The Anglo-Saxons 450-1066

The AngloSaxons
(Lit Book pg. 3)
Why Study England and its history?
America and other world democracies would not
be what they are today without legacy of England:
• Law/parliamentary government
• Literature
• Language
Before the Celts and Romans, England was a dark,
green, isolated island. Then the “rise of the West”
happened, as Rome and Europe expanded.
The Celts (300s BC)
• The Celts practiced Animism (spirits in all aspects of
nature, controlled daily life, priests called Druids acting as
• Unlike the Anglo-Saxon tales, Celtic mythology had more
powerful female figures, more “sunlight” and magic,
fantastic animals, love affairs, and adventures
The Romans: The Great Administrators
• Julius Caesar conquered the Britons in 55 B.C.
• Romans brought Christianity (missionaries), armies,
organization, roads
• Rome vacated Britain and left infrastructure, but no
government. British inhabitants were in separate clans, a
weak island ripe for conquering
The Anglo-Saxon
Invasions (400s AD)
• After Rome left, Britain
was invaded by as
many as 200,000
Angles and Saxons
from Denmark and
Germany, who brought
new language to
“Engla-land” (land of
the Angles)
• In the late 800s, Anglo-Saxon
King Alfred of Wessex united
England against Viking invaders
• Christianity was spread by Irish
and European missionaries
(convert the AS kings = convert
their subjects), provided a
common faith, morality, and link
to Europe
• The AS period ended in 1066,
with the arrival of the Norman
duke (and later king) William the
Anglo-Saxon Life
• Anglo-Saxon life was centered on
warfare, but they were not
barbarians: they had a system of law
and order that involved responsibility
of leaders, loyalty, and gift-giving to
• AS society was communal, centered
around the hall of their leader/king.
• Loyalty and closeness meant survival
and safety in times of warfare.
• Christianity also eventually became a
key center of their lives.
King/Leader’s Hall
Everyone else lived
closely centered
around it
The Anglo-Saxon Religion: Gods for Warriors
• A key belief was that fame in life (through heroic deeds) meant
one would live on after death.
• The old AS religion came from the Scandinavian mythology of
“warrior gods”:
– Odin – god of death, poetry, and magic; associated with
burial rites
– Thunor/Thor – god of thunder and lightening; his sign was
the hammer
– The dragon: protector of treasure, guardian of the grave
mound– seen as personification of “death the devourer”
and guardian of grave mound
• The three key ethics of AS society:
– Loyalty
– Bravery
– Generosity
A Light from Ireland
• Ireland was different from surrounding countries in the 5th
century because they continued to be Celts with Roman
influence (no invaders)
• Patrick, a Romanized Briton (an escaped/converted slave),
converted Celtic Ireland to Christianity.
• Ireland was able to experienced a golden age of peace and
learning while much of Europe was at war
The Christian Monasteries
• Monasteries: places if learning and preserving great works
and stories of the period, regardless of if they were Christian
• Scriptorium: Where monks copied manuscripts by hand
• Latin: the serious language of study… until King Alfred wrote
“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” in (Old) English, which began
to slowly take hold in England
Bards and the Oral Tradition
• Bards (also called “scops”): skilled
storytellers who sang poems of
gods and heroes, stories passed
along orally
• Bards worked with a rich supply
of heroic tales, reflecting concerns
of AS life
• Much AS poetry stresses fame in the afterlife
through brave and good works in life (heroes)
• Bards’ songs also dealt with ideas of fate and
• Bards were honored in society for entertainment
and for keeping the culture and its stories alive
Beowulf in Old English (Anglo-Saxon)
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!
What does it sound like?
Old English Poetics
• Poems were transmitted to the public through
song (recited aloud, usually accompanied by
• Because of this, as much emphasis was placed on
how the poem sounded as what it contained:
– Emphasis on stressed/unstressed syllables in a line
(number of syllables not important)
– Alliteration: repetition of consonant and vowel
sounds at beginning of words
– Caesura: rhythmical pause
– Kennings: (see next slide)
What are they?
• A metaphorical way of speaking, writing, and thinking
• A noun is renamed in a creative way using a compound word or
union of two separate words to combine ideas
Why use them?
• The AS poets depended on alliteration, but didn’t have a large
• In oral poetry, ready-made phrases were valuable
• Their complex structure satisfied taste for elaboration (basically,
they sounded good)
– whale-paths: oceans
– wave-rider: a boat or ship
– ring-giver, folk-friend, or friend to the people: a king

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