Anglo-Saxon Period (450-1066 A.D) in English Literature

The land that we now know as Britain originally belonged to Celts who had migrated from different parts of Europe such as Britain, Ireland, France and Spain. There is no exact date when they settled there.

And at that time the Romans used to attack the Celts repeatedly because Rome was a dominant empire at that time because of their powerful military force. After their repeated attacks, Rome finally won over Britain in 43 A.D. While Romans were ruling in Britain, Visigoths, who were the Germanic tribes, attacked Rome. Then Romans had to leave Britain to save their home soil Rome from Visigoths. By 706 A.D, all Roman legions had left Britain.

So at that time because the Romans had left Britain, England was in a very weak state and there was no army to protect them from outside attack. As a result, by taking advantage of this, Picts and Scots attacked Britain. At this crucial juncture, Germanic tribes – Angles, Saxons and Jutes – came to England to save England from Picts and Scots. Angles, Saxons and Jutes first came from the desire to save England from the Picts and Scots, but because England was a favorable place to settle, they settled there.

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Kingdoms and languages in Anglo-Saxon Period

The name of England is made by the name of Angles. Angle’s land means England. And because Angles, Jutes and Saxons were Germanic tribes, we can see the influence of the German language in the English language. At that time Anglo-Saxons established five kingdoms in England:

 1. Northumbria

2. Mercia

3. East Anglia

4. wessex and

 5. Kent.

If we talk about the language, then at that time there were four Dialects in England:


2. Mercian

3. Kentish and

4. West Saxon.

Later, West Saxon dialect became popular compared to the rest of the dialects and the reason was that  Wessex was a politically powerful kingdom and also because King Alfred was the king of Wessex. King Alfred’s role in England’s political history is very important because he had led the British army against the Vikings’ attack.

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The Vikings Attack during Anglo-Saxon Period

The Vikings were very ruthless and violent invaders. In the Anglo Saxon period, Vikings attacked twice, first in 787 A.D and second in 866 A.D. After arriving at East Anglia, the Vikings army was advancing to Wessex but King Alfred, the King of Wessex, united all the kingdoms successfully and drove off the Vikings. Although King Alfred was the king of Wessex, he acted as the king of the whole Anglo-Saxons because there was none other than him who could unite all the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons.

In 876 A.D, England went into the hands of Danes for a brief moment of time. Danes came to England from Norway and Denmark. And in the parts in which Danes had taken possession of, they acted their own law which is called Danes Law. England was again greatly weakened after King Alfred because after King Alfred there was no such King either from the Anglo-Saxons or from the Danes who could unite all the Kingdoms.

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The Battle of Hastings:

Because England was weakened during the Danes’ reign, William the Conqueror saw it as an opportunity and thought that he could become King of England. So he brought his army from France to Hastings in Kent and started an attack against England. The king of the Danes at that time was Harold Godwinson. In the famous battle called Battle of Hastings, William Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson and with this the reign of Anglo-Saxon ended and the Anglo-Norman period started.

The language of the Anglo-Saxon Period:

The language of the Anglo-Saxon Period is called Old English. Because the Old English Language came from the language of Germanic Tribes -Angles, Saxons and Jutes-, therefore most of the words of Old English language are Germanic. Apart from this, the Latin language also had a powerful impact on the Old English language because of Latin speaking Romans and because of priests, and clergies who primarily had read and written texts in the Latin language. Later the Vikings’ language also had a significant influence on the Old English language. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon Period, the Old English language had been instituted as a language of Anglo-Saxon literature.

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Anglo-Saxon literature characteristics:

Anglo-Saxon literature incorporates prose, poetry, puzzles, maxims, and countless wisdom epigrams. It is an amalgamation of pagan conventions – concepts about soul and nature – and also Christian conventions and moral values. Heroic poems were very famous in Old English poetry. The subject matter of these poems was taken not only from the Bible but also from pagan sources. The Anglo-Saxon period is known for wars and battles and so does the writings of this era. Poems like “The Battle of Maldon” and “The Battle of Brunanburh” depict the various battles of that time. The themes of the Anglo-Saxon poetry were mostly war, invasion, and heroism. In addition to that, Old English poetry is also filled with lament and melancholy that is often found in delineating man’s conflicts against his environment. Examples of such poems are “The Ruin”, “The Seafarer”, and “The Wanderer” etc. Other poems portray the parting of a husband and the Wife and the following sadness, for instance in “The Husband’s Message” and “The Wife’s Lament”. Because the church and the monasteries were the center of education and culture during the Anglo-Saxon period so the clergy and the clerics were mostly associated with education and the literature of that time. 

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Beowulf is the most important work of the Old English Period, which has more than 3000 verses. The author of Beowulf is unknown but it is believed that there was a poet named Beowulf who wrote this poem. Most of its subject matter is religious and allegorical in nature which is taken from the Bible, epics and Homer’s “Odyssey”.  The poem worships a hero and the principles of courage and kindness. The sketch of social life, as shown here, is wonderfully in line with ancient society and living. The people of that time used to spend their time by doing hawking, swimming, hunting etc.

In the Beowulf poem, we can see the combination of Christian and pagan elements. If we talk about Christian elements, then the story of the Beowulf poem is based on the Christian concept of sacrifice. Beowulf is a courageous and high-minded hero who fights for his people and at the end loses his life. If we talk about pagan elements, then the sword of Beowulf, whose name was Hrunting, depicted with symbols. This sword has warrior-like qualities and all these specify a pagan attitude with respect to the sword. 

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Anglo-Saxon Literature is found in four manuscripts: 

Manuscripts NameContent
The Junius Manuscripts (also known as man hunt)Poems and biblical narratives.
The Exeter Book Riddles, and elgiac verses.
The Vercelli BookProse and Poetry.
The Beowulf Manuscript (also known as Nowell CodexProse and Poetry (The famous poem Beowulf also belongs to this manuscript).

Anglo-Saxon Poets:

If we talk about Old English poetry in general, then Caedmon and Cynewulf were the two principal poets of the Anglo-Saxon period. Caedmon is still honored for his poetical paraphrases of the Holy Bible. It is assumed that Caedmon wrote poems like Exodus, Daniel and Judith etc. In the same way, Cynewulf is considered as the author of The Phoenix, The Dream of the Rood, Christ etc. Talking of a difference between the poetry of Caedmon and Cynewulf, Caedmon used to take his materials from the Old Testament of the Bible and Cynewulf took his materials from the New Testament of the Bible.

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Anglo-Saxon Prose:

Prose compared to poetry evolved very late only in the ninth century. Anglo-Saxon Prose mostly includes historical and ecclesiastical writings.  The presence of Anglo-Saxon prose begins only in the reign of King Alfred, the Great. He was not just a warrior but also a patron of art and literature. His contribution in the Anglo-Saxon prose is very significant as he translated venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History” from Latin to Old English language. His writings were more moralistic and educational than creative and imaginative. 

Some important works of Anglo-Saxon Period:


Deor’s Complaint

The Dream of Rood

The Seafarer

The Wanderer

The Husband’s Message

The Wife’s Lament etc.

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