Beowulf is one of the earliest epic poems. It tells a classic tale of a great hero. The style of the epic reflects a much earlier writing style found in the Viking sagas. Yet the story is that of a Danish King. Literature and art are the keys to understanding society. Art is not random, but rather is a product of the society in which it lives. Beowulf is a hero in the society that produced him. It is not known it Beowulf is an exaggeration of a real king, or if he is simply a composite of the values that the society held dear. We learn much about Beowulf through this epic. Through the following research we will examine this idea more carefully. Through examination of other medieval works, a composite will be created of medieval society expected of their leaders. It will support the thesis that Beowulf is a composite of the desirable traits that a medieval leader should possess.
In the last four lines of the poem we learn of four virtues that the men use to describe Beowulf. They call him, "Mild in his mien, Most gentle of men, Kindest to kinfolk, and Keenest for fame." These virtues are echoed throughout the text of Beowulf and form a central theme of the epic. In the Prologue to Beowulf we find that Beowulf was known for gifting gold the those who had earned it and that he earned the respect and loyalty of many in the Northlands.
In Chapter 24, these virtues are contrasted to the opposite character, when it is said that Ecgwela ruled by the slaughtering the enemy. He is contrasted this character to Beowulf in that he gave no money to the worthy and lost the loyalty of his subjects. Then the comment is made to learn from this example. Also in Chapter 24 we find that God gives man the power to rule over others and gain great wealth, but also cautions one not to abuse that power. Chapter 25 continues this theme when we are cautioned to guard against greed and the devil. Beowulf is cautioned not to become selfish, or he will lose his strength. Throughout the remainder of the text we find numerous references to Beowulf's generosity towards others. We find selfless sacrifice when Beowulf goes to face the dragon alone, that no others will be in danger. The description of Beowulf in the last four lines are justified many times throughout the text through his actions more than through his words.
These descriptions are important as they help to characterize Beowulf as a classic hero. They help to align him with characteristics that were supposed to be a sign of good leadership in the Middle Ages. Leaders were supposed to be generous, selfless in sacrifice for the good of others, and honest. These characteristics were also much like those associated with Jesus Christ. Medieval society expected their leaders to be like Christ in their mannerisms and character..
One of the best examples of the definition of qualities that characterized leadership is found in the Visogothic code. In Book II, Title I, Law VI we find a chapter titled,"Concerning Those who Abandon the King, or the People, or their Country, or who Conduct Themselves with Arrogance" (Visogothic Code, Book II, Title I, Law VI). This section sets for the punishment for those who are not loyal to their country and king. The Visogothic code considered loyalty to one's country to not only be desirable, but also insisted that it became law. This idea of loyalty to one's country was very real and not confined to mythological rulers and kings. This code demonstrates that this concept was a real ideal, with real punishments attached to it for disobedience.
Nicolo Machiavelli wrote a set of guidelines to define princely virtues and desirable characteristics of leadership. In Chapter 25 is this same reference to the influence of fortune and its negative aspects as well as ways to counteract its effect (Machiavelli, Chapter 25). The virtues of generosity, a caution against greed, and selfless sacrifice and loyalty to the people is a recurring theme in medieval literature. This point is carefully illustrated in the Prologue to Canterbury tales. Canterbury tales paints a picture of the pious in which they are showing the correct…