Time Period of Beowulf: Historical Background

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  • 0:00 Introduction to Beowulf
  • 2:17 Life in Anglo-Saxon England
  • 3:17 The Village and the Mead Hall
  • 5:04 Anglo-Saxon History
  • 7:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The 3,182-line epic poem 'Beowulf' is considered by many to be the first piece of English literature. Examining the history of this poem of monsters, battles, and heroic deeds can teach us a lot about the people who lived during its time.

Introduction to Beowulf

Even though most scholars think that the surviving copy of the 3,182-line epic poem Beowulf was written down sometime around the year 750 CE, there is so much unknown about the poem that conclusively dating it is a nearly impossible task. For instance, no one knows who wrote the poem down or how long it existed in oral form before then. But there are clues to its age in the poem itself.

First of all, we need to say the poem was composed, rather than written. In the Anglo-Saxon age, the vast, vast majority of people couldn't read, so the poem would have been passed down from poet to poet, memorized the way we memorize phone numbers or Amazon passwords, and then repeated. When it was finally written down, it had no doubt gone through many variations. In fact, though the poem was initially a pagan epic, it was probably written down by a Christian monk, who added his own little spin on things.

However, there is some stuff that we do know. Fortunately for us, the Beowulf poem referenced real places, events, and people, so that really narrows down when the events in the poem could've taken place. For example, the poem talks at length about Beowulf's king, the great Hygelac. Hygelac was a real king, and he died in 521 CE. Therefore, the poem couldn't have been composed before then. Beowulf also references the Battle of Ravenswood, a battle which happened 11 years earlier, in 510 CE.

We can come up with a somewhat historical end date, too. The viking attacks began in earnest in the 800s, and after that, no one would've considered singing about a hero from Denmark. We're completely sure that it was written down before the year 1066 CE, the year of the Norman Invasion, when the language would have switched from Old English to Middle English, with a heavy French influence.

So, it was composed sometime between 500 and 1000 CE. That leaves us with only about 500 years. Simple, right? Okay, not so much, but it does prove that the Beowulf epic was set during the 500 years of the Anglo-Saxon age, one of the bloodiest and nastiest times in English history.

Life in Anglo-Saxon England

Life in Anglo-Saxon England was short and brutal for the vast majority of people. Though the average life expectancy was just over 30 years (so at fifteen, you'd probably be having a mid-life crisis), nearly half of kids didn't survive to their seventh birthday. There were so many things waiting to take these poor kids out that it's a wonder any of them lived at all.

Disease was a huge killer. Since antibiotics didn't exist, something as simple as strep throat could easily be fatal. Lots of people died of hunger as well, and small wounds often became infected. If a girl managed to make it to her teens, she would often die in childbirth.

But, believe it or not, it wasn't all bad. Men and women had roughly equal standing in Anglo-Saxon England, which they wouldn't enjoy again for over 1000 years. The rule of primogeniture, which is where the oldest son gets everything and everyone else is left out in the cold, existed in England until 2012.

The Village and the Mead Hall

These Anglo-Saxons soon settled into villages and towns. The majority of the residents spent their time farming and scratching out an existence in that fertile but cold and rainy land. If you were lucky enough to be a king or one of his warriors, called thanes, you'd live in the Mead Hall.

The social life of a kingdom was the Mead Hall, which often sat in the center of town, surrounded by farms and other lands the king ruled. The Mead Hall was wooden, with no windows and large doors that could be barred against invaders. In the center of the Hall was a blazing fire, and the area around it was lined with benches, where the thanes ate and slept.

For fun, when they weren't at war, the thanes would gamble, wrestle, and drink. Because the winters were very dark and cold, the people rarely bathed. The smell in these smoky halls would have been incredible, and not in a good way!

When the people of the villages heard a scop, who was a travelling poet, was in attendance at the Mead Hall, they knew they would be in for a night of storytelling, something to both alleviate the boredom of the long winter and provide the rudiments of a cultural education. This singer would perform long, epic poems, such as Beowulf, to the delight of the thanes.

Of course, monsters didn't exist in this time frame, though they feature prominently in the epic poem Beowulf. But the thanes sitting on the benches in the smoky, smelly Mead Hall would probably have believed whole-heartedly that creatures such as Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon existed. Knowledge and science were still bound up with myth, and creatures that roamed the night feasting on unsuspecting thanes were well within the realm of possibility to these people.

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