The Anglo-Saxon and
449 - 1485
*notes from The Language of Literature, pgs. 18 - 29
In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar sailed from what is now France to Britain
to assert Rome’s authority over it.
A century after his visit, the Roman armies conquered the Britons
and Britain became part of the great Roman Empire.
The Romans introduced cities, written scholarship, and eventually
Early in the 5th century, Roman armies abandoned Britain to
defend the city of Rome. It was not long before Britain too was
The Anglo-Saxon Period (449 – 1066)
Anglos, Saxons, and other
Germanic people left their
northern European homelands
and began settling on Britain’s
eastern and southern shores.
The area of Germanic settlement
became known as Angle-land, or
England, and its people came to
be called English.
Early society centered on
ancestral tribes, each ruled by a
chieftain surrounded by a group
of warriors who served him in
return for rewards and protection.
The Growth of Christianity
Early invaders brought their pagan
religion marked by a strong belief
in wyrd, or fate.
People admired heroic warriors
whose wyrd it was to prevail in
In 597, a Roman missionary
named Augustine arrived in Kent,
where he established a monastery
Christianity spread so rapidly that
by 690 all of Britain was at least
The Danish Invasions
In the 790’s, the Danes (a.k.a. the Vikings)
began to devastate the flourishing culture
and in time gained control of much of
northern and eastern England.
In the south, the Danes were forced to
agree to a truce and accept Christianity
after being defeated by Alfred the Great.
The tug-of-war continued, however, even
after Alfred’s death.
The last successful invasion of Britain (The
Norman Conquest) was led by William the
Conqueror (Duke of Normandy) in 1066
and William was crowned King of
The spread of Christianity also
brought a spread of literacy in
The Roman alphabet was
introduced in place of the runic
Poems were more likely to be
written down, even though they
were primarily an oral art; most
poems had an anonymous
The most famous survivor of
poetry is the epic Beowulf,
about a legendary hero of the
northern European past.
The Medieval Period (1066 – 1485)
Before invading England, the
Normans had adopted French
ways. William now introduced
these practices to England.
William introduced the idea of a
social ladder and feudalism, a
political and economic system in
which the hierarchy of power
was based on the premise that the
king owned all the land in the
Strong castles, cathedrals and
abbeys were constructed.
The Medieval Period cont.
When Henry II, a descendant of
William, took the throne, he
instituted royal courts, established a
system of juries, and initiated the
formation of English common law.
As a former French queen, Henry’s
wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, brought
the idea of chivalry: a code of honor
intended to govern knightly
The code of honor encouraged
knights to protect their ladies and to
go on holy quests.
The Decline of Feudalism
In medieval towns, merchants and
craftspeople formed organizations
called guilds to control the flow
and price of goods.
The growth of towns meant the
decline of feudalism, since wealth
was no longer based exclusively
on land ownership.
As towns were becoming centers
of commerce, universities were
becoming England’s chief centers
The Hundred Years’ War
A long struggle between England and
France that continued on and off for
more than a century
Also significant to the Hundred Years’
Black Death – plague which killed a
third of England’s population
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381
Richard II’s forced abdication in
Henry IV takes the throne
Wars of the Roses
The end of the Wars of the Roses
marked the end of Middle Ages in
A long, narrative poem that celebrates a hero’s
Came into existence as spoken words and
were retold by poet after poet from one
generation to the next
Many epics based on historical fact
Epics provided both entertainment and
education for audience
Characteristics of epics
The hero is of noble birth or high
position, and often of great
historical or legendary
The hero’s character traits reflect
important ideals of his society.
The hero performs courageous
deeds that reflect the values of
The actions of the hero often
determine the fate of a nation of
The setting is vast in scope, often
involving more than one nation.
Characteristics of epics
The poet uses formal diction and a serious tone.
Major characters often deliver long, formal
The plot is complicated by supernatural beings
or events and may involve a long and dangerous
journey through foreign lands.
The poem reflects values such as courage and
The poem treats universal themes, such as good
and evil or life and death.
Features of epic poetry
Stock epithets – adjectives that point out
special traits of particular persons or things
(e.g., “swift-footed” used to describe Achilles)
Kennings – poetic synonyms that may be a
descriptive phrase or compound word that
substitutes for a noun (e.g., in Beowulf, “the
Almighty’s enemy” and “sin-stained demon”
are used in place of Grendel’s name)
Features of epic poetry
Alliteration – repetition of consonant sounds at
the beginning of words, used to heighten
moods, emphasize words or images, or create
Caesura – Old English poetry has a strong
rhythm, with each line divided in two parts by
a pause, called a caesura