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Anglo-Saxon Age: Life and Literature

Anglo-Saxon Age is considered to be the starting point of British literature.  The original inhabitants of England since the iron ages had been the Britons or Celts. In early 5th Century, three Germanic tribes, Jutes, Angles and Saxons started invading England. They gave England its name, its language and its literature. Before their arrival, England was under the Roman empire.

Life of Anglo-Saxons

The life of Anglo-Saxons was full of hardship. They were originally pagans, worshipping pagan gods and nature. They were great warriors, who hunted and sailed and spent life with energy and enthusiasm. There was a unique mix of savagery and sentiment, of emotion and action. They held great love for physical heroism, home, family and personal freedom. It is this combination that finds expression in their literature.

Main Features of Anglo-Saxon Literature

Five major fatures that define Anglo-Saxon literature may be summed up as follows:

  1. Love for personal freedom
  2. Responsiveness to Nature
  3. Religion
  4. Reverence for Womanhood
  5. Struggle for Glory

Major Genres of Anglo-Saxon Literature

The major genres that flourished during the Anglo-Saxon Age were heroic poetry, religious poetry, elegies and prose. Important literary pieces include Beowulf, Deor’s Lament, The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Dream of the Rood, Fates of the Apostles etc. Most of the Anglo-Saxon literary pieces have been lost, only about thirty thousand lines have survived in four manuscripts:

  1. MS Cotton Vitellius A XV (Contains Beowulf, Judith, and three prose works)
  2. The Junius Manuscript (Contains Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan)
  3. The Exeter Book (Contains Christ, Juliana, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Widsith, Deor and many more short pieces)
  4. The Vercelli Book (Contains Andreas, The Fates of the Apostles, The Dream of the Rood, Address of Soul to the Body and Elene)

Here are some examples of literary pieces from different categories or genres:

Example of Heroic Poetry/War Poetry of Anglo Saxon Age include Beowulf, Fight at Finnesburg, Waldhere, The Battle of Brunanburh, The Battle of Maldon.

Examples of Elegies and non-Christian personal poetry include Deor’s Lament, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, The Ruin

Anglo-Saxon Christian Poetry: Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, Judith, The Christ, Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Elene, The Phoenix, The Dream of the Rood, The Descent into Hell, Guthlac, the Wanderer and some of the riddles.

Anglo Saxon Prose writers include King Alfred, Aelfric (Known for his Colloquy) and Wulfstan. Important translation works of this period include Cura Pastoralis, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, parts of St Augustine’s Soliloquies. Other prominent prose works are The Anglo Saxon Chronicle started by Alfred and Colloquies by Aelfric.

Timeline of Anglo-Saxon Age

450 AD: Anglo-Saxon and Jutish invasions from North-West Germany

597: Establishment of St Augustine’s Christian Mission at Canterbury

793-95: Viking invasions in Northern and Eastern England

802: England united under King Egbert of Wessex

885: Partition of England (Under King Alfred)

1066: Norman Conquest (End of Anglo-Saxon Period)

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St Augustine’s Christian Mission

Christianization of England

Christianization of England had a major role to play in shaping the literature of the Anglo-Saxon period. Since most literary production during the Pre-Christian era was oral, these narratives and poems were penned down by Christian clerics. Naturally, Christian ideology, themes and concepts seeped in as interpolations during the writing process. Therefore, one may find Christian elements even in the most pagan subject matters or heroic genres. The mythologies were not of any single race, but a shared resource of multiple Teutonic clans and communities coming in close contact with each other through alliance or conflict. One can never know what the oral narratives had originally been before they were written down later. However, the flavour of the age, the spirit of resilience and optimism, representative of Anglo-Saxon culture, is found in every piece of poetry produced during the time.

Additional Reading

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