|B.C. 700 – 300||The Celtic invasion and subsequent settlement (Gaels, Cymri, Britons)|
|A.D. 5 – 40||'Rex Brittonum' Cymbeline ruled in South England.
Lundonium (London) founded as a Roman city
|43||Roman Emperor Claudius began his conquest of England|
|407||Roman Army was withdrawn leaving behind a developed road network and fortified military camps (castra – chester)|
|400||Christianity in Wales|
|450||TRADITIONAL DATE OF THE COMING OF THE 'SAXONS'|
|500 – 600||'The Seven Kingdoms' – small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were formed.|
|432?||St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity|
|563||St. Columba introduced Christianity from Ireland into western Scotland|
|597||St. Augustine of Canterbury started his mission in England (ended in 690)|
|800 – 900||The Vikings raids and attacks on the British Isles (they established their own administrative unit in East England – Danelaw)|
|871 – 900||KING ALFRED, 'THE GREAT' of Wessex defeated the Danes, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle started.|
|cca 940||The Wessex kings (Edward the Elder and Athelstan) became the first kings of all England|
|991||The battle of Maldon; the English defeated by the Danes again|
|1016||The collapse of Wessex. Canute, King of Denmark and Norway became King of England|
|1036||The end of Danish rule (Danelaw) after Canute's death|
|1042 – 1066||The reign of Edward the Confessor, the growth of Norman influence|
|1066||Harold defeated by William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror)
TRADITIONAL END OF ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD IN ENGLAND
|600?||Scandinavian version of BEOWULF (written around 1000)
Battle of Finnsburg
|731||Venerable Bede: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum|
|891?||ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE STARTED with "war songs"
for the year 937 – Battle of Brunanburh
for the year 991 – Battle of Maldon
|1000?||Aelfric's translation of Colloquium
Wolfstan's sermon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (The Wolf Sermon to the Angles)
Anonymous translation of Latin romance Apollonius of Tyre
|1138||Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain|
Literary works appearing in the languages of Germanic tribes coming to England from Low Germany around A.D. 450 speaking so called Old English (OE) are generally referred to as Old English Literature (OEL) or Anglo-Saxon Literature. This period lasted until the Norman Conquest (1066) in a stretch of roughly seven hundred years.
To understand this period as well as its literary works properly we should be aware of the overall importance of Christianity speaking for the first time of strange matters to the Germanic mind; it brought, taught and demanded charity, humility, self discipline, a concern about spiritual matters, introduced a conscience (frequently uneasy), a clear cut distinction between body and soul with unambiguous preference of the latter. It brought a great fear as well as a great hope about the next life, both of them considered as governing the human action. Consequently, in everyday life, as in the first literary reflections on it, almost an absolute supremacy of the spiritual over secular, of the priest over the layman is dominant.
The original Germanic worship of Odin and Thor, the religion shared by old Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons was, on the other hand, pre-eminently a layman's or more precisely a warrior's religion. Indeed, it was not much troubled about the soul's salvation or spiritual life. It was a religion based on sophisticated Germanic mythology concerned with completely different virtues – manliness, generosity, loyalty, friendship, honesty. The favourite heroes of old Icelandic sagas are mostly praised because of a singular quality: they "never lie".
The first Christian missionaries organizing the English Church were coming during the course of the seventh century from the North (established themselves around York) as well as from the South (St. Augustine of Canterbury) bringing a clear-cut presentation of cosmogony, the metaphysics of heaven and hell, to places where, and this is the most important of all, all the previous varieties of religions presented only poetic versions of popular visions about the next life.
The organization of the English Church was eventually completed at the Synod of Whitby (664) by the adhesion of all English kingdoms to the Roman religious system. Of course, the systems of Scotland, Wales and Ireland gradually followed the rest of Western Europe. The results achieved at Whitby may probably have also been supported by the desire to imitate the superior organization of Frankish kingdoms, where the Roman system of administration had not been completely extinguished.
Indeed, the centralization and unity of the Church throughout all England definitely led to political unity under a single King. The administration of the Church became the model for the administration of the State. And since the men of the Church were, with negligible exceptions, only learned men of the times, they easily penetrated into the sphere of state affairs. In those skilled and educated men the kings not only gained new allies but also a new sanctity to their authority and, correspondingly, a higher claim to the loyalty of their subjects. Here probably rested the origins of the Divine Right of Kings, the crucial point of many later religious but mainly ideological and political disputes. It was as late as the days of St. Thomas á Beckett that Church and King became (for a short time) rivals.
The newly established Roman system was soon dominated by the influence of Canterbury that became the centre of the best Greek and Latin scholarship brought in from Italy, while Celtic scholarship produced the school of Venerable Bede in Jarrow and the vast theological library at York where Alcuin took his education.
The Anglo-Saxon world was by no means overridden by the cultural, moral, and ideological values of Mediterranean Christendom. Although generally respecting the new status of the clergy, the Saxon warlords and warriors had not forgotten their ancestors. Their moral conduct was (witnessed by early Anglo-Saxon literary fragments) following the same ethical and moral principles as before. The upper layer of Anglo-Saxon poetry and early fiction is definitely purely Christian but there is also a very marked pagan tradition of rich realistic human emotion running deep in the centuries to come.
This civilization growth was destroyed by the Danes and Norsemen and parts of the country even fell under foreign rule (the Danelaw in East England). Old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Northumbria, Mercia) were gradually occupied. The Nordic Vikings brought back those seafaring habits which the Saxons had abandoned preferring mostly lives on quiet country farms to any sort of developed town life (London being the only exception). Up to the reign of Alfred the Great only Wessex (the kingdom of West Saxons) remained purely Saxon-governed territory. Alfred reinforced the position of his native kingdom. He created an organized fleet, a new army system of permanent garrisons, reorganized administration (with "the shire" and its officers as the local executive unit of royal power). Under Alfred's successors Edward the Elder and Athelstan (mostly for their newly acquired authority over the greater territory they are traditionally described as the first Kings of England) Viking power deteriorated. Thus, paradoxically, the Danelaw, after absorbing other Saxon kingdoms, had itself been absorbed by Wessex. (Only Celtic Wales and Celtic Scotland were still independent.) The idea of Alfred's shires was extended to newly conquered territories but the remainders of the former Danish administrative system – ("the boroughs" as Lincoln, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Bedford) were kept and transformed into their new centres.
The period of peace and prosperity was interrupted by renewed Danish wars that utterly ruined the Saxon peasants and transformed former freeholders into serfs. The war tax then extracted by the Danish kings (called "the Danegeld") left a deep furrow in the social, financial, and administrative history of England untill the first Plantagenet kings (William the Conqueror's complete inventory of the realm's property called The Domesday Book was originally intended as an administrative manual helping to levy the Danegeld). No wonder, that the newly restored Saxon monarch, Edward the Confessor (1042 – 1066 – his notorious piety reflected not only his name but also in energetic building of churches and monasteries) looked for a new ally and found him in French Normandy. In dynastic quarrels breaking out after the Confessor's death, his successor Harold was defeated by the French claimant, William, the Duke of Normandy, and Norman rule was soon established over England. Thus England became for a few centuries (but for many generations) a part of the social, and definitely cultural life of feudal France and French-speaking English Kings shared her interests and continental ambitions.
Only a few fragments of Anglo-Saxon epic have reached our times and, of course, there is no reason to assume these fragments to be the best. Yet it may be noted that Anglo-Saxon epic has some qualities whose generalization is possible.
The principal virtues presented in the Anglo-Saxon epic were the loyalty of the warrior to his lord, the readiness of men to die in battle, courage, courtesy, and magnanimity. The typical hero of these pieces is a man unrestrained by the customs of his tribe or limited by religious observance, a man of adventure, generous and passionate. The typical heroes were mostly historical figures; on the other hand they were often semi-gods. The fact that all had had some historical background created a literature widely oscillating between fact and fiction. The most important is that they represented the ideal of the nation that had created them, they represented the qualities that the nation considered essential for its very existence. We find all these heroes physically enormously strong and extraordinarily brave, the qualities necessary for those living in rough natural conditions. The qualifiers attributed to them are therefore nearly always the same and could be summarized as strong, unwavering, loyal, brave, generous, sometimes rash or quick tempered, tricky but unimaginative. (Of course, these general characteristics may be generally found not only in Western heroic epic, German, Burgund, Norman, Danish, Norwegian, but also in Russian and Serbian – it seems that the boundaries went along ethnic rather than national lines. The scops (itinerant singers or narrators) were spreading, modifying, and eventually fictionalizing heroic deeds of various Germanic warriors starting from short epic pieces (called lays) to more and more sophisticated works of fiction. It seems (but there is no certainty about it) that the pieces of long heroic epic were works of later compilers (usually monks) who used these short lays as a background for their own purposes. This narratives were communicated orally and their form (mostly a degree of poetic imagination with more or less constant prosodic rules) were a matter of decision – or talent or religious belief – of an individual scop. The chief accident, the transmission of literature, vastly contributing to OE and ME literature's ambiguity, is the point at which the narrative was comitted to writing. Sometimes the writing formalized and "solidified" the oral text making it for ever permanent; sometimes the oral text was allowed its existence as spoken art – mostly in POPULAR BALLADS.
The vast majority of Old English literature is written in verse, even if its contents could and would be probably called fiction now. The reason is, that all early stages of literary expression based their forms on utterances organized not only into purely informative (as might be expected) but also formal patterns (e.g. rhythmic, verbal, prosodic, syntactic, repetitive) This formality, probably stemming from religious rituals, was more easily accessible to the environment where the majority of information was communicated orally and definitely less dependent on writing. Moreover, the oral realization always involves raised and exalted expectations of audience (sometimes with the aid of music, sometimes without) fullfilling also the more general aesthetic expectation of order and harmony.
The physical means for recording (i.e. the Latin alphabet brought by Irish missionaries complemented by a few extra characters for specific Anglo-Saxon sounds were in existence by the end of the seventh century (The Lindisfarne Gospels). However, the manuscripts in which OE literature is preserved are very rare and none of them were written until the end of the tenth century. This means that many earliest monuments of literature – Anglo-Saxon heroic epic included, were not written down until perhaps two and a half centuries after their compositions. (With few exceptions as e.g. The Battle of Maldon which commemorates an event of 991 having been copied into a manuscript almost instantly after its composition.) It is generally believed that earlier manuscripts must have existed, must have been transcribed in various dialects, and probably disappeared when West Saxon was established as the first literary language in the tenth century. Moreover it is believed that the transcription of works which were predominantly secular, or only indirectly didactic – and especially those based on pagan tradition or material – must have definitely taken an inferior place to the texts of religious nature. (Early medieval chronicle being considered of such kind.)
For the sake of completeness the following four principal collections containing OE literary manuscripts are:
FOUR PRINCIPAL WORKS OLD ENGLISH HEROIC EPIC ARE:
Widsith, contaning only 143 lines, still presents a research problems. It is a narrative of a scop named Widsith constructed around three "thulas" (the name-lists organized so as to be easily memorized) and linked by ostensibly presented experience of the eponymous narrator. (The point is that Widsith enumerates not only the kings ruling in his times, but also those who reigned within two or even three centuries, with whom he claimed not only to be on friendly terms but also frequently visited and fought alongside.) The first "thula" – a genealogic account of ruling kings – is very old and was written in Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain (probably in Low Germany) sometime in the sixth century. The remaining two parts; the second describing Anglo-Saxon tribes Widsith claimed to have visited and the third autobiographical are about people he either met or sought out on his travels. Today Widsith is mostly appreciated for its register of old Germanic heroes and the myths and legends connected with them. His narrative bears remarkable strain of "authenticity", when Widsith the reporter assumes some a priori familiarity with the topics and events he tells us about pretending a mere enlargement of our well established previous knowledge.
Attila ruled the Huns, Ermanaric the Goths...
Hrothhulf and Hrothgar, nephew and uncle,
kept kinship-bonds together for the longest time,
after they drove off the tribes of pirates,
crushed Ingeld's battle-force, cut down at Heorot
the might of the Heathobards.
(Widsith, modern English translation by Roberta Frank)
The secondary literature accompanying BEOWULF, the longest and the most famous heroic epic in Old English, exceeds many many times its text containing a "mere" 3182 lines. The critical assessments and analyses are therefore numerous as well. However, indisputable facts are only three:
Beowulf, the longest surviving Old English epic, is the first great English work of literature. It must have been written when Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian events were closely interwoven and when Germanic tribes still retained a consciousness of their common origins and history. The narrative clearly has a kind of historical and geographical frame.
The hero, called Beowulf, was a Geat warlord (today the Geats are either identified with the Jutes residing in the country east of the Lower Rhine or with the Gautar living in southern Sweden) who led the expedition of his tribe to the aid of neighbouring Danes around 520.
The text is focused on two major events in the Beowulf's life: the first when, in his youth, he fights and kills Grendel, a monster, who has been attacking Heorot, the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, and then Grendel's mother, who comes the night after to avenge her son's death. In the following cruel fight Beowulf's situation seems hopeless but he is finally saved by the magic sword hanging on the wall of the cave. King Hrothgar rewards him generously and Beowulf returns home. The second event takes place fifty years later, when Beowulf, who has become the king of Geats and rules over them happily for a long time, has to fight a dragon that has attacked his people and burnt down their homes. The dragon guarded a treasure of gold in his den and a Geat was supposed to steal a gold cup from it, which brought avenge again on the whole tribe. In subsequent combat both Beowulf and the dragon are mortally wounded. Beowulf is miracuously saved by his nephew Wiglaf who did not hesitate to help the old king. Beowulf, feeling the coming end, orders the dragon's treasure to be distributed among his people.
The Beowulf – poet is, of course, unknown. He uses unstructured allusions and digressions and seems to expect his audience's knowledge of its own legendary past (with various details – historical as for instance the frequently discussed feud between the Danes and Heathobards, the fight at the Finnsburh, king Hygelac's fatal expedition against the Frisians – or mythical e.g. the story of Offa and his cruel queen, the story of Siegmund and the dragon). They are not intended to delay or stop the flow of the narrative but frequently create the air of authenticity. These digressions, by which the text is being bound together, are moreover complemented by meditative and moralizing passages rendered by the author himself or by some other character and deepen the generally elegiac, somber tone of the work.
Beowulf is, viewed by our standards, a tragedy, a gigantic elegy for its hero, in which the moments of glory serve only to emphasize the completeness, finality and inevitability of his end. It might be viewed as a tragedy of the human destiny, a fulfillments of the fate of a Germanic hero, not reached in victory alone, but through the unwavering courage, most of all when the odds – enemies, conditions, age – are against him and he knows that he must die.
THE FIGHT AT FINNSBURH (also known as The Finsburh Fragment) is a text containing only 48 lines in Old English dealing with the tragic tale of Finn of Frisia and Hildeburh (the second part of the story is given in Beowulf). The long lasting feud between the Danes and the Frisians has to be healed by the marriage of the Frisian king Finn to the sister of the Danish king Hildeburh. It seems that the feud breaks out again during a ceremony at the Finn's castle and and the Danish king, his nephew, and the son of Finn and Hildeburh are killed. The fragment describes the beginning of the battle. (the episode in Beowulf contains a sequel, when the Frisians kill the Danish leader and the Danes gain vengeance by killing Finn).
WALDHERE is another fragment of Old English heroic epic of the late 10th century, containing 63 lines. From other sources we know that Waldhere was the son of a king of Aquitaine (the southern France with Bordeaux as its centre), who was given up to Attila the Hun and became one of his generals. He escapes with Hiltgund, a Burgundian princess to whom he had been betrothed as a boy. In the course of their flight they are attacked by Frankish warrior Hagen. Waldhere kills the attackers first. The next day he is ambushed and wounded. The lovers are still able to go on and are finally married. The fragment is a part of a vast collection of German, French and English stories concentrated around Waldhere (Walter) of Spain (or of Aquitaine).
Old English Literature probably contained many texts based on the tradition of heroic epic. From the 10th century we have two "war songs", The Battle of Brunanburh, The Battle of Maldon, with the continuous tradition of ambiguous texts mixing real-existing historical facts with ornaments and digressions of pure fiction while setting them into some definite historical and geographical frame. They are written in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
The Battle of Brunanburh is dated 937. It is typical scop's poetry dealing with the battle fought in that year between the English under King Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, and the Danes supported by the Scots. The site of the battle is unknown, it is thought to be somewhere on the west coast of Britain. The text is a triumphant celebration of the deeds of Athelstan and his brother and successor Edmund. The final image of a feasting raven and wolf at the battlefield covered by corpses is the most famous and has been used or paraphrased many times in popular as well as artificial ballads.
The Battle of Maldon is a verse fiction containing 325 lines, incomplete at the beginning and the end, recorded probably before 1000. It deals with the battle fought in 991 at Maldon (Essex) against Danish raiders. The Danes invaded on the shore of the river Pant and were opposed by Byrhtnoth, ealdorman (local Saxon chief) of Essex, who had rejected paying tribute to the Danes. In the fight Byrhtnoth was killed and the men routed partly because of his excessive pride. The second half of the text, concerned with the deeds of loyalty to the dead leader, is a powerful statement of fidelity and determination to avenge the leader's death.
It may be assumed that all the prose of the Anglo-Saxon period before Alfred the Great (849 – 901) was written by clerics. They might have sympathized with the tradition of their people (they were frequently of humble origin), they might have had enough goodwill to save the old relics or to imitate them. However they were primarily spiritual leaders and educators of new faith.
The earliest Latin written text pertinent to England worth mentioning is De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (On the Decline and Fall of Britain) by Welsh clergyman GILDAS (d.570). It is a sketchy description of early British history followed by a castigation of corrupt rulers and priests. He is the first writer of history but his work is impoverished by lack of dating and, suprisingly, by ignorance of Anglo-Saxons, against whose invasions he shows the 5th-century Britons fighting. He described the battle of Mount Badon but without any reference to King Arthur, who, from other sources took an active part in it carrying the Cross as his standard there. (Arthur is referred to in Historia Britonum from the beginning of 9th century).
BEDA VENERABILIS (b.673 – d.735) belonged to "the Northumbrian Revival" i.e. humanistic monks and clergymen concentrated around Northern monasteries in Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Whitby and Durham Chapter. As a boy he was put in the charge of the abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Wearmouth. From there he went to Jarrow at the age of nine and spent practically all his life there. His masterpiece, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Church History of English People), is, at the same time, a basic methodological text of world history for Bede was not content only to compile a chronicle of events and dates or to restrict himself to mere hagiography (the lives of saints). He carefully examined all available records and sources, secured verbal or written accounts from reliable living authorities, recorded local traditions and stories and created a magnificently complete and continuous history of the English Church and English people. To accomplish the purpose, Bede's work is divided into five periods or "books". In the first, after preliminary geographical survey of Britain, and a brief account of the Roman occupation, Bede proceeds with the proliferation of Christianity in Britain up to the death of Pope Gregory the Great (c. 600). The second Book continues the story from his death up to the death of King Edwin and fall of Northumbrian kingdom by pagan chieftain Penda (c. 650). The third Book recounts the struggle against paganism in the North and the baptizing of the Mercians (living in Midlands) and East Saxons. The fourth Book records the appointment of Theodore the Greek to the Archbishopric of Canterbury and his reforms and reorganization of the English Church; the lives of St. Cuthbert and St. Wilfrid, and the progress of the Church in the South-East. The fifth Book carries the story from the time of Bishop John of Beverley up to the year of the work's completion in 731.
In Bede's book we trace the gradual decay of the Celtic tribal and monastic systems and their superimposing by the highly developed and centralized system of the Roman Church. Bede describes the gradual conversion of all mutually opposing peoples to the single Christian religion.
Bede's historical scholarship is generally acknowledged but his literary skills are frequently and unjustly put aside. Nevertheless, the centuries on which he concentrates are a crucial and formative period in the history of England, during which probably the pattern and future shape of the nation were beginning to emerge. Bede's account of these events is a rich living panorama with many stories characterized by his style when the fens and forests, the scenes and folk seem to be before us again. We have little difficulty in picturing the plans, viewpoints, and problems of the kings, saints, bishops and common men. But not only this, Bede's Historia is a work of literature for the author's "plot-forming" capabilities to select and integrate the vast amount of facts, traditions, narratives and gather them into a single organized framework. It is evident that a lot of material had been rejected (as unreliable, irrelevant or for the reasons unknown) but all that was retained is welded together into coherence and unity. The inclusion of metaphysical and supernatural elements recorded in Bede's narrative amplify formidably the aspect of fiction and imagery in the book frame.
ALCUIN (735 – 804) is mentioned here for the sake of completeness. He was born at York and in 796 he was appointed abbot of Tours (France) and played an important role in "Carolingian Renaissance" (the first attempt to revive classical heritage during the reign of Charlemagne). He wrote liturgical, grammatical, hagiographical, and philosophical works, as well as letters and poems in Latin. His concern was primarily educational (famous is his rendering of Tertullian What has Athens to do with Jerusalem doubting the merits of heroic epic writing in monasteries).
ALFRED THE GREAT (848 – 899), king of West Saxons (Wessex) from 871. He belongs to the history of literature for his efforts to establish a tradition of prose written in English. He initiated and/or translated Pope Gregory's Cura Pastoralis, geographically and historically valuable Historia Adversus Paganus (describing the voyages of the Norwegians), Bede's Ecclesiastical History and Boethius' De Consolotaione Philosophiae (On the Consolation in Philosophy). He is also said to have translated and adapted St. Augustine's Soliloquia.
ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE, started in 890 and finished in 1154, is the most systematic historical compilation inspired by Alfred. It survived in seven manuscripts and it is believed to have developed from relatively primitive entries putting one event after another without considering their importance or interpreting them. Then some literary quality was added and the most celebrated of all is Battle of Brunanburh. The overall organization is attributed to Alfred in the course of his literary ventures (about 890). His style is characteristic especially in translations. It was Alfred who introduced idiomatic translation ("sense for sense"), which gives vividness to his English prose.
HOMILIES (formally perfected prosaic works used for educational and didactic purposes or as resources and manuals for preachers. Their topics were frequently traditional and conventional.) These are, for instance, AELFRIC's Catholic Homilies, Lives of Saints, Passion of Saint Thomas, Colloquy on the Occupations or WULFSTAN's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Wolf's Sermon to Angles)
At the very end of Anglo-Saxon period new forms of prose and verse fiction appeared. They represent a transition from old heroic epic to new medieval chivalry romances. At first they are derived from Greek and Latin and the emphasis shifts from general to individual. Apollonius of Tyre (happily ended story of a youth falling in love with a girl whose parents are strictly against) and Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, starting the important medieval cycle dealing with real and fictitious adventures of Alexander the Great, should be mentioned here. They create an important link between the generic ambiguity of the past and fairly extensive verse and prose romances of the period between 1066 and 1485.