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Anglo-Saxon Notes



Anglo-Saxon England (450-1066)

I.        Background

        A.  Celtic England

              Little is known about the earliest inhabitants of England, except that they were a small, dark haired tribal people, perhaps akin to the present-day Basques.  Sometime in prehistory, about 600 B.C., these tribesmen were over-run by a group that was sweeping across Europe, the Celts.  The Celts flourished in Britain, building walled villages, using tools, growing crops, and warring with each other in wheeled chariots.  Their priests, the Druids, worshipped war and nature deities by performing sacrifices in the forests.  In 55 B.C., Rome began raiding Britain, and by A.D. 43, had conquered it.  The Celtic tribesmen fled to Wales and Scotland, and legions and walls protected the land from their return.  For several centuries, Roman Britain prospered, but when the Roman Empire collapsed, the legions left the British to fend for themselves.  It is from this post-Roman era that the earliest legends of King Arthur come.

        B.  Celtic Literature

              The Celtic tribesmen of early British history gave two main contributions to literature:

              1.     The legends of King Arthur, a tribal leader believed to have been “Roman” trained, and who fought against the invading tide of Anglo-Saxons.

              2.     Imaginative verse forms, found today only in the most gifted poets.  Celtic romance was full of beauty and charm.

II.    Anglo-Saxon England

        A.  The Coming of the Anglo-Saxons

              Tradition says that in the fifth century, the British king Vortigern hired two Germanic chieftains to help him defend the coast.  These mercenaries liked the country so well that they decided to stay—and take it for themselves.  In the fifth and sixth centuries, Britain was invaded and conquered by these Germanic tribes—the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—who are known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons.

        B.      Anglo-Saxon Society

              1.     Theirs was a tribal society, ruled by a warrior king and his fighting men, called thanes, who had sworn oaths to defend their leader.  In return, the leader rewarded their service with gifts of treasure captured from their enemies.  Bloodshed was common, and any offence against one’s tribe must be met with swift revenge.  Therefore, feuds were common. The society centered around the king’s royal quarters, and its main structure, the mead-hall.  Here the king and his thanes, known as the comitatus, would feast, drink mead (a fermented honey-beer), listen to the music and poems of the scop, and boast of the fame of their group (called flyting).

                   The warriors would often sleep in the mead hall, as much from drunken exhaustion as from habit.

              2.     Society was divided into two large social classes, the earls—the ruling class who could claim kinship with the tribe’s founder; and the churls—bondmen who traced their ancestry to some former captive of the tribe.  The churls performed the labor that kept the tribe going—growing food, hunting and fishing, and metalworking.  Once a churl gained favor with an earl, he could advance to the small group of freemen, or non-noble independent landowners.

              3.     Women, unless they were queens or wives of powerful earls, or prominent church women (like St. Hilda, founder of Whitbey Abbey in Northumberia), were generally regarded only for their domestic abilities.

        C.     Anglo-Saxon Ideals

              1.   As a group, the Anglo-Saxons valued

                    a.     military discipline

                    b.     self-denial

                    c.     loyalty.

              2.     The Characteristics of their society were as follows:

                    a.     They valued personal liberty.

                    b.     They “began” representative government.

                    c.     They understood the responsibility of leadership.

                    d.     The loved adventure, fought hard, and scorned danger.

        D.  The coming of Christianity

              The Anglo-Saxons were pagan until the end of the sixth century.  In 597, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert King Ǽthelbert of Kent, one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings.  During the next forty years, missionaries were able to convert most of the kings and their people to Christianity.  The Church widened their horizons, especially by bringing the written word to what had been an oral-tradition culture.  Soon monasteries were producing illuminated manuscripts with both Scriptural and semi-pagan subjects.  The coming of Christianity softened the society somewhat.  Leaders, long aware of the self-destruction of revenge, came up with a new way of settlement, a monetary payment called Wergild, which was paid to the kin of a warrior slain by an enemy.  The coming of Christianity seemed to offer more hope than the Anglo-Saxon view of life, which was compared to the flight of a bird, from darkness into a brightly lit hall, then back into darkness.  Perhaps this fatalistic view accounts for the melancholy tone of much of their literature.

        E.   The Vikings

              The achievements of the Anglo-Saxons were threatened in the eighth century by the invasion of the Vikings.  By 877, Vikings had taken over several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and had incorporated them into an area called Danelaw, where the Danes, rather than the Anglo-Saxons, ruled.  The remaining kingdom, Wessex, was ruled by Alfred the Great, the greatest king.  Under his rule, the people became interested in education, codified their laws, and began the first historical record of England, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written in English.  Alfred was able to confine the Danish invaders to the region of Danelaw, and his kingdom was very “civilized,” even by our standards.  Within a hundred years, however, the Danes once again left their mark on England—this time, in the form of high taxes paid so the Danes would not invade.  Eventually, a Danish king sat on the British throne, but by this time, Canute was a real English king who had to solve English problems—the nobles, the old Danes, and the new ones.  By and large, he was successful.

        F.      Anglo-Saxon language and literature

              1.     The language of the Anglo-Saxons, though a forerunner to Modern English, is unrecognizable as English. Old English is a Germanic tongue, and it sounds harsh to the modern ear (the sounds would be akin to modern German sounds).  Only one-fourth of the words we use today have roots in Old English, but they are our most commonly used nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adjectives.

              2.     The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is known for five characteristics

                    a.     a love of adventure

                    b.     a sense of the importance of honor

                    c.     an awe of natural beauty

                    d.     a delight in word-play

                    e.     an underlying sense of melancholy for the times gone by.

              3.     The Anglo-Saxon poetic form

                    a.     does not rhyme

                    b.     has lines with four stressed syllables

                    c.  has a strong break in the middle of the lines (between the 2nd and 3rd stress)—called a caesura

                    d.  contains alliteration

                    e.  is best known for kennings and understatement

              4.     Anglo-Saxon prose is utilitarian, usually translations from Latin such as philosophy, religion, history, and general works.  Original works in Anglo-Saxon tended to be the same type—history, saints’ lives, and sermons.

              5.     Most Anglo-Saxon literature was based on pagan traditions, with grafted-on Christian beliefs, and what literature that has survived to the present day was committed to writing by monks in monasteries.

III.  Best-known Old English works (only a few Anglo-Saxon prose or verse works survive)

        A.     Beowulf

              1.     This Old English epic survives in a single manuscript, dating from about A.D. 1000.  The work itself was probably composed orally in the eighth century, and recorded by churchmen centuries later.  The poem is pagan in subject, but its transcriber added Christian elements to it.  In order to keep the old and new parts from being too diverse, most Biblical references are from the Old Testament, a civilization with values close to those of the Anglo-Saxon.  Part of the Beowulf manuscript is missing, a result of a fire in the seventeenth-century, before it had been translated.  It is interesting to note that while Beowulf is our first English epic poem, it tells of events that happened in Denmark and Sweden, to groups of people called the Danes and Geats.

              2.     Characteristics of an epic

                    a.     hero—legendary, heroic, important nationally or internationally

                    b.     setting—vast; covering great nations, the world, or universe

                    c.     action—deeds of great valor, requiring superhuman strength or courage

                    d.     supernatural—gods, demons, angels, monsters intervene in action

                    e.     style—elevated and simple

                    f.     objectivity—hero’s deeds are told without moralizing

              3.     Conventions of the epic

                    a.     opens with a statement of the theme

                    b.     invokes a muse or guiding spirit

                    c.     often begins “in media res” (in the middle of things), then flashes back

                    d.     includes catalogues of armies, warriors, ships, etc.

                    e.     makes extensive use of the epic simile

                    f.     main characters give extended formal speeches

              4.     Beowulf is divided into three parts:  an introduction, the adventures of his young life, and the adventure that finally kills him.  In these adventures, he fights three monsters:  Grendel—a tall, hairy monster who walks upright and has tremendous strength; Grendel’s mother—lives underwater, has hideous strength, and poisonous blood; a dragon—a fire breathing worm that overcomes the aged hero.

              5.     Names

                    a.     Hrothgar—King of the Danes

                    b.     Herot—Hrothgar’s new mead hall

                    c.     Grendel—a monster, descendent of Cain

                    d.     Healfdane—Hrothgar’s father (deceased)

                    e.     Beowulf—famous Geat warrior

                    f.     Higlac—Beowulf’s uncle and king

                    g.     Wulfgar—Hrothgar’s noble who welcomes Beowulf

                    h.     Welthow—Hrothgar’s queen

                    i.     Edgetho—Beowulf’s father

                    j.     Danes—inhabitants of Denmark

                    k.     Geats—inhabitants of Sweden

              6.     Beowulf’s characteristics

                    a.     great strength

                    b.     great courage

                    c.     intelligence

                    d.     love of battle

                    e.     graciousness

              7.     Anglo-Saxon principles in Beowulf

                    a.  Fate (wyrd) cannot be avoided.  In order to survive, a man needs strength, courage and intelligence.

                    b.  Humans want two types of immortality

                                1)            some type of afterlife

                                2)            to be remembered by future generations

              8.            Christian elements in the epic

                    a.            lines 21-29 (Grendel’s origins)

                    b.            lines 85-86 (Grendel’s gracelessness)

                    c.            lines 174-175 (God’s providence)

              9.            Pagan elements in the epic

                    a.            lines 64-72  (need for revenge)

                    b.            lines 85-96 (pagan sacrifice)

                    c.            lines 149-160 (boasting)

        B.      Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (A history of the English Church and People.

              Bede was a churchman who was a contemporary of the Beowulf poet.  Because of his scholarship and his holiness, he was awarded the title Venerable.  He spent much of his life in the monastery at Jarrow.  His History was originally written in Latin, but was translated into Old English during the reign of Alfred the Great.  The section about Caedmon of Whitby contains the oldest know English poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn,” written between 658 and 680.  Caedmon may have been the first to use the heroic verse form for a Christian hymn.  Caedmon was unable to sing or compose—a terrible weakness in Anglo-Saxon times—but he was visited by an angel who gave him the ability to praise God through song.

        C.  “The Seafarer”

              This anonymous poem is found in the Exeter Book, one of four surviving collections of Anglo-Saxon verse.  The poem is both lyrical (emotional) and elegiac (longing for the past).  The first part of the poem deals with the love-hate relationship men have with the sea.  The poet next speaks of the brevity of life and the dangers and hardships men must face.  He then mourns the passing of the golden age of Anglo-Saxon society.  Finally, he ends by calling for his listeners to look to God for eternal grace.

IV.  The End of the Anglo-Saxons

        Anglo-Saxon England came to an end in 1066.  After the strong rule of Canute, a Danish king, was over, a weak king, Edward the Confessor, took the throne.  He left no direct heirs, but many claimants to the throne:  Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy were the two most powerful.  Harold was the son of the powerful earl of Wessex and was a joint monarch during the last days of Edward.  However, in his younger days, he had sworn an oath to William, the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy in France, not to oppose any claim to the English throne.  Harold backed out of his oath, and William invaded England.  His troops met the English at the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066.  Harold was killed, and on Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned king, thus ending the Anglo-Saxon period.