Britain Before the Anglo-Saxons
The most important of the
early conquerors were the
Celts, (with a hard K sound;
NOT like Boston Celtics…)
who were from southern
Europe and migrated
/invaded the British Isles
between 800 and 600 BCE
One group was called
Brythons (guess where they
landed); the other were
known as Gaels who settled
in what is now Ireland
(Gaelic, get it?)
The Celts, briefly
Farmers and hunters
Tightly-knit clans
Druids (a class of priests)
settled arguments when clans
needed to settle disputes,
presided over religious
rituals (including sacrifice
and prayer)
Druids also had the duty of
memorizing and reciting
long, heroic poems that
preserved the people myths
about the past (so they are
like bards/minstrels/SCOPS
Roman Conquest
In 55 BC, we have the next set of conquerors, the Romans
under Julius Caesar
They brought well-paved roads through the woodland
wilderness and a highway system, as well as skills in
They lasted until around 400 AD, when the Anglo-Saxons
showed up
Anglo-Saxon Conquest
It’s unclear who exactly they were, but historians have some
educated guesses. They may have been deep-sea fishermen
who were marauding coasts along the Baltic Sea. Or
perhaps farmers seeking better soil than the marshy land
back home.
The Angles and the Saxons were tribes of people who didn’t
just perform their piracy to plunder; they sought and won
territory, apparently by rowing their shallow boats up the
river and then building camps and waging war on the
Britons. They gradually gained more and more land and
took over what is now England (Angle-land).
Anglo-Saxon Conquest: some terms
and beliefs
The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes
transferred to England their
highly organized tribal units.
Each tribe was ruled by a king
who was chosen by a Witan, a
council of elders.
Four classes: earls – hereditary
ruling warlords who owed
their position to the king
Freeman, who could own land
and engage in commerce. This
class includes thanes, early
barons, who were granted their
status as a reward for military
The lowest classes were the
serfs (they work the land in
return for military
protection) and thralls (who
are slaves or military
The Early A/Saxons
worshipped ancient
Germanic gods (Tiu, god a
war and sky; Woden, chief
of gods and Fria, Woden’s
wife). This is where we get
some days of the week.
SO…to review: Celts, Roman, AngloSaxons, Scandinavians, Normans
Celts invaded in 500 BC
Romans invaded in 55 BC,
43 CE and left in 407 CE
Anglo-Saxons invaded in
449 CE (Germanic)
Scandinavians invaded in
late 700 CE, 800’s, and end
of the 900’s
Normans invaded in 1066
CE (France-Normandy)
The Coming of Christianity
During the 4th century, the
Romans had accepted
Christianity and introduced it to
A century later, when Celts fled
from A/S, they took their
Christian faith with them to
Wales. From there it spread to
Ireland, assisted by St. Patrick
It comes back with St. Augustine,
who set up a monastery and
converted the king and by 650,
most of England is Christian in
It is in this world that Beowulf
gets written; the church brings
back 2 elements of civilization
missing since the time of the
Romans: education and written
Old English (400-1066)
Hwæt we Gâr Dena
in gear-dagum
prym gefrunon,
hu oa æpelingas
ellen fremedon
Hear me! The Spear Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those prince’s heroic campaigns.
Beowulf Things Which Must Be
Represents the merging of 2 religions:
Pagan and Christianity b/c the
missionaries were converting people
around the time this story was being
passed along through the oral tradition,
500 AD-ish
Was written down, probably, by a
trained Christian poet b/c it used
conventional modes of poetic utterances
and traditional poetic forms.
Also, the subject matter of poetry was
changing from almost all heroic to more
religious, as this is a merging of the two
The poet himself could’ve been a scop
or from a monastery, as most believe, an
educated poet who was associated with
a monastery
It was likely written down around the
early 700s to 900s
About the Manuscript
Some of the Anglo-Saxon poetic
devices in it are kennings,
alliteration, similes, litotes,
antithesis, balance and parallelism,
and caesura
Some of the characters actually
The manuscript was saved in the
late 1500s. Henry VIII was
dissolving the monasteries and so
their libraries were in danger. It
was saved a # of times from near
death (fires have charred away
some portion) until in 1753, the
British Museum got the original,
made two copies (1882 & 1959),
and later preserved each page in
An earlier copy of the manuscript
was written down sometime
around the 11th century CE and is
kept in the British Museum
Beowulf’s Provenance: So what’s happened to the manuscript
since the 11th century?
Eventually, it ended
up in the library of
this guy.
Robert Cotton (15711631)
Beowulf in the British
Setting: Beowulf’s time and place
Europe today
Insert: Time of Beowulf
The Poetry in Beowulf
A few things to watch out for
1. Alliterative verse
a. Repetition of initial sounds of words
(occurs in every line)
b. Generally, four feet/beats per line
c. A caesura, or pause, between beats two and
four, where the scop takes a breath
d. No rhyme
The Poetry in Beowulf
A few things to watch out for
Alliterative verse – an example from
Oft Scyld Scefing sceapena praetum,
Monegum maegpum meodo-setla
Egsode Eorle, syddan aerest weard.
The Poetry in Beowulf
A few things to watch out for
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of
many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging
among foes.
The terror of the hall-troops had come far.
(Seamus Heaney translation)
The Poetry in Beowulf
A few things to watch out for
2. Litotes
 A negative expression; usually an
 Example:
Hildeburh had no cause to praise the Jutes
In this example, Hildeburh’s brother has
just been killed by the Jutes. This is a
poetic way of telling us she hated the Jutes
Some terms you’ll want to know
A bard or story-teller.
The scop was responsible
for praising deeds of past
heroes, for recording
history, and for providing
Some terms you’ll want to know
Literally, this means
“escort” or “comrade”
This term identifies the
concept of warriors and
lords mutually pledging
their loyalty to one
Mead Hall
The large hall where the lord and his warriors slept, ate,
held ceremonies
Some terms you’ll want to know
Fate. This idea crops up
a lot in the poem, while
at the same time there
are Christian references
to God’s will. But Fate
in the Anglo-Saxon
world stems from one’s
Some terms you’ll want to know
An elegy is a poem that is sad
or mournful, and it’s usually
about death. The adjective is
Someone’s honor price. The
family is compensated for
someone’s death. Note that
when Hondshew gets eaten
by Grendel, this is mentioned
Themes and Important Aspects
Good vs. Evil
Religion: Christian and Pagan influences
The importance of wealth and treasure
The importance of the sea and sailing
The sanctity of the home
Loyalty and allegiance
Characteristics of a Hero and heroic deeds
Epic Poem
a LONG narrative poem (it tells a story) on a great and serious
subject that
- is told in an elevated, formal style (fancy words, very serious,
almost ceremonial)
has a heroic or quasi-divine character on whose actions
depend the fate of something huge like a nation or the whole
human race or the universe.
Traditional epics developed from the Oral Tradition,
which means historical and legendary tales passed
down through generations of story-telling.
They are often during a period of expansion and
Classical Epic poems: the Illiad, the Odyssey; AngloSaxon epic: Beowulf
Later ones written in deliberate imitation of those
above: Virgil’s Aeneid, Milton’s Paradise Lost
There are all sorts of rules/conventions these
types of tales must follow:
hero has to be of great national or cosmic
importance. In the Greek ones, he is usually
related to the gods somehow (Achilles, Aeneas)
the setting must be VAST. So the hero will often
go on a long journey that takes years, during which
he visits many different lands.
There must be superhuman deeds in battle
(Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf)
Gods and/or supernatural folks take an active
interest or even participate and offer advice
All of the previous traits are part of the archetypal
hero’s journey, which has several stages.
The most important ones for our purpose: the hero has
to have a “descent into darkness,” which in the
Greek Tales usually means a trip to the Underworld;
he also must grow as a character during this
journey and return home changed. Odysseus
learns from his adventures. He had to experience all
these things to become who he is. As Tennyson puts
Odysseus’ thoughts, “Much have I seen and
known…and drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on
the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am a part of all that I
have met;”
Rules for the Writing Style
In the Greek epics, the narrator begins with an invocation to the
muse. He’s asking for inspiration so he can tell his tale better.
There are 9 muses; one of them (Calliope) is the muse of epic
poetry. The Anglo-Saxon scop calls for our attention with
story beings in medias res, in the middle of the action, and then the
narrative has flashbacks to catch up to where you began, and then
it moves on from there. Notice that in Beowulf, after the prologue,
it’s understood that Grendel had been rampaging for 12 winters
before Beowulf shows up.
Other Elements of Style That You’ll
Epics reflect the important conventions of their time, like the
importance of the patriarchal lineage (who’s your daddy?), the role
of a good king/warrior, and other patterns you should look for
Because these stories were performed, there are lots of repetitive
clues and wordplay to keep the characters straight. Homer used
epithets (grey-eyed goddess), but the Anglo-Saxons use Kennings
(whale-road, sea bench, candle of heaven).
The end!
What did England Look
Petty kingdoms
Language – governed by Roman Catholic Church
Monastic institutions – cultural identity
Danish invasions of the 9th Century – King Alfred’s efforts to
institute Latin religious and historical works
Secular works like Beowulf were not set in England
Sutton Hoo – An AngloSaxon Burial Ground
Site was found in 1939 on the property of Mrs. Edith Pretty
who died before it was fully excavated
Treasures from an Anglo-Saxon Ship burial at Sutton Hoo,
Treasures collected from Germany, Scandinavia, Alexandria,
Currently stored at the British Museum
The Epic
Long narrative poem – story about heroes
Epic Conventions – invoke a muse – poet states the subject or
purpose of the poem and calls upon a muse
In Medias Res – in the middle of things – actions is already
Elevated style - tone, diction, syntax
Supernatural forces
Valorous deeds
Epic hero – embodies the culture and values and ideals of a nation
or culture
Major Themes of Beowulf
Good versus Evil
Christianity’s influence
The importance of wealth and treasure
Characteristics of a hero
Sanctity of home
Loyalty and Allegiance
Beowulf’s Provenance
It is set in Scandinavia (what is now Sweden)
Tribe known as the Geats
Set around 400-500 CE
There are Vikings
Christian references…pagan ideals long since past
Oral Tradition
Monsters, Dragons, Kings, Princes, Magic, and more….
It all starts with a monster…and a scop
Literary Elements of
Kennings – two-word poetic renamings like “Whales’ home” for the sea, compound nouns
Assonance – repeated vowele sounds in unrhymed stressed syllables
Alliteration – repeated initial consonant sounds in stressed syllables
Parallelism – parataxis series of parallel constructions strung toether one after another using
coordinating conjunctions such as and..
Metonymy – object linked to another object where an object stands for another – suits for
businessmen, shield for the people, etc.
Litotes – understatement, generally ironic and sometimes even humorous using negatives and
double negatives
Elegy – a poem mourning the loss of someone or something

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