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Narrative on Anglo Saxon History, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1533

Essay

If I were assigned to instruct a class on the history of the Anglo-Saxons, I would focus on two areas–the magnificent artifacts of the Anglo-Saxons that have been discovered in England, Wales, and Scotland over the last one hundred years, and the origins of the Anglo-Saxon language and how it became English as a Germanic language.

To make my instruction to the class as interesting and informative as possible, I would use a Power Point presentation composed of text and images based on the following areas and artifacts–a brief overview of Anglo-Saxon Britain; the Pitney brooch (ca. 11th century A.D.); the Strickland brooch (mid 9th century A.D.); the Lindisfarne Gospels (late 7th or early 8th centuries A.D.); and some discussion on the historical origins of the Anglo-Saxon language.

Circa 406 A.D., the Romans departed from Great Britain in order to help defend the vast territory of Gaul (now France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium, and parts of northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany) against the invading Germanic tribes. From a military standpoint, the Romans were outnumbered, so in order to increase their presence, they sought out the help of Romanized British leaders who then hired mercenary soldiers known as the Angles, “a major Germanic group that founded several of the great kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England” (Stenton, 34), along with other mercenaries, such as the Saxons and the Jutes from Germany. Once in power, the Angles began to dominate Britain and settled mostly in Wales and a large portion of Scotland, and over the next two hundred years, the language and customs of the Germanic Angles were adopted by other British-based groups, thus creating Anglo-Saxon culture (Stenton, 36).

Due to their great respect and love for objects of beauty that often served various utilitarian purposes, the Anglo-Saxons created splendid examples of jewelry and military equipment decorated with gold, silver, and many different types of precious gemstones. Although we do not know who owned or made these beautiful artifacts, it is clear that they were intended as ornamentation for the clothes of high-ranking Anglo-Saxon kings and princes, and for queens and princesses that belonged to rich and powerful Anglo-Saxon families (British Museum).

The first artifact is known as the Pitney brooch, created by a highly-skilled artisan and most likely was pinned to the dress of a high-ranking woman, such as a queen or the wife of an Anglo-Saxon chieftain with roots in Scandinavia via the Vikings. By closely examining this magnificent bronze object, one can see that a snake with large eyes appears to be holding some kind of an animal in its jaws, perhaps a lizard or a fish, and that the object itself is held together by an intricate loop with the outside made up of beads that run the entire circumference of the brooch (British Museum).

Next we have the Strickland brooch, made from pure silver and gold and like the Pitney brooch was probably created for a high-ranking member of Anglo-Saxon society during the middle years of the 9th century A.D. This object features in its center what appears to be an early form of a Celtic cross and is surrounded by various stylized dogs that make up the bulk of the object, all set within a dark glass inlay. At the very top of this object, one can see a small loop that at one time had a chain running through it so the owner could wear it around his/her neck as a sort of medallion. Again, much like the Pitney brooch, this object was created and designed by a highly skilled craftsman with the ability to work with very small tools, due to the intricate nature of the stylized dogs (British Museum).

One of the best representatives of Anglo-Saxon culture is the Lindisfarne Gospels which along with its more famous equivalent the Book of Kells, stands as a masterpiece of the art of Anglo-Saxon painting, design, and calligraphy and because of its special place in Anglo-Saxon history is currently held by the British Library. This is commonly known as an illuminated manuscript and was originally made for ceremonies at the monastery of Lindisfarne. As its title indicates, this manuscript that allegedly was written down by a single scribe over a period of some ten years, contains the Latin version (vulgate) of the four gospels from the New Testament that have come down to us through the ages as the books of John, Mark, Luke, and Matthew (British Museum).

Certainly and much in line with the unknown creators of the Pitney and Strickland brooches, the artist that designed the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels was highly talented as not only a calligrapher but also as a painter and illustrator. Also, like the Pitney and Strickland brooches, the lettering is interspersed with various kinds of animals and birds; it also contains what is known as an interlinear gloss (the words that are written between the lines in a much smaller hand) that acts as a sort of translation device for the reader, meaning that the words are Anglo-Saxon equivalents of Latin words (British Museum).

The historical origins of the Anglo-Saxon language dates back to a time when the Europeans were just emerging from the Iron Age and were on the threshold of establishing a true culturally-based society with rules and regulations laid down by powerful leaders. As Susan Irvine writes, “the settlement of the various Germanic peoples” within the geographical boundaries of Great Britain was an “important factor in the linguistic diversity that characterized Old English,” due to the Anglo-Saxons occupying much of Scotland, Wales, and parts of Ireland (“Beginnings and Transitions,” 35). For example, geographical areas and counties in present-day England like Kent, West Saxon, and Anglia, are often used to describe the main dialects of Old English and helps to establish a link between locality and linguistic forms (“Beginnings and Transitions,” 35).

According to the Venerable Bede, author of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum or the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in 731 A.D., the original Anglo-Saxons migrated from Germania which the ancient Romans called “a vast and ill-defined territory east of the Rhine and north of the Danube,” extending to the east as far as the Vistula River in Poland and as far north as Sweden and Norway (Baker, “The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language”). Of course, at this time, circa 600 A.D., the people occupying this huge geographical area were not much more than wandering nomads, moving from place to place and seeking out lands that were suitable for farming and agriculture and that provided timber for the construction of homes. However, as Stenton notes, these wandering nomads were in many ways related to one another through a shared heritage that included language and linguistic traits, and once entering what the Romans referred to as Britannia, these traits became part of their culture and  stylistically transformed the languages of many indigenous groups in England (127).

Of course, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons in Great Britain between 600 and 900 A.D. or shortly after their arrival was almost identical to that of the Germanic peoples in Germania. However, as Peter S. Baker relates, “between the time of the migration to Britannia and the appearance of the earliest written records in the first years” of the 8th century A.D., the language of the Anglo-Saxons changed greatly and became what is known today as Old English (“The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language”) which takes us back to the Lindisfarne Gospels, written by a scribe who certainly was very familiar with both Old English and Latin.

As a Indo-European language, Old English is very closely related to numerous Germanic tongues that were spoken by the original inhabitants of Gaul, dating back to the Roman exodus from Britain. As to the vocabulary of Old English, Peter S. Baker points out that although Germanic in nature, it is closely related to the vocabulary of other Indo-European languages like Dutch, French, and Latin (the language of the ancient Romans). But in 1066 following the Battle of Hastings with the French victorious and the influence of the Norman Conquest, great changes came about related to the English language and how it was spoken (“The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language”). In addition, many of the words that managed to survive to become part of Modern English are “grammar words” like articles, pronouns, and prepositions that were used by speakers of Old English (“The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language”).

Overall, the Pitney and Strickland brooches and the Lindisfarne Gospels represent the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon artistry that have managed to survive for more than a thousand years, and as cultural objects help to illustrate the long and varied history of a people that would later lead Britain and Europe into the Middle Ages. Of course, the language of the Anglo-Saxons also filtered into the Middle Ages and helped to create some of the greatest literary epics of all time, such as Beowulf, the first literary epic with direct links to the Anglo-Saxons (Stenton, 185).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baker, Peter S. “The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language.” 2003. Web. 7 March 2012.

British Museum. 2012. Web. March 6, 2012.

Irvine, Susan. “Beginnings and Transitions: Old English.” The Oxford History of England. ed. Lynda Mugglestone. UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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