The Anglo Saxon period is the oldest known period of time that had a complex culture with stable government, art, and a fairly large amount of literature. Many people believe that the culture then was extremely unsophisticated, but it was actually extremely advanced for the time. Despite the much advancement, the period was almost always in a state of war. Despite this fact, the Anglo-Saxon period is a time filled with great advancements and discoveries in culture, society, government, religion, literature, and art.
The Angles were a Germanic tribe that occupied the region which is now Scleswig-Holstein, Germany. With their fellow ethnic groups, they formed the people who came to be known as the English. The Saxons were a Germanic people who first appeared in the beginning of the Christian era. The Saxons were said to have lived in the south Jutland Peninsula in the north of what is now Germany, but the fact has not been proven. They attacked and raided areas in the North Sea throughout the third and fourth centuries. By the end of the sixth century, the Saxons had taken all of the Roman territory within north-west Germany, as far as the Elbe River. The Angles joined the Saxons in the invasion of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. British resistance to the 'Anglo Saxon' invaders in the second half of the fifth century ended with the Anglo Saxon's victory at the battle of Mount Badon. After the British were defeated, though, the Angles and the Saxons continued to fight over their religion for many years. (James Campbell, Eric John, Patrick Wormald, 1991)
Before the year 596, almost everybody had strong pagan beliefs. In 596 missionaries had begun to attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. By the year 650, almost all of England had converted to Christianity- at least in name. Although almost everyone claimed to be strong believers in Christ and the church, most still held on to their pagan beliefs and traditions. No matter what they believed, everyone applied their religious beliefs to their everyday life. (Geoffrey Hindley, 2006)
Everyone in the age would always wear extremely modest clothing. The common garment for a man was the robe gathered at the waist, completed by hose and soft sandals. The same was for the woman, except their dress extended to the feet. The most common materials used to make clothing were linen and woolens, though the more expensive outfits were marked by colorful dyes and exotic borders (Pelteret, 2000). Usually then men would hide short spears under their clothing for added protection.
The common weapon in war was the spear. Conventional spears were seven feet long with an iron head and was used to be thrown and also to jab. Shields were plain and round, made of wood with an iron center. Only the rich and noble used swords, which were made of iron with steel edges. The Vikings were more heavily armed than the Anglo-Saxons, and they relied on chain mail and helmets as protection, and most people used a short stabbing swords as protection, although some used either a lance or a double-edged sword (C.J.Arnold, 2007). When the men weren't fighting, the favorite pastimes of the Anglo-Saxon period were dice and board game such as chess. Complex riddles were very popular, as well as hunting. At gatherings, the most common entertainment was the harp, as well as juggling balls and knives.
Little writing remains to be studied because England was still developing their written language during many of these years, and storytelling was generally in the oral tradition. The two types of poetry that was written during the time period was heroic poetry and Christian poetry. Only about 30,000 lines of poetry from the age have survived to this time, and the epic poem "Beowulf" makes up a large portion of that. It originated as a pagan saga transmitted orally from one generation to the next, and court poets known as ‘scops' were the bearers of tribal history and tradition. The newer version of Beowulf was composed by a Christian poet, sometime early in the 8th century. The Christian themes found in the epic, however, however are not integrated into the main part of the essentially pagan tale. Works such as Deor, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and other poems follows the same basic theme as Beowulf. In these works, a happy past is contrasted with a precarious and desolate present. This type of heroic poetry celebrates great heroism even in the face of great danger and overwhelming odds. (C.J.Arnold, 2007)
Most of the Christian poetry is marked by the belief of a simple, relatively unsophisticated Christianity. The names of only two authors are known. Caedmon, whose story is told by the Venerable Bede, is the earliest known English poet. Not much is known about him, and almost all of his work has been lost. The other known poet is named Cynewulf. The only thing known about him is that he signed the poems Juliana, and The Fates of the Apostles. Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon period is very different from modern poetry (Pelteret, 2000). The verse form for old English poetry is a line of four stressed syllables and an unfixed number of unstressed syllables that are broken by a caesura. The lines are usually end-stopped and unrhymed. Although writing poetry was very popular in the age, people used more modern art to either make a living or as a hobby.
Art in the Anglo-Saxon period was influenced from many places. The three greatest influences were the Celtic arts of the Britons, the Christian church in Rome, and the Norse arts following the Viking invasions. Their manuscript painting, sculpted crosses and ivories, and enamel designs demonstrate a liking for intricate and interwoven designs. In the manuscripts of southern England, one can see how the way of writing changed. Before the 9th century, the writing was fairly plain. A somewhat different style emerged mid-9th century, with delicate, lively pen-and-ink figures and heavily decorative foliage borders. Much of the metalwork from the age has also survived over the years (Geoffrey Hindley, 2006). It consisted of bronze brooches of simple design, and circular silver brooches decorated with gold and silver jewels with inlays of garnet and also decorated with interlaced gold filigree. Much of their metalwork has survived over the ages, and the famous ship burial excavated at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939 has provided the finest examples of the Saxon goldsmiths' art discovered. Many other samples of their metalwork have been found in burial sites, along with samples of their pottery.
Pottery in the Anglo Saxon period was a very popular form of art of the age. The Saxons produced small handmade pots that were commonly used to hold things such as food and hot coal. Around the year 650, they began to be made on a wheel, as they are commonly made today. The pots were commonly plain, but some had simple decorations on it and a green or yellow glaze. The pottery was commonly buried in graves, along with glass art. Glass was widely used and had many purposes. It was used for jewelry, drinking vessels, and very commonly for windows, especially colored glass in churches. Most of the fine glassware was imported from the Rhineland. The amount of detail that was put into their glass was as precise as their architecture.
Architecture in the Anglo-Saxon period had to be very sturdy, because the frequent warfare often caused buildings to collapse. Because of the war so the people had to find a relatively cheap and easy way to reconstruct buildings. Their solution was to build most of their buildings out of wood with wattle and daub walls. These buildings were relatively inexpensive to build, yet they were extremely flammable. When the Vikings came through, they burned all the buildings that could be destroyed. The Anglo-Saxons seemed to adapt to rebuilding structures often, and the only structures that they made out of stone were their monasteries and churches.
Almost all homes in the age were made about the same way. Even the homes of the nobles were very simple, with just a central fireplace and a hole in the roof to let smoke escape. Even the largest structures were not divided into more than one room. Frequently, buildings would have sunken floors with planks covering them. These pits may have been used for storage, but many of them appear to have been used for filling with straw to be used as winter insulation. Several structures have sunken holes up to nine feet deep, suggesting a storage or work area below the suspended floor. (Joel Thomas Rosenthal, 1985)
Daily life was far from easy for people in Anglo-Saxon England. Women especially had a high mortality rate because of the dangers of pregnancies, miscarriages and childbirth - lack of iron has also been suggested to as one reason. Examination of skeletal remains has revealed that common ailments included earache, toothache, headache, shingles, wounds, burns, and pain in the joints. Another source of information on this subject is manuscripts offering medical advice; some remedies deal specifically with female matters, often mixing common sense and superstition (Anonymous, 2004). Here is an example of quite practical advice for women. A pregnant woman ought to be fully warned against eating anything too salt or too sweet, and against drinking strong alcohol: also against pork and fatty foods; also against drinking to the point of drunkenness, also against travelling; also against too much riding on horseback lest the child is born before the right time. Urban life from the twelfth century onwards opened up more opportunities for women as shopkeepers, cloth-makers, entertainers, etc. - only when married, of course. The only alternative to marriage were cloisters, but nunneries had fewer patrons than monasteries and thus had to struggle with a constant lack of resources. Women's access to schooling was very limited. Illness and early death were common; women's ailments were not considered worth studying and treating so they had to retreat to private traditions of healing. For many women, Anglo-Saxon England was a golden age of power and wealth, culture and education; women's role in marriage had (for the free-born) immense potential. Unfortunately, the Norman Conquest and the Gregorian Reform caused literature to lose touch with reality and women to lose their status in reality. (Anonymous, 2004)
In conclusion, the technological advancements and discoveries of the Anglo-Saxon period set the stone for today's society. The age had all of the parts of their culture that we have today. Their period set the foundation for art, society, literature, and culture of what we have today. America would be a very different place if it was not for the impact that the Anglo-Saxon period had society.
“When Rome was weakening early in the fifth century, troops in the outlying regions, including the British Isles, were withdrawn.”Political" power fell to unstable tribal units. Vortigern, "invited" Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to join his military power, so the land saw a swell of invasions by Jutes -- a Germanic tribe from Denmark -- in 449, followed soon by Angles and Saxons. These hordes settled in and pushed the Celts into Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, and to the north. King Arthur grew from legends of one Celtic chieftain who held out better than most.” (Johnson, David and Elaine Treharne, 2005.)
Anglo Saxon Related Reading
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin, 1990)
- J. Campbell et al., The Anglo-Saxons, (Penguin, 1991)
- E. James, Britain in the First Millennium, ( Arnold, 2001)
- F. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 1st 2nd and 3rd edition
- D. Whitelock, English Historical Documents c.500–1042, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1955)