Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf

April 2013
4 black and white illustrations
292 pages
23.4x15.6 cm
Anglo-Saxon Studies
ISBN: 9781843843467
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
BISAC LIT011000, LIT004120

Honour, Exchange and Violence in Beowulf

Peter S. Baker

Argues for a new reading of Beowulf in its contemporary context, where honour and violence are intimately linked.
This book examines violence in its social setting, and especially as an essential element in the heroic system of exchange (sometimes called the Economy of Honour). It situates Beowulf in a northern European culture where violence was not stigmatized as evidence of a breakdown in social order but rather was seen as a reasonable way to get things done; where kings and their retainers saw themselves above all as warriors whose chief occupation was the pursuit of honour; and where most successful kings were those perceived as most predatory. Though kings and their subjects yearned for peace, the political and religious institutions of the time did little to restrain their violent impulses.
Drawing on works from Britain, Scandinavia, and Ireland, which show how the practice of violence was governed by rules and customs which were observed, with variations, over a wide area, this book makes use of historicist and anthropological approaches to its subject. It takes a neutral attitude towards the phenomena it examines, but at the same time describes them fortnightly, avoiding euphemism and excuse-making on the one hand and condemnation on the other. In this it attempts to avoid the errors of critics who have sometimes been led astray by modern assumptions about the morality of violence.

Peter S. Baker is Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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Table of Contents

Loot and the Economy of Honour
Unferth's Gift
The Angel in the Mead Hall
Three Queens
The Perils of Peacemaking
Beowulf's Last Triumph
Works Cited


Fills a notable gap in modern scholarship, providing what will undoubtedly become the standard entry-point for historians keen to build ideas about honour into their work. ... [It] is an engaging, well-argued and important book that will richly reward those historians who attend to it carefully. ENGLISH HISTORICAL REVIEW

Learned and provocative. REVIEW OF ENGLISH STUDIES

The best treatment of military and social conflict in Beowulf, which, with its powerful originality and wide horizons, will form a new and welcome landmark in Beowulf studies. SPECULUM

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