Wealth, money, gold, property, possession, prosperity, treasure, luxuriance… You probably heard these words millions of times in your life time, but have you considered what they actually mean? What is their meaning to you? What is the value they hold in the world? How are they seen in our everyday life? There are thousands of questions that can be asked about this one aspect of life. The question I want to discuss in this paper differs from all the typical ones.
My question is: “How did the theme of wealth change in literature from the beginning of times?” In this paper I will be considering the epic, Beowulf that was composed by an unknown person during Anglo-Saxon period of time, and the Canterbury Tales, composed by Chaucer in the Middle Ages.
These works of literature give various purposes and functions to wealth, that we can compare and contrast. How is the theme of wealth in Beowulf different from that of Canterbury Tales? Beowulf is an epic – a narrative describing the deeds of a hero. It tells the story of Beowulf, who helps the king of Danes, Hrothgar, defeat the scary monster that holds the country in fear. As Beowulf, his team, and the whole country celebrate the defeat of Grendel, another monster, Grendel’s mother, comes to avenge the death of her child. Beowulf as a hero goes to fight this monstrous creature too, and defeats her. Then Beowulf goes back to his country, and becomes a king, ruling for good fifty years. Another problem raises, in Beowulf’s native country, the land of Geats. Someone steals a cup from a dragon, and the dragon starts raging and destroying cities because of it. As a good hero Beowulf goes to fight the dragon, defeats him, but receives an injury that leads him to death.
This story has been told through generations before people even considered putting something down on paper, so the original author is unknown. The details of the story were definitely changed with different storytellers. What we have written down now, is what we can consider the original story, because we can’t travel in time, and find out what the real one was, yet. Beowulf shows the culture of medieval Scandinavia and England, where wealth was an important aspect of life. The main purpose of wealth during that time was to give it to other people and receive it, usually as presents. The king would give wealth to his warriors, or build new things for them, like Hrothgar built a Heorot, where they could eat, drink, relax, enjoy their time. He did it for the purpose of ensuring their loyalty. If they had a good life under the rule of the king, and he paid them well, then they would sacrifice their lives for him.
This function of wealth nowadays we call buying people, because they don’t do it out of honor, love, or loyalty that they feel, but do it because you pay them. In Beowulf’s time it didn’t get out of control of course and people were rewarded for their deeds only. One of the examples of this rewarding is shown when Hrothgar is paying Beowulf for his work of defeating the monsters. “Then Halfdane’s son presented Beowulf
with a gold standard as a victory gift,
an embroidered banner; also breast-mail
and a helmet; and a sword carried high,
that was both precious object and token of honour.
So Beowulf drank his drink, at ease;
it was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts
in front of the hall-troops.” (1019-1026)
Here we see that Beowulf is rewarded with gold, armor, weapons, and he gladly takes them, because he deserves the gifts. Beowulf’s men who fought the monster also receive a reward from the king of Danes. Another function of wealth, that might throw you off, is paying a family whose relative has been killed in a battle, in order to prevent revenge. Family feuds, country battles, and other feuds, are being paid for in order to prevent another war or make sure no one is going to attack your kingdom. “And compensation,
a price in gold, was settled for the Geat
Grendel had cruelly killed earlier.” (1049-1054)
Hrothgar doesn’t want a feud with the Geats because their warrior was killed by Grendel, so he pays with gold, to assure himself. When Beowulf comes back to his mainland he presents some of the rewards he was given by Hrothgar, to his own king, Hygelac. This helps solidify alliances between the two kings. Beowulf of course receives rewards from Hygelac for his bravery and feats. The people of that time tried to show how much wealth they possess, so they would wear the best armor, carry the best weapons, and show their best properties to everyone else. In the end of the story, when Beowulf defeats the dragon, he asks his bravest warrior, Wiglaf, to bring him the treasures.
He says: “Beloved Wiglaf, go, quickly, find
The dragon’s treasure: we’ve taken its life,
But its gold is ours, too. Hurry,
Bring me ancient silver, precious
Jewels, shining armor and gems,
Before I die. Death will be softer,
Leaving life and this people I’ve ruled
So long, if I look at this last of all prizes.”
What he is trying to express in these lines, is that looking at wealth will help him die easier because he knows he worked for something. He also asks his people to build a Beowulf tower, in his honor, and put him inside the tower when he dies, with all the wealth he possesses. In honor of Beowulf his people would do anything for him, so they listen and do what he desires. A similar scene is shown at the beginning of the story, when a king dies, and his people put him on a boat with all the treasures he owned in his lifetime and send the boat away. Through these actions, the people of the medieval times show that there is no value given to the treasures once the person who owned them passes away. So whatever you had in your lifetime and died with will not be used by other people. Beowulf shows that the main purpose of the money is rewarding and solidifying relationships between people.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a collection of stories, the Canterbury Tales, in Middle Ages. In these stories a group of people (about thirty) go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. In the prologue, the Host gives an idea of each person telling two stories on their way, so it wouldn’t be too boring. The Host actually had an intention about making money while coming up with his idea, but later about that. Each of the characters tells numerous stories where they try to express a certain opinion or to teach a lesson. The idea of wealth in these stories, and throughout the whole book, is actually considerably hidden. Whether in Beowulf they openly describe the process of giving and receiving treasures and money, here the author tries to hide it, because most of the time it’s stealing or using machinations to receive money off people. In order to understand the theme of money and possessions in these tales, you need to take a closer look.
The idea of money is completely different in Middle Ages from that in medieval times, if you compare the Canterbury tales and Beowulf. When we read the prologue of the Canterbury tales, we can see what people possess, what clothes they wear, how they look, and we can now make predictions on whether they are wealthy or not. The same thing we do nowadays, by looking at how person looks we can judge on how wealthy he is. However, you can’t know for sure where the person received the money from, maybe he didn’t work for it. This idea of either working for your wealth, or cheating your way to money is expressed clearly in these tales. All the religious figures like nun, friar, monk, and others are extremely corrupt, and clearly they enjoy it and don’t want to change. People like parson, plowman, oxford cleric, are actually very honest, and work for their money, even if that means living poorly. In these stories we see how the author creates a clear comparison of the good people to the bad people using their jobs and their route to good life.
As I have mentioned before, the Host isn’t any better. He creates a competition for people to tell stories, and then he will choose the best storyteller and offer him free dinner at the restaurant the Host owns. However he is thinking ahead that all the other people on the pilgrimage will want to dine too, so they will need to pay for their dinners and that will make him a good fortune. In my opinion, making money out of this is his only reason to go on a pilgrimage. Even looking at one character, you notice that people think ahead to make their life more comfortable with the use of money. Pardoner’s tale clearly shows the desire for wealth of people, gold in particular.
First of all in the prologue the Pardoner confesses that he takes money from people, and he is not ashamed of his actions. He clearly tells stories to make people pardon their sins, and he earns money of off that. That’s his lifestyle. Then the Pardoner tells the story of three men who are sinful, and when one of their friends dies they go to avenge him and find death. Instead of death they find gold, and being very greedy, think of the ways they can kill other friends in order to take possession of gold all alone. Instead they all end up dying in the end, and the gold is no one’s.
Clearly the main theme is that gold equals death, because greed is a sin. However, Pardoner doesn’t care about it and he only tells these types of stories, to receive the gold from other people and have more to himself. Unlike Beowulf, this tale shows that characters here don’t use wealth for good purposes. Another character that discusses money is the Wife of Bath.
Her tale teaches a lesson about love, honesty, and chivalric deeds. However, in the prologue when she is describing her life she clearly mentions the effect of money on her character. The Wife of Bath’s life is based around love and sex. “The thre men were goode, and riche, and olde;
Unnethe myghte they the status holde
In which that they were bounden unto me –
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!”
In this particular quote, the Wife says that no matter how the person looks, what he does, or how he pleasures her, wealth will be the most important thing to her. In the prologue to her story she confesses that she loves sex more than anything, but she might love wealth better than sex. “Myn housbond shal it have bothe eve and morwe,
Whan that hym list come forth and paye his dette.
An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral.”
In this particular quote she says that money and wealth is the way to sex so we might as well consider her a prostitute. She sleeps with men for their money. One of her philosophies is that everything in this world is for sale. In the end she confesses that she has had four husbands who paid for her sex, and her last husband is a poor student. Clearly because she has made a lot of money from her last four husbands, now it doesn’t matter if her husband is poor, as long as they love and please each other, she is happy. This clearly shows that only with possessions and wealth she can buy the things she wants to do more than anything – freedom to do whatever she wants, love whoever she wants, but at the same time live comfortably.
Now as we have compared the themes of wealth in Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, we can look back and consider our question: How is the theme of wealth in Beowulf different from that of Canterbury Tales? In Beowulf we see warriors, protectors, soldiers risking their lives, fighting and then being rewarded with wealth. Wealth also ties relationships between people, and stops wars from happening. A perfectly good use of wealth, isn’t it? Now take a look at Canterbury tales, where more than half the characters sneak their way to money so they don’t have to work for it. Especially the religious figures! They are supposed to be committed to religion and follow the rules, but they are greedy. The Pardoner makes people give him money, and the Wife of Bath sleeping with men for money.
Clearly not the best ways to find a path to a happy and comfortable life, but the people are lazy and dishonest, who don’t want to work hard. Beowulf and Canterbury Tales have a clear theme of wealth and money showing either the good side of it, or the opposite. Nowadays people live for money, it is their meaning of life. Looking at these two stories, realization hits me. Money isn’t important! Just because you can buy what you want with money, it won’t make you as happy as the people and attitude that surrounds you. People who base their life on earning money only and not living for emotions are clearly wasting it. Poor kids with diseases in Africa have a better life, than businessmen who have all the property they may want. So now consider this for yourself: Is money important to you? Maybe it’s time to change that.