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Agency in the Finnsburg episode
Mary Kate Hurley

Distinctly different from its counterparts among the digressions in Beowulf, the Finnsburg episode focuses on the experience and trauma of a single woman: Hildeburh. Her peace-weaving marriage into the Frisian court fails spectacularly, and the result is a proliferation of death and destruction, including the loss of both her brother and son. This essay utilizes Actor-Network theory to explore the ways in which the Finnsburg digression exposes human community-building impulses as fundamentally flawed and particularly challenging for women. The episode lays bare the ways in which human communities in Beowulf fail by foregrounding the relationship between human beings and non-human entities that are part of the wider collectivity in which humans are enmeshed. The essay thus reveals that Hildeburh herself, a subject-made-object in the logic of the poem, stands as a kind of witness to more than just the poem’s criticism of the heroic ethos. Rather, her suffering demonstrates the interconnectedness that is both the condition of humans in the poem and their tragedy.

in Dating Beowulf
Open Access (free)
Daniel C. Remein
and
Erica Weaver

What would it mean to ‘date’ Beowulf? And what do we learn when we try? This playful pun on one of the more controversial terms in the scholarship on this poem allows a consideration of the range of intimacies generated by it as well as a conditioning of both the poem and its scholarship. Accordingly, this introductory chapter seeks to get intimate with Beowulf, drawing on critical discussions of affect, queer historiography, and contemporary literary theory in order to form a kind of dating profile that serves as a conceptual framework for the various modes of intimacy in and with the poem that emerge throughout the volume. Dating Beowulf coheres as a project in presenting a new set of readings – both critical and personal – that aim to generate new avenues of discussion for an Old English poem too often mired in critical impasses, and this opening essay frames the conversation accordingly, highlighting the various couplings and methodological approaches on display, while articulating the relevance of the early Middle Ages to affect studies and vice versa.

in Dating Beowulf
Open Access (free)
Troubling race, ethnicity, and masculinity in Beowulf
Catalin Taranu

Sometimes we find the deepest intimacy not in sex, friendship, communal joy, or grief, but in shared anxiety. Drawing on a constellation of scholars of gender, Critical Race theory, and indigenous studies, this essay pursues an emotional archaeology by tracing anxieties around masculinity, ethnicity, and race that found their expression in Beowulf. Re-examining well-known scenes in Beowulf in dialogue with a variety of sources including The Laws of Ine, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Exeter Book Riddles, and Guthlac A, the essay argues that such anxieties – and the poem’s anticipation of such anxieties in its audiences – register the ways that the Welsh and the Danes are gendered and racialized in early medieval English literature. Demonstrating the importance of this intersectional focus and re-emphasizing Geraldine Heng’s arguments for the need to use the term ‘race’ in discussions of medieval literature, the essay argues that Grendel and his mother may have functioned as a focus for anxieties about Welsh indigeneity as well as Danish invasions.

in Dating Beowulf
Open Access (free)
Robin Norris

Beowulf casts a long shadow over the extant Old English corpus, and the heroic verse through which we view the poem obscures a broader perspective on homosociality in early medieval Germanic cultures. Although Beowulf tells Hrothgar that it is better to avenge a friend than to mourn too much, the poem is full of mourning men, including Beowulf and Hrothgar themselves. This chapter rereads Beowulf with a focus on grief, masculinity, and the many sad men who grieve within the text: for example, when Hrothgar mourns for Æschere and bids Beowulf farewell, when Beowulf imagines a grieving father before his own death, and at each of the four funerals in the poem, especially that of the hero himself. The chapter then concludes that our obsession with emotional repression is an artefact of Victorian medievalism, rather than a reflection of early English heroic culture or masculinity, which privileged empathy. In this, Norris brings insights from Critical Race theory, especially from the work of Richard Delgado, to bear on the poem.

in Dating Beowulf
Animal language and the return of loss in Beowulf
Mo Pareles

Old English literature does not share the humanist narcissism that denies animals access to symbolic language. In Beowulf, Wiglaf’s messenger to the Geats comes close to translating avian speech in his conclusion to a harrowing series of predictions: ‘se wonna hrefn / … / earne secgan, hu him æt æte speow, / þenden he wið wulf wæl reafode’ (the dark raven … will tell the eagle how he surpassed him in eating, when he with the wolf laid waste to the slain) (3024–7). This boast is the only Old English ‘conversation’ among the beasts of battle, and only its outline reaches human ears, at the triple remove of space, time, and voice. Its explicit content eludes the messenger’s human audience, and its oscillating valences have vexed modern translators. This chapter examines the forms of interspecies connection that inhere in this shrouded moment, arguing that such intimacies – trafficking in the symbolic, never fully translatable to the human – can open up new ecocritical encounters with Beowulf and contribute to larger discourses of ecocriticism.

in Dating Beowulf
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The problem of exemplary shame
Mary C. Flannery

This chapter takes up the problematic relationship between female shamefastness and the model of hardy masculinity and considers its disturbing implications for female exemplarity founded on shamefastness. As Chaucer’s adaptations of the narratives of Virginia and Lucretia demonstrate, women’s shamefast chastity is not only under threat from masculine hardiness, but can even provoke that threat, either by stimulating masculine desire or by inviting men to prove their manhood. The chapter begins by exploring how Chaucer represents the irreconcilability of shamefast femininity and forceful masculinity elsewhere in his work. It then continues to the stories of Virginia and Lucretia, and shows that Chaucer and his contemporary, John Gower (c. 1330–1408), approach the theme of ‘manly force’ from very different angles. Whereas Gower invites readers to consider what might have happened in a Rome that was justly governed by chaste rulers, Chaucer engages readers in a deeply uncomfortable experiment in counterfactual thinking about female honour, an experiment that threatens to reopen the question of whether the binary of death or dishonour need exist in the first place.

in Practising shame
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Mary C. Flannery

The introductory chapter of Practising Shame lays out the problem of female honour in later medieval England: namely, its problematic reliance on a characteristic (sexual continence) that was revered in women, but also subject to suspicion. This chapter introduces the practices that underpin medieval understandings of female honour, and literature’s role in shaping and articulating those practices in later medieval England. In placing such emphasis on emotion as a practice, and in writing of shamefastness as a practice, Practising Shame contributes to a body of scholarship that is attempting to effect a theoretical shift away from the notion that emotions are something that we ‘have’ (or do not have) and towards the idea that emotions are something that we do. The book’s introduction outlines how shamefastness might be said to constitute an emotional practice and concludes with chapter synopses.

in Practising shame
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Mary C. Flannery

This chapter shows that medieval English conduct texts exhort women to be invested in being hypervigilant against the possibility of shame, and that they function as guides for practising that shamefastness, advocating and describing ‘manipulations of body and mind’ that are intended to intensify and communicate a woman’s sense of shame. The chapter begins by situating conduct literature in relation to the education of girls and young women in medieval England, and in relation to the chaste ideals to which medieval women were expected to adhere. It then turns to the conduct texts themselves, focusing primarily on four examples of conduct literature in Middle English and Middle Scots: the Middle English translation of Le livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l’enseignement de ses filles, and the poems How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, The Good Wife Would a Pilgrimage, and the Middle Scots Thewis of Good Women. The final section of the chapter demonstrates how the Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry situates its advice regarding how to secure womanly ‘honoure and goodnesse’ within a recognizably literary frame, one that recasts the pursuit of female honour in heroic terms.

in Practising shame
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Female honour in later medieval England

How can one know if a woman is honourable? In medieval culture, female honour rested most heavily on one thing: sexual continence, or chastity. But how could one be absolutely sure if a given woman was chaste? Practising Shame demonstrates how, in the literature of later medieval England, female honour is a matter of emotional practice and performance – it requires learning how to ‘feel’ in a specific way. In order to safeguard their chastity, women were encouraged to cultivate hypervigilance against the possibility of sexual shame through a combination of inward reflection and outward comportment. Often termed ‘shamefastness’, this practice was believed to reinforce women’s chastity of mind and body, and to communicate that chastity to others through a combination of conventional gestures. At the same time, however, medieval anxiety concerning the potentially misleading nature of appearances rendered these gestures suspect – after all, if good conduct could be learned, then it could also be counterfeited. Practising Shame uncovers the paradoxes and complications that emerged out of the emotional practices linked to female honour, as well as some of the unexpected ways in which those practices might be reappropriated by male authors. Written at the intersection of literary studies, gender studies, and the history of emotions, this book transforms our understanding of the ethical construction of femininity in the past and provides a new framework for thinking about honourable womanhood now and in the years to come.

Mary C. Flannery

This chapter explores how anxieties regarding women’s ability to feign virtue contribute to the idea of female shamefastness as an enemy to be besieged and conquered by desiring men. This adversarial dynamic emerges clearly in personification allegories of varying scale and complexity, which present Shame as a stubborn adversary who must be defeated by Love by any means necessary, including by force. The chapter begins by considering the origins of the enmity between desire and shamefastness in the nature of personification allegory, focusing in particular on Prudentius’s treatment of lust (Sodomita Libido) and modesty (Pudicitia) in his Psychomachia. It then examines how personification allegories such as the medieval French Roman de la rose and its Middle English translation draw on anti-feminist tradition in order to explicitly establish female shamefastness as an obstacle or opponent to be overcome by male desire. The chapter’s final section turns to Lydgate’s discussion of female shamefastness in the Troy Book, and demonstrates how his depiction of Medea’s ‘staged’ shamefastness and his allegorization of her subsequent emotional turmoil articulate the anti-feminist logic that puts female honour at risk.

in Practising shame