The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlaþ.
“Purpose shall be the firmer, heart the keener, courage shall be the more, as our might lessens." --From the "Battle of Maldon"
Under mounting pressure along its northern border with the Goths, a Germanic culture from central Europe, the Roman Empire was forced to withdraw from Britain, leaving the Celtic tribes to fend for themselves against not only the threats of Irish and Scottish raiding parties, but also each other. British chieftains vied for power and asserted their own claims to supremacy. Additionally, bands of seasoned warriors from several Germanic tribes, namely, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, whose homelands included present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and North-Western Germany, had for centruries been pirating along the coast of England. As these Pagan soldiers sent word back to mainland Europe of the available natural resources, what began as a small-scale involvement soon grew into a full-scale invasion and migration, by popular interpretation dramatically altering both the language and culture of Britain—of “Angleland”—to a degree the Romans never accomplished.
The “Anglo-Saxons,” as they would soon be called, were part of a northern European culture that included the Danes and the Norse of Scandinavia. That polytheistic religion worships primarily Odin “All-Father,” whom the Saxons called “Woden” and celebrated on Wodnesdæg; his son Thor, or “Thunor,” celebrated on Þunresdæg (pronounced “Thoon-res-day”), and Freya or Frigg, a mother-goddess celebrated on Frigedæg (pronounced “Frey-es-day”). (If you’re curious, after Sun-Day and Moon-Day, Tuesday is named after the god “Tiw.” Somehow the Romans slipped in “Saturn’s Day.”) Odin is the god of death and poetry, which seems like a curious combination. However, their stories tell how Odin sacrificed himself for his people, hanging on the sacred ash tree for nine days and with his death and rebirth gaining the secret of the runic alphabet, with which the scop (pronounced “shope,” our word “shop” and “shape”), the shaper of words, could alter the fates of men and women. Because the Anglo-Saxons didn’t believe in a universal afterlife, only those who lived and died well—especially in battle—would be remembered in the songs and thus achieve immortality. Words had power, and naming was significant, so a person’s good name was literally his or her primary concern. The Christianizing of the English started in 597, a gradual process from the Celts to the north and East and helped in no small part by the promise of stronger trade relationships with merchants in mainland Europe.
With their faith and language, the Anglo-Saxons brought Germanic law and society. The Anglo-Saxon community was focused around the Mead-Hall, presided over by an elected king. The king was chosen from among the eorls, the warrior aristocracy, by the witan, the counsel of the wise. This political system survives in the modern academic and corporate governments, where a board of trustees or school board selects a chief officer who has administrative authority as long as he or she performs well. If you were an unsuccessful king, don’t go to the latrine without some heavily-armed guards! The good king was a father-figure who attracted warriors to his table with gifts of gold, weapons, and land, effectively buying their loyalty and, in return for his investment, that king could provide protection for his people and a source of power and revenue to expand and strengthen his authority over other tribes. Courage and loyalty were paramount: it was better to die on the field of battle than return home without your lord riding beside you.
Below the eorls in social class were the thanes, the landowners and artisans, the churls, the peasant class, and the thralls, or the slave-class. Slaves were often prisoners of war who were not ransomed by their people and criminals who could not afford to pay the were-gild—the “honor-price”—to their victims’ families and instead were sentenced to slavery in lieu of payment. But even slaves had names. Worse than execution, exile was the greatest penalty, for to be outlaw, literally “outside the law,” was to have your name and status taken from you, and because you had no legal status, it was no crime for someone to kill you, which you could expect as revenge was a solemn duty!
||Inside the Mead-Hall
A reasonable source of information about the Anglo-Saxons.
Open Directory--Old English
A more comprehensive site with multiple translations of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poems as well as links to many other Anglo-Saxon pages.
"Daily Readings" of nearly every existing Anglo-Saxon poem so you can hear what they sound like when recited!
Old English Corpus
Online texts of everything extant in Old English, so if you want to look at Old English or read along to the recordings, go here!