Gender Roles in Beowulf and The Decameron
The Anglo- Saxon epic Beowulf and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron tell very different stories, but nevertheless can be said to share one common literary element: the representation of gender. Both Beowulf and many of the stories in the Decameron represent women as being the subject to men in all respects. Beowulf is a masculine epic altogether, in which women are absent, silent or otherwise merely a tool that serves the world of men.
In The Decameron on the other hand, although women are present in all the stories, Boccaccio makes them the victims of his irony most of the times, picturing them either as adulteresses or as very simple beings that completely lack cleverness, like the woman who lets herself be persuaded by her lover that he is the angel Gabriel himself. However, in both Boccaccio’s tales and in Beowulf the role of the women is even more interesting to notice when the authors intend to give a positive representation of them, in the form of ideal women.
The ideal women for the two texts, Griselda in Boccaccio’s hundred story and Wealhtheow in Beowulf offer indeed a good insight into the way in which women were represented: they are intended to be positive figures, but they are ideal only insomuch as they are perfect tools that serve in the men’s world.
Thus, Beowulf is as Gillian Overing notes, an absolutely masculine epic, which focuses only on heroism. The world of men is accurately constructed: it is entirely composed of men’s wishes, men’s actions and so on: “Beowulf is an overwhelmingly masculine poem; it could be seen as a chronicle of male desire, a tale of men dying…There is no place for women in the masculine economy of Beowulf. “(Overing, 69)
Beowulf is the hero and later the king, who saves the Danish people of the powerful monster Grendel and of his mother. The very few women who appear in the story are mostly mentioned directly as instruments in the world of men, as “peace-weavers” more exactly, like Hrothgar’s daughter for example, who is mentioned directly as a “promise” to a certain man, as a means to bring peace to the kingdom: “Oft to the heroes Hrothgar’s daughter, to earls in turn, the ale-cup tendered, she whom I heard these hall-companions Freawaru name, when fretted gold she proffered the warriors. Promised is she, gold-decked maid, to the glad son of Froda. Sage this seems to the Scylding’s-friend, kingdom’s-keeper: he counts it wise the woman to wed so and ward off feud, store of slaughter. But seldom ever when men are slain, does the murder-spear sink but briefest while, though the bride be fair!”
It is quite clear that this woman will probably fail even in her modest role, as a peace maker, according to the prediction of the anonymous author. Wealhtheow, queen to Hrothgar is the only woman who is given a voice in the poem at all. Her two speeches, one addressed to her king and the other to Beowulf mark very important moments in the poem, and she almost seems to have a certain power. She advises her king not to adopt Beowulf as a son, since he already has two sons of his owns, and pledges him to his word by offering a cup.
She then goes to Beowulf and offers another symbolic object, a neck-ring as a reward for his feats of heroism and urges him to fight again and confront death: “Enjoy this neck-ring with safety, Beowulf, beloved youth, and make use of this corselet, of our people’s treasure; prosper well, declare yourself with strength, and be kind of counsel to these youths.
I shall remember to reward you for that. You have brought it about that men shall praise you from far and near for a long time to come….Here every nobleman is true to the other, mild of heart, loyal to his lord; the thanes are united, the people willing; the wine-drinking warriors do as I bid.” (“Beowulf”, 1216-1231)
In both these instances, the Danish queen seems to hold some power over the events and the world of men, since she performs such symbolic acts and since she herself declares that the warriors obey her. However, it is quite obvious that she also is an instrument just like the other women mentioned in the text. She does not perform her own will, but only acts as an ideal tool for men that takes the cup from one of them and gives it to another.
It can be said that Wealhtheow is merely a mediator and a peace bringer in the poem, just like the other women represented. As Gillian Overing remarks, in Beowulf women serve only as mediators for the alliances between men, either through marriage or through symbolic, minor acts: “While we have no way of guessing at Beowulf’s sexuality, or at the poet’s or the hero’s personal views on marriage, we cannot ignore the strength of expressed masculine desire in the poem.
Intensity and passion are located in the bonds of loyalty and friendship forged between men, and marriage is valued as an extension of this larger emotional context.”(Overing, 72) Thus, Wealhtheow is an ideal woman in Beowulf insomuch as she serves the purposes in men’s world, her will simply coinciding with the desires of men.
In the last story of The Decameron, one of the very few that actually have a “happy” ending, Griselda the modest daughter of a shepherd is married to the Marquis of Saluzzo. Her role in the story is strikingly similar to that of Wealhtheow in Beowulf, even if the context is very different.
In the story Gualtieri is a typical man, who as shown from the start, is preoccupied only with men’s business, such as hunting, and despises the idea of marriage: “…having neither wife nor child, he passed his time in naught else but in hawking and hunting, and of taking a wife and begetting children had no thought; wherein he should have been accounted very wise…”(Boccaccio, 837)
As the author declares, the idea of taking a wife would be completely unwise, suggesting that women are merely troublesome acquisitions for men. However, Gualtieri is married at last, but chooses the daughter of a shepherd, so as to make sure she will be more likely to obey him in everything: “He then asked her, whether, if he took her to wife, she would study to comply with his wishes, and be not wroth, no matter what he might say or do, and be obedient…”(Boccaccio, 840)
After a few happy years, he starts to deliberately torment his wife, through cruel acts, such as taking her children away and making her believe they are dead or humiliating her for her base condition in front of everyone. All this is done of course to try the wife’s patience and her limits in her total obedience to her husband. In the end, he makes her believe he is going to marry again, but instead brings her daughter, and the story ends well.
The moral is quite evident: Boccaccio attempted to portray his idea of the perfect woman, that is the woman is nothing else but an instrument of man’s will. Griselda is so modest as to consider herself unworthy of any kind of regard, and so patient as to bear in silence her husband cruelty: “My lord, do with me as thou mayst deem best for thine own honour and comfort, for well I wot that I am of less account than they, and unworthy of this honourable estate …”(Boccaccio, 842)
Her similarity to Wealhtheow is now apparent: both the queen in Beowulf and Griselda are ideal women only because they serve men properly, as instruments, that do not have any will of their own.
Thus, the heroines of the two texts, although they appear in very different contexts, are obviously represented in the same way, that is, as instruments that are in harmony with men’s affairs and desires. Their perfection comes precisely from their nullity as characters, as persons of their own will. Both of them are wives first of all, and are defined only through this role. Although their authors intended a positive representation of women through them, they are in fact just useful devices for men, with no real consistence of their own.
Risden, Edward L. tr. Beowulf. Troy: Whitston Publishing, 1994.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. New York: Signet Classics, 2003
Overing, Gillian R. Language, Sign and Gender in ‘Beowulf.’ Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.