Old English/History, Culture, and Society



The Anglo-Saxons were the Germanic tribes the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and also probably to a lesser degree some other Germanic tribes, who arrived in England probably around the year 500 AD. The exact nature of their coming to England is not clear, but their language(s) and culture certainly took over from those of the earlier Romanized Britons.



At first England was divided into seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex; but those divisions were not always clear. There were possibly other smaller regions that at some time had some kind of autonomy.

In the 9th century, The Vikings invaded and controlled much of what is now northern England; but King Alfred of Wessex (849-899) essentially unified what Anglo-Saxon territory was not controlled by the Vikings. After Alfred, the kings of Wessex spread their power across the rest of England, creating a unified England in 954 under Ælfred's grandson Æthelstan, when the last Viking territory, York, was conquered.

England came under Norman-French kingship and nobility when William the Conqueror defeated Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.


Recording of the epic Beowulf's opening lines in the Anglo-Saxon language using reconstructed pronunciation

The different Anglo-Saxon tribes originally spoke various mutually intelligible West Germanic languages, which were similar enough to be called dialects. Upon the tribes' arrival in England, their languages certainly influenced each other and to a degree unified (more than they already where), but they were still spoken and written somewhat differently. The main dialects were: West Saxon, Mercian, Northhumbrian, and Kentish. With the rise of the kingdom of Wessex under King Alfred, the West Saxon dialect became dominant, and most Old English writing after that is in the West Saxon dialect.



The Germanic tribes who came to England had contact with the Roman Empire before they migrated, and they borrowed a few words from Latin. After their arrival in Britain, they borrowed mostly just place names from their Celtic neighbours; but their art was significantly influenced by the Celts, and the Latin script that they wrote in was very like that used by the Celts (because they were taught the Latin alphabet by Celtic missionaries).

With the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons by Celtic missionaries, Latin became important in the church, and had a bit more impact on Old English, with many church-related words being borrowed into Old English.

It is clear that some Anglo-Saxons were explicitly aware that with Christianization their traditions and lore were changing from that of their pagan ancestors, and there was effort put into at least preserving such knowledge (even, for example, by the monastic scholar Bede, as a matter of history).

With the Viking invasions of England, some words were also borrowed from Old Norse, which was fairly mutually intelligible with Old English (more words were borrowed by the people of the regions taken by the Vikings, to the north). Many of these Norse words survive into Modern English.

After the Battle of Hastings, Norman-French became the language of power and prestige, but the common people continued to speak English. Nevertheless, Norman-French had a very significant influence on the vocabulary, the orthography, and possibly also the grammar, of English. This is evident in Old English's direct successor, Middle English. It is generally considered that the Old English period of the English language ends about 1100-1150 AD, shortly after the Norman Conquest; but there were already trends towards Middle English in Old English before the Norman Conquest. Middle English (the language of Chaucer, and of the first complete translation of the Bible into English by Wycliffe), became Early Modern English (the language of Shakespeare and the King James' version of the Bible).

Literature and Poetry

Reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon lyre found at the Sutton Hoo burial

In common with other Germanic peoples, the Anglo-Saxons had a strong tradition of poetry, almost exclusively using one particular type of poetic meter. A few Old English poems survive today. Some of the themes touched on by them are Germanic heroic ideals, Christian spirituality, romance, and Anglo-Saxon lore. Poetry was often or usually accompanied by lyre music (the design of the lyre that they used seems to have been common amongst other Germanic peoples). Probably the most famous poem from Old English in modern times is the epic Beowulf, which is actually set in Scandinavia. It is most commonly thought that the poem originates from before Viking raiding. There is no clear indication that the poem of Beowulf had any exceptional fame amongst Old English speakers, but some aspects of its narrative are also alluded to by other Old English accounts; and also, likely, Old Norse accounts.

In Bede's account of the (then famous) Anglo-Saxon Poet Cædmon (who was said to have miraculously been granted great poetic ability), it seems to be suggested that it was fairly normal and expected to have a degree of skill in poetry, to the point that it significantly upset Cædmon that he did not have any such skill. Bede and King Ælfred, both primarily monastic scholars (although, who obviously grew up in Old English society and would have had credible if not highly reliable conceptions of its norms), both demonstrated a knowledge of Anglo-Saxon poetry; but it is clear that not all poets were considered equal (Cædmon was acknowledged as a particularly skilled poet; and in the poem "Deor", Heorrenda, whose name is cognate to one Old Norse name for the poetry-skilled god Odin, is mentioned as a "poetry-skilled man"). Possibly the distinction between a less-skilled poet and a skilled poet stood on such things as the ability to construct a poem of significant length, the quality of the kennings (a kind of constructed poetic word) in the poem, and the closeness of the meter to a particularly desirable standard.

There is also much surviving Old English prose, mostly of scholarly nature (because the common people were not usually literate). A fair few Latin texts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and it is clear that much of continental Europe's scholarly knowledge was also present amongst scholars in England.

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial
An exceptionally illuminated page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, probably by the Anglo-Saxon Eadfrith - an example of exceptional Anglo-Saxon art

Apart from poetry, we also today have some examples of exceptional metal work and document illumination by Anglo-Saxons. These showed significant Celtic influence.

Lords are sometimes called "ring-giver", or similar, in Old English poems, suggesting that lords would give jewelery, particularly rings, as a reward, to their retainers after a well-fought battle, for example. This attention to rings was taken up by the scholar of Anglo-Saxon J. R. R. Tolkien in his writings on Middle Earth, and can be clearly seen in them (for example, the rings that the dark lord Sauron gave to various lords, as mentioned in "The Lord of the Rings" and elsewhere). Tolkien also included many other elements of Anglo-Saxon culture in his writings - for example, Rohan has a very Anglo-Saxon character.



The Anglo-Saxon cuisine did not include any of the today common foods introduced to Europeans during the Age of Discovery. That means no maize, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, chilis, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, tropical fruits, etc. They were, however, at least aware of some foods not then widely available in England, like pepper and cinnamon.

Known grains were barley, wheat, oats, and rye. They also had access to such fruits as various berries, pears, apples, and plums; and a variety of meats, including various fish, various other seafood such as crab, mutton, venison, beef, pork, and poultry. Known vegetables included beets, carrots and parsnips, peas, beans, various edible weeds, cabbage, lettuce, onions, garlic, turnips, many herbs, and more. Bread was quite staple, but other food (vegetables, meat, or anything else that one might eat with bread) was frequently or usually eaten with it, called sufel (in Modern English "sowl"). If Ælfric's "Colloquy of Occupations" is to be regarded as some kind of reflection of Anglo-Saxon life (and I think it should be), then we see that the Anglo-Saxons also ate such things as sheep's (yes, sheep's) butter and cheese, game, whale meat, salt-preserved meat, bakers' goods, and broths. Elsewhere we see that they also had porridge, curds, sausages, and mincemeat. It is also clear that they were well-acquainted with boiling, roasting, baking, and frying. Honey seems to have been their main or only sweetner.

Beer was a common alcoholic beverage amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and mead was also well-known, although likely more of a luxury beverage. Wine was probably not as common, but it was known. Milk and water was also drunk,

Some Anglo-Saxons may have adhered to Mosaic food law - a dialogue for the purpose of learning Latin, written by the Anglo-Saxon Ælfric no doubt for his Old English-speaking students, portrays a common fisherman as having knowledge of and practising such food laws.