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Female characterisation in Old English poetry Klinck, Anne Lingard

Abstract

A survey of Old English poetry suggests that greater originality is to be found in the presentation of situations involving female, rather than exclusively male, characters. This phenomenon can be related to a double background of social and literary conditions. An investigation of the social position of Anglo-Saxon women on the basis of contemporary historical records reveals that, contrary to the received opinion, the status of Anglo-Saxon women was mainly a subordinate and passive one. However, there are certain exceptions to the general rule, and the position of women improved in the course of the era. An examination of the techniques of characterisation in Old English poetry shows that they are based on a series of contrasting and interlocking stereotypes, which, allowing for a degree of archaism and selectivity, for the most part correspond to the typical conditions of actual life. Almost all the examples of significant departures from the stereotypes occur in association with women characters. The proverbial poetry and the poems treating traditional Germanic subjects present some rather sketchy portraits of women based on the stereotype of the good queen. However, the highly skilled "Beowulf" poet takes this standard type and uses it for his own ends: as a vehicle of pathos and tragic irony in the poem. The poems belonging to the "saint's life" genre utilise the other main female stereotype: the saint. Because the outlines of this type are rigid and unnatural, little individual characterisation is to be found within this category. The two Old English love lyrics, "The Wife's Lament" and "Wulf and Eadwacer", take the traditional subject of exile, and, with considerable psychological insight, apply it to a new situation: the separation, not of a warrior from lord and comrades, but of a woman from husband or lover. The most striking examples of originality are to be found in the temptation scene of "Genesis B" and in Division VII of "Christ I". Here, the encounters between Adam and Eve, and Joseph and Mary, respectively, are treated with freedom, and a realism most unusual in Old English poetry. The explanation for the greater originality present in the treatment of female characters, and situations involving them, lies in the passive roles to which women were normally confined, both in Old English poetry and in Anglo-Saxon society. This passivity led the poets into a deeper exploration of thought and feeling, and into a portrayal of intimate relationships not provided for by the ready-made traditions of the poetry. Paradoxically, the very category of female characters which is not restricted to a passive role, i.e., that containing the saints, is the most rigid and least lifelike. If we leave out the saints' poems, it is possible to show a chronological development in the pattern of female characterisation. The proverbial poetry and the poetry on traditional Germanic themes constitute an early stratum, the two love poems are somewhat later, and "Genesis B" and "Christ I" latest of all. A corresponding increase in psychological insight can be traced in these three groups. A growing humanism in the Anglo-Saxon era is, thus, reflected in the poetry in an increasing interest in the situation of passive, female characters. This development foreshadows wider movements in medieval Europe, notably, the rise of the lyric, and the growth of the literature of courtly love.

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