Life in Early Britain: The Anglo-Saxons

Anglo-Saxons. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Anglo-Saxons. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The early inhabitants of Britain lived under harsh conditions. Dark forested areas. Savage neighbors. Wild animals. Life consisted of hunting, fishing, sailing, and feasting. Life demanded a strong people. From those people came a certain ideal of courage. Of honor. Of responsibility.

The Anglo-Saxons settled in Great Britain in the 5th century. They were Germanic tribes from continental Europe, as well as indigenous British groups who “converted” to the Anglo-Saxon culture and language. The Anglo-Saxon period denotes the period of British history between about 450 and 1066, after their initial settlement, and up until the Norman conquest.[Higham, Nicholas J., and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. Yale University Press, 2013.]

http://www.slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=english_history "History of the English Language"

http://www.slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=english_history “History of the English Language”

 

 

 

 

The Anglo-Saxon period saw the development of the regional government of shires, a resurgence of Christianity, the growth of literature and language; and the establishment of charters and law.[Higham, Nicholas J., and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. Yale University Press, 2013.] The term “Anglo-Saxon” is also popularly for what is customarily called “Old English,” the language spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons in England and eastern Scotland between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century.[Richard M. Hogg, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language: Vol 1: the Beginnings to 1066 (1992)]

The Anglo-Saxons are the cultural identity of modern day Britain, encompassing  the adoption of Christianity and the foundation of various kingdoms and aspirations.

The outward appearance of Anglo-Saxon culture can be seen in the material culture of buildings, dress styles, illuminated texts and grave goods. Behind the symbolic nature of these cultural emblems there are strong elements of tribal and lordship ties, and an elite that became kings who developed burhs, and saw themselves and their people in Biblical terms.[The Anglo-Saxons]  Above all, as Helena Hamerow has observed, “local and extended kin groups remained…the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period”. [Hamerow, Helena. Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press, 2012. pg. 166] Even today, the genetic makeup of Britain’s population indicates traces of the political units of the early Anglo-Saxon period. [Sarah Knapton (18 March 2015). “Britons still live in Anglo-Saxon tribal kingdoms, Oxford University finds”. Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 March 2015.]

As England is surrounded by water, the sea played a major role in the lives of its inhabitants. The sea looms large in the early folk literature. Although they praised peace and homely virtues, the Anglo-Saxons sought glory and courage in all their activities. In their banquet halls, one heard the songs of the Gleeman or Scop. We find that the Anglo-Saxons were adamant about their freedom and their religion. They held their women in respect. These characteristics show in their early literature. 

From Quizlet, we find Anglo-Saxon Society Characteristics and Values: 

Courage – admired men for outstanding courage,whatever tribe they came from; Loyalty – believed in the importance of loyalty to a leader and to the tribe;  Personal Valor – valued fierce personal valor, which was necessary for survival; Courtesy – received persons of rank with grave courtesy, whatever their tribe or people; Generous – Ruler was expected to be generous to those who were loyal; Shortness of Life –  Everyone was aware of the shortness of life and of the passing away of all things; Fate –  Everything was thought to be determined by an impersonal, irresistible fate; Fame –  Everyone competed for fame, the only thing that ever lasted

 Anglo-Saxon society characteristics and values

-Admired men for outstanding courage,whatever tribe they came from

-Believed in the importance of loyalty to a leader and to the tribe
-Valued fierce personal valor, which was necessary for survival
-Received persons of rank with grave courtesy, whatever their tribe or people.
-Ruler was expected to be generous to those who were loyal
-Everyone was aware of the shortness of life and of the passing away of all things.
-Everything was thought to be determined by an impersonal, irresistible fate.
-Everyone competed for fame, the only thing that ever lasted

The Anglo-Saxons developed political organizations. The land was divided into “shires,” which were, in turn, divided into free townships called “hundreds.” They experienced the freedom of moots (law making bodies with an elected leader) and freemen. Eventually, the hundreds came under the control of lords, causing them to lose their independence. These villages came under the control of the lord’s steward, and the freemen became tenants upon the land. 

In addition to the villages, larger towns and boroughs and cities developed. These were often found at the crossroads of major trade/travel routes or where the rivers forked. 

The basic political unit was the hundred. The hundred collected taxes and made laws and voted with the majority. The hundred also imposed penalties for breaking the laws and held trials. The general penalty took the form of “trial-by-ordeal” as judgment. “The loser paid a fine, became a slave, was outlawed or put to death.”

There was also a higher assembly, identified as the folkmoot, where landowners, freemen, priests, reeves, and ealdermen gathered. The folkmoot met twice a year to  address judicial, financial, and military affairs.

The Witenagemot (Council of the Wise) was the highest governing body of the society. Nobles, earls and bishops formed the governing body of the Witenagemot. The King presided over this Council. The Witenagemot enforced order, levied taxes, and carried out decrees. The King would receive the tax funds, but he would also collect tolls and the “booty” from wrecks upon the sea. The King was the highest man in the realm (an earl over many shires, so to speak). The Thegns were the territorial lords. Œarls were freemen and serfs their servants/tenants. 

The Anglo-Saxons were known for their trading, shipbuilding, and agriculture. They imported wine, clothes, spices, glass, furs, weapons, gems, and ointments, They exported metals, wool, and slaves. [Anglo-Saxon Life]

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxons, British history, Great Britain and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Life in Early Britain: The Anglo-Saxons

  1. vvaught512 says:

    Thanks, Regina. This is very interesting. I read a book about the original settling of the area around Salisbury and it started from the ice age and went forward to the 2nd World War. It was fascinating. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name or the author. A friend lent it to me years ago.

  2. vvaught512 says:

    Found it! It’s Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd!

  3. Pretty well sums me up don’t you think Jeffers?
    🙄

  4. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for all of your hard work. Jen

  5. humphries346 says:

    As A Marxist I feel that in Todays society very Much as in Anglo Saxon Times Class is Fundamental To everything In Society recent Figures in Britain show that there are more Billionaires in Britain in Comparison to its size and the Queen was relatively rich but not now , she is way down the List The gulf between Rich and Poor is getting Wider and Wider , Was it like that in Anglo Saxon Times I doubt it.

  6. Pingback: A Labor Day Break from Blogging… | ReginaJeffers's Blog

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