem Beowulf takes place in Denmark in the sixth century, but it seems the story wasn’t told until the seventh or eighth century. “At the time [Beowulf] took place, the Danes lived on the island Sjaelland at Lejre. Archaeologists in the area have discovered hundreds of magnificent halls that were built between the 500s and 600s, many of which could have been Heorot which is depicted in Beowulf (The History).
When attempting to narrow down the time period of the creation of Beowulf experts take into account the actual history included in the poem. For example, The Great king Hrothgar actually existed and the Ravenswood Battle was a real event that took place in 510AD. Because both are mentioned in the epic poem, it helps researchers narrow down the time period in which it was written.
Comitatus is a term used to describe the relationship between a Lord or King and his warriors. As a noun, comitatus is defined as a group of warriors or nobles who accompany their king or other leader (Comitatus). The wealthier the leader, the bigger the need for more security. Therefor, warriors willing to swear an oath to those leaders were usually greatly rewarded. If a warrior was willing to go into battle, without hesitation, in order to protect, defend, or avenge their Lord, they could rest assured they would reap the benefits.
In return for their loyalty, a trait likely more important than that it appears to be among leaders in current times, gifts of wealth and weapons were bestowed upon the warriors. It was not unusual in the early centuries for a leader to bequeath land to those warriors he was closest and felt most indebted to. However, the rewards went deeper than monetary gains as out of the warrior/king relationship there often grew a friendship and mutual respect.
While many epics have examples of this mutually beneficial type of relationship, Beowulf includes it as an underlying theme throughout. One of the first examples in the epic poem is when Beowulf himself responds to King Hrothgar’s requests for assistance. Beowulf feels it is hist duty to lend his assistance and his own men. The poem states, “My purpose was this: to win the good will/ Of your people or die in battle, pressed/ In Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness/ And courage, or here in this hall welcome/ My death!’ (632-638).
In return for his assistance defeating Grendel, Hrothgar will reward Beowulf for such loyalty.
Hrothgar is grateful for Beowulf’s help and promises to treat him like a son, “Now Beowulf, best of men / I will love you in my heart like a son / keep to our new kinship from this day on.” (946-948) He also states that he will bestow wealth upon him by saying, “Thou shalt never lack / wealth of the world that I wield as mine!” (949-951).
Both Beowulf’s willingness to run headfirst into battle against a vicious demon and Hrothgar’s promises of wealth and kinship are a perfect example of comitatus. Beowulf and his people, the Geats, were in no danger of Grendel in their own homes located in southern Sweden, and yet he didn’t think twice about heading to the Danish island of Sjallend to assist Hrothgar. For his part, Hrothgar promised rewards to Beowulf for his help with no guarantee that they would be victorious. Grendel might have done away with them all, but the Danish king put his faith into a long held loyalty with Beowulf’s family.
While reading it today it seems that the kings or lords were getting the best deal and the warriors who were risking their lives were receiving the short end of the stick, it needs to be understood that it was the normal and accepted “law of the land” at the time. Some of the most valued heroic characteristics are on display in Beowulf. Courage, wisdom, and generosity were all considered to be important qualities of being, not just a hero, but also a good leader (Wood).
When first presented with the plea to help defeat Grendle, Beowulf’s motive to help appears to be geared more towards defeating a problem no-one else has been able to then out of some sense of loyalty or reward. King Hrothgar gives him a bit of advice to convey the idea that his mission is about more than being the hero of a tale to be told in the future. Speaking to Beowulf he says, “O flower of warriors, beware of that trap. / Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part, / eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride. / For a brief while your strength is in bloom / but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow/ illness or the sword to lay you low,” (1758-1763) The advice given to him is a prime example of the almost father/son relationship that the king promises to honor in exchange for Beowulf’s help.
As with all great leaders, a central location is needed in which to meet with their people to convey missions and ideas. This was as true in the time of the epic poem as it is today. However, in the early centuries there were no office buildings or online conference calls available to communicate. When Beowulf learns of the trouble plaguing Hrothgar’s kingdom he calls for a ship to cross the water so that he can help. Once he arrives, he goes to the meeting place of the time, the mead hall. In this case, that mead hall is named Heorot, named so from the old English word meaning “stag” or “male deer”.
The mead hall is the central meeting place in the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. They would meet there to plan battles, share meals & mead, be entertained, and hear of local happenings. It was in this great hall, commissioned and owned by King Hrothgar, that a lot of the action of the poem took place. But, and perhaps more importantly, it was Heorot that was the heart of the king’s land.
In the beginning of the poem, Heorot is a beautiful gathering place that has not been darkened by evil, supernatural beings. “…Inside Heorot / there was nothing but friendship. The Shielding nation / was not yet familiar with feud and betrayal. (1016-1018). Hrothgar’s warriors would gather and feast in the hall and for the most part, it was a joyous place. If necessary, court was held there and perhaps some of those who held negative feelings about such proceedings could be blamed for the tragedies and bloodshed that would follow.
Such mead halls were not just the gathering places they first appeared to be. They were also a symbol of the leader’s wealth and power. Many times the king’s riches were on display in these halls. Things like gold, weapons, armor, and anything else they were proud of were kept there for all visitors to see. The mead halls also represented the unity of the warriors to their lords. In Beowulf the mead hall is the place where Beowulf has his first meeting with King Hrothgar and also where they feast and sleep.
The mead hall in Beowulf was once a place of security to escape the tragic, every day life dangers that faced the people of those times. However, all of the happiness and rowdiness that occurs there infuriates the evil Grendel who then seeks to destroy it in order to get a bit of peace. Following Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, the hall is left quite a mess. But, it doesn’t take long before Hrothgar’s servants and other members of the community are cleaning up the spilled blood, repairing the mead benches, and sanding the demon’s claw marks out of the woodwork. The “polishing up” of the great hall represents the “cleaning up” of the monster who had terrorized the people for too long. While it was possible to throw tapestries over claw marks and mop the blood away, the scars remained underneath it all just as the scars remained as memories for the people of the area.
The relationship between lords and their warriors were mutually beneficial ones. While it was, at times, obvious that they were fighting a losing battle, the warriors were honor-bound to join in and fight at the will of their king. The Anglo-Saxon warrior culture depicted in epic poems such as Beowulf showcase the heroic code of warriors at the time. In today’s culture it is hard to imagine such devotion to a leader, but in Beowulf’s time, it was hard to imagine life without it.