The Early History of the British Isles and the English Language: Old English Period

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The Early History of the British Isles and the English Language: Old English Period

English IV, Owens

1066-the year of the Norman Conquest of England. That is a date you will need to know. Go ahead and get it in your head.

The First Four Literary Periods in Britain:

I. Old English Period (Anglo-Saxons)

II. Middle English Period

III. Renaissance Period

IV. Restoration and Eighteenth Century

English is a branch of the West Germanic line of languages. It was originally and still is a Germanic language. Old English was like the modern language of Holland in its sound. The language that exists today that is most similar to it is modern Low Dutch, not modern English.

The following is a list of the early inhabitants of the British Isles, in the order in which they occur:

1. The Celts

2. The Romans

3. The Anglo-Saxons

4. Danes (Vikings)

5. The Normans

English History: The First 1000 Years

The first people in the British Isles, the very earliest group, were the Celts. They migrated from the continent of Europe, in prehistoric times, when the island of Britain was a dim, unknown place, to the “civilized” world. The Celts were primitive, in that they lived simply, off the land. They practiced Druidism, and were viewed by the Druids on the European continent as the ones who REALLY knew how to do it right. Druids were pagans who believed in local spirits. They had priests and practiced some human sacrifice. See Stonehenge. Later, invading groups would push the original Celts to the west and north, into Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. What remains of the Celtic languages and culture exists in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Then the Romans came. The great Julius Cesar first brought England into the orbit of the civilized world. Rome was the most advanced civilization at the time. Julius Cesar undertook the conquest of Gaul, where Celts also lived, in modern France. During this time, between 58-50 BC, Cesar saw that the Celts in Britain helped the Celts in Gaul, and he decided to teach them (those British Celts) a lesson. He led a Roman force across the English Channel, and they were victorious, so the first Roman invasion of Britain was part of the aftermath of Cesar’s campaign in Gaul. Then he returned to Gaul to conquer it. Gaul was more important to him.

So the first encounter between classical Mediterranean civilization and the Celts had occurred, but it pretty much happened and was over for 100 years, without the Romans really staying in Britain, but now the Romans knew that the British Isles and the Celts who lived in them were there. In 100 years, the Romans came back.

The Roman Influence, a Century after Cesar:

43 AD: Claudius invades Britain, successfully occupies most of the island. This is the beginning of the REAL Roman Britain, which lasted about three and a half centuries. This was the first encroachment by a vast, highly civilized empire on the small, backward island of Great Britain. The primitive Celts yielded easily. Consequently, Roman civilization was built up—roads, country villas, prosperous towns. In the northern territory, Scotland was not under Roman rule, nor Wales, nor Ireland. So the Romans controlled most of what we would call England today, but Scotland, Wales, and Ireland were NOT under Roman control. The Celtic tribes from those places constantly harassed and invaded the Romans. The Scots (tribes in Ireland and Wales) and the Picts, a tribe in Scotland, were diehards. They kept harassing the Romans. The fierce tribe of the Picts got naked, painted themselves blue, and went screaming down out of the mountains from the north, in Scotland. This was a real nuisance, so the Roman Emperor Hadrian erected a huge wall across the north to keep out the Picts. Hadrian’s Wall was built in 123 AD and still stands. Romans actually lived inside it, in places, like apartments in a military outpost. But south of the wall, and east of Wales, Britain shared the advanced civilization of the Roman Empire. In the 4th Century, under the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity became an approved religion in the Roman Empire and soon became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Many Romanized Celts in England accepted it. One, St. Patrick, took it to Ireland, became the patron Saint of Ireland. (no snakes) Christianity was Rome’s most enduring legacy of occupation in Britain because Britain held to it after Rome left.

Mainly in the cities, during Roman rule, the Latin language of the Romans displaced the native Celtic tongue. This happens over a long time. It’s gradual. Had Celto-Roman civilization been left undisturbed, we would be speaking a Romance language now.

The Roman Empire was now gradually dealing with Barbarian raids from without and with fighting factions within. Roman rule in Britain gave it 3 centuries of peace, but by the fifth century AD, the raids of the Celts were stronger, but, even worse, invasions were occurring on the east and south coast of the North Sea, from Germanic tribes from Germany, Denmark, and Holland. The English called them the Saxons. So, in the midst of all of this pressure, Rome called its legions home to protect Rome. Rome left Britain, and many Roman colonists left, too. So Britain was left unprotected, vulnerable to the most powerful of all aggressors: the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes. It is the beginning of a new era, and the eve of the birth of England. This era will mark the beginning of the English language and what we know as the first English literature.

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England

Germanic tribes had attacked the British Isles many times, but had been held back by the Romans. By 600, these ruthless invaders had conquered all of the British Isles but the north and the west, where the native Britons (Celts) held out, once again. These Germanic invaders became known as Anglo-Saxons.

The 3 Main Tribes of Anglo-Saxons: (many of whom came from Denmark—also from The Netherlands)

1. Angles, who came third

2. Saxons, who came second

3. Jutes, who came first

All of this began with bands that conquered land and then brought people form their homelands to settle it.

The first invasions:

In 449 AD, the Celtic prince Vortigern/Vostigen invited two Jutes, Hengist and Horsa, to help him militarily against the Picts. Vortigern gave them land in southern England, for fighting on his behalf against the Picts. These Germanic Jutes saw how vulnerable the Celts were. The Venerable Bede (see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) says that this is how the Anglo-Saxons got in. They were savage warriors, kin to the Vikings. The only vestiges of Roman civilization left at this point were roads and Hadrian’s Wall. The Celto-Roman language was replaced by Anglo-Saxon a great deal, in England. The three invading tribes spoke different dialects of the same language. They could understand each other. Their language sounded more like present-day Dutch than modern English. The Anglo-Saxon tribes settled in various kingdoms with a king in each. For most of six centuries, these kingdoms swapped prominence. Eventually, they became unified, and had a united language-

Englisc Then the entire country came to be known as Anglalond.

If King Arthur was real (and I believe that he was), then he was, most likely, a Celtic chieftain—an accomplished military leader, but possibly not a king, and quite possibly not named Arthur--fighting Anglo-Saxons. Some speculate that he could have been a Roman who fought early Germanic invaders, but the early legends consistently identify him as Celtic, especially Welsh. He probably fought bravely and successfully against the Anglo-Saxons during the second half of the fifth century. (See your handout regarding a recent archaeological find possibly related to Arthur.)

The English language started with the Anglo-Saxons. It erased Latin and drove the Celtic languages to the north and west (Scotland, Wales, Ireland), once more.

The Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy

The three main Germanic tribes who conquered England set up Seven Major Kingdoms, called

The Heptarchy: The Seven Original Major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in England

1. Northumbria

2. Mercia

3. East Anglia

4. Wessex

5. Sussex

6. Essex

7. Kent

(and we still have the Celtic tribes—the Scots, the Welsh, the people of Cornwall, the Picts)

The first thing that we call English was spoken by the people of these Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The Four Main Dialects of Anglo-Saxon English:

1. Northumbrian

2. Mercian (These two were spoken north of the Thames River.)

3. West Saxon

4. Kentish (These two were spoken south of the Thames.)

Very few manuscripts of Old English literature exist today because the Church had it, mostly, and they wrote in Latin. The Celts were illiterate, unless they were clergymen. The Romans had brought learning to Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons destroyed most of their ancient manuscripts. Then, later, the Danes destroyed lots of the physical evidence of Anglo-Saxon culture and manuscripts. Nevertheless, the earliest English literature was Anglo-Saxon. Most of what was preserved was written in the West Saxon dialect, as was Beowulf, just because that’s what survived. King Alfred, of whom you will hear more, used the West Saxon dialect of Old English, too.

Bretwalda: the title of the king of the dominant tribe.

This is one example of Old English culture and language, which WE INHERITED from them, culturally, so let’s look at some of the traits of the culture and see what we can recognize.

The original homeland and lifestyle of the Anglo-Saxons, pre-England

It was a very hostile environment, near the sea. They were sea men who lived in Denmark, Holland, Norway, Sweden, etc. They were used to fogs and mist in spring and autumn, brief summers, and HARSH WINTERS. These were simple, hardy people, accustomed to the hardships of life. They were rugged individualists. Their concerns were for immediate survival, strength. They were not as sophisticated as the Romans. In religion, they were polytheists, worshiping many gods. They were TOTALLY pagan, before England and for quite a while after they were there.

The Chief Anglo-Saxon Gods:

Woden (a.k.a. Odin): the god of war (Woden’s Day=Wednesday) father of Thor and other gods

Thor: the god of thunder (Thor’s Day=Thursday)

Tiu: (Tuesday)

Friga (a.k.a. Freya): a goddess of fertility (Friday)

All of these gods—of nature, battle, etc.—were primitive. All of these gods were subject to the decrees of the dread goddess Wyrd (meaning “Fate”)

Wyrd was the nearest that they came to a Christian view of God. Wyrd was a controller of man’s destiny. All others took a back seat to her.

All Old English literature came down through a Christian filter. Paganism is definitely seen in it, and it’s often difficult to tell whether this literature is influenced more by God or by Wyrd.

The Anglo-Saxon System of Justice

An eye for an eye, involving the payment of blood money: Wergild. Instead of getting revenge, they paid money, instead, for a crime, sometimes.

The worst crime was a crime against one’s own kin, tribe, or family. Loyalty to one’s own was VERY important. The tribe, the clan, and the family, were IMPORTANT.

Anglo-Saxon Social Order:

The King, the most powerful warrior in the tribe

Earls, immediate followers of the king. You attached yourself to a king, to try to get in court, or a son of a king would be an earl. That strong ruler gives you land, position, protection, for your service and loyalty.

Churls, peasants, laborers, common people, and descendants of captives of the tribe

Very few Anglo-Saxons “had,” and many “had not.” Furthermore, it was a man’s world. Women were respected, but were subordinate. The warrior was at the top. The whole Anglo-Saxon social order was based on


The three ingredients of Comitatus were Courage, Loyalty, and Generosity.

The warrior must by loyal; leaders and followers must show courage. The king’s subordinates must be loyal TO DEATH. In return, the leader must show generosity by giving his earls gifts, land, etc.

The family or clan was terribly important.

Each member bore responsibility for wrongs suffered by his own, and they were bound by their customs to get revenge. (See Hamlet!!!!) A youth would attach himself to a strong leader, in exchange for economic and legal protection, and he fought for the leader. A thane COULD NOT LEAVE BATTLE. This Comitatus relationship is very important in Beowulf.

Anglo-Saxon Ideals that Influenced English Character

1. Love of glory or fame was the ruling motive of every noble life. This is pagan idealism.

2. Anglo-Saxons hold steadfast loyalty to the lord or king. This was the greatest social virtue.

3. Generosity and hospitality on the part of the lord or king to those under him

4. A higher respect for women than was usual among most pagan, war-like people at that time

5. Honoring of truth and straightforwardness—simplicity, honesty. They disliked anything tricky, clever, or deceit.

6. Repression of sentiment (the idea that a man must be tough and not show his emotions)

7. Duty of gaining revenge against those who had wronged you or your kin

The Conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity

This was the most important event in Anglo-Saxon history, for its far-reaching effects. As discussed previously, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans who believed in deities of nature, mythology, also lesser spirits, trolls, dragons, sea monsters. All of their gods took a back seat to Wyrd, the goddess of Fate. They had no real belief in an afterlife—just a vague promise of a benevolent resting place for brave warriors who were blessed by being killed in battle. This place for them was Valhalla. Women or children went to a place called Hel. All of it was very vague, in terms of an idea of an afterlife. The story goes that the pope, in Rome, noticed fair men as slaves in Rome. He said it was too bad that they were pagan. He was told that they were called Angles, and he said that was a good name because of their angelic faces. In 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Rome, a Benedictine priest, with 40 monks, to England to convert the nation. In 597, St. Augustine baptized King Ethelbert of Kent (Canterbury). St. Augustine was consecrated a bishop, and on Christmas Day of 597, he baptized 10,000 Saxons. He erected the Archdiocese of Canterbury and the sees of London and Rochester. Augustine of Canterbury died in 605.

The total conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity did not take place overnight, or even in one year. Ethelbert of Kent had the advantage of having been married to a Christian wife, so he was more receptive than some. Hence, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England started in Kent, and spread. In seven years, all of Kent was Christian. Then in twelve years, it had spread to Northumbria. In 100 years, all of England was Christian, and Latin was once again spoken by literate clergymen. This was a slow process that took a century to complete. That accounts for the mixture of Christian and pagan elements in Beowulf. The Christian writer, probably a monk, put this epic poem which had existed in an oral tradition into writing around 150 years after Christianity had come to England. The material of Beowulf deals with the heroic past of the Saxons, and the newfound Christianity that was a recent part of their culture. We see an emphasis on Wyrd (Fate) and also on Christian beliefs, because Christianity was new in their minds. The paganism of their past couldn’t be stifled yet. This is also true of other Anglo-Saxon literature.

The Venerable Bede (673-735) was the first English historian. He wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. (I have a copy of it, if you’d like to see what it looks like.) He tells the story of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria (586-632 or 33) to Christianity. The king and his court were converted. Bede says that after hearing about the new religion from the monks, who were missionaries, the Anglo-Saxon king was struck by this idea of the hope of an afterlife, which was new to him. The chief priest (not Christian) of his court told him that their old religion was no use, because he had been religious in his life, and he was disillusioned. Another priest said the same, and that Christianity may be better, with an after life, a haven for man after this life. The priest said that according to the old religion, the life of a man was like a sparrow that flies into the mead hall, out of the cold, harsh weather, into the warmth of the hall, only briefly, and then back out into the winter. The priest said that’s all the old religion offers; Christianity offers more. These men now embraced the concept of the promise of paradise to be earned through a good life and faith, and hell to be shunned. The idea of man’s humanity to man was introduced into their culture. The Church was important for its new spiritual values, also because it brought the learning and culture of the rich Mediterranean civilization back to Britain—fresh life, intellectually, spiritually, and culturally. Now there were books. Now there was a reverence for learning. Before Christianity, almost all Anglo-Saxon literature was passed on orally. Now, clerics and monasteries wrote in Latin, committed the literature of their culture to writing for the first time. Now, there was an unbroken scholarly tradition, literary tradition, not just oral stories.

The Church was always a custodian of scholarly and literary learning. Books, works of art—all of these things were collected and cared for in monasteries. Some became citadels of scholarship, respected all over the world. The most famous was Jarrow, established by The Venerable Bede. It became a famous Anglo-Saxon center of learning.

A little more about Bede:

The Venerable Bede was one of the great figures that emerged in the Anglo-Saxon period. He was a monk in Northumbria. He was one of the most enlightened men of his time, and he was much loved. History gave him the name “venerable.” He was a kind, gentle man of great learning. His greatest contribution to English literature is The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, one of the most important sources of information on England’s Old English history. We wouldn’t know anything about the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes arriving, without his account. He wrote in Latin, the language of scholarship at that time, not in English. Later, King Alfred had this work translated into English, 100 years after the time when Bede wrote it, so that Englishmen could read their history. Through Bede’s history, we know of Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, and all the way through the time of the coming of Christianity.

King Alfred the Great, 849-899, was a very important figure in Anglo-Saxon England. He was the king of the West Saxons during the last part of the 800’s. He was a giant who emerged, England’s first national champion, the first English King to be called “The Great.” It was not until 871 that most of Great Britain was united under a strong ruler. Alfred had been to Rome and had studied. He was open-minded, a brave warrior, a military genius, wise and generous, an astute lawmaker and educator, a patron of the arts, and a man of letters. England was invaded by Vikings, Danes from Scandinavia (Denmark), during Alfred’s reign. He had almost unified the whole kingdom of England. Then these Vikings, who were savage, ravaged Northumbria and destroyed much of it. He fought the Danes for seven years, and usually got the worst of it, but he stopped the Danes, and they signed a treaty, the famous Treaty at Wedmore. In it, the Danes agreed to stay behind a boundary line; this was the Danelaw. The Danes could not come across this line any more. So Alfred established this. The Danes stayed to the north of their boundary line and eventually accepted Christianity and the English language and culture, and blended in. If Alfred hadn’t checked them, we might be speaking a Scandinavian language now. The language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons prevailed, thanks to the devotion of Alfred the Great to his nation. However, even though the Danes accepted English language and culture, their language influenced English, too, QUITE A BIT. (words such as sky, skin, bask, both, call, die, egg) Alfred went on to make Wessex the center of Anglo-Saxon English culture. It became the most important kingdom, and by introducing literary production to the area, scholars were attracted to it.

The Major Accomplishments of Alfred the Great

1. United most of the kingdom under one strong rule by defeating the Danes (sort of a stalemate)

He reorganized and trained the army.

He built a stronger navy and is considered “The Father of the English Navy”

2. He codified many laws to promote order in the kingdom.

3. He promoted the spread of the Christian faith.

4. He was deeply interested in learning, a lover of art and literature. He founded schools, collected and translated many valuable manuscripts, religious, literary, translated lots of works of literature and history into the English tongue, West-Saxon dialect

5. He started the first history of England written in English, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (I have a copy of this, too, if you’d like to see it), a daily account, one of the most important sources of information on the Old English period, along with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Alfred was called the Father of English Prose. He was a great prose writer.

So we single out The Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great as monumental figures from the Anglo-Saxon Period in England.

To conclude: The End of the Anglo-Saxon Period

Alfred’s Wessex flourished after his death. His son, Edgar, was the first king of a totally united England. Under a later Saxon king, Ethelred the Unready (You know THAT doesn’t sound good!), the Danes renewed their assaults, began to invade. King Ethelred said, “Order a massacre of the Danes.” It didn’t work. The Danes sent for foreign help, and they CONQUERED ENGLAND! (There’s a reason you haven’t heard much about this. Something much more overwhelming was coming. Quickly) Canute, a feared Viking warrior, led the Danish to triumph over England. The King of England was Danish, and he was the kind of England and Denmark. In 1014, the final Danish triumph of England took place, and then there was a half a century of skirmishing between the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, then a BRIEF return of Anglo-Saxon reign, with the Wessex line of Anglo-Saxon kings restored, but…

1066 happened. The Normans came across the English Channel, in conquest. This was the last conquest of England, and the END of the Anglo-Saxon or Old English period. The Norman Conquest of 1066 marks the beginning of the Middle English Period of literature and history. We will discuss and take notes on the Norman Invasion and the Battle of Hastings in class.

English literature began when the Anglo-Saxons acquired the learning of Greece and Rome from their civilized, Church teachers. That learning, culture, and literature flourished for 400 years, then almost became completely extinct in 1066. By the time Chaucer came along, in the late 1300’s, the English language had changed so much that he (Chaucer) could hardly read Old English (from 1300 back to the composition of Beowulf). Sadly, almost no surviving poetry from the Old English period was signed. Little remains (but what remains is awesome!). Beowulf, “The Seafarer,” and “The Wanderer”-- almost all the Anglo-Saxon poetry that we have. For Old English prose, Alfred the Great is the best example. All Old English literature comes down to us through a Christian filter. The new Christianity preserved or reshaped pagan material to serve a Christian theme, but since Christianity was new, much of that haunting fatality of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes through, and one can seldom tell which is dominant in Old English literature, God or Wyrd.

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