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... brief and framed on either side by a dark and unknown wintry waste. ... take the edge off (The Consolation of Philosophy, 'Deor's Lament,' 'The Wanderer' ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Anglo-Saxon%20Literary%20Context

Anglo-Saxon Literary Context
  • ENGL 203
  • Dr. Fike

Why We Need This Lecture
  • We are stressing periodicity the reciprocal
    relationship between texts and literary periods.
  • Textual historicity we know about history
    through our reading of texts.
  • Historical textuality Texts reflect and
    reinforce historical periods and characteristics.
    Regarding this relationship
  • The Anglo-Saxons are so remote from our day that
    understanding the literature requires some
    significant background information.

Major Divisions in the Development of the English
  • Old English/Anglo-Saxon 449-1066 (Germanic
    invasion of Britain to Norman Conquest)
  • Middle English 1066-1485 (Norman Conquest to
    accession of Henry VII, the first Tudor king)
  • Modern English 1485-present

  • The Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle English
    period can be collectively called the Medieval
  • Modern English breaks down into various
    sub-periods that will be the subject of this
  • Examples
  • Early Modern
  • Neo-Classicism/Restoration/18th century
  • Romantic
  • Victorian
  • Modern
  • Postmodern

The Founding of Britain
  • Myth Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan Aeneas,
    founded Britain.
  • Fact Britains founders were Roman
  • 55-54 B.C. Julius Caesar invaded the island,
    which was peopled by a branch of the Celts and by
    the Gauls. Stiff resistance?Caesar withdrew.
  • 43 A.D. Emperor Claudius invaded.
  • 85 A.D. Conquest complete.
  • 410 Occupation forces were called home because
    the Goths (a Germanic people) attacked Rome. At
    this point, as Bede (a famous historian) reports,
    there were four nations English, British
    (Welsh), Picts, and Scots. Each had its own
    language Latin.

More on the Founding of Britain
  • Germanic invasions followed Angles, Saxons,
  • Thus "Anglo-Saxon" refers to the invaders.
  • They came when Vortigern, a 5th century king of
    the Britons, invited them to help fight the Picts
    and the Scots.
  • Successful?the Germanic tribes stayed.

Characteristics of Tribal Life Under the
  • Tacituss statement (handout).
  • The mead halle.g., Heorot in Beowulfwas the
    center of tribal life.
  • Comitatus train, retinue, following,
    counselors made up of warriors, relatives,
  • The king's men (theigns or thanes) were the
    government and provided military service in
    exchange for material compensation and legal
  • Had to be ready to die for the king, and they
    were supposed to avenge him after his death.
  • Thus honor was a big part of the comitatus

Kinship An Important Part of Tribal Life
  • Kinship was central. If someone killed your
    relative, you were responsible for avenging such
    a wrong.
  • Alternatives Vengeance vs. wirgild (man

Poetry An Important Part of Tribal Life
  • A scop (pronounced skop Anglo-Saxon poet
    literal meaning shaper) played a harp and
    sang tales of real or fictional heroes. And
    tales were transmitted orally.
  • Rhyme was virtually unknown.
  • Caesura a break in the middle of a line of
    poetry the two parts are known as half lines.
  • Alliteration 4 stressed syllables per line the
    third accented syllable determines the
  • "When Nithad ordered knife to the knees
  • Breaking the tendons to bind his better."
  • Example of alliteration from Francis Fikes
    translation of "Deor"

  • Kenninga compound of two terms used in place of
    a common word. A-S people delighted in this kind
    of figurative diction
  • swans' road
  • world candle
  • ring giver
  • life's house
  • bird's joy
  • fresh-tarred floater
  • bone rings
  • loaf-sharer

  • swans' road sea
  • world candle sun
  • ring giver prince, king
  • life's house body
  • bird's joy feather
  • fresh-tarred floater ship
  • bone rings vertebrae
  • loaf-sharer lady

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

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

  • Litotes (lahy-tuh-teez) a form of
    understatement in which a thing is affirmed by
    stating the negative of its opposite. E.g. To
    say that someone is aware of something, say that
    she is not unmindful" to say that someone is
    sun tanned, say that she is not pale as a

One More Characteristic of A-S Poetry
  • Another characteristic moralizing asides.
  • Strong ethical consciousness.

Early Attempts To Christianize England
  • Christianity played a crucial role in the
    transition from tribal life to the civilization
    of medieval England.

St. Augustines Role
  • Conversion of English people began in earnest in
    597 Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to England
    (not the guy who wrote the Confessions). This
    was as a result of a moving personal experience.
    One day in the market place in Rome, Gregory saw
    some handsome captives being sold as slaves. He
    reportedly said, "Alas! What a pity that the
    author of darkness is possessed of men of such
    fair countenances and that being remarkable for
    such graceful aspects, their minds should be void
    of inward grace." When he was told that they
    were "Angles," the Pope replied punningly, "Right
    for they have an Angelic face, and it becomes
    such to be coheirs with the Angels in heaven."

Pope Gregorys Instructions
  • Go slowly don't stamp out pagan customs remold
    pagan customs gradually.
  • Examples
  • Destroy idols but retain pagan temples in the
    form of Christian churches. As a result, there
    arose a mixture of pagan and Christian elements,
    as in the following example.
  • Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring
    (Eostre may also have been a dawn-goddess).
    Easter was originally the name of the pagan
    spring festival that took place around the time
    of the resurrection.

Mixture of Pagan and Christian Elements
  • Best example The Sutton Hoo burial ship.
  • In August 1939, at a private estate called Sutton
    Hoo, a cenotaph was discovered (a monument
    honoring a dead person whose funeral was
    somewhere else). See Life magazine, July 16,
  • http//
  • Why would the guy be buried somewhere else?
  • Spoons Saul Paul etched into them to honor
    the king's baptism into the Christian church and
    pagan artifacts like weapons.

Coifis Role in Promoting Christianity
  • Coifi was the chief pagan priest who made the
    argument on your handout.
  • What does this tell you about life in ancient

A Possible Paraphrase
  • The life of human beings is like a sparrow's
    flight through a warm room in wintertime brief
    and framed on either side by a dark and unknown
    wintry waste. In light of such conditions,
    argued the chief priest to the king, Christianity
    offers a comfort that our pagan world view,
    emphasizing courage in battle and endurance in
    the face of all worldly ills, does not.

Christianitys Civilizing Impact
  • Augustine made Canterbury the seat of the Roman
    Church in England.
  • Schools were established in Canterbury and York
    to train priests.
  • Christianity provided administrative and
    organizational unity.
  • It fostered nationalism, literacy, and the spread
    of learning.
  • Latin became the scholarly language.
  • Oral transmission? writing in the 7th century
  • The waning of the heroic outlook (comitatus).
    God gt Wyrd (fate).

Vikings and Alfred the Great (849-899)
  • Danes Vikings.
  • King Alfred stopped them at the Battle of
    Edington in 878.
  • Alfred set out to educate people and translated
    Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy into Old
  • But from 980 onward the Danes renewed their
    assaults, and finally in 1017 the Danish military
    leader Canute occupied the English throne.
  • But Anglo-Christian culture survived.

End of the Anglo-Saxon Period
  • A-S period ends in 1066 when William the
    Conqueror invaded and conquered England.
  • This was the most important event in the
    development of the English language.
  • French transformed Old English into the Middle
    English that Chaucer wrote.

Two Really Important Themes
  • Consolation Life sucks, but certain thingslike
    Christianity or the turning of the wheel of
    fortune or the role of philosophytake the edge
    off (The Consolation of Philosophy, Deors
    Lament, and The Wanderer, respectively).
  • Heroic ethic It is hollow at the core (Battle
    of Maldon, Beowulf).
  • It privileges individual honor over personal
    safety or the tribes well-being.
  • It plays out on the physical/material plane,
    which cannot support humans spiritual longings.
  • And it ignores the need to vent ones feelings.