Naming problem: Modthryth, Thryth or Fremu?
The reason for the usage of both Thryth and the compound name Modthryth is that the latter name is an emendation by Klaeber . 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. Eric Weiskott has challenged Fulk's reinterpretation on grounds of poetic syntax, concluding that the queen remains anonymous.
From wicked princess to virtuous queen
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:
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:
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).
Alternate Readings of Modthryth
While scholars such as Seamus Heaney and R. D. Fulk adhere to the limiting tamed virago motif of Modthryth that is apparently suggested by the Beowulf poet, there are various possibilities in regards to the reading of this character. For instance, Helen Damico and Mary Dockray-Miller view Modthryth as a far more majestic and powerful figure than either Fulk or Heaney attests. Damico views Modthryth as encompassing both the threatening and benevolent aspects of the Wælcyrge: she 'parallels the evolution of the archetypal figure that Modthrytho is modelled upon, the progression of fierce war-demon to gold-adorned warrior-queen'. Dockray-Miller fails to agree specifically with Damico's Valkyrie idea, however, stating that she is 'neither a reformed peace pledge, nor a heroic Valkyrie. Instead, her character both confirms and denies a masculine economy that depends on women as commodities [thus] Modþryðo's masculine performance manages to subvert the usual use of women as objects in exchanges between men'. Another feminist scholar, Pat Belanoff, comments upon the Old English tradition of strong female characters and images, positing that '[w]ithin the resources available to Anglo-Saxon poets was a traditional image of the female: an intelligent strong minded, usually glowing or shining, verbally adept woman whose actions are resolute and self-initiated'. Considering that the poem itself includes similar descriptions of Modthryth, stating that she is 'famous for her good deeds and conduct in life' and similarly referencing her shining beauty, certain ignored possibilities for this character are being explored.Taken such recent criticism into account, it is apparent that complexities hitherto denied to Modthryth are being explored through the revision of feminist scholars -thus uncovering nuances of gendered power that are implicit within the poem. With this in mind, Modthryth no longer acts solely as a foil to the good queen Hygd, but contributes to a tradition of strong female figures. Evidently, it would be profitable to view Modthryth as comparable to such figures as Judith or even the Old Norse Valkyrie-brides.
- Beowulf: Hygd, Wealhþeow, Freawaru, Hildeburh
- Beowulf: Grendel's mother
- Eadburh, daughter of King Offa of Mercia and wife to King Beorhtric of Wessex
- Book of Judith
- Robert D. Fulk, "The Name of Offa's Queen: Beowulf 1931–2."
- Eric Weiskott, "Three Beowulf Cruces: healgamen, fremu, Sigemunde." Notes & Queries 58 (2011): 3-7
- The capitalisation is an editorial decision rather than a feature of the manuscript
- Damico, Helen (1990). "The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature". New Readings on Women in Old English Literature.
- Dockray-Miller, Mary (1998). "The Masculine Queen of Beowulf". Women and Language. 21 (2).
- Belanoff, Pat (1989). "The Fall(?) of the Old English Female Poetic Image". PMLA. 104 (5).
- Heaney, Seamus (2002). Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 50.
- Beowulf, ed. and tr. Michael Swanton, Beowulf. 2nd ed. New York, 1997. Swanton's prose translation is re-arranged as verse-lines above.
- Beowulf. Trans. Fulk, R. D. Ed. Fulk. The Beowulf Manuscript: Complete Texts and the Fight at Finnsburg. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.
- Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Trans. Heaney, Seamus. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. Print.
- Bennett, Judith M. ‘Medievalism and Feminism.’ Speculum 68. 2 (1993): 309-31. Jstor. Web. Nov 7. 2015.
- Damico, Helen., Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.
- 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.
- Jeffrey, Jane E. 'Teaching Medieval Women: An Introduction.' College Literature 28. 2 (2001): 66-69. Jstor. Web. Nov 7. 2015.
- 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.
- Scheck, Helen., Virginia Blanton. ‘Women.’ Eds. Stodnick and Trlling. 2012. 265-79. eBook.
- 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