Anglo-Saxon Period 449-1066

Anglo-Saxon Period
“It is better never to begin a good work than,
having begun it, to stop.”
-Bede A History of the English Church and People
Introductory Notes
British Literature
Inhabiting the British Isles
The Groups…
• The islands were inhabited by the Britons and the
Gaels. These were Celtic people who came from
• Languages descended mainly from the Celts—Irish,
Scottish, Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton
• The Celts were farmers and hunters. Their society
was organized into clans ruled by tribal chieftans
elected from a class of Pagan priests. These priests,
the Druids, composed hymns, poems, and historical
• They studied the heavenly bodies, served as judges,
and conducted religious ceremonies in secret places in
the woods and in places like Stonehenge
• These islands were eventually taken over by Julius
Caesar and the Roman Empire
The Coming of the Anglo-Saxons
• Early in the 5th century, the Roman legions left
Britain to protect Rome from invasion
• Over the next 100 years, fierce Germanic
invaders arrived (the Jutes from the Danish
peninsula, the Angles and the Saxons from
• The Angles established 3 kingdoms in the
Northern part of the island
• The Saxons established 3 kingdoms in the South
• The Jutes settled on the island that is now
Early Anglo-Saxon Life
• Society was split into four different
groups (classes):
–Earls—ruling lords who owed their position to the king
allowed to own land and
engage in commerce—included thanes
–Churls (serfs)—bonded servants who worked
the land in return for military protection
–Thralls (slaves)—usually military prisoners or
people being punished
• Many Anglo-Saxons (in the early part of the
period) had Pagan beliefs
• They worshipped ancient Germanic gods
• They took a rather grim view of life
• They believed every human life was in the hands
of fate
• Roman Church tried to send missionaries
through Europe to convert people—it worked in
• The church also brought two important facets
of civilization: education and written literature
– Printing presses did not exist yet, so everything was
an original, or it had to be completely copied by hand
Life in the Times
• Anglo-Saxon life was simple and crude
• An eye-for-an-eye mentality ruled and public
punishments were common and well-attended
• Blood feuds, invasions, and desire for land or
treasure led to frequent warfare
• Life among the Anglo-Saxons was harsh and
unpredictable. Death from disease, famine,
battle wounds, or storms at sea could occur at
any time, depending on the whims of the
goddess Wyrd, or “fate”
• “Fate often saves an undoomed man if his
courage is good.”
The End of the Anglo-Saxon Era
• Between 925 and 939, King Athelstam
conquered the rest of the island of Britain,
making it one nation
• The Anglo-Saxon peace was not to last. In 960,
waves of Danish invasions began, culminating in
1016 with the crowning of Canute, a Dane, as
• The Anglo-Saxons soon fought back and
regained the crown
• In 1066, a Norman duke, William the Conqueror,
crossed the English Channel and defeated the
English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings,
bringing the Anglo-Saxon era to a close
Anglo-Saxon Literature
• Many people believe that storytellers,
memorizing and reciting long, heroic
poems about Celtic leaders and their
deeds were the origin of literature from
this time period
• These storytellers wanted to pass along
tribal history and values to an audience
that could not read
Anglo-Saxon Literature
• Topics mainly included military victories or
ceremonial occasions
• Only about 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon
verse still exist, falling into one of two
• 1) Heroic Poetry: recounts the
achievements of warriors involved in great
• 2) Elegiac Poetry: sorrowful laments that
mourn the deaths of loved ones and the loss
of the past
Anglo-Saxon Poetry
• The reciting of poems often occurred on
ceremonial occasions such as the celebration of
a military victory
• Some poetry recitations lasted for hours, some
for days
• Scholars now suppose that these recitations
took place to the accompaniment of a harp
• These poems followed a set formula of
composition, which probably made them
easier to memorize
Anglo-Saxon Epic Poetry
• A-S Epic Poetry has two distinctive
• 1) The two part line: each line is
separated by a pause, known as a
caesura, with two strong beats per part
• 2) The kenning: a colorful, indirect way
of naming something
– Ex. The sea is: a whalepath, the sun is: the
candle of the skies

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