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Origins of British Literature: Context for Beowulf

Our Norton editors do a nice job setting up the historical and literary context of Beowulf, but I should emphasize a few essential highlights setting the stage for the poem in quick outline fashion. Don’t worry about assimilating all of this info for “test” purposes: I’m just touching on high points to strengthen our broad historical perspective initially.

Historical background:

purple bullet The original inhabitants of the British Isles were a Celtic people called the Britons. From 43 A.D. forward, Britain was invaded and occupied by the colonizing Romans, up through 420 A.D., when Roman soldiers returned to the continent to protect Rome itself from invasion by the "barbarian Germanic hordes" there who eventually overran and effectively ended the Roman Empire.

purple bullet In 310-330 A.D. the Celts were converted to Christianity, along with the rest of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine.

purple bullet From 449 A.D. on throughout the 500s was a period of Anglo-Saxon conquest—southern England was invaded and occupied by waves of migrating pagan Germanic tribes from Scandinavia (Angles, Saxons, Jutes [Danes]). These Anglo-Saxons were a pagan warrior culture, largely uninfluenced by the moral code(s) advocated in the Christian bible (in the New Testament especially). Thus Christianity in Britain declined significantly in the Anglo-Saxon era.

purple bullet In this period of Anglo-Saxon conquest the original English language came into being: as some of the few glimpses of it in the modern translation of Beowulf indicate, the Old English language was highly Germanic (the names of characters, e.g.); the influence of Latin and French would come only later as the language evolved into the more recognizably “English” Middle English we’ll see in reading Chaucer.

purple bullet Beowulf's internal dating indicates the setting as circa 521-522 A.D.: while most of the poem's plot consists of matters of legend, Hygelac’s raid is the one certain historical event (in 520) corroborated by reliable sources outside the poem. The poem is clearly set in the period of Anglo-Saxon dominance in Britain.

purple bullet In 597 came the beginning of the Christian conversion of Anglo-Saxons through a mission Pope Gregory the Great sent to the kingdom of Kent in southeast England. This conversion would not be complete until more than a century later, some decades before Beowulf was composed.

purple bullet The British Isles were divided into a number of separate tribal kingdoms—"England" was not a recognizable single “nation” until the late 800s, with the unifying reign of King Alfred (871-899 A.D.)

purple bullet Most literature of the Old English period was in Latin; most still-surviving writing was religious—with some few exceptions, the clergy, taught to read and write Latin primarily to read (and copy) the bible, were the only literate people in Britain. Beyond working with the bible, they composed stories of saints, allegories, and creative expansions of biblical stories. Part of what makes Beowulf special is that it is the oldest surviving major work of literature written in the original Old English tongue (i.e. not in Latin).

purple bullet Beowulf, composed sometime in the eighth century, is rich with allusions to other Germanic tribes, heroes, and legends, suggesting that even 200 years after migration from Scandinavia, these stories were alive and commonly known by the Brits, mainly through heroic verse or songs sung by official court poets often employed in various English kingdoms (entertainers called scops who recited tales of heroism and adventure—hence the oral emphasis in the alliterative verse, which aided memorization through patterned repetitions of sounds). See the editors' explanation of "alliterative verse" in our Norton text.

purple bullet The persistence of such heroic tales and of Beowulf itself suggests that Christianity hadn't completely wiped out the Germanic pagan past, with its emphasis on Fate, the primitive code of human vengeance, the worship of pagan deities, etc.

purple bullet The most important tribal relationship in the pagan heroic culture was that between tribal lord and his thanes, free men of some stature who willingly gave allegiance and a deep commitment to fighting for their lord, who in turn spread wealth through sharing spoils of battle with his warriors (note that Hrothgar is the “ring-giver” in Beowulf, e.g.). The code of this tribal people required mandatory revenge for any clansman slain—through “an eye-for-an-eye” vengeance or through the payment of a wergild (death-price or man-price) in reparation. This code of vengeance led to long-running feuds that were often quelled only by marriage-alliances.

Works Cited (and consulted)