WHO ARE THE ANGLO-SAXONS?
First, you must understand that England is a land that has been conquered many times over. The earliest culture to inhabit that island were the Celts, who first came to the British Isle during the Bronze Age. The Romans colonized the island and some of the Celtic tribes, with their rule lasting from 43 ca. to roughly the fifth century. The literature we begin the course with comes from the peoples who would push the Celts into the western parts of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons.
Christianizing of Pagan Warriors
The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic peoples, coming from Saxony and Anglia, or modern-day Germany and Denmark.
The Angle-Saxons brought with them an entirely different culture the native Celts, referred to by the Romans as the Britons. The Britons had readily adopted Roman civilization and, most importantly, Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans, which meant they did not have a conception of an afterlife. However, Christianity does make its way into Anglo-Saxon literature, which is mainly due to Anglo-Saxon being an oral culture. In 597, St. Augustine came to Kent as a missionary to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons.
With the Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons, much of their oral poems are written down by Benedictine monks. A fascinating aspect of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the integrating of Christian beliefs and Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic. (When defining the Anglo-Saxon Warrior ethic, the idea primarily focused on the pledge made by a lord’s retainer to defend and, if necessary, die in battle for his lord. This ethic valued violence, strength, and worldly exploits over passivity and spirituality.) The dream poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” shows this integration as the Rood, or the Cross, recounts Christ’s Crucifixion.
Further, with Anglo-Saxons came the first origins of the English Language, known as Old English. Here’s a sample of what Old English looks like:
Oft him anhaga are gebideð
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd!
These are the opening lines to “The Wanderer,” which translates to “Often the solitary man finds grace for himself the mercy of the lord, although he, sorry-hearted, must for a long time row along the waterways, along the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.” Also, here’s a Youtube clip of what this version of English may have sounded like:
If this language looks and sounds foreign appears, that is because the English Language has evolved so much over nearly 1400 years.
“longing for a hall and a lord of rings” – The Comitatus
In surveying Anglo-Saxon culture, the social structure of the comitatus, the pledge of allegiance between the a thegn, or thane, and his warlord. The Anglo-Saxons were not united under one king but were really a bunch of competing tribes. These tribes were based on the loyalty between the thegn and the warlord. John M. Hill outlines the tenets of this loyalty
between retainer and warlord, as especially enacted by the exchange of gifts for services and services for gifts; revenge obligation regarding injury or death, on behalf of kinsmen as well as for one’s lord; and fame-assuring battle courage, especially in a successful outcome – battlefield victory – seems impossible.
This symbol of loyalty between the thegn and the warlord appears as the warlord bestowing a ring to his thegn. (In the prologue to Beowulf, Hrothgar is noted for giving out rings to his warriors.) Now one of the worst acts a thegn could do was to betray his pledge, or be an oath-breaker. Doing so would make one an outcast with no home. (This sorrow of being without a lord comes through in “The Wanderer.” Here the speaker describes his “longing for a hall and a lord of rings” (ln. 25).) As you read “The Wanderer” and the excerpt from Beowulf, keep an eye out for how the importance of oaths being kept comes across. You could be nothing worse in the Anglo-Saxon culture than an “oath-breaker.”