The Anglo-Saxons: 449 1066




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The Anglo-Saxons: 449 - 1066

449 AD: Germanic mercenaries arrived from the Northern coasts of Europe to attack the Britons
    • Angles, Saxons, Jutes
    • By 500 AD, many invaders had settled.



Mingling of Celtic and Christian Beliefs

  • Mythology of Celts influenced British/Irish writers to this day

  • Sir Thomas Malory, wrote Le Morte d’Arthur based on Celtic legends

  • Yeats used Celtic myths in poetry and plays



Social Mores

  • Warfare order of day

  • Law/order responsibility of leader

  • Fame/success, survival, gained only through loyalty to leader (especially during war)

  • Women given rights to own property, throughout marriage. They were given gifts of money and land from their prospective husbands and they, not their family or husband, had control over this possession.



Religion Continued

  • Irish/Continental (European) missionaries had large role to play in re-emergence of Christianity

  • Still, Anglo-Saxon religion remained

    • Dark, fatalistic religion from Germany
    • Had much in common with Norse/Scandinavian mythology
    • 2 Important gods: Wodin (from Odin)
    • Helped humans communicate with spirits
    • Thunor (from Thor, god of thunder/lightening); sign hammer and swastika
    • Dragon: personified death and guardian of grave mound


Beowulf Summary

  • Written sometime between 700-750 in Old English

  • Short = 3200 lines (Homer’s epics = 15,000)

  • Only manuscript in British Museum in London from year 1000; rescued from the burning monastery that Henry VIII ordered demolished

  • Characters:

    • Beowulf: Geat, son of Edgetho and nephew of Higlad, king of the Geats


Beowulf Summary Cont.

  • Grendel: man-eating monster who lives at bottom or foul mere (mountain lake)

  • Herot: golden guest hall built by King Hrothgar, the Danish ruler. Decorated with antlers of stags; name means “hart (stag) hall”

  • Hrothgar: king of the Danes, builder of Herot. Had once befriended Beowulf’s father.

  • Wiglaf: Geat warrior, one of Beowulf’s select band & only one to help in final fight



Beowulf Vital Elements

  • The Boast: There were no newspapers, radios, TV’s in those days. Beowulf had to “sell himself” to get things done. Must list accomplishments. Even when Unferth challenges him, Beowulf doesn’t back down.

  • Epic Poetry: lengthy narrative poem, concerning subject of heroic deeds and events significant to subject or nation. Beowulf considered Medieval Epic (500-1500)



Beowulf Vital Elements

  • Alliteration: repetition of first consonant sound in a phrase. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”. Can also take form of assonance (repetition of vowel). “And stepping softly with her air of blooded ruin about the glade in a frail agony of grace she trailed her rags throgh dust and ashes” –Cormac McCarthy

  • Caesura: an audible pause that breaks up a line of verse (not necessarily with punctuation)

  • Hyperbole: exaggeration. Where statements are exaggerated



Beowulf Vital Elements Cont.

  • Kenning: a special metaphor made of compound words. Gas guzzler, head-hunter. Earliest: sky-candle (sun), battle-dew (blood), whale-road (sea). Later/more elaborate: foamy-throated sea stallion (ship). Often used as prepositional phrase (wolf of hounds) or possessives (the sword’s tree)



Beowulf Vital Elements Cont.

  • Served three purposes:

        • Norse/Anglo-Saxon language did not have a large vocabulary. Poets created alliterative words by combining existing words
        • B/C poetry was oral, ready-made phrases were very handy for bards, making poetry easier to remember
        • Increasing complex structure would satisfy Anglo-Saxon people’s taste for elaboration


Beowulf Vital Elements Cont.

  • Stock epithets: a descriptive word/phrase that becomes a stock phrase. That is, it stands in for the person it’s describing. Exs: the Lord of Life, the Ruler of Heaven



Background to Section We’re Reading

  • Epic opens with a tribute to the ancestry of King Hrothgar

  • The first, Shield Sheafson, is fatherless (Beowulf too was left fatherless at young age)

    • Familial lineage is central in culture
    • Heroic code delineated in opening lines:
        • Greatness measured by number of clans conquered
        • Strength leads to treasure (captured pay money)
        • Sheafson passes the wealth on to his warriors (hero measured by passing out sums of wealth (Hrothgar erects mead hall for his men)


Background to Section We’re Reading

Hrothgar & Beowulf’s Father’s History:
  • Beowulf’s father killed leader of fellow tribe, Wulfing…Hrothgar sent treasure to mend feud…Beowulf’s father pledged loyalty to Hrothgar

      • Explains weirgild “death price”. Only way to keep vengeance from spiraling out indefinately
      • Beowulf is not just offering services out of kindness: it’s his way of repaying his father’s debt to Hrothgar


Questions/ Activities

  • Describe what happens to Grendel when he raids Herot and encounters Beowulf

  • What prevents Beowulf’s men from helping Beowulf in his battle with Grendel?

  • Why is it significant that Grendel hunts at night?

  • Why is it important to Beowulf and to his image as an epic hero that he face Grendel without a weapon? What symbolism do you see in the uselessness of human-made weapons against Grendel?



Questions/ Activities

  • Create list of kennings for yourself

  • Begin writing your own boast

  • Look at lines 250-285, 407, 426 for examples of boasting

  • Look at lines 297-343 to locate:

    • Alliteration
    • Kennings
      • Hyphenated compounds
      • Prepositional phrases
      • Possessives


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