Ancient England

The island of Brittania, as it was known to the ancients, is home to ancient monoliths like Stonehenge and the ruins of Roman Cities and later Anglo-Saxon settlements.

Boadicea & Gaul via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Cultures of Britain

Helmet from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century AD

The Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes who invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries are known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons. They left their homelands in northern Germany, Denmark and northern Holland and rowed across the North Sea to found the first truly English Kingdoms in Britain. Prior to these invasions Rome had been home to the Ancient British Celts, who were eventually absorbed by the growing Roman Empire in the 1st Century. This land was distant from Rome and the furthest corner of the Empire stretched north towards Scotland. Eventually as the Roman Empire crumbled, they lost their toehold on this outpost of their Empire, leaving behind a Romanized British population, which came to become the foundation for the earliest English peoples.

Pre-Roman Britain

An accurate reconstruction of early British settlements, based on recent excavations

After the end of the last Ice Age (around 9500 years ago) Ireland became separated from Britain and later (around 6000 BC) Britain was cut off from the rest of Europe. By 12,000 BC Britain had been reoccupied, as shown by archaeology. By around 4000 BC, the island was populated by people with a Neolithic culture. However, none of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain have any known surviving written language. No literature of pre-Roman Britain has survived, so its history, culture and way of life are known mainly through archaeological finds. Though the main evidence for the period is archaeological, there is a growing amount of genetic evidence which is still changing. There is also a little amount of linguistic evidence, from river and hill names, which is covered in the articles on Pre-Celtic and Celtic.

From about 1200 BCE there is clear evidence for agriculture in the south of nowadays England; the farms consisted of circular huts in groups with small oblong fields and stock enclosures. This type of farm became standard in Britain down to and into the Roman period. From the 8th century BCE onward, expansion of continental Urnfield and Hallstatt groups brought new people (mainly the Celts) to Britain; they came at first, perhaps, in small prospecting groups, but soon their influence spread, and new settlements developed. Some of the earliest hill forts in Britain were constructed in this period (e.g., Beacon Hill, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire; or Finavon, Angus); though formally belonging to the late Bronze Age, they usher in the succeeding period.

Before the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century CE, the island was not significant in the history of Western civilization, except perhaps for it’s tin mines for which the Phoenicians are supposed to have visited Britain. The first detailed description of Britain and its inhabitants was written by the Greek merchant Pytheas, who explored the coastal region about 325 BCE. However, there may be some information on Britain in the “Ora Maritima” which is lost but incorporated in later authors’ writing. Ancient Britons were however involved in extensive trade and cultural links with the rest of Europe from the Neolithic onwards, especially in exporting tin which was in abundant supply. Pytheus was a merchant from the Greek colony at Marseilles (Massilia) and he sailed round the ‘Northern Seas’ and put Britain firmly on the map. His own words have not survived but other classical writers often quote him. He sailed from Cadiz in Spain through the Straits of Gibraltar, north by Ushant to Cornwall, Devon and Ictis, the tin port. He then sailed right round Britain describing the inhabitants and the weather. He says that the British tribes were independent, ruled by kings and preserved their ancient customs. They used chariots in war. Their dwellings were humble, made of timber and thatch; they stored grain in covered pits and granaries and brewed a drink made from corn and honey.

As a merchant, Pytheas knew much about the tin trade. ‘The inhabitants of Britain who live in the south-west are especially friendly to strangers and from meeting foreign traders have adopted civilized habits. It is these people who produce the tin, cleverly working the land that bears it. They dig out the ore, melt it and purify it. They then hammer the metal into ingots like knuckle-bones and transport them to an island off the coast called Ictis, for the channel dries out at low tide and they can take the tin over in large quantities on their carts. Merchants purchase the tin from the natives there and ship it back to gaul.’

Maiden Castle was built in around 600 BC by the neolithic Britains, but was occupied until Roman times

Maiden Castle was built in around 600 BC by the neolithic Britains, but was occupied until Roman times

Julius Caesar wrote of Britain around 50 BC., but little trace, however, has been left of the language or civilization of the original inhabitants, other than megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, which date from the Bronze Age (circa 2000BCE). Between the Bronze Age and about the 6th century BCE, Britain was inhabited by Picts and European Celts, who periodically invaded the British Isles until the 1st century BCE.

Located at the fringes of Europe, Britain received foreign technological and cultural achievements much later than mainland areas did during prehistory. The story of ancient Britain is traditionally seen as one of successive waves of settlers from the continent, bringing with them new cultures and technologies. More recent archaeological theories have questioned this migration interpretation and argue for a more complex relationship between Britain and the continent. Many of the changes in British society demonstrated in the archaeological record are now suggested to be the effects of the native inhabitants adapting foreign customs rather than being subsumed by an invading population.

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A view of Stonehenge from the Horizon of the Salisbury Plan

The megalithic ruin ‘Stonehenge’ stands on the open fields of Salisbury Plain, 3 kilometers west of Amesbury, in Southern England. It is not a single structure but consists of a series of earth, timber, and stone structures which were revised and re-modeled over a period of more than 2000 years. The question of who built Stonehenge is largely unanswered, even today. The monument’s construction has been attributed to many ancient peoples throughout the years, but the most captivating and enduring attribution has been to the Druids. This erroneous connection was first made around 3 centuries ago by the antiquary, John Aubrey. Julius Caesar and other Roman writers told of a Celtic priesthood who flourished around the time of their first conquest (55BCE). By this time, though, the stones had been standing for 2,000 years, and were, perhaps, already in a ruined condition. Besides, the Druids worshiped in forest temples and had no need for stone structures.

The largest, inner "Sarsen" lintels at Stonehenge

The largest, inner “Sarsen” lintels at Stonehenge

The best guess seems to be that the Stonehenge site was begun by the people of the late Neolithic period (around 3,000BCE) and carried forward by people from a new economy which was arising at this time. These “new” people, called Beaker Folk because of their use of pottery drinking vessels, began to use metal implements and to live in a more communal fashion than their ancestors. Some think that they may have been immigrants from the continent, but that contention is not supported by archaeological evidence. It is likely that they were indigenous people doing the same old things in new ways.

The earliest part of the complex, which dates to approximately 3100-2300BCE, comprised a circular bank-and-ditch of about 100 meters in diameter. Just inside the earth bank were a circle of the 56 “Aubrey holes” (now invisible on the surface). Probably dating to this time also the four “Station Stones” (only two of which are stille there), and on the north-east side, an earthwork Avenue which runs from the break in the bank-and-ditch was added. The now-fallen “Slaughter Stone”, located at the break in the bank-and-ditch may date from this period, as may also the “Heel Stone”, located further out along the Avenue.

The original architecture of the Lintels in ancient times

The original architecture of the Lintels in ancient times

Around 2100-2000BCE, a circle 33 meters in diameter comprised of originally of 30 neatly trimmed upright sandstone blocks (“sarsens”), standing on average 4 meters above the ground, about 2 meters wide, and 3 1 meter thick, supporting a continuous ring of sarsen lintels, held in place by tongue-and-groove joints, was constructed in the centre of the original circular bank-and-ditch. A little later the circle of sarsens was added inside, in a horseshoe shape, ten upright sarsens arranged as five pairs with a single lintel. Around 2000-1550BCE, a horseshoe of smaller upright igneous stones without lintels, the “bluestones”, evidently brought from a geological site in Wales. Finally, around 1550-1100BCE, a circle of smaller upright blue-stones was added between the outer sarsen circle and the outer horseshoe. Also added around this time are two concentric circle of holes.

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The White Horse

The White Horse as seen from the air

The White Horse is one of the most iconic images of Ancient Britain. It sits on the northern face of the Berkshire Downs and boasts spectacular views in that direction, although it is very difficult to obtain a similarly satisfying view of the monument itself as it projects almost vertically off the hill. As can be seen on the photographs below, the best views on site, though still a little obscured, can be obtained from Dragon Hill or the road just above the Manger. Failing the availability of a light aircraft, the most superior view of the White Horse can be found several miles away across the Vale. It has been suggested that the horse may instead be a greyhound or a dragon, though surely the length of the tail, the shape of the body and, not least, the neck, are all indicative of a symbolic horse at the gallop. Measuring 110 x 38.5 meters, it is the second largest chalk figure in the British Isles, and possibly the oldest; new dating techniques indicate that the horse was constructed around 8-700 B.C.

It must have been a considerable undertaking as, due to its size, the builders would be unable to verify its proportions by standing back from it, and so may have employed some sort of scale, and a knowledge of mathematics therefore, to be sure that their endeavors were not horribly deformed. And there was need for some precision, as the horse is not merely defined by a loose scattering of chalk across the surface, rather a trench was dug to outline the shape and this was then filled with chalk blocks. Why was it created? A much favored explanation is that it is the banner of the local tribe, who decided to impose it on the landscape as a demonstration of their power. Modern archeologists thoroughly enjoy the notion of ancient man embracing his inner wild animal by marking his territory in such a way, and so announcing to the surrounding world that he and his enormous genitalia are here and are a force to be reckoned with. This may well be true; humans have always attempted to impress and overawe outsiders with such displays of strength, though we must question why so few others in Britain felt the need to repeat their posturing if this were the case. Personally, I prefer the explanation that it is a religious symbol. Some have suggested that is it connected with Epona, the Goddess of Horses who was worshiped throughout the Celtic world, and though the White Horse is believed to pre-date her cult, it is perfectly possible that it is connected with an earlier similarity. If this is so then it perhaps makes some sense, as its image projects more vertically towards the Heavens than it does horizontally across the Earth.

The horse has long been a symbol of power, wealth and prestige, so we could easily return to the marking of territory argument, but I believe the White Horse Hill landscape must take precedence. It is an unusual place and has many connections with pre-history, and more still with spirituality throughout very different ages. A few yards to the south of the White Horse is Uffington Castle, a hill fort built at the same time, but apparently more for ritual purposes than for occupation or defense, and running beside it is the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road. Between Uffington Castle and the White Horse are a series of burial mounds; the earliest and largest, the pillow mound, was raised in the Neolithic, long before the fort or the horse, and it was found to contain 50 skeletons, many with their skulls missing. Other burial mounds are of a later era in the Bronze Age, though, most unusually, some of these were reused during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon eras, reinforcing the spiritual importance of this site throughout the ages.

A little further afield, a walk of 1¼ miles along the Ridgeway will bring you to Wayland’s Smithy, a splendid Neolithic burial chamber; although built by a much earlier people, probably for long forgotten reasons, it may well have retained its mystical significance to those at the White Horse. Immediately below the Horse is Dragon Hill, where, legend has it, St George slew the dragon, whose blood so polluted the soil at the summit that no grass will grow there, leaving the bare white spot that we see today. The real reason is that Dragon Hill is a natural chalk outcrop, though its almost symmetrical shape surely adds weight to the belief that it may have been deliberately shaped by man at some point, we can only speculate for religious purposes. Beside it is the Manger, an extraordinary feature that was formed during the last Ice Age; another equally dubious legend states that the White Horse leaves the hill one night each year to graze in the Manger, always returning to the hill by dawn. In view of all these unusual features, historical and geographical, it is not hard to imagine why pilgrims may have been drawn to this place as a spiritual centre, and so it seems more probable that the White Horse had a purpose within this context, rather than as a separate tribal emblem with no function other than to tickle the ego of the locals.

The burial mounds show that White Horse Hill had a spiritual importance in the Neolithic which was carried through into the Bronze and Iron Ages with Uffington Castle and the White Horse itself, and with the reuse of the burial mounds in Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon times, strong remnants must have existed in these eras too, though possibly they were more inspired by the visual remains of the horse than a faithful adherence to the word of the early religion. This pilgrimage to White Horse Hill endured in much later times; the site is first mentioned in literary evidence in the 12th Century, when it was listed as one of the wonders of Britain, and from the 17th to 19th Centuries, Victorian “pagans” used it for their festivals, or “Pastime”, the last being held in 1857.

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Roman Britain

The remnants of a once mighty frontier wall

The first Roman invasion of the lands we now call the British Isles took place in 55 B.C. under war leader Julius Caesar, who returned one year later, but these probings did not lead to any significant or permanent occupation. He had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the natives: “All the Britons,” he wrote, “paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle.” It was not until a hundred years later that permanent settlement of the grain-rich eastern territories began in earnest.

In the year 43.A.D.an expedition was ordered against Britain by the Emperor Claudius, who showed he meant business by sending his general, Aulus Plautius, and an army of 40,000 men. Only three months after Plautius’s troops landed on Britain’s shores, the Emperor Claudius felt it was safe enough to visit his new province. Establishing their bases in what is now Kent, through a series of battles involving greater discipline, a great element of luck, and general lack of co-ordination between the leaders of the various Celtic tribes, the Romans subdued much of Britain in the short space of forty years. They were to remain for nearly 400 years. The great number of prosperous villas that have been excavated in the southeast and southwest testify to the rapidity by which Britain became Romanized, for they functioned as centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life.

Reconstruction of the Roman fortified village of Bremetenacum

Reconstruction of the Roman fortified village of Bremetenacum

The highlands and moorlands of the northern and western regions, present-day Scotland and Wales, were not as easily settled, nor did the Romans particularly wish to settle in these agriculturally poorer, harsh landscapes. They remained the frontier — areas where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the extremities of the Empire. The stubborn resistance of tribes in Wales meant that two out of three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on its borders, at Chester and Caerwent.

Major defensive works further north attest to the fierceness of the Pictish and Celtic tribes, Hadrian’s Wall in particular reminds us of the need for a peaceful and stable frontier. Built when Hadrian had abandoned his plan of world conquest, settling for a permanent frontier to “divide Rome from the barbarians,” the seventy-two mile long wall connecting the Tyne to the Solway was built and rebuilt, garrisoned and re-garrisoned many times, strengthened by stone-built forts as one mile intervals.

For Imperial Rome, the island of Britain was a western breadbasket. Caesar had taken armies there to punish those who were aiding the Gauls on the Continent in their fight to stay free of Roman influence. Claudius invaded to give himself prestige, and his subjugation of eleven British tribes gave him a splendid triumph. Vespasian was a legion commander in Britain before he became Emperor, but it was Agricola who gave us most notice of the heroic struggle of the native Britons through his biographer Tacitus. From him, we get the unforgettable picture of the druids, “ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations.” Agricola also won the decisive victory of Mons Graupius in present-day Scotland in 84 A.D. over Calgacus “the swordsman,” that carried Roman arms farther west and north than they had ever before ventured. They called their newly-conquered northern territory Caledonia.

Map of Ancient Britain, showing the Celtic tribes, and Roman roads

Map of Ancient Britain, showing the Celtic tribes, and Roman roads

When Rome had to withdraw one of its legions from Britain, the thirty-seven mile long Antonine Wall, connecting the Firths of Forth and Clyde, served temporarily as the northern frontier, beyond which lay Caledonia.. The Caledonians, however were not easily contained; they were quick to master the arts of guerrilla warfare against the scattered, home-sick Roman legionaries, including those under their aging commander Severus. The Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall, withdrawing south of the better-built, more easily defended barrier of Hadrian, but by the end of the fourth century, the last remaining outposts in Caledonia were abandoned.

Further south, however, in what is now England, Roman life prospered. Essentially urban, it was able to integrate the native tribes into a town-based governmental system. Agricola succeeded greatly in his aims to accustom the Britons “to a life of peace and quiet by the provision of amenities. He consequently gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of temples, public squares and good houses.” Many of these were built in former military garrisons that became the coloniae , the Roman chartered towns such as Colchester, Gloucester, Lincoln, and York (where Constantine was declared Emperor by his troops in 306 A.D.). Other towns, called municipia , included such foundations as St. Albans (Verulamium).

Chartered towns were governed to a large extent on that of Rome. They were ruled by an ordo of 100 councilors (decurion ). who had to be local residents and own a certain amount of property. The ordo was run by two magistrates, rotated annually; they were responsible for collecting taxes, administering justice and undertaking public works. Outside the chartered town, the inhabitants were referred to as peregrini , or non-citizens. they were organized into local government areas known as civitates , largely based on pre-existing chiefdom boundaries. Canterbury and Chelmsford were two of the civitas capitals.

In the countryside, away from the towns, with their metaled, properly drained streets, their forums and other public buildings, bath houses, shops and amphitheatres, were the great villas, such as are found at Bignor, Chedworth and Lullingstone. Many of these seem to have been occupied by native Britons who had acquired land and who had adopted Roman culture and customs.. Developing out of the native and relatively crude farmsteads, the villas gradually added features such as stone walls, multiple rooms, hypocausts (heating systems), mosaics and bath houses..The third and fourth centuries saw a golden age of villa building that further increased their numbers of rooms and added a central courtyard. The elaborate surviving mosaics found in some of these villas show a detailed construction and intensity of labor that only the rich could have afforded; their wealth came from the highly lucrative export of grain.

Roman society in Britain was highly classified. At the top were those people associated with the legions, the provincial administration, the government of towns and the wealthy traders and commercial classes who enjoyed legal privileges not generally accorded to the majority of the population. In 2l2 AD, the Emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free-born inhabitants of the empire, but social and legal distinctions remained rigidly set between the upper rank of citizens known as honestiores and the masses, known as humiliores. At the lowest end of the scale were the slaves, many of whom were able to gain their freedom, and many of whom might occupy important governmental posts. Women were also rigidly circumscribed, not being allowed to hold any public office, and having severely limited property rights.

One of the greatest achievements of the Roman Empire was its system of roads, in Britain no less than elsewhere. When the legions arrived in a country with virtually no roads at all, as Britain was in the first century A.D., their first task was to build a system to link not only their military headquarters but also their isolated forts. Vital for trade, the roads were also of paramount important in the speedy movement of troops, munitions and supplies from one strategic center to another. They also allowed the movement of agricultural products from farm to market. London was the chief administrative centre, and from it, roads spread out to all parts of the province. They included Ermine Street, to Lincoln; Watling Street, to Wroxeter and then to Chester, all the way in the northwest on the Welsh frontier; and the Fosse Way, from Exeter to Lincoln, the first frontier of the province of Britain.

The Romans built their roads carefully and they built them well. They followed proper surveying, they took account of contours in the land, avoided wherever possible the fen, bog and marsh so typical in much of the land, and stayed clear of the impenetrable forests. They also utilized bridges, an innovation that the Romans introduced to Britain in place of the hazardous fords at many river crossings. An advantage of good roads was that communications with all parts of the country could be effected. They carried the cursus publicus, or imperial post. A road book used by messengers that lists all the main routes in Britain, the principal towns and forts they pass through, and the distances between them has survived: the Antonine Itinerary.. In addition, the same information, in map form, is found in the Peutinger Table. It tells us that mansions were places at various intervals along the road to change horses and take lodgings.

Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Iceni

Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Iceni

The Roman armies did not have it all their own way in their battles with the native tribesmen, some of whom, in their inter-tribal squabbles, saw them as deliverers, not conquerors. Heroic and often prolonged resistance came from such leaders as Caratacus of the Ordovices, betrayed to the Romans by the Queen of the Brigantes. And there was Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Iceni, whose revolt nearly succeeded in driving the Romans out of Britain. Her people, incensed by their brutal treatment at the hands of Roman officials, burned Colchester, London, and St. Albans, destroying many armies ranged against them. It took a determined effort and thousands of fresh troops sent from Italy to reinforce governor Suetonius Paulinus in A..D. 6l to defeat the British Queen, who took poison rather than submit.

Apart from the villas and fortified settlements, the great mass of the British people did not seem to have become Romanized. The influence of Roman thought survived in Britain only through the Church. Christianity had thoroughly replaced the old Celtic gods by the close of the 4th Century, as the history of Pelagius and St. Patrick testify, but Romanization was not successful in other areas. For example, the Latin tongue did not replace Brittonic as the language of the general population. Today’s visitors to Wales, however, cannot fail to notice some of the Latin words that were borrowed into the British language, such as pysg (fish), braich (arm), caer (fort), foss (ditch), pont (bridge), eglwys (church), llyfr (book), ysgrif (writing), ffenestr (window), pared (wall or partition), and ystafell (room).

The disintegration of Roman Britain began with the revolt of Magnus Maximus in A.D. 383. After living in Britain as military commander for twelve years, he had been hailed as Emperor by his troops. He began his campaigns to dethrone Gratian as Emperor in the West, taking a large part of the Roman garrison in Britain with him to the Continent, and though he succeeded Gratian, he himself was killed by the Emperor Thedosius in 388. Some Welsh historians, and modern political figures, see Magnus Maximus as the father of the Welsh nation, for he opened the way for independent political organizations to develop among the Welsh people by his acknowledgment of the role of the leaders of the Britons in 383 (before departing on his military mission to the Continent) The enigmatic figure has remained a hero to the Welsh as Macsen Wledig, celebrated in poetry and song.

A Roman Bronze mirror, recovered in Britain, 1st to 2nd Century

A Roman Bronze mirror, recovered in Britain, 1st to 2nd Century

The Roman legions began to withdraw from Britain at the end of the fourth century. Those who stayed behind were to become the Romanized Britons who organized local defences against the onslaught of the Saxon hordes. The famous letter of A.D.410 from the Emperor Honorius told the cities of Britain to look to their own defenses from that time on. As part of the east coast defenses, a command had been established under the Count of the Saxon Shore, and a fleet had been organized to control the Channel and the North Sea. All this showed a tremendous effort to hold the outlying province of Britain, but eventually, it was decided to abandon the whole project. In any case, the communication from Honorius was a little late: the Saxon influence had already begun in earnest.

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The Anglo Saxons

The jewel encrusted buckle found in the Sutton Hoo excavations

Historians are not sure why the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. It may have been because their land often flooded and it was difficult to grow crops, so they were looking for new places to settle down and farm. Some sources say that Saxon warriors were invited to come to England. The Anglo-Saxons took control of most of Britain, although they never conquered Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. They divided the country into kingdoms, each with its own royal family. The stronger kingdoms often took control of the weaker kingdoms. By around AD 600 the five main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Kent and Anglia.

When Rome was weakening early in the fifth century c.e., troops in the outlying regions, including the British Isles, were withdrawn. Walls, roads, and baths remain even now. They also left the native Celts and Celtic-speaking Britons somewhat Christianized, and Picts and Scots in the north, but “political” power fell to unstable tribal units. One of these leaders, Vortigern, “invited” Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to join his military power, so the land saw a swell of invasions by Jutes, a Germanic tribe from Denmark — in 449, followed soon by Angles and Saxons. (The current name originates as “Angle-Land.”) These hordes settled in and pushed the Celts into Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, and to the north. King Arthur grew from legends of one Celtic chieftain who held out better than most.

The Anglo-Saxon social structure consisted of tribal units led by chieftains (“kings,” or “lords”) who, theoretically at least, earned their respect from their warriors (or “retainers,” or “thanes,” the group being called a “comitatus”). Kings should display the heroic ideal and be known for an extraordinary and courageous feat or for success in war, all preceded by some boasting. The king must be a generous “ring-giver” too — that is, he must dish out the spoils of war to his thanes rather than hoard the treasures won in tribal warfare (a practice that has survived in diluted form, says Tom Garbaty, with the Queen giving medals to the Beatles and such). These weapons and treasures are important too. The craftsmanship is always elaborate and stories accrue about each ding. Although theoretically the thanes freely agreed to join a king, it was nevertheless vital for one’s sense of self to be part of a tribe. The thane shouldn’t survive the king, and the worst fate for these people was to be exiled or to outlast all one’s fellow warriors. The sense of identity came from the warrior community.

The Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp, worn by a high ranking Anglo-Saxon noble

The Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp, worn by a high ranking Anglo-Saxon noble

Fighting was a way of life, and not to avenge the death of a family member was a social disgrace, so endlessly intricate blood-feuds generated perpetual excuses for going to war. The two alternatives for ending a blood-feud were either paying “wergild” — the man price, or arranging a marriage. Women were known as “cup-bearers” (because they served the mead) and “peace-weavers” (because of this function whereby feuds could be ended). But none of this really ever worked. The germanic tribes hated peace; fighting was more honorable. Occasionally some tribes temporarily grouped together for a larger war task, or against Viking invaders, but there was no national unity or any Round Table in these early years. Alfred the Great and Athelstan made names for themselves as successful against the Norse.

In 597 St. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great (Mr. Chant) to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Writing came in only with Christianity, and the Latin alphabet ousted the crude Germanic runes. In general, churchmen were anxious to eliminate pagan stories, so Beowulf is quite unusual. Edwin, King of Northumbria, converted to Christianity in 627. Laws started to be written. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People emerges in 731. Alfred the Great in the late 800s united the tribes somewhat successfully against the Norse and was a patron of literature — a political maneuver, since language and literature help form a national identity. Latin works were translated into Old English, including Bede; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were begun (and lasted to the mid-12th century); and works were preserved through copies (such as Beowulf).

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Old English

A map showing the various migration routes taken by Germanic tribes from the 5th and 11th centuries

Old English or Anglo-Saxon Old English was the West Germanic language spoken in the area now known as England between the 5th and 11th centuries. Speakers of Old English called their language Englisc, themselves Angle, Angelcynn or Angelfolc and their home Angelcynn or Englaland. Old English began to appear in writing during the early 8th century. Most texts were written in West Saxon, one of the four main dialects. The other dialects were Mercian, Northumbrian and Kentish. The Anglo-Saxons adopted the styles of script used by Irish missionaries, such as Insular half-uncial, which was used for books in Latin. A less formal version of minuscule was used for to write both Latin and Old English. From the 10th century Anglo-Saxon scribes began to use Caroline Minuscule for Latin while continuing to write Old English in Insular minuscule. Thereafter Old English script was increasingly influenced by Caroline Minuscule even though it retained a number of distinctive Insular letter-forms. Old English / Anglo-Saxon was sometimes written with a version of the Runic alphabet called Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. , brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons until about the 11th century. Runic inscriptions are mostly found on jewelery, weapons, stones and other objects. Very few examples of Runic writing on manuscripts have survived.

Old English is not uniform. It consists of various dialects, but literature needs to treat it as a language. We get our syntax from the Anglo-Saxons, our preference for and greater ease with nouns, the tendencies to simplify grammar and shorten words, and the “law of recessive accent” — the tendency to place the accent on the first syllable and to slur over subsequent syllables. (Later words adopted from outside illustrate: “quantité” is anglicanized to “quántity”; “contraire” to “contrary.”)

The Anglo-Saxon gods lend their names to days of the week: Tuesday from Tiw, the dark god; Wednesday from Woden, the war god; Thursday from Thor, the thunder god; Friday from Frigga, goddess of the home. Most Anglo-Saxon poetry emerges from an oral tradition and was meant for mead-hall entertainment. Scops (the poets) and Gleemen (harpists) sung or recited and were the only historians of the time. The poetic structure was based on accent and alliteration (not rhyme and meter), and made use of stock formula. Epithets were useful for alliteration, so God could be called “Weard” (guardian) or “Meatod” (measurer) or “Wuldor-Fæder” (glory-father) or “Drihten” (lord) or “Scyppend” (creator) or “Frea” (master), etc. A king could be a “ring-giver” or a “noble lord” or a “righteous guardian.” A phrase replaces a simpler name. Appositions show up as several epithets in a row, and we’re even more top-heavy with noun-phrases. Kennings were poetic phrases consisting of compound metaphors. The sea could be called “the swan’s road” or “the whale’s way.” As mentioned above, women were “cup-bearers” or “peace-weavers.” Litotes refers to ironic understatement, another apparent favorite trope of the Anglo-Saxons in which the affirmative is expressed by the negation of its contrary. “Not easily did I come through it with my life.”

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