Bad Queen Modthryth: A case in medieval microaggressions?

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

Aethelflaed, the anglo-saxon woman who wasn't queen but fought off vikings.

An image of Aethelflaed, fighter of vikings and the daughter of King Alfred the Great and Queen Ealhswith. Image from https://younghistorian7.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/a-look-at-some-anglo-saxon-queens/


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Synopsis

The poet tells the story of the lovely and violent Modthryth.


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The Original Old English

         “Mod þryðo 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.”
(Beowulf ll.1931b-1943)


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My Translation

         “Modthryth, the noble
people’s queen, committed terrible crimes.
For not anyone of that brave, dear company,
save for her husband, would venture to look upon her
during the day or even meet her eye,
lest they be bound in deadly bonds
thorny and twisted by hand, then made to wait for the mercy
of a sword held tight in their tormentor’s hand,
a blade with branching patterns that must settle their debt,
must slake its thirst for public blood. Such acts cannot compare
to the true custom of queens, even if she be peerless in beauty.
For such women are peace-weavers, and must not steal away life
from dear men for imagined insults.”
(Beowulf ll.1931b-1943)


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A Quick Interpretation

All of a sudden we get another story. This time, we hear about bad queen Modthryth. The poet implying that Hygd, current queen of the Geats, is nothing like this woman.

It would be easy to chalk her violence up to vanity and an overheated sense of duty. Modthryth’s problem might not be just that she’s feeling the sting of “imagined insults” (“ligetorne” (l.1943)). Maybe she’s also buckling under the pressure of being a good and loyal wife to her husband. After all, she doesn’t punish him for looking at him, only other men.

Or, maybe Modthryth is such a wicked queen because she really is too eager to punish those who threaten the monogamy of her relationship with her husband.

Or, maybe this is a medieval take on the male gaze.

I’m not surprised that a medieval poem (and poet) don’t say anything about it directly. I’m also not surprised that the problem isn’t located in how the men are looking at Modthryth, but her reaction to their looking at her. It’s too bad that we’re not given more information here, actually.

Maybe Modthryth had been raped by one of her husband’s retainers in the past and she’s now defending herself against the rest using means she knows they’ll understand?

Or, maybe, if she’s anything like Hygd and Wealhtheow, she is part of a group that her husband has enslaved. If this is the case, and she was a princess or queen among her own people, then it’s understandable why she would object to being looked at like some piece of property. Though her violent and involved reaction is nonetheless a bit over the top.

Maybe Modthryth is crazy. Something in her past could have led her to develop some feelings about being looked at by men who are not her husband on which she acts violently. Or, maybe, she isn’t. As a woman that the poet points out is “peerless” (“ænlicu sy” (l.1941)), she is likely an unimaginably beautiful woman. Thus, at the very least, she’s had to live her life being stared at and lusted after. So maybe once she gained the power to do so, she could take no more idle gazes and the thoughts behind them and decided to act against them.

But we don’t get any background information. So the problem still is, at least in part, men looking at Modthryth. And unfortunately, nothing is said about it. What are the poet’s “imagined insults” are today’s microaggressions. And perhaps Modthryth just can’t take them anymore.

What do you think of Modthryth’s story? Is it an overtly sexist part the poem? Does Modthryth not get enough of a story to pass judgment on her? Is this an example of a medieval take on what we’d recognize as microaggressions today? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet clarifies his point a bit.

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