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The Anglo-Saxons



According to the Venerable Bede, the first significant body of Germanic settlers in England had been hired as mercenaries by the British Prince Vortigern during fifth-century struggles for power among British Celts that broke out when Roman colonial troops were withdrawn. After a falling-out with their employer, these Germanic warriors seized British territory in the south of England for themselves and brought their families over the English Channel to settle it. Archaeological evidence also reveals a gradual infiltration of Germanic peoples into England along the rivers of east central England, then a low-lying bayou country that would have been impossible to police.

Bede tells us that the Germanic settlers came from Anglian and Saxon regions of continental Europe, within the modern territories of Holland, Southern Denmark, and Western Germany. The settlers brought with them, in their heads, an extensive body of lore encoded in alliterative verse, including versified laws as well as historical and legendary narratives. Some of the settlers could use a runic alphabet to carve brief messages, mostly on wooden sticks, but writing was not used for Old English historical or literary material until the conversion to Christianity, when manuscript technology entered from Rome and Ireland.

Old English literature includes a number of works based on native Germanic legend, including the remarkable Beowulf, a complete epic peopled by half-Christian Germanic warriors. The interweaving of Christian elements with native Germanic materials in this work is so thoughtful and intricate that the two cultural strands are very difficult to unravel. Other epic poems in native style use imported Christian narratives. Two of the best, by a poet named Cynewulf, have heroic female protagonists. As in Celtic saga, representation of gender roles in Old English narrative may seem quite strange to a modern reader. In Beowulf, for example, Queen Wealhtheow uses her own treasure to pursue a political agenda independent of her husbands and to some extent in conflict with it. It is clear from Germanic law and legend that wives retained possession of their own property and could count on their blood kin, especially their brothers, for protection against abuse. Their roles were strikingly different from that of wives in the Greco-Roman patriarchal system, which gave the husband absolute power over the wife and forbade her relatives to interfere in any way (read The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges if you are interested in the origins of European patriarchy) . Modern readers of Beowulf may also be surprised to find that the feelings of monsters are represented in some detail and that use of deadly force against them is supported by painstaking legal argument.

After Latin learning came in with Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons produced academic and scientific works of remarkable quality for this period of European history, but the small intellectual establishment was quite fragile and often had to restart practically from scratch after Viking invasions that devastated monastic libraries. The most successful Viking invasions established a Scandinavian territory in northern England, and we find Norwegian kings like Eric Bloodaxe ruling in English cities like York. The Scandinavians eventually blended in, making important contributions to the English language (for example, nouns like skirt and pronouns like they, them).

The power of the Anglo-Saxons was finally broken in 1066 AD by the Normans, who might almost be regarded as Vikings, since they came originally from Denmark, though after settling on the French coast they had adopted French customs and a dialect of the French language. The Norman invasion of King William I (a.k.a. the Conqueror) established a strong beachhead in Southern England. Sporadic resistance elsewhere was eventually crushed through advanced military technology involving moats and stone castles (Anglo-Saxon castles or halls were made of wood).

After this period, Anglo-Saxon elements of English culture survive primarily in the working class, while French and Latin elements predominate in aristocratic circles. The animals tended by working-class herders, for example, tended to have Germanic names (cow, lamb, pig), while the finished products served up on the aristocratic table had names derived from French (beef, mutton, pork). Important elements of Anglo-Saxon law were incorporated into English law, however.

The World of the Anglo-Saxons

The Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is a collection of materials on the medieval age.
Regia Anglorum. Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman and British Living History. Just go in and explore. It's a wonderful place.
Angelcynn. Anglo-Saxon Living History 400-900AD. It's really a society, but it contains a lot of interesting information (not to mention graphics) on the Anglo-Saxons. There's stuff on warfare in Anglo-Saxon England, the clothing and appearance of the Anglo-Saxons, and their weaponry and armour.
Netserf: The Internet Connection for Medieval Resources. Huge site, with stuff on medieval archaeology, medieval architecture, medieval art and general medieval culture, among other things.
Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Select Bibliography.


There are lots and lots of Anglo-Saxon texts online. Pick one and choose.
Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Links to online medieval texts.
The Online Medieval & Classical Library. Links to online texts. Browse through the lists.
The Electronic Beowulf Project.
Old English Texts. Lists of on-line Anglo-Saxon and other medieval texts.
Old English Literature. A nice on-line bibliography of Old English texts, as well as texts from the field of Anglo-Saxon studies.
Anglo-Saxon Books. List of books on Anglo-Saxon history published by a English book company. Provides a short summary of each and how to order them.

Artifacts and Archeology

Anglo-Saxon Excavation at Eriswell Cemetery. The 1,500 year old remains of at least 140 Anglo-Saxons were discovered in August 1997 at RAF Lakenheath, near Newmarket, Suffolk during initial preparation of a dormitory complex on the base. The find is apparently one of the major archaeological discoveries in the United Kingdom this year, and also of national importance. The excavation has recovered evidence about the Anglo-Saxon population of the area in the period between AD500 and 600, as many of these pagan burials were equipped for the afterlife with spears and shields for the men and brooches, beads and other dress items for the women. In addition one particularly wealthy male burial had the full warrior weapon set of sword, shield and spear.
The Cottam Project. On the discovery of Middle-Saxon artifacts in the Yorkshire Wolds.
Sexing and Ageing: Early Anglo-Saxon Burials. On Anglo-Saxon burial customs. I found this more interesting than the data sets that were given on the main page, but if you are interested, here's the link: Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries.
Council for British Archaeology. Might as well go straight to the source. They have articles, factsheets, and details of ongoing projects, among other things.


TOEBI - Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland. This is just to notify everyone that the Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland (TOEBI) has its own web site.
CouncilNet, the World Wide Web based network for organizations representing the less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) in the United States.More specifically, this website is designed to address the communication and information needs of the members of the National Council of Organizations of Less Commonly Taught Languages (the Council), as well as those of other organizations, institutions, and individuals interested in the teaching and learning of the LCTLs in the United States.


The Battle of Maldon 991AD. Describing the last stand of Byrhtnoth, Earl of Essex, against a Viking horde in the year of our Lord, 991. Highly recommended.
The Bayeux Tapestry. Very pretty. It tells the story of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066.


Medieval and Anglo Saxon Recipes.
The Saxon Lyre: History, Construction, and Playing Techniques.
Secrets of the Norman Invasion. As far as I can gather, the writer is trying to figure out where the Normans really landed, by comparing archives, tapestries, and other historical documents with the lay of the land. I quote:

The following work arose out of my insatiable desire to know exactly where the Normans landed prior to the Battle of Hastings...In this work I attempt to explain how all these discrepancies can be reconciled only if the contextual references are applied to a landing site different from Pevensey.
Good luck to him.

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The Anglo-Saxons/August 2000