All About Beowulf's Historical Context

Who is it about? Who told it? Who wrote it? Who are we? What’s the meaning of life? Do you know the Muffin Man? All these answers and more can be found in this video.* *Only three of these answers will be found. Please don’t sue us.

LiteratureBeowulf
ThemesIdentity
Morality and Ethics
Religion
The Supernatural
Tradition and Customs
Violence
Wealth

Transcript

00:15

And, Deb, give us a little bit of sense of the context

00:19

in which Beowulf was written.

00:21

You mentioned that it was written

00:23

over the course of centuries

00:24

or edited over the course of centuries.

00:28

Run us through the process.

00:30

How was it, you know,

00:31

kind of literary stone soup

00:33

that people contributed to over long periods of time?

00:36

This is a story that was told

00:38

before it was written down.

00:39

Like almost all stories coming from that time period

00:41

and periods before it.

00:43

But there's really three cultures,

00:45

three different kind of time periods at play here.

00:47

First, there's the people that the story's about.

00:50

The story takes place

00:52

in, kind of, pre-fifth century CE.

00:56

That's when, you know, Beowulf and Grendel are living.

00:59

And these people are the descendants,

01:03

the Scandinavian descendants,

01:04

of the folks who were then telling the story.

01:06

So, the first culture is, you know, who it's about.

01:08

Fifth century Scandinavian.

01:10

Then, we have the people who originally told the story.

01:14

This is more like eighth-century.

01:16

So, you know, several hundred years later.

01:19

And these people are telling a story about their past,

01:21

about their descendants

01:22

before they came to England.

01:25

Or, you know, before they became the Anglo-Saxons that they are.

01:29

Then, we have the folks who actually wrote down the story.

01:32

And that happened in around the twelfth century.

01:36

And were these, like, professional scribes?

01:37

You know, I think of monks as being

01:39

the people who actually wrote down a lot of stories.

01:42

- Like, the church sort of sponsored -- - Yeah, not everyone could

01:44

read and write back then.

01:45

So it's, you know, one guy who happens to know

01:47

how to - well, many guys - writing down --

01:49

And, of course, what we have today has,

01:51

you know, gone through, like -- Got burned down

01:54

and, you know, lost, and this, that, and the other,

01:55

and put back together.

01:56

And the writing of it, just to clarify, was like

02:00

I don't know, octopus ink on lamb skin, or something,

02:04

- with a feather? Basically. - Yes. That's exactly right.

02:07

[ laughs ]

02:08

Yeah, it's not -- You know, they didn't have computers to type this out,

02:10

so it took really a really long time to put it together.

02:13

Which means that, even if someone, you know --

02:15

You imagine someone was told the story,

02:18

so now they're writing it from memory.

02:20

And then, on top of that, they can't do it all in

02:22

one sitting, because imagine how long it would take.

02:24

And then we lose pieces and everything.

02:26

So, when we're reading something this old,

02:28

we can't really --

02:30

We know that what we're reading is different than

02:31

the original story in at least some ways if not

02:34

- many ways. - Understood.

02:35

And I can't imagine someone unbiasedly

02:38

writing things down. I'd be bored;

02:39

- I'd wanna throw in all kinds of monsters - Oh yeah.

02:41

with four heads and whatever.

02:43

- Maybe that's how we got Grendel. - To spice things up. Yeah, exactly.

02:45

- All right, keep going. - So, we've got

02:47

the people who are writing it down in the twelfth century,

02:49

and what's important to remember about them is that

02:51

this is post-Norman conquest.

02:54

And Christianity has really seeped into the culture

02:57

a lot more at this point.

02:59

So, we -- The original story was being told

03:02

about people who, you know, we'd consider pagan.

03:06

And then, the people who were telling the story,

03:08

you know, weren't super Christianized.

03:09

By the time it was written down,

03:11

we're in a very Christianized world.

03:12

Which means there's a big conflict

03:14

between the pagan and the Christian values.

03:16

And we'll look a little bit more into that later.

03:18

And were the Normans Christian? Pagan?

03:21

- Yes, the Norman conquest brought a lot of Christianity with it. - Christian doctrine?

03:25

Exactly.

03:26

And the pagans at this time,

03:28

like, who were they?

03:30

I'm thinking this is Holgar Schmoe and the people who celebrated Halloween.

03:34

This is, yeah, this is Holgar Schmoe, yeah.

03:37

That's, uh, Beowulf, Grendel, Hrothgar,

03:40

all the characters in the -- In Beowulf are

03:43

these pagan -- Basically, pagan just, at that time,

03:46

and, I mean, still, we kind of use it today,

03:47

means anything that's not Christian.

03:48

Got it. Okay. Fair enough.

03:50

And that's about all we know about the context

03:51

of who wrote Beowulf.

03:54

If you guys have videos from the eighth century,

03:56

you can send it to us.

03:57

We'll post it in a second.

04:00

Who told Beowulf? Who wrote it? And who is it about?

04:04

How might Beowulf be considered a literary "stone soup"?

04:08

That's one of my favorite books.

04:10

What religious did the Norman conquest bring to England

04:14

and how might they have affected Beowulf?

04:21

Like who were they?