(450 – 1066)



THE ANGLO-SAXON FOUNDATION (450-1066). British literature as a blend of Latin and Germanic, pagan and Christian traditions. Popular literature (mnemonic verse, wise sayings, charms). Courtly epic. Beowulf; form and structure. Courtly lyric (elegies, riddles). Christian lyric (dream vision, allegory, bestiary, advent lyrics, devotional poems, topographical poems). Anglo-Saxon prose (chronicles, letters, laws, geographical descriptions, saints’ lives, liturgical books). Venerable Beda and the teleologic design of history  


The term “Anglo-Saxon” has been preferred to that of “Old Englsh” in reference to the Germanic inhabitants of Britain up to the Norman Conquest, as the latter, which has been in use since the seventeenth century, is merely based upon a need for continuity with what went afterwards. However, one should remember that the entire literature that has come down to us from the seventh century to about 1100 is a type of West Saxon, while Modern English is based on a Midland or Mercia type which was almost non-literary [1]. 30,000 lines have survived from this early period as the fruit of the monks' work in the loth century monasteries. They are treasured in four codices: Junius XI in the Bodlein library, Vitellius in the British Museum, Vercelly (a library in Northern Italy) and the Exeter Book.

Our information of the distant British past is mainly derived from Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English Race) written in Latin by the Venerable Bede or Beda (673 – 735), a priest who spent most of his time at Jarrow, a Northumbrian monastery. He was also a poet (A Book of Epigrams), a scientist (On the Nature of Things and On Time) and a rhetorician (The Art of Poetry, with a small work appended: On Tropes and Figures).

The prehistoric populations had inhabited the land for 50 to 250 thousand years [2] when, in the last centuries of the Bronze Age, the Celtic tribes made their way to it and settled there mixing up with the natives. Their language was probably first Gaelic, later Britannic, from which Welsh, Breton and Cornish derived. Julius Caesar's expeditions of 55 and 54 B.C. paved the way for the Romans' conquest of Britain (43 A.D. under Emperor Claudius). As a Roman province Britain developed a flourishing urban type of life: forums, schools, theatres, baths, libraries, military roads and camps (castra, a word that has survived as a suffix in such names as “Lancaster”, “Manchester”, etc.). Archeological findings reveal the existence of an orderly civilization, regulated by laws contained in official documents and of a highly literate society: inscriptions on stone, trade-marks on manufactured goods, letters, wording and images upon coins which might have served as sort of official propaganda.

About 450 A.D. the Romanized Celts were driven west and north by the invasion of tribesmen from the Germanic territory extending from the Rhine to the Elbe Rivers  (Old Saxony) and from the present-day Denmark (Jutland and Angulus) (Fig. 1).


The language they spoke sprang from that of the Old Teutonic peoples in prehistoric times. At the time of the invasion they spoke dialects of a common language. Old English belongs to the West Teutonic (Germanic) branch of the Indo- European family, and it was related to the North Teutonic languages (Icelandic and Scandinavian languages), to the East Teutonic (Gothic) and to West Teutonic (Frisian and Franconian). The national Germanic alphabet, borrowed from the Latin or Greek, was in runes (letters of an angular shape), the word itself meaning  “mystery”, “secret”. They were considered to be endowed with mystical powers, the function of communication coming next to that of magic. Odin, the rune-master, was believed to have sacrificed his life in order to learn their use and hidden wisdom. They were engraved (writan, which has come to mean “to write”) on tablets of wood, staves, coins, weapons, rings, drinking horns, stone monuments. The tablet of wood was called boc (book). It was later superseded by a coating of wax scratched with a pointed instrument of metal, parchment or velum (sheep-skin or calf-skin), but it was only in the fifteenth century that paper manuscript, pen and ink-horn became available.

The invaders were organized in small political units, and the chiefs or leaders of the expeditions founded the royal dynasties of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, which was later named after the Angles (Angul-cyn: “race of the Angles”; Englisc): Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, populated by the Angles, Kent settled by the Jutes; Essex, Wessex and Sussex, settled by the Saxons (originally “Anglo-Saxon” referred to the Saxons in England, as different from those on the Continent) (Fig. 2).

The leading nobles arround the king (retainers) constituted his court, bound by a strong commitment of mutual trust. The Old English for this comitatus, mentioned by Tacitus in his Germania, was dright. The retainers claimed equal lineage with that of the king, who was primus inter pares, and was chosen by them. The king made them gifts of land or gold, while they were supposed to defend him in battles and show him loyalty to the death. Family loyalties were also vital. Relatives would avenge one's death or exact the payment of a sum of money (wergild) from the slayer, as it was settled by law codes in accordance with the victim's rank.

The Celts had known Christianity through the Roman occupation in the third century, and some of the Romanized Celts in the north and west remained Christians after the Germanic invasion. The conversion of the English was the work of Pope Gregory the Great, who in 597 sent a Benedictine monk, St Augustine, to Kent, whose king, Ethelbert, had a Christian Frankish queen. On Christmas Day 597 ten thousand people were baptized, following the example of their king, who had been converted but in a few months. Canterbury became the seat of the first Englsh bishopric. By the end of the seventh century, almost all of the English had been converted, either through the effort of the Irish missionaries of Aidan in the north or by Augustine's monks in the south. The difference was that, while the latter disseminated the Roman diocesan tradition, which meant the building of churches for bishops and priests, the monks from Iona in the Hebrides founded monasteries (Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Whitby in Northumbria) in which marvellously illuminated manuscripts and stone crosses were produced. The reason for this remarkable appeal of the new faith might have been that suggested by Beda in his account of the conversion of King Edwin in Northumbria: whereas Fate (Wyrd) condemned them beforehand, leading them to their final doom, Christianity offered hope of salvation. Here is Coifi, Edwin's High Priest:

I have long realized that there is nothing in what we worshipped, for the more diligently I sought after truth in our religion the less I found. I now publicly confess that this teaching clearly reveals truths that will afford us the blessings of life, salvation, and eternal happiness [3].

The alliance of Christianity, royalty and writing remained strong throughout the Middle Ages (as in this picture of King Athelstan presenting St. Cuthbert with a manuscript of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (Fig. 3).

However, as revealed by the archaeological excavations (1939) of the Sutton Hoo (East Anglia) royal ship burial in a sanded mound, dating back to the seventh century, the next two or three centuries were a period of transition in which pagan and Christian elements freely mingled. The treasures keeping the corpse company after life coexisted with two silver spoons on which the names “Saul” and “Paul” were engraved (Saul converted to St. Paul) [4]. C. L. Wrenn also mentions in his book the little box made of whalebone which Bregowine, Archbishop of Canterbury, sent to the Bishop of Mainz in the third quarter of the eighth century (now housed by the British Museum and known as the “Franks Casket”). On each side there are carved episodes from Christian history, from ecclesiastical Roman history, and from Germanic heroic legends, with descriptive notes in runes. Such historical circumstances are of great help in any approach of that “melting pot” of heterogeneous elements out of which English literature emerged. As the Latin alphabet travelled with Christian missionaries, the Germanic runes made room for the Roman rustic capital of St. Augustine's monks, later superseded by the Latin half-uncial hand, brought over by the Irish monks – a character of great beauty and precision. Three runes were still preserved to render sounds for which there was no graphical correspondent in the Latin alphabet: w, th (thorn) and eth (this). The manuscripts, of calf skin or sheep skin, were so precious that, in the Middle Ages they were fastened with chains to the shelves (Fig. 4).




[1]   C.L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature, Harap, 1967, p.VII.

[2]   Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, edited by Kenneth O. Morgan, Oxford University Press, 1984 and Robert C. Hughes, The Origins of Old English to 8oo A.D., in Beowulf, edited by Joseph F. Tuso, W.W. Norton, 1975, p. 59

[3]   Bede, An Ecclesiastical History of the English Race (King Edwin's Council) in The Anglo-Saxon World, an Anthology edited and translated by Kevin-Crossley-Holland, Oxford University Press, 1982 pp. 159-160.

[4]   C.L. Wrenn, Op. cit. p. 4.




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