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Medieval England
Anglo-Saxon artifacts from the Sutton Hoo burial
“The Middle Ages”
Called this because it’s just the period
stuck between the collapse of the Roman
Empire (around 470 AD) and the
Renaissance (15th Century)
 The early centuries of this period are
sometimes seen as having nothing of
importance to offer in terms of
advancement in society.
“The Middle Ages”
Also called “The Dark Ages” because of a
perceived lack of literacy and slow
advance of learning.
 This is an inaccurate assumption.
 While it’s true that the common person
was illiterate, a great deal of knowledge
was preserved in monasteries, particularly
in the British isles.
The Celts
Prior to Roman colonization, the British
isles were settled by Celtic tribes such as
the Britons, Picts, and Scots
 They spoke various forms of Gaelic
 Tribes often fought amongst themselves
for territory and power
The Celts
Most tribes were pagan and their religious
leaders were called druids
 Some had been converted to Christianity
under the Romans but the new Christian
theology was often mixed with the older
pagan tradition
The Romans
When the Romans annexed Britain, they
brought a great deal of stability
 Although they were at times brutal rulers,
Roman governors could easily repel other
groups trying to invade the islands
The Invasions
After the fall of the Roman Empire, mass
chaos ensued
 Celtic tribes were left virtually powerless
to protect themselves against invaders
 Seafaring warriors from the area of
Europe which is now northern Germany
and Denmark began attacking the Britons
Anglo-Saxon Origins
The Invasions
These tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes)
were successful in pushing the native
Britons out of most of England
 Celtic tribes retreating to the areas around
the edges: Wales, Scotland, and Ireland
(which accounts for differences in
language and culture today)
Anglo-Saxon Life
After the invasion, they settle into a fairly
peaceful agricultural lifestyle (with the
occasional blood-feud against neighboring
clans, of course).
The Anglo-Saxons practiced a different
pagan faith than the Celts.
 Their primary god was named Wodin and
their gods myths are similar to those of
the Vikings
 Missionaries from Ireland converted many
to Christianity in the 6th century
 But again, in those early years theologies
blend together and overlap
Anglo-Saxon Literature
With the rise of Christianity in England,
literacy rose again.
 People, especially monks, wrote about
religious subjects, mostly in Latin
 Some poetry is written in Old English, the
language of the Anglo-Saxons and was
then copied and preserved by monks
Manuscript Illumination
Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Anglo-Saxon poetry was originally an oral
 It would be memorized by story tellers
who would travel around and retell them
in exchange for food, shelter, etc.
 These people were highly revered because
of the heroic stories they shared
Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Alliteration: the repetition of consonants
within a line of poetry
Caesura: breaks or pauses in the middle
of a line
Kenning: compound words that describe
something and are used instead of the
actual name
These aspects create a predictable, even
hypnotic rhythm in the original language
Beowulf in Old English
…Stīđ ond styl-ecg; strenge getruwode,
mundgripe mægenes. Swā sceal man don
Þonne hē æt gūđ gegān Þenceđ
longsumne lof; …
(line 1533-1536)
Beowulf in Translation
hurled the steel-edge; his strength must be
in his mighty hand-grip. So must a man do
who intends to gain long-lasting glory
in battle
Anglo-Saxon Society
The basic unit of society was the clan, a
group of people connected by kinship
 The leader of the clan was a king or lord
 He would surround himself with warriors
who had sworn loyalty to him
 They were duty bound to fight to the
death for him, whenever he asked.
The Role of the Lord
In return, he
provided them
with food, mead,
shelter, and
social interaction
in his great hall
The Role of the Lord
The king was bound by duty and honor to
reward his warriors with gold for the
services they provided him
 Poetry of the time condemns lords who
are stingy with gold and praises those who
give freely: “đat wæs gud könig”
Beowulf in Context
The story of Beowulf is set within this
context of lord and retainers coexisting in
the meadhall.
Beowulf begins as a young warrior, looking
to prove his worth by accomplishing great
and heroic deeds.
He eventually earns a crown for himself and
must become a good and generous king.
For Further Online Reading