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English Literature

Angle-Saxon Period

Home | Angle-Saxon Period | The Medieval Period | The Elizabethan Age

By Rogério Tenório de Azevedo and Bruno Melo Carvalho

About the Old English

Fragment and selected summaries from Beowulf

1. The History


        The Anglo-Saxon period is dated from 449 to 1066. In 449, the first Germanic people crossed the North Sea in wooden boats and settled in the county of Kent. They were the Jutes, from Denmark. After them came the Angles, who populated the Eastern and Northeastern parts of the island, whose kingdoms formed Northumbria and Mercia. The Saxon stream occupied the Southeastern part of the land. Together they created the Anglo-Saxon England.

      This period begins after the fall of the Roman Empire (405 AD), who kept the order on Britain from Hadrian’s Wall (north of England) to distant Arabia. Romans had conquered the British inhabitants, also known as Celts (pronounced as /kelts/), and their legions remained defending the region till Rome itself was threatened by “barbarian invasions”. From about 410 A.D. on, the decay of the Roman Empire forced their army to withdraw from the British lands leaving them defenceless, which means that the Roman-British was finished. So England became an easier destination for nomad tribes such as the ones we have mention above. Britons, the native inhabitants of England, were no match for north invaders. After struggle they retreated to mountains and moors, leaving space for the tiny kingdoms created by Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Some historians demonstrate that the migration of Germanic people to Britain has to be regarded in the context of European migrations for better spots to live and grow crops. Some others try to sustain that the Saxons were invited to Britain in order to defend it because they were good warriors. Actually, there will always be speculations about the reasons for the Germanic people coming to Britain as the archeological and written sources from the time can not solve this polemical matter at all.


      Some historians describe the following period as “Dark Ages”, what meant a time of barbarism, ignorance and violence, but other (majority) consider that an untruth, because Nordic People developed knowledge, communications, trade, arts and crafts. In the first two centuries they formed small communities, whose families lived in houses built of wood with thatched roof. Later they also organize themselves into larger units to resist invasions from Vikings (true Norsemen).


      For instance, the kingdom of Northumbria was the result of an amalgamation of the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. The power oscillated around the kingdoms of Nortumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Sussex, Essex and Wessex from the 6th to the 8th century. For these seven dominant kingdoms, the period is called the Heptarchy. Kent, placed in the southeast, seemed to hold the balance during the second half of the 6th century, specialy under king Aethelbert. Afterwards, Northumbria was given the power. One interesting thing about this time is that northumbrians made choice for the Roman Church, to the detriment of Irish Church, during the Christianization of the Angle-Saxons. The Roman Church was different from the Irish because the first converted with an aggressive manner and brought the culture, architecture and music of the imperial city of Rome to Britain while the Irish tried to convert by the simple way of live. Nevertheless, crisis have damaged the domination of Northumbria, and the mercians managed to get control of the shore under the king Penda of Mercia who overcome the northumbrians at the Battle of Trent at the end of the 7th century. The 8th century was dominated by mercians and a mark of its power is the famous Offa’s Dike built by the king Offa of Mercia. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English brings a description of this dike: “a long wall of earth, originally over 100 miles long, put up to mark the border between Wales and the Angle-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, by King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century. Parts of it can still be seen”.

       Mercia lost the leadership to Wessex (land of the West Saxons) and other smaller kingdoms at the turn of the 9th century. The rising of Wessex is simultaneous with the constant invasion of the Vikings. After Viking pirates came Danish settlers, who occupied northern and eastern England, bringing their heathen customs and laws. They first conquered Northumbria which was devolved into Bernicia and a Viking kingdom. Churches and monasteries were destroyed; the Saxon polity in the southeast was devoured. Moreover, the Vikings introduced many words into English as a natural result of their vanquishment.

       Strategy and power was the virtue of potent Angle-Saxon kings, like Alfred the Great from Wessex and Athelstan, to be successful in their struggle against the Norse invaders. Alfred, according to Bede records, ceded almost all eastern part of Britain in order to bring peace back to the island. He also translated himself many books of history, philosophy and religion besides writing some pieces of literature. Alfred’s successors made a great effort and defeated the Vikings and Wessex dominance spread all around what we call England now-a-days.

       In the 10th century there was a sort of unification in England but successful Scandinavian attacks made the command in Britain fluctuated between English and Dane kings. This situation ended up in a political conflict in which many people claimed the throne. The Angle-land lasted until 1066, when the Norman-French King, William (Duke of Normandy), descendant of Aelthered of England and Canute of Denmark claimed the throne and invaded the country after he had defeated Harold Godwinson, the expected heir, at the Battle of Hastings.

2. The Literature

Drinking Horn
taken from: http://www.

      If we study the Angle-Saxon people by the optics of the invader historians we will say that they were mere barbarians, slow-witted, oafish, tribal folk, alcoholic, constantly drinking huge quantities of ale and mead. Despite that, the Normans were superior only in military organization, strategy and architecture. Angle-Saxons were hardy and brave, easily developing great loyalty to a chosen leader, although they had a natural tendency toward a democratic habit of mind.

"Thou Hrothgar, hail! Hygelac's I,
kinsman and follower. Fame a plenty
have I gained in youth!”
(Beowulf, 1999, lines 407-409)

      They used to have meetings in which people could express their thoughts and feelings. This kind of gathering was called a “moot”, and till today we say a “moot point”, meaning something which can be decided by deliberation on an assembly.

      The Anglo-Saxons also developed a common taste for beauty, for fine ornament, their craftsman produced many beautiful pieces (brooches, bracelets,…), in fact they were more artistic and poetic than the Norman invaders (essentially soldiers and administrators). At the English Literature lays Celtic and Angle-Saxon temperaments, a junction of the misty mountains and moors (new home of the Celtic), and the bright meadows of the Angle-Saxons.

      It was common to Angle-Saxons organize semi-communal feasting to celebrate battles or expeditions. In the great “mead hall”, after they attacked the food, the gleeman (scop, poet) used to play his harp and declaim songs, gay or melancholy, speaking about heroic tales, or putting elaborated riddles.The riddle was an intellectual exercise for them. The hall is a representation of the kingdom itself and its destruction means the conquest of the whole shore.

Wide, I heard, was the work commanded,
for many a tribe this mid-earth round,
to fashion the folkstead. It fell, as he ordered,
in rapid achievement that ready it stood there,
of halls the noblest: Heorot he named it
whose message had might in many a land.
Not reckless of promise, the rings he dealt,
treasure at banquet: there towered the hall,
high, gabled wide, the hot surge waiting
of furious flame. Nor far was that day
when father and son-in-law stood in feud
for warfare and hatred that woke again.
With envy and anger an evil spirit
endured the dole in his dark abode,
that he heard each day the din of revel
high in the hall: there harps rang out,
clear song of the singer. He sang who knew
tales of the early time of man,
how the Almighty made the earth,
fairest fields enfolded by water,
set, triumphant, sun and moon
for a light to lighten the land-dwellers,
and braided bright the breast of earth
with limbs and leaves, made life for all
of mortal beings that breathe and move.
So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel
a winsome life, till one began
to fashion evils, that field of hell.

(Beowulf, 1999, lines 76-101)

      Beowulf can be seen, to a certain extent, as metaphor for the process of settlement of the Anglo-Saxon tribes and the tribulations brought by the invasions that took place in England afterwards. One can see in Beowulf the picture an Alfred, the Great, while Grendel and its mother could be represented by Danes and Vikings. Thus this great epic of old times could account part of its undeniable importance to the English people and Literature.

      With the came of the Christian church, was developed a written literature, perhaps the oral narration, great tradition, persisted by centuries, committed to memory by generation after generation of poets. The rhymes (alliteration) and emphatic rhythms of poetry awaken a powerful emotional response. These poetic devices served as aids to memory, long before printed books. It’s easy to remember a nursery rhyme because it’s alliteration and strong rhythm.

      There have been a great quantity of heroic narrative verse and, later on, of dramatic monologues of a somewhat lyrical nature, but very little has survived. There is only the epic “Beowulf”; portions of other epics, together with fragments of battles pieces; and a small group of dramatic poems, just like “The Seafarer”, for example, that reflects the vital part played by the sea in the English life. This famous poem was written by an unknown author of the fifth or sixth century. To survive this poetry had to be written down, mostly this was made by priests, that do not take interest in poetry which was essentially pagan. Those verses were generally written in Latin, though occasionally they included lines in the vernacular.

      “Beowulf”, the oldest known English epic poem, is the greatest masterpiece of literature to survive till us from the Angle-Saxon period. Much of it was lost by several reasons. We don’t even know who wrote, neither when, but scholars found evidences that in the poem itself to say that it was probably composed by a single poet some time during the seventh or eighth century. The author maybe was a Christian West Saxon who wrote the story from old pagan legends brought from the continent. Perhaps monks included the Christian references when they copied the manuscript.

       The character of Beowulf seems a mix of a historical figure with mythical heroes of long ago. The main theme is the search of great leader to save a people from monsters that afflict their region. It happens in Sweden and Denmark. Beowulf is the hero of the poem, strong, fearless and keening for justice. It’s a literary legacy from old times, an exciting history of adventure and heroism. It's far interesting that besides being widely praised by his compatriots, Beowulf defines himself as hero in several passages of the epic. Throughout the excerpt below, Beowulf tries to convince Hrothgar, king of Danes, that he (Beowulf) is the right person to challenge Grendel, the monster. From the respect for nobles and monarchs, it's possible to figure out some elements of the culture of the period. Beowulf directs to Hrothgar in a very polite form uttering his arguments with the highest catchwords.

"Thou Hrothgar, hail! Hygelac's I,
kinsman and follower. Fame a plenty
have I gained in youth! These Grendel-deeds
I heard in my home-land heralded clear.
Seafarers say how stands this hall,
of buildings best, for your band of thanes
empty and idle, when evening sun
in the harbor of heaven is hidden away.
So my vassals advised me well, --
brave and wise, the best of men, --
O sovran Hrothgar, to seek thee here,
for my nerve and my might they knew full well.
Themselves had seen me from slaughter come
blood-flecked from foes, where five I bound,
and that wild brood worsted. I' the waves I slew
nicors by night, in need and peril
avenging the Weders, whose woe they sought, --
crushing the grim ones. Grendel now,
monster cruel, be mine to quell
in single battle! So, from thee,
thou sovran of the Shining-Danes,
Scyldings'-bulwark, a boon I seek, --
and, Friend-of-the-folk, refuse it not,
O Warriors'-shield, now I've wandered far, --
that I alone with my liegemen here,
this hardy band, may Heorot purge!
More I hear, that the monster dire,
in his wanton mood, of weapons recks not;
hence shall I scorn -- so Hygelac stay,
king of my kindred, kind to me! --
brand or buckler to bear in the fight,
gold-colored targe: but with gripe alone
must I front the fiend and fight for life,
foe against foe. Then faith be his
in the doom of the Lord whom death shall take.
Fain, I ween, if the fight he win,
in this hall of gold my Geatish band
will he fearless eat, -- as oft before, --
my noblest thanes. Nor need'st thou then
to hide my head; for his shall I be,
dyed in gore, if death must take me;
and my blood-covered body he'll bear as prey,
ruthless devour it, the roamer-lonely,
with my life-blood redden his lair in the fen:
no further for me need'st food prepare!
To Hygelac send, if Hild should take me,
best of war-weeds, warding my breast,
armor excellent, heirloom of Hrethel
and work of Wayland. Fares Wyrd as she must."

(Beowulf, 1999, lines 407-455)

      It carries the main characteristics of that time, such as alliteration, kenning and metaphor. In Beowulf, each of the 3.182 lines is divided into two parts and each half of it has two stressed syllables; one or both stressed syllables of the first half has to alliterate with the first stressed syllable of the second half. On the second stressed syllable of the second half there is not alliteration.


(Taken from Genealogies, Maps, Glossary and Pictoral Guide to Beowulf.

      Another resource used to help the audience to bear the poem in mind was the kenning, which consists of a reference to someone or something in terms of another or with two or more words, hence, as Robert Huntington Fletcher remarks, in his History of English Literature, “"the spear becomes 'the slaughter-shaft'; fighting 'hand-play'; the sword 'the leavings of the hammer' (or 'of the anvil'); and a ship 'the foamy-necked floater.' These kennings add much imaginative suggestiveness to the otherwise over-terse style, and often contribute to the grim irony which is another outstanding trait. (FLETCHER, 2002, pag. 35)”

      Earlier prose writers and chroniclers among the Angle-Saxon churchmen also wrote in Latin. The most learned and industrious writer of the period was the Venerable Bede (673-735), author of the Ecclesiastical History (731). Bede, as an historian, is rightly regarded as “father of English history”. Alfred the Great (871-901), most remarkable of all English kings, became the patron of scholars and educators, turned author and translator after delivering his kingdom from the Danes. Alfred promoted written use of the vernacular and initiated the Angle-Saxon Chronicle, the first historical record in English; also formulated a code of law and founded the first English “public schools”.

      These events surely aided the Old English and also the Anglo-Saxon culture to survive till now-a-days. Spreading the vernacular language among scholars and the common people as a conscious polity automatically made Old English stronger to hold out against the influence of other languages and cultures. After all, there's no culture without language..


Text Book:

PRIESTLEY, J. B; SPEAR, Josephine. 1963. Adventures in English literature. 8 ed. New York: Mary rives Bowman, v. 1.

Digital Books On-line (e-books):
BEERS, Henry A. Outline Sketch of English Literature. Available on: Access on December 27, 2007.

HALLECK, Reuben Post. New English Literature. Available on: Access on December 27, 2007.

Beowulf. Published in 1999 by Orange Street Press. Available on: Access on December 27, 2007.

FLETCHER, Robert Huntington. History of the English Literature. The Project Gutemberg E-Book. Available on: . Access on December 27, 2007.


Genealogies, Maps, Glossary and Pictoral Guide to Beowulf. Disponível em: Access in January 06, 2008.

History of the Anglo-Saxon England. Available on: Access on December 27, 2007.


Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Fourth Edition
© Pearson Education Limited 2003

The History Of English Literature