Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 A Brief Anglo-Saxon History
  • 1:41 Characteristics & Examples
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, we will review the general history of Anglo-Saxon society and its era. Then we will look closer at the characteristics of the literature, specifically the poetry, of that era.

A Brief Anglo-Saxon History

It is important to understand past literary accomplishments in order to appreciate current trends in literature. It enables us to comprehend what life was like in long-ago eras. The oral tradition has also given us glimpses of long-dead societies. One example that had a strong oral story-telling culture was the Anglo-Saxons. Fortunately, there are also some surviving written works from that era.

The Anglo-Saxons were prominent in the early Middle Ages, stretching from the first century up to the Renaissance, which began around the 14th century. The Anglo-Saxons invaded what is current-day England around the year 450, and were the dominant group until the Norman invasion in 1066. The group consisted of three Germanic tribes: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The Anglo-Saxon people pushed the native Britons to the region now known as Wales.

Over the next few centuries, the Anglo-Saxons were the dominant culture. However, there were many changes in society, which affected the literature. For example, the Anglo-Saxon people spoke in what is now called Old English, which is a combination of the native Briton's language and the Germanic tribal tongue they brought with them. Christianity was the religion of the Britons, and at the start of the Anglo-Saxon invasion it was suppressed. But, over the following years, these Germanic tribes converted to it. Thus, Christian ideals become popular in Anglo-Saxon literature.

The Anglo-Saxon society continued to grow over the following centuries, absorbing other cultures and rebuffing other Germanic invaders. The history of these people is reflected in the rich literature of that era.

Characteristics and Examples of Anglo-Saxon Poetry

The Anglo-Saxon invaders brought with them a tradition of oral poetry, but it was Christianity that brought the written word to them. For the most part, only churchmen were literate and spent much time copying manuscripts. Thus, we see plenty of religious topics in the written works of that era.

Let's look at some of the more prominent traits of Old English poetry. One comes from the original Germanic tribes, which valued heroic poetry. It honored brave feats and specific codes of conduct. This poetry also emphasized strong kinship, with a generosity to not just blood relatives, but to all people in the tribe. The king must follow a code of royal generosity, rewarding his faithful followers. In addition, the king's subjects must follow a code of blood vengeance, fighting to the death for their king, and avenging him if he is slain (or any kinsman for that matter). To fail to do so is to suffer endless shame.

One Old English poem, Beowulf, has many great examples of heroic poetry. It is the story of a warrior who saves his people from evil monsters through courageous deeds. There is strong kinship between Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Beowulf must kill three monsters to avenge his men that have been killed. There is also kinship between Beowulf and his soldiers, who mourn his death and praise him for his bravery.

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