Sunday, July 27, 2008

Beowulf Revisited

     Every time I go to the video store lately, it seems the animated version Beowulf beckons to me from the shelf.  I am resisting.  The image that I saw of Grendel's mother with Angelina Jolie's face gives me a sinking feeling not unlike the one that I got when I saw ads for the version of Beowulf with Gerard Butler.  Much as Gerard Butler proved in that film and 300 that he was born to wear leather, it was the beautiful witch in the ads that gave me the sinking feeling that seeing the film did not allay. 
     There is no beautiful witch in Beowulf; there is no witch at all but, if there was a witch, Beowulf who was of the Geatish royal family would not have been boinking her.
     Thus far, the movie that I think has the best version of the Beowulf story does not even call itself that. It is The Thirteenth Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas, based on the Micheal Crichton book The Eaters of the Dead.  The producers of this film made a valiant attempt to recreate the time in which Beowulf lived, which would be the sixth century.
     There are several reasons for dating it to this time and one of them was already discussed in my  blog of May 4, here, Beowulf himself was present at this raid and escaped the Franks by swimming the Rhine. After the death of Hygelac, his son Heardred took his place but he was killed soon after by the Swedes.  This is when Beowulf became the king of the Geats and ruled for 50 winters before dying while killing a dragon which had been ravaging his country.
     In Beowulf, there are more reasons for dating the visit to Heorot at about 520 A.D. (for arguments for this date, see Tolkien's Finn and Hengest), such as the story that a minstrel sings at the banquet to celebrate Beowulf''s victory over Grendel.   This is the song about a fight at Finnsburg where Hengest avenges the death of Hnaef, who is probably the great-uncle of Hrothgar.  Some short time after this battle (c. 452 A.D.), Hengest left the continent for England to participate in the Saxon conquest of the island.  This makes Beowulf possibly a contemporary of Arthur, since the battle of Badon Hill is estimated to be circa 500 A.D. (see timeline in sidebar).
     Most etymologies list the meaning of the name Beowulf as "Bee-Wolf" but I prefer the alternative in Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable which suggests that the name means "War Wolf" from the OE word for war, beadu.  Beowulf's name is probably a title or a nickname of a sort since he does not appear in Jordanes History of the Goths or Gregory's history.  Indeed, he does not appear under that name in any history which is why he is usually considered a fictitious character.  One would think someone who ruled for so long would have been mentioned somewhere else and Cassiodorus, Jordanes, Gregory and possibly Procopius as well were all alive when Beowulf is said to have fought and killed a dragon. 
     This is what I enjoyed about The Thirteenth Warrior:  they account for Grendel, his mother and even the dragon in a way that makes them possible in this world.  I will not spoil the movie for those who have not seen it yet.  Of course there is a large gap of time ( 50 years +) between the death of Grendel and his mother and Beowulf's death fighting the dragon but it does not spoil the story for me at all.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Vacationing the Medieval Way

      Summer is beginning to take ahold of my brain and I am starting to feel lazy about writing even though I have been reading more of Gregory of Tours and Procopius.  So this seems like a good time while everyone is in vacation mode or looking for cool ideas for vacation to suggest a vacation that was very popular in the Middle Ages:  The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella
     According to Clifford Bachman, "in the mid-ninth century Christians discovered in Santiago what they believed to be the body of St. James", the apostle.  This quickly became a popular pilgrimage site.  Santiago is Spanish or Latin for Saint James and Compostella is Latin based meaning 'field of stars'.  Interestingly, it appears to be what the Spanish call the Milky Way.
     There were several rallying points for pilgrims undertaking the walk.  Some of the more popular ones were Vezelay and Le Puy, where there were famous cathedrals.  The path takes you near Roncesvalles, where Roland died,  and past many sites that were pagan shrines before they were Christianized.  According to the entry on Wikipedia, Santiago was supposed to be the place where the souls of the dead gathered to follow the sun across the sea in Celtic legend.
    From St. Jean Pied de Port it is 780 km to Santiago, so it is not a vacation for the faint of heart.  People undertook the walk as penance for their sins.  The walk has become popular again as people want to do something different for vacation besides lounge around at a beach and to prove that you did walk the whole length, people brought back local items that they could only have gotten in Santiago or in towns along the way.  This is the origins of the souvenir.   These days, you can buy a passport and get stamped along the way. 
    This website,  has all the routes mapped out with photographs submitted by people who have walked the entire distance.  It has tips and more to get you excited or interested about doing something different like this.  I hope to do the pilgrimage myself someday.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Women

     I was reading a book recently called Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski and I was struck by something the author wrote about one little line in Herodotus that struck him, as well. Or maybe I noticed it because he made so much of it.  I know that Herodotus is an ancient Greek writer and Kapuscinksi was writing about his experiences as a foreign correspondent in the latter half of the 20th century.  What has this to do with the Middle Ages? Very little except that the treatment of women then was often equally shocking.
     While Kapuscinski commented on the horrors of the past contrasted with the banality of evil today, he spend an entire page mulling over the significance of this one line from Herodotus's description of Babylon's rebellion against the rule of the Persian Darius.
     "The revolt had been long and carefully planned.... When the moment finally came to declare their purpose, the Babylonians, in order to reduce the consumption of food, herded together and strangled all the women in the city - each man exempted only his mother, and one other woman whom he chose out of his household to bake his bread for him."
Herodotus made no further comment on this atrocity but Kapuscinksi had much to say.  It is to his credit that the act of murdering  all of the females in a city horrifies and haunts him.  We have at least made some progress. Another man might say "but this is war".
     Even a culture like that of the Celts where women had rights of succession, divorce and the ability to be judges and warriors had incidents like the one Herodotus mentioned.  Julius Caesar, in his The Gallic War, wrote about something similar. 
    The Gauls, of what would later be France,  were rebelling against the Romans.  Nothing in particular set them off, like the Babylonians, they did not want to remain under foreign rule and pay foreign taxes.  A charismatic leader, Vercingetorix, who succeeded in uniting them,  came along and the battle was joined.  At first the war went well; Caesar suffered the only military defeat in his life at Gergovia.  But, while the Gauls were under siege at Alesia, it was taking too long for reinforcements to arrive and supplies were running low for the besieged.  Vercingetorix expelled all women, children, old and infirm hoping the Romans would take them in and feed them, putting pressure on their supplies.  Caesar refused to take them or let them pass so as to put pressure on Vercingetorix.  He wrote no more about them but, in the footnotes, it is added that Cassio Dio did report on the outcome.  They all died, all of them, trapped in the no man's land between the two armies.  Their fathers, sons, brothers, husbands listened to their cries for mercy until one by one they all perished from hunger and thirst. These were not just adult women; there were children in the group. 
     The move failed.  Alesia fell and Vercingetorix was taken prisoner and executed in Rome.  The Babylonians lost as well and three thousand of their most prominent citizens were impaled as punishment.  Let that be a warning.  The gods hate those who would murder their women. 
    Were the Middle Ages any better?  The Babylonian story puts me to mind of The Avowing of Arthur where five hundred men under siege had but three laundresses to be their servants and fulfill their sexual needs.  With odds like these, one would think the women had their hands full but still they were jealous of each other and plotted to murder each other.  Baudewyn, who was telling this story to Arthur, let the last woman live, in spite of the fact that she slit the throat of one of the other women, because they still needed someone to do their laundry and service them sexually.  Would the murders carry more weight if it had been a knight she had killed?  Or would the need to have someone wash their clothes matter more than anyone's life?  One has to wonder what would have happened to the Babylonian women when there was no more bread to bake.
      According to Clifford Bachman, who wrote the excellent The Worlds of Medieval Europe, by the seventh or eighth century, women began to receive gentler treatment.  In times of famine, families practised infanticide usually killing the female children, leaving a severe shortage of women over time.  Rather like the shortage China will be experiencing in the near future.  With women dying in childbirth and the "growing popularity of convent life" (don't wonder why), the value of women went up so that the groom was paying a dowry to his wife.  He also gave her a 'morning gift' to compensate her for her loss of virginity. 
    However, the threat of sexual violence was such that women were in danger if they strolled out of their houses.   Bachman relates an account by Paul the Deacon, that certain Lombard women put raw chicken under their 'bras' so that, when it putrified it gave off a foul odor.  When the Avars tried to rape them, they found the stench too unbearable to proceed.   
      When I look around and still see cultures that value women so little as the Babylonians valued theirs, it horrifies me.  Of course I am a woman and I am the one who would be valued less than cattle, a loaf of bread or taxes.  Or my daughter would be the one because I at least can cook and do laundry.  I have so much more to offer than that; it would be nice to say with confidence that men in our culture, in our age do value us for more than that but I am not certain that this is true.

Beatles Song of the Week

Age, age, age, age,
Age gaudium tale est,
Age, cape otium,
Cape otium, cape otium
Omni aliquid celare habent praeter meum et simiam.