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We define civilization in many ways: in terms of technological achievement, artistic achievement, shared manners and customs, or anything that carries on your memory. We may take civilization for granted, or even view the question of what is civilized as being a harmful, outdated, or imperialist dogma. But for writers of medieval literature, it was hardly something to be taken for granted. Civilization, in its many forms, was a protection and an escape from continual violence and anarchy. The works Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight come from a time when British civilization was still quite vulnerable. These texts present civilizations in conflict with enemies, natural and supernatural forces, and suggest what sort of greatness is needed to obtain union, peace, and safety.
Beowulf presents civilization as something that needs to be protected by heroes and by heroic acts. It is difficult for modern Americans and British, used to taking their safety for granted, to understand the unstable culture which produced Beowulf. One distinctly foreign element of the culture of Beowulf is the observance of feuds, which are now associated, as David Day correctly points out, with "combat between armed bands of hillbillies living within a relatively small and isolated geographic area, not a clash of arms between sovereign political entities" (77). But feuds also served a "quasi-juridicial" function within the culture of the time. Day also points out that many people believe in "the feud, or fear of it, as the sanction behind other forms of dispute resolution, such as wergild or arbitration" (78).
Yet, in Beowulf, the idea of the feud is somewhat different. Day claims that in Beowulf:
(1)Feuds are defined by reciprocity--they describe an ongoing relationship of retaliatory violence between two groups. (2) Feuds define the relationship of the feuding parties as a sort of ideology; all further interchanges between the two groups--pol...
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