Anglo-Saxon literature, culture, and language are some of the most important aspects of English Literature. Anglo-Saxon heritage is a required course in each English Language and Literature department. It is quite necessary to learn about Anglo-Saxon culture since it is a civilization that created modern-day English literature and influenced later English culture. It is a well-known fact that many students are struggling to understand and read Anglo-Saxon literary texts due to the difficulty of old English / Anglo-English.
"Lo! The Spear-Danes’ glory" (Beowulf, 1,1) started ‘’Beowulf’’ which is one of the most important Epic of world literature. It was a good representation of glory and other cultural heritage of the ancient English people who were known as Anglo-Saxons. The literary development of England had started with Anglo-Saxons. The civilization that formed modern England due to their numerous contributions, ruling system as well as religious aspects. The period is highly important since it has been a milestone in terms of the creation of literature. Many themes in Anglo-Saxon literature even inspired modern-day authors and those are honor, generosity, unity, and glory which are still present even in modern-day literature. The following article will be the first article in the series that will serve as an introduction source in terms of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture that has a significant part in the development of English literature. Yet, it is quite important to look through the history of Anglo-Saxons first.
The early inhabitants contributed to the Island through ages but most important of all, besides the first inhabitants were the Celts who were the first invaders coming from Europe. They were mighty warriors, valued nature greatly, and held their women with great respect. Even though they were peaceful and glorious warriors, they were defeated and cruelly, invaded by Roman troops led by Claudius. Romans had played an incredible part in the development of the city over architecture, politics, languages, and the army. After 400 years of Roman occupation, a new group of people arrived from Denmark and Germany by crossing the enormous Atlantic Ocean. Their crossing journey proves how skilled seamen they were. They brought their own culture as well as their own culture rejecting all the established Celtic culture and language. Anglo-Saxons divided the land into seven regions and each region had a ruling King named Bretwalda. The Kings were generous and many aspects were important for each. Such as loyalty, honor, unity, and bravery since there was common bloodshed over the island. Each citizen as well as their King was being united in a common chamber named mead-hall where they eat, sleep, and sing all together. They were entertained by a singer who told their heroic stories, adventures and praise their King through his song that was composed each night as a form of entertainment. The singer is called scop. The way scop entertains people is the first example of oral literary tradition. The written literature of Anglo-Saxons consisted of religious subject matter completely. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans before St. Augustine who was a bishop came to bring Christianity to the island. The written tradition started with the coming of Christianity combining not only Pagan but also Christian values with a gloomy theme. The recorders and writers were mostly monks who wrote in Church’s language, Latin. They both composed oral traditions and created their own manuscripts.
There are many valuable remaining manuscripts of Anglo-Saxons. Mostly written from a Christian perspective mixing with pagan values.
Bede’s Latin History of English People: It is a history manuscript written by Bede who was the first historian of Anglo-Saxons. The manuscript tells the detailed invasion of Julius Ceaser and the spread of Christianity.
Caedmon’s Hymn: It is considered the first piece of English literature and oldest poem. Reflects the importance of creation. Tells Shepard's tale who had no musical voice but was gifted by an angel thus he learns to sing heavenly melodies telling the history of creation. He becomes a monk by being able to enter the monastery due to his heavenly gift and became a founder of a Christian school of poetry.
The Exeter Book: It is a manuscript that collects the earliest poetry as well as many short poems dealing with the coming of Christianity. The most popular poems are ‘’Seafarer’’, ‘’The Ruin’’ and ‘’Deor". Also includes Anglo-Saxon riddles and elegies.
The Vercelli Book: It is another Anglo-Saxon manuscript collecting religious poetry and other manuscripts. The most important material in the Vercelli book is ‘’The Dream Of The Road’’ which is also a religious poem set around the crucifixion day. The second important poem that belongs to ‘’Vercelli book’’ is ‘’The Battle Of Maldon’’ which is both a poem and serves as a history account telling a war between Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons written in heroic verse. The war has resulted in the loss of Anglo-Saxons.
Beowulf: It is a well-known old English poem consisting of 3182 lines. Found as a manuscript telling the heroic life and adventures of the Geatish King Beowulf. His adventures start when he heard that people in Heorot are slain one by one by a creature called Grendel and suffering from the loss of their loved ones. Beowulf gathers a troop and kills the monster as well as Grendel’s mother who came for vengeance. The poem also tells about his reign as a King and his death caused by a fatal wound during his last journey to kill a dragon that possed a thread in the kingdom. The poem consists of Pagan and Christian values as well as Nordic Mythology.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: It is an enormous history book that highlights the events of Viking raids on the island and King Alfred’s victory on his defeat on Vikings. The book was composed by the order of the Wessex King Alfred the great telling the history of England. It is considered the second important history book after Bede’s history.
All in all, it is true to say that the culture of English people had been changed dramatically throughout history. The Celts started a pagan tradition that valued nature, Romans contributed the land with their brilliant architecture advancements and Anglo-Saxons contributed English literature immensely by their culture and traditions. Anglo-Saxons are quite important in terms of English history because they provided to the land their literature that consists of Christian as well as Pagan values, law, language, and religion.
- Beowulf, An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem, Translated From The Heyne-Socin Text by Lesslie Hall, 2005.
- The Norton Anthology of English Literature | Stephen Greenblatt