The kenning was an interesting literary technique used by ancient Anglo-Saxon poets for many centuries. Examples are world-candle for sun, sun-table for sky, horse of the sea for ship, and ring-giver for prince.
The Anglo-Saxons were the population in Britain partly descended from the Germanic tribes who migrated from continental Europe and settled the south and east of the island beginning in the early 5th century. The Anglo-Saxon period denotes the period of English history after their initial settlement through their creation of the English nation, up to the Norman conquest; that is, between about 550 and 1066. The term Anglo-Saxon is also used for the language, today more correctly called Old English, that was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons in England (and parts of south-eastern Scotland) between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century, after which it is known as Middle English.
The Benedictine monk Bede, writing in the early 8th century, identified the English as the descendants of three Germanic tribes:
Their language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English, which derived from Ingvaeonic West Germanic dialects, transformed into Middle English from the 11th century. The language was divided into four main dialects: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian and Kentish.
The term Anglo-Saxon can be found in documents produced in the time of Alfred the Great, who seems to have frequently used the titles rex Anglorum Saxonum and rex Angul-Saxonum (king of the English Saxons). The terms ænglisc ('Angle-kin') and Angelcynn ('gens Anglorum') had already lost their original sense of referring to the Angles, as distinct from the Saxons, when they are first attested. In their earliest sense they referred to the nation of Germanic peoples who settled eastern Britain from the 5th century.][ The indigenous Britons, who wrote in both Latin and Welsh, referred to these invaders as 'Saxones' or 'Saeson' – the word Saeson is the modern Welsh word for 'English people'; the equivalent word in Scottish Gaelic is Sasannach and in the Irish language, Sasanach.
The term Angli Saxones seems to have first been used in continental writing nearly a century before Alfred's time, by Paul the Deacon, historian of the Lombards, probably to distinguish the English Saxons from the continental Saxons (Ealdseaxe, literally, 'old Saxons').][
The Angles (Old English: ), took their name from their ancestral home in Jutland, Angul (modern Angeln), which has an area in the shape of a hook (Old English: angel, angul "fishhook", anga "hook").
The history of Anglo-Saxon England broadly covers early medieval England, from the end of Roman rule and the establishment of numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th century until the Norman conquest of England by the Normans in 1066.
The migration of Germanic peoples to Britain from what is now northern Germany, the northern part of the Netherlands and southern Scandinavia is attested from the 5th century (e.g. Undley bracteate). Based on Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the intruding population is traditionally divided into Angles, Saxons and Jutes, but their composition was likely less clear-cut and may also have included peoples such as the Frisii and the Franks. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may contain the first recorded indications of the movement of these Germanic tribes to Britain.
Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons began in Britain in 597 and was at least nominally completed in 686. Throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, power fluctuated between the larger kingdoms. Bede records Aethelbert of Kent as being dominant at the close of the 6th century, but power then seems to have shifted northwards to the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria.
Aethelbert and some of the later kings of the other kingdoms were recognised by their fellow kings as Bretwalda (ruler of Britain). The so-called 'Mercian Supremacy' dominated the 8th century, though again it was not constant. Aethelbald and Offa, the two most powerful kings of this period, achieved high status.
This period has been described as the Heptarchy, though this term has now fallen out of academic use. The word arose on the basis that the seven kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex were the main polities of south Britain. More recent scholarship has shown that theories of the 'heptarchy' are not grounded in evidence, and it is far more likely that power fluctuated between many more 'kingdoms'. Other politically important 'kingdoms' across this period include: Hwicce, Magonsaete, Kingdom of Lindsey and Middle Anglia.
In the 9th century, the Viking challenge grew to serious proportions. Alfred the Great's victory at Edington, Wiltshire, in 878 brought intermittent peace, but with their possession of Jorvik, the Danes gained a solid foothold in England.
Some of the earliest arrivals of invaders came in the form of small groups or companies of Danish heritage. It is widely believed][ they left their homelands for more religious freedom as they did not like Christianity being forced upon them. There was no prior indication for them being there before their arrival and thus little resistance if any at all from locals. They attacked various locations in England, and they were seemingly sporadic. For example these raiders attacked three different locations; Hampshire, Thanet, and Cheshire around 980, but no raids were recorded afterwards for another six years. The most notable event to come from these raids however was, that it was the first time that England came into contact with any form of diplomacy from Normandy.
They became hostile towards one another by summer in the year 990. Their feud became so great that Pope John XV had to send an envoy with a treaty in order to settle their quarrel. It was a Christmas Day in the year 990 the commission was presented to King Æthelred the Unready, and soon the council drew up a set of terms which were sent to the Duke of Normandy. The doctrine stated that neither shall befriend the others enemies, and that they should accept a reparation from any damage which either could sustain from the other nation.
An important development in the 9th century was the rise of the Kingdom of Wessex; by the end of his reign Alfred was recognised as overlord by several southern kingdoms. Æthelstan was the first king to achieve direct rule over what is considered "England".
Near the end of the 10th century, there was renewed Scandinavian interest in England, with the conquests of Sweyn of Denmark and his son Cnut the Great. By 1066 there were three lords with claims to the English throne, resulting in two invasions and the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings. The latter, which heralded the Norman conquest of England, resulted in the overthrow of the Anglo-Saxon polity and its replacement with Norman rule.
Following the conquest, the Anglo-Saxon nobility were either exiled or joined the ranks of the peasantry. It has been estimated that only about 8 per cent of the land was under Anglo-Saxon control by 1087. Many Anglo-Saxon nobles fled to Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The Byzantine Empire became a popular destination for many Anglo-Saxon soldiers, as the Byzantines were in need of mercenaries. The Anglo-Saxons became the predominant element in the elite Varangian Guard, hitherto a largely North Germanic unit, from which the emperor's bodyguard was drawn and continued to serve the empire until the early 15th century. However, the population of England at home remained largely Anglo-Saxon; for them, little changed immediately except that their Anglo-Saxon lord was replaced by a Norman lord.
Early Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were generally simple, not using masonry except in foundations but constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. Generally preferring not to settle within the old Roman cities, the Anglo-Saxons built small towns near their centres of agriculture, at fords in rivers or sited to serve as ports. In each town, a main hall was in the centre, provided with a central hearth.
There are few remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture, with but one secular work remaining above ground – a 10m. x 5m. houscarl's dwelling re-using local Roman materials.][ This is still completely standing as an undivided single room with a single central north-facing door, belonging to the Godwin estates, so can be dated 1018–1066. At least fifty churches are of Anglo-Saxon origin, with many more claimed to be, in part from their dedication to local Anglo-Saxon saints, although in some cases the Anglo-Saxon part is small and much-altered. All surviving churches, except one timber church, are built of stone or brick and in some cases show evidence of re-used Roman work.
The character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings ranges from Celtic influenced architecture in the early period; basilica influenced Romanesque architecture; to in the later Anglo-Saxon period, an architecture characterised by pilaster-strips, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular headed openings.
Early Anglo-Saxon art developed Continental Germanic styles in jewellery and other metalwork, and culminates in the exceptional finds from the royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo, deposited on the cusp of Christianization in about the 620s. Christianity brought influences from Celtic art through Irish missionaries to Nothumbria, and from Italy and the Christian continent through Gregory and his successors in the South. Northumbria was crucial in the development of the Insular style of Northern Britain and Ireland, which fused Anglo-Saxon and Celtic techniques and motifs in applying them to forms of objects imported with Christianity, such as books, stone sculpture and ecclesistical metalwork. This also influenced the south, which was also developing its own style. Secular survivals are mostly jewellery, for both sexes and including fittings for warriors and their weapons, the main contents of the over 3,500 pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard discovered in 2009, probably dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. The Anglo-Saxons preferred round brooches throughout the period, unlike Continental fibula types or the Celtic penannular brooches.
The disruption caused by the period of Viking invasions greatly reduced artistic production, and the style that emerged afterwards was driven by southern centres, and increasingly aware of Continental art. Towards the end of the period artistic patronage, mostly for monasteries, by the elite became very lavish, with metalwork the most highly regarded form of art, though none of the larger objects in precious metals recorded have survived.
Anglo-Saxon art is mainly known today through metalwork and illuminated manuscripts, including the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold (British Library) and Leofric Missal (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodl, 579), masterpieces of the late "Winchester style", which drew on Hiberno-Saxon art, Carolingian art and Byzantine art for style and iconography, and combined both northern ornamental traditions with Mediterranean figural traditions. The Harley Psalter was a copy of the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter — which was a particular influence in creating an Anglo-Saxon style of very lively pen drawings.
Manuscripts were far from the only Anglo-Saxon art form, but they have survived in much greater numbers than other types of object. Contemporaries in Europe regarded Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing and embroidery (Opus Anglicanum) as especially fine. Perhaps the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon art is the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by a Norman patron from English artists working in the traditional Anglo-Saxon style. The most common example of Anglo-Saxon art is coins, with thousands of examples extant. Anglo-Saxon artists also worked in fresco, ivory, stone carving, metalwork (see Fuller brooch for example) and enamel, but few of these pieces have survived.
Old English, sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, was the language spoken under Alfred the Great and continued to be the common language of (non-Danelaw) England until after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when, under the influence of the Anglo-Norman language spoken by the Norman ruling class, it changed into Middle English roughly between 1150–1500.
Old English is far closer to early Germanic than Middle English. It is less Latinised and retains many morphological features (nominal and verbal inflection) that were lost during the 12th to 14th centuries. The languages today which are closest to English are the Frisian languages, which are spoken by a few hundred thousand people in Friesland in the Netherlands, Saterland in Lower Saxony, Germany, and in North Firesland in southwest Denmark.
Before literacy in the vernacular Old English or Latin became widespread, a runic alphabet, the futhorc, was used for inscriptions. When literacy became more prevalent, a form of Latin script was used with a couple of letters derived from the futhorc: 'thorn' ‹þ› and 'wynn' ‹ƿ› (generally replaced with ‹w› in modern reproductions).
The letters regularly used in printed and edited texts of Old English are the following:
with only rare occurrences of j, k, q, v, and z.
Very few law codes exist from the Anglo-Saxon period to provide an insight into legal culture beyond the influence of Roman law and how this legal culture developed over the course of time. The Saxons chopped off hands and noses for punishment (if the offender stole something or committed another crime). If someone killed a Saxon, he had to pay money called wergild, the amount varying according to the social rank of the victim.
Old English literary works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, riddles and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period, a significant corpus of both popular interest and specialist research.
The most famous works from this period include the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of important early English history. Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century is the earliest attested literary text in English.
The indigenous pre-Christian belief system of the Anglo-Saxons was a form of Germanic paganism and therefore closely related to the Old Norse religion, as well as other Germanic pre-Christian cultures.
Christianity gradually replaced the indigenous religion of the English around the 7th and 8th centuries. Celtic Christianity was introduced into Northumbria and Mercia by monks from Ireland, but the Synod of Whitby settled the choice for Roman Christianity. As the new clerics became the chroniclers, the old religion was partially lost before it was recorded, and today historians' knowledge of it is largely based on surviving customs and lore, texts, etymological links and archaeological finds.
One of the few recorded references is that a Kentish King would only meet the missionary St. Augustine in the open air, where he would be under the protection of the sky god, Woden. Written Christian prohibitions on acts of paganism are one of historians' main sources of information on pre-Christian beliefs.
Despite these prohibitions, numerous elements of the pre-Christian culture of the Anglo-Saxon people survived the Christianisation process. Examples include the English language names for days of the week:
"Anglo-Saxon" in linguistics is still used as a term for the original West Germanic component of the modern English language, which was later expanded and developed through the influence of Old Norse and Norman French, though linguists now more often refer to it as Old English. In the 19th century the term "Anglo-Saxon" was broadly used in philology, and is sometimes so used at present. In Victorian Britain, some writers such as Robert Knox, James Anthony Froude, Charles Kingsley and Edward A. Freeman used the term "Anglo-Saxon" to justify racism and imperialism, claiming that the "Anglo-Saxon" ancestry of the English made them racially superior to the colonised peoples. Similar racist ideas were advocated in the 19th Century United States by Samuel George Morton and George Fitzhugh.
The term "Anglo-Saxon" is sometimes used to refer to peoples descended or associated in some way with the English ethnic group. The definition has varied from time to time and varies from place to place. In contemporary Anglophone cultures outside Britain, "Anglo-Saxon" may be contrasted with "Celtic" as a socioeconomic identifier, or stand alone as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant", or WASP, does in the United States. This term refers chiefly to old wealthy families with mostly English ancestors. As such, WASP is not a historical label or a precise ethnological term, but a reference to contemporary family-based political, financial and cultural power— e.g., The Boston Brahmin. The French often use "Anglo-Saxon" to refer to the combined power of Britain and the US today.
Outside Anglophone countries, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, the term "Anglo-Saxon" and its direct translations are used to refer to the Anglophone peoples and societies of Britain, the United States, and other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand – areas which are sometimes referred to as the Anglosphere. The term "Anglo-Saxon" can be used in a variety of contexts, often to identify the English-speaking world's distinctive language, culture, technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems. Variations include the German "Angelsachsen", French "Anglo-Saxon", Spanish "anglosajón", Portuguese "anglo-saxão", Polish "anglo-saksoński", Italian "anglosassone", Catalan "anglosaxó", Japanese "Angurosakuson" and Ukrainian "aнглосакси" (anhlosaksy). As with the English language use of the term, what constitutes the "Anglo-Saxon" varies from speaker to speaker.][
Anglo-Saxon paganism refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, during the initial period of Early Medieval England. A variant of the Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe, it encompassed a heterogeneous variety of disparate beliefs and cultic practices. Developing from the earlier Iron Age religion of continental northern Europe, it was introduced to Britain following the Anglo-Saxon migration in the mid fifth century, and remained the dominant religion in England until the Christianization of its kingdoms between the seventh and eighth centuries, with some aspects gradually blending into folklore.][
Much of what is supposedly known about Anglo-Saxon paganism is the result of the efforts of literary antiquarians in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; in particular, the notion that Old English poetry contains vestiges of an actual, historical pre-Christian paganism has been queried by Anglo-Saxonists. Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic belief system, focused around the worship of deities known as the ése (singular ós). The most prominent of these deities was likely Woden, for which reason the religion has also been called Wodenism, although other prominent gods included Thunor and Tiw. There was also a belief in a variety of other supernatural entities who inhabited the landscape, including elves, nicor, and dragons. Cultic practice largely revolved around demonstrations of devotion, including sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals, to these deities, particularly at certain religious festivals during the year. Pagan beliefs also influenced funerary practices, where the dead were either inhumed or cremated, typically with a selection of grave goods. There was also a magical component to the early Anglo-Saxon religion, and some scholars have also theorised that there may have been shamanic aspects as well. These religious beliefs also had a bearing on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, which was hierarchical, with kings often claiming a direct ancestral lineage from a god, particularly Woden. As such, it also had an influence on law codes during this period.
The deities of this religion provided the basis for the names of the days of the week in the English language. Despite this, there is much that is not known about this religion, and what is currently known about it comes mainly from the available archaeological evidence. What is known about the religion and its accompanying mythology have since influenced both literature and Contemporary Paganism from the 18th century onwards.
The Anglo-Saxon tribes were not united before the 7th century, with seven main kingdoms, known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. Certain deities and religious practices were specific to certain localities.][
Our literary sources on Anglo-Saxon England set in with Christianization only, leaving the pre-Christian 6th century in the "Dark" of Sub-Roman Britain. Our best sources of information on the pre-Christian period are 7th to 8th century testimonies, such as Beowulf and the Franks Casket, which had already seen Christian redaction but nevertheless reflects a living memory of original traditions.][
The transition of the Anglo-Saxons from the original religion to Christianity took place gradually, over the course of the 7th century, influenced on one side by Celtic Christianity and the Irish mission, on the other by Roman Catholicism introduced to England by Augustine of Canterbury in 597. The Anglo-Saxon nobility were nearly all converted within a century, but the original religion among the rural population, as in other Germanic lands, didn't so much die out as gradually blend into folklore.][
As elsewhere, Christianization involved the co-opting of original folk culture into a Christian context, including the conversion of pagan sacred sites and feast days into Christian ones. Pope Gregory the Great instructed Abbot Mellitus that:
The question of religious allegiance of the individual kings was not a political one, and there is no evidence of any military struggle of a native vs. a Christian faction as in that between Blot-Sweyn and Inge the Elder during the 1080s in the Christianization of Sweden, and no military "crusade" as in the 8th century Saxon Wars of Charlemagne's. Each king was free to convert to Christianity as he pleased, due to the sacral nature of kingship in Germanic society automatically entailing the conversion of his subjects. The only exception may be found in the war of Penda of Mercia against Northumbria. Penda exceptionally allied himself with the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd against his Anglo-Saxon neighbours. In the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Penda together with Cadwallon ap Cadfan (who was nominally a Christian but according to Bede given to barbarous cruelty) resulted in the death of Edwin of Northumbria (who had been baptized in 627). As a result, Northumbria fell into chaos and was divided between Eanfrith and Osric, who both reverted to paganism as they rose to power. Both Eanfrith and Osric were killed in battle against Cadwallon within the year. Cadwallon was in turn defeated by Oswald of Northumbria in the Battle of Heavenfield shortly after. Penda again defeated Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641, ending in Oswald's death and dismemberment. The outcome of the battle ended "Northumbrian imperialism south of the Humber" and established Penda as the most powerful Mercian ruler so far to have emerged in the midlands and "the most formidable king in England," a position he maintained until his death in the Battle of Winwaed in 655.
Charles Plummer, writing in 1896, describes the defeat of Penda as "decisive as to the religious destiny of the English". Bede makes clear, however, that the war between Mercia and Northumbria was not religiously motivated: Penda tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia, even including the baptism of his own heir, and held those reverting to paganism after receiving baptism in despise for their faithlessness. This testament of Penda's religious tolerance is particularly credible, as Bede tends to exaggerate Mercian barbarism in his account of Oswald as a saintly defender of the Christian faith.][
After Penda's death, Mercia was converted, and all the kings who ruled thereafter were Christian, including Penda's sons Peada, who had already been baptized with his father's permission, as the condition set by king Oswiu of Northumbria for the marriage of his daughter Alchflaed to Peada, to the husband's misfortune, according to Bede, who informs us that Peada was "very wickedly killed" through his wife's treachery "during the very time of celebrating Easter" in 656.
Penda's death in 655 may be taken as marking the decisive decline of paganism in England. Some smaller kingdoms continued to crown openly pagan Kings, but newly Christian Mercia became instrumental in their conversion. In 660 Essex crowned the pagan king Swithhelm. Swithhelm accepted baptism in 662 but his successor Sighere of Essex encouraged a pagan rebellion in 665 that was only suppressed when Wulfhere of Mercia intervened and established himself as overlord of Essex. It is not recorded if Sighere ever accepted baptism but he was forced to marry Wulfhere's Christian niece, who he later divorced.][
Æthelwealh of Sussex accepted baptism at the behest of Wulfhere of Mercia, although the year in unrecorded. In 681 the Bishop Wilfrid arrived in Sussex to begin preaching to the general population. Bede records that the king had converted "not long previously", but Wulfhere had died in 675. Therefore Æthelwealh's baptism can only be assigned with certainty to Wulfhere's reign of 658-675, although it was probably at the very end of this period.][
This left the Isle of Wight as the last openly pagan kingdom. Wulfhere of Mercia had invaded in 661 and forced the islanders to convert, but as soon as he left they had reverted to paganism. They remained pagan until 686 when they were invaded by Cædwalla of Wessex. The last openly pagan king Arwald was killed in battle defending his kingdom, which was ethnically cleansed][ and incorporated into the Kingdom of Wessex. His heirs were baptised and then executed.][
Cædwalla himself was unbaptised when he invaded the Isle of Wight. But throughout his reign he acted in cooperation with the church and gave the church a quarter of the Isle of Wight. He abdicated in 688 and traveled to Rome to be baptised in 689.][
Wilfrid was still converting the Pagan population of Sussex in 686. In 695 Wessex issued a law code proscribing fines for failing to baptise one's children and for failing to tithe.][
By the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon England was at least nominally Christian, the Anglo-Saxon mission contributing significantly to the Christianization of the continental Frankish Empire.][ Germanic paganism again briefly returned to England in the form of Norse paganism, which Norse Vikings from Scandinavia brought to the country in the 9th to 10th century—but it again succumbed to Christianisation. Thus, mention of the Norse "Thor, lord of ogres" is found in a runic charm discovered inserted in the margin of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript from the year 1073. Polemics against lingering pagan customs continue into the 9th and 10th centuries, e.g. in the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890), but England was an unambiguously Christian kingdom by the High Medieval period.
"A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine [bits]... [Woden] established [the nine herbs] and sent [them] into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe's hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures."
Currently, very little is known about the pagan cosmology or world view followed by the early Anglo-Saxons. In the Nine Herbs Charm, there is a mention of "seven worlds", which may indicate that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons believed in seven realms. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the realm humans live on as Middangeard, (which was cognate to the Old Norse Midgard) and also to a realm called Neorxnawang, corresponding to the Christian idea of Heaven. Whilst these are terms used in a Christian context, some scholars have theorised that they may have originally been used to apply to earlier pagan realms. Similarly, in the Crist poem, there is a mention of Earendel, which may have been a name of the morning star, identified in the poem with John the Baptist (who heralds the coming of the Christ as the morning star heralds the Sun). Various scholars, such as Brian Branston and Clive Tolley have suggested that the pagan Anglo-Saxons held a belief in a world tree, similar to the Norse concept of Yggdrasil, though there is no solid evidence for this.
The Anglo-Saxon concept corresponding to fate was wyrd, although the "pagan" nature of this conception is subject to some debate; Dorothy Whitelock suggested that it was a belief held only after Christianisation, while Branston maintained that wyrd had been an important concept for the pagan Anglo-Saxons.
Anglo-Saxon paganism was a polytheistic faith, worshipping many deities, who were known as ése. The most popular god appears to have been Woden, as "traces of his cult are scattered more widely over the rolling English countryside than those of any other heathen deity". The importance of Woden can also be seen in the fact that he was euhemerized as an ancestor of the royal houses of Kent, Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia. There are traces of Woden in English folklore and toponymy, where he appears as the leader of the Wild Hunt and he is referred to as a healer in the Nine Herbs Charm, directly paralleling the role of his continental German parallel Wodan in the Merseburg Incantations.
The second most widespread deity from Anglo-Saxon England appears to be the god Thunor, who was a god of the sky and thunder and who was "a friend of the common man", in contrast to Woden who was primarily associated with royalty. It has been suggested that the hammer and the swastika were the god's symbols, representing thunderbolts, and both of these symbols have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves, the latter being common on cremation urns. A third Anglo-Saxon god that is attested is Tiw, who, in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem Tir is identified with the star Polaris rather than with a deity, although it has been suggested that Tiw was likely a war deity.
Perhaps the most prominent female deity in Anglo-Saxon paganism was Fríge, however there is still very little evidence for her worship, although it has been speculated that she was "a goddess of love or festivity". Another Anglo-Saxon divinity was Frey, who is mentioned in both The Dream of the Rood and a poem by the monk Caedmon, in both of which he is compared to the later Christian figure Jesus Christ, indicating that Frey was perhaps a sacrificial deity. The East Saxon tribe who settled in southern England and formed the kingdom of Essex claimed to be the descendents of a god known as Seaxnēat, of whom little is known, whilst a runic poem mentions a god known as Ingui and the writer Asser mentioned a god known as Gēat. The Christian monk known as the Venerable Bede also mentioned two further goddesses in his written works; Eostre, who was celebrated at a spring festival (Easter), and Hretha, whose name meant "glory".
Besides the ése, Anglo-Saxons also believed in other supernatural beings or "wights", such as elves, and household deities, known as Cofgodas.][ These guarded a specific household, and were given offerings so they would continue. After Christianisation, the belief in Cofgodas may have survived through the form of the fairy being known as the Hob.][ Tutelary deities of the household are part of the traditional religions of classical antiquity, such as the Lares of ancient Roman religion and the Agathodaemon of ancient Greek religion.
In Anglo-Saxon England, elves (aelfe) were viewed as malevolent beings who could bring harm to humans. In the 10th century Metrical Charm "Against A Sudden Stitch" (Wið færstice), it states that various forms of sickness, such as rheumatism, could be induced by "elfshot" - arrows fired by elves. They were believed to possess a type of magic known as siden. Alongside the elves, other supernatural beings included dwarves (or dweorgas), ettins (or eoten) and dragons.][. 'Etaynes' (ettins) and 'wodwos' (wood wos / wildmen) appear in Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and these are potentially remnants of Anglo-Saxon belief. The name 'ettin' roughly translates as 'devourer' (eaten / eater) and is cognate with Jotun in Norse mythos. Another important figure in Anglo-Saxon belief appears to be 'thurse' (giant/ogre/monster), given the large number of place-names and folk-stories associated with derived forms (AS *hobbe-thurse: hobthurse, hobthrush, hobtrash, gytrash, trash etc.). Forms of dwarf (dwerrow, dwerger, dweorgas etc.) are not as well supported in the nomenclature of the English countryside implying that 'dwarfs' were not as widely a held customary belief, however 'bug-' (bugbear, bugaboo, scare-bug etc.) and '-mare' (woodmare, nightmare) appear to be better supported and are potentially derived from Anglo-Saxon words. The name 'hob' remains contentious, with the accepted meaning 'diminutive of Robert' sitting uncomfortably with the large number of apparently old 'hob-' placenames (hobhole, hobdell, hobgate etc.) in England.
In pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England, legends and other stories were transmitted orally instead of being written down - it is for this reason that very few survive to us today. After Christianisation however, certain poems were indeed written down, with surviving examples including the Nine Herbs Charm, The Dream of the Rood, Waldere and most notably Beowulf. Whilst these contain many Christianised elements, there were certain mentions of earlier pagan deities and practices contained within them.
One of the most prominent surviving myths of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was that of the brothers Hengest and Horsa, who are named in historical sources as leaders of the earliest Anglo-Saxon incursions in the south of Britain. The name Hengest means "stallion" and Horsa means "horse", reminiscent of the horse sacrifice connected to the inauguration of pagan kings. Another important mythological figure is Weyland the smith, a figure who also appeared in other forms of Germanic mythology. An image of Weyland adorns the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon royal hoard box and was meant there to refer to wealth and partnership.
The only surviving Anglo-Saxon epic poem is the story of Beowulf, known only from a surviving manuscript that was written down by the Christian monk, Sepa sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries AD. The story it tells is set not in England but in Scandinavia, and revolves around a Geatish warrior named Beowulf who travels to Denmark to defeat a monster known as Grendel who is terrorising the kingdom of Hrothgar, and later, Grendel's Mother as well. Following this, he later becomes the king of Geatland before finally dying in battle with a dragon. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was commonly believed that Beowulf was not an Anglo-Saxon pagan tale, but a Scandinavian Christian one; it was not until the influential critical essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien, delivered in 1936, that Beowulf was established as a quintessentially English poem that, while Christian, looked back on a living memory of paganism. Nonetheless, some academics still hold reservations about accepting it as containing information pertaining to Anglo-Saxon paganism, with Patrick Wormald noting that "vast reserves of intellectual energy have been devoted to threshing this poem for grains of authentic pagan belief, but it must be admitted that the harvest has been meagre. The poet may have known that his heroes were pagans, but he did not know much about paganism."
As archaeologist Sarah Semple noted, "the rituals [of the early Anglo-Saxons] involved the full pre-Christian repertoire: votive deposits, furnished burial, monumental mounds, sacred natural phenomenon and eventually constructed pillars, shrines and temples", thereby having many commonalities with other pre-Christian religions in Europe.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons worshipped at a variety of different sites across their landscape, some of which were apparently specially built temples and others that were natural geographical features such as sacred trees, hilltops or wells. According to place name evidence, these sites of worship were known alternately as either hearg or as wēoh, and it was widely assumed by nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars that these two terms were synonyms that could be used interchangeably. However, in the latter part of the twentieth century, some etymologists began to theorise that the two words actually had different meanings. Archaeologist David Wilson stated that hearg "may" refer to "a special type of religious site, one that occupied a prominent position on high land and was a communal place of worship for a specific group of people, a tribe or folk group, perhaps at particular times of the year" whilst wēoh sites, the majority of which appeared to be "situated very close to ancient route ways", were instead more "likely... small, wayside shrine[s], accessible to the traveller."
Each of these hearg may have been devoted to a specific deity, for instance, in several cases, a grove of trees was devoted to just one god, as can be seen from the town of Thundersley (from Thunor's Grove), which was devoted to the god Thunor. Popular historian Thor Ewing suggested that some of these sites were not dedicated to a well known deity, but simply to a local animistic one, who was believed to inhabit that very spot.][
The pagan Anglo-Saxons built temples to worship their gods, which were "wooden-framed" and contained "an altar and a likeness of one or more gods". Some have suggested that sometimes these temples were built alongside pre-existing sacred sites in the landscape, and indeed, "ancient remains in the landscape held a significant place in the Anglo-Saxon mind as part of a wider, numinous, spiritual and resonant landscape". These temples are mentioned in various later Anglo-Saxon texts, most of which discuss them in reference to their Christianization. Pope Gregory the Great, who was head of the Roman Catholic Church during much of the Christianization of England, variously suggested both that the temples should be sprinkled with holy water and converted into churches, or that they should be destroyed. According to Bede, it was this latter advice that was taken up by Coifi, an influential English pagan priest for King Edwin of Northumbria, who after being converted to Christianity, cast a spear into the temple at Goodmanham and then burned it to the ground. These occasional literary references to Anglo-Saxon temples are accompanied by some limited archaeological evidence. The best known example of this is a room, known by excavators as D2, which was a part of the royal complex at Yeavering in Northumberland, and which has been widely interpreted as a temple room, for it contained buried oxen skulls, two postholes that have been interpreted as holding idols, and no evidence of domestic usage. Other possible temples or shrine buildings have been identified by archaeological investigation as existing within such Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as Lyminge in Kent and Bishopstone in Sussex. Although Pope Gregory had promoted the idea, no archaeological investigation has yet found any firm evidence of churches being built on top of earlier pagan temples in England. Nonetheless, as archaeologist David Wilson noted, this is "hardly surprising" due to "the making of crypts and the general rebuilding of churches over the centuries," which would likely destroy any earlier pagan foundations.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons performed animal sacrifice in honour of the gods. It appears that they emphasised the killing of oxen over other species, as suggested by both written and archaeological evidence. Sacrifice itself was not only found in Anglo-Saxon paganism, but was also common in other Germanic pagan religions, for instance the Norse practised a blood sacrifice known as Blót. The Old English Martyrology records that November (Old English Blótmónaþ "the month of sacrifice") was particularly associated with sacrificial practices:
There are several cases where animal remains were buried in what appears to be ritualistic conditions, for instance at Frilford, Berkshire, a pig or boar's head was buried with six flat stones and two Roman-era tiles then placed on top, whilst at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Soham, Cambridgeshire, an oxe's head was buried with the muzzle facing down. Archaeologist David Wilson stated that these may be "evidence of sacrifices to a pagan god."
Many Germanic peoples are recorded as conducting human sacrifice, yet there is no firm evidence the Anglo-Saxons had such a practice, though there is speculation that twenty three of the bodies at the Sutton Hoo burial site were sacrificial victims clustered around a sacred tree from which they had been hanged. Alongside this, some have suggested that the corpse of an Anglo-Saxon woman found at Sewerby on the Yorkshire Wolds suggested that she had been buried alive alongside a nobleman, possibly as a sacrifice, or to accompany him to the afterlife.
One of the aspects of Anglo-Saxon paganism that we know most about is their burial customs, which we have discovered from archaeological excavations at various sites, including Sutton Hoo, Spong Hill, Prittlewell, Snape and Walkington Wold, and we today know of the existence of around 1200 Anglo-Saxon pagan cemeteries. There was no set form of burial amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, with cremation being preferred amongst the Angles in the north and inhumation amongst the Saxons in the south, although both forms were found throughout England, sometimes in the same cemeteries. When cremation did take place, the ashes were usually placed within an urn and then buried, sometimes along with grave goods. According to archaeologist Dave Wilson, "the usual orientation for an inhumation in a pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery was west-east, with the head to the west, although there were often deviations from this." Indicating a possible religious belief, grave goods were common amongst inhumation burials as well as cremations; free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these. There are also a number of recorded cases of parts of non-human animals being buried within such graves. Most common amongst these was body parts belonging to either goats or sheep, although parts of oxen were also relatively common, and there are also isolated cases of goose, crab apples, duck eggs and hazelnuts being buried in graves. It is widely thought therefore that such items constituted a food source for the deceased. In some cases, animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, were buried in human graves, a practice that was also found in earlier Roman Britain.
Certain Anglo-Saxon burials appeared to have ritualistic elements to them, implying that a religious rite was performed over them during the funeral. Whilst there are many multiple burials, where more than one corpse was found in a single grave, that date from the Anglo-Saxon period, there is "a small group of such burials where an interpretation involving ritual practices may be possible". For instance, at Welbeck Hill in Lincolnshire, the corpse of a decapitated woman was placed in reverse on top of the body of an old man, whilst in a number of other similar examples, female bodies were again placed above those of men. This has led some archaeologists to suspect a form of suttee, where the female was the spouse of the male, and was killed to accompany him upon death. Other theories hold that the females were slaves who were viewed as the property of the men, and who were again killed to accompany their master. Similarly, four Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated where it appears that the individual was buried whilst still alive, which could imply that this was a part of either a religious rite or as a form of punishment. There are also many cases where corpses have been found decapitated, for instance, at a mass grave in Thetford, Norfolk, fifty beheaded individuals were discovered, their heads possibly having been taken as trophies of war. In other cases of decapitation it seems possible that it was evidence of religious ritual (presumably human sacrifice) or execution.
Archaeological investigation has displayed that structures or buildings were built inside a number of pagan cemeteries, and as David Wilson noted, "The evidence, then, from cemetery excavations is suggestive of small structures and features, some of which may perhaps be interpreted as shrines or sacred areas". In some cases, there is evidence of far smaller structures being built around or alongside individual graves, implying possible small shrines to the dead individual or individuals buried there.
Eventually, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the idea of burial mounds began to appear in Anglo-Saxon England, and in certain cases earlier burial mounds from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods were simply reused by the Anglo-Saxons. It is not known why they adopted this practice, but it may be from the practices of the native Britons. Burial mounds remained objects of veneration in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, and numerous churches were built next to tumuli. Another form of burial was that of ship burials, which were practiced by many of the Germanic peoples across northern Europe. In many cases it seems that the corpse was placed in a ship that was either sent out to sea or left on land, but in both cases burned. In Suffolk however, ships were not burned, but buried, as is the case at Sutton Hoo, which it is believed, was the resting place of the king of the East Angles, Raedwald. Both ship and tumulus burials were described in the Beowulf poem, through the funerals of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf respectively.
Everything that we know about the religious festivals of the pagan Anglo-Saxons comes from a book written by the Christian monk, the Venerable Bede, entitled De temporum ratione, meaning The Reckoning of Time, in which he described the calendar of the year. The pagan Anglo-Saxons followed a calendar with twelve lunar months, with the occasional year having thirteen months so that the lunar and solar alignment could be corrected. Bede claimed that the greatest pagan festival was Modraniht (meaning Mother Night), which was situated at the Winter solstice, which marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon year.
Following this festival, in the month of Solmonað (February), Bede claims that the pagans offered cakes to their deities. Then, in Eostur-monath Aprilis (April), a spring festival was celebrated, dedicated to the goddess Eostre, and the later Christian festival of Easter took its name from this month and its goddess. The month of September was known as Halegmonath, meaning Holy Month, which may indicate that it had special religious significance. The month of November was known as Blod-Monath, meaning Blood Month, and was commemorated with animal sacrifice, both in offering to the gods, and also likely to gather a source of food to be stored over the winter.
Remarking on Bede's account of the Anglo-Saxon year, the historian Brian Branston noted that they "show us a people who of necessity fitted closely into the pattern of the changing year, who were of the earth and what grows in it" and that they were "in fact, a people who were in a symbiotic relationship with mother earth and father sky".
In Anglo-Saxon England, a feudal lord would organise a banquet known as a symbel for his retainers, whether they be Christian or pagan. Paul C. Bauschatz, in 1976, suggested that the term reflects a specifically pagan ritual that had a "great religious significance in the culture of the early Germanic people." Bauschatz' lead is followed only sporadically in contemporary scholarship, but his interpretation has inspired drinking-rituals in Germanic neopaganism.
Regardless of its possible religious connotations, the symbel had a central function in maintaining hierarchy and allegiance in Anglo-Saxon warrior society. The symbel takes place in the chieftain's mead hall. It involved drinking ale or mead from a drinking horn, speech making (which often included formulaic boasting and oaths), and gift-giving. Eating and feasting were specifically excluded from symbel, and no alcohol was set aside for the gods or other deities in the form of a sacrifice.
Various recurring symbols appear on certain pagan Anglo-Saxon artefacts, in particular on grave goods. Most notable amongst these was the swastika, which was widely inscribed on crematory urns and also on various brooches and other forms of (often female) jewellery as well as on certain pieces of ceremonial weaponry. The archaeologist David Wilson remarked that this "undoubtedly had special importance for the Anglo-Saxons, either magical or religious, or both. It seems very likely that it was the symbol of the thunder god Thunor, and when found on weapons or military gear its purpose would be to provide protection and success in battle." He also noted however that its widespread usage might have led to it becoming "a purely decorative device with no real symbolic importance." Another symbol that has appeared on several pagan artefacts from this period was the rune , which represented the letter T and is associated with the god Tiw.
Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in magic and witchcraft. There are various Old English terms for "witch", including hægtesse "witch, fury", whence Modern English hag, wicca, gealdricge, scinlæce and hellrúne. The belief in witchcraft was suppressed in the 9th to 10th century as is evident e.g. from the Laws of Ælfred (ca. 890).
The Christian authorities attempted to stamp out a belief and practice in witchcraft, with Theodore's Penitential condemning "those that consult divinations and use them in the pagan manner, or that permit people of that kind into their houses to seek some knowledge". Similarly, in the Disciplus Umbrensium, it condemns those "who observe auguries, omens or dreams or any other prophecies after the manner of the pagans".
The word wiccan "witches" is associated with animistic healing rites in Halitgar's Latin Penitential where it is stated that:
The phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ("as the witches teach") seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an eleventh-century Old English translator.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons also appeared to wear amulets, and there are many cases where corpses were buried with them. As David Wilson noted, "To the early [Anglo-]Saxons, they were part and parcel of the supernatural that made up their world of 'belief', although occupying the shadowy dividing area between superstition and religion, if indeed such a division actually existed." One of the most notable amulets found in Anglo-Saxon graves is the cowrie shell, which has been often interpreted by modern academics as having been a fertility symbol due to its physical resemblance to the vagina and the fact that it was most commonly found in female graves. Not being native to British seas, the cowrie shells had to have been brought to England by traders who had come all the way from the Red Sea in the Middle East. Animal teeth were also used as amulets by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and many examples have been found that had formerly belonged to boar, beaver, and in some cases even humans. Other amulets included items such as amethyst and amber beads, pieces of quartz or iron pyrite, worked and unworked flint, pre-Anglo-Saxon coinage and fossils, and from their distribution in graves, it has been stated that in Anglo-Saxon pagan society, "amulets [were] very much more the preserve of women than men".
Germanic pagan society was structured hierarchically, under a tribal chieftain or cyning ("king") who at the same time acted as military leader, high judge and high priest. The tribe was bound together by a code of customary proper behaviour or sidu regulating the contracts (ǽ) and conflicts between the individual families or sibbs within the tribe. The aristocratic society arrayed below the king included the ranks of ealdorman, thegn, heah-gerefa and gerefa. An eorl was a man of rank, as opposed to the ordinary freeman, known as ceorl. Free men were also a part of a hierarchy, with at least three different ranks (reflected in different amounts of weregild due for individuals of different ranks), although all free men had the right to participate in things (folkmoots). Germanic pagan society practiced slavery, and such slaves or unfree serfs were known as esne, and later also as theows.
Offices at the court included that of the thyle and the scop. The title of hlaford ("lord") denoted the head of any household in origin and expressed the relation to allegiance between a follower and his leader. Early Anglo-Saxon warfare had many aspects of endemic warfare typical of tribal warrior societies. It was based on retainers bound by oath to fight for their lords who in turn were obliged to show generosity to their followers.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons inherited the common Germanic institution of sacral kingship. A king (cyning) was elected from among eligible members of a royal family or cynn by the witena gemōt, an assembly of an elite that replaced the earlier folkmoot, which was the equivalent of the Germanic thing, the assembly of all free men. Tribal kingship came to an end in the 9th century with the hegemony of Wessex culminating in a unified kingdom of England by the 10th century. The cult of kingship was central to pagan Anglo-Saxon society. The king was equivalent to the position of high priest. By his divine descent he represented or indeed was the "luck" of the people. The central importance of the institution of kingship is illustrated by the twenty-six synonyms for "king" employed by the Beowulf poet.
The title of Bretwalda appears to have conveyed the status of some sort of formal or ceremonial overlordship over Britain, but it is uncertain whether it predates the 9th century, and if it does, what, if any, prerogatives it carried. Patrick Wormald interprets it as "less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasizes the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian kings.
Many Anglo-Saxon pagan kings made the claim that they were the semi-divine descendants of Woden, an idea that was transformed after Christianisation into the idea of the Divine Right of Christian monarchs ruling By the Grace of God (Dei Gratia).
Records of Anglo-Saxon law codes dating to the 7th century have survived, the first being the Law of Æthelberht, attributed to Æthelberht of Kent (c. 602 AD), then later codes by Hlothhære and Eadric of Kent, and by Ine of Wessex (c. 694 AD). Other codes survive from the 8th to 9th centuries, notably the Laws of Alfred the Great, dating to the 890s.
These law codes contain laws particular to the Church, including the churchfrith offering protection to a wanted criminal within a church building. The secular portions of the laws nevertheless clearly record tribal laws of the pagan period. Characteristic are its prescriptions of compensation payments or bots, including a weregild to be paid in the case of manslaughter, as opposed to corporeal punishments. The relative amounts of the fines allow an insight into the value system in Anglo-Saxon society. The highest fines in Æthelberht's law code are for the killing of people under the direct protection of the king, and equal fines are paid for adultery with an unmarried woman of the king's household. Alfred has a special law against drawing a weapon in the king's hall. Alfred does prescribe corporeal punishments, such as the cutting out of the tongue, which may however be averted by paying a weregild. Alfred also sets down rules on how to lawfully fight out feuds. Such fights are considered orwige, meaning that deaths resulting from them do not fall under manslaughter. An enemy caught within his home may be besieged for seven days but not attacked unless he tries to escape. If he surrenders, he must be kept safe for thirty days to allow him to call for help from his kinsmen and friends, or beg aid from an ealdorman or from the king. A follower may fight orwige if his lord is attacked. In the same way, a lord may fight for his follower, or any man may fight orwige with his born kinsman excepting against his lord. A man may also fight orwige against another man caught committing adultery with his wife, sister, daughter or mother.
References to ordeals and capital punishment appear in 10th century codes only. Strangely, the wager of battle does not appear to figure in Anglo-Saxon law in spite of being a Germanic pagan custom in origin, but is introduced in England only under Norman rule.
Many place names in England are named after various things to do with Anglo-Saxon paganism. A number of towns and villages, such as Weedon, Wyville and Harrowden have terms like ealh, weoh and hearh incorporated into them, indicating that they were places used for worship by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and from using this toponymy, sixty sites of pagan worship have been identified across the country. Other sites are named after specific Anglo-Saxon deities, for instance, Frigedene and Freefolk are named after Frige, Thundersley after Thunor, and Woodway House, Woodnesborough and Wansdyke named after Woden.
The Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples, adapted the Week-day names introduced by their interaction with the Roman Empire but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as Interpretatio germanica:
Various elements of English folklore from the Mediaeval period onwards have been interpreted as being survivals from Anglo-Saxon paganism. For instance, writing in the 1720s, Henry Bourne stated his belief that the winter custom of the Yule log was a leftover from Anglo-Saxon paganism, however this is an idea that has been disputed by some subsequent research by the likes of historian Ronald Hutton, who believe that it was only introduced into England in the seventeenth century by immigrants arriving from Flanders.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which is performed annually in the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, has also been claimed, by some, to be a remnant of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The antlers used in the dance belonged to reindeer and have been carbon dated to the eleventh century, and it is therefore believed that they originated in Norway and were brought to England some time in the late Mediaeval period, as by that time reindeer were extinct in Britain.
Some claim that notions of the Man in the Moon are a survival of the masculine anthropomorphic figure of the moon in Germanic myths.][
Whilst historical investigation into Germanic paganism and its mythology began in the seventeenth century with Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum (1665), this largely focused only upon Norse mythology, much of which was preserved in Old Icelandic sources. In the eighteenth century, English Romanticism developed a strong enthusiasm for Iceland and Nordic culture, expressed in original English poems extolling Viking virtues, such as Thomas Warton's "Runic Odes" of 1748. In the nineteenth century this developed into two movements within the British educated elite, one of which was composed of Scandophiles and the other of Germanophiles, who associated the English with either the Scandinavians or the Germans, respectively. With nascent nationalism in early nineteenth-century Europe, by the 1830s both Nordic and German philology had produced "national mythologies" in Nikolai Grundtvig's Nordens Mytologi and Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, respectively. British Romanticism at the same time had at its disposal both a Celtic and a Viking revival, but nothing focusing on the Anglo-Saxons because there was very little evidence of their pagan mythology still surviving. Indeed, so scant was evidence of paganism in Anglo-Saxon England that some scholars came to assume that the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized essentially from the moment of their arrival in Britain.
The study of Anglo-Saxon paganism began only in the mid nineteenth century, when John Kemble published The Saxons in England Volume I (1849), in which he discussed the usefulness of examining place-names to find out about the religion. This was followed by the publication of John Yonge Akerman's Remains of Pagan Saxondom (1855). Akerman defended his chosen subject in the introduction by pointing out the archaeological evidence of a "Pagan Saxon mode of sepulture" on English soil lasting from the "middle of the fifth to the middle or perhaps the end of the seventh century". From this point onward, more academic research into the Anglo-Saxons' pagan religion appeared. This led to further books on the subject, such as those primarily about the Anglo-Saxon gods, such as Brian Branston's The Lost Gods of England (1957), and Kathy Herbert's Looking for the Lost Gods of England (1994). Others emphasised archaeological evidence, such as David Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1992) and the edited anthology Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited (2010).
In the 1930s Alexander Rud Mills established in Australia "The Anglecyn Church of Odin", a thoroughly pagan religion but with rituals influenced by the literary style of Anglicanism. The Anglecyn Church went underground as a result of political persecution in 1942, but was revived in 1972 in Melbourne, Australia.
A later reconstructed form of Anglo-Saxon paganism arose in the 1970s as a subset of Germanic neopaganism, in the form of Theodism. It was founded by Garman Lord, who had originally been a Wiccan in the Gardnerian tradition. In 1971, Lord formed a Wiccan coven that emphasized the iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, named The Coven Witan of Anglo-Saxon Wicca. However, Lord later abandoned any use of Wiccan teachings, instead focusing entirely upon the resurrection of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion in 1976 after supposedly having a vision of the deities Woden and Frige.
Similarly, the Wiccan who introduced the Gardnerian tradition to the United States, Raymond Buckland, later wrote a book in 1973 entitled The Tree in which he outlined the creation of a tradition known as Seax-Wica, which uses the symbolism and iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, but in a "traditional" Wiccan framework.
There are modern proponents of Anglo Saxon paganism actively practicing the religion, such as White Marsh Theod in the United States. Within the UK the Pagan Federation contains amongst its members groups that practice Heathenry, a modern variant of paganism that includes Anglo Saxon beliefs.
A candle is a solid block of wax with an embedded wick, which is ignited to provide light, and sometimes heat, and historically was used as a method of keeping time.
A candle manufacturer is traditionally known as a chandler. Various devices have been invented to hold candles, from simple tabletop candle holders, to elaborate chandeliers.
For a candle to burn, a heat source (commonly a naked flame) is used to light the candle's wick, which melts and vaporizes a small amount of fuel, the wax. Once vaporized, the fuel combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to form a flame. This flame provides sufficient heat to keep the candle burning via a self-sustaining chain of events: the heat of the flame melts the top of the mass of solid fuel; the liquefied fuel then moves upward through the wick via capillary action; the liquefied fuel finally vaporizes to burn within the candle's flame.
As the mass of solid fuel is melted and consumed, the candle grows shorter. Portions of the wick that are not emitting vaporized fuel are consumed in the flame. The incineration of the wick limits the exposed length of the wick, thus maintaining a constant burning temperature and rate of fuel consumption. Some wicks require regular trimming with scissors (or a specialized wick trimmer), usually to about one-quarter inch (~0.7 cm), to promote slower, steady burning, and also to prevent smoking. In early times, the wick needed to be trimmed quite frequently, and special candle-scissors, referred to as "snuffers" until the 20th century, were produced for this purpose, often combined with an extinguisher. In modern candles, the wick is constructed so that it curves over as it burns (see picture on the right), so that the end of the wick gets oxygen and is then consumed by fire—a self-trimming wick.
Candles were once made from tallow and beeswax until after about 1850, they were made mainly from spermaceti and purified animal fats (stearin). Today, most candles are made from paraffin wax. Candles can also be made from beeswax, soy, other plant waxes, and tallow (a by-product of beef-fat rendering). Gel candles are made from a mixture of mineral oil and a polymer.
The candle can be made of
The size of the flame and corresponding rate of burning is controlled largely by the candle wick.
Production methods utilize extrusion moulding. More traditional production methods entails melting the solid fuel by the controlled application of heat. The liquid is then poured into a mould or a wick is repeatedly immersed in the liquid to create a dipped tapered candle. Often fragrance oils, essential oils or aniline-based dye is added.
A candle wick works by capillary action, drawing ("wicking") the melted wax or fuel up to the flame. When the liquid fuel reaches the flame, it vaporizes and combusts. The candle wick influences how the candle burns. Important characteristics of the wick include diameter, stiffness, fire-resistance, and tethering.
A candle wick is a piece of string or cord that holds the flame of a candle. Commercial wicks are made from braided cotton. The wick's capillarity determines the rate at which the melted hydrocarbon is conveyed to the flame. If the capillarity is too great, the molten wax streams down the side of the candle. Wick are often infused with a variety of chemicals to modify its burning characteristics. For example, it is usually desirable that the wick not glow after the flame is extinguished. Typical agents are ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate.
Based on measurements of a taper-type, paraffin wax candle, a modern candle typically burns at a steady rate of about 0.1 g/min, releasing heat at roughly 80 W. The light produced is about 13 lumens, for a luminous efficacy of about 0.16 lumens per watt (luminous efficacy of a source) - almost a hundred times lower than an incandescent light bulb.
The luminous intensity of a typical candle is thus approximately one candela. The SI unit,candela, was in fact based on an older unit called the candlepower, which represented the luminous intensity emitted by a candle made to particular specifications (a "standard candle"). The modern unit is defined in a more precise and repeatable way, but was chosen such that a candle's luminous intensity is still about one candela.
The hottest part of the flame is just above the very dull blue part to one side of the flame, at the base. At this point, the flame is about 1,400 °C. However note that this part of the flame is very small and releases little heat energy. The blue color is due to chemiluminescence, while the visible yellow color is due to radiative emission from hot soot particles. The soot is formed through a series of complex chemical reactions, leading from the fuel molecule through molecular growth, until multi-carbon ring compounds are formed. The thermal structure of a flame is complex, hundreds of degrees over very short distances leading to extremely steep temperature gradients. On average, the flame temperature is about 1,000 °C.][ The color temperature is approximately 1,000 K.
A candle flame has three distinct regions. The innermost zone, directly above the wick contains wax vapors that have just been vaporized. The middle zone, the yellow portion of the flame is an oxygen depleted zone, where partial oxidation has occurred, but insufficient oxygen exists to burn all of the vapors present. The temperature in this region is hotter than the innermost zone, but cooler than the outer zone. The outer zone is the area where the flame is the hottest and the oxidation process is complete.
One of Michael Faraday's significant works was The Chemical History of a Candle, where he gives an in-depth analysis of the evolutionary development, workings and science of candles.
According to the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, candles are one of the leading sources of residential fires in the U.S. with almost 10% of civilian injuries and 6% of civilian fatalities from fire attributed to candles.
A candle flame that is longer than its laminar smoke point will emit soot. Soot inhalation has known health hazards. Proper wick trimming will substantially reduce soot emissions from most candles.
The liquid wax is hot and can cause skin burns, but the amount and temperature are generally rather limited and the burns are seldom serious. The best way to avoid getting burned from splashed wax is to use a candle snuffer instead of blowing on the flame. A candle snuffer is usually a small metal cup on the end of a long handle. When placed over the flame the oxygen supply is cut off. They were used daily when the candle was the main source of lighting a home, before electric lights were available.
Glass candle holders are sometimes cracked by thermal shock from the candle flame, particularly when the candle burns down to the end. When burning candles in glass holders or jars, users should avoid lighting candles with chipped or cracked containers, and stop use once 1/2 inch or less of wax remains.
A former worry regarding the safety of candles was that a lead core was used in the wicks to keep them upright in container candles. Without a stiff core, the wicks of a container candle could sag and drown in the deep wax pool. Concerns rose that the lead in these wicks would vaporize during the burning process, releasing lead vapors — a known health and developmental hazard. Lead core wicks have not been common since the 1970s. Today, most metal-cored wicks use zinc or a zinc alloy, which has become the industry standard. Wicks made from specially treated paper and cotton are also available.
Candles and candle accessories pose a risk to property and people. Risk can be reduced by ensuring products comply with international standards.
Protecting consumers must be a priority for manufacturers, buyers, importers and retailers of candles and their accessories. International markets have developed a range of Standards and Regulations to ensure compliance, at the same time as maintaining and improving safety, including:
Decorative candle holders, especially those shaped as a pedestal, are called candlesticks; if multiple candle tapers are held, the term candelabrum is also used. The root form of chandelier is from the word for candle, but now usually refers to an electric fixture. The word chandelier is sometimes now used to describe a hanging fixture designed to hold multiple tapers.
Many candle holders use a friction-tight socket to keep the candle upright. In this case, a candle that is slightly too wide will not fit in the holder, and a candle that is slightly too narrow will wobble. Candles that are too big can be trimmed to fit with a knife; candles that are too small can be fitted with aluminium foil. Traditionally, the candle and candle holders were made in the same place, so they were appropriately sized, but international trade has combined the modern candle with existing holders, which makes the ill-fitting candle more common. This friction tight socket is only needed for the federals and the tapers. For tea light candles, there are a variety of candle holders, including small glass holders and elaborate multi candle stands. The same is true for votives. Wall sconces are available for tea light and votive candles. For pillar type candles, the assortment of candle holders is broad. A fireproof plate, such as a glass plate or small mirror, is a candle holder for a pillar style candle. A pedestal of any kind, with the appropriate-sized fireproof top, is another option. A large glass bowl with a large flat bottom and tall mostly vertical curved sides is called a hurricane. The pillar style candle is placed at the bottom center of the hurricane. A hurricane on a pedestal is sometimes sold as a unit.
A bobèche is a drip-catching ring, which may also be affixed to a candle holder, or used independently of one. They can range from ornate metal or glass, to simple plastic, cardboard, or wax paper. Use of paper or plastic bobèches is common at events where candles are distributed to a crowd or audience, such as Christmas carols or other concerts/festivals.
These are glass or metal tubes with an internal stricture partway along, which sit around the top of a lit candle. As the candle burns, the wax melts and the follower holds the melted wax in, whilst the stricture rests on the topmost solid portion of wax. Candle followers are often deliberately heavy or 'weighted', to ensure they move down as the candle burns lower, maintaining a seal and preventing wax escape. The purpose of a candle follower is threefold:
Candle followers are often found in churches on altar candles.
Candle snuffers are instruments used to extinguish burning candles by smothering the flame with a small metal cup that is suspended from a long handle, and thus depriving it of oxygen. An older meaning refers to a scissor-like tool used to trim the wick of a candle. With skill, this could be done without extinguishing the flame. The instrument now known as a candle snuffer was formerly called an "extinguisher" or "douter".
The word candle comes from Middle English candel, from Old English and from Anglo-Norman candele, both from Latin candla, from candre, to shine.
The earliest known candles originated in China around 200 BC, and were made from whale fat. Candles did not appear in Europe or the Middle East until sometime after AD 400, due largely to the availability of olive oil for burning in lamps. The early European candle was made from various forms of natural fat, tallow, and wax. In the 18th century, spermaceti, oil produced by the sperm whale, was used to produce a superior candle. Late in the 18th century, colza oil and rapeseed oil came into use as much cheaper substitutes.
Paraffin was first distilled in 1830, and revolutionized candle-making, as it was an inexpensive material which produced a high-quality, odorless candle that burned reasonably cleanly. The industry was devastated soon after, however, by the distillation of kerosene (confusingly also called paraffin oil or just paraffin). Recently resin based candles that are freestanding and transparent have been developed, with the claim that they burn longer than traditional paraffin candles. They are usually scented and oil based.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, tallow candles were the most common candle. By the 13th century, candle making had become a guild craft in England and France. The candle makers (chandlers) went from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or made and sold their own candles from small candle shops.
With the fairly consistent and measurable burning of a candle, a common use was to tell the time. The candle designed for this purpose might have time measurements, usually in hours, marked along the wax. The Song dynasty in China (960–1279) used candle-clocks. By the 18th century, candle-clocks were being made with weights set into the sides of the candle. As the candle melted, the weights fell off and made a noise as they fell into a bowl. A form of candle-clock was used in coal-mining until the 20th century.][
In the days leading to Christmas some people burn a candle a set amount to represent each day, as marked on the candle. The type of candle used in this way is called the Advent candle, although this term is also used to refer to a candle that decorates an Advent wreath.
Before the invention of electric lighting, candles and oil lamps were commonly used for illumination. In areas without electricity, they are still used routinely. Until the 20th century, candles were more common in northern Europe. In southern Europe and the Mediterranean, oil lamps predominated. In the developed world today, candles are used mainly for their aesthetic value and scent, particularly to set a soft, warm, or romantic ambiance, for emergency lighting during electrical power failures, and for religious or ritual purposes. Scented candles are used in aromatherapy.
Candles are used in the religious ceremonies of many faiths.
Beowulf (; in Old English or ) is the conventional title of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.
It survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. Its composition by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet is dated between the 8th and the early 11th century.][ In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged by a fire that swept through a building housing a collection of Medieval manuscripts assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. The poem fell into obscurity for decades, and its existence did not become widely known again until it was printed in 1815 in an edition prepared by the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin.
In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to the help of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel's mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.
The main protagonist, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot, is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands and Grendel's mother with a sword of a giant that he found in her lair.
Later in his life, Beowulf is himself king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorised by a dragon whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon into its lair, at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf dares join him along with Tinshaw. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded. He is buried in a tumulus or burial mound, by the sea.
Beowulf is considered an epic poem in that the main character is a hero who travels great distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts. The poem also begins in medias res ("into the middle of affairs") or simply, "in the middle", which is a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Although the poem begins with Beowulf's arrival, Grendel's attacks have been an ongoing event. An elaborate history of characters and their lineages is spoken of, as well as their interactions with each other, debts owed and repaid, and deeds of valour. The warriors follow a manifest of rules on heroism called comitatus, which is the basis for all of the words, deeds, and actions.
Jane Chance (Professor of English, Rice University) in her 1980 article "The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother", argued that there are two standard interpretations of the poem: one view which suggests a two-part structure (i.e., the poem is divided between Beowulf's battles with Grendel and with the dragon) and the other, a three-part structure (this interpretation argues that Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother is structurally separate from his battle with Grendel). Chance stated that "this view of the structure as two-part has generally prevailed since its inception in J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics in Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936)." In contrast, she argued that the three-part structure has become "increasingly popular."
Beowulf begins with the story of King Hroðgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for his people. In it he, his wife Wealhþeow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel, a troll-like monster who is pained by the noise, attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hroðgar's warriors while they sleep. But Grendel does not touch the throne of Hroðgar, for it is described as protected by a powerful god. Hroðgar and his people, helpless against Grendel's attacks, abandon Heorot.
Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hroðgar's troubles and with his king's permission leaves his homeland to help Hroðgar.
Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf bears no weapon because this would be an "unfair advantage" over the unarmed beast. After they fall asleep, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf has been feigning sleep and leaps up to clench Grendel's hand. The two battle until it seems as though the hall might collapse. Beowulf's retainers draw their swords and rush to his aid, but their blades cannot pierce Grendel's skin. Finally, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from his body at the shoulder and Grendel runs to his home in the marshes to die.
The next night, after celebrating Grendel's defeat, Hrothgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel's mother, angered by the punishment of her son, appears and attacks the hall. She kills Hroðgar's most trusted warrior, Æschere, in revenge for Grendel's defeat.
Hroðgar, Beowulf and their men track Grendel's mother to her lair under a lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is presented with a sword, Hrunting, by Unferth, a warrior who had doubted him and wishes to make amends. After stipulating a number of conditions to Hroðgar in case of his death (including the taking in of his kinsmen and the inheritance by Unferth of Beowulf's estate), Beowulf dives into the lake. He is swiftly detected and attacked by Grendel's mother. However, she is unable to harm Beowulf through his armour and drags him to the bottom of the lake. In a cavern containing Grendel's body and the remains of men that the two have killed, Grendel's mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.
At first, Grendel's mother appears to prevail. Beowulf, finding that Hrunting cannot harm his foe, discards it in fury. Beowulf is again saved from his opponent's attack by his armour. Beowulf grabs a magical sword from Grendel's mother's treasure, and with it beheads her. Travelling further into the lair, Beowulf discovers Grendel's dying body and severs its head. The blade of the magic sword melts like ice when it touches Grendel's toxic blood, until only the hilt is left. This hilt is the only treasure that Beowulf carries out of cavern, which he presents to Hroðgar upon his return to Heorot. Beowulf then returns to the surface and to his men at the "ninth hour" (l. 1600, "nōn", about 3pm). He returns to Heorot, where Hroðgar gives Beowulf many gifts, including the sword Nægling, his family's heirloom.
Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes king of his own people. One day, fifty years after Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of an unnamed dragon at Earnaness. When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow. Beowulf descends to do battle with the dragon but finds himself outmatched. His men, upon seeing this display and fearing for their lives, creep back into the woods. One of his men, however, Wiglaf, who finds great distress in seeing Beowulf's plight, comes to Beowulf's aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded.
Beowulf is buried in Geatland on a cliff overlooking the sea, where sailors are able to see his tumulus. The dragon's treasure is buried with him, in accordance with Beowulf's wishes, rather than distributed to his people, and there is a curse associated with the hoard to ensure that Beowulf's wish is kept.
It is widely accepted that there are three funerals in Beowulf.][ The funerals are also paired with the three battles described above.][ The three funerals share similarities regarding the offerings for the dead and the change in theme through the description of each funeral. Gale Owen-Crocker (Professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Manchester) in The Four Funerals in Beowulf (2000) argues that a passage in the poem, commonly known as “The Lay of the Last Survivor” (lines 2247–66), is an additional funeral.][ The funerals are themselves involved in the ritual of hoarding: the deposition of sacrificial objects with both religious and socio-economic functions.
The first funeral in the poem is of Scyld Scefing (translated in some versions as "Shield Shiefson") the king of the Danes. The first section of the poem, (the first fitt), helps the poet illustrate the settings of the poem by introducing Hrothgar’s lineage. The funeral leads to the introduction of the hero, Beowulf and his confrontation with the first monster, Grendel. This passage begins by describing Scyld’s glory as a “scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches.” Scyld’s glory and importance is shown by the prestigious death he obtains through his service as the king of the Danes. His importance is proven once more by the grand funeral given to him by his people: his funeral at sea with many weapons and treasures shows he was a great soldier and an even greater leader to his people. The poet introduces the concepts of a heroic society through Scyld. The possessions buried with the king are elaborately described to emphasise the importance of such items. The importance of these earthly possessions are then used to establish this dead king’s greatness in respect to the treasure. Scyld’s funeral helps the poet to elaborate on the glory of battle in a heroic society and how earthly possessions help define a person‘s importance. This funeral also helps the poet to develop the plot to lead into the confrontation between the protagonist, Beowulf, and the main antagonist, Grendel.
The second funeral in the poem is that of Hildeburg’s kin and is the second fitt of this poem.][ The funeral is sung about in Heorot as part of a lay during the feasting to mark Beowulf's victory over Grendel. The death of Hildeburg’s brother Hnæf, son(s) and, later, her husband Finn the Frisian king are sung about as the result of fighting in Frisia between the visiting Danish chieftain Hnæf and his retainers (including one Hengest) and Finn's followers. The funeral mirrors the use of funeral offerings for the dead with extravagant possessions in Scyld's funeral.][ Hildeburg’s relatives are buried with their armour and gold to signify their importance. The second funeral differs from the first in that it is a cremation ceremony rather than a ship-burial. Furthermore, the poet focuses on the strong emotions of those who died while in battle.][ Such gory details as “heads melt[ing], gashes [springing] open... and the blood [gushing] out from the body’s wounds,”][ depict war as horrifying rather than glorious.][ Although the poet maintains the theme of possessions as important even in death, the glory of battle is challenged by the vicious nature of war. The second funeral is distinguished by themes contrasting with those of the first, as well as by a change in the direction of the plot which leads to Beowulf's fight against Grendel's Mother.
"The Lay of the Last Survivor" is arguably an addition to the other three funerals in Beowulf because of the striking similarities that define the importance of the other burials.][ The similar burial customs, changes in setting and plot, and changes of theme parallel those in the other three funerals. The setting and plot also suggest that the lament is funeral: the Last Survivor describes burial offerings similar to those in the funerals of Scyld Scefing, Hildeburg’s kin, and Beowulf.][ The Last Survivor describes the many treasures left for the dead such as the weapons, armour and golden cups,][ strongly paralleling Scyld’s “well furbished ship..., bladed weapons and coats of mail,”][ Hildeburg’s kin’s “blood-plastered coats of mail [and] boar-shaped helmets”][ and Beowulf's treasure from the dragon.][
An additional argument for viewing this passage as a funeral lies in the statement, “tumbling hawk [and] swift horse”.][ This is an animal sacrifice, which was a burial custom during the era in which the poem takes place.][ Moreover, this passage, like the other funerals, signifies changes in setting and plot.][ It has also been argued that this is the third part of the poem since it describes the settings during the time lapse before the final battle between Beowulf and the Dragon. The poet also describes the horror of death in battle, a theme continued from the second part of the poem, through the Last Survivor’s eyes.][
The final funeral of the poem is Beowulf's. During the final battle against the dragon, Beowulf receives fatal wounds and dies. The greatness of Beowulf's life is demonstrated through this funeral, particularly through the many offerings of his people.][ "Weohstan's son (pause) commanded it be announced to many men (pause) that they should fetch from afar wood for the pyre."][ for their leader's funeral. The dragon's remains are thrown into the sea, a parallel to Scyld's burial in his ship. Beowulf's funeral is the fourth fitt of the poem and acts as an epilogue for the hero who is the "most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame."][
The events described in the poem take place in the late 5th century, after the Angles and Saxons had begun their migration to England, and before the beginning of the 7th century, a time when the Anglo-Saxon people were either newly arrived or still in close contact with their Germanic kinsmen in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. The poem may have been brought to England by people of Geatish origins. It has been suggested that Beowulf was first composed in the 7th century at Rendlesham in East Anglia, as the Sutton Hoo ship-burial also shows close connections with Scandinavia, and also that the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffings, were descendants of the Geatish Wulfings. Others have associated this poem with the court of King Alfred, or with the court of King Canute.
The poem deals with legends, was composed for entertainment, and does not separate between fictional elements and real historic events, such as the raid by King Hygelac into Frisia. Scholars generally agree that many of the personalities of Beowulf also appear in Scandinavian sources (specific works designated in the following section). This does not only concern people (e.g., Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, Hroðulf, Eadgils and Ohthere), but also clans (e.g., Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings) and some of the events (e.g., the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern). The dating of the events in the poem has been confirmed by archaeological excavations of the barrows indicated by Snorri Sturluson and by Swedish tradition as the graves of Ohthere (dated to c. 530) and his son Eadgils (dated to c. 575) in Uppland, Sweden.
In Denmark, recent archaeological excavations at Lejre, where Scandinavian tradition located the seat of the Scyldings, i.e., Heorot, have revealed that a hall was built in the mid-6th century, exactly the time period of Beowulf. Three halls, each about 50 metres long, were found during the excavation.
The majority view appears to be that people such as King Hroðgar and the Scyldings in Beowulf are based on real historical people from 6th-century Scandinavia. Like the Finnsburg Fragment and several shorter surviving poems, Beowulf has consequently been used as a source of information about Scandinavian personalities such as Eadgils and Hygelac, and about continental Germanic personalities such as Offa, king of the continental Angles.
19th-century archeological evidence may confirm elements of the Beowulf story. Eadgils was buried at Uppsala, according to Snorri Sturluson. When Eadgils' mound (to the left in the photo) was excavated in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow, c 575, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings. These remains include a Frankish sword adorned with gold and garnets and a tafl game with Roman pawns of ivory. He was dressed in a costly suit made of Frankish cloth with golden threads, and he wore a belt with a costly buckle. There were four cameos from the Middle East which were probably part of a casket. This would have been a burial fitting a king who was famous for his wealth in Old Norse sources. Ongenþeow's barrow (to the right in the photo) has not been excavated.
Neither identified sources nor analogues for Beowulf can be proven. Both of these are important in regards to the uncertainty surrounding the Beowulf manuscript, as the works which it draws from or influences suggest time-frames of composition, geographic boundaries from which it could be composed, or range (both spatial and temporal) of influence (i.e. when it was "popular" and where its "popularity" took it). There are five main categories in which potential sources and/or analogues are included: Scandinavian parallels, classical sources, Irish sources and analogues, ecclesiastical sources, and echoes in other Old English texts.
Early studies into Scandinavian sources and analogues proposed that Beowulf was a translation of an original Scandinavian work, but this idea has been discarded. In 1878, Guðbrandur Vigfússon made the connection between Beowulf and the Grettis saga. This is currently one of the few Scandinavian analogues to receive a general consensus of potential connection. Tales concerning the Skjöldungs, possibly originating as early as the 6th century were later used as a narrative basis in such texts as Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus and Hrólfs saga kraka. Some scholars see Beowulf as a product of these early tales along with Gesta Danorum and Hrólfs saga kraka. Paul Beekman Taylor used the Ynglingasaga as proof that the Beowulf poet was likewise working from Germanic tradition.
Friedrich Panzer attempted to contextualise Beowulf and other Scandinavian works, including Grettis saga, under the international folktale type 301B, or "The Bear's Son" tale. However, although this approach—the "shift... from the quasi-historical or legendary materials... to the folktale line of inquiry," was seen as a step in the right direction, "The Bear's Son" tale was seen as too universal. In a term coined by Peter Jørgensen, the "two-troll tradition," a more concise frame of reference was found. The "two-troll tradition" refers to "a Norse 'ecotype' in which a hero enters a cave and kills two giants, usually of different sexes." Both Grettis saga and Beowulf fit this folktale type.
Scholars who favored Irish parallels directly spoke out against pro-Scandinavian theories, citing them as unjustified. Wilhelm Grimm is noted to be the first person to ever link Beowulf with Irish folklore. Max Deutschbein is noted as the first person to present the argument in academic form. He suggested the Irish Feast of Bricriu as a source for Beowulf—a theory that was soon denied by Oscar Olson. Swedish folklorist Carl Wilhelm Von Sydow argued against both Scandinavian translation and source material due to his theory that Beowulf is fundamentally Christian and written at a time when any Norse tale would have most likely been pagan.
In the late 1920s, Heinzer Dehmer suggested Beowulf as contextually based in the folktale type “The Hand and the Child,” due to the motif of the “monstrous arm”—a motif that distances Grettis saga and Beowulf and further aligns Beowulf with Irish parallelism. James Carney and Martin Puhvel also agree with this “Hand and the Child” contextualisation. Carney also ties Beowulf to Irish literature through the Táin Bó Fráech story. Puhvel supported the “Hand and the Child” theory through such motifs as “the more powerful giant mother, the mysterious light in the cave, the melting of the sword in blood, the phenomenon of battle rage, swimming prowess, combat with water monsters, underwater adventures, and the bear-hug style of wrestling.”
Attempts to find classical or Late Latin influence or analogue in Beowulf are almost exclusively linked with Homer's Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid. In 1926, Albert S. Cook suggested a Homeric connection due to equivalent formulas, metonymies, and analogous voyages. James A. Work's essay “Odyssean Influence on the Beowulf” also supported the Homeric influence. He stated that encounter between Beowulf and Unferth was parallel to the encounter between Odysseus and Euryalus in Books 7–8 of the Odyssey even to the point of them both giving the hero the same gift of a sword upon being proven wrong in their initial assessment of the hero's prowess. This theory of Homer's influence on Beowulf remained very prevalent in the 1920s, but started to die out in the following decade when a handful of critics stated that the two works were merely “comparative literature” although Greek was known in contemporary England. Bede states that Theodore, a Greek, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, and he taught Greek. Several English scholars and churchmen are described by Bede as being fluent in Greek due to being taught by him. Bede claims to be fluent in Greek himself. At this time, Homer's poems were used as textbooks for the study of Greek.
Friedrich Klaeber somewhat led the attempt to connect Beowulf and Virgil near the start of the 20th century, claiming that the very act of writing a secular epic in a Germanic world is contingent on Virgil. Virgil was seen as the pinnacle of Latin literature, and Latin was the dominant literary language of England at the time, therefore making Virgilian influence highly likely. Similarly, in 1971, Alistair Campbell stated that the apologue technique used in Beowulf is so infrequent in the epic tradition aside from when Virgil uses it that the poet who composed Beowulf could not have written the poem in such a manner without first coming across Virgil's writings. A large number of similarities in episodes, themes, and description in the two epics have been identified. Some specific examples of these are things such as:
Some more fundamental structural similarities are things such as:
Whether seen as a pagan work with “Christian coloring” added by scribes or as a “Christian historical novel, with selected bits of paganism deliberately laid on as 'local color', as Margaret E. Goldsmith did in “The Christian Theme of Beowulf,” it cannot be denied that Christianity pervades the text, and with that, the use of the Bible as a source. Beowulf channels Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel in its inclusion of references to God's creation of the universe, the story of Cain, Noah and the flood, devils or the Devil, Hell, and the Last Judgement.
The Bible can fall into both the category of ecclesiastical sources and also this category, as the Beowulf poet would have relied on Old English translations.
Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dated on paleographical grounds to the late tenth or early eleventh century. The manuscript measures 195×130 mm.
The earliest known owner of the Beowulf manuscript is the 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell, after whom the manuscript is named, though its official designation is British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV because it was one of Robert Bruce Cotton's holdings in the Cotton Library in the middle of the 17th century. Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it through William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.][
It suffered damage in the Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Since then, parts of the manuscript have crumbled along with many of the letters. Rebinding efforts, though saving the manuscript from much degeneration, have nonetheless covered up other letters of the poem, causing further loss. Kevin Kiernan, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, is foremost in the computer digitalisation and preservation of the manuscript (the Electronic Beowulf Project), using fibre-optic backlighting to reveal lost letters of the poem.
The poem is known only from this single manuscript, which is estimated to date from close to AD 1000. Kiernan has argued from an examination of the manuscript that it was the author's own working copy. He dated the work to the reign of Canute the Great. The poem appears in what is today called the Beowulf manuscript or Nowell Codex (British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv), along with other works. The earliest extant reference to the first foliation of the Nowell Codex was made sometime between 1628 and 1650 by Franciscus Junius (the younger).][ The owner of the codex before Nowell remains a mystery.][
Reverend Thomas Smith and Humfrey Wanley undertook the task of cataloguing the Cotton library, in which the Nowell Codex was held. Smith’s catalogue appeared in 1696, and Humfrey’s in 1705.][ The Beowulf manuscript itself is mentioned in name for the first time in a letter in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hickes responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley "I can find nothing yet of Beowulph." It has been theorised that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues or because either he had no idea how to describe it or because it was temporarily out of the codex.][
Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum
monegum mægþum meodo-setla oftēah
egsian eorl syððan ǣrest weorþan
Hwæt [what!] wē Gār-Dena [Spear-Danes] in geār-dagum [days of yore]
þēod-cyninga [king of a people] þrym [power] gefrūnon [hear of],
hū [how] ðā æþelingas [prince,hero] ellen [deeds of valour] fremedon [accomplish],
Oft [often] Scyld Scēfing [name: Danish dynasty of the Scyldings] sceaþena [enemy] þrēatum [troop],
monegum [many] mægþum [nation] meodo-setla [mead-bench] oftēah [take away];
egsian [terrify] eorl [warrior] syððan [after] ǣrest [first] weorþan [become]
The Beowulf manuscript was transcribed from an original by two scribes, one of whom wrote the first 1939 lines and a second who wrote the remainder, so the poem up to line 1939 is in one handwriting, whilst the rest of the poem is in another.][ The script of the second scribe is archaic.][ Both scribes proofread their work down to even the most minute error. The second scribe slaved over the poem for many years "with great reverence and care to restoration".][ The first scribe's revisions can be broken down into three categories "the removal of dittographic material; the restoration of material that was inadvertently omitted or was about to be omitted; and the conversion of legitimate, but contextually incorrect words to the contextually proper words. These three categories provide the most compelling evidence that the scribe was generally attentive to his work while he was copying, and that he later subjected his work to careful proofreading." The work of the second scribe bears a striking resemblance to the work of the first scribe of the Blickling homilies, and so much so that it is believed they derive from the same scriptorium.][ From knowledge of books held in the library at Malmesbury Abbey and available as source works, and from the identification of certain words particular to the local dialect found in the text, the transcription may have been made there. However, for at least a century, some scholars have maintained that the description of Grendel’s lake in Beowulf was borrowed from St. Paul’s vision of Hell in Homily 16 of the Blickling homilies.][ Most intriguing in the many versions of the Beowulf FS is the transcription of alliterative verse. From the first scribe's edits, emenders such as Klaeber were forced to alter words for the sake of the poem. "The lack of alliteration in line 1981 forced Klaeber in his edition, for example, to change side (the scribe's correction) to heal. The latter scribe revealed not only astute mechanical editing, but also unbridled nourishment of the physical manuscript itself." Over the years Beowulf scholars have put the work of the scribes under intense scrutiny, many debate whether the scribes even held a copy as some believe they worked solely from oral dictation. Men such as Benjamin Thorpe saw many errors in rhetoric and diction, implying that the transcribing made little to no sense. Most intriguing however becomes the abhorrence of the first scribe's mechanical editing. This reveals the strength of Beowulf's oral history as poetic flow were prioritised over dialect/ grammatical coherency.
Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin made the first transcriptions of the manuscript in 1786 and published the results in 1815, working under a historical research commission of the Danish government. He made one himself, and had another done by a professional copyist who knew no Anglo-Saxon. Since that time, the manuscript has crumbled further, and the Thorkelin transcripts remain a prized secondary source for Beowulf scholars. The recovery of at least 2000 letters can be attributed to these transcripts. Their accuracy has been called into question, however (e.g., by Chauncey Brewster Tinker in The Translations of Beowulf, a comprehensive survey of 19th-century translations and editions of Beowulf), and the extent to which the manuscript was actually more readable in Thorkelin's time is unclear.
Beowulf was written in England, but is set in Scandinavia. It has variously been dated to between the 8th and the early 11th centuries. It is an epic poem told in historical perspective; a story of epic events and of great people of a heroic past. Although its author is unknown, its themes and subject matter are rooted in Germanic heroic poetry, in Anglo-Saxon tradition recited and cultivated by Old English poets called scops.
Opinion differs as to whether the composition of the poem is contemporary with its transcription, or whether the poem was composed at an earlier time (possibly as one of the Bear's Son Tales) and orally transmitted for many years, and then transcribed at a later date. Lord][ felt strongly the manuscript represents the transcription of a performance, though likely taken at more than one sitting. Kiernan argues on the basis of paleographical and codicological evidence, that the poem is contemporary with the manuscript.][ Kiernan's reasoning has in part to do with the much-discussed political context of the poem: it has been held by most scholars, until recently, that the poem was composed in the 8th century on the assumption that a poem eliciting sympathy for the Danes could not have been composed by Anglo-Saxons during the Viking Ages of the 9th and 10th centuries, and that the poem celebrates the namesakes of 8th Century Mercian Kings.][
Kiernan argues against an 8th-century provenance because this would still require that the poem be transmitted by Anglo-Saxons through the Viking Age, holds that the paleographic and codicological evidence encourages the belief that Beowulf is an 11th-century composite poem, and states that Scribe A and Scribe B are the authors and that Scribe B is the more poignant of the two. This matches with the royal house of England in the early 11th Century being Danish, making the poem politically compatible with this time period.
The view of J. R. R. Tolkien is that the poem retains a much too genuine memory of Anglo-Saxon paganism to have been composed more than a few generations after the completion of the Christianisation of England around AD 700. Tolkien's conviction that the poem dates to the 8th century is defended by Tom Shippey.
The celebration of deeds of ancient Danish and Swedish heroes, the poem beginning with a tribute to the royal line of Danish kings, but written in the dominant literary dialect of Anglo-Saxon England, for a number of scholars points to the 11th century reign of Canute, the Danish king whose empire included all of these areas, and whose primary place of residence was in England, as the most likely time of the poem's creation, the poem being written as a celebration of the king's heroic royal ancestors, perhaps intended as a form of artistic flattery by one of his English courtiers.
A suggestion made by John Mitchell Kemble (1849) and defended by Jäching (1976) puts a terminus post quem of the early 9th century on the Finnesburg episode at least. Kemble identifies the character of Hnæf son of Hoc with the historical Alamannic nobleman Hnabi son of Huoching (d. ca. 788), worked into the earlier episode set in Frisia around AD 800 at the earliest.
The 11th century date is due to scholars who argue that, rather than transcription of the tale from the oral tradition by a literate monk, Beowulf reflects an original interpretation of the story by the poet.
The question of whether Beowulf was passed down through oral tradition prior to its present manuscript form has been the subject of much debate, and involves more than the mere matter of how it was composed. Rather, given the implications of the theory of oral-formulaic composition and oral tradition, the question concerns how the poem is to be understood, and what sorts of interpretations are legitimate.
Scholarly discussion about Beowulf in the context of the oral tradition was extremely active throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The debate might be framed starkly as follows: on the one hand, we can hypothesise a poem put together from various tales concerning the hero (the Grendel episode, the Grendel's mother story, and the firedrake narrative). These fragments would be held for many years in tradition, and learned by apprenticeship from one generation of illiterate poets to the next. The poem is composed orally and extemporaneously, and the archive of tradition on which it draws is oral, pagan, Germanic, heroic, and tribal. On the other hand, one might posit a poem which is composed by a literate scribe, who acquired literacy by way of learning Latin (and absorbing Latinate culture and ways of thinking), probably a monk and therefore profoundly Christian in outlook. On this view, the pagan references would be a sort of decorative archaising. There is a third view that sees merit in both arguments above and attempts to bridge them, and so cannot be articulated as starkly as they can; it sees more than one Christianity and more than one attitude towards paganism at work in the poem, separated from each other by hundreds of years; it sees the poem as originally the product of a literate Christian author with one foot in the pagan world and one in the Christian, himself a convert perhaps or one whose forbears had been pagan, a poet who was conversant in both oral and literary milieus and was capable of a masterful "repurposing" of poetry from the oral tradition; this early Christian poet saw virtue manifest in a willingness to sacrifice oneself in a devotion to justice and in an attempt to aid and protect those in need of help and greater safety; good pagan men had trodden that noble path and so this poet presents pagan culture with equanimity and respect; yet overlaid upon this early Christian poet's composition are verses from a much later reformist "fire-and-brimstone" Christian poet who vilifies pagan practice as dark and sinful and who adds satanic aspects to its monsters.
M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt assert in their introduction to Beowulf in the Norton Anthology of English Literature that "The poet was reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry [...] it is now widely believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was a Christian and that his poem reflects well-established Christian tradition."
However, scholars such as DK Crowne have proposed the idea that the poem was passed down from reciter to reciter under the theory of oral-formulaic composition, which hypothesises that epic poems were (at least to some extent) improvised by whomever was reciting them. In his landmark work, The Singer of Tales, Albert Lord refers to the work of Francis P. Magoun and others, saying “the documentation is complete, thorough, and accurate. This exhaustive analysis is in itself sufficient to prove that Beowulf was composed orally.”
Examination of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry for evidence of oral-formulaic composition has met with mixed response. While "themes" (inherited narrative subunits for representing familiar classes of event, such as the "arming the hero", or the particularly well-studied "hero on the beach" theme) do exist across Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic works, some scholars conclude that Anglo-Saxon poetry is a mix of oral-formulaic and literate patterns, arguing that the poems both were composed on a word-by-word basis and followed larger formulae and patterns.
Larry Benson argued that the interpretation of Beowulf as an entirely formulaic work diminishes the ability of the reader to analyze the poem in a unified manner, and with due attention to the poet’s creativity. Instead, he proposed that other pieces of Germanic literature contain "kernels of tradition" from which Beowulf borrows and expands upon. A few years later, Ann Watts published a book in which she argued against the imperfect application of traditional, Homeric, oral-formulaic theory to Anglo-Saxon poetry. She also argued that the two traditions are not comparable and should not be regarded as such. Thomas Gardner agreed with Watts, in a paper published four years later which argued that the Beowulf text is of too varied a nature to be completely constructed from formulae and themes.
John Miles Foley held, specifically with reference to the Beowulf debate, that while comparative work was both necessary and valid, it must be conducted with a view to the particularities of a given tradition; Foley argued with a view to developments of oral traditional theory that do not assume, or depend upon, finally unverifiable assumptions about composition, and that discard the oral/literate dichotomy focused on composition in favor of a more fluid continuum of traditionality and textuality.
Finally, in the view of Ursula Schaefer, the question of whether the poem was "oral" or "literate" becomes something of a red herring. In this model, the poem is created, and is interpretable, within both noetic horizons. Schaefer’s concept of "vocality" offers neither a compromise nor a synthesis of the views which see the poem as on the one hand Germanic, pagan, and oral and on the other Latin-derived, Christian, and literate, but, as stated by Monika Otter: "...a 'tertium quid', a modality that participates in both oral and literate culture yet also has a logic and aesthetic of its own."
The poem mixes the West Saxon and Anglian dialects of Old English, though it predominantly uses West Saxon, as do other Old English poems copied at the time.][
There is a wide array of linguistic forms in the Beowulf manuscript. It is this fact that leads some scholars to believe that Beowulf has endured a long and complicated transmission through all the main dialect areas.][ The poem retains a complicated mix of the following dialectical forms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Early West Saxon, Kentish and Late West Saxon.][ Kiernan argues that it is virtually impossible that there could have been a process of transmission which could have sustained the complicated mix of forms from dialect to dialect, from generation to generation, and from scribe to scribe.][
Kiernan’s argument against an early dating based on a mixture of forms is long and involved, but he concludes that the mixture of forms points to a comparatively straightforward history of the written text as:
According to this view, Beowulf can largely be seen to be the product of antiquarian interests and that it tells readers more about "an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about Denmark, and its pre-history, than it does about the age of Bede and a 7th- or 8th-century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about his ancestors’ homeland."][ There are in Beowulf rather more than thirty-one hundred distinct words, and almost thirteen hundred occur exclusively, or almost exclusively, in this poem and in the other poetical texts. Considerably more than one-third of the total vocabulary is alien from ordinary prose use. There are in round numbers three hundred and sixty uncompounded verbs in Beowulf, and forty of them are poetical words in the sense that they are unrecorded or rare in the existing prose writings. One hundred and fifty more occur with the prefix ge- (reckoning a few found only in the past-participle), but of these one hundred occur also as simple verbs, and the prefix is employed to render a shade of meaning which was perfectly known and thoroughly familiar except in the latest Anglo-Saxon period. The nouns number sixteen hundred. Seven hundred of them, including those formed with prefixes, of which fifty (or considerably more than half) have ge-, are simple nouns. at the highest reckoning not more than one-fourth is absent in prose. That this is due in some degree to accident is clear from the character of the words, and from the fact that several reappear and are common after the Norman Conquest.
An Old English poem such as Beowulf is very different from modern poetry. Anglo-Saxon poets typically used alliterative verse, a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal structuring device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme, a tool which is used rather infrequently. This is a technique in which the first half of the line (the a-verse) is linked to the second half (the b-verse) through similarity in initial sound. In addition, the two halves are divided by a caesura: "Oft Scyld Scefing \\ sceaþena þreatum" (l. 4). This is a form of accentual verse, as opposed to our accentual-syllabic verse. There are four beats in every line – and two in every half-line.
The poet has a choice of epithets or formulae to use in order to fulfill the alliteration. When speaking or reading Old English poetry, it is important to remember for alliterative purposes that many of the letters are not pronounced the same way as they are in modern English. The letter "h", for example, is always pronounced (Hroðgar: HROTH-gar), and the digraph "cg" is pronounced like "dj", as in the word "edge". Both f and s vary in pronunciation depending on their phonetic environment. Between vowels or voiced consonants, they are voiced, sounding like modern v and z, respectively. Otherwise they are unvoiced, like modern f in "fat" and s in "sat". Some letters which are no longer found in modern English, such as thorn, þ, and eth, ð – representing both pronunciations of modern English "th", as in "cloth" and "clothe" – are used extensively both in the original manuscript and in modern English editions. The voicing of these characters echoes that of f and s. Both are voiced (as in "clothe") between other voiced sounds: oðer, laþleas, suþern. Otherwise they are unvoiced (as in "cloth"): þunor, suð, soþfæst.
Kennings are also a significant technique in Beowulf. They are evocative poetic descriptions of everyday things, often created to fill the alliterative requirements of the metre. For example, a poet might call the sea the "swan-road" or the "whale-road"; a king might be called a "ring-giver." There are many kennings in Beowulf, and the device is typical of much of classic poetry in Old English, which is heavily formulaic. The poem also makes extensive use of elided metaphors.
J. R. R. Tolkien argued that the poem is an elegy.
In historical terms, the poem's characters would have been Norse pagans (the historical events of the poem took place before the Christianisation of Scandinavia), yet the poem was recorded by Christian Anglo-Saxons who had largely converted from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism around the 7th century – both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Norse paganism share a common origin as both are forms of Germanic paganism. Beowulf thus depicts a Germanic warrior society, in which the relationship between the lord of the region and those who served under him was of paramount importance. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt note that:
This society was strongly defined in terms of kinship; if someone was killed, it was the duty of surviving kin to exact revenge either with their own lives or through weregild, a payment of reparation.
Stanley B. Greenfield (professor of English, University of Oregon) has suggested that references to the human body throughout Beowulf emphasise the relative position of thanes to their lord. He argues that the term “shoulder-companion” could refer to both a physical arm as well as a thane (Aeschere) who was very valuable to his lord (Hrothgar). With Aeschere's death, Hrothgar turns to Beowulf as his new "arm." In addition, Greenfield argues the foot is used for the opposite effect, only appearing four times in the poem. It is used in conjunction with Unferth (a man described by Beowulf as weak, traitorous, and cowardly). Greenfield notes that Unferth is described as “at the king’s feet” (line 499). Unferth is also a member of the foot troops, who, throughout the story, do nothing and “generally serve as backdrops for more heroic action.”
At the same time, Richard North (professor of English, University College London) argues that the Beowulf poet interpreted "Danish myths in Christian form" (as the poem would have served as a form of entertainment for a Christian audience), and states: "As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given [...] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as 'heathens' rather than as foreigners." Grendel's mother and Grendel are described as descendants of Cain, a fact which some scholars link to The Cain Tradition.
Other scholars disagree, however, as to the meaning and nature of the poem: is it a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context? The question suggests that the conversion from the Germanic pagan beliefs to Christian ones was a very slow and gradual process over several centuries, and it remains unclear the ultimate nature of the poem's message in respect to religious belief at the time it was written. Robert F. Yeager (Professor of literature, University of North Carolina at Asheville) notes the facts that form the basis for these questions:
Writer E. Talbot Donaldson seemed extremely certain in his criticism of the poem, focusing on the exact age and locational elements that surrounded the poem itself. He claimed that it was probably composed more than twelve hundred years ago during the first half of the eighth century. Donaldson also believes the writer to be a native of what was then West Mercia, located in the Western Midlands of England. However, the late tenth-century manuscript "which alone preserves the poem" originated in the kingdom of the West Saxons – as it is more commonly known.][ As a result of the 1731 fire that seriously damaged the manuscript, Donaldson claims that several lines and words have been lost from the poem. Concerning language, Donaldson argues that the reason as to why Beowulf is difficult to connect with is because there have been numerous transcriptions starting from the poem's composition up until it was copied into manuscript form. Even though there have been many debates about whether there are Christian entities present within the poem, Donaldson is certain that "the poet who put the materials into their present form was a Christian and... poem reflects a Christian tradition".][ He points out the use of God and his recognised will as well as describing Grendel as a descendant of Cain. He also mentions the inclusion of Heaven and Hell in the poem as the dead await God's judgement while the damned such as Grendel and his mother are to be thrust into the flames of Hell.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author and Merton professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, criticised his contemporaries' excessive interest in its historical implications. In his 1936 essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics he noted that as a result the poem's literary value had been largely overlooked and argued that the poem “is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content...”
In 1805, Sharon Turner translated selected verses into modern English. This was followed in 1814 by John Josias Conybeare who published an edition "in English paraphrase and Latin verse translation." In 1815, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin published the first complete edition in Latin. Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig reviewed this edition in 1815 and created the first complete verse translation in Danish in 1820. In 1837, J. M. Kemble created an important literal translation in English. In 1895, William Morris & A. J. Wyatt published the ninth English translation. In 1909, Francis Barton Gummere's full translation in "English imitative meter" was published, and was used as the text of Gareth Hinds's graphic novel based on Beowulf in 2007.
During the early 20th century, Frederick Klaeber's Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg (which included the poem in Old English, an extensive glossary of Old English terms, and general background information) became the "central source used by graduate students for the study of the poem and by scholars and teachers as the basis of their translations." In 1999, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's edition of Beowulf was published by Faber & Faber and includes "Northern Irish diction and turns of phrase." In 2000, W.W. Norton added it to the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
A kenning (Modern Icelandic pronunciation: ; derived from Old Norse) is a type of literary trope, specifically circumlocution, in the form of a compound (usually two words, often hyphenated) that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry. For example, Old Norse poets might replace sverð, the regular word for “sword”, with a more abstract compound such as “wound-hoe” (Egill Skallagrímsson: Höfuðlausn 8), or a genitive phrase such as randa íss “ice of shields” (Einarr Skúlason: ‘Øxarflokkr’ 9). The term kenning has been applied by modern scholars to similar figures of speech in other languages too, especially Old English.
The word was adopted into English in the nineteenth century from medieval Icelandic treatises on poetics, in particular the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and derives ultimately from the Old Norse verb kenna “know, recognise; perceive, feel; show; teach; etc.”, as used in the expression kenna við “to name after; to express [one thing] in terms of [another]”, “name after; refer to in terms of”, and kenna til “qualify by, make into a kenning by adding”.
The corresponding Modern English verb to ken survives only in highly remote English dialects, including Scots in the form (slight differences between dialects) of tae ken, other than the derivative existing in the standard language in the set expression beyond one’s ken, “beyond the scope of one’s knowledge” and in the phonologically altered form uncanny, “surreal” or “supernatural”. Old Norse kenna (Modern Icelandic kenna, Swedish känna, Danish kende, Norwegian kjenne or kjenna) is cognate with Old English cennan, Old Frisian kenna, kanna, Old Saxon (ant)kennian (Middle Dutch and Dutch kennen), Old High German (ir-, in-, pi-) chennan (Middle High German and German kennen), Gothic kannjan < Proto-Germanic *kannjanan, originally causative of *kunnanan “to know (how to)”, whence Modern English can 'to be able' (from the same Proto-Indo-European root as Modern English know and Latin-derived cognition).
Old Norse kennings take the form of a genitive phrase (báru fákr "wave’s steed" = “ship” (Þorbjörn hornklofi: Glymdrápa 3)) or a compound word (gjálfr-marr "sea-steed" = “ship” (Anon.: Hervararkviða 27)). The simplest kennings consist of a base-word (Modern Icelandic stofnorð, German Grundwort) and a determinant (Modern Icelandic kenniorð, German Bestimmung) which qualifies, or modifies, the meaning of the base-word. The determinant may be a noun used uninflected as the first element in a compound word, with the base-word constituting the second element of the compound word. Alternatively the determinant may be a noun in the genitive case, placed before or after the base-word, either directly or separated from the base-word by intervening words.
Thus the base-words in these examples are fákr and marr “steed”, the determinants báru “wave’s” and gjálfr “sea”. The unstated noun the kenning refers to is called its referent, in this case: skip “ship”.
In Old Norse poetry, either component of a kenning (base-word or determinant or both) could consist of an ordinary noun or else a heiti “poetic synonym”. In the above examples, fákr and marr are distinctively poetic lexemes; the normal word for “horse” in Old Norse prose is hestr.
The skalds also employed complex kennings in which the determinant, or sometimes the base-word, is itself made up of a further kenning: grennir gunn-más “feeder of war-gull” = “feeder of raven” = “warrior” (Þorbjörn hornklofi: Glymdrápa 6); eyðendr arnar hungrs “destroyers of eagle’s hunger” = “feeders of eagle” = “warrior” (Þorbjörn Þakkaskáld: Erlingsdrápa 1) (referring to carnivorous birds scavenging after a battle). Where one kenning is embedded in another like this, the whole figure is said to be tvíkent “doubly determined, twice modified”.
Frequently, where the determinant is itself a kenning, the base-word of the kenning that makes up the determinant is attached uninflected to the front of the base-word of the whole kenning to form a compound word: mög-fellandi mellu “son-slayer of giantess” = “slayer of sons of giantess” = “slayer of giants” = “the god Thor” (Steinunn Refsdóttir: Lausavísa 2).
If the figure comprises more than three elements, it is said to be rekit “extended”. Kennings of up to seven elements are recorded in skaldic verse. Snorri himself characterises five-element kennings as an acceptable license but cautions against more extreme constructions: Níunda er þat at reka til hinnar fimtu kenningar, er ór ættum er ef lengra er rekit; en þótt þat finnisk í fornskálda verka, þá látum vér þat nú ónýtt. “The ninth [license] is extending a kenning to the fifth determinant, but it is out of proportion if it is extended further. Even if it can be found in the works of ancient poets, we no longer tolerate it.” The longest kenning found in skaldic poetry occurs in Hafgerðingadrápa by Þórður Sjáreksson and reads nausta blakks hlé-mána gífrs drífu gim-slöngvir “fire-brandisher of blizzard of ogress of protection-moon of steed of boat-shed”, which simply means "warrior".
Word order in Old Norse was generally freer than in Modern English. This freedom is exploited to the full in skaldic verse and taken to extremes far beyond what would be natural in prose. Other words can intervene between a base-word and its genitive determinant, and occasionally between the elements of a compound word (tmesis). Kennings, and even whole clauses, can be interwoven. Ambiguity is usually less than it would be if an English text was subjected to the same contortions, thanks to the more elaborate morphology of Old Norse.
Another factor aiding comprehension is that Old Norse kennings tend to be highly conventional. Most refer to the same small set of topics, and do so using a relatively small set of traditional metaphors. Thus a leader or important man will be characterised as generous, according to one common convention, and called an "enemy of gold", "attacker of treasure", "destroyer of arm-rings", etc. and a friend of his people. Nevertheless there are many instances of ambiguity in the corpus, some of which may be intentional, and some evidence that, rather than merely accepting it from expediency, skalds favoured contorted word order for its own sake.
Some scholars take the term kenning broadly to include any noun-substitute consisting of two or more elements, including merely descriptive epithets (such as Old Norse grand viðar “bane of wood” = “fire” (Snorri Sturluson: Skáldskaparmál 36)), while others would restrict it to metaphorical instances (such as Old Norse sól húsanna “sun of the houses” = “fire” (Snorri Sturluson: Skáldskaparmál 36)), specifically those where “[t]he base-word identifies the referent with something which it is not, except in a specially conceived relation which the poet imagines between it and the sense of the limiting element'” (Brodeur (1959) pp. 248–253). Some even exclude naturalistic metaphors such as Old English forstes bend “bond of frost” = “ice” or winter-ġewǣde “winter-raiment” = “snow”: “A metaphor is a kenning only if it contains an incongruity between the referent and the meaning of the base-word; in the kenning the limiting word is essential to the figure because without it the incongruity would make any identification impossible” (Brodeur (1959) pp. 248–253). Descriptive epithets are a common literary device in many parts of the world, whereas kennings in this restricted sense are a distinctive feature of Old Norse and, to a lesser extent, Old English poetry.
Snorri’s own usage, however, seems to fit the looser sense: “Snorri uses the term "kenning" to refer to a structural device, whereby a person or object is indicated by a periphrastic description containing two or more terms (which can be a noun with one or more dependent genitives or a compound noun or a combination of these two structures)” (Faulkes (1998 a), p. xxxiv). The term is certainly applied to non-metaphorical phrases in Skáldskaparmál: En sú kenning er áðr var ritat, at kalla Krist konung manna, þá kenning má eiga hverr konungr. “And that kenning which was written before, calling Christ the king of men, any king can have that kenning. Likewise in Háttatal: Þat er kenning at kalla fleinbrak orrostu [...] “It is a kenning to call battle ‘spear-crash’ [...]”.
Snorri’s expression kend heiti "qualified terms" appears to be synonymous with kenningar, although Brodeur applies this more specifically to those periphrastic epithets which don’t come under his strict definition of kenning.
Sverdlov approaches the question from a morphological standpoint. Noting that the modifying component in Germanic compound words can take the form of a genitive or a bare root, he points to behavioural similarities between genitive determinants and the modifying element in regular Old Norse compound words, such as the fact that neither can be modified by a free-standing (declined) adjective. According to this view, all kennings are formally compounds, notwithstanding widespread tmesis.
Kennings could be developed into extended, and sometimes vivid, metaphors: tröddusk törgur fyr [...] hjalta harðfótum “shields were trodden under the hard feet of the hilt (sword blades)” (Eyvindr Skáldaspillir: Hákonarmál 6); svarraði sárgymir á sverða nesi “wound-sea (=blood) sprayed on headland of swords (=shield)” (Eyvindr Skáldaspillir: Hákonarmál 7). Snorri calls such examples nýgervingar and exemplifies them in verse 6 of his Háttatal. The effect here seems to depend on an interplay of more or less naturalistic imagery and jarring artifice. But the skalds weren’t averse either to arbitrary, purely decorative, use of kennings: “That is, a ruler will be a distributor of gold even when he is fighting a battle and gold will be called the fire of the sea even when it is in the form of a man’s arm-ring on his arm. If the man wearing a gold ring is fighting a battle on land the mention of the sea will have no relevance to his situation at all and does not contribute to the picture of the battle being described” (Faulkes (1997), pp. 8–9).
Snorri draws the line at mixed metaphor, which he terms nykrat “made monstrous” (Snorri Sturluson: Háttatal 6), and his nephew called the practice löstr “a fault” (Óláfr hvítaskáld: Third Grammatical Treatise 80). In spite of this, it seems that “many poets did not object to and some must have preferred baroque juxtapositions of unlike kennings and neutral or incongruous verbs in their verses” (Foote & Wilson (1970), p. 332). E.g. heyr jarl Kvasis dreyra “listen, earl, to Kvasir’s blood (=poetry)” (Einarr skálaglamm: Vellekla 1).
Sometimes there is a kind of redundancy whereby the referent of the whole kenning, or a kenning for it, is embedded: barmi dólg-svölu “brother of hostility-swallow” = “brother of raven” = “raven” (Oddr breiðfirðingr: Illugadrápa 1); blik-meiðendr bauga láðs “gleam-harmers of the land of rings” = “harmers of gleam of arm” = “harmers of ring” = “leaders, nobles, men of social standing (conceived of as generously destroying gold, i.e. giving it away freely)” (Anon.: Líknarbraut 42).
While some Old Norse kennings are relatively transparent, many depend on a knowledge of specific myths or legends. Thus the sky might be called naturalistically él-ker “squall-vat” (Markús Skeggjason: Eiríksdrápa 3) or described in mythical terms as Ymis haus “Ymir’s skull” (Arnórr jarlaskáld: Magnúsdrápa 19), referring to the idea that the sky was made out of the skull of the primeval giant Ymir. Still others name mythical entities according to certain conventions without reference to a specific story: rimmu Yggr “Odin of battle” = “warrior” (Arnórr jarlaskáld: Magnúsdrápa 5).
Poets in medieval Iceland even treated Christian themes using the traditional repertoire of kennings complete with allusions to heathen myths and aristocratic epithets for saints: Þrúðr falda “goddess of headdresses” = “Saint Catherine” (Kálfr Hallsson: Kátrínardrápa 4).
Kennings of the type AB, where B routinely has the characteristic A and thus this AB is tautological, tends to mean "like B in that it has the characteristic A", e.g. "shield-Njörðr", tautological because the god Njörðr by nature has his own shield, means "like Njörðr in that he has a shield", i.e. "warrior". A modern English example is "painted Jezebel" as a disapproving expression for a woman too fond of using cosmetics.
A term may be omitted from a well-known kenning: val-teigs Hildr “hawk-ground’s valkyrie/goddess” (Haraldr Harðráði: Lausavísa 19). The full expression implied here is “goddess of gleam/fire/adornment of ground/land/seat/perch of hawk” = “goddess of gleam of arm” = “goddess of gold” = “lady” (characterised according to convention as wearing golden jewellery, the arm-kenning being a reference to falconry). The poet relies on listeners’ familiarity with such conventions to carry the meaning.
In the following dróttkvætt stanza, the Norwegian skald Eyvind Finnson skáldaspillir (d. ca 990) compares the greed of king Harald Gråfell to the generosity of his predecessor Haakon the Good:
(Eyvindr skáldaspillir: Lausavísa 8).
"Ullr of war-leek! We carried the seed of Fýrisvellir on the mountains of hawks during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden the flour of Fróði's hapless slaves in the flesh of the mother of the enemy of the giantess."
This might be paraphrased: "O warrior, we carried gold on our arms during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden gold in the earth."
ímun-laukr "war-leek" = "sword".
Ullr is the name of a god, Ullr. Ullr [...] ímunlauks "god of sword" = "warrior", perhaps addressing King Harald. This kenning follows a convention whereby the name of any god is combined with some male attribute (e.g. war or weaponry) to produce a kenning for "man".
HAUKA FJÖLL "mountains of hawks" are "arms", a reference to the sport of falconry. This follows a convention in which arms are called the land (or any sort of surface) of the hawk.
Fýrisvalla fræ "seed of Fýrisvellir" = "gold". This is an allusion to a legend retold in Skáldskaparmál and Hrólf Kraki's saga in which King Hrolf and his men scattered gold on the plains (vellir) of the river Fýri south of Gamla Uppsala to delay their pursuers.
"flour of Fróði's hapless slaves" alludes to the Grottasöng legend and is another kenning for "gold".
móður hold mellu dolgs "flesh of mother of enemy of giantess" is the Earth (Jörd), personified as a goddess who was the mother of Thor, the enemy of the Jotuns.
The practice of forming kennings has traditionally been seen as a common Germanic inheritance, but this has been disputed since, among the early Germanic languages, their use is largely restricted to Old Norse and Old English poetry. A possible early kenning for "gold" (walha-kurna "Roman/Gallic grain") is attested in the Ancient Nordic runic inscription on the Tjurkö (I)-C bracteate. Kennings are virtually absent from the surviving corpus of continental West Germanic verse; the Old Saxon Heliand contains only one example: lîk-hamo “body-raiment” = “body” (Heliand 3453 b), a compound which, in any case, is normal in West Germanic and North Germanic prose (Old English līchama, Old High German lîchamo, lîchinamo, Dutch lichaam, Old Icelandic líkamr, líkami, Old Swedish līkhamber, Swedish lekamen, Danish and Norwegian Bokmål legeme, Norwegian Nynorsk lekam).
Old English kennings are all of the simple type, possessing just two elements, e.g. for “sea”: seġl-rād “sail-road” (Beowulf 1429 b), swan-rād “swan-road” (Beowulf 200 a), bæð-weġ “bath-way” (Andreas 513 a), hron-rād “whale-road” (Beowulf 10), hwæl-weġ “whale-way” (The Seafarer 63 a). Most Old English examples take the form of compound words in which the first element is uninflected: "heofon-candel" “sky-candle” = “the sun” (Exodus 115 b). Kennings consisting of a genitive phrase occur too, but rarely: heofones ġim “sky’s jewel” = “the sun” (The Phoenix 183).
Old English poets often place a series of synonyms in apposition, and these may include kennings (loosely or strictly defined) as well as the literal referent: Hrōðgar maþelode, helm Scyldinga [...] “Hrothgar, helm (=protector, lord) of the Scyldings, said [...]” (Beowulf 456).
John Steinbeck used an approximation of kennings in his 1950 novella Burning Bright, which was adapted into a Broadway play that same year. According to Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini,
"The experiment is well-intentioned, but it remains idiosyncratic to the point of absurdity. Steinbeck invented compound phrases (similar to the Old English use of kennings), such as "wife-loss" and "friend-right" and "laughter-starving," that simply seem eccentric.
Anglo-Saxon England refers to the period of the history of the part of Britain that became known as England, lasting from the end of Roman occupation and establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th century until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror. Anglo-Saxon is a general term referring to the Germanic peoples who came to Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries, including Angles, Saxons, Frisii, and Jutes. The term also refers to the language spoken at the time in England, which is now called Old English, and to the culture of the era, which has long attracted popular and scholarly attention.
Until the 9th century Anglo-Saxon England was dominated by the Heptarchy, the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex. In terms of religion the kingdoms followed Anglo-Saxon paganism during the early period, but converted to Christianity during the 7th century. Paganism had a final stronghold in a period of Mercian hegemony during the 640s, ending with the death of Penda of Mercia in 655.
Facing the threat of Viking invasions, the House of Wessex became dominant during the 9th century, under the rule of Alfred the Great. During the 10th century, the individual kingdoms unified under the rule of Wessex into the Kingdom of England, which stood opposed to the Danelaw, the Viking kingdoms established from the 9th century in the north and east of England. The Kingdom of England fell in the Viking invasion from Denmark in 1013 and was ruled by the House of Denmark until 1042, when the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex was restored. The last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, was killed in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings.
As the Roman occupation of Britain was coming to an end, Constantine III withdrew the remains of the army, in reaction to the barbarian invasion of Europe. The Romano-British leaders were faced with an increasing security problem from sea borne raids, particularly by Picts on the East coast of England. The expedient adopted by the Romano-British leaders was to enlist the help of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries (known as ), to whom they ceded territory. In about 442 the Anglo-Saxons mutinied, apparently because they had not been paid. The British responded by appealing to the Roman commander of the Western empire, Aëtius for help (a document known as the Groans of the Britons), even though Honorius, the Western Roman Emperor, had written to the British in or about 410 telling them to look to their own defence. There then followed several years of fighting between the British and the Anglo-Saxons. The fighting continued until around 500, when, at the Battle of Mount Badon, the Britons inflicted a severe defeat on the Anglo-Saxons.
There is a wide range of source material pertaining to Anglo-Saxon England.
There are literary sources:
Other written sources include:
Non-literary sources include:
There are records of Germanic infiltration into Britain that date before the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is believed that the earliest Germanic visitors were eight cohorts of Batavians attached to the 14th Legion in the original invasion force under Aulus Plautius in AD 43. There is a hypothesis that some of the native tribes, identified as Britons by the Romans, may have been Germanic language speakers although most modern scholars disagree with this.
It was quite common for Rome to swell its legions with foederati recruited from the German homelands. This practice also extended to the army serving in Britain, and graves of these mercenaries, along with their families, can be identified in the Roman cemeteries of the period. The migration continued with the departure of the Roman army, when Anglo-Saxons were recruited to defend Britain; and also during the period of the Anglo-Saxon first rebellion of 442.
If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which eventually merged to become England were founded when small fleets of three or five ships of invaders arrived at various points around the coast of England to fight the Sub-Roman British, and conquered their lands. As Margaret Gelling points out, in the context of place name evidence, what actually happened between the departure of the Romans and the coming of the Normans is the subject of much disagreement by historians.
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons into Britain can be seen in the context of a general movement of Germanic peoples around Europe between the years 300 and 700, known as the Migration period (also called the Barbarian Invasions or Völkerwanderung). In the same period there were migrations of Britons to the Armorican peninsula (Brittany and Normandy in modern day France): initially around 383 during Roman rule, but also c. 460 and in the 540s and 550s; the 460s migration is thought to be a reaction to the fighting during the Anglo-Saxon mutiny between about 450 to 500, as was the migration to Britonia (modern day Galicia, in northwest Spain) at about the same time. The historian Peter Hunter-Blair expounded what is now regarded as the traditional view of the Anglo-Saxon arrival in Britain. He suggested a mass immigration, fighting and driving the Sub-Roman Britons off their land and into the western extremities of the islands, and into the Breton and Iberian peninsulas. The modern view is of co-existence between the British and the Anglo-Saxons.][
Discussions and analysis still continue on the size of the migration, and whether it was a small elite band of Anglo-Saxons who came in and took over the running of the country, or a mass migration of peoples who overwhelmed the Britons.
According to Gildas, initial vigorous British resistance was led by a man called Ambrosius Aurelianus, from which time victory fluctuated between the two nations. Gildas records a "final" victory of the Britons at the Battle of Mount Badon in c. 500, and this might mark a point at which Anglo-Saxon migration was temporarly stemmed. Gildas said that this battle was "forty-four years and one month" after the arrival of the Saxons, and was also the year of his birth. He said that a time of great prosperity followed. But, despite the lull, the Anglo-Saxons took control of Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and part of Yorkshire; while the West Saxons founded a kingdom in Hampshire under the leadership of Cerdic, around 520. However, it was to be 50 years before the Anglo-Saxons began further major advances. In the intervening years the Britons exhausted themselves with civil war, internal disputes, and general unrest: which was the inspiration behind Gildas's book De Excidio Britanniae (The Ruin of Britain).
The next major campaign against the Britons was in 577, led by Cealin, king of Wessex, whose campaigns succeeded in taking Cirencester, Gloucester and Bath (known as the Battle of Dyrham). This expansion of Wessex ended abruptly when the Anglo-Saxons started fighting among themselves, and resulted in Cealin eventually having to retreat to his original territory. He was then replaced by Ceol (who was possibly his nephew): Cealin was killed the following year, but the annals do not specify by whom. Cirencester subsequently became an Anglo-Saxon kingdom under the overlordship of the Mercians, rather than Wessex.
By 600, a new order was developing, of kingdoms and sub-Kingdoms. Henry of Huntingdon (a medieval historian) conceived the idea of the Heptarchy, which consisted of the seven principal Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The four main kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England were:
At the end of the 6th century the most powerful ruler in England was Æthelberht of Kent, whose lands extended north to the Humber River. In the early years of the 7th century, Kent and East Anglia were the leading English kingdoms. After the death of Æthelberht in 616, Rædwald of East Anglia became the most powerful leader south of the Humber.
Following the death of Æthelfrith of Northumbria, Rædwald provided military assistance to the Deiran Edwin in his struggle to take over the two dynasties of Deira and Bernicia in the unified kingdom of Northumbria. Upon the death of Rædwald, Edwin was able to pursue a grand plan to expand Northumbrian power.
The growing strength of Edwin of Northumbria forced the Anglo-Saxon Mercians under Penda into an alliance with the Welsh King Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and together they invaded Edwin's lands and defeated and killed him at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. Their success was short-lived, as Oswald (one of the dead King of Northumbria, Æthelfrith's, sons) defeated and killed Cadwallon at Heavenfield near Hexham. In less than a decade Penda again waged war against Northumbria, and killed Oswald in battle during 642.
His brother Oswiu was chased to the northern extremes of his kingdom. However, Oswiu killed Penda shortly after, and Mercia spent the rest of the 7th and all of the 8th century fighting the kingdom of Powys. The war reached its climax during the reign of Offa of Mercia, who is remembered for the construction of a 150-mile-long dyke which formed the Wales/ England border. It is not clear whether this was a boundary line or a defensive position. The ascendency of the Mercians came to an end in 825, when they were soundly beaten under Beornwulf at the Battle of Ellendun by Egbert of Wessex.
Christianity was introduced into the British Isles during the Roman occupation. The early Christian Berber author, Tertullian, writing in the third century, said that "Christianity could even be found in Britain." The Roman Emperor Constantine (306–337), granted official tolerance to Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313. Then, in the reign of Emperor Theodosius "the Great" (378–395), Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire.
It is not entirely clear how many Britons would have been Christian when the pagan Anglo-Saxons arrived. There had been attempts to evangelise the Irish by Pope Celestine in 431. However, it was Saint Patrick who is credited with converting the Irish en-masse. A Christian Ireland then set about evangelising the rest of the British Isles, and Columba was sent to found a religious community in Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Then Aidan was sent from Iona to set up his see in Northumbria, at Lindisfarne, between 635–651. Hence Northumbria was converted by the Celtic (Irish) church.
Bede is very uncomplimentary about the indigenous British clergy: in his Historia ecclesiastica he complains of their unspeakable crimes, and that they did not preach the faith to the Angles or Saxons. Pope Gregory sent Augustine in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons, but Bede says the British clergy refused to help Augustine in his mission. Despite Bede's complaints, it is now believed that the Britons played an important role in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. On arrival in the south east of England in 597, Augustine was given land by King Æthelberht of Kent to build a church; so in 597 Augustine built the church and founded the See at Canterbury. He baptised Æthelberht in 601, then continued with his mission to convert the English. Most of the north and east of England had already been evangelised by the Irish Church. However, Sussex and the Isle of Wight remained mainly pagan until the arrival of Saint Wilfrid, the exiled Archbishop of York, who converted Sussex around 681 and the Isle of Wight in 683.
It remains unclear what "conversion" actually meant. The ecclesiastical writers tended to declare a territory as "converted" merely because the local king had agreed to be baptised, regardless of whether, in reality, he actually adopted Christian practices; and regardless, too, of whether the general population of his kingdom did. When churches were built, they tended to include pagan as well as Christian symbols, evidencing an attempt to reach out to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, rather than demonstrating that they were already converted.
Even after Christianity had been set up in all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, there was friction between the followers of the Roman rites and the Irish rites, particularly over the date on which Easter fell and the way monks cut their hair. In 664 a conference was held at Whitby Abbey (known as the Whitby Synod) to decide the matter; Saint Wilfrid was an advocate for the Roman rites and Bishop Colmán for the Irish rites. Wilfrid's argument won the day and Colmán and his party returned to Ireland in their bitter disappointment. The Roman rites were adopted by the English church, although they were not universally accepted by the Irish Church.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, raiders and colonists from Scandinavia, mainly Danish and Norwegian, plundered western Europe, including the British Isles. These raiders came to be known as the Vikings; the name is believed to derive from Scandinavia, where the Vikings originated. The first raids in the British Isles were in the late 8th century, mainly on churches and monasteries (which were seen as centres of wealth). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that the holy island of Lindisfarne was sacked in 793. The raiding then virtually stopped for around forty years; but in about 835 it started becoming more regular.
In the 860s, instead of raids, the Danes mounted a full scale invasion. In 865 an enlarged army arrived that the Anglo-Saxons described as the Great Heathen Army. This was reinforced in 871 by the Great Summer Army. Within ten years nearly all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell to the invaders: Northumbria in 867, East Anglia in 869, and nearly all of Mercia in 874-77. Kingdoms, centres of learning, archives, and churches all fell before the onslaught from the invading Danes. Only the Kingdom of Wessex was able to survive. In March 878, the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, Alfred, with a few men, built a fortress at Athelney, hidden deep in the marshes of Somerset. He used this as a base from which to harry the Vikings. In May 878 he put together an army formed from the populations of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, which defeated the Viking army in the battle Battle of Edington. The Vikings retreated to their stronghold, and Alfred laid siege to it. Ultimately the Danes capitulated, and their leader Guthrum agreed to withdraw from Wessex and to be baptised. The formal ceremony was completed a few days later at Wedmore. There followed a peace treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, which had a variety of provisions, including defining the boundaries of the area to be ruled by the Danes (which became known as the Danelaw) and those of Wessex. The Kingdom of Wessex controlled part of the Midlands and the whole of the South (apart from Cornwall, which was still held by the Britons), while the Danes held East Anglia and the North.
After the victory at Edington and resultant peace treaty, Alfred set about transforming his Kingdom of Wessex into a society on a full-time war footing. He built a navy, reorganised the army, and set up a system of fortified towns known as burhs. He mainly used old Roman cities for his burhs, as he was able to rebuild and reinforce their existing fortifications. To maintain the burhs, and the standing army, he set up a taxation system known as the Burghal Hidage. These burhs (or burghs) operated as defensive structures. The Vikings were thereafter unable to cross large sections of Wessex: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a Danish raiding party was defeated when it tried to attack the burh of Chichester. The burhs, although primarily designed as defensive structures, were also commercial centres, attracting traders and markets to a safe haven, and they provided a safe place for the king's moneyers and mints. A new wave of Danish invasions commenced in the year 891, beginning a war that lasted over three years. Alfred's new system of defence worked, however, and ultimately it wore the Danes down: they gave up and dispersed in the summer of 896.
Alfred is also remembered as a literate king. He or his court commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written in Old English (rather than in Latin, which was the language of the European annals). Alfred's own literary output was mainly of translations, though he wrote introductions and amended manuscripts as well.
On Alfred's death in 899, his son Edward the Elder succeeded him. Alfred's son Edward, and his grandsons Æthelstan, Edmund I, and Eadred, continued the policy of resistance against the Vikings. From 874–879 the western half of Mercia was ruled by Ceowulf II, who was succeeded by Æthelred. In 886/887 Æthelred married Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd. When Æthelred died in 911, his widow administered the Mercian province with the title "Lady of the Mercians". As commander of the Mercian army she worked with her brother, Edward the Elder, to win back the Mercian lands that were under Danish control. Edward and his successors made burhs a key element of their strategy, enabling them to go on the offensive. Edward recaptured Essex in 913. Edward's son, Æthelstan, annexed Northumbria and forced the kings of Wales to submit; at the battle of Brunanburh in 937, he defeated an alliance of the Scots, Danes, and Vikings to become King of all England. Along with the Britons and the settled Danes, some of the other Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms disliked being ruled by Wessex. Consequently, the death of a Wessex king would be followed by rebellion, particularly in Northumbria. In 973, Alfred's great-grandson, Edgar, was crowned King of England and Emperor of Britain at Bath. On his coinage he had inscribed EDGAR REX ANGLORUM ("Edgar, King of the English"). Edgar's coronation was a magnificent affair, and many of its rituals and words could still be seen in the coronation of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 1953, though in English rather than Latin.
The presence of Danish and Norse settlers in the Danelaw had a lasting impact; the people there saw themselves as "armies" a hundred years after settlement: King Edgar issued a law code in 962 that was to include the people of Northumbria, so he addressed it to Earl Olac "and all the army that live in that earldom". There are over 3,000 words in modern English that have Scandinavian roots. Also, more than 1,500 place-names in England are Scandinavian in origin: for example, topographic names such as Howe, Norfolk and Howe, North Yorkshire are derived from the Old Norse word haugr meaning hill, knoll, or mound.
Two years after his coronation at Bath, Edgar died while still only in his early thirties. He left two surviving sons, Edward (the eldest) and his half-brother Æthelred. Edward was crowned king, at Kingston, but three years later he was assassinated by one of his half-brother's retainers, with the assistance of Æthelred's stepmother. Hence Æthelred II was crowned in 978, and although he reigned for thirty eight years, one of the longest reigns in English history, he earned the name "Æthelred the Unready", as he proved to be one of England's most disastrous kings. William of Malmesbury, writing in his "Chronicle of the kings of England" about one hundred years later, was scathing in his criticism of Æthelred, saying that he occupied the kingdom, rather than governed it.
Just as Æthelred was being crowned, the Danish King Gormsson was trying to force Christianity onto his domain. Many of his subjects did not like this idea, and shortly before 988, Swein, his son, drove his father from the kingdom. The rebels, dispossessed at home, probably formed the first waves of raids on the English coast. The rebels did so well in their raiding that the Danish kings decided to take over the campaign themselves.
In 991 the Vikings sacked Ipswich, and their fleet made landfall near Maldon in Essex. The Danes demanded that the English pay a ransom, but the English commander Byrhtnoth refused; he was killed in the ensuing Battle of Maldon, and the English were easily defeated. From then on the Vikings seem to have raided anywhere at will; they were contemptuous of the lack of resistance from the English. Even the Alfredian systems of burhs failed. Æthelred seems to have just hidden, out of range of the raiders.
By the 980s the kings of Wessex had a powerful grip on the coinage of the realm. It is reckoned there were about 300 moneyers, and 60 mints, around the country. Every five or six years the coinage in circulation would cease to be legal tender and new coins were issued. The system controlling the currency around the country was extremely sophisticated; this enabled the king to raise large sums of money if needed. The ability to raise large sums of money was needed after the battle of Maldon, as Æthelred decided that, rather than fight, he would pay ransom to the Danes in a system known as Danegeld. As part of the ransom, a peace treaty was drawn up that was intended to stop the raids. However, rather than buying the Vikings off, payment of Danegeld only encouraged them to come back for more.
The Dukes of Normandy were quite happy to allow these Danish adventurers to use their ports for raids on the English coast. The result was that the courts of England and Normandy became increasingly hostile to each other. Eventually, Æthelred sought a treaty with the Normans, and ended up marrying Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy in the Spring of 1002, which was seen as an attempt to break the link between the raiders and Normandy.
Then, on St. Brice's day in November 1002, Danes living in England were slaughtered on the orders of Æthelred.
In the summer of 1013, Sven Forkbeard, King of Denmark, brought the Danish fleet to Sandwich, Kent. From there he went north to the Danelaw, where the locals immediately agreed to support him. He then struck south, forcing Æthelred into exile in Normandy (1013–1014). However, on 3 February 1014 Sven died suddenly. Capitalising on his death, Æthelred returned to England and drove Sven's son, Cnut, back to Denmark, forcing him to abandon his allies in the process. In 1015, Cnut launched a new campaign against England. Edmund fell out with his father, Æthelred, and struck out on his own. Some English leaders decided to support Cnut, so Æthelred ultimately retreated to London. Before engagement with the Danish army, Æthelred died and was replaced by Edmund. The Danish army encircled and besieged London, but Edmund was able to escape and raised an army of loyalists. Edmund's army routed the Danes, but the success was short-lived: at the battle of Ashingdon the Danes were victorious and many of the English leaders were killed. Cnut and Edmund agreed to split the kingdom in two, with Edmund ruling Wessex and Cnut the rest.
In 1017, Edmund died in mysterious circumstances, probably murdered by Cnut or his supporters, and the English council (the witan) confirmed Cnut as king of all England. Cnut divided England into earldoms: most of these were allocated to nobles of Danish descent, but he made an Englishman earl of Wessex. The man he appointed was Godwin, who eventually became part of the extended royal family when he married the king's sister-in-law. In the summer of 1017, Cnut sent for Æthelred's widow, Emma, with the intention of marrying her. It seems that Emma agreed to marry the king on condition that he would limit the English succession to the children born of their union. Cnut already had a wife known as Ælfgifu of Northampton who bore him two sons, Svein and Harold Harefoot. However it seems that the church regarded Ælfgifu as Cnut's concubine rather than his wife. In addition to the two sons he had with Ælfgifu, he had a further son with Emma, who was named Harthacnut.
When Cnut's brother, Harald II, King of Denmark, died in 1018 Cnut went to Denmark to secure that realm. Two years later, Cnut brought Norway under his control, and he gave Ælfgifu and their son Svein the job of governing it.
One result of Cnut's marriage to Emma was to precipitate a succession crisis after his death in 1035, as the throne was disputed between Ælfgifu's son, Harald Harefoot, and Emma's son, Harthacnut. Emma supported her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, rather than her sons by Æthelred. Her son by Æthelred, Edward, made an unsuccessful raid on Southampton, and his brother Alfred was murdered on an expedition to England in 1036. Emma fled to Bruges when Harald Harefoot became king of England, but when he died in 1040 Harthacnut was able to take over as king. Harthacnut quickly developed a reputation for imposing high taxes on England. He became so unpopular that Edward was invited to return from exile in Normandy to be recognised as Harthacnut's heir, and when Harthacnut died suddenly in 1042 (probably murdered), Edward (known to posterity as Edward the Confessor) became king.
Edward was supported by Earl Godwin of Wessex and married the earl's daughter. This arrangement was seen as expedient, however, as Godwin had been implicated in the murder of Alfred, the king's brother. In 1051 one of Edward's in-laws, Eustace, arrived to take up residence in Dover; the men of Dover objected and killed some of Eustace's men. When Godwin refused to punish them, the king, who had been unhappy with the Godwins for some time, summoned them to trial. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was chosen to deliver the news to Godwin and his family. The Godwins fled rather than face trial. It is thought that at this time Edward offered the succession to his cousin, William (duke) of Normandy (also known as William the Conqueror, William the Bastard, or William I). William did eventually become the king of England. The Godwins threatened to invade England, and Edward is said to have wanted to fight, but at a Great Council meeting in Westminster, Earl Godwin laid down all his weapons and asked the king to allow him to purge himself of all crimes. The king and Godwin were reconciled, and the Godwins thus became the most powerful family in England after the king. On Godwin's death in 1053, his son Harold succeeded to the earldom of Wessex; Harold's brothers Gyrth, Leofrine, and Tostig were given East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. The Northumbrians disliked Tostig for his harsh behaviour, and he was expelled to an exile in Flanders, in the process falling out with his brother Harold, who supported the king's line in backing the Northumbrians.
On 26 December 1065, Edward was taken ill He took to his bed and fell into a coma; at one point he woke and turned to Harold Godwinson and asked him to protect the Queen and the kingdom. On 5 January 1066 Edward the Confessor died, and Harold was declared king. The following day, 6 January 1066, Edward was buried and Harold crowned.
Although Harold Godwinson had grabbed the crown of England, there were others who laid claim, primarily William, Duke of Normandy, who was cousin to Edward the Confessor through his aunt, Emma of Normandy. It is believed that Edward had promised the crown to William. Harold Godwinson had agreed to support William's claim after being imprisoned in Normandy, by Guy of Ponthieu.William had demanded and received Harold's release, then during his stay under William's protection it is claimed, by the Normans, that Harold swore a solemn oath of loyalty to William.
Harald Hardrada ("The Ruthless") of Norway also had a claim on England, through Cnut and his successors. He had, too, a further claim based on a pact between Hathacnut, King of Denmark (Cnut's son) and Magnus, King of Norway.
Tostig, Harold's estranged brother, was the first to move; according to the medieval historian Orderic Vitalis, he travelled to Normandy to enlist the help of William, Duke of Normandy, later to be known as William the Conqueror. William was not ready to get involved so Tostig sailed from the Cotentin Peninsula, but because of storms ended up in Norway, where he successfully enlisted the help of Harold Hardrada. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle has a different version of the story, having Tostig land in the Isle of Wight in May 1066, then ravaging the English coast, before arriving at Sandwich, Kent. At Sandwich Tostig is said to have enlisted and press ganged sailors before sailing north where, after battling some of the northern earls and also visiting Scotland, he eventually joined Hardrada (possibly in Scotland or at the mouth of the river Tyne).
According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (Manuscripts D and E) Tostig became Hadrada's vassal, and then with 300 or so longships sailed up the Humber estuary bottling the English fleet in the river Swale and then landed at Riccall on the Ouse on 24th. September. They marched towards York, where they were confronted, at Fulford Gate, by the English forces that were under the command of the northern earls, Edwin and Morcar, the battle of Fulford Gate followed, on 20 September, which was one of the most bloody battles of mediaeval times. The English forces were routed, though Edwin and Morcar escaped. The victors entered the city of York, exchanged hostages and were provisioned. Hearing the news whilst in London, Harold Godwinson force-marched a second English army to Tadcaster by the night of the 24th., and after catching Harald Hardrada by surprise, on the morning of the 25th. September, Harold achieved a total victory over the Scandinavian horde after a two day-long engagement at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold gave quarter to the survivors allowing them to leave in 20 ships.
Harold would have been celebrating his victory at Stamford Bridge on the night of 26/27 September 1066, while William of Normandy's invasion fleet set sail for England on the morning of 27 September 1066. Harold marched his army back down to the south coast where he met William's army, at a place now called Battle just outside Hastings. Harold was killed when he fought and lost the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.
The Battle of Hastings virtually destroyed the Godwin dynasty. Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were dead on the battlefield, as was their uncle Ælfwig, Abbot of Newminster.Tostig had been killed at Stamford Bridge. Wulfnoth was a hostage of William the Conqueror. The Godwin women who remained were either dead or childless.
William marched on London. The city leaders surrendered the kingdom to him, and he was crowned at Westminster Abbey, Edward the Confessor's new church, on Christmas Day 1066. It took William a further ten years to consolidate his kingdom, any opposition was suppressed ruthlessly, and in a particularly brutal incident known as the "Harrying of the North", William issued orders to lay waste the north and burn all the cattle, crops and farming equipment and to poison the earth. According to Orderic Vitalis the Anglo-Norman chronicler over one hundred thousand people died of starvation. Figures based on the returns for the Domesday Book estimate that the overall population of England in 1086 was about 2.25 million, so the figure of one hundred thousand deaths, due to starvation, would have been a huge proportion of the population.
By the time of William's death in 1087, those who had been England's Anglo-Saxon rulers were dead, exiled, or had joined the ranks of the peasantry. It was estimated that only about 8 percent of the land was under Anglo-Saxon control. Nearly all the Anglo-Saxon cathedrals and abbeys of any note had been demolished and replaced with Norman-style architecture by 1200.
The Saxons (Latin: , Old English: , Old Saxon: , Low German: , German: ) were a confederation of Germanic tribes on the North German Plain, some of whom conquered large parts of Great Britain in the early Middle Ages and formed part of the merged group of Anglo-Saxons that would eventually carve out the first united Kingdom of England.
The Saxons' earliest area of settlement is believed to have been Northern Albingia, an area approximately that of modern Holstein. This general area also included the probable homeland of the Angles. Saxons, along with the Angles, and other continental Germanic tribes, participated in the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain during and after the 5th century. The British-Celtic inhabitants of the isles tended to call all these groups Saxons collectively. It is unknown how many migrated from the continent to Britain, though estimates for the total number of Anglo-Saxon settlers are around two hundred thousand. During the Middle Ages, because of international Hanseatic trading routes and contingent migration, Saxons mixed with and had strong influences upon the languages and cultures of the North Germanic and Baltic and Finnic peoples, and also upon the Polabian Slavs and Pomeranian West Slavic people.
Following the downfall of Henry the Lion and the subsequent split of the Saxon tribal duchy into several territories, the name of the Saxon duchy was transferred to the lands of the Ascanian family. This led to the differentiation between Lower Saxony, lands settled by the Saxon tribe, and Upper Saxony, as the duchy (finally a kingdom). When the Upper was dropped from Upper Saxony, a different region had acquired the Saxon name, ultimately replacing the name's original meaning. What was Upper Saxony is now in what is called Mitteldeutschland.
The word also survives as the surnames Saß/Sass, Sachse and Sachs. The Dutch female first name "Saskia" originally meant "A Saxon woman" (alteration of "Saxia").
In the Celtic languages, the word for the English nationality is derived from the Latin Saxones. The most prominent example, a loan word in English, is the Gàidhlig Sassenach (Saxon), often used disparagingly in Scottish English/Scots. It derives from the Scottish Gaelic Sasunnach meaning, originally, "Saxon", from the Latin "Saxones". As employed by Scots or Scottish English-speakers today it is usually used in jest, as a (friendly) term of abuse. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives 1771 as the date of the earliest written use of the word in English.
Sasanach, the Irish language word for an Englishman, has the same derivation, as do the words used in Welsh to describe the English people (Saeson, sing. Sais) and the language and things English in general: Saesneg and Seisnig. These words are normally, however, used only in the Irish and Welsh languages themselves.
Cornish also terms English Sawsnek from the same derivation. In the 16th century, the phrase 'Meea navidna cowza sawzneck!' to feign ignorance of the English language was used in Cornish.
England, in Gàidhlig, is Sasainn (Saxony). Other examples are the Welsh Saesneg (the English language), Irish Sasana (England), Breton saoz(on) (English, saozneg "the English language", Bro-saoz "England"), and Cornish Sowson (English people) and Sowsnek (English language), Pow Sows for 'Land [Pays] of Saxons'.
The label "Saxons" (in Romanian 'Saşi') was also applied to German settlers who migrated during the 13th century to southeastern Transylvania. From Transylvania some Saxons migrated to the neighbouring Moldova as the name of one town, Sas-cut, shows. Sascut is located in the part of Moldova that is today part of Romania. During Georg Friederich Händel's visit to Italy, much was made of his being from Saxony; in particular, the Venetians greeted the 1709 performance of his opera Agrippina with the cry Viva il caro Sassone, "Long live the beloved Saxon!"
The Finns and Estonians have changed their usage of the term Saxony over the centuries to denote now the whole country of Germany (Saksa and Saksamaa respectively) and the Germans (saksalaiset and sakslased, respectively). The Finnish word sakset scissors shows the name of the old Saxon single-edged sword Seax from which 'Saxon' is supposedly derived. In Estonian saks means a nobleman or, colloquially, a wealthy or powerful person: as a result of the Northern Crusades in the Middle Ages and lasting until the 20th century, Estonia's upper class had been mostly of German origin.
Ptolemy's Geographia, written in the 2nd century, is sometimes considered to contain the first mentioning of the Saxons. Some copies of this text mention a tribe called Saxones in the area to the north of the lower River Elbe. However, other copies call the same tribe Axones, and it is possible that it is a misspelling of the tribe that Tacitus in his Germania called Aviones. According to this proposal, "Saxones" was an attempt by later scribes to correct a name that meant nothing to them. On the other hand, Schütte, in his analysis of such problems in Ptolemy's Maps of Northern Europe, believed that "Saxones" is correct, and notes that the loss of first letters occurs in numerous places in various copies of Ptolemy's work, and also that the manuscripts without "Saxones" are generally inferior.
Schütte also remarks that there was a medieval tradition of calling this area "Old Saxony". In opposition to this, other authors point out that sources such as Bede who mention Old Saxony, might be interpreted as saying it was near the Rhine, somewhere to the north of the river Lippe, and were in any case not familiar with the area personally.
In 441–442, Saxons are mentioned for the first time as inhabitants of Britain, when an unknown Gaulish historian wrote: "Britain falls under the rule of the Saxons".][
The first undisputed mention of the Saxon name in its modern form is from 356, when Julian, later the Roman Emperor, mentioned them in a speech as allies of Magnentius, a rival emperor in Gaul. Zosimus also mentions a specific tribe of Saxons, called the Kouadoi, which have been interpreted as the Chauci, who entered the Rhine and displaced the recently settled Salian Franks from Batavi, whereupon some of the Salians began to move into the Belgian territory of Toxandria, supported by Julian.
In order to defend against Saxon raiders, the Romans created a military district called the Litus Saxonicum ("Saxon Coast") on both sides of the English Channel.
Saxons as inhabitants of present-day Northern Germany are first mentioned in 555, when Theudebald, the Frankish king, died and the Saxons used the opportunity for an uprising. The uprising was suppressed by Chlothar I, Theudebald's successor. Some of their Frankish successors fought against the Saxons, others were allied with them; Chlothar II won a decisive victory against the Saxons. The Thuringians frequently appeared as allies of the Saxons.
The Saxons may have derived their name from seax, a kind of knife for which they were known. The seax has a lasting symbolic impact in the English counties of Essex and Middlesex, both of which featuring three seaxes in their ceremonial emblem. Another county, Sussex, also contains the same 'sex' suffix.
The Continental Saxons living in what was known as Old Saxony appear to have consolidated themselves by the end of the 8th century. After subjugation by the Emperor Charlemagne a political entity called the Duchy of Saxony appeared.
The Saxons long resisted both becoming Christians and being incorporated into the orbit of the Frankish kingdom, but they were decisively conquered by Charlemagne in a long series of annual campaigns, the Saxon Wars (772 – 804). During Charlemagne's campaign in Hispania (778), the Saxons advanced to Deutz on the Rhine and plundered along the river. With defeat came enforced baptism and conversion as well as the union of the Saxons with the rest of the Germanic, Frankish empire. Their sacred tree or pillar, a symbol of Irminsul, was destroyed. Charlemagne also deported 10,000 of them to Neustria and gave their now vacant lands to the loyal king of the Abotrites. Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer, says on the closing of such a grand conflict:
The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King; which were renunciation of their national religious customs and the worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and union with the Franks to form one people.
Under Carolingian rule, the Saxons were reduced to tributary status. There is evidence that the Saxons, as well as Slavic tributaries such as the Abodrites and the Wends, often provided troops to their Carolingian overlords. The dukes of Saxony became kings (Henry I, the Fowler, 919) and later the first emperors (Henry's son, Otto I, the Great) of Germany during the 10th century, but they lost this position in 1024. The duchy was divided up in 1180 when Duke Henry the Lion, Emperor Otto's grandson, refused to follow his cousin, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, into war in Lombardy.
During the High Middle Ages, under the Salian emperors and, later, under the Teutonic Knights, German settlers moved east of the River Saale into the area of a western Slavic tribe, the Sorbs. The Sorbs were gradually Germanised. This region subsequently acquired the name Saxony through political circumstances, though it was initially called the March of Meissen. The rulers of Meissen acquired control of the Duchy of Saxony in 1423 and eventually applied the name Saxony to the whole of their kingdom. Since then, this part of eastern Germany has been referred to as Saxony (German: Sachsen), a source of some misunderstanding about the original homeland of the Saxons, with a central part in the present-day German state of Lower Saxony (German: Niedersachsen).
In the Netherlands, Saxons occupied the territory south of the Frisians and north of the Franks. In the west it reached as far as the Gooi region, in the south as far as the Lower Rhine. After the conquest of Charlemagne this formed the main part of the Bishopric of Utrecht. The Saxon duchy of Hamaland played an important role in the formation of the duchy of Guelders.
The local language, although strongly influenced by standard Dutch, is still officially recognised as Dutch Low Saxon.
In 569, some Saxons accompanied the Lombards into Italy under the leadership of Alboin and settled there. In 572, they raided southeastern Gaul as far as Stablo, now Estoublon. Divided, they were easily defeated by Gallo-Frankish General Mummolus. When the Saxons regrouped, a peace treaty was negotiated whereby the Italian Saxons were allowed to settle with their families in Austrasia. Gathering their families and belongings in Italy, they returned to Provence in two groups in 573. One group proceeded by way of Nice and another via Embrun, joining up at Avignon, where they plundered the territory and were as a consequence stopped from crossing the Rhone by Mummolus. They were forced to pay compensation for what they had robbed before they could enter Austrasia. Nevertherless, they are known only by documents and it cannot be compared to the traces of Saxon settlements in northern and western Gaul.
A Saxon king named Eadwacer conquered Angers in 463 only to be dislodged by Childeric I and the Salian Franks, allies of the Roman Empire. It is possible that Saxon settlement of Great Britain began only in response to expanding Frankish control of the Channel coast.
Some Saxons already lived along the Saxon shore of Gaul. We can trace them in documents, but also in archeology and in toponymy. The Notitia Dignitatum mentions the Tribunus cohortis primae novae Armoricanae, Grannona in litore Saxonico. The location of Grannona is uncertain and was identified by the historians and toponymists at different places, mainly with the town known today as Granville (in Normandy) or nearby. The Notitia Dignitatum does not explain where these "Roman" soldiers came from. Some toponymists have proposed Graignes (Grania 1109 - 1113) as the location for Grannona/Grannonum. It could be the same element *gran, that is recognised in Guernsey (Greneroi 11th century). This location is closer to Bayeux, where Gregory of Tours evokes otherwise the Saxones Bajocassini (Bessin Saxons), that were ineffective to defeat the Breton Waroch in 579.
Thus, a Saxon unit of laeti would have been settled at Bayeux—the Saxones Baiocassenses. These Saxons became subjects of Clovis I late in the 5th century. The Saxons of Bayeux comprised a standing army and were often called upon to serve alongside the local levy of their region in Merovingian military campaigns. They were ineffective against Waroch in this capacity in 579. In 589, the Saxons wore their hair in the Breton fashion at the orders of Fredegund and fought with them as allies against Guntram. Beginning in 626, the Saxons of the Bessin were used by Dagobert I for his campaigns against the Basques. One of their own, Aeghyna, was even created a dux over the region of Vasconia.
In 843 and 846 under king Charles the Bald, other official documents mention a pagus called Otlinga Saxonia in the Bessin region, but the meaning of Otlinga is unclear. Different Bessin toponyms were identified as typically Saxon, ex : Cottun (Coltun 1035 - 1037 ; Cola 's "town"). It is the only place-name in Normandy that can be interpreted as a -tun one (English -ton; cf. Colton). However, we cannot compare this single fact in Normandy with the extension of the -thun villages in the north of France, in Boulonnais, ex : Alincthun, Verlincthun, Pelingthun, etc. showing with other toponyms, an important Saxon or Anglo-Saxon settlement. If we compare the concentration of -ham / -hem (Anglo-Saxon hām > home) in the Bessin and in the Boulonnais, we obtain a better result. In the area known today as Normandy, the -ham cases of Bessin are unique, they don't exist out of it. Other cases were considered, but there is no determining example, f.e. : Canehan (Kenehan 1030 / Canaan 1030 - 1035) could be the biblical name Canaan or Airan (Heidram 9th century), the Germanic masculine name Hairammus.
On the contrary, the Bessin examples are quite sure. f. e. Ouistreham (Oistreham 1086), Étréham (Oesterham 1350 ?), Huppain (*Hubbehain ; Hubba 's "home"), Surrain (Surrehain 11th century), etc. Another significant example can be found in the Norman onomastics: the widespread surname Lecesne, with variant spellings : Le Cesne, Lesène, Lecène and Cesne. It comes from Gallo-Romance *SAXINU "the Saxon" > saisne in Old French. These examples cannot be more recent Anglo-Scandinavian toponyms, because in that case they would have been numerous in the Norman regions (pays de Caux, Basse-Seine, North-Cotentin) concerned by these Nordic settlements. That is not the case, and Bessin does not belong to the pagii that were touched by an important Anglo-Scandinavian immigration.
Otherwise, archeological finds add evidence to the documents and the results of toponymic research. All around the city of Caen and in the Bessin (Vierville-sur-Mer, Bénouville, Giverville, Hérouvillette), excavations have shown numerous Anglo-Saxon jewelry, design elements, settings and weapons. All these things were discovered in cemeteries in a context of the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries AD.
However, the oldest and most spectacular Saxon site found in France to date is Vron, in Picardy. There, archeologists excavated a large cemetery with tombs dating from the Roman Empire until the 6th century. Furniture and other gravegoods, as well as the human remains revealed a group of people buried in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Physically different from the usual local inhabitants found before this period, they instead resembled the Germanic populations of the North. At the beginning (4th century) 92% were buried, sometimes with typical Germanic weapons. Then, they were ranked to the east, when they were buried in the 5th and later to the beginning of the 6th century. We can notice a strong Anglo-Saxon influence in the middle of the period, that disappears later. Archeological material, neighbouring toponymy and texts tend toward to the same conclusions: settlement of Saxon foederati with their families. Further anthropological research by Joël Blondiaux shows they were from Low Saxony.
Saxons, along with Angles, Frisians and Jutes, invaded or migrated to the island of Great Britain (Britannia) around the time of the collapse of Roman authority in the west. Saxon raiders had been harassing the eastern and southern shores of Britannia for centuries before, prompting the construction of a string of coastal forts called the Litora Saxonica or Saxon Shore, and many Saxons and other folk had been permitted to settle in these areas as farmers long before the end of Roman rule in Britannia.
According to tradition, the Saxons (and other tribes) first entered Britain en masse as part of a deal to protect the Britons from the incursions of the Picts, Gaels and others. The story as reported in such sources as the Historia Brittonum and Gildas indicates that the British king Vortigern allowed the Germanic warlords, later named as Hengist and Horsa by Bede, to settle their people on the Isle of Thanet in exchange for their service as mercenaries. Hengist, according to Bede, manipulated Vortigern into granting more land and allowing for more settlers to come in, paving the way for the Germanic settlement of Britain.
Historians are divided about what followed: some argue that the takeover of southern Great Britain by the Anglo-Saxons was peaceful.][ There is, however, only one known account from a native Briton who lived at this time in the mid-5th century AD, (Gildas), and his description is of a forced takeover:
For the fire...spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean. In these assaults...all the columns were levelled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if, indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into the high heaven by the holy angels... Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation...Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.
Gildas then describes how the Saxons were slaughtered at the battle of Mons Badonicus forty four years before he writes his history, and Britain reverts to Romano-British rule. The 8th-century English historian Bede disagrees with Gildas, and states that the Saxon invasions continued after the battle of Mons Badonicus, including also Jutish and Anglic expeditions, resulting in a swift overrunning of the entirety of South-Eastern Britain, and the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Four separate Saxon realms emerged:
During the period of the reigns from Egbert to Alfred the Great, the kings of Wessex emerged as Bretwalda, unifying the country and eventually forging it into the kingdom of England in the face of Viking invasions.
Bede, a Northumbrian, writing around the year 730, remarks that "the old (that is, the continental) Saxons have no king, but they are governed by several ealdormen (or satrapa) who, during war, cast lots for leadership but who, in time of peace, are equal in power." The regnum Saxonum was divided into three provinces — Westphalia, Eastphalia and Angria — which comprised about one hundred pagi or Gaue. Each Gau had its own satrap with enough military power to level whole villages that opposed him.
In the mid-9th century, Nithard first described the social structure of the Saxons beneath their leaders. The caste structure was rigid; in the Saxon language the three castes, excluding slaves, were called the edhilingui (related to the term aetheling), frilingi, and lazzi. These terms were subsequently Latinised as nobiles or nobiliores; ingenui, ingenuiles, or liberi; and liberti, liti, or serviles. According to very early traditions that are presumed to contain a good deal of historical truth, the edhilingui were the descendants of the Saxons who led the tribe out of Holstein and during the migrations of the 6th century. They were a conquering, warrior elite. The frilingi represented the descendants of the amicii, auxiliarii, and manumissi of that caste, while the lazzi represented the descendants of the original inhabitants of the conquered territories, who were forced to make oaths of submission and pay tribute to the edhilingui.
The Lex Saxonum regulated the Saxons' unusual society. Intermarriage between the castes was forbidden by the Lex and wergilds were set based upon caste membership. The edhilingui were worth 1,440 solidi, or about 700 head of cattle, the highest wergild on the continent; the price of a bride was also very high. This was six times as much as that of the frilingi and eight times as much as the lazzi. The gulf between noble and ignoble was very large, but the difference between a freeman and an indentured labourer was small.
According to the Vita Lebuini antiqua, an important source for early Saxon history, the Saxons held an annual council at Marklo where they "confirmed their laws, gave judgment on outstanding cases, and determined by common counsel whether they would go to war or be in peace that year." All three castes participated in the general council; twelve representatives from each caste were sent from each Gau. In 782, Charlemagne abolished the system of Gaue and replaced it with the Grafschaftsverfassung, the system of counties typical of Francia. Charlemagne outlawed the Marklo councils and thus pushed the frilingi and lazzi out of political power. The old Saxon system of Abgabengrundherrschaft, lordship based on dues and taxes, was replaced by a form of feudalism based on service and labour, personal relationships, and oaths.
Saxon religious practices were closely related to Saxon political practices. The annual councils of the entire tribe began with invocations of the gods, and the procedure by which dukes were elected in wartime, by drawing lots, it is presumed had religious significance, i. e. in giving trust to divine providence – it seems – to guide the random decision making. There were also sacred rituals and objects, such as the pillars called Irminsul, which were believed to connect heaven and earth. Charlemagne had one such pillar chopped down in 772 close to the Eresburg stronghold.
Something of early Saxon religious practices in Britain can be gleaned from place names and the Germanic calendar in use at that time. The Germanic gods Woden, Frigg, Tiw, and Thunor, who are attested to in every Germanic tradition, were worshipped in Wessex, Sussex, and Essex, and they are the only ones directly attested to, though the names of the third and fourth months (March and April) of the Old English calendar bear the names Hrethmonath and Eosturmonath, meaning "month of Hretha" and "month of Ēostre", it is presumed from the names of two goddesses who were worshipped around that season. The Saxons offered cakes to their gods in February (Solmonath) and there was a religious festival associated with the harvest, Halegmonath ("holy month" or "month of offerings", September). The Saxon calendar began on 25 December, and the months of December and January were called Yule (or Giuli) and contained a Modra niht or "night of the mothers", another religious festival of unknown content.
The Saxon freemen and servile class remained faithful to their original beliefs long after their nominal conversion to Christianity. Nursing a hatred of the upper class, which, with Frankish assistance, had marginalised them from political power, the lower classes (the plebeium vulgus or cives) were still a problem for Christian authorities as late as 836, when the Translatio S. Liborii remarks on their obstinacy in pagan ritus et superstitio (usage and superstition).
The conversion of the Saxons in England from their original Germanic religion to Christianity occurred in the early to late 7th century under the influence of the already converted Jutes of Kent. In the 630s, Birinus became the "apostle to the West Saxons" and converted Wessex, whose first Christian king was Cynegils. The West Saxons begin to emerge from obscurity only with their conversion to Christianity and the keeping of written records. The Gewisse, a West Saxon people, were especially resistant to Christianity; but Birinus merely exercised more efforts against them. In Wessex, a bishopric was founded at Dorchester. The South Saxons were first evangelised extensively under Anglian influence; Aethelwalh of Sussex was converted by Wulfhere, King of Mercia, and allowed Wilfrid, Archbishop of York, to evangelise his people beginning in 681. The chief South Saxon bishopric was that of Selsey. The East Saxons were more pagan than the southern or western Saxons; their territory had a superabundance of pagan sites. Their king, Saeberht, was converted early and a diocese was established at London, but its first bishop, Mellitus, was expelled by Saeberht's heirs. The conversion of the East Saxons was completed under Cedd only in the 650s and 660s.
The continental Saxons were evangelised largely by English missionaries in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Around 695, two early English missionaries, Hewald the White and Hewald the Black, were martyred by the vicani, that is, villagers. Throughout the century that followed, it was the villagers and other peasants who were to prove the greatest opponents of Christianisation, while missionaries often received the support of the edhilingui and other noblemen. Saint Lebuin, an Englishman who between 745 and 770 preached to the Saxons, mainly in the eastern Netherlands, built a church and made many friends among the nobility, some of whom compelled to save him from an angry mob at the annual council at Marklo. Social tensions arose between the Christianity-sympathetic noblemen and the pagan lower castes, staunchly faithful to their traditional religion.
Under Charlemagne, the Saxon Wars had as their chief object the conversion and integration of the Saxons into the Frankish empire. Though much of the highest caste converted readily, forced baptisms and forced tithing made enemies of the lower orders. Even some contemporaries found the methods employed to win over the Saxons wanting, as this excerpt from a letter of Alcuin of York to his friend Meginfrid, written in 796, shows:
If the light yoke and sweet burden of Christ were to be preached to the most obstinate people of the Saxons with as much determination as the payment of tithes has been exacted, or as the force of the legal decree has been applied for fault of the most trifling sort imaginable, perhaps they would not be averse to their baptismal vows.
Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious, reportedly treated the Saxons more as Alcuin would have wished, and as a consequence they were faithful subjects. The lower classes, however, revolted against Frankish overlordship in favour of their old paganism as late as the 840s, when the Stellinga rose up against the Saxon leadership, who were allied with the Frankish emperor Lothair I. After the suppression of the Stellinga, in 851 Louis the German brought relics from Rome to Saxony to foster a devotion to the Roman Catholic Church. The Poeta Saxo, in his verse Annales of Charlemagne's reign (written between 888 and 891), laid an emphasis on his conquest of Saxony and celebrated the Frankish monarch on par with the Roman emperors and as the bringer of Christian salvation to people. However, there are some references to periodic outbreaks of pagan worship, especially of Freya, among the Saxon peasantry as late as the twelfth century.
In the 9th century, the Saxon nobility became vigorous supporters of monasticism and formed a bulwark of Christianity against the existing Slavic paganism to the east and the Nordic paganism of the Vikings to the north. Much Christian literature was produced in the vernacular Old Saxon, the notable ones being a result of the literary output and wide influence of Saxon monasteries such as Fulda, Corvey, and Verden; and the theological controversy between the Augustinian Gottschalk and the semipelagian Rabanus Maurus.
From an early date, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious supported Christian vernacular works in order to evangelise the Saxons more efficiently. The Heliand, a verse epic of the life of Christ in a Germanic setting, and Genesis, another epic retelling of the events of the first book of the Bible, were commissioned in the early 9th century by Louis to disseminate scriptural knowledge to the masses. A council of Tours in 813 and then a synod of Mainz in 848 both declared that homilies ought to be preached in the vernacular. The earliest preserved text in the Saxon language is a baptismal vow from the late 8th or early 9th centuries; the vernacular was used extensively in an effort to Christianise the lowest castes of Saxon society.
The Germanic peoples (also called Teutonic, Suebian or Gothic in older literature) are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin, identified by their use of the Germanic languages which diversified out of Proto-Germanic starting during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.
The term "Germanic" originated in classical times, when groups of tribes were referred to using this term by Roman authors. For them, the term was not necessarily based upon language, but rather referred to tribal groups and alliances who were considered less civilized, and more physically hardened, than the Celtic Gauls living in the region of modern France. Tribes referred to as Germanic in that period lived generally to the north and east of the Gauls. Kenning
Old English literature (sometimes referred to as Anglo-Saxon literature) encompasses literature written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) in Anglo-Saxon England from the 7th century to the decades after the Norman Conquest of 1066. "Cædmon's Hymn", composed in the 7th century according to Bede, is often considered the oldest extant poem in English, whereas the later poem, The Grave is one of the final poems written in Old English, and presents a transitional text between Old and Middle English. Likewise, the Parker Chronicle continues until the 12th century.
The poem Beowulf, which often begins the traditional canon of English literature, is the most famous work of Old English literature. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has also proven significant for historical study, preserving a chronology of early English history.
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300.
Proto-Norse developed into Old Norse by the 8th century, and Old Norse began to develop into the modern North Germanic languages in the mid- to late 14th century, ending the language phase known as Old Norse. These dates, however, are not absolute, since written Old Norse is found well into the 15th century. Literature
The ethnic groups in Europe are the various ethnic groups that reside in the nations of Europe. European ethnology is the field of anthropology focusing on Europe.
Pan and Pfeil (2004) count 87 distinct "peoples of Europe", of which 33 form the majority population in at least one sovereign state, while the remaining 54 constitute ethnic minorities. The total number of national minority populations in Europe is estimated at 105 million people, or 14% of 770 million Europeans. Forfeda
Old Norse poetry encompasses a range of verse forms written in Old Norse, during the period from the 8th century (see Eggjum stone) to as late as the far end of the 13th century. Most of the Old Norse poetry that survives was preserved in Iceland, but there are also 122 preserved poems in Swedish rune inscriptions, 54 in Norwegian and 12 in Danish.
Poetry played an important role in the social and religious world of the Vikings. In Norse mythology, Skáldskaparmál (1) tells the story of how Odin brought the mead of poetry to Asgard, which is an indicator of the significance of poetry within the contemporary Scandinavian culture.
Icelandic literature refers to literature written in Iceland or by Icelandic people. It is best known for the sagas written in medieval times, starting in the 13th century. As Icelandic and Old Norse are almost the same, and because Icelandic works constitute most of Old Norse literature, Old Norse literature is often wrongly considered a subset of Icelandic literature. However, works by Norwegians are present in the standard reader Sýnisbók íslenzkra bókmennta til miðrar átjándu aldar, compiled by Sigurður Nordal on the grounds that the language was the same.
Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe and beyond during the Middle Ages (encompassing the one thousand years from the fall of the Western Roman Empire ca. AD 500 to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance in the late 15th century). The literature of this time was composed of religious writings as well as secular works. Just as in modern literature, it is a complex and rich field of study, from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane, touching all points in-between. Works of literature are often grouped by place of origin, language, and genre.
Since Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated Western and Central Europe, and since the Church was virtually the only source of education, Latin was a common language for Medieval writings, even in some parts of Europe that were never Romanized. However, in Eastern Europe, the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church made Greek and Old Church Slavonic the dominant written languages.