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Anglo-Saxon Society: a brief overview

Introduction to some basics of Anglo-Saxon society to preface a reading of "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," and "Judith."

Chelsea Henson

on 4 September 2018

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Transcript of Anglo-Saxon Society: a brief overview

Anglo-Saxon Society: a brief overview
Anglo-Saxon cultural structure
3 Estates:

Those who pray ------> monks, clergy
Those who fight ------> nobles, chiefs, lords
Those who work -------> everybody else (peasants, slaves, etc.)

(sometimes women = 4th Estate)

Oral tradition
non-literate culture: stories shared orally

Poetry/songs = presentation of collective memory of events; performance of the past made present in the singing

scop (pronounced shope): poet/bard/singer
--> consider similarities with "shaper" as a creator

Secular (non-religious) poetic topics



Devotion to your human Lord


The Wanderer
Anglo-Saxon elegy (lament)

Preserved in the Exeter Book - a massive collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Exeter Book = about 975 CE

Poem probably composed orally much earlier
"Those who fight"
To your kin (family / blood-relations); to your lord

Vassal structure: allegiance owed to lord; fight for him in exchange for his protection and group belonging.

"Kin" = root of "king"

Lord = from Old English "hlaf" (loaf) and "weard" (ward or protector)
Society based on gift-giving: your lord was your "ring giver"

Blood feud = social duty / requirement
wergild = "man price"

Tension = heroic code with Christian worldview --> blending of worldviews in poetry/literature
Poem written in elegiac meter: hexameter and pentameter lines


Sustained lament in verse for a death

Anglo-Saxon elegiac subject matter: change and loss, death, exile, transcience of worldly things
"ubi sunt"
Heroic Code
The Anglo-Saxon war-band: a king and his retainers (his loyal men)

Base structure of noble society

Main problem / source of tension in "The Wanderer"
Latin: "where are they?"

Poetic technique of reflection in A-S poetry

Survivors or lone warriors mourn the loss of normalcy or a tribe / group
Anglo-Saxon: "freoþuwebbe" or "friþwebbe"

woman married into a different tribe - political move

loyalty = family or husband?
Anglo-Saxon retelling of Biblical story

Anonymous poet (vs. 10th century prose translation by abbot Ælfric)

female protagonist!

key = moments of
blending / tension

The Rus
Ahmad Ibn Fadlan: Muslim, probably Arab, 10th century

(expert in Islamic law), observer and emissary

"The Rus" / Rusiya = Scandinavian vikings settled along Volga River

Cultural revelations?
Objective vs judgment?

Connections to return to:
13th Warrior

Full transcript