The English Language,
Beowulf and the
A Brief History of Britain up to the end of the
What do the terms Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles and
the United Kingdom refer to? Are they terms for the same land
The Origins of Language
7000 BP (before present): Indo European
Early British History:
The first persons in England were the
Druids and Celts.
Druids were a gathering of priests and are
known for Stonehenge
The Celts and Druids eventually merged.
The Druids worshipped goddesses;
conquering tribes did away with religion
and the goddesses.
Early British History:
I. 43-410 A.D. – Roman Rule
A. Roman Empire is at its height – it is
expanding around the European continent.
B. Britain is invaded by the Romans (Julius
Rome settles and builds in England,
completely subduing the Celts
C. Various Roman Governors rule Britain
D. The Romans introduce their language,
culture and law – roads, songs, literature,
architecture, pastimes (Roman Baths)
II. 410-1066 – Anglo-Saxon and
A. Collapse of the Roman Empire – Romans
abandon Britain, leaving the Celts without an
army or way of defending themselves.
B. Britain is plunged into the “Dark Ages”
1. No literacy or culture
C. 3 Germanic tribes invade Britain
The Celts are pushed into Scotland, Ireland and
Latin becomes the language of the learned
Arrived when the Romans left.
Divided Britain into independent principalities each with
their own ruler.
Christianity returned and linked Britain with Europe,
which helped to unify the Anglo-Saxons, although their
pagan religion remained strong.
Fame, success and survival depended on the loyalty to
the leader of the clan.
A-S religion was more concerned with ethics than
Bards (scops) were as important as
fighters, hunters, fishers, and farmers.
They were accompanied by glemons
(musicians) who played on harps.
Fame in the bard’s mournful poetry was a
hero’s only consolation after death.
Christian monks preserved Anglo-Saxon
culture and literary traditions.
Comprised of Danes, Swedes and
The Vikings were peasants and nobles
who sailed from their land to attack and
Purpose: Gain more land and property
Alfred the Great:
During this time period we have Alfred the Great.
871-899: Alfred the Great of Wessex became King of England
(parts of it) and was known for being a great scholar.
He defeated Vikings who had been attacking other English
kings and lands and he negotiated peace with the Danish
He developed defendable plots of land called buroughs as
market places and spread literacy by having important texts
translated from Latin into Anglo-Saxon.
One such important text was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which
celebrated Alfred and the history of Wessex
Alfred’s legacy is the unification of the lands ruled by other
Anglo-Saxon kings into what would eventually become
The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
Remnants of an Anglo-Saxon royal burial
were found at the town of Sutton Hoo.
Treasures were found in mounds scattered
about the area, including an undisturbed
ship filled with artifacts.
This discovery proved that the AngloSaxons were civilized.
III. 1066-1154 – Norman Rule
A. King Edward I “The Confessor” dies leaving
England to his cousin William of Normandy (a
B. There are three claimants to the throne: William of
Normandy, Harold Hardrada (Edward’s nephew) and
Harold of Norway (Viking)
C. Harold Hardrada defeats Harold of Norway in
D. William launches an attack on England and
meets Harold Hardrada at Hastings, England.
The Battle of Hastings
The two armies meet at the town of
Oct. 14, 1066 – Battle of Hastings
Bloody battle – many die
Harold is killed by an arrow through his eye.
The Bayeux Tapestry
232 feet long; 20 inches high
Embroidered panel of wool on linen
Shows the Battle of Hastings.
The tapestry can be seen today in a
chapel in Bayeux, France.
The Bayeux Tapestry
William the Conqueror
William becomes king and is known as
William the Conqueror.
In order to command England, William
builds castles at each of the cities he stops
at on his way to London.
The most famous of his castles is the
White Tower in the Tower of London.
Results of the Norman Conquest
There was now a major division between
the nobles and the peasants.
The nobles (William’s) spoke French
The English peasants spoke old English
The Normans brought accentual syllabic poetry
(iambic pentameter etc…)
*Monosyllabic words are mostly Anglo-Saxon:
blood, puff. They are more pictoral, concrete and
The English Language
The English that emerged after the Battle
of Hastings was drastically different
449 to 1066: Old English
1066-~1485: Middle English (Chaucer)
Great Vowel Shift (vowels shift higher, or
pronounced higher in the mouth; ex: route)
1485-2012: Modern English
(Shakespeare is considered middle/modern
A combination of influences!
Heavy Germanic influence
Nouns were either masculine, feminine or neuter
Relied on word form rather than word order
For special purposes, a different alphabet was used
(futhorc) which was composed of letters known as
Mainly an oral language.
The Catholic Church influenced OE; missionaries brought
words like paper, altar, candle and school
The Vikings also left many words in the English lang.
Types of Poetry
Old English Poetry
1. Uses a lot of alliteration
2. Caesura – there are spaces in the
middle of the lines (poetic breaks in
3. 4 beats per line
4. a a
(a = alliteration) – look
at example text
6 Themes common to AngloSaxon Poetry
1. Loneliness and suffering
2. Temporal matters are fleeting
3. Northern winters are terrifying
4. The sea is immense, cruel and unforgiving
5. Loss of a retainer is catastrophic (a liege lord)
6. Ubi Sunt: mourning for what has gone before;
mourning for the past
Terms to Know for Beowulf:
1. Comitatus: Community. The bond between the lord and his
2. Scop: A storyteller or poet
3. Kennings (Epithets): Metaphoric compound words.
Examples: Bone-house = rib cage or the body
Whale’s road = the sea
Sky’s candle = the sun
4. Epic Hero: A larger than life figure from history or
legend. Qualities: courage, loyalty, honor
5. In Media Res: “In the middle of things” The story begins in the
middle of the action.
6. Mead: rich, thick wine; mead halls (gathering places)
History of Beowulf:
I. Epic Poem:
a. Tells of the adventures of heroes (from history or
b. Epic Hero Traits (Anglo-Saxon) – courage, loyalty,
a. written between 700-1000 A.D.
b. Composed in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and found,
along with “The Wanderer” in the Book of Exeter in 1020.
d. They are elegiac – poems of mourning
c. Earliest major work of English poetry
d. Takes place in Scandinavia (Denmark)
e Only 1 surviving copy left – British Library in
f. Over 300 lines long, unrhymed, 4 beat alliterative
Mothers are found to be greater, more evil
and powerful in epic stories (Grendal’s
mother is much more terrifying than her
Anglo-Saxons valued mothers, however a
male hero always triumphs.