Comitatus: Grendel’s Mother and Beowulf
The phrase comitatus is extremely important in Anglo-Saxon culture and is demonstrated strongly in Anglo-Saxon texts. Comitatus means fellowship, particularly an allegiance between a lord and his men. This phrase refers to a very important tradition during the times of the Anglo-Saxons. It was so important because these men were constantly protecting their people from outside attacks and invasions and the comitatus was the bond that held these men together and that is what they lived for. The comitatus ensured that neither left the field of battle before the other.
If a warrior deserted his fellow warriors, he was essentially outcast by his clan. Specific Anglo-Saxon texts where the comitatus code is eminently portrayed are “The Wanderer” and “Beowulf”. “The Wanderer” is an Anglo-Saxon poem in which a warrior longs for old times, as he nostalgically ponders when he served his lord as well as feasted with his friends. The wanderer in the story has lost his fellow warriors and lord in battle, and now walks alone in exile. His sorrow continues even in sleep, “Often when sorrow and sleep together/ bind the poor lone-dweller in heir embrace,/ he dreams he clasps and that he kisses/ his liege-lord again, lays head and hands/ on the lord’s knees as he did long ago,/ enjoyed the gift-giving in days gone by. / Then the warrior, friendless, awakens again” (“The Wanderer” 119). He is completely consumed with loyalty to his lord and most of him died with his lord. That is how deep comitatus was seeded in some people during that time. Another prime example of comitatus is in the old pagan story “Beowulf”. It tells of a great Geat warrior, Beowulf, who learns about a horrible monster, Grendel, and decides to go slay him.
The land Grendel is ravaging is under the rule of King Hrothgar. One day Beowulf shows up and says to Hrothgar, “Now I mean to be a match for Grendel/ settle the outcome in single combat. / And so, my request, O king of Bright-Danes/…my one request is that you won’t refuse me, who have come this far/… with my own men to help me, and nobody else” (“Beowulf 50). With these few words Beowulf swore allegiance to Hrothgar until either he or Grendel was dead. This was an oath he’d keep with his life, to someone he barely even knew. Another example of comitatus in Beowulf, is when Beowulf is fights the dragon.
It has been fifty years since Beowulf defeated Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, and Beowulf is now King. Beowulf takes twelve men and all of the warriors abandon him except for Wiglaf. Wiglaf comes in and helps Beowulf win out of respect for his leader and his accomplishments. Wiglaf is one of the more subtly interesting characters in the poem. He exemplifies the code of comitatus. Not only is Wiglaf willing to die to defeat the Dragon, but he is willing to die to protect Beowulf. He is contrasted by the other warriors, who run away into the woods when it becomes clear that Beowulf will be unable to kill the Dragon without help.
He is similar to a young Beowulf in terms of bravery. While the poem ends with concern regarding the future for the Geats because of the death of their king, Wiglaf’s bravery leaves some room for hope. Comitatus is presented numerously throughout Beowulf and represents the ideals and way of life of the Anglo-Saxons. The lord and warrior relationship is possibly one of the closest bonds in a protector/protectee relationship. The comitatus code not only sets standards for the actions of the lord and warrior, but also turns a relationship of services into a bond of love and friendship.