All About Beowulf's Historical Context
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And, Deb, give us a little bit of sense of the context
in which Beowulf was written.
You mentioned that it was written
over the course of centuries
or edited over the course of centuries.
Run us through the process.
How was it, you know,
kind of literary stone soup
that people contributed to over long periods of time?
This is a story that was told
before it was written down.
Like almost all stories coming from that time period
and periods before it.
But there's really three cultures,
three different kind of time periods at play here.
First, there's the people that the story's about.
The story takes place
in, kind of, pre-fifth century CE.
That's when, you know, Beowulf and Grendel are living.
And these people are the descendants,
the Scandinavian descendants,
of the folks who were then telling the story.
So, the first culture is, you know, who it's about.
Fifth century Scandinavian.
Then, we have the people who originally told the story.
This is more like eighth-century.
So, you know, several hundred years later.
And these people are telling a story about their past,
about their descendants
before they came to England.
Or, you know, before they became the Anglo-Saxons that they are.
Then, we have the folks who actually wrote down the story.
And that happened in around the twelfth century.
And were these, like, professional scribes?
You know, I think of monks as being
the people who actually wrote down a lot of stories.
- Like, the church sort of sponsored -- - Yeah, not everyone could
read and write back then.
So it's, you know, one guy who happens to know
how to - well, many guys - writing down --
And, of course, what we have today has,
you know, gone through, like -- Got burned down
and, you know, lost, and this, that, and the other,
and put back together.
And the writing of it, just to clarify, was like
I don't know, octopus ink on lamb skin, or something,
- with a feather? Basically. - Yes. That's exactly right.
[ laughs ]
Yeah, it's not -- You know, they didn't have computers to type this out,
so it took really a really long time to put it together.
Which means that, even if someone, you know --
You imagine someone was told the story,
so now they're writing it from memory.
And then, on top of that, they can't do it all in
one sitting, because imagine how long it would take.
And then we lose pieces and everything.
So, when we're reading something this old,
we can't really --
We know that what we're reading is different than
the original story in at least some ways if not
- many ways. - Understood.
And I can't imagine someone unbiasedly
writing things down. I'd be bored;
- I'd wanna throw in all kinds of monsters - Oh yeah.
with four heads and whatever.
- Maybe that's how we got Grendel. - To spice things up. Yeah, exactly.
- All right, keep going. - So, we've got
the people who are writing it down in the twelfth century,
and what's important to remember about them is that
this is post-Norman conquest.
And Christianity has really seeped into the culture
a lot more at this point.
So, we -- The original story was being told
about people who, you know, we'd consider pagan.
And then, the people who were telling the story,
you know, weren't super Christianized.
By the time it was written down,
we're in a very Christianized world.
Which means there's a big conflict
between the pagan and the Christian values.
And we'll look a little bit more into that later.
And were the Normans Christian? Pagan?
- Yes, the Norman conquest brought a lot of Christianity with it. - Christian doctrine?
And the pagans at this time,
like, who were they?
I'm thinking this is Holgar Schmoe and the people who celebrated Halloween.
This is, yeah, this is Holgar Schmoe, yeah.
That's, uh, Beowulf, Grendel, Hrothgar,
all the characters in the -- In Beowulf are
these pagan -- Basically, pagan just, at that time,
and, I mean, still, we kind of use it today,
means anything that's not Christian.
Got it. Okay. Fair enough.
And that's about all we know about the context
of who wrote Beowulf.
If you guys have videos from the eighth century,
you can send it to us.
We'll post it in a second.
Who told Beowulf? Who wrote it? And who is it about?
How might Beowulf be considered a literary "stone soup"?
That's one of my favorite books.
What religious did the Norman conquest bring to England
and how might they have affected Beowulf?
Like who were they?