Research for Introduction to Anglo-Saxon period assign students to do

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Anglo-Saxon Poetry & Beowulf

Research for Introduction to Anglo-Saxon period – assign students to do

  1. England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (find on map) – timeline of invaders and where they came from.

  2. Britain before recorded history

  3. Tribal culture of Celts & other Northern European tribes

  4. Invasion of the Romans

  5. Life in Roman Ruled Britain

  6. Exodus of Rome/Coming of Anglo-Saxon invaders

  7. Anglo-Saxon England

  8. Viking Invasions

  9. Alfred the Great

  10. Elegy vs. Epic poetry

  11. Caedmon

  12. Components of Anglo-Saxon poetry – explain and have examples (who tells, how, why?)

  13. Exeter Book

This is some background information on the research topics and Beowulf

*Suggestion: put this Invaders Chart on the board first. Students will have a handy chart they can refer back to. It may also be useful to show the maps and the 5 different countries that compose Britain today, discussing from where and when each group came.

The Invaders: The groups and approximate time period of their invasions of Britain include:

1. 2000 BC  Groups from the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal)

2. 600 BC  Celts (from different parts of Europe)

3. 55 BC Romans (from Italy)

4. 410 AD Anglo-Saxons (from modern Germany)

5. 793 AD Vikings (from modern Denmark, Norway, and Sweden)

6. 1066 AD  Normans (from modern France)

One textbook refers to the Anglo-Saxons as the “first Englishmen”. I will do the same in this packet, explaining this reference in a few moments. Before arriving at the Anglo-Saxon period in England, we need to keep in mind an important fact about Britain’s history. Although the Anglo-Saxons contributed greatly to the foundations of Britain, the island suffered a series of INVASIONS for the first 1100 years of its recorded history (55 BC - 1066).(The Anglo-Saxons themselves were invaders.)Each group of INVADERS left reminders of their presence in this country, though the Anglo-Saxons left the strongest.

Britain Before Recorded History

Written history of Britain began in the year 55 BC, when the Roman general Julius Caesar wrote of his campaigns in Britain. The history of people in Britain goes back far before written history. We have evidence that people lived in caves in Britain as far back as 250,000 years ago. Around 2,000 BC, invaders from the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) invaded the island. Evidence shows that they had a culture sophisticated enough to erect Stonehenge. Around the year 600 BC, the next invaders, a people called the Celts (from all over Europe), settled the land.

-The Celts lived in a tribal society. The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings though different cultures, came from a similar geography (Europe) and lived in tribal units as well. These tribal cultures had similar structures, including:

The Tribal Culture of the Celts and other Northern Europeans Tribes

-Each tribe had their own king

-They built walled farms and wood-hut villages

-They used bronze and iron tools, and grew crops

-They also warred with each other

-Since war was always a possibility, life was unstable and often violent

-warriors were loyal to a king and would fight to the death for him, surrender was cowardly

-these were oral cultures (there was no writing or recorded history)

-these cultures were non-Christian; they were “pagans”, worshipping many gods

Scholars say that these invasions happened because of Britain’s fertile land; the land in Northern Europe being less fertile and subject to flooding from the North Sea.

*Note: though we mention the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, they do not invade until much later than the Celts.

The Invasion of the Romans

Julius Caesar and his Roman troops first landed in Britain in 55 BC. Written history of Britain begins here when Caesar writes of his expeditions to this land. Rome was a great power at the time, and it ruled many lands. Some scholars say that Caesar’s troops came to punish the Celtics in Britain for helping European Celts in their fighting against Rome.

One hundred years after Caesar, in 43 BC, under the rule of the emperor Claudius, Rome successfully invaded Britain. For about the next 400 years (43 - 410), Rome ruled much of Britain. Those tribal cultures who rebelled against Roman rule (generally the Celts) fled to the highlands of Wales and Scotland. Early in the 2nd century (100’s) the emperor Hadrian built a wall 73 miles long to keep the Celts in the highlands. It is now known as Hadrian’s Wall.

Life in Roman Ruled Britain (43 - 410)

The Britons, who did not flee and succumbed to Roman rule, had an easier life than those who were forced to the highlands. For example under Roman rule, people enjoyed the following:

  1. Peace, Stability, a less Nomadic life. With safe towns protected by a strong Roman army, there was no need to “pack up everything they owned” if they were to be forced from their land--they wouldn’t be forced from their land.

B. In town and out of town INFRASTRUCTURE could be improved.

1. Paved roads connected towns (preventing horses and wagons from getting stuck in mud for example and, thus improving travel.)

2.More Stable Buildings (more often used the sturdier stone, brick, or concrete vs. wood huts for

example. Stone is better against weather and attack. Stone doesn’t catch fire like wood might.)

3.More people lived because of this peace, thus increasing the ability to build the infrastructure and have professional soldiers due to Able-Bodied Workers.

*Other benefits of Roman rule included sanitation systems providing for cleaner more healthy cities, public baths (cleaner, healthier people) even public meeting houses, law courts, and amphitheaters.

Exodus of Rome/The Coming of Anglo-Saxon Invaders

After the year 300, however, the vast Roman Empire began to weaken. By the 5th century it had collapsed. The Romans were forced to withdraw their troops from Britain to fight battles at home in Italy. This opened the previously peaceful areas of Roman rule in Britain to INVASION.

The period after Roman withdrawal is one of the most obscure in British history. Celts invaded from the highlands where they had been forced into living. Anglo-Saxon warriors from Germany were hired to protect other Britons from Celts and to help preserve the Roman way of life. In time though, the Anglo-Saxons decided this land was good for them as well, so they invaded too (remember this land was fertile while theirs in Germany was not as fertile).The ordered Roman way of life soon disappeared and tribal kingdoms (oral cultures/no written history remember) once again reigned.

As had happened during the Roman occupation, defeated groups fled to the highlands of Scotland and Wales. Anglo-Saxon’s settled in different areas throughout England. Some Britons did not flee and thus were assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture. One begins to see how the different cultures both separate and mix upon invasion. By 441 these various Anglo-Saxon tribes formed the new power in Britain. Interestingly, when the Anglo-Saxons were invaded by the Vikings around 790, they didn’t go away. They would contribute to the culture of Britain for another 600 years; this is why we call them “the first Englishmen”. They provided customs that exist to this day: the language (English, called Old English today), began its literature (becoming a written as opposed to oral culture), and established traditions in law and government (monarchy: one king), and religion (Christianity)

Anglo-Saxon England 441-793

In 441, the Anglo-Saxons were a tribal culture like the Celts. Their culture is chronicled in the epic poem, Beowulf.

Though these Anglo-Saxon tribes were spread throughout much of England, more ambitious kings began to assert authority over other rulers and their people. The first of these more powerful kings was King Athelbert who ruled from 560-616.He appeared to have “dreamed of a nationwide confederation of tribes which would bring unity and a measure of peace to the land” (McConnell, 4).Between 632 and 796, this system appears to have worked well in the large area of Mercia in central England. Violence and instability was reduced, and order, more comparable to the Roman days existed, allowing the culture to flourish.

Partially because of this work towards peace in England, the Catholic Church in Rome became interested in converting the Anglo-Saxons.(Although there had been small Christian communities in Britain since the days of the Romans, Christianity’s influence was minor, especially since these communities were nearly wiped out in the invasion after Rome withdrew.)However, when a greater amount of stability began to exist in England, Rome sent St. Augustine to try and convert England in 597.During the next 40 years, “Christian missionaries, despite setbacks, were able to convert most of the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people to Christianity” (McConnell, 4).

The spread of CHRISTIANITY to the Anglo-Saxon’s, benefited the Anglo-Saxon culture in many ways:

1. It brought writing to this formerly oral culture, an essential skill for an “advanced culture”

2. It brought new values (peace, compassion, cooperation--instead of arrogance and violence)

3. Books were copied, records were written by monks, thus preserving their culture in writing

If we remember back to the Romans when peace and stability first reigned in Britain, then we look at the Anglo-Saxons with peace and stability in their time, we learn an important truth about life: in times of peace, life is good; in unstable times, people die, culture preoccupies with survival, defense, and battle. Cultures are overcome. Towns, books, buildings are burned. Culture grows and flourishes in peace, gets attacked and torn down in battle. Because of various invasions during the early Medieval Period, it has also come to be known as The Dark Ages.

As we depart the peaceful times in Anglo-Saxon England, remember one thing: though they were invaded by the Vikings, they did not go away or disappear; they continued to contribute to English history. This why they are called the first “Englishmen”.

The Viking Invasions (793 - 1066)

While Anglo-Saxon England became a more peaceful, organized, and advanced culture over 300 years, the new invaders, the Vikings, were more like the tribal cultures of hundreds of years before. What’s worse, these Viking invaders were all professional soldiers. They were not followed by peasants and farmers, as were the Anglo-Saxons. They were fierce warriors led by a warrior-king.

The Viking raids went on in Britain and Europe for almost 300 years (from 793-1066).They came from even farther North than the Germanic Tribes (the Anglo-Saxons and Celts), crossing the North Sea to arrive in Europe and Britain. It is thought that they came to Europe and Britain to acquire land as their population grew too much for the land to support their people. In any event, by the end of the 9th century (800’s), the Vikings had overpowered much of Anglo-Saxon Britain. The Anglo-Saxon’s did not disappear, remember, but they were now ruled by the pagan Vikings.

Alfred the Great

On a side note, there was one English king who was able to avoid having his land ruled by the Vikings. He was Alfred the Great who ruled from 849 - 899.Though his kingdom was much smaller than Viking-ruled Britain, he is greatly responsible for keeping the more advanced Anglo-Saxon way of life thriving. Under his reign:

-writing continued, with valuable history and literature being recorded (the Vikings were illiterate)

-the first English Navy was created

The Vikings were feared all over Europe and Britain. They gained a reputation as explorers, great seamen, and fierce fighters, barbarians who loved to fight. They powerfully exerted their influence over Britain and Europe for 300 years. By the 11th century (1000’s), however, the Vikings did begin to lose some battles. Also, Christianity had arrived in their homelands of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Somehow, the combination of losing battles and the influence of a peaceful, loving, and compassionate religion like Christianity decreased the power of the Vikings in Britain. 

By the last defeat of the last great Viking leader, Harold Hadrada, in 1066, the Vikings powerful influence of Britain and Europe would be finished forever. Of course, then the next wave of invaders came, the Normans from France. The rule of the Normans begins the late Medieval Period 1066 - 1453.This will be our next unit in this class. When we read the Canterbury Tales, written around 1386, we will jump about 700 years from the supposed writing (copying) of Beowulf to a more advanced culture in England.

Final Reminder

As we read Beowulf, we are in Denmark and Sweden, around 500 AD, before the move towards one king, Christianity, peace, and literacy. Though we are in Denmark and Sweden, these tribal cultures (the Geats and the Scyldings) are much like those in early Anglo-Saxon England.


Note: It is important to introduce students to such literary concepts as the epic poem, epic hero, kenning, alliteration, and caesura in this unit. Some of these concepts will appear again in a student’s career. Also, teaching students to recognize these conventions and/or apply them in their own work is valuable for the student to reach higher-order thinking.

Literary Genre of Beowulf

Epic: A long narrative poem in elevated style. It presents a character (s) of high degree and details important events that have a national, worldwide, or cosmic setting.(The Odyssey, the Star Wars films etc.)Traditionally, epics came from oral cultures, were passed down orally, and were of importance to a nation. With the spread of literacy and writing, single authors began to write epics. Most epics have the following characteristics:

1.) an epic hero of imposing stature and who is meaningful as a legend or historical figure

2.) his/her actions take place on a grand scale and are important nationally, internationally, or worldwide

3.) the action consists of a great deed( s) requiring superhuman courage & maybe superhuman strength

4.) supernatural forces (gods, angels, demons) are involved or interested in the action

5.) the style is grand or elevated 

My definition of HERO: A hero is simply a behavioral model. To some, a basketball player might be a hero, but to another that may seem silly. How could a basketball player be a hero? What are the reasons? We all have our own heroes for our own reasons. Thus a simple all-encompassing definition of a hero might simply be as a behavioral model.

Background on the Poem Beowulf

-Oral story guessed to have been written down around 725.(The events take place hundreds of years earlier, circa 500 - 600, in Sweden and Denmark).

-the author is unknown, though it was probably copied down by a Christian monk in England.

-the main plot surrounds a warrior-hero named Beowulf and his men. They are from a tribe called the Geats (pronounced yai-ots) who live in Sweden. They have crossed the ocean to Denmark to help a tribe called the Scyldings (pronounced Shildings).The Scyldings are being eaten and killed by an evil monster called Grendel.

-the story captures customs, traditions and values of the Anglo-Saxon Society

-though this poem chronicles the times of most probably a pagan people, by the time this was written, Christianity had established itself as a powerful presence in England. Therefore, we see God and references from the Bible mentioned often in this text.

-stories in Medieval England were often meant to be didactic--teach a lesson (what lesson does Beowulf teach?).

Life in the Times of Beowulf

Though this Anglo-Saxon work seems to chronicle the life of a Viking people, as opposed to the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, these cultures were close enough for the cultures to be interchangeable. The following aspects of Anglo-Saxon society include (as noted in British history notes): 

The Tribal Culture of the Anglo-Saxons

-Each tribe had their own king

-They built walled farms and wood-hut villages

-They used bronze and iron tools, and grew crops

-They also warred with each other

-Since war was always a possibility, life was unstable and often violent

-warriors were loyal to the king and would fight to the death for him, surrender was cowardly. Honor and loyalty to the tribe and to the king were more important, in a way, than material goods, for being remembered well after death, where you could not take material objects, was very important

-these were oral cultures (there was no writing or recorded history)

-these cultures were non-Christian; they were “pagans”, worshipping many gods.

Additional Notes on Anglo-Saxon Culture

The mead-hall: within the tribal cluster of wooden buildings surrounded by a strong wooden fence, stood the mead-hall. Here the king and his warriors (called thanes) feasted and drank mead (Anglo-Saxon beer).In the mead-hall, they were entertained by a scop (shope), a poet/story teller/historian.

The scop: the job of the scop was very important. Besides telling a story, his job was to retell current and past events, to record, remember, and retell history all from the record of his mind. Fame and honor meant a lot to these people; it was the scop’s job to preserve a record of their achievements for later generations.

Main Characters in Beowulf

Beowulf (The hero. A Geat who leads his band of warriors to find and kill Grendel)

Grendel (man-monster who raids Hrothgar’s mead-hall, eating his people)

Hrothgar (King of the Scyldings in Denmark)

Hygelac (King of the Geats-Beowulf’s king back in Sweden)

Unferth (one of Hrothgar’s thanes--he questions Beowulf’s strength and ability)

Wealhtheow (Hrothgar’s wife)

Important Relationships to Remember for Understanding:

Son of Ecgtheow--Beowulf (also called Hygelac’s thane)

Son of Ecglaf--Unferth (also called Hrothgar’s herald)

Son of Healfdene--Hrothgar 

Characteristics of Anglo-Saxon Poetry (The skill and style of the Scop)

An important fact to remember about the style of Beowulf is the matter of ANCESTRY. The writer of Beowulf often mentions details that do not seem to relate to the main plot, (mainly commentary on ancestors: “son of...”; so-and-so’s “thane”).This is done for a few reasons:

a. as an oral marker -- stories were often told in more than one sitting. The scop might leave off one spot and repeat some information the next day to remind listeners were he left off.

b. as a retelling of history and a chronicle of ancestry .When the writer mentions  relationships (i.e. calling Beowulf “Hygelac’s thane” in line 131 or calling Hrothgar “the son of Healfdene” in line 125) he may do this to remind listeners of who came from where and who is related to who. They had no writing or history books to chronicle these things. Being remembered was very important in Anglo-Saxon society.

c. to keep rhythm. The scop told the poem to a beat, rhythm, and with alliteration. Words may be shortened or elongated for this purpose.

The comment on ANCESTRY is more trivial, perhaps less important than the three techniques found in ANGLO-SAXON POETRY listed below:

Kenning : two or more words which, when put together, serve as a symbol or metaphor for another word. These were often used for entertainment, variety, and to keep the beat and rhythm. Sometimes they are obvious to us. Other times, they are more obscure. Examples:

candle of heaven -- the sun

peace-weaver -- women

light of battle-- sword

Alliteration: the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Also used for entertainment, variety, and to keep the beat and rhythm. (Incidentally, Beowulf doesn’t rhyme--not all poems have to rhyme. Anglo-Saxon poetry is known more for alliteration than rhyme).Example from lines (4-7):

Many a mead-hall Scyld, son of Sceaf,

Snatched from the forces of savage foes,

From a friendless foundling, feeble and wretched,

He grew to a terror as time brought change 

Caesura: the building block of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Each line had a pause in the middle to create a kind of beat. By my count, each line had 8 syllables with the pause or the caesura in the middle

This is the least important for us to identify in the poem, but we should at least be able to define it.


Introduction: (Use this section as you can)

Texts“:Caedmon’s Hym,” ” The Seafarer,” p.21” The Wanderer,” p.26 ” The Wife’s Lament” p.30

Essential Question(s): What is “exile” and how does it shape the psychology of the Anglo-Saxons?

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