On folcscare ond feorum gumena in Beowulf

In: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik
Redbad Veenbaas Faculteit Religie en Theologie, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Amsterdam Niederlande

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The usual meaning of folcscare in Beowulf l. 73 is “nation”, while feorum gumena refers to human lives. It seems impermissible for Hrothgar to either give away or divide his nation or to sacrifice a human life as a reward for his retinues. In the story of Herod and John the Baptist in the Gospel, the “bad” king Herod seems to promise or give what should be taboo for the “good” king Hrothgar. This story possibly resounds in l. 73.

In a 2021 article* called “The Beowulf Poet’s sense of decorum”, Leonard Neidorf elaborates on a passage from the beginning of Beowulf (71–73), in which king Hrothgar plans to build a new hall:

ond þær on innan eall gedælan
geongum ond ealdum swylc him God sealde
buton folcscare ond feorum gumena
‘and there inside he would hand over
to young and old all such as God had granted him,
aside from folcscare and human lives.’

According to a long tradition, stretching from the nineteenth century to the 1973 Beowulf edition of Wrenn and Bolton (100 n. 73), the term folcscare can be interpreted as “common land”, which refers to the old Germanic right of village people to commonly own land for their cows to graze on.

More recently, “ancestral land” is also considered to be a plausible interpretation of this term: in that case, folcscare would mean Hrothgar’s personal heritage. Feorum gumena would then refer to the staff who worked on those lands or to the king’s circle of close relatives. The abovementioned interpretations have an allusion to ancient Germanic customary law in common – a law which would limit the king’s ability to distribute gifts (Bammesberger 2019; Neidorf 2021:1–3).

Yet Neidorf comes up with another suggestion. According to him, the limitation of the king’s power is not derived from Germanic tradition, but is something entirely new: the king intends to create a new custom of his own free will. In this view, folcscare refers to some kind of land or property that the king could distribute among his followers; a privilege he voluntarily refrains from. The author notes that the meaning of folcscare contains little transparency and that he therefore mainly focuses on feorum gumena, of which he claims that it clearly refers to the lives of enslaved people. The purpose of line 73, in his view, is to characterize Hrothgar as a special king who repeatedly propagates monotheistic beliefs and has an intuitive, limited knowledge of what might displease the one God, in this case slavery. He sees this reflected in the virtual absence of references to slavery in the epic. For example, workers in the king’s hall are referred to by terms such as wera sub wifa (“men and women”), byrelas (“cup bearers”) and sele þegn (“hall keeper”). Only once, a character is mentioned who could possibly have been enslaved (þeo, “servant”, “slave”), namely the thief of the dragon’s cup in l. 2223b. However, through a damage in the manuscript at this place, þeo(f) can also be read as “thief”.

In order to make the king’s alleged unique attitude towards property clear, Neidorf contrasts this passage from the beginning of Beowulf with the Old Norse poem Hlöðskviða, the characters of which also appear in the Old English Widsith. Hlöð, a bastard son of a deceased Goth king, asks his half-brother Angantyr for half the kingdom and all the wealth it contains, including “slaves and slave girls and their sons and daughters”, whereas Angantyr offers him no more than one-third of his wealth (Neidorf 2021:4–10).

However, it is questionable whether Neidorf’s interpretations of folcscare and feorum gumena are the most plausible. To begin with, Fulk et al (2014: 119) indicate that the usual meaning of folcscare is “nation” or “state”. According to them, this could imply that Hrothgar is not allowed to confer the rule of the nation upon another by his sole choice: the consent of the witan (the ‘wise men’ of the king’s council) seems to have been required.

In that case, whoever lands and the associated personnel are allocated to, remain subordinate to the nation and the king. Furthermore, feorum gumena seems not to refer primarily to the deprivation of liberty or the transfer of enslaved personnel1, but to “lives of men” or “human lives”. If a lord gave land as a reward to one of his retainers, probably the people who lived there, especially if unfree, would also be included. Therefore, it is more likely that the king was either not permitted or did not consider it permissible for him to sacrifice a human life as a reward for a retinue who harbored enmity against that person.

There is a story in the Bible in which a “bad” king seems to promise or give exactly that, what would be a no go for Hrothgar. In Mark 6:14–29 king Herod throws a banquet for all his notables, where his new wife’s daughter pleases the company with her dancing. He promises to give her whatever she wants, licet dimidium regni mei (“if it were half my kingdom”). She then asks for the head of John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod for openly criticizing the marriage to his brother’s wife. This saddens Herod, for he admires John, but he feels compelled to keep his promise to the young woman, who has been incited by her mother. It is possible that the poet of Beowulf was inspired by this Bible story, by mentioning (a division of) the kingdom and human lives as gifts that were an absolute taboo for a “good” king like Hrothgar.

There are many writings with different views on the religious aspects of the Beowulf (Neidorf 2021: 4 n. 11; Bazelmans 1999: 69–110; cf. Meens 2015, 586–589). However, there exists a considerable consensus on the idea that the poet attributes a monotheistic intuition to “good” kings or chieftains such as Hrothgar and Beowulf in the poem, in the manner of the patriarchs in the Old Testament. For that reason, the poet of Beowulf only explicitly refers to passages from the Book of Genesis: Kain’s murder of his brother and the flood. This does not imply, of course, that he was ignorant of the rest of the Bible. The connection of the descendants of Cain to the devil is drawn from the New Testament (Cavill 2004, 19). The main characters in Beowulf are aware of the Last Judgment that awaits them after death. Instead of a cruel fate that forces them to choose between two evils as was often the case in the pre-Christian epics, they believe in a God who rules over the world and supports a morally good hero like Beowulf in his fight against evil forces such as Grendel and his mother (Neidorf 2022, 16–23; Irving 1997, 179). The poem adheres to the ideals of an aristocratic warrior class with its greed for glory on the battlefield and the right to avenge the death of a relative or friend, but it renounces excesses of old norms: killing relatives, breaking oaths and unbridled aggression are sharply disapproved of, as is oferhygda (“overconfidence”, l. 1740b), which can threaten a hitherto successful leader. Furthermore, new norms such as courteous behavior, self-control and friendliness are introduced (Neidorf 2022, 113–133). These qualities are attributed to the ‘good ancestors’, who are the main characters of the poem. It is plausible that this pre-migration view of “good” ancestors was influenced by a school of Irish theology which idealized their pre-Christian ancestors. According to this school of thought, these ancestors would have pursued the “natural good” throughout their lives and, through the use of reason, would have come to know the only true God. They would have renounced the worshipping of idols too. This Irish school of thought was inspired by texts by Paul from the Epistle to the Romans (1:19; 2:13–16), which show a positive expectation of the Last Judgment for this category of heathens (Donahue 1965, 58–60; Meens 2015, 592–3).

Fulk et al (2014: CXXI; cf. Niles 1983:32–48) assume that the poet was a traditional singer. His mastery of the traditional sources of alliterative epic poetry is unparalleled and therefore indicates a great amount of training experience and experience in this craft. He certainly had some knowledge, but this does not mean that the poet was a Latin scholar cleric who imitated an indigenous poetic style from which he had been estranged through his education (cf. Andersson 1997). He probably composed his poem for an audience of aristocrats situated in one of the great courts of the Anglo-Saxon period. An example of such a court from the time of the poem’s origin – roughly the first half of the eighth century – is the court of Æthelbald of Mercia, where no doubt aristocrats could not behave in an uncontrolled manner in the presence of the king (Neidorf 2022, 65–6).

However, to write down his poem, the poet needed one or more clergymen who could write from an early age. Even if this singer had learned to write a little later in life, it is unlikely that he would take care of the documentation himself due to the high level required. Moreover, Parry and Lord’s research has shown that self-documented poems by traditional oral singers were inferior in all respects to orally dictated poems (Lord 2018 [1960], 149). He may have had to appeal to a monastery for the help of one or more clergymen with sufficient writing skills. According to Wormald (2006 [1978], 58; cf. Black 2007), the boundaries between royal courts, for example that of Mercia, and monasteries were blurred at that time, especially in monasteries that were considered royal family property. Christianity had meanwhile been successfully embraced by a warrior nobility that had no intention of drastically changing its way of life, but was willing to adapt it to what was acceptable to the new faith. At that time, an epic like Beowulf would not have been an anomaly, but a common way of reconciling noble and Christian values. The clergy involved in the documentation of the epopee could provide the poet with the information he needed from Biblical and other religious sources to give his poem greater authority.

Kings had to meet other requirements too, such as leniency and wisdom, while respecting the traditional task of protecting the people against attacks. Leneghan (2020, 214–30) draws a parallel with Old Testament kings, especially David and Solomon. David was a man after the heart of God and Solomon was known for his wisdom. Saul, on the other hand, lost the favor of the Lord because he lacked moral qualities. But why not also think of the notorious kings of the Gospels in this regard? They were negative examples for rulers who trusted God in their behaviour. One of these examples was Herod Antipas, who put John the Baptist to death.

In another epic poem in the vernacular, the nineth century Heliand, the story of this Herod is rendered by using a traditional theme: a drinking party in a hall. The noble guests of the king “gisâhun iro bâggeƀon / uuesen an uunneon. Drôg man uuîn an flet / skîri mid scâlun, skenkeon huurƀun / gengun mid goldfatun: gaman uuas thar inne / hlûd an thero hallu, heliðos drunken.” (Hel. 2738b-42).2 The Old Saxon Gospel epic was also, at least partially, aimed at a target group of noble laymen (Rembold 2017: 182–190) and contains here evident similarities with the drinking parties as depicted in Beowulf: the hall, the drinking, the merriment, the noble company, the circulation of the cupbearers, the king as giver of rings and other gifts, the presence of distinguished women, the beautiful entourage, performances and oaths. As in Beowulf, drinking in Heliand is positively related to a cheerful mood, whereas a critical note is added on the loose lips that can be caused by it. Herod is uuînu giuulenkid (“overconfident with wine”) (Hel. 2747a), when he makes his disastrous promise and Unferth’s behavior is disapproved, because he failed to keep his promise to attack Grendel; a promise that he wine druncen made (Beow. 1467a; Carlson 2019: 62–69; Magennis 1985: 129–133). This rendering as a traditional drinking party theme in Heliand illustrates how an epic poet in the vernacular could become inspired by the story of Herod. It is possible that this was also the case for the poet of Beowulf – or his clerical environment – while composing line 73, indicating that Hrothgar was no Herod.


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I would like to thank Rolf Bremmer, my guide in the world of Old English literature, Thijs Porck, who inspired me to write this article and my daughter Myrte Veenbaas, who took care of translating this article into English.


Neidorf (2021: 5 n.12) quotes a statement by Pelteret that the church in the Middle Ages never condemned the institution of slavery. The poet of Beowulf focuses almost exclusively on kings and other noble chieftains and their also often noble retinue (Bazelmans 1999: 112; 138). It is therefore possible that he took the existence of lower classes for granted. However, the danger for subordinates of losing one’s lord is emphasized in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems. The poet is for instance aware of what may be the fate of a people without a good and strong king: hy[n]ðo ond hæf(t)nyð (“humiliation and imprisonment”) (l. 3155). On the tripartite division of nobles, freemen and slaves in 7th century Kentish and West Saxon legislation see e.g. Blair 1983: 259–261.


“saw their ring-giver/being in joy. One carried wine into the drinking-hall,/pure in bowls. They went to pour,/walked with gold vessels. It was pleasant in there,/loud in the hall. Heroes drank.” Translation Dewey (2011: 88).

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