The role of women in Anglo-Saxon society
Women act in two important ways in Anglo-Saxon culture: they are both peaceweaver
. As peaceweaver, a prince’s daughter is given in marriage to a noble son
from another tribe in order to end hostility and feuding between the two tribes. This is the
situation in which the Danish king Hrothgar gives his daughter Freawaru in marriage to
the Heatho-Bard prince Ingeld. Sometimes, as presumably was the case with Hrothgar’s
marriage to Wealhtheow, the feud is successfully settled, but more often than not, feuding
is eventually renewed between the tribes. Both the Finnesburg battle, in which
Hildeburh’s husband, brother, and son are slain and she is taken back to her natal tribe (ll.
1066-1158), and the renewed hostility between Hrothgar’s Danes and Ingeld’s Heatho-
Bards, despite Ingeld’s marriage to Freawaru (ll. 2022-69), attest to the fragility of one
woman’s ability to weave peace between warring tribes.
As cupbearer, a woman performs a ritualistic, ceremonial role in which the tribe’s
cultural values find expression, relations among tribe members are established, and
relationships between lord and thanes cemented. The most complete example of this
occurs when Wealhtheow enters the hall bearing the mead-cup (ll. 612-41). Wealhtheow,
clad in treasure, wears this symbol of the tribe’s glory and thus herself becomes that
symbol. She carries the gold, gem-studded cup, another symbol of success in battle (note
later in the poem that the dragon awakes and attacks because of the theft of a cup).
Wealhtheow first serves Hrothgar, establishing his superior rank to all the company; she
next serves those in order of rank (l. 620-23), marking for all to see in what relation they
stand to each other. When she serves Beowulf, it marks the opportunity for him to
announce to the company his formal boast to defeat Grendel and to secure their safety (ll.
628-41). He professes the boast formally, before all, over the mead-cup, an act implicitly