, Research Paper
As was popular during the Anglo-Saxon era, English poets usually wrote epic
poems. These authors told stories about experiences in everyday life, the tales of
battles won or battles lost, and also about the heroes who set out to defeat all the
horrible monsters that plagued the nation. These times greatly influenced the writers of
the Anglo-Saxon period because of the harshness of life and law, the mixed beliefs in
magic and religion and the hierarchy of their government.
Life during the Anglo-Saxon period of England was not exactly like the life we
experience in our time. Consequences for not abiding the law were disastrous. “The law
itself was violent, though a trespasser would often avoid its severe penalties by paying a
fine if he could afford it” (Page 5). Most crimes were punishable by death, by hanging,
beheading, burning, mutilations, castration and scalping, most of the above mentioned in
the epic poem “The Chronicle”. Most criminals who committed a crime and got caught
never again attempted to do so, or were in so much pain, never again could they do
much of anything. The law also permitted men to kill other men that insulted them, owed
money or were caught sleeping with a member of his family (Page 9).
Wars were fought throughout the history of Anglo-Saxon rule. They fought the
British in the fifth and sixth centuries, and later on, the Celts until the end of their reign.
They also fought against Viking raiders who were savage seamen. “… they brutally
murdered the arch Bishop Aelfheah, whom they were holding to ransom, by pelting him
with bones and the heads of cattle” (Page 4). The small early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms
constantly warring with one another. No one ever really won, but they remained in a
constant deadlock, always wanting greater wealth and glory.
Natural disasters also ended many lives. “… the plague days came, / Death
snatched away all the host of men, / Their battlements became waste places, / Their
citadel crumbled” (Alexander). Many people died from plagues, famine, storms and
droughts. “The Wanderer” mourns the loss of life due to an unspecified cause as
everything and everyone he once loved has succumbed to death.
The Anglo-Saxons believed in a mixture of catholic religion and pagan customs
and rituals. For the first century and a half of their rule, paganism was favored. Catholic
religion became prominent only in the latter four hundred years and although most of the
people had converted, many of the pagan beliefs and rituals remained.
A great many mystical beings and creatures were still sought out in the latter
years of Anglo-Saxon reign. “Often the evil monsters pressed upon me, but with thrust
of my sword I dealt them fair return. They had no chance to devour me” (Hosford 12).
Amongst these creatures, the most popular was the dragon for it was also believed in
Catholic religion. The dragon held treasures that were plentiful beyond the dreams of
men. To slay a dragon was a deed well celebrated and most honorable.
Many believed that it was honorable to die in battle, or to die protecting your
leader in battle, which was a matter of choice. If a soldier was to come back from a
battle without his commander, he would be shunned and disgraced for the rest of his life
(Page 21). He was also labeled as “one without honor”. Being without honor was a
punishment much worse than death.
Honor was extremely important, and a good man’s word was his bond. In the
poem “Apolonius of Tyre”, a man, namely Apolonius, returned to a country even though
he knew it would be the death of him. He was given a grace period in which to return
home, divide his possessions and say good-bye to his friends and family. The only
problem was that he was Shipwrecked on the way back to the country in question.
A servant worked for his master out of loyalty, not out of force. He would gladly
give his life in his service. Beowulf helps other kings in this fashion by ridding their lands
of evil monsters and protecting the kingdom’s citizens. By doing this, he gained the
respect and honor from many people.
One reason for this fanatical loyalty was that they believed the king was chosen
by God. In serving the king, they were in fact serving God. The king was
in most probability just an exceptional warrior and good friend whose story was
exaggerated to the point of him becoming a great political leader.
Government, everyday life and beliefs all had a profound influence on the
works of the Anglo-Saxon period. The authors wrote about the cold, hard world
around them, thus providing us with great tales of heroes and adventures. We
can now look back and see what life and culture was like many years ago during
five hundred and fifty years of Anglo-Saxon reign.
Exert from “The Ruin”
Bright were its palaces, its many bathing halls,
Its wealth of tall pinnacles, its tumult of warriors,
Many a mead hall filled with festive life,
Until mighty fate overturned all.
Far and wide the slaughtered fell, the plague days came,
Death snatched away all the host of men.
Their battlements became waste places,
Their citadel crumbled.
Exert from “The Wanderer”
Where is the horse? Where the hero? Where the treasure giving prince?
Where the seats at the feast, where the delights of the hall?
Alas, bright goblet! Alas, mailed fighter!
Alas, princely power. How that time has passed away,
Grown dark beneath the night’s helmet, as though it had not been.
Exert from “The Chronicle”
… and some he killed in various ways,
Some of them were sold for cash, some cruelly slaughtered,
Some of them fettered, some blinded,
Some were mutilated, some scalped.
No more dreadful deed has been done in this land
Since the Danes came and took peace at our hands.
Exert from “Beowulf”
Then the hardy Beowulf remembered his battle-boast. Up he sprang and laid fast
hold upon his foe. Grendel’s fingers cracked in that iron grip, but the fiend strove fiercely
to wrench himself free. He longed to escape to the fens, yet he knew his power was
caught in the strength of this grim one. [...] As they struggled the monster took a fearful
hurt; a great wound showed on his shoulder, his sinews cracked and the bones broke.
Now was the victory given to Beowulf, and Grendel, sick unto death, fled to his den in
the dark moor.
Exert from “Apolonius of Tyre”
Antiochus was the king of Antioch, and his heart was evil. His daughter was very
beautiful, and so he had an incestuous relationship against her will. To keep her to
himself, he demanded that her suitors must solve a riddle or die. Apolonius, the prince
of Tyre, guessed correctly, but the king said he was wrong, thus condemning him to
death. Apolonius had a month to return home and say good-bye to everybody.
“What wilt thou do now, Apolonius? Thou has guessed the king’s riddle, and thou his
daughter hast not received; therefore thou art now condemned that thou shouldst be
killed”. And he then went out and ordered his ship to be loaded…
Apolonius returns of his own free will, but he is lost in a shipwreck.
Alexander, M. “The Ruin”. The Earliest English poems.
http://www/ccc/nottingham.ac.uk/ aczsjm/wap/angsp.html (1966)
Hosford, Dorothy. By His Own Might: The Battles of Beowulf. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1947.
Page, R.I. Life in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.
Thorpe, Ben. “Apolonius of Tyre”. http://www.georgetown.edu/cball/apt/apt.html (1995)