Wealth, money, gold, property, possession, prosperity, treasure, luxuriance… You probably heard these words millions of times in your life time, but have you considered what they actually mean? What is their meaning to you? What is the value they hold in the world? How are they seen in our everyday life? There are thousands of questions that can be asked about this one aspect of life. The question I want to discuss in this paper differs from all the typical ones. My question is: “How did the theme of wealth change in literature from the beginning of times?” In this paper I will be considering the epic, Beowulf that was composed by an unknown person during Anglo-Saxon period of time, and the Canterbury Tales, composed by Chaucer in the Middle Ages. These works of literature give various purposes and functions to wealth, that we can compare and contrast. How is the theme of wealth in Beowulf different from that of Canterbury Tales? Beowulf is an epic – a narrative describing the deeds of a hero. It tells the story of Beowulf, who helps the king of Danes, Hrothgar, defeat the scary monster that holds the country in fear. As Beowulf, his team, and the whole country celebrate the defeat of Grendel, another monster, Grendel’s mother, comes to avenge the death of her child. Beowulf as a hero goes to fight this monstrous creature too, and defeats her. Then Beowulf goes back to his country, and becomes a king, ruling for good fifty years. Another problem raises, in Beowulf’s native country, the land of Geats. Someone steals a cup from a dragon, and the dragon starts raging and destroying cities because of it. As a good hero Beowulf goes to fight the dragon, defeats him, but receives an injury that leads him to death. This story has been told through generations before people even considered putting something down on paper, so the original author is unknown. The details of the story were definitely changed with different storytellers. What we have written down now, is what we can consider the original story, because we can’t travel in time, and find out what the real one was, yet. Beowulf shows the culture of medieval Scandinavia and England, where wealth was an important aspect of life. The main purpose of wealth during that time was to give it to other people and receive it, usually as presents. The king would give wealth to his warriors, or build new things for them, like Hrothgar built a Heorot, where they could eat, drink, relax, enjoy their time. He did it for the purpose of ensuring their loyalty. If they had a good life under the rule of the king, and he paid them well, then they would sacrifice their lives for him. This function of wealth nowadays we call buying people, because they don’t do it out of honor, love, or loyalty that they feel, but do it because you pay them. In Beowulf’s time it didn’t get out of control of course and people were rewarded for their deeds only. One of the examples of this rewarding is shown when Hrothgar is paying Beowulf for his work of defeating the monsters. “Then Halfdane's son presented Beowulf
with a gold standard as a victory gift,
an embroidered banner; also breast-mail
and a helmet; and a sword carried high,
that was both precious object and token of honour.
So Beowulf drank his drink, at ease;
it was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts
in front of the hall-troops.” (1019-1026)
Here we see that Beowulf is rewarded with gold, armor, weapons, and he gladly takes them, because he deserves the gifts. Beowulf’s men who fought the monster also receive a reward from the king of Danes. Another function of wealth, that might throw you off, is paying a family whose relative has been killed in a battle, in order to prevent revenge. Family feuds, country battles, and other feuds, are being paid for in order to prevent another war or make sure no one is going to attack your kingdom. “And compensation,
a price in gold, was settled for the Geat
Grendel had cruelly...
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