Gender, Power, and Language in Anglo-Saxon Poetry

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Many Old English poems reflect the Anglo-Saxon writers's interest in who could exercise power and how language could be used to signal a position of power or powerlessness. In previous Old English studies, the prevailing critical attitude has been to associate the exercise of power with sex—the distinction between males and females based upon biological and physiological differences—or with sex-oriented social roles or sphere of operation. Scholarship of the last twenty years has just begun to explore the connection between power and gender-coded traits, attributes which initially were tied to the heroic code and were primarily male-oriented. By the eighth ... continued below

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iii, 147 leaves

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Hawkins, Emma B. August 1995.

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  • Hawkins, Emma B.

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Many Old English poems reflect the Anglo-Saxon writers's interest in who could exercise power and how language could be used to signal a position of power or powerlessness. In previous Old English studies, the prevailing critical attitude has been to associate the exercise of power with sex—the distinction between males and females based upon biological and physiological differences—or with sex-oriented social roles or sphere of operation. Scholarship of the last twenty years has just begun to explore the connection between power and gender-coded traits, attributes which initially were tied to the heroic code and were primarily male-oriented. By the eighth and ninth centuries, the period in which most of the extant Old English poetry was probably composed, these qualities had become disassociated from biological sex but retained their gender affiliations. A re-examination of "The Dream of the Rood," "The Wanderer," "The Husband's Message," "The Wife's Lament," "Wulf and Eadwacer" and Beowulf confirms that the poets used gender-coded language to indicate which poetic characters, female as well as male, held positions of power and powerlessness. A status of power or powerlessness was signalled by the exercise of particular gendered traits that were open for assumption by men and women. Powerful individuals were depicted with masculine-coded language affiliated with honor, mastery, aggression, victory, bravery, independence, martial prowess, assertiveness, physical strength, verbal acuteness, firmness or hardness, and respect from others. Conversely, the powerless were described with non-masculine or feminine-coded language suggesting dishonor, subservience, passivity, defeat, cowardice, dependence, defenselessness, lack of volition, softness or indecisiveness, and lack of respect from others. Once attained, neither status was permanent; women and men trafficked back and forth between the two. Depending upon the circumstances, members of both sexes could experience reversals of fortunes which would necessitate moving from one category to the other, on more than one occasion in a lifetime.

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iii, 147 leaves

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  • August 1995

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  • March 26, 2014, 9:30 a.m.

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  • April 26, 2016, 6:31 p.m.

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Hawkins, Emma B. Gender, Power, and Language in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, dissertation, August 1995; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc278983/: accessed October 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .