From Legend to History:
The Old English and
Medieval Periods
I. Historical Background 449-1066
A. Stonehenge – the
earliest remains of
English history. An
ancient monument
on the Salisbury
Plain in Wiltshire,
England, may be
3500 years old. The
stones are not native
to England: some
are from Wales.
Earliest inhabitants
A. Iberians – from present day
Spain and Portugal. Brought
Stone Age weapons.
B. Celts – from southern Europe
(800-600 BC.) Britons-Britain
(Druid priests in this group)
and Gales-Ireland
C. Romans – 55 BC. Julius
Caesar claimed for Roman
Empire and left. 100 years
later Claudius brought legions
and occupied the entire area.
Towns were established,
roads were built, etc. These
legions stayed for 300 years.
The last of them left in 407 AD.
Despite the war-like quality of
the Romans, they did not
prepare the Britons to defend
D. Angelo-Saxons – (449-1066)
A. Origins – Angles, Saxons, and jutes from Denmark
area, defeated the Britons
B. Tribal units
A. King – supreme ruler, chosen by witan, a council
of elders
B. Four classes – 1. Earls – heredity class of ruling
warriors; owed all allegiance to king 2. Freeman –
owned land and engaged in commerce. Thanes
in this class. 3. Churls (serfs) – worked the land;
bound servants. 4. Thralls (slaves) – military
C. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – three separate tribesfought eventually intermarried and became the
Angelo-Saxons. Settled into kingdoms of Scotland,
Northumbria, Danclaw, Ireland, Wales, Mercia, and
D. Language – Anglo-Saxon or Old English
E. Anglo-Saxon Profile
A. Delighted in glorious bloodshed
B. Delighted in revenge
C. Were given to deep drinking in the
mead hall
D. Were sensitive to blame and praise
E. Were reared in an elaborate code of
F. Were endowed with chivalry and
G. Were passionately loyal to the liege of
the lord
H. Showed delight in clever speech and
quick retort
I. Honored faithfulness and generosity
of the king to his retainers
J. Showed primitive vigor
F. Beliefs: Every human lift is in the hand of
fate (wynd). Worshipped Ancient
Germanic gods
G. The Britons (during the Anglo-Saxon
invasion) spread to Cornwall, Walls,
Ireland, and Scotland.
H. Literature – the alliterative verse of AngloSaxon poetry was recited by the “scop”,
the itinerant minstrel who frequented the
halls of kings and chiefs. The scop
composed oral poems.
A. Vikings
A. Origins: 8-12 century from Scandinavia
(Northern Europe) Norse-Norway; DanesDenmark – known as Vikings (sea travelers)
B. Invasion: Norse-Northrumbria, Scotland,
and Ireland, Danes-eastern and Southern
England Monasteries contained
manuscripts and sacred objects; most
burned or lost
C. Compromise – 871 Alfred the Great was
able to establish a compromise between
the Danes and the Saxons
D. Result – peace and growth of towns as
trade centers
E. Leaders – Alfred the Great (871-899) and
Edward the Confessor (942-976
II. Religious Background
Romans introduced Christianity in the 4th century
Celts took it to the areas when they fled. (Ireland-St. Patrick)
Anglo-Saxons – in 597 Pope sent Augustine to convert Ethelbert of
Kent (Jutes) to Christianity. A monastery at Canterbury was
established. By 650 success was realized. Augustine became the
first Archbishop of Canterbury (the Pope’s representative in
England). The council of Whilby was the first meeting of the church
Two additional contributions of the church: education and a written
literature. Latin was the official language of the church. The monks
wrote the manuscripts.
The church is Roman Catholic with the influence of the Pope in
Rome. Canterbury is the home of the church.
Religious writers
A. Bede – Father of English; wrote A History of the English Church
and People which is considered the first English prose work
B. Caedmon – “Caedmon’s Hymn” – poem
C. Cynwulf – first great English poet
III. Literary Background
First writing- Celtic Druids (monks) storytelling.
Purpose: to pass along tribal history and values to an
illiterate audience
Anglo-Saxons wrote with alphabet letters called runes.
Still few could read or write. Scops recited stories on
ceremonial occasions – accompanied by harp. 30,000
lines of Anglo-Saxon verse still exist.
A. Four manuscripts
A. Exeter book – riddles and epics; works by Cynewulf
B. Juneus – works by Bede
C. Verelli – two poems: “Andreas” and “A Dream of the
D. Beowulf – manuscript on display in the British
Museum in London
B. Two types of verse
A. Heroic- achievements of warriors
B. Elegiac – sorrowful laments
mourning death
C. Types of writing
A. Poetry (before prose)
B. Prose
C. Religious writings (prose or poetry)
C. Writers and Works
A. Poets
A. Caedmon – “Caedmon’s Hymn”
B. Cynewulf – 1st great poet
B. Prose
A. Bede – A History of the English
Church and the People – known as
father of English history
B. Alfredic – 1st great prose writer;
wrote homilies (sermons)
IV. “The Seafarer”
A. Author of the poem was Anglo-Saxon,
from one of the Germanic tribes who
settled England in the 400’s
B. Poem found in The Exeter Book, the
largest collection of Old English Poetry in
existence and one of the only four
collections to survive to the present day
V. Beowulf
Importance: first writing in
English history, first writing in
English language, national epic
of England
B. Type: Epic
A. Definition: a long narrative
work dealing with the exploits
of a single national or tribal
B. Characteristics:
A. Hero is great national hero
B. Setting is vast in scope
C. Intervention of
supernatural forces
Epic conventions in Beowulf
A. Patronymics – family background of
noble birth
B. Beginning in medias res- starts in the
middle of things
C. Majestic themes – the potential for
the death of a nation
D. Dignified language – lofty style,
subtle hints, no romanticism,
presents events plainly or crude
E. Divine or semi-divine intervention –
important in the action of the epic
F. Catalogue of names-listing
G. Long speeches – characters speak
ceremoniously on issues
H. Action is based on the heroic
concept – action is mostly external/
physical encounters
I. A national hero- hero embodies the
important concepts in the society;
through strength and courage, he
J. Episodic – series of similar
C. Folk Epic
A. Developed in the
traditions of the
B. Meant to be recited
C. For the common man
D. Repetitious
D. General Information
A. Author unknown
B. Dates of work: 6-8
century told, 11th
century written
E. Literary device
Oxymoron – contradiction
Kenning – compound word
Alliteration – repetition
Litotes – understatement
Digression – straying from the subject
Caesura – break in line (pause)
Metaphor – implied comparison
Foreshadowing – predicting what will happen
Assonance – repetition of vowel sounds
Elegy – laments the loss of something or someone
Story information
Setting: Denmark and Sweden
Beowulf – story’s hero (geat)
Hrothgar – king of Danes
Wealtheow – Hrothgar’s
D. Hygelac – Beowulf’s kinsman/
Great king
E. Unfearth – warrior who tried
to discredit Beowulf
F. Wiglaf – warrior helped
Beowulf against dragon
G. Grendel – monster
H. Grendel’s mother
*The Anglo-Saxon era ended at
the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The Normans defeated them
and William the Conquer
became king of England.
Medieval Period
I. Historical Background
A. William the Conqueror
A. From Normandy
B. Related to Edward the Confessor through his
mother’s family
C. Defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings on
Christmas day, 1066
D. Brought French culture, customs, and language to
E. Set up Feudal System – class system of no escape
(king, vassal, baron, knight, serf)
F. Doomsday Book – William’s records (census) of
G. Built Tower of London for protection
B. Kings
A. Plantagenet Family
A. Henry II – Beckett, archbishop of Canterbury – killed by
Henry’s knights
B. Richard I – debt because of Crusades
C. John I – repaid debt with taxes; forced to sign Magna
Carta beginning of constitutional government
D. Henry III and Edward I – continued constitutional
government all early framework for representative
B. York and Lancaster Families
A. York family crest – white rose; Lancaster family crest –
red rose
B. 30 years of fighting and changing back and forth
bwetween the two families
C. Ended with Henry VII of Lancaster family as king
marrying into York family
D. White rose and red rose = Tudor rose (pink)
Chivalry – the code of honor of the knight. Knights
out fighting for honor; mothers left at home to train
the sons (squires). Thus respect for women.
D. Universities – Oxford and Cambridge established
during this period. Only wealthy families’ sons
were sent to these schools
E. Caxton Press – first English printing press.
Important because more works could be printed in
less time.
F. Towns – Guilds – like unions banned together,
Black Death killed 40% of the population, changed
the class system
G. Church – Roman Catholic. The church was one
place where all classes were equal.
Excommunication was removal from the church
and society. Archbishop of Canterbury is the
Pope’s representative.
II. Literary Background
Writers and Writing
A. Thomas Mallory – Morte d’ Arthur (The Death of Authur)
B. William Langland – Piers Plowman (satire written in verse)
C. Medieval Poetry – lyrical and ballads, two types: religious and
D. Drama – miracle and morality plays
A. Miracle – retold stories from the Bible or dealt with some
aspect of the lives of saints
B. Morality – depicted the life of an ordinary person sometimes
from birth to death. Meets characters who symbolize abstract
qualities such as virtue, vice, etc. Allegorical – to teach a
moral lesson (example: Everyman)
E. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” – story of one of King
Arthur’s knights
F. Geoffrey Chaucer – the most important and famous writer of the
period. His most famous work is the Canterbury Tales because it
gives such an accurate picture of life during the 14th century.

UNIT ONE - Mrs. O's Brit Lit Webpage