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The Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf: Some History

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Lisa Denomme

on 29 September 2017

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Transcript of The Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf: Some History

Like most warrior cultures, society was male-dominated; women were deemed unimportant, and only the queen was honored
Tribes were ruled by a chieftain who was called a king
Warriors, known as thanes, were fiercely loyal to their leaders and made up the king's army
Strength and courage were greatly honored; the strongest of the thanes earned the most respect and the most rewards
The Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf: Some History
Britain, later England and then Great Britain, began as a province of the Roman Empire
Germanic invaders (the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons) seized control of much of the island
Similar invasions continued throughout the age; this was a time of fierce and bloody battles
Citizens feared warfare as a daily threat

Warrior Society
The King's Duties
He must provide a Mead Hall (a great dining hall), defense, and physical needs for his people
He is expected to be the best at everything he does from fighting to swimming
He is the role model--courageous, loyal, generous, honorable, courteous
But he is also vain, boastful, and cruel
Social Surroundings
Semi-nomadic farmers and herders, as well as skilled artisans and craftsmen
Primitive lifestyle, but they knew how to party and shared their wealth with each other
Earliest portion of Anglo-Saxon age held Pagan beliefs (polytheistic: "many gods") until the ruler Augustine converted to Christianity
The most important relationship was between a thane and his king
The relationship was based on mutual trust and respect, not on subordination of one man's will to another's
A thane's vow of loyalty to his king meant he was a voluntary companion who took pride in his service to his king and country
The king vowed loyalty in return and showed this through land, rewards, etc.
General Principles
Anglo-Saxon people believed strongly in fate (wyrd)
Followed the "Survival of the Fittest" rule
Carpe Diem mentality (think "YOLO")--today could be your last so "Seize the Day"
Ancestry is super important! Social status strongly related to family background, so men often bragged about their famous ancestors
Battle is glorified, and men live (and die) for fame
Social Hierarchy
Earls (Ealdormen)...the ruling class
Churls (=blue-collar worker like craftsmen and farmers)
Anglo-Saxons loved riddles and brain teasers
Believed in the supernatural like monsters and dragons
Saw the sea as a fearful threat
Expressed these beliefs in beautiful crafts
Used metaphors often in their storytelling to describe people, places, and events
Anglo-Saxon invaders brought the oral tradition of poetry told by the scop
A scop was a singing poet who travels the land, serving as both an entertainer and historian
Prior to the Christian conversion, nothing was written down, so very little literature survived from this time
The stories that did survive reflect the transition from the Pagan to the Christian world.
Beowulf was first told as an oral story for approximately 2 centuries
It is unknown exactly when Beowulf was recorded in written text
The author is likewise unknown
Scholars believe that a scop first put Beowulf in writing during the 700s
The Telling of Beowulf
The epic was formally recorded around 1000 A.D. by two English scribes
Their manuscript is now preserved in the British Library
In 1731, the manuscript was seriously damaged by a fire and some lines were lost
Setting: Denmark (but Beowulf comes from Sweden)
Time: 5th/6th Centuries
Main Characters:
Beowulf--fictional stranger/savior
Hrothgar--King of the Danes; Beowulf comes to his aide
Grendel--fen dragon that terrorizes the Danes
Background of the Epic
Beowulf is divided into three sections:
The first introduces the characters and describes Beowulf's fight with Grendel
The second describes Beowulf's fight with Grendel's mother
The third describes Beowulf's fight with a dragon back in Sweden
The Danes were a tribe, also known as Scyldings, who lived in what is now Denmark
They are ruled by King Hrothgar
The Geats were a seafaring tribe located in southern Sweden
They are ruled by King Higlac
Higlac is eventually succeeded by Beowulf
Important people
Fen Dragons--monsters who represent evil; both Grendel and his mother are fen dragons; they have humanoid features and superhuman strength
Wergild--man price; a sum of money paid when one man kills another; the amount was determined by the man's rank and was paid to his family
Hubris--extreme pride; most men of the time period possess this quality, but Hrothgar warns Beowulf to guard against it
Herot--Hrothgar's mead hall
Important Concepts
Style--Beowulf is an epic poem that was originally sung by scops
Language--Old English
Symbolism--The monsters
The monsters in the story are presented as real because the Anglo-Saxons believed in their existence.
They also represent, however, the very real dangers and fears the Anglo-Saxons faced in a hostile environment where feuds and warfare were common
Literary Details
Grendel is a fen dragon, one of a giant race who survived the great flood
He plagues Hrothgar and his people with his thirst for blood
There's no real explanation for Grendel's attack on the Danes
Goodness conquers evil
Actions speak louder than words
Help thy neighbor
The forces of darkness are always at work in society
Epic Themes
Full transcript