Study Guide

Beowulf Tradition and Customs

By Unknown

Tradition and Customs

And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere. (20-25)

Even before we've met Beowulf himself, while we're still hearing about the great kings of the Spear-Danes from the past, the narrator reminds us of an important custom: the giving of gifts. In this world, if princes are generous with their wealth and treasures, they're more likely to have faithful warriors surrounding them.

Wulfgar replied, a Wendel chief
renowned as a warrior, well known for his wisdom
and the temper of his mind: "I will take this message,
in accordance with your wish, to our noble king,
our dear lord, friend of the Danes,
the giver of rings. I will go and ask him
about your coming here, then hurry back
with whatever reply it pleases him to give." (348-355)

There are many passages like this in Beowulf – scenes where people come and go, introduce themselves to each other, and introduce other people to people they already know, carry messages, and so on. What's the point? Well, medieval Scandinavian warriors may have been tough, brutal men who spent most of their time fighting, feasting, and sleeping it off, but they were also very formal and organized. Protocol had to be observed; introductions had to be made in the right way.

Wealhtheow came in,
Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies.
Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
the men in hall, then handed the cup
first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian,
urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
because he was dear to them. And he drank it down
like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.
So the Helming woman went on her rounds,
queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
offering the goblet to all ranks,
treating the household and the assembled troop
until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand. (612-624)

High-class women play a subtle but important role in early medieval culture. As Hrothgar's queen, Wealhtheow spends her time at the feast circulating, offering a goblet full of mead to each warrior in turn, creating connections between the men and signaling to everyone where they rank in the hierarchy. This is a traditional duty that helps her to fulfill her function as a "peace-weaver," a lady who uses her rank and position to reinforce alliances between tribes.

This formal boast by Beowulf the Geat
pleased the lady well and she went to sit
by Hrothgar, regal and arrayed with gold. (639-641)

You might get irritated when people around you make boasts, but for Beowulf and the warriors around him, doing so is an important traditional part of their culture – it's the way they tell each other what their qualifications are without passing out resumes.

Meanwhile, a thane
of the king's household, a carrier of tales,
a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
to a strict metre. The man started
to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf's
triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,
entwining his words. (866-873)

Immediately after Beowulf's fight with Grendel, the Danish minstrel begins composing a song, using established poetic clichés, about his great deeds. The spontaneous composition of new ballads celebrating local heroes was traditional in medieval Scandinavian culture. The bard probably knows a set series of phrases that fit the meter of his song, and he jumbles them around, adding details of the most recent hero's activities, in order to sing about "a new theme."

Then Halfdane's son presented Beowulf
with a gold standard as a victory gift,
an embroidered banner; also breast-mail
and a helmet; and a sword carried high,
that was both precious object and token of honour. (1019-1023)

Geatish and Danish warriors are constantly giving one another rich gifts of gold and armor. Kings might give these to their "thanes," or lords, in thanks for their service; thanes might give them to kings in order to bring them honor in glory; warriors steal them from one another in battle.

The battle-famed king, bulwark of his earls,
ordered a gold-chased heirloom of Hrethel's
to be brought in; it was the best example
of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury.
This he laid on Beowulf's lap
and then rewarded him with land as well,
seven thousand hides, and a hall and a throne.
Both owned land by birth in that country,
ancestral grounds; but the greater right
and sway were inherited by the higher born. (2190-2199)

Beowulf and King Hygelac (whose father, Hrethel, owned the sword described in this passage) are both lords – they both "owned land by birth in that country," Geatland. However, Hygelac has a slightly more prestigious family, so he has the right to be king over Beowulf, even though they're about equally rich.

"Order my troop to construct a barrow
on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.
It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness
and be a reminder among my people –
so that in coming times crews under sail
will call it Beowulf's Barrow, as they steer
ships across the wide and shrouded waters." (2802-2808)

The building of barrows, or huge mounds of earth filled with treasures, is a traditional way for Scandinavian and European tribes in the Middle Ages to commemorate great men and women after their deaths. You can think of barrows as a combination of tomb and memorial. Beowulf's Barrow is going to be built on top of the spot where his funeral pyre burned.

"So this bad blood between us and the Swedes,
this vicious feud, I am convinced,
is bound to revive; they will cross our borders
and attack in force when they find out
that Beowulf is dead." (2999-3003)

Blood feuds were, sadly, a traditional part of early medieval culture, too. Every time a man from one tribe kills a man from another tribe, it's possible that the revenge killings will eventually escalate into a full-scale war. At the end of Beowulf, a Geatish messenger predicts that, with the strong king Beowulf dead, another blood feud will break out between the Geats and their rival tribe, the Swedes.

Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
chieftain's sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be conveyed from his bodily home. (3169-3177)

Beowulf's lords celebrate his life by retelling the stories of his great deeds, a traditional way of mourning and preserving the memory of a great man at the same time.