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Early British Literature. The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. Roman Britain 1st-5th c. Pre-Historical / Pre-Roman. Stonehenge. Important Events During Roman Occupation. Julius Caesar begins invasion/occupation in 55 B.C. Occupation completed by Claudius in 1 st cent. A.D.

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early british literature

Early British Literature

The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons

important events during roman occupation
Important Events During Roman Occupation
  • Julius Caesar begins invasion/occupation in 55 B.C.
  • Occupation completed by Claudius in 1st cent. A.D.
  • Hadrian’s Wall built about 122 A.D.
  • Romans “leave” in 410 A.D. because Visigoths attack Rome
  • St. Augustine (the “other” St. Augustine!) lands in Kent in 597 and converts King Aethelbert (king of Kent, the oldest Saxon settlement) to Christianity; becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury
important cultural and historical results of the roman occupation
Important Cultural and Historical Results of the Roman Occupation
  • Military—strong armed forces (“legions”)
    • Pushed Celts into Wales and Ireland
    • Prevented Vikings from raiding for several hundred years: C. Warren Hollister writes, “Rome’s greatest gift to Britain was peace” (15).
  • Infrastructure
    • Government (fell apart when they left)
    • Walls, villas, public baths (some remains still exist)
  • Language and Writing
    • Latin was official language
    • Practice of recording history led to earliest English “literature” being documentary
  • Religion
    • Christianity beginning to take hold, especially after St. Augustine converts King Aethelbert
the most important results of the roman occupation
The Most Important Results of the Roman Occupation
  • Latin heavily influenced the English language
  • Relative Peace
  • Christianity begins to take hold in England (but does not fully displace Paganism for several hundred years)
important events in the first anglo saxon period
Important Events in the (First) Anglo-Saxon Period
  • 410- 450 Angles and Saxons invade from Baltic shores of Germany, and the Jutes invade from the Jutland peninsula in Denmark
    • The Geats are a tribe from Jutland
  • Nine Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms eventually became the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy (England not unified), or “Seven Sovereign Kingdoms”
wessex dynasty
Wessex Dynasty
  • Edward the Elder (r. 899-924) succeeded his father Alfred and conquered the Midlands and East Anglia.
  • His son, Athelstan (r. 924-40), brought the Scots, the Welsh, the Cumbrians and the Cornish under English rule by 928: he became King of all England and “Emperor of the World of Britain.”

House of Wessex

E or A = Æ

Coin from King Edgar’s reign

Canute of Denmark 1016-1035


Harthacanute Harold I 1040-42 1036-40


house of wessex
House of Wessex

Alfred the Great, his son Edward and wife Ealhswith at the Witan -- Assembly of the Wise

Wessex: West Saxons

anglo saxon heptarchy
Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy
  • Heptarchy = Seven Kingdoms
    • Kent
    • Essex (East Saxon)
    • Sussex (South Saxon)
    • East Anglia
    • Northumbria
    • Mercia
    • Wessex (West Saxon)
  • By definition, Vikings were sea-faring (explorers, traders, and warriors) Scandinavians during the 8th through 11th centuries.
  • Oddly enough, the Anglo-Saxon (and Jute) heritage was not much different from the Vikings’: they, too, were Scandinavian invaders. In fact, some Vikings were also called “Northmen” which is related to yet another culture (this one French) which made conquest of England—the Normans, and William the Conqueror in 1066.
  • However, when the Viking raids began around 787, the Anglo-Saxons were different culturally from the Viking invaders
important results of the viking invasions
Important Results of the Viking Invasions

Politically and Culturally

Continued political instability and conflict (i.e., tribal war): there was no central government or church*

The Anglo-Saxon code (more on this when we read Beowulf

Linguistically (The English Language at its Earliest)

The English language is “born” during the first millennium and is known as Old English (OE). Anglo-Saxon is the term for the culture.

Old English is mainly Germanic** in grammar (syntax and morphology) and lexicon (words) the core of our modern English is vastly influenced by this early linguistic “DNA” (but even Germanic languages derived from a theoretical Proto-Indo-European language, the grandparent of classical languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, and German (**Remember: Vikings were Germanic people)


LOTS of dialects of Old-English, as one might imagine. This is because there were several separate Kingdoms many founded by essentially five or six different cultures: Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, Danes, and Swedes

*Alfred the Great (ruled from approx. 871-899 A.D.) was one of the first Anglo-Saxon kings to push Vikings back; in fact, he was one of the first kings to begin consolidating power, unifying several of the separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

huh we better boil those important results down
Huh?(we better boil those important results down!)
  • Lots of ongoing tribal feuds and wars led to . . .
  • Lots of intermingling of similar but different Germanic languages . . . interrupted by . . .
  • MORE Viking invasions, which gave way to . . .
  • Some political unification (Alfred) . . .
  • . . . Which led to . . .
  • OLD ENGLISH, the earliest form of our language!!
early england created by three invasions
Early England Created by Three Invasions

2. Anglo-Saxon and Viking Invasions 410 – 1066 A.D.

1. Roman Occupation 55 B.C.-410 A.D.


3. The Norman Invasion (The Battle of Hastings) in 1066 A.D.



norman invasion
Norman Invasion
  • In 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, the Normans (powerful Northern Frenchmen) defeated the English and started a centuries-long conquest of England
  • Two Most Important Effects:
    • French becomes official language of politics and power and exerts enormous influence on Old English
    • England begins unifying under a French political system, much of which is still with us (even in the U.S.) today
the anglo saxon period in review
The Anglo-Saxon Period in Review
  • Pre-Anglo-Saxon (really “pre” historical)
    • Celtic Peoples (approx 1700/400 B.C. – 55 B.C.)
    • Roman Occupation (55 B.C.-410 A.D.)
  • Anglo-Saxon/Viking
    • Angles, Saxons, Frisian, and Jutes (410-787
    • Viking Raids/Invasions begin 8th c. and end 10th c.
  • Norman Invasion/Occupation (really in the Middle Ages)
    • Battle of Hastings in 1066, then about four centuries of French rule
a short history of our language

A Short History of Our Language


“How English got to be so hard to study, but is still so beautiful to hear and read”

quick history of english language
Quick History of English Language
  • Old English (OE) dates from approximately* 400 A.D. to 1066
  • Middle English (ME) dates from approximately 1066-1485
  • They are quite different to the eye and ear. Old English is nearly impossible to read or understand without studying it much like and English speaker today would study French, Latin, or Chinese

*The dating of the beginnings of OE is difficult; scholars only have written texts in OE beginning in around 700 A.D., but peoples in England must have been speaking a version of OE prior to works being written in the vernacular (as opposed to Latin)

another way of looking at the history of english
Another Way of Looking at the History of English

OE=Old English ME=Middle English EMnE=Early Modern English MnE=Modern English

English = ?
  • Celtic (from 1700 or 400 B.C. to 55 B.C.) +
  • Latin (from 55 B. C. to 410 A. D.) +
  • German (from 410 A.D. to 1066 A.D.) +
  • French (from 1066 A.D. to 1485 A.D.) =



transition to beowulf
Transition to Beowulf
  • The major text we will read from this period is the epic Beowulf. It is the story of a Scandinavian (Geat) “thane” (warrior or knight) who comes to help a neighboring tribe, the Danes, who are being attacked by a monster.
  • We study English history to understand the context of Beowulf, and we study Beowulf to understand the world which was Old England.
  • According to Venerable Bede (an early English historian who lived in the eighth century), the Britons called the Romans for help when the Picts and Scots were attacking them (B.C.). Hundreds of years later, the Britons called the Saxons to help them when the Romans couldn’t. The Saxons came “from parts beyond the sea” (qtd. in Pyles and Algeo 96).
  • This journey of Germanic peoples to England “from parts beyond the sea” is the prototypical story for the first millennium of England’s history. It formulates much of their cultural mindset and clearly influences their stories. Be sure to consider how it plays a role in Beowulf.
genres prose
Genres: Prose
  • Sermons: most popular of prose genres
  • Translations of Latin religious works and Biblical works
  • Saints’ Lives
  • Legal texts: wills, records, deeds, laws, etc.
  • Scientific and Medical texts
  • Chronicles: historical writing: Anglo Saxon Chronicle
the anglo saxon chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • Collection of annals (yearly history) narrating the history of the Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain.
  • First continuous history written by Europeans in their own language.
  • Probably begun during the reign of King Alfred in the 9th c.
  • After completion of the original chronicle, copies were sent to monasteries and updated yearly.
  • Nine surviving MSS.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle

genres poetry
Genres: Poetry
  • Thula: alliterative lists of names or tribes
  • Gnomic verse: proverbs, traditional wisdom
  • Spells: invoke natural and supernatural powers
  • Riddles: what am I?
  • Religious poetry: retellings of Old Testament stories, saints’ lives, “Dream of the Rood”
  • Adaptations of classical philosophical texts: e.g. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy
  • Wisdom poetry: lyrical, meditative, elegiac – “The Wanderer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” etc.
  • Heroic court poetry: celebration of historical events related by scops: Beowulf, etc.

Alliterative lists of names and tribes

Oral mnemonic device

Found extensively in Widsith

Technique also found in Old Testament

Gnomic Verse

Proverbs, traditional wisdom

Hit becwæÞ – It is said

“As the sea is smooth when storms are at rest, So people are quiet when peace is proclaimed.”(Exeter Book)


The Anchor

I war with the wind, with the waves I wrestle; I must battle with both when the bottom I seek, My strange habitation by surges o’er-roofed. I am strong in the strife, while still I remain; As soon as I stir, they are stronger than I. They wrench and they wrest, till I run from my foes; What was put in my keeping they carry away. If my back be not broken, I baffle them still. The rocks are my helpers, when hard I am pressed; Grimly I grip them. Guess what I’m called.

The Exeter Book

spells and charms
Spells and Charms

Charm for a Swarm of Bees

Take earth with your right hand and throw it under your right foot, saying:

I've got it,     I've found it:Lo, earth     masters all creatures, it masters evil,     it masters deceit, it masters humanity's     greedy tongue.

Throw light soil over them [the bees] as they swarm, saying:

Sit, wise women,     settle on earth: never in fear     fly to the woods. Please be mindful     of my welfare as all men are     of food and land.

Trans. Karl Young

bede s death song
Bede’s “Death Song”

Fore ðæm nedfere nænig wiorðeðonc snottora ðon him ðearf siæto ymbhycgenne ær his hiniongehwæt his gastæ godes oððe yflesæfter deað dæge doemed wiorðe.

Facing that enforced journey, no man can beMore prudent than he has good call to be,If he consider, before his going hence,What for his spirit of good hap or of evilAfter his day of death shall be determined.

Beda Venerabilis from an medieval manuscript

anglo saxon poetic conventions
Anglo-Saxon Poetic Conventions
  • Elegiac mood: the transitoriness of life
    • Ubi sunt: Where are they???
  • Heroic mode: active, loyal to kinship group, boastful
  • The inevitability of Wyrd: fate
  • Figures of speech
    • Kennings: two words as metaphor for one: hron-rāde whale-road – sea; hord-cofan word-hoard – mind, thoughts
    • Litotes: ironic understatement -- "That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now." (Beowulf)
    • Variation: parallel appositive phrases – see “Cædmon’s Hymn”
  • Alliterative verse: alliteration is used as the principal device to unify lines of poetry
wisdom poetry
Wisdom Poetry
  • Lyrical: expressions of feelings, meditations on life
  • Emphasis on transitoriness of fame, glory, kinship, life itself: ubi sunt theme
  • Boethian in exploration of fickle fortuneBoethius: author of The Consolation of Philosophy
  • Most found in Exeter Book: “The Ruin,” “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Husband’s Message”
  • King Alfred: author of “Lays of Boethius”
heroic court poetry
Heroic Court Poetry
  • Narrative oral compositions handed down from generation to generation
  • Interactive: warriors in the audience were given their turns to boast: to proclaim their self-worth in a stylized solo declamation, which all recognized as a beot or gilph (boast).
  • Celebrations or commemorations of cultural heroes and historic events
  • Sung at court feasts which also included mead drinking, gift giving, harp playing and displaying of trophies
anglo saxon heroic poems
Anglo-Saxon Heroic Poems
  • Beowulf (c. 700-1000)
  • Fragments: The Fight at Finnsburh andWaldere
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains various heroic poems inserted throughout.
    • 937:The Battle of Brunanburhcelebrates the victory of King Athelstan over the Scots and Norse.
    • Five shorter poems: Capture of the Five Boroughs (942); Coronation of King Edgar (973); Death of King Edgar (975); Death of Prince Alfred (1036); and Death of King Edward the Confessor (1065).
the scop
Court singer








The Scop
  • “The Anglo-Saxon scop was a professional or semi-professional tribal poet who celebrated cultural values by singing epics on occasions of great ceremony and festivity…. He was a man of repute, the equal of thanes.”
  • Anglo-Saxon Scops
artemesia gentileschi judith slaying holofernes 1612 13
Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612-13
  • Judith as model of psychic liberation -- female who acts- confrontation of sexes from female point of view