Anglo-Saxon Literary Context

English 203

Dr. Fike


  1. In British literature, there are three major divisions according to developments in the language:
    1. Old English/Anglo-Saxon: 
    2. Middle English: 
    3. Modern English: 




  1. The founding of Britain:
    1. Myth:
    2. Actual Roman founders: 

                                                               i.      55-54 B.C


                                                             ii.      43 A.D.: 

                                                            iii.      85 A.D.: 

                                                           iv.      410: 




    1. Germanic invasions followed: 





  1. Characteristics of tribal life under the Anglo-Saxons: 
    1. See Tacitus's statement.
    2. Mead hall
    3. Comitatus



                                                            iii.      Thus honor was a big part of the comitatus relationship.

    1. Kinship was central, esp. wirgild.
    2. Poetry—an important part of tribal life:  a scop (shaper) played a harp and sang tales of real of fictional heroes.  And tales were transmitted orally.

                                                               i.      Rhyme was virtually unknown.

                                                             ii.      Caesura:

                                                            iii.      Alliteration: 

                                                           iv.      Kenning—a compound of two terms used in place of a common word.  A-S people delighted in this kind of figurative diction:

1.      swans' road

2.      world candle

3.      ring giver

4.      life's house

5.      bird's joy

6.      fresh-tarred floater

7.      bone rings

                                                             v.      Heiti:  a one-word substitute for an ordinary noun:  ash/wood for spear, iron for sword.

                                                           vi.      Variation:  the use of equivalents for poetic purposes:  "Our leader lies low, // the lord of the Weders":  the second half line adds nothing new.

                                                          vii.      Litotes (lē' te tēz'):  a form of understatement in which a thing is affirmed by stating the negative of its opposite.  E.g.:  "she was not unmindful"; to say that someone is sun tanned, say that she is not pale as a ghost.  See H&H 286.

                                                        viii.      Another characteristic:  moralizing asides.  Strong ethical consciousness.


  1. Early attempts to Christianize England:
    1. Xty played a crucial role in the transition from tribal life to the civilization of medieval England.
    2. Conversion of English people began in earnest in 597:  Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to England (not the guy who wrote the Confessions).  This was as a result of a moving personal experience.  One day in the market place in Rome, Gregory saw some handsome captives being sold as slaves.  He reportedly said, "Alas! What a pity that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances; and that being remarkable for such graceful aspects, their minds should be void of inward grace."  When he was told that they were "Angles," the Pope replied punningly, "Right for they have an Angelic face, and it becomes such to be coheirs with the Angels in heaven."
    3. Gregory's instructions:  go slowly; don't stamp out pagan customs; remold pagan customs gradually.  Examples:

                                                               i.      Idols and temples: 

                                                             ii.      Easter: 






  1. Example of mixture of pagan and Christian elements:  the Sutton Hoo burial ship.
    1. In August 1939
    2. Why would the guy be buried somewhere else?
    3. Spoons: 




  1. The case for Christianity was strengthened by Coifi, the chief pagan priest, who argued for it:  "For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favors from you, and obtain greater dignity than I, and are more prosperous in all their undertakings."  He is disillusioned with paganism's lack of material usefulness.  He goes on to say that the Christian religion may offer a more comforting haven during one's brief life:  "O king, the present life of man on earth seems to me, in comparison with the time of which we are ignorant, as if you were sitting at a feast with your chief men and thanes in the winter time, and a fire were kindled in the midst and the hall warmed, while everywhere outside there were raging whirlwinds of wintry rain and snow; and as if then there came a stray sparrow, and swiftly flew through the house, entering at one door and passing out through another.  As long as he is inside, he is not buffeted by the winter's storm; but in the twinkling of an eye the lull for him is over, and he speeds from winter back to winter again, and is gone from your sight. . . .  So this life of man appeareth for a little time; but what cometh after, or what went before, we know not." 


What does this tell you about life in ancient England? 




  1. The result of Christianizing:  a civilizing impact.
    1. Augustine made Canterbury the seat of the Roman Church in England.
    2. Schools set up in Canterbury and York to train priests.
    3. Xty provided administrative and organizational unity.
    4. It fostered nationalism, literacy, and the spread of learning.
    5. Latin became the scholarly language.
    6. Oral transmissionà writing in the 7th century A.D.
    7. The waning of the heroic outlook (comitatus).  God > Wyrd (          ).


  1. Vikings and Alfred the Great (849-899):


9.  A-S period ends in 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded and conquered England:  most important event in the development of the English language.  French transformed Old English into the Middle English that Chaucer wrote.