Modthryth

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Modthryth, Thryth ( 'strength', cf. Old Norse Þrúðr, the daughter of Thor), and Fremu are reconstructed names for a character who figures as the queen of King Offa in Beowulf.

Naming problem: Modthryth, Thryth or Fremu?[edit]

The reason for the usage of both Thryth and the compound name Modthryth is that the latter name is an emendation by Klaeber [1]. Mod appears just before Þryð on line 1932 of the poem, where she is introduced, and scholars are divided as to whether mod is part of her name, or a separate word.

The queen of the eighth-century Mercian king Offa in the thirteenth-century Vitae duorum Offarum, which portrays both this Offa and his fifth-century namesake, is called Quendrida, a somewhat flawed Latin rendering of Cynethryth, the actual name of Offa's wife. The author, moreover, etymologised the word as consisting of the words quen 'queen' and the personal name Drida: Quendrida, id est regina Drida. This parallel has sometimes been taken as a further argument that the Offa of Beowulf had a queen called Thryth and that the passage was intended as a veiled reference to the eighth-century queen.

More recently, R.D. Fulk has challenged the long-held view that the queen was named either Modthryth or Thryth, pointing out difficulties with the ending -o, its implications for the overall syntax, and the weaknesses of the Drida argument. Instead, he revives the suggestion made by Ernst A. Kock in 1920 that fremu is not an adjective modifying folces cwen "the people's princess" and meaning "excellent" (which would be inappropriate at this stage of the narrative), but her actual name. On the basis of such parallels as higeþryðe wæg "bore arrogance" (Old English Genesis A line 2240b), he likewise treats Mod þryðo as a common noun, although this necessitates an emendation of the ending -o to -a.[1] Yet more recently, Eric Weiskott has challenged Fulk's reinterpretation on grounds of poetic syntax, concluding that the queen remains anonymous.[2]

From wicked princess to virtuous queen[edit]

The relevant passage immediately follows, almost interrupts, a favourable description of Hygelac's queen Hygd. First, the portrayal focuses on the princess's character in her early days before her marriage to Offa. She is a powerful and vengeful woman who punishes any man beneath her station who dares to look her directly in the eye:

Old English text (lines 1931b-1943)
[...] Mod Þryðo[3] wæg,
fremu folces cwen, firen ondrysne.
Nænig þæt dorste deor geneþan
swæsra gesiða, nefne sinfrea,
þæt hire an dæges eagum starede;
ac him wælbende weotode tealde,
handgewriþene; hraþe seoþðan wæs
æfter mundgripe mece geþinged,
þæt hit sceadenmæl scyran moste,
cwealmbealu cyðan. Ne bið swylc cwenlic þeaw
idese to efnanne, þeah ðe hio ænlicu sy,
þætte freoðuwebbe feores onsæce
æfter ligetorne leofne mannan.
Translation by Michael Swanton (p. 127)
[...] "Thryth,
imperious queen of the nation, showed haugtiness,
a terrible sin. There was no brave man
among the dear companions, save for her overlord,
who by day dared venture to gaze at her with his eyes;
but he might reckon deadly fetters,
twisted by hand, assured for him;
that after seizure, the sword would be prescribed,
the patterned blade should settle it,
make known a violent death. Such a thing is no queenly custom
for a lady to practise, peerless though she may be -
that a 'peace-weaver' should take the life of a beloved man
on account of a fancied insult."
Loose translation by R.D. Fulk (first lines, p. 628)
[...] It was with arrogance
that Fremu, a princess of the people, acted,
with terrible wickedness; there was none so bold
among her own companions, save her great lord,
that he dared venture to lay eyes on her by day.

She changes her ways after being married to Offa, becoming a gracious hostess and gaining fame for her good deeds and devotion to her husband:

Old English text (lines 1944-1962)
Huru þæt onhohsnode Hemminges mæg.
Ealodrincende oðer sædan,
þæt hio leodbealewa læs gefremede,
inwitniða, syððan ærest wearð
gyfen goldhroden geongum cempan,
æðelum diore, syððan hio Offan flet
ofer fealone flod be fæder lare
siðe gesohte. Đær hio syððan well
in gumstole, gode mære,
lifgesceafta lifigende breac,
hiold heahlufan wið hæleþa brego,
ealles moncynnes mine gefræge
þone selestan bi sæm tweonum,
eormencynnes. Forðam Offa wæs
geofum ond guðum, garcene man
wide geweorðod; wisdome heold
eðel sinne. Þonon Eomer woc
hæleðum to helpe, Hemminges mæg,
nefa Garmundes, niða cræftig.
Translation by Michael Swanton (pp. 127-9)
"However, Hemming's kinsman put a stop to that.
Those drinking ale told another tale -
that she brought about fewer acts of malice,
injuries to the people, as soon as she was given,
adorned with gold, to the young champion,
the dear prince, when at her father's bidding
she sought out Offa's hall in a journey
across the yellowish flood. There she subsequently occupied
the throne well, famous for virtue,
while living made good use of the life destined for her,
maintained a profound love for the chief of heroes -
the best, as I have heard,
of all mankind, of the entire race
between the seas. Indeed, Offa,
a spear-bold man, was widely honoured
for gifts and battles; he held his homeland
with wisdom. Thence sprang Eomer,
to be a help to the heroes - a kinsman of Hemming,
grandson of Garmund, skilful in conflicts."

The poet juxtaposes the vice of the queen with the virtues of Hygd (introduced a few lines prior in l. 1926), not only condemning Modthryth's behavior but reinforcing the idea that it is the role of a queen to be a freoðuwebbe or peace-weaver (lines 1940-1944).

Based on the similarity of name, the portrayal of 'Thryth' has been interpreted as an attack upon Offa of Mercia's wife Cynethryth.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Robert D. Fulk, "The Name of Offa's Queen: Beowulf 1931–2."
  2. ^ Eric Weiskott, "Three Beowulf Cruces: healgamen, fremu, Sigemunde." Notes & Queries 58 (2011): 3-7
  3. ^ The capitalisation is an editorial decision rather than a feature of the manuscript

Primary sources[edit]

  • Beowulf, ed. and tr. Michael Swanton, Beowulf. 2nd ed. New York, 1997. Swanton's prose translation is re-arranged as verse-lines above.

Further reading[edit]

  • Eliason, Norman E. "The 'Thryth-Offa Digression' in Beowulf." In Franciplegius: medieval and linguistic studies in honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, ed. by Jr. J.B. Bessinger and R.P. Creed. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
  • Fulk, Robert D. "The Name of Offa's Queen: Beowulf 1931–2." Anglia: Zeitschrift für englische Philologie 122.4 (2004): 614–39.
  • Hashimoto, Shuichi. "On Norman E. Eliason's 'The "Thryth-Offa Episode" in Beowulf." Sophia English Studies [Japan] 7 (1982): 1-10.
  • Jordan, Jessica. "Women Refusing the Gaze: Theorizing Thryth's "Unqueenly Custom" in Beowulf and The Bride's Revenge in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume I." The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, heroicage.org, Issue 9. October, 2006.
  • Leneghan, Francis. "The Poetic Purpose of the Offa-Digression in "Beowulf"", "The Review of English Studies" 60 (2009), 538-60..
  • Moore, Bruce. "The 'Thryth-Offa Digression' in Beowulf." Neophilologus 64 (1980): 127-33.
  • Porter, Dorothy (Summer–Autumn 2001). "The Social Centrality of Women in Beowulf: A New Context". The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, heroicage.org, Issue 5. 
  • Shippey, Tom (Summer–Autumn 2001). "Wicked Queens and Cousin Strategies in Beowulf and Elsewhere". The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, heroicage.org, Issue 5. 
  • Weiskott, Eric. "Three Beowulf Cruces: healgamen, fremu, Sigemunde." Notes & Queries 58 (2011): 3-7