The majority of what we now consider heroic poetry and prose came from a period of about eight centuries, from the region that is now known as Britain. The environment of its creation was unique and unable to be replicated, through battles and religious upheaval the literary output of this nation was refined and redefined many times. To understand the motivation and indeed the very language of the texts of the post roman Britain, one must understand the history of their creation.
The earliest settlers of what is today called Britain were not of the same blood lines that those who would today call themselves British are; in fact, original Britons were all but removed from that island long ago by the marauding forces of the Germanic tribes. The Britons called them Saxons (Latin: Saxones), but in truth their group consisted of not only Saxons, but also Angles, Jutes, Frisians, and likely Franks. Hardened warriors with a tradition of battle and the ethos that accompanied it, their pillaging and marauding forced the Romans, during their last century of occupation in Britain, to appoint a new military official to their ranks. The comes littoris Saxonicae, or “guardian of the Saxon shore”, was in charge of setting up the defensive networks of England in order to protect the island’s eastern coast from their ravaging (Anderson 9). These eventual invaders were no simple brutes, however, and their history and literature shaped a new nation as much as their swords and warring did. The history and literary works of, and about, the Anglo-Saxons is the history of modern Britain, their intellectual and physical expansion its very creation.
Although it wasn’t until the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England that the book of Exeter was properly “discovered”, one of its earliest writing’s is the story of Widsith, and indeed it likely predates the Anglo-Saxon invasion itself. The Widsith poem predates even the English settlement of England, and contains a specific reference to Widsiths travels to seek out the “fierce king Hermanric, to the east of Ongle.” It has been theorized that “Ongle” in this instance designates Anglia, the pre invasion home of the Angles. (Lewis 32) This example shows the earliest written account of communication between the Angles and the mainland Brittain they would eventually conquer. Widsith goes on to tell an account of his interactions with King Theodric of the Franks, another leader of a tribe that would later coalesce into the Anglo-Saxons, and this section is where the Widsith poem runs into some legitimacy issues. Earlier in the poem, it is written that Widsith visited Hermanric, king of the Ostrogoths, who had died in 376; If Widsith had also visited Theodoric, who didn’t gain the crown until 511, he would have been well over 100 years old at the time of his visit. This inconsistency is likely due to the “late interpolations” of the work, where a later writer has added to the story line in order to introduce new information that wasn’t true of the original character or author; such interpolations were quite common when a literary text was treated as a historical document rather than a parable or biographical story. Disregarding these potential validity conflicts, the poem of Widsith definitively addresses the kingdoms of the Angles and Franks and is so far the earliest written account of an England Dweller to do so, this poem can be said to have been their genesis into the literary world.
The infiltration of Britain by the Saxons really began during the period after the majority of Romans had left, leaving Roman-Britons to fend for themselves in the now relatively lawless expanse. At one point, these Roman-Britons may have even utilized the Saxons as mercenaries, as texts indicate that the Roman Briton Vortigern was assisted in his lands defense by them (Anderson 10). It is listed in The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, in the year of A.D. 449, that The leaders Hengest and Horsa were enlisted by Wurtgern, then king of the Britons, to aid him in his battle with marauders. Soon, however, the tides turned as the Germanic tribes realized with what ease they could take the kingdom for their own. As is detailed in the Chronicle:
“They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes.” (Swanton)
Whether they had intended to eventually encompass the entirety of England, one thing is for certain, the Saxons were not content to simply eke out a living in their initial small shore settlements.
In the subsequent years after the arrival of their Germanic brethren, the invading horde of the Anglo-Saxons pushed west and, if the texts of their invasion can be believed, did so with extreme force. An imperial Roman named Gildas composed a work that translated means “Ruin of Britain”, in approximately the year 540. In Ruin of Britain, Gildas reported that “All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams; laid low, too, all the inhabitants – church leaders, priests, and people alike… fragments of corpses, covered (as it were) with a purple crust of congealed blood[.]” (Gildas 7) The fall of the city which Gildas describes symbolizes the fall of the remaining roman presence in Britain as a whole. The destruction of stoneworks and their replacement with less permanent structures that Gildas ruminates on showed not only an invasion, but what he saw as the regression of a nation he once cherished as well.
Gildas was by no means the sole commenter on the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, the Northumbrian monk Bede, although being born over one hundred years after the publication of the Ruin of Britain, made historical reference to the sacking of Rome and made specific reference to the stone structures of the Roman masons. This focus on the ruination of once mighty stone works wormed its way into the works of the Anglo-Saxons, perhaps out of lament they themselves felt for the derelict remnants of their predecessors. Nicholas Howe, in Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England, invokes the old English poetic elegy The Wanderer:
“The wise man must perceive how ghostly it will be when the riches of all this world stand abandoned, as now in various places throughout this world walls stand windblown, frost covered, buildings swept by snow.” Combined with the statement at the end that “the old works of giants stood empty”, this lamentation is explained as taking place not so much in physical location as a spiritual one. The reference of the roman ruins belonging to giants is one that is resonated through multiple Anglo-Saxon works as well; Both Maxims II and The Ruin include references to the works of giants, although they seem to imply a physicality that isn’t expressed in The Wanderer.
Following the initial landing of the Anglo-Saxon tribes along the beaches of England, the events that are alluded to in the epic Beowulf took place. This refers of course of the historical aspects such as the references to Hygelac and various other factual occurrences, and not to the fantastical elements that comprise the main storyline of the tale itself. Taking place in the later part of the 5th century, post settlement but before the major inland migration, it can be argued that the Beowulf epic was written by Geatish descendants, and was originally produced in the area of East Anglia. East Anglia was one of the earliest areas of England that was colonized by the Anglo-Saxons, itself containing Norfolk and Suffolk, and being named of course after Anglia itself. Although supposedly composed during the 8th to 11th century time period, Beowulf was undoubtedly originally carried on as a spoken word poem from the early days of the Anglo-Saxon incursion. One of the hints of this original spoken form is the addition of Christianity to the original oral text. The Anglo-Saxon tribes were originally pagans, with multiple gods of various temperance and governances, but shortly after the invasion of England, Christianity found its way into their collective culture and was introduced too much of their literary works. Beowulf is an interesting illustration of this because it was an originally oral poem told very early Christians and potentially hold-out pagans, but later put to paper by a presumably devout Christian author.
For this multitude of reasons it isn’t entirely certain which specific passages were based on the original, oral, story line and what was later transposed by this later Christian author. Utilizing various oral-formulaic composition theories, it can be extrapolate that the majority of the poem exists untampered with, and thusly serves as a legitimate means of exploring at least the historical aspects of it, outside of the story of heroic morality, etcetera. In his article “Why Read Bewoulf”, Robert Yeager expresses this interesting point of Anglo-Saxon religion in literary texts when he states:
“That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV were Christian is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Beowulf was composed in a Christianized England, since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. Yet the only Biblical references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters is demonstrably Christian. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are pagans. Beowulf’s own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the “Father Almighty” or the “Wielder of All.” Were those the prayers of a pagan who used phrases the Christians subsequently appropriated? Or, did the poem’s author intend to see Beowulf as a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues?”
Although it may not seem incredibly important to the history of the Anglo-Saxons to know definitively whether Beowulf was originally told by a Christian or pagan, it is the symbolic transition between these two religious ideologies and their individual values and morals that lies at the heart of the importance of the debate. As the finest early example of this transition it is important in the regard that it illustrates the gradual assimilation of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons.
The gradual nature of the assimilation of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons leads one to think that their conquests in England either led to them having Christian subjects or that their conquest was relatively without struggle and that the two cultures (Hold-over Roman Britons and Germanic Tribes) assimilated each other in a more peaceable manner. Although a peaceful transition of England goes against the earlier accounts of Bede, it seems that a mixture of the two is more likely than sustained violence like the sort seen in his texts. While a combined effort of military and diplomatic actions may seem likely in the entirety of the actions that led to the domination of England by the Anglo-Saxons, it is definitely not the standard viewpoint on their initial invasion and conquering of the territory of Britain. In The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons, Anderson writes “Here was no friendly penetration of one people by their blood relatives… instead of death their fate was captivity; they must live with their conquerors as the conquered.” He references the initial taking of land as this form of bloody upheaval, while relinquishing that it likely became a more “settled form of conquest” once the land itself belonged wholly to the Anglo-Saxons.
Regardless of the ferocity of the Anglo-Saxon invasion itself, they were definitely a warrior culture. The ability of the people to defend and attack their neighbors was of incredible importance to the Anglo-Saxons due to the fertility and abundance of the land of England, that is, they were under constant pressure from outsiders (Dawson 71). The Anglo-Saxon prowess on the field of battle was perhaps best detailed in The Battle of Maldon. This account of the famous late 10th century battle between the Anglo-Saxons and Viking invaders illustrated the complexity and fierceness of their combat. Although the author and exact date of composition is unknown, it is definitely historical, focusing on the real battle that took place in 991. It also served to reinforce the by this time generally favorable approach of Christianity in combat against a decidedly non-Christian foe:
“ Resolute they approached Earl to the lowest Yeoman: each of them intent on harm for the enemy… He thrust then with his shield such that the spear shaft burst, and that spear-head shattered as it sprang in reply. Enraged became that warrior: with anger he stabbed that proud Viking who had given him that wound… The Earl was the better pleased: laughed then this great man of spirit, thanking the Creator for the day’s work which the Lord had given him.” (The Battle of Maldon. 130-158)
This representation of the battle of the Anglo-Saxons is just a small excerpt from the whole, which focused a large portion of its aim at describing the actual battle techniques and war readiness of their military. Although the Viking incursion succeeded, The Battle of Maldon focused on the greater moral victory of the Anglo-Saxons, as they were the Christian soldiers and fought with morality and dignity, as well as intelligence and fortitude. In fact, it attributes the eventual loss of the Anglo-Saxon armies to specific soldiers and leaders within the military who showed a lack of humility and respect of their enemies (if one translates ” ofermōde” to over confidence or pride, which is the primary translation by most scholars). The focus on Christianity in this military account belied the totality in which the religion had infiltrated the Anglo-Saxon society, by the point of the Viking raids and the Norman conquest, they were no longer transients half way between pagans and Christians, they were in fact established adherents to the Roman church.
It is a great irony that the Anglo-Saxons who filled the void of the retreating Roman armies in England would come to view Rome as one of their most powerful influences. Although militarily there was no longer any pressure from Rome on the peoples of England, the Church of Rome was as venerated a place as any for the Anglo-Saxons of England. One of the primary ways in which this relationship matured was the act of missionary travels. One of the best examples of an Anglo-Saxon contributing to the association of Anglo-Saxon England with the Church of Rome in such a manner is the account of Cynewulf. In the 11th century, this Anglo-Saxon poet constructed the short poem entitled The Fates of the Apostles, in which he describes the final status of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Basically a book explaining the martyrdoms of the apostles after the death and resurrection of Christ, it begins with the statement by Cynewulf that he has traveled across many distant lands and gathered the collective stories of the apostles. Starting in Rome, he details his travels as taking him through Greece, Jerusalem, Asia, and into Africa. Finally, he writes in a very specific mode that confers his missionary ideals and addresses the poem to the missionaries of England by using the English language for various segments of the poem, such as the few instances where he asks for prayers for his salvation from the English audience. (Howe 109)
The middle of the eleventh century marked the coming of William, the Duke of Normandy, and signaled the beginning of the end for the Anglo-Saxon empire of England. As The Anglo Saxon Chronicle stated in its discourse on the year 1066: “it had been soothly said unto him, that William the earl from Normandy, King Edward’s kinsman, would come hither and subdue this land: all as it afterwards happened.” As the chronicle states, William certainly subdued the lands of the Anglo-Saxons, attacking by land and sea starting in the South-East and moving westward, closely mirroring the path of the Anglo-Saxons when they themselves embarked on such a conquest.
Although Duke William took control of the majority of English land (all but 5% according to some accounts), and defeated the Anglo-Saxons on essentially every front, civilians themselves continued to fight against him even after the defeat of their people. This insurgency committed to by the Anglo-Saxon people is recounted throughout the later accounts recounted in the chronicles, and was seemingly viewed with veneration towards their resistance in the face of the conqueror, The Anglo-Saxon spirit fought for its preservation even after the physical subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons themselves.
The fall of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the 11th century didn’t mean that there was no more literary texts coming from the region during that period, in fact, a large number of secular works arose in earlier centuries. For instance, the majority of the legal and collection of the Textus Roffensis was originally composed during the seventh and eleventh century respectively (even though the compilation itself wasn’t formed until the twelfth or thirteenth century). The Textus Roffensis enveloped the laws of the Anglo-Saxons regarding specifically the time periods between the coronation of King Æthelberht of Kent and the later coronation charter of Henry I, which fell on the year 1100. Focusing primarily on the laws of Kent, the Textus Roffensis is of particular importance because it designates the complex laws of genealogies, and as one of the only surviving law manuscripts of the time, it illustrates the importance of blood line and heritage to the Anglo-Saxon people. The multitude of elaborate descriptions, detailed timelines, and genealogical information that the Anglo-Saxons created ensured that they were not forgotten and that their voice was heard many centuries after their defeat at the hands of the Norman invasion.
The Anglo-Saxons ruled for roughly eight centuries, during which time they were instrumental in the establishment of social structures and traditions that the island had never been witness to before. They brought what know is referred to as Old English to the forefront of literary significance, and which paved the way for the development of Middle English as they moved away from the Germanic underpinnings that Old English relied upon. Although the Roman abandonment of its outposts had set the nation of England back culturally and technologically, the readiness of the Anglo-Saxons to adhere to Christianity and the Roman church set the stage for a resurgence of the islands greatness, albeit with a very different populace. The eight centuries of relative stability that the Anglo-Saxons secured for the region gave rise to some of the most descriptive and interesting literature of the time period, second in eloquence only to the writings of the Romans themselves. The historical and heroic accounts of the actions of the Anglo-Saxons created a unique blend unlike that seen in any literature before or since; they were the quintessential masters of heroic texts.
Anderson, George K. The Literature of the Anglo Saxons. New York: Russell and Russell, 1949. Print.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Battle of Maldon, and Other Old English Poems. London: Macmillan, 1965. Print.
Dawson, Christopher. The Making of Europe; an Introduction to the History of European Unity. New York: Meridian, 1956. Print.
Gildas, and Hugh Williams. De Excidio Britanniae ; Or, The Ruin of Britain. Lampeter: Llanerch, 2006. Print.
Hooke, Della. The Anglo-Saxon Landscape: the Kingdom of the Hwicce. Manchester (Greater
Manchester): Manchester UP, 1985. Print.
Howe, Nicholas. Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Cultural Geography. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
Lewis, Charlton Miner. The Beginnings of English Literature. Boston: Athenaeum, 1901. Print.
Swanton, Michael James. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Yeager, Robert F. “Why Read Beowulf?” National Endowment for the Humanities 20.2 (1999). Web.