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Revisiting Anglo-Saxon past and Literature-Sadia Ishfaq

The study of literature prods us to carry backward study of it, tracing its origin in 4th century BCE, the Anglo-Saxons, the period known to be as ‘Dark Ages’, or ‘early medieval period’ because the written sources for the early years of Saxon invasion are scarce. The Anglo-Saxons were two Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons. The invaders were from three overpowering nations of Germans, i.e., from Saxons, Angli and Jutae, the Saxons invaded from south of Denmark and east of Holland, the modern Holstein, the Angles invaded from modern Jutland & neighbouring islands, while the Jutes with obscure origin, perhaps invaded from the country east of lower Rhine and Jutland. Britain possesses a rich history of invasion led by bloody battles, ignorance, barbarism and ferociousness; for them, the life was perturbing and the Anglo-Saxon literature mirrors the worldview of those bygone timesThe history echoes that the civilized Roman eyes perceived Germanic peoples as Barbarians as the former had barbarian mode of life, devoid of life’s elegances & titbits, they were actually heathens, possessors of heroic ideals & alienated lifestyle. Therefore, the history of Europe in the Dark Ages is the blend of two cultures, barbarians & Christian race and both are grounded in Greco-Roman tradition. The crucial aspect of the Anglo-Saxon invasion to Britain in latter part of fifth century A.D., is the establishment of their kingdoms and received the status of the founders of English culture and English literature, and gave England its name, language and established its linkage with Germania, the Teutonic peoples whose migration disconcerted the Roman Empire and gave a new face to Europe.Though, it is grueling to place Anglo-Saxon poetry in its cultural context, but meaning is drawn from what has survived, fragmentary and arbitrary it might be, is of primal date than any extant poetry of the other Germanic literatures – of Old High German or Old Norse, thus signifies the oral pagan literature of the Heroic Age of Germania which bears its roots in the pre-Christian heroic society of the continental Saxons and others, and also of broader civilization of Germania is to some extent Christianized in thought. The era ended in 1066 when Norman France, under William, conquered England.

Monks have been portrayed reading Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Looking at English literature merely as a matter of personal interest is not enough, the in-depth study of the subject allows us to look deep in to the subject matter that has its roots in history, origin of mankind, and various aspects of human kind. Thus, studying literature, prods us to carry the backward study of it, tracing its origin in 4th century BCE, the Anglo-Saxons, and the period known to be as Dark Ages, because the written sources for the early years of Saxon invasion are scarce. However, most historians prefer the terms, ‘early middle ages’ or ‘early medieval period’. Tracing back the history of English literature, the Anglo-Saxons were two Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons. The era ended in 1066 when Norman France, under William, conquered England. The Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxon King, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings and conquered England. If we take a look at Early British Literature, it depicts deep enthrallment with the hero as the epithet of society’s highest archetypes.

A lofty circle of primeval stones, rusted in the mist of centuries, the battling field with clatter of horses’ hooves, the collision of sparkling weapons and spears, a tiny island in water whose language would become Lingua Franca of the world, to a surprise whose culture, traditions and norms, would become crucial steppingstones of western civilization, that tiny island is England and the story commences here

The Anglo-Saxons resided near the sea, led tough grim lives often faced by turmoil, epidemic or the unforeseeable violent windy storms of the ice North Sea, and were audacious, strength-bearing and believed human-beings to be victims of undefeatable fate known as ‘Wyrd’. The historical contexts of Britain provide a luminous record of invasion, among them were the Anglo-Saxons who bequeathed us the pioneer masterpiece of English Literature, Beowulf. The history echoes that the British were affected by blood-shedding battles, and the Anglo-Saxon literature reflects the image of the olden times Their literature is devoid of humour, spring and summer are scarcely traced, whereas the seriousness of mind, silence and coldness of winter abounds in the Anglo-Saxon literature. Several of their stories and poems present heroic tough grinds in which the robust and stout is the survivor.  

The crucial aspect of the Anglo-Saxon invasion to Britain in latter part of fifth century A.D., is the establishment of their kingdoms and received the status of the founders of English culture and English literature, and gave England its name, language and established its linkage with Germania, the Teutonic peoples whose migration disconcerted the Roman Empire and gave a new face to Europe.  The invaders were from three overpowering nations of Germans, i.e., from Saxons, Angli and Jutae, the Saxons invaded from south of Denmark and east of Holland, the modern Holstein, the Angles invaded from modern Jutland & neighboring islands, while the Jutes with obscure origin, perhaps invaded from the country east of lower Rhine and Jutland. Hence, now in Anglo-Saxon England there were Saxon kingdoms (in south and south west), Anglian kingdoms (in the east, north & midlands) and the Jutish kingdom of Kent in the southeast. These Teutonic peoples who belonged to different regions of Germany were mono-lingual with dialectical differences, they considered themselves part of Germania and were bearers of a common set of heroic ideals. 

The Anglo-Saxon poetry depicts to the world reflection of their beliefs and bears traces of pre-Christian heroic society of continental Saxons & others. The poetry written in their times has inflections, these people had  a relatively petite bank of vocabulary from which plenty of words are scarcely found to date & some altered form has lived in Scots & in regional English dialects. The Anglo-Saxon verse is alliterative, stressed, without rhyme, each line contains four stressed syllables and a varying number unstressed. There is a definite pause Caesura between the two halves of each line, with two stresses in each half. 

The historical record of Anglo-Saxon poetry reveals the alliterative form as:

We gaescodon      Eormenrices          

Wylfenne geþoht ; ahte wide folc                                     

Gotena rices ; þæt wæs grim cyning.

Sæt secg monig    sorgum gebunden,

wean on wenan,     wyscte geneahhe

þæt þæs cynerices     ofercumen wære.

Though, the Anglo-Saxon poetry looks detached from the modern verse and in a way it is, but the modern English translation of it helps to determine its meaning and exposes to the world the glimpse of heroic poetry of patriots and the letter ‘þ’ – ‘thorn’ produced the sound of ‘th’, is translated as:

We have learned of Eormanric’s

Wolfish disposition;  he held wide dominion

in realm of the Goths. That was a cruel king.

Many a man sat bound in sorrows,

anticipating woe, often wishing

That his kingdom were overcome. 

The verse of Anglo-Saxon poetry was produced by an oral court minstrel, who frequented the mansions of kings and chiefs, and found continuous appointment as Bard every now and then with the one master. One of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems, Widsith, is believed to be an autobiographical record of such a scop, though may not be a true autobiography, but it is autobiographical in nature. The poem mentions his heroic experiences of visiting Lord’s court, and the princess he asserts to have toured illustrates the whole Germanic world and their lifespans are shown to be more than two hundred years. The author narrates his heroic experiences of being with Eormanric, the Gothic king who died about 370; similarly he shares with us, ‘likewise I was in Italy with Ǽlfwine’.  The poem reflects the heroic attitude of the bard’s role; in which the author narrates his travels throughout the world of Germania, and provides a luminous glimpse of the Germanic world as it appeared to the imagination of Anglo-Saxons. To apprise the readers with information, the text of the Widsith is preserved in the Exeter Book, which was given by Bishop Leofric to Exeter Cathedral, and contains poems – Christ, Juliana, The Wanderer, The seafarer, Widsith, Deor, and many other short pieces. The text of Widsith has its origin in 10th century in West Saxon dialects, though it is claimed that the poem was formerly composed in Northumbria, and was written in late seventh or early eighth century or may be older than that, and encapsulates the heroic tradition of Germanic people.

Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon masterpiece that was damaged by fire before it was read or transcribed, has survived as a single manuscript till contemporary times. Interestingly, the ongoing debate on the history of Beowulf declares it to be altered by Latin culture and as argued by Virgilian tradition, notifies that, readers of Beowulf, need more understanding of the Anglo- Saxon beliefs to interpret it, but the most popular conviction is that  the surviving text shows evidence of  its pagan origin. The controversial nature of Beowulf, believes it to be An Anglo-Saxon epic or The Anglo-Saxon epic of those timesbut the present-day beliefs adhere it to be the only Anglo-Saxon epic of olden epoch. The poem carries heroic idealism and somber fatalism as the tradition of Germania, has digressions, and non-coherence of thought to connect the two main parts. It is believed to be written in the first half of the eighth century, but is declared to be written earlier than that by a heathen author with seventy Christian references which are assumed to be later interpolations, and the text is open to exploration by imminent scholars about the latter view. We know through the historical records of Anglo-Saxon literature that approximately 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry have survived up to now and are preserved in four manuscripts; one of the major Anglo-Saxon poetic manuscript is MS Cotton Vitellius A XV which contains Beowulf, Judith & three prose works.  Though it is grueling to place Anglo-Saxon poetry in its cultural context, but meaning is drawn from what has survived, fragmentary and arbitrary it might be, is of primal date than any extant poetry of the other Germanic literatures – of Old High German or Old Norse, thus signifies the oral pagan literature of the Heroic Age of Germania which bears its roots in the pre-Christian heroic society of the continental Saxons and others, and also of broader civilization of Germania is to some extent Christianized in thought.

It is noteworthy for the readers that, the task of converting English peoples to Christianity was a tough row to hoe. It began with the arrival of Augustine in Kent in 597, sent by Gregory the Great, with a band of monks to achieve the holy mission. Ǽthelberht – the king of Kent, converted to Christianity and consequently, Augustine, established the seat of bishopric at Canterbury, still the sacred task required active intervention of Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland. The bygone times are indicative of the differences that existed between the Irish church and Roman church. Formerly, the Irish church had remained detached from the Roman church which sponsored the Augustine’s mission, therefore, resulted in tension among English ecclesiastics who looked to Rome and those who looked to Iona, and these were unresolved until the Synod of Witby in 663 – the Junius manuscript in the Bodleian library, Oxford, which contains poems Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan.  Therefore, it’s a cinch to say that the development of religion, English Christianity was not a smooth process but remained inconsistent for the first century and more, in the midst of which stumbling blocks such as defeat and death of Christian Edwin – king of Northumbria, at the hand of the Pagan Penda – king of Mercia, in 632; resulted in the demolishment of Christian church in Northumbria, but was re-established by Aidan and his followers from Iona. The prehistoric times divulge that, despite being the missionaries that were working to convert the English peoples, pagan thought was seen to cast its influence on Christianity.

 Therefore, the two races, the Anglo-Saxons and the Christians, have been seen to exert pagan and religious influence upon each other. Subsequently, with the Christianization of England, the ancient vernacular poetry was unchanged of its worldly affairs and pagan thought until 8th century in North England, the time came when religious poetry was the new trend of the olden times.

The writer is a lecturer at Institute of Liberal Arts, University of Management and Technology (UMT), Lahore.
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