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The Dawn of English literature

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Old English Literature

The Ancient Britons and Their Language.


Many hundred years ago (about the 4th century before our era) the country we now call England was known as Britain, and the people who lived there were the Britons. They belonged to the Celtic race; the language they spoke was Celtic. Their culture (their way of thinking and their understanding of nature) was very primitive. They believed that different gods lived in the thickest and darkest parts of the woods. Some plants such as the mistletoe and the oak-tree were thought to be sacred.

The Britons had a strange and cruel religion – the religion of the Druids. They sacrificed human beings and often burnt men and their animals together with them. The Britons were governed by a class of priests called the Druids who had great power over them.


Some curious customs of the Druids are still kept in Britain nowadays, and some traces of the Celtic language are to be found in the English of today; we meet them for the most part in geographical names:

dun/dum — "down", "dune" (the towns of Dunscore, Dunedin, Dumbarton); amvuin/avon — "river" (Stratford-on-Avon);

coill/kil — "wood" (Kilbrook). .


How the Romans Came.

In the 1st century before our era Britain was conquered by the powerful State of Rome. The Romans were practical men. They were very clever at making hard roads and building bridges and fine tall houses that are admired to this day. The Romans brought their civilization with them.


The Romans thought a great deal of fighting and they were so strong that they usually managed to win most of the battles they fought.


The Romans were greatly interested to learn from travellers that valuable metals were to be found in Britain. Finally they decided to occupy the island; they crossed the sea in galleys under the command of Julius Caesar.

Caesar was the first who wrote an interesting account of Britain.


Handrian's Wall


In 56 BC, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar undertook his first attempt to invade Britain. Of course at that time there was not any country on the British Isles, they were inhabited by many Celtic tribes, some had common language and culture.


Caesar found Britain to be "a nice land with forests and marshes, filled with a great number of men and cattle" as his historians wrote. He defeated some local tribes on the southern coast of Britain and thus began the Roman occupation of Britain.


Other Roman Emperors continued to drive off the natives from their territory and establish settlements and fortresses.


In 79 AD the present day England and Wales were under control, but the far North remained a serious problem. Many times the Romans tried to invade the present day Scotland but they failed. The people who inhabited Scotland were fiercely resistant and independent.


The Romans decided to build the wall to mark the end of their territory and protect it from the Scots.


But why is it called Hadrian's Wall?


Hadrian was a Roman Emperor. He decided to build his wall. By 117 AD, the Roman Empire had already ceased to expand and the biggest problem was to control its borders. In 122 AD, Hadrian visited Britain and ordered to build a wall to (as he said) - "separate Romans from Barbarians".


The wall was not built by slaves. The historians say that constructing the wall was a way to keep Roman legionaries busy. There was not very much to do in Britain those days, and the Roman soldiers needed exercise to keep fit and spend their free time in some way.


It took the soldiers six years to build the wall. The wall stretched for 117 km across the country. It was 3 m. thick and about 4 m. high. Many fortresses were built at regular intervals along the wall to patrol the territory.


Hadrian's Wall was attacked by the hostile people from the North three times: in 180, 297, and 367 AD and was finally abandoned in about 400 AD. Some parts of the wall still stand today and we see them as the greatest monuments to the power of the Roman Empire.


There are also the remains of the Roman forts and houses that we can see. They can help you take a look at what life was like in Britain 2,000 years ago.


The city of Carlisle was one the Roman's strongholds. Today we can see a well preserved Roman fort there that is almost 2000 years old and is a museum now.


But well-trained as these soldiers were, it was not so easy to conquer the Britons, and the Romans had to encamp troops all over the country.


It is from these camps that some of the English cities later arose.


The Latin word "castra" — "camp" became a suffix.

The names of many English towns never dropped the Latin ending, and you can find Lancaster, Manchester, Worcester and many others on the map.


Many things the Romans taught the Britons were given Latin names. They made the Britons build roads and bridges and a high wall in the north to keep the savages out.


The word "wall" comes from the Latin "vallum", "street" from "strata" meaning "road". But the Romans and the natives of Britain did not become one nation; all that the Romans wanted was to make the Britons work for them.


Towards the end of the 4th century the invasion of all of Europe by barbaric people compelled the Romans to leave Britain, because they were needed to defend their own country. The Roman occupation lasted for more than 400 years, till 407 AD. when the Romans troops left Britain. The fall of the Roman Empire followed soon after.


The Invasion by Germanic Tribes.

As soon as the Britons were left to themselves, they had very little peace for many years. Sea-robbers came sailing in ships from other countries, and the Britons were always busy trying to defend themselves.


Among these invaders were some Germanic tribes called Angles, Saxons and Jutes who lived in the northern and central parts of Europe.


They spoke different dialects of the West Germanic language from which modern German developed.


A wild and fearless race, they came in hordes from over the North Sea and, try as they would, the Britons could never drive them away. And many a battle was fought by the Britons until at last they were forced to retreat to the west of Britain: to Wales, Cornwall, and Strathclyde. Those who ventured to stay became the slaves of the invaders and were forced to adopt many of their customs and learn to speak their languages.


The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were pagans, they believed in many gods.

Their Pagan Gods.

The gods of the Anglo-Saxons were:

Tu, or Tuesco, — god of Darkness,

Woden— god of War,

Thor —the Thunderer,

and Freia— goddess of Prosperity.


When people learned to divide up time into weeks and the week into seven days, they gave the days the names of their gods. It is not hard to guess that

Sundayis theday of the sun,

Monday —theday of the moon,

Tuesday —theday of the god Tuesco,

Wednesday—Woden's day,

Thursday — Thor's day,

Friday — Freia's day,

and Saturday — Saturn's day

(Saturn was the god of Time worshipped by the ancient Romans).


The Anglo-Saxon Dialects.

Britain became divided into seven kingdoms:

Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria which were constantly at war with one another.


Four dialects were spokenin these seven kingdoms:

1) the Northumbrian dialect was spoken by the Angles who lived to the north of the river Humber, in the north-east of England;

2) the Mercian dialect was spoken by the Angles who lived between the river Humber and the Thames;

3) the West-Saxon dialect, or Wessex, was spoken by the Saxons who lived to the south of the Thames;

4) and the fourth, a minor dialect, Kentish, was the language of the Jutes. The language of Scotland, Ireland and Wales remained Celtic.


The Angles, Saxons and Jutes fought with one another for supreme power; they nevertheless became one nation in the course of a few centuries. The first king to rule over all of them was Egbert, king of Wessex. He was made king at the beginning of the 9th century.


Most of the works and documents in Old English that are in existence today are written in the Wessex dialect of Anglo-Saxon.


Runes. By the time the Angles and Saxons conquered Britain, they already had letters of their own called "runes" which they carved on stone and wood, but they had no written literature yet, and the stories and poems they made up had to be memorized.


Literature оf the Germanic Tribes


The Germanic tribes had literature, but it was not written down. The stories and poems they made up were repeated and remembered. The Germanic tribes were fond of poetry. Their poems did not remain unchanged. Poets improved them in form and sometimes they changed them to make them more interesting.


One of the old English words you will meet in English literature is "folk" which means "people". Folk-dances, folk-songs and folklore are the dances, songs and tales that people made up when at work or at war, or for amusement. There were also professional singers called "bards". They composed songs about events they wanted to be remembered. These songs were handed down to children and grandchildren and finally reached the times when certain people who had learned to write, decided to put them down. Most of those early poems were based on historic facts but historic elements were obscured by poetic and mythical additions.


At first all the Germanic tribes were pagans, but then in the 7-th century the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity by missionaries who came from the continent. So in the 7-th century the Anglo-Saxons became Christians and began composing religious works.


After Christianity was officially adopted by the ruling classes monastic schools were established where Latin was taught. The most learned people of that time were monks. Some of them began to put in writing poems and songs that reached them. Such people were called “scribes”. The written Anglo-Saxon language developed on the basis of the Latin alphabet.



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