Throughout history, the ruling classes have normally offered protection to the areas of their jurisdiction. These rulers usually have the false hope of controlling their territory forever; thus they build harmonious relationships with the people they rule so that these people can protect them from external attacks. To achieve such a relationship between the ruler and his subjects, the rulers would occasionally instill fear into their warriors’ minds. The other way of building this relationship was through cultivating respect between them; the rulers and the subjects. In an Anglo-Saxon work like “Beowulf”, comitatus refers to the relationship created between the ruler and the thanes under his leadership. The requirement of this relationship is that the thane swears to protect the lord until he dies, while the ruler provides the subjects with lots of protection and share with them part of his wealth or weapons in his control. The lord and the thanes provide crucial services for each other, and there is a lot of comradeship between them. In Beowulf, the comitatus code is extensively used.
Some native terms are used in Beowulf that suggests the nature of the relationship between subjects and between them and their lord. Hrothgar, the great grandson of Scyld, is the future Danish king who builds a hall called Heort. The young king lavishes the “friends of his father” by giving them “fees in abundance” as a form of sharing the wealth between the ruler and the subjects (Hall, line 21). This is done so that when the young king becomes of age and takes over, the thanes or eager companions will be able to “aid him requitingly” (Hall, I line 22, 23). When war assaults the king, they will serve him as his trusted liegemen (Hall, I line 24).When Scyld dies, his “fond-loving comrades” lay his body on a sea vessel before wafting in the sea as he had wished. He was a long-serving ruler of the Danes, and a “well-loved prince” by his subjects (Hall, I line 29, 31). The use of terms like friends, comrades and kinsmen indicate a strong bond between the king and his subjects, the comitatus relationship is built on friendship and love. Moreover, this relationship profits a lot from the respect the subjects have towards their ruler. When Scyld dies, many subjects honor him by bringing jewels and embossments that are placed on the vessel he is to be wafted away into the sea with. When he is finally wafted into the sea, the subjects become sad in spirit and with a mournful mood (Hall, I lines 51, 52). This indicates the fondness they had for Scyld, their mighty king. Hrothgar, Scyld’s successor, implores and urges his kinsmen and folk to come together and build a great hall in which he intends to welcome and feast with the old and the young of the blessings of the land (Hall, II lines, 15-19). The feasting the king wants to be holding with his subjects shows existence of a bond of friendship and comradeship which spell the tenets of comitatus code in this society. Once this grand hall was completed he named it Heorot. The Heorot hall becomes a place of joy and laughter, where subjects feast with their king, and the king presents gifts to them. Moreover, the relationship between the thanes and the lord had family inclinations. The ruler and his subjects had same family origins. This is the situation that is very prevalent in protective situations where the king’s life depends on his warriors to look up to him. Grendel was a monster that originated from the progeny of Cain (Hall, II lines 55-56). This monster is envious to hear the sounds of happiness and joy that emanate from Hrothgar’s palace. Because of this envy, Grendel is determined to cause agony for the king by devouring his thanes (Hall, II lines 50, 51). The fact that Grendel, the destructive monster, is one of the descendants of Cain indicates that the culture of the Anglo-Saxon frowned at a person who went against the family they came from. Cain was the most notorious human being who terribly killed his brother Abel (Hall, II lines 54-56). The existence of family and social ties within the society this poem is set strengthens the comitatus relationship. Additionally, the king and thane relationship is represented superbly in the character Beowulf. The first part of the story indicates that Beowulf offered protection to the king Hrothgar. Beowulf has strong believes in Hrothgar’s sentiments and beliefs, and he is more ready to fight for him by defeating Grendel the monster. In return, Hrothgar gives treasures to Beowulf, and his trust in him grows. The king says Beowulf is best among men, and he will love him I his own heart as his own son. He implores him to keep to the new kinship immediately. This excellently portrays the relationship between the lord and the thanes. It shows the amount of appreciation a lord can have for his subjects or people who protect him.
With time, Beowulf transforms from fighting for the comitatus code to fighting for Kleos (personal glory). The comitatus code dies a natural death. When Grendel’s come to avenge the death of her son, the king Hrothgar is shaken, and he summons Beowulf. The king worries Grendel’s mother, also a monster, and lives in a desolate, inaccessible place deep in the sea. However, the king has full confidence as the only person who can ascend below the surging waters, and smoke out this other monster that is about to terrorize his thanes. The king believes that Beowulf has the capacity to single-handedly fight off the danger posed by Grendel’s mother, another unfathomable monster. “And the heavens lower/ Now is help to be gotten/ From thee and thee only” (Hall, XXI lines 55, 56). Any support from other thanes tasked with protecting the kingdom will not be provided to Beowulf. This spells the death of the comitatus code. Fighting for the safety of the king is supposed to be each thane’s task. The king shows full trust in Beowulf as the only person he can seek assistance from. In succeeding in this feud with the deep sea monster, the king promises money, other treasures, and jewels to Beowulf summing up the reality that now Beowulf is now fighting for his personal glory (Hall, XXI lines 59-61). Later on in his life, Beowulf encounters a dragon that breaths fire that he has to struggle to decimate. In this encounter, only Wiglaf tags along with Beowulf to go and battle with the dragon (Hall, XXXVI lines 1-85). Earlier on, the battles Beowulf goes to demonstrate the death of the comitatus code. The behavior of the warriors he goes with changes drastically. Instead of actively engaging in battle together with the king, they stand on the river banks waiting, the next time they doze off. Ultimately, on the third battle, they don’t bother to accompany Beowulf and let Wiglaf be the only companion (Hall, XXXV lines 130-135).
In Beowulf, we get a glimpse of how comitatus code is used and how it helps to enhance the relationship between rulers and their warriors. The rules embrace this code so as to advance their rule and ensure their protection. For the warriors, they may a get a share of the king weapons and wealth. However, this code can die off leaving the king exposed and vulnerable.
Hall, Lesslie. "BEOWULF AN ANGLO-SAXON EPIC POEM." Www.gutenberg.net. D.C. HEATH & CO., PUBLISHERS, 19 June 2005. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm>.