Heroic destruction: Shame and guilt cultures in medieval heroic poetry

Karl E. Boehler, Marquette University


Heroic poetry in its many guises--epic, chason de geste , Germanic heroic, and romance, to name just four--has shown the destruction of those very people who would uphold the ideals of that literature. This raises questions about the effects of exerting power over others. Why do those in power often end up either ruined or dead? Power seems to have no positive personal end result. Why would heroes struggle to maintain image and status, even at the cost of their own lives? The concept of shame culture, applied here to Beowulf, The Knight's Tale , and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , helps to explain why so much effort is spent on retaining prestige if it ultimately does not bring happiness. The ultimate good in a shame culture is for the hero to succeed and to be highly regarded by the honor group. Happiness is not important, only satisfaction and honor. Although shame culture might offer a valid explanation for why heroes choose to destroy themselves, it does not offer heroes an out. For example, Hector chooses to die outside the walls of Troy, rather than facing the scorn of the lesser man, Polydamas. Beowulf chooses to face the dragon alone because he would be diminished if others were given the opportunity to act heroically. Both men choose to die because, should they physically survive their dangerous situations, they would have to change their self-images--they would kill their identity by saving their lives. This is the suicidal imperative of the heroic world. This project explores ways the Beowulf Poet and Chaucer discuss the suicidal imperative inherent to the values of a shame culture; it also shows how shame culture ideals destroy not only individual heroes, but also their societies. This project argues the Gawain Poet creates a shift from shame culture to guilt culture when Gawain recognizes that he is trapped by the ideals he works to uphold. He must either cease to be Gawain, or he must confess his failures and accept a new ideal. This is his way out.

Recommended Citation

Boehler, Karl E., "Heroic destruction: Shame and guilt cultures in medieval heroic poetry" (2005). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3172487.