Ruling Women: Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Literature

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Ruling Women: Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Literature Stacy S. Klein University of Notre Dame Press, 2006

Stacy Klein, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University, here offers us an engaging sociological study of the status of women in Anglo-Saxon England. In doing so she acknowledges a little appreciated fact - that women were regarded quite differently in early Germanic culture from the way that they were seen by the early Christian church. While male and female roles were generally well differentiated in traditional German society, with the husband being the hausbondr or head of the household and the wife the "giver of food," or manager of the household, Germanic culture stressed the importance of good heredity, not just in the male line, but also in the female line. As the mother of the next generation, a wife had status and it was highly desirable that a wife should come from a respected lineage. Early Christianity reflected its Middle Eastern origin, where women tended to be regarded as possessions and the objects of male pleasure - and a man might just as readily accept the offspring of female slaves as his heirs. By contrast, in Germanic culture women enjoyed a high status because there was a belief in inherited hamingja or ability, and children were believed to inherit their abilities from both the father's and the mother's lineages. Although the common freeman might not have any opportunity to choose a wife from a famed lineage, the belief in the inheritance of the "luck force" seems to have permeated the entire society, and nobility of birth was an essential for successful leadership.

Klein does not go into all this, of course, because she is focusing on Christianized Anglo-Saxon literature; but the cultural background comes through clearly in her writing. Cnut, a Danish king, took an Anglo-Saxon princess for his wife, and honored her for her lineage, seeing her noble ancestry as a way to win respect from the English. By contrast, Klein points out that Bede, a Christian monk, tends always to play down the importance of Anglo-Saxon queens precisely because they are female. While church documents attempt to present biblical women as role models for Anglo-Saxon women, and suggest a male dominance over reclusive females, recent scholarship has shown that the reality was not as they represented it: maybe that is the way they thought it ought to be, but there is much evidence to show that Anglo-Saxon women were more like the Icelandic women, and quite capable of assuming a major role in society.

The Augustinian tradition not only saw women as inferior to men, but even as potential tools of the devil - sex being a worldly temptation. …