Life was harsh back in ye olde "Beowulf" days
The classic epic poem "Beowulf" comes to the big screen this week featuring a handsome warrior, a gorgeous monster and state-of-the-art...
The Associated Press
The classic epic poem "Beowulf" comes to the big screen this week featuring a handsome warrior, a gorgeous monster and state-of-the-art special effects.
But life in sixth-century Scandinavia was not that thrilling.
There was famine, disease and constant battles with raiders — a woman was considered lucky if her child reached the age of 4. Here is how life really was in Beowulf's time:
The time has traditionally been known as the Dark Ages, or the early Middle Ages, because it follows the fall of the Roman Empire. The overall economy in Europe collapsed, said Michael Drout, English professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.
"There was much less writing, much less trade, the population declined from plague," said Drout. "So there was a lower level of technology and economic activity."
There was also an end to urban centers; smaller kingdoms became more popular, resulting in fighting over resources, treasure and which culture would prevail, said Alf Siewers, an assistant professor of English at Bucknell University.
While Beowulf was older than 90 when he fought the dragon in the epic poem, life in the sixth century was short and turbulent. Because of the infant-death rate and early mortality rate, life expectancy was in the low to mid 30s.
"If you had five children, you would be lucky if two of them lived to be adults," said Michael Twomey, who teaches the poem in his medieval literature course at Ithaca College.
So how far-fetched is a 90-year-old Beowulf?
John D. Niles, who edited illustrations for "Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition," out this month, emphasizes that Beowulf is fiction. But he said, "some people really did live a long life. If you survived into mature adulthood you might continue for quite some time."
Villages were rural and small — fewer than 100 people, said Niles. The homes were made out of wood and ranged in size.
"Housing was not necessarily divided according to the nuclear family we are accustomed to," said Niles, who teaches medieval literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Rather different generations would have lived together and shared a similar place."
Each village had a mead hall, some half the length of a football field, where the king conducted official business, held important dinners and gave out gold to aristocrat warriors to show his appreciation. The halls had a central fire and a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape, said Twomey. Peasants were not welcome.
Beowulf may have been fighting a dangerous female monster, but in the real 6th century Denmark, traditional gender roles applied; women raised kids and made clothes.
"It would have been a contradiction in the mentality of that period for women to bear arms in a formal organized way," said Niles. "This isn't to say women couldn't fight in ordinary circumstances, but they weren't professionals."
Most of the men were farmers; only a small percentage were part of the professional warrior class, said Niles. But any man could be called upon to fight.
The upper class dined on good meat and drank a lot of ale and beer similar to the splendid feast mentioned in the poem, said Louis J. Boyle, chair of the English department at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
People also drank mead, a fermented honey drink, from hollowed out cows' horns that couldn't be set down once they were filled "so you either had to empty your horn in one drink or pass it around to others," Drout said.
Boyle said peasants ate mostly grains, which lasted throughout the winter, and vegetables. For them, meat was considered a luxury, eaten only on special occasions.
Professional warriors wore a helmet and a coat of mail, said Niles, and carried wooden shields and metal swords, some so expensive they were precious heirlooms. Regular clothing was made out of animal skin.
Men did not bare their body builders' chests and washboard abs.
"Exposing your body made you vulnerable and laughable," said Twomey.
However, Scandinavia has four seasons and the story could have taken place during a heat wave.
While there is a tragic mood in the poem, "the pleasure of the hall is sort of a synonym for life itself for the privileged," said Niles, with people sharing stories, singing songs, playing the harp, and of course drinking. Peasants made their own fun in much the same way.
"There was still a great deal of beauty and joy," Drout said. "It just seems that literature is filled with tragedy and disaster. Maybe because no one bothered to write down the happy things."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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