The Anglo-Saxon Language, Customs & Institutions


At this point it will be convenient to say a few words in regard to the Anglo-Saxon language which is the parent of our modern speech; for the original form of that tongue is generally regarded as having lasted only down to about the period with which we are now dealing.

The group of languages known as Teutonic is divided into High German and Low German. The former was the language spoken in the higher parts of Germany, that is to say in those parts far back from the sea; and the latter, in its various forms, was spoken in what maybe called the Lowlands, that is to say near the coasts of the North Sea. Today, High German means the German tongue as we now know it; and Low German includes Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Flemish, Dutch, and others.

It is to this Low German group that the Anglo-Saxon language, and its descendants the Aenglisc or English tongue, belong. The invaders originally spoke three or four dialects of the same language: namely that used by the Angles in Northumbria; that used by the Mercians of the Midlands, who were mainly Angles; that of the people of Wessex, who were Saxons; and that of the people of Kent, who were Jutes. These were all one language, the language spoken by the old Saxon peoples on the Continent; but they each had certain words and distinct pronunciations of their own, and the term “Anglo-Saxon” really means a combination of the dialects of the Saxon language spoken in England as distinct from the Saxon language spoken on the Continent. In other words, one might say simply that “Anglo-Saxon” means the Continental Saxon tongue spoken in England. But since the bulk of the existing Anglo-Saxon literature belongs to the Kingdom of Wessex the dialect of that region has come to be regarded as more representative than the others, though actually modern English seems to have a closer relationship to the dialect of Mercia.

There are three periods of Anglo-Saxon to be recognized; the Early, which extends down to the time of Alfred the Great, of whom his story will be told the next chapters; the Late, which caries us on to about the Norman Conquest; and the transitional, which extends down to about 1200 A.D. For the greater part of these periods one also speaks of the language as Old English; and for the period between about 1200 and 1500 A.D., our tongue is called Middle English. After 1500 A.D., the language is so similar to that spoken today that it is generally classed as Modern English.

As a matter of fact, pure Anglo-Saxon only exists down to about the period already reached in this book, and with the advent of the Danes, of whom will spoken of in the subsequent chapters, many new words begin to creep in. Up to this point there had been very many words derived from Latin, and those which had entered the language had either been brought in by the Romanized clergy, or else had been picked up from the Latin-speaking Britons whom the Anglo-Saxons had conquered. But from this time onwards Latin words were adopted more frequently, and during the first years after the Norman Conquest they came into the language with a rush, partly direct, and partly through the medium of French.

Towards the end of the Fifteenth Century the revival of Latin scholarship in England led to the introduction of still more Latin words, and now, also, many Greek words began to be adopted. But the structure of the language and its grammar remained essentially Anglo-Saxon, which, therefore, is to be regarded as the true parent of English, in spite of the fact that such vast numbers of the words in use today are borrowed from Latin, Greek, and many other tongues.

The relationship between Anglo-Saxon and modern English will best be seen here a few words from each, chosen at random and set side by side, as follows:

Anglo-Saxon English Anglo-Saxon English
Aeft After Aefen Even, evening
Aefre Ever Bacan To bake
Beran To bear Bed Bed
Bill Bill (axe) Blind Blind
Binden To bind Bitan / Biitan To bite
Blawan / Blaawan To blow Brecan To break
Brun / Bruun Brown Brynan To burn
Can Can Corn Corn
Cocc Cock Cropp Crop
Dael / Daeel Deal Dragon To drag
Drincan To drink Dreopan / Dreoopan To drop
Etan To eat Feower / Feoower Four
Fleotan / Fleootan  To float Foda Food
Fot / Foot Foot Ful Fool
Geat / Geaat Gate Gitan To get
Gold Gold  God / Good Good
Grund Ground Haeth / Haaeth Health
Gripan / Griipan To grip Hand Hand
Healdan To hold Hoppian To hop
Laessa Less Laet Late
Leaf / Leaaf Leaf Lifian Life
 Metan To meet Mowan / Moowan To mow
Neah / Neeah Near Nosu / Noosu Nose
 Nest Nest Nu / Nuu Now
Rum / Ruum Room Raedan To read
 Ram Ram Ridan / Riidan To ride
 Rowan  To row  Singan  To sing
 Slahan  To Slay  Spinnan  To spin
 Storm  Storm  Smitan / Smiitan  To smite
 Tredan  To tread  Treowe / Treoowe  True
 Wacan / Waacan  To wake  Waepon  Weapon
 Waeter  Water  Warre  War
 Weder  Weather  Wif / Wiif  Wife
 Willan  To will Wyrcan To work
 Word  Word  Wind  Wind

The word `God` is pronounced as `Good` there is an apostrophe above the `o` making sound as `oo`  God / Good.

The same goes with the other words shown with a `/`.

So much for the language; now let us look at two other matters, in the first place let say a few words in regard to the clothes worn by our forefathers of this period, so that we may have a clearer picture of individuals whom our story conjures up before us.

The wealthy Anglo-Saxon usually wore over his shirt (sometimes called a `smoc`) a linen or woollen tunic reaching nearly to the knees, fastened with metal clasps at the wrists, and held about the waist by a jewelled girdle, then spelt `gyrdel`. His legs were generally covered by loose linen breeches, called `brec`, which were bound around in criss-cross fashion by bands, sometimes gilded, passing up from his leather shoes or `scoh`. A cloak was fastened about him, held by an ornamental brooch at the shoulder.

On the head a hat `haet` or cap of Phrygian shape was usually worn; and stout gloves `glof` sometimes covered the hands. Stockings, called `hosa`, were later introduced, and garments of silk `seoluc` presently came into fashion; while a short coat `roc` was occasionally used. The hair was worn long, being plaited at the sides; and the chin was sometimes shaved, and sometimes covered by a beard.

The women wore a long sleeved robe, passing down to the feet, over an under-garment; and sometimes there was a second robe, sleeveless, and worn over the other, being girdled at the waist. Over all was a cloak or mantle which was thrown around the shoulders somewhat in the Greek manner. Their heads were covered with a light wrap; and they carried “vanity bags” in their hands, and wore a considerable amount of jewellery – necklaces, bracelets, and rings, besides strings of beads. They often rouged their cheeks, and waved their hair with curling tongs.

The skeletons found in cemeteries seem to show that the men and women were of much the same height as ourselves; but fir the most part they were fair-haired and blue-eyed; The extraordinary confusion of types, and the great diversity of complexions and colour of the hair seem at the present day, are due to the variety of strains from which our modern blood is derived. We are an astonishing mixture today, many of us including in our ancestry not only Anglo-Saxon, but British, Irish, Scotch, Pictish, Roman, Danish, French, Dutch, and other elements; but at the time with which we are dealing hte fair Teutonic type was paramount, and the Celtic and Roman strains were only gradually being introduced by intermarriage with the temnants of the conquered race.

Now lets add a few words in regard to some of the important Anglo-Saxon institutions.

Our Anglo-Saxon forefathers were expert farmers and when they were not at war they were busily occupied upon the land. They reared most of the domestic animals to be seen today, bees were extensively kept. They were keen huntsmen, fond of their dogs and horses, and falconry was a popular sport. Circumstances obliged them to go campaigning with their King from time to time, but they were happier at home, and, indeed, their peace-loving disposition impelled great numbers towards the quiet life of the church and monastery.

Generally speaking the people were divided into two classes: the `eorls`, or nobles, and the `ceorls`, or freemen; but in some parts of the country a third class, the `laets`, or tributary dependents, were recognized, and there were also the slaves. An ordinary prosperous freeman generally owned what was called a `hide`, that is to say an area of land of about sixty to one hundred acres, that being the area usually reckoned as sufficient to maintain the owner`s household and family in comfortable circumstances. A hundred `hides` formed a unit known as a `Hundred`, a term we still use, and these nudred households were supposed to supply that number of trained soldiers ot the crown when they were needed.

These `Hundreds` were presided over by a headman known as a `reeve`; and in later days, when the large shires or counties began to appear, there was a `shire-reeve`, a word which had now become `sheriff`. Each shire, too, had its `ealderman`, corresponding to one of the important Barons of Norman times.

Each `hide`, or family estate, provided employment and subsistence for a large number of `laets` and slaves; and these were often of British race, the `laets` in the South, for instance, being sometimes termed `waelh`, or “alien,” a word which is the origin of the name “Welsh.”

The King had his `thegns` or ministers, and his particular retinue of friends. He ruled through a sort of parliament, called the `Witan,` or `Witan-Gemot,` composed of his own nominees, and to some extent he had their advice, for on more than one occasion they proved quite strong enough to depose their sovereign and to elect a successor of their own choice.

Punishments for offences against the law usually took the form of fines, and the extent of these was carefully set out in books of `dooms` or “judgements,” 33 gold pieces, for instance, having to be paid by one who had had the misfortune to kill an `eorl,` 100 pieces by one who had killed a `ceorl,` and so forth. A robber, if caught, had to pay back the value of the articles stolen multiplied by a figure strictly graded according to the rank of the person robbed: if his theft was of church property he had to pay back twelve times the value; if he had robbed the King he had to pay the amount back ninefold; if the theft had been from a priest, the return was also to be ninefold; if from a freeman it was threefold; and so forth.

There were `dooms` for every sort of offence, and the particular care with which those for manslaughter or murder were detailed shows that the Anglo-Saxon was quite as ready to lift his weapon against any man who aroused his wrath as was his descendant in the duelling days of not so long ago. In that respect, indeed, he was almost as silly as a modern American gunman. Quarrelling or brawling were offences for which fines were imposed, but if a fight were to break out in the King`s presence, the life of the instigator might be forfeit, since such a squabble might endanger the sovereign himself, whose skin, at best, was never very safe, in view of the fact that he was expected to fight personally in battle, and battles were frequent.

When Christianity had taken a firm hold upon the nation the bishops became the most important personages in the land, and there were many laws directed towards the maintenance of the sanctity of the Church and towards the observance of religious codes. There were fines, for example, for not keeping the Sabbath, for not having a child baptised, and so on; and, on the other hand, a church became at an early date a place of refuge to which a miscreant could fly for safety.

To conclude these brief notes of explanation before returning to the main theme, a word in regard to the characters used in writing. The Anglo-Saxons employed at firstbthe Runic characters, which are thought to have been derived from Greek and Latin letters, and which were known to all the Teutonic peoples on the Continent. But during the Eighth Century these Runic letters, or Runes as they are called, passed out of general use in England, with the exception of three letters, one of which, `th,` is the origin of the letter like `y,` but really pronounced `th,` retained in `ye` (the) till the Eighteenth Century.

Side by side with these Runic characters a Roman script was also used, and sometimes an inscription is written in both; but gradually the latter entirely replaced the former.