Historical Context

The history of English Literature begins roughly sixteen hundred years ago when the Roman Legions abandoned the province of Britain and left the native Celts a prey to conquest by Anglo-Saxon tribes from the north of Europe. A primitive, warlike people who fought among themselves against invading tribes of Danes and against the harsh British climate, the Anglo-Saxons became known for their hearty feasts, skill in handicrafts and long, heroic tales, as well as for their brooding, introspective blending of pagan beliefs with Christian teachings. Before they were absorbed by the conquering Normans from France, the Anglo-Saxons Historical Context produced the epic poem Beowulf and lyrics which became the foundstone of English literature.

It would be convenient at the outset to give a brief summary of events of the emergent historical period of the British nation to get a fuller understanding of literary grounds, values, styles and traditions of the Anglo-Saxon Literature.

England is only part of a relatively small island that also includes Scotland and Wales. This small island has been invaded and settled many times: by an ancient people we call the Iberians, by the Celts, by the Romans, by the Angles and Saxons Historical Context, and by theNormans.

The first mention of Britain occurs in the writings of the ancient Greeks in the fourth century BC they found an island settled by people closely related to the tall, blond Celtic warriors who had sacked Rome earlier, in 387 BC among these island Celts was a group called Brythons or Britons, who gave their name to the nation and country they inhabited. They spoke Celtic, and had a religion to be characterized as animism, that is, they believed that different spirits or gods lived in the thickest and darkest parts of the woods. The spirits of gods were thought Historical Context to control all aspects of existence and they had to be constantly placated. It was the Druids, a class of priests who acted as intermediaries between gods and people. They performed ritual dances, animal sacrifices and sometimes human sacrifices. Of greatest importance to the Old Celtic religion was the Mother Goddess, a fertility figure who appears in many forms in the Celtic sculpture. She was associated with nature. She had a male counterpart (The Great Father), and everything depended, on their relations for the world to be in a properbalance.

The classical world began its acquaintance with Historical Context the island when Julius Caesar crossed the English channel in the course of one of his Gallic Wars in 55 BC. Caesar made no attempt to colonize the island, and the development of a Roman province did not begin until nearly a century later. Then Roman emperor Claudius, in 43 AD led a campaign which overcame the Celtic Britons and established Roman rule. The Romans were practical people with an administrative genius, which provided the dominion’s stability and organization. For nearly 400 years Britain remained part of the Roman Empire. Romans and Britons intermarried, towns grew, magnificent roads were constructed over Historical Context the province, the peace was maintained under the Roman law. Christianity gradually took hold under the leadership of missionaries from Europe, and the old Celtic religion began to vanish. However, when the Roman Empire began to fall apart under repeated attacks of barbarians early in the fifth century, the Romans had to abandon the province. They left behind all the material wealth (wall, roads, public baths), as well as some changes in language. The Latin word castra – “camp” became a suffix and was later pronounced [kester],[shester],[chester], which you can recognize in the names of many English towns Historical Context: Manchester, Worcester [Wuster], Lancaster. Other words are vallum - "wall", strata - "street, road", etc. The only thing the Romans didn’t leave was central government. All that the Romans wanted was to make Britons work for them. The result was weakness and a series of successful invasions by other Celtic tribes – Irishmen from the west, Scots and Picts from the north. Eventually, the remnants of the Roman province were conquered by Germanic invaders from across the North Sea.

Among these invaders were Angles, Saxons and Jutes who lived in the northwest coast of Germany and the Danish peninsula. They drove the Historical Context Britons to the west of Britain, to Wales, Cornwall. The language of Anglo-Saxons became dominant in a land which was to take another name from the Angles (Engalond, or England). The Celts put up a strong resistance before they retreated into Wales in the far West of the country. One of the most heroic Celtic leaders was a man called Arthur, who developed in legend as“once and future king”.

Now it’s worth saying a couple of words about the Anglo Saxon society and its organization, because that will give us insight into some literary Historical Context traditions. The Anglo-Saxons were agricultural, semi-nomadic people who recognized two classes of society: theearlsof the ruling class and the churls who were bondmen. The warrior also occupied a preeminent position in the Anglo-Saxon society. The prestige of a successful warrior was immense. Even the king was essentially a warrior. Although he ruled absolutely, he was attentive to the advice of his assembly of elders, the Witan (wise men). The earls ruled, the warriors fought wars and the churls did hard labor unless they could someday obtain a favor of becoming freemen. The place of women was Historical Context unimportant, they were regarded valuable only for domestic duties, although wives of kings, earls and wise men were honored.

Great feasts were also part of Anglo-Saxon life. To celebrate the deeds of a hero there had been from ancient times the professional bard, called the scop (a bard) who combined the roles of chief entertainer, antiquarian and poet, and press agent for the king and tribe. The audience of earls would listen attentively to these tales; the queen would hospitably pass around the mead cup, and then retire. The warriors would listen to more stories and enjoy more mead. The Anglo Historical Context-Saxons were loyal to their kings, because they depended on him for protection, fame, success, even survival, especially during war, and success was measured by gifts from the king. This loyalty pattern was part of their life. It grew out of the need to protect the group from the enemy-infested virgin wilderness, especially in winter. Anglo-Saxons tended to live close to their animals in a single-family homesteads, wooden buildings surrounded by wooden fences. This also contributed to the sense of security.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were alsopagans, as the Britons. The gods of Historical Context the Anglo-Saxons were: Tu, or Tuesco – god of darkness, Woden (Odin) – god of War, Thor – the Thunderer, and Freia – goddess of prosperity. One of the most important Norse gods was Odin, the god who overcame death itself in order to learn the great mysteries contained inrunes (the Briton’s alphabet), or religious inscriptions. As the god of death, poetry and magic, Odin could help humans communicate with spirits. It is not surprising that this god of poetry and death would have been so important to a people who produced great poetry in the elegiac and mournful mood. Still Historical Context another significant figure in Anglo-Saxon mythology is the dragon. It seems, always, like in Beowulf to be the protector of treasure. It also possibly stands for death or devourer personified. Names of these gods survived in the language as days of the week: Tuesday – the day of the god Tuesco; Wednesday – Woden’s day; Thursday – Thor’s day. Friday – Freia’s day.

The history of England from about 600 to 850 is the story of the rise and fall of petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the efforts of successive states to unify England. First Kentbecame the strongest of the kingdoms Historical Context under the rule of King Ethelbert. From about 650 to 750 Northumbria, the kingdom of Angles, achieved political eminence and a considerable tradition of literary culture. Power then moved to the Angles of Merciauntil Wessex, settled by the Saxons, attained supremacy early in the ninth century. Around 850 in the kingdom of Wessex there emerged the figure of King Alfred the Great, most remarkable of the Anglo-Saxon kings.

His reign was one of critical strife in the island. His enemies wereViking Danes, who were following the pattern set by the Anglo-Saxons four hundred years ago. Beginning with swift raids at the end Historical Context of the eighth century, the Vikings had advanced farther and farther into the northern and central portions of England. To establish peace, however, he had to give up to the Danes the northern and central portions of England then known as the Danelagh (Danelaw). In 878, Alfred forced the Danes out of Wessex.

Alfred would have failed as a unifier, had it not been for the reemergence ofChristianity among the Anglo-Saxons. This process was to a great extent due to the work of Irish and Continental missionaries who set up little centers in the northern part of Historical Context the island. But the full flow of Christianity into England came straight from Rome, when, in 597, Pope Gregory the Great sent his emissary Augustine to convert King Ethelbert of England.

Augustine founded the cathedral of Canterbury, and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, or the leader of the Church of England. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity widened their spiritual and intellectual outlook. In the schools that grew around monasteries, the young Anglo-Saxon learned not only the Scriptures, but the classical writings of Vergil and the ancient Greeks. In spite of all those wide effects of Christianity Historical Context, the underlying paganism of the people show here and there in the written records. In is particularly evident in the surviving folklore.

However, the power of the West Saxon kings declined late in the century, the new waves of Danish invaders assaulted the island, and in 1014 the Danes conquered England. More unrest followed, the Anglo-Saxons returned to their rule in 1042, and in1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, became the last conqueror of England. That put the end to the Anglo-Saxon history of England.

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