THE VERY BEGINNING – HISTORY (600-1485)
Around 700 BC the Celts, a group of settlers probably coming from Eastern Europe, occupied Britain. They were technically advanced and their religion was Druidism. Their priests, the Druids, were sages and teachers of magic.
The Celts are the ancestors of many of the people in the Highlands of Scotland, in Wales and Ireland and their language is still spoken in some of these areas
The Celts left no written documents of their culture and social life; all we know comes from Greek and Roman historians and from the work of archaeologists.
In 55 BC Julius Caesar invaded the South of ‘Britannia’ (i.e. England), that in the course of time became a Roman province. The Romans brought their language, law and civilization
Their rule lasted four centuries until 410 A.D. when the garrisons were called back to Italy to defend the Empire from the barbarian invasions. Yet Latin remained as the language of the Church, which was established in England by St. Augustine (597 A.D.).
The Britons were left to themselves and they proved unable to face the raids of the Picts (inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands) and the Scots (inhabitants of Ireland and of the islands off the West coast of Scotland). They probably searched for help and towards 450-60 AD some pagan Germanic tribes from northern Germany and Denmark started to settle in Britain. The tribes were mainly three: the Angles, who occupied the East Midlands, the Jutes, who occupied the South East (Kent), and the Saxons who settled in the South and South West. The newcomers gave their name to the island: it was called Angleland or land of the Angles.
The Celts were pushed to the hills and forests in the West, so Devon, Cornwall and Wales have preserved their Celtic character to these days. The Celtic and Latin languages soon ceased to be used in daily life and nearly all the classes adopted the language of the new tribes, Anglo-Saxon (Old English), the ancestor of modern English. Educated people and members of the Church still learnt Greek and Latin, the language of culture
Towards the close of the eighth century the Danes or Vikings, coming from the Scandinavian lands, invaded England. It was not until the reign of King Alfred the Great (871-899), the first English king, that the Danes were confined north of the Thames. The Danes were similar in race and tongue to the Anglo-Saxons, so, after the first conflicts, they mixed with them leaving permanent traces of their passage in the language and social life of the country.
In 1066 the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Saxon King Harold in the battle of Hastings. William ordered the first survey of the land, castles and ponds to be made (Domesday Book, 1086). He introduced the feudal system in England and divided the country among his baronial followers. So French became the language of the court and church (this latter also used Latin), while the popular classes still spoke Anglo-Saxon. Only in the course of the fourteenth century a new English language emerged, Middle English, a mixture of Old English and Norman French with Latin influences.
William’s successors, the Plantagenets, accomplished notable reforms in England.
Henry II (1154-1189) conceived a new judicial system and created civil itinerant courts of justice that weakened the power of the ecclesiastical tribunals. This caused the strong reaction of Thomas à Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England, who rejected every interference of the civil power in church affairs. Beckett was murdered by the king’s order in his cathedral (1170) and later proclaimed saint.
Henry II’s successor was Richard the Lionheart (1189-99) who went to Jerusalem for the third Crusade. During his absence from England his brother, John Lackland, (1199-1216) was obliged by the barons to sign Magna Charta (1215) a document which preserved the rights of the barons and limited the rights of the king in feudal disputes. This document paved the way to the first Model Parliament (1295) held during the reign of Edward I (1272–1307).
It was a “discussion” including Barons and knights and, for the first time, also town representatives or “commoners”.
In the fourteenth century a terrible plague, known as the Black Death, spread in the country (1348-49) and caused the death of more than one third of the population. Besides, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marked the fatal end to feudalism: the peasants rebelled against King Richard II (1377-1399) asking for better wages and the abolition of serfdom. A contribution to the general unrest was given by John Wycliffe’s attack against the richer clergy, who set worldly wealth above true religion. His followers, known as “poor priests”, preached the Christian ideals of brotherhood and love among ordinary people.
From 1337 to 1453 English kings were involved in the Hundred Years’ War in France to defend their lands and rights as vassals of the king of France. After many victories, the best known of which is Agincourt (1415), the English lost everything on the continent, except the port of Calais. The French troops and the King of France were encouraged to defend their land by Joan of Arc, la Poucelle d’Orléans; she was later sold to the English, accused of heresy and burned on the stake (1431).
Soon after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, during the reign of Henry VI of Lancaster (1422–1461), a civil war broke out in England, the War of the Two Roses (1455-1485). It was called so after the emblems of the two families contending for the crown: a white rose for the House of York and a red rose for the House of Lancaster. It ended when Henry Tudor defeated the last York king Richard III at Bosworth. By marrying a Lancaster princess, Henry VII (1485–1509) united the two Houses and started the great Tudor dynasty.
Insert dates or events to complete the summary.
In 55 B.C ……… ……………. invaded the south of………….. The Church was established by ……….. ……………in……………. The Anglo-Saxons arrived in England in…………….and soon their language, known as………………… was spoken in daily life.
The Danes invaded England in the ….……… century. The………………, led by William the Conqueror, arrived in 1066. They brought the…………. System and a new language, Norman-French, that mixed with………. ……..and gave origin to Middle English.
Thomas à Beckett was the………………….of ……………………. He became a martyr when …………..’s knights killed him.
In………….the barons obliged John Lackland to sign ………… ……………which paved the way to the …………. Parliament of 1295 where ……………….. could sit for the first time.
In the 14th and 15th centuries England fought the …………….. ……………..war against …………. When it ended England was afflicted by a long civil war, the war of the…….. ……… The battle of Bosworth in………… concluded the contrast between the …………… and the ……………… families and gave origin to the …………..Dynasty.
WRITERS and WORKS
The origins of literature can be set on the continent. When the first Anglo-Saxon invaders landed in Kent (5th century), they brought with them a number of songs about the deeds of their heroes. At first chanted by the King’s harpers, the scops or minstrels, they were orally transmitted from generation to generation, and in time developed into poetry. The early English heroic poem, Beowulf (), originally made up of short poems, became a complete work in Northumberland in the 8th century. With primitive simplicity it narrates how Beowulf sailed to Denmark and freed the king’s hall from a terrible monster. A good example of Anglo-Saxon poetry and language it is also an important historical document because it describes the customs and the ways of life of the old Germanic warriors. Contemporary to Beowulf were some anonymous elegiac poems , The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruin and The Lament of Deor, that voice a melancholy mood about the flowing of time and the vanity of life.
Beowulf is fundamentally pagan, but there are already some Christian elements which became essential in the first religious poems. They are attributed to Caedmon, who lived about the middle of the 7th century. According to tradition, he was a herdsman in the service of the convent of Whitby. God gave him the gift of song. And many of his poems are paraphrases of Bible stories.
The earliest record of Caedmon’s poems was left to posterity by a monk, the Venerable Bede (673-735), one of the most learned men in the Middle Ages, who lived in a Convent at Jarrow and wrote numerous scientific and theological manuals. He is especially famous for his Latin work, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, the most important sourcebook for the early history of the English people.
While Caedmon chose the subject of his poems from the Old Testament, Cynewulf took them from the New Testament and from the Lives of the Saints.
Cynewulf probably lived in the second half of the 8th century and is the recorded author of four poems in old English inscribed with his name in runic letters.
The poetical production in Old English is mostly contained in The Exeter Book and The Vercelli Book.
The Danish invasions stopped the progress of civilization in England. The convents of the North were destroyed, and learning concentrated in the South. By the end of the 9th century literature was flourishing in Wessex, assisted by the workof King Alfred the Great. Alfred established schools where both Latin and English
were taught. He himself translated or sponsored the translation from Latin into English of the chief works of erudition of his day such as Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae and Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis.
Alfred ordered the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals written by monks and containing accounts of the leading events of English history from the earliest times. It was continued up to the year 1154.
The Norman conquest had great influence on the development of English language and literature. The governing classes and the clergy spoke Norman French while the English population continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. In time the two languages mixed, words were borrowed from Norman and Anglo-Saxon, so the language underwent a deep change becoming Middle English.
Between 1066 and 1362 Latin was used to write vast compendiums of theology, philosophy and law.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1136), in his Historia Regum Britanniae, recorded the legendary stories of the Britons and included those of King Arthur and the Magician Merlin. But it was mostly through French poems that the romantic stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, became popular in England, and that the famous cycles of legends about Charle Magne and His Twelve Peers, Alexander the Great, and The Siege of Troy entered English literature.
An early adaptation of the Arthurian legends is Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knight, (14 th century), an allegorical chivalric romance in alliterative verse set at the court of King Arthur in Camelot. The protagonist accepts the challenge of a tall knight, dressed all in green, with green hair and a green horse. The story puts in evidence the typical virtues of a knight: honour, courage and chastity.
Later Sir Thomas Malory () took up the Arthurian myth in Le Mort d’Artur. The story narrates the events that happened in the reign of King Arthur and brought to the dissolution of the Round Table, and includes the Quest of the Holy Grail.
In Edward III’s reign (1327-1377) English became the national tongue. Middle English had lost almost all the inflections typical of Anglo-Saxon and of Latin, and it had acquired several thousand Norman-French words.
The language thus transformed was fixed as a definite literary language by three writers: William Langland, John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer.
William Langland (1322-1399), a minor clerk who knew the miseries of the peasants and of the lowest classes in London, wrote a poem entitled The Vision of William or Piers the Plowman, which describes the evils of society and the corruption of the Church..
John Wycliffe (1320-1384), the important religious reformer, translated the Bible into English, and his version is the best prose work of the Age.
But the greatest writer of all the Middle Ages, the true father of English poetry is Geoffrey Chaucer (☛) who, in the Canterbury Tales, portrayed the life and society of his times giving English literary status.
Answer the following questions
a. What is Beowulf ?
b. What is The Ruin?
c. What did Bede write?
d. Which authors composed poems from the Old and New Testament?
e. What did King Alfred order the monks to compile?
f. Who recorded the legends of the Britons and where?
g. What is Sir Gawayn about?
h. What did Thomas Malory write?
i. Which languages gave origin to Middle English?
j. When did Middle English become a literary language?
k. What is Piers the Plowman?
l. Who first translated the Bible into English?
m. Who is the true father of English poetry?