The Anglo-Saxons

Anglo-Saxony is the land area of modern England with a history beginning early into medieval England (around AD 500) up until the conquest of Britain by the Normans (in 1066) thus the end of Roman Britain.

Small Kingdoms Developed

The 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era are archaeologically described as Sub-Roman Britain or more popularly called the Dark Ages. From this time separate small kingdoms developed throughout the country and were influenced and altered by the arrival of other societies such as the Vikings, yet for all the pressures for change exported from abroad, the villagers remained primarily true to a culture that has entered the history books as Anglo-Saxon.

A People and a Language

The term Anglo-Saxon is actually a collective expression that describes a people group with similar cultural ways and similar linguistic styles that lived in the south and east of the British island. It is important to recognise that it is not only the people group that are known as Anglo-Saxons but the language of that group also.

The Language of Anglo-Saxons

Probably more important than the people, known as Anglo-Saxons, is their language. The Anglo-Saxon language (now usually called Old English) was the common language of England even after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Under Norman influence, especially that of their elite classes, it evolved into what is linguistically called Middle English, a period roughly stretching 350 years from 1150 to 1500.

Early Anglo-Saxons spoke the Germanic languages of central Europe and it is less well known whether the residents of the south and east country migrated there from Europe en mass with a commonality of language or whether the migration to Britain was tribe by tribe.

Linguists prefer to use the term Anglo-Saxon to describe the original Germanic component in use in the English language and commonly referred to as Old English.

The Tribal History

The Anglo-Saxon people were a blend of three very powerful tribes: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The people, originally from the peninsula of Angeln in what is today Germany, travelled across the channel to resettle in the country’s northern provinces such as East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. Those who migrated from Old Saxony retained their homeland title as Saxons and occupied areas like Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. Farming areas such as Kent and Hampshire consisted of tribesmen from the Jutes.

King Alfred the Great appears to have enjoyed combining the names of the main two groups, Angles and Saxons, to honour himself as sovereign of such people. He used titles such as Rex Angul-Saxonum and Rex Anglorum Saxonum – King of the Anglo-Saxons.

Anglo-Saxons and Archaeology

The Anglo-Saxon period causes difficulty for the archaeologist. The very nature of their primitive agricultural lifestyle, including simple timber dwellings with thatched roofs, means that little has been left in the archaeological record. The weather of Britain, unlike that of Egypt or the Middle East, is unlikely to preserve many artefacts. Timber, whether in buildings or used for tools or bridges has mostly rotted away, and iron items such as nails, agricultural tools, weapons and so forth have mostly rusted into oblivion.

Therefore, much of the archaeological data of the period is not so fixed on gathering artefacts and surveys of architecture but is now shifting toward a better placement of Britain in the context of the European communities of late antiquity.

In places like Ephesus and Rome; theatres, colosseums, and public areas such as toilets, marketplaces, and street widths all give loud clues as to the city’s population. With little physical evidence remaining it is hard to know the population of Britain in AD 500. However, archaeologists can calculate reasonable estimates about population at this time by basing their conclusions on land usage (agricultural verses close settlements) and in this way have estimated that Britain may have had a population during the early Anglo-Saxon period of about two million.

Building Practices

The areas where excavation has proven beneficial has been in the exploration of graves and close settlement complexes. It has shown that Anglo-Saxon buildings were generally simple being made with all local renewable resources such as timber, young tree canes, grasses and mud.

Archaeologists have discovered that very few Anglo-Saxon settlements were built over the top of old Roman towns. This is in direct contrast to most other ancient building practices. Their simple village structures comprised of a central communal hall surrounded by other forms of buildings such as homes or storage facilities. All the agricultural and pastoral endeavours of the people radiated outwards from this tiny hub.

There are no significant secular architectural works remaining above ground level. There are around 50 Anglo-Saxon churches, surviving the English climate because their makers used stone or brick to construct them; many show evidence of recycled Roman materials.

What Did You Do Last Wodens-Day?

The remnants of this forgotten people remain strongly in our English language today. For example, in the names of the days of the week.

Tuw, the god of war: Tuesday
Woden, the one eyed god of weather and the dead: Wednesday
Thunor, the thunder god: Thursday
Freo, the love goddess: Friday
Saturn, the Sun and the Moon all were retained from ancient planetary calendars using planets, stars, and satellites in this case Saturn-Day, Sun-Day, and Moon-Day.

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