Mini-Lecture 2 Anglo-Saxon Hall Culture

Mini-Lecture 2 Anglo-Saxon Hall Culture - Mini-Lecture 2:...

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Mini-Lecture 2: Beginning Beowulf : Anglo-Saxon Hall Culture and Later Christian Influences 1. The role of formal boasting in Anglo-Saxon culture Boasting, i.e., making public statements both about past and about future deeds, is not at all in the same vein as what we today would call ‘bragging.’ Boasting was part of a public ritual that involved pledges for future action. These boasts were often provoked, sometimes, as the Unferth passage illustrates, concerning past behavior but, more often, intended behavior. Boasts fulfilled the important social role of binding a thane’s service to some future need of the lord and were often made in response to having received treasure from one’s lord. Sometimes, as in the case of Beowulf’s promise to rid Heorot of Grendel, these boasts addressed a particular problem while, at other times, the boast had to do with promises of military service in raids or in exacting revenge for the slaying of one’s kin. When Hrothgar mentions his own warriors’ failed boasts to defeat Grendel, he also invokes the public ceremonial nature of the formal boast: “Time and again, when the goblets passed / and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer/ they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot / and wait for Grendel with their whetted swords” (ll. 480-83). When the boast includes mention of one’s past deeds, as Beowulf’s does when he responds to Unferth’s challenge, it is serving the purpose of demonstrating, by virtue of one’s past valor, that one is suited to the task at hand. Similarly, the derogatory way in which Unferth characterizes Beowulf’s swimming contest with Breca is intended to call into question Beowulf’s ability to defeat Grendel and to demonstrate that he does not have the necessary prowess for this deed. Boasting also has the potential to be unsettling and destructive. A small example of this potential occurs in the verbal duel when Beowulf remarks on Unferth’s inability to make good on his own boasts to defeat Grendel: “The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly/ as keen or courageous as you claim to be [i.e., as you have boasted in the past]/ Grendel would never have got away with/ such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,/ havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere” (ll. 590-94). A more obvious example of the destabilizing effect boasting can have occurs when Beowulf, while retelling his adventures at Hrothgar’s court to his own lord Hygelac, predicts future feuding when the Danes visit Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru at the hall of her Heatho-Bard
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Mini-Lecture 2 Anglo-Saxon Hall Culture - Mini-Lecture 2:...

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