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Anglo-Saxon History and the English Language and Literature


Anglo-Saxon History and Old English Language and Literature

Pre-Historical – 1066 A.D.

Overview of Periods of Early English History Pre-History—1066 A. D.






Pre-Roman/Celtic  up to 55 B. C.


Occupation  55 B. C. – 409 A. D.


Period  409 – 787 A. D.


(Dane) Invasions  787 – 1066 A. D.


Conquest begins in 1066


 What four peoples invaded Britain in the period the time line covers?  the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans


 What effects might a series of invasions—one every three hundred to five hundred years— have on a culture?  Such a history might make a culture adaptable;  people would learn to live with and absorb the influences of those who spoke a different language or practiced a different religion;  a history of invasion would make a culture become militaristic.

The Celts in Britain

Before and during the 4th century B.C.

 The island we know as England was once occupied by a race of tall, blond people called the Celts.  One of the tribes was called the Brythons or Britons (where we get the term Britain)

The Celts in Britain

Before and during the 4th century B.C.

 The Celts were


and their religion was known as “


” a Latin word for “spirit.”  Animism is a belief that gods live in all things – trees, stones, water, air … Celts saw spirits everywhere.

The Celts in Britain

Before and during the 4th century B.C.

 Celtic priests were called Druids; their role was to go between the gods and the people.

 Druids are known to have existed since the 3 rd century B.C.  The word druid means “knowing the oak tree.”  Celtic priests performed ceremonies in oak groves and considered the oak trees, as well as the mistletoe that grows on oaks, sacred.

The Celts in Britain

Before and during the 4th century B.C.


Roman Occupation

Roman ruins

Important Events During Roman Occupation

 Julius Caesar begins invasion/occupation in 55 B.C.

 Occupation completed by Claudius in 1 st century A.D.

 Hadrian’s Wall built about 122 A.D.

Roman Occupation

The defensive wall, Hadrian’s Wall, linked the North Sea and the Atlantic near the present-day border between England and Scotland. Hadrian’s Wall held back the marauding Picts and Scots for 250 years.

Hadrian’s Wall

Roman Occupation

 The five thousand miles of stone roads built by the Romans linked tribal capitals and towns, especially London, York, and Winchester.

Important Events During Roman Occupation

 Romans “leave” in 410 A.D. because Visigoths attack Rome, and the Vandals attacked in 455 A.D.  The last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 A.D. by the German chief Odovacar.

 St. Augustine lands in Kent in 597 A.D. and converts King Aethelbert (king of Kent, the oldest Saxon settlement) to Christianity; becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury

Important Cultural and Historical Results of the Roman Occupation

 Military—strong armed forces (“legions”)  Pushed Celts into Wales and Ireland  Prevented Vikings from raiding for several hundred years: C. Warren Hollister writes, “Rome’s greatest gift to Britain was peace” (15).

 Infrastructure  Government (fell apart when they left)  Walls, villas, public baths (some remains still exist)

Important Cultural and Historical Results of the Roman Occupation

 Language and Writing  Latin was official language  Practice of recording history led to earliest English “literature” being documentary  Religion  Christianity beginning to take hold, especially after St. Augustine converts King Aethelbert

The Most Important Results of the Roman Occupation


heavily influenced the English language  Relative



(but does not fully displace Paganism for several hundred years) begins to take hold in England


 At the beginning of the 5th century, the Roman Empire was attacked by barbarian tribes, and in A.D. 410 the Visigoths sacked Rome itself. Given this information, why do you think the Romans evacuated their troops in A.D. 409?

 Roman generals and troops were needed to help out at home. Rome was constantly under barbarian attack.

The Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Celts Jutes Angles Saxons A.D. 449

The Anglo-Saxons push the Celts into the far west of the country.

The Anglo-Saxon Period 410-787 Important Events in the Anglo-Saxon Period

 410- 450 A.D. Angles and Saxons invade by crossing the North Sea in wooden boats from Northern Germany & Northern Holland (Netherlands)  And the Jutes invade from the Jutland peninsula in Denmark  The Geats are a tribe from Jutland  Nine Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms eventually became the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy (England not unified), or “Seven Sovereign Kingdoms”

Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

 1.







Heptarchy = Seven Kingdoms Kent Essex (East Saxon) Sussex (South Saxon) East Anglia Northumbria Mercia Wessex (West Saxon)


 Which three tribes are known as the Anglo-Saxons?  Angles, Saxons, and Jutes


Where did the Anglo-Saxon tribes come from?

Northern Germany, Denmark, and Northern Holland

Anglo-Saxon Society

Anglo-Saxon Society

 People farmed, established local governments, and produced fine craftwork  Kinship groups were led by strong warrior chief/king.

 Anglo-Saxon king was an absolute ruler and mighty warrior.

 The Anglo-Saxons had a two-class society: the thanes, or earls, who ruled and were related to the leader of the tribe; and the churls, or bondservants, whose ancestors had been captured by the tribe.

Anglo-Saxon Society

 King consulted with the witan (“wise men”)-- an assembly of respected earls.

 Churls provided hard labor and were bound to the earls’ service unless they could earn possessions and special royal favor to become freemen (independent landholders).

 Warriors were admired.

 Social organization based on strict laws and a sense of obligation to others.

Anglo-Saxon Society

 Anglo-Saxon bards were called scops, who strummed a harp as they sang of the heroic deeds of great warriors.

 The literature of the Anglo-Saxons was handed down orally by scops who sang in the lords’ mead halls, where warriors gathered to celebrate the events of the day.  These scops, like the Greek poets before them, remembered their stories by using accentual meter and many stock phrases called kennings.

 Scops, themselves, were often warriors.

*Anglo-Saxon harp

Anglo-Saxon Society

 The word wyrd was used by the Anglo-Saxons to represent one’s fate in life.  The early Anglo-Saxons did not believe strongly in an afterlife; they believed that immortality, or lof—fame that survives death—could be earned through heroic action.  Therefore, the Anglo-Saxons believed they gained immortality through songs passed down about their heroic deeds.

Anglo-Saxon Society

 The Anglo-Saxon religion offered no hope of afterlife …  Therefore, they valued the earthly virtues of bravery, loyalty, generosity, and friendship.

 They worshipped gods similar to what we know as Scandinavian Norse mythology.

Norse god

Odin Thor

Anglo-Saxon god

*Woden *Thunor

Day of week

Wednesday Thursday

Anglo-Saxon Society

 English emerged as a written language  Old English was the language of the Anglo Saxons. It is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Modern English is directly descended from Old English.

 During the Anglo-Saxon period, people spoke what we call Old English, but the language of study was Latin until the time of King Alfred.

Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy Wessex

 King Alfred the Great came from Wessex.  By the middle of the tenth century, the Wessex kings had become the kings of all England.  During his reign, King Alfred instituted the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a lengthy running history of England that covered the earliest days and continued until 1154.  Partly because of King Alfred’s efforts, English began to gain respect as a language of culture. An electronic copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is available on the Internet.

Anglo-Saxon Society

Page from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Old English

Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy Northumbria

Northumbria was known as a center of learning and the arts. The religious art mixed Celtic and Anglo Saxon influences.  The Monastery of Lindisfarne (from which come the Lindisfarne Gospels) is located on Holy Island, off the northwest coast of Northumbria.

 The main text of the Lindisfarne Gospels (7 th century) is written in Latin, the designs are influenced by Celtic art, and the marginal notes are written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English).

Image of the Lindisfarne Gospels: Gospel of St John the Evangelist, initial page. Lindisfarne, late 7th or early 8th century


 The Lindisfarne Gospels contain Latin, Celtic, and Old English. What does that tell us about early Christianity?  The spread of Christianity encouraged cross-cultural exchange.

Anglo-Saxon Society The Spread of Christianity

Around A.D. 400

Christian monks settle in Britain  Christianity and Anglo Saxon culture co-exist 

By A.D. 699

British pagan religions are replaced by Christianity

Anglo-Saxon Society The Spread of Christianity

Monasteries in England served as centers of learning just as they would in the Middle Ages.  The monks preserved not only the Greek classics but also some of the great works of popular literature such as Beowulf, which was first written down around 700 A.D.  Due to the Christian elements in the epic, scholars believe the poet who wrote down the version of Beowulf we have today was a monk.

Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy East Anglia

 In Sutton Hoo, East Anglia, a burial mound of an Anglo-Saxon king was discovered in 1939.

Viking Invasions 787-1066

Viking Invasions

 By definition, Vikings were sea-faring (explorers, traders, and warriors) Scandinavians during the 8 th through 11 th centuries.  Oddly enough, the Anglo-Saxon (and Jute) heritage was not much different from the Vikings’: they, too, were Scandinavian invaders.  In fact, some Vikings were also called “Northmen.”  However, when the Viking raids began around 787 A.D., the Anglo-Saxons were different culturally from the Viking invaders.

Viking Invasions

The Danes were one of the fierce Viking peoples who crossed the North Sea in dragon-prowed ships.

Norse dragon prowed ship, 10th Century, Anglo Saxon manuscript

 The Danes plundered and destroyed all in their path, eventually settling in northeast and central England.

Unification of the Kingdom

 King Alfred (849–899) truly deserves the appellation “the great.”  878 A.D. -- King Alfred unifies Anglo-Saxons against the Danes.

 Not only did he help save Wessex and other kingdoms in England from the Danes, but he also helped create a cohesive English society from a collection of small, fractious kingdoms.

Unification of the Kingdom

 In addition, he restored cities destroyed during invasions and revived interest in learning and in the English language.  Because of King Alfred, England becomes a nation.

 King Alfred is the only British monarch who is called “the great.”

The Alfred jewel is a gold and enamel jewel (9th century) thought to have belonged to King Alfred and is possibly the handle to a pointer used for following manuscript text.


 The Alfred jewel shows an enameled figure of a man holding two scepters. The inscription around the edge reads: “Alfred ordered me to be made.” What symbolic significance do the two scepters have?  They symbolize the political unity Alfred was trying to achieve.

Norman Invasion

 In 1066, William of Normandy crosses the English Channel.

 William defeats Harold Godwinson (the last Anglo-Saxon King) and Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings, the Normans (powerful Northern Frenchmen) start a centuries-long conquest of England.

Norman Conquest

 Two Most Important Effects: 


replaces English as the language of the ruling class and becomes the official language of politics and power and exerts enormous influence on Old English  England begins


political system, much of which is still with us (even in the U.S.) today under a French

The Norman Invasion, Bayeux Tapestry

Although tapestry usually involves the weaving of thread, this tapestry is actually an embroidered band of linen, 231 feet long and 19 ½ inches wide. Of particular value to historians are the details of battle tactics and equipment depicted in the work.


 In what country is Normandy located?  France


 How did the Norman Invasion (also called the Conquest) affect the English language?

 Many English words are of French origin.

Early England Created by Three Invasions

1. Roman Occupation 55 B.C.-410 A.D.

2. Anglo-Saxon and Viking Invasions 410 – 1066 A.D.


3. The Norman Invasion (The Battle of Hastings) in 1066 A.D.


The Anglo-Saxon Period in Review

   Pre-Anglo-Saxon   Celtic Peoples (approx 1700/400 B.C. – 55 B.C.) Roman Occupation (55 B.C.-410 A.D.) Anglo-Saxon/Viking  Angles, Saxons, Frisian, and Jutes (410-787)  Viking Raids/Invasions begin 8 th c. and end 10 th Norman Invasion/Occupation (begins the Middle Ages)  c.

Battle of Hastings in 1066, then about four centuries of French rule

What Have You Learned?

Indicate whether the following statements refer to the time before, during, or


the Anglo-Saxon era.

______ French became the language of the ruling class.

______ England became unified under Alfred the Great.

How to remember it …

 Lots of ongoing tribal feuds and wars led to . . .

 Lots of intermingling of similar but different Germanic languages . . . interrupted by . . .

 MORE Viking invasions, which gave way to . . .  Some political unification (Alfred) . . .  . . . Which led to . . .  the earliest form of our language, ENGLISH!!

What is English?

A short history of the origins and development of English

The Indo-European Family of Languages

 Most languages in Europe, the Middle-East, and India appear to descend from a common ancestral language known to scholars as "proto-Indo-European"  Today, the Indo-European languages have spread across large portions of the globe.  They include diverse tongues like English, Russian, French, Latin, and Hindi.  While English is very different from Hindi, for instance, they both come ultimately from the same source: Indo-European.

The Indo-European Family of Languages

The Indo-European languages fall into two general branches.  At some time in the distant past, the original Indo-European speakers migrated westward and eastward from a location north of the Middle East.  We can trace those migrations by looking at vocabulary in each language, and gradually seeing the sound changes that took place over time as the tribes drifted further apart.  The Indo-European tribes that migrated westward tended to pronounce words with hard /k/ sounds--a velar stop.  On the other hand, those that migrated eastward pronounced similar words with /s/ or /sh/ sounds--a fricative sound.

The Indo-European Family of Languages

Likewise, the westward travelers tended to have certain vowel sounds transform into /e/ sounds  while the eastward travelers tended to switch to /a/ sounds over time,  and the labio-velar stops in westward traveling tribes tended to turn into velar sounds.  Philologists have named the two branches




. 


is the ancient word for "one hundred" in Latin, a language in the western branch of Indo-European. 


is the ancient word for "one hundred" in Avestan, a language in the eastern branch of Indo-European.  The two words illustrate the major changes in a single word as the Indo-European tribes drifted in two different general directions.

Celtic Inhabitants of Britain

 The first inhabitants of the British Isles were not English speakers at all. They were part of an ethnic grouping known as the Celts.

 However, not many Celtic words became a part of Anglo-Saxon English.  In general, two types of Celtic words were likely targets of permanent Anglo-Saxon adaptation before the Norman Conquest:  (1) Toponyms or place-names. For instance, Cornwall, Carlisle, Avon, Devon, Dover, London, and Usk are all originally Celtic names. Other places like Lincoln and Lancaster are semi-Celtic in origin.

(2) Latin words the Celts borrowed from Rome, which were in turn borrowed by the Anglo-Saxon invaders--including words like candle (Latin candelere, "to shine“)

The Germanic Tribes

 The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD.

 Most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders - mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  The Angles came from Englaland and their language was called Englisc - from which the words England and English are derived.

Old English (450-1100 AD)

 The invading Germanic tribes spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what we now call Old English.  Old English did not sound or look like English today – Native English speakers now would have great difficulty understanding Old English.  Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots.  The words be, strong and water, for example, derive from Old English.  Old English was spoken until around 1100. Part of Beowulf, a poem written in Old English.

Middle English (1100-1500)

 In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England.

 The new conquerors (called the Normans) brought with them a kind of French, which became the language of the Royal Court, and the ruling and business classes.

 For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French.  In the 14th century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added – This language is called Middle English.  It was the language of the great poet Chaucer (c1340-1400), but it would still be difficult for native English speakers to understand today. An example of Middle English by Chaucer.

Modern English Early Modern English (1500-1800)

Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter.  From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. Hamlet's famous "To be, or not to be" lines, written in Early Modern English by Shakespeare.

M:\Anglo-Saxon Unit\Hamlet_Tobeornottobe_64kb.mp3

Modern English Early Modern English (1500-1800)

 The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print.  Books became cheaper and more people learned to read.  Printing also brought standardization to English.  Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard.  In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Modern English Late Modern English (1800-Present)

 The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary.

 Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors:  firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words;  secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.

Transition to Beowulf

 The major text we will read from this period is the epic Beowulf. It is the story of a Scandinavian (Geat) “thane” (warrior or knight) who comes to help a neighboring tribe, the Danes, who are being attacked by a monster.

 We study English history to understand the context of Beowulf, and we study Beowulf to understand the world which was Old England.

Transition to Beowulf

 According to Venerable Bede (an early English historian who lived in the eighth century), the Britons called the Romans for help when the Picts and Scots were attacking them (B.C.). Hundreds of years later, the Britons called the Saxons to help them when the Romans couldn’t. The Saxons came “from parts beyond the sea” (qtd. in Pyles and Algeo 96).

 This journey of Germanic peoples to England “from parts beyond the sea” is the prototypical story for the first millennium of England’s history. It formulates much of their cultural mindset and clearly influences their stories. Be sure to consider how it plays a role in Beowulf.


The manuscript

 Handwritten by a monk around 1000 A.D.

 Written in Old English  Obtained by Sir Robert Cotton  Bound in Cotton Vitellius Axv  Damaged in fire in 1731  Currently at British Museum


 Beowulf is generally described as an epic , which is a long narrative poem about the deeds of heroes and warriors.

 Epics generally blend myth, legend, folk tale, and history, and are often considered expressions of “the history and aspirations of a nation.”  The question one must ask about Beowulf, however, is how the story of a Swedish hero who frees the court of a Danish king before returning to Sweden and killing a dragon is an expression of English nationhood.

Poetic form and devices

 Alliteration—the repetition of

consonant sounds at the beginning of words and in stressed syllables

 Alliterative verse  Same initial consonants   Line halved by caesura—an

obvious pause in a line of poetry. It is usually found near the middle of a line, with two stressed syllables before and two after, creating a strong rhythm.

Four stresses per line

Poetic form and devices

 Kenning: compressed metaphor; an imaginative phrase

that takes the place of a single noun

Ship: "the bent-necked wood," "the ringed prow," "the foamy-necked," "the sea-wood," "the sea-farer"

Sea: "the swan-road" "the whale-road" "the sea-bird's baths"

Sword: "the leaving of the file" "battle-lightning"

Dragon: "the twilight-spoiler" Battle: "the storm of swords" Queen: "peace-bringer among nations"

Lord/king: "the protector of warriors;" "ring giver;" "dispenser of treasure

Poetic form and devices

 Litotes: ironic understatement

“That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now."

meaning "The sword was useful.” 

“That trip to Herot / was a miserable journey for the

writhing monster.” Referring to Grendel’s last raid on Heorot.

 Synecdoche: part for whole; a figure in which part of

something is substituted for the whole.

 As when Beowulf uses the word "keel" to refer to the whole ship.

Poetic form and devices

 Metonymy: using an associated word for the

word itself; the name of one thing is substituted for the name of another thing that most readers associate with the first.

 In Beowulf and example of metonymy would be when the word "iron" is used instead of "sword."

Anglo-Saxon values

     Loyalty   Fighting for one’s king Avenging one’s kinsmen  Keeping one’s word Generosity -- gifts symbolize bonds Comitatus Bond – Brotherly love – a pledge of service and protection (Tacitus) Heroism   Physical strength Skill and resourcefulness in battle  Courage Public reputation, not private conscience

Beowulf vocabulary

 lament: expression of sorrow; song or literary composition that mourns a loss or death  forged: formed or shaped, often with blows or pressure after heating  shroud: burial cloth  infamous: having a bad reputation; notorious  writhing: twisting as in pain