customs and many traditions which they called their own. It is hard to define, however, which of these customs and traditions
were ‘native’ and which were influenced by invaders. From paganism to Christianity, from the the use of Old English to the use of Latin, from French
invaders to Norman invaders: All these different aspects of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ society show us, in my view, that there is no such thing
as ‘Anglo-Saxonness’. But if we should try and define the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ society, what customs and traditions would we incorporate?
The archeological evidence we have for the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain can be found in burial sites. Both cremation and inhumation were common at the time, and both pagan and Christian items were found in and/or near the burial site. This mixture of procedures and formalities created a new kind of burial, instead of the Christian cementary that we find conventional in the 21st called a ‘mixed-rites’ burial. These burials were, in addition, important for religion as well. If you were a saint, it was proven as such: miracles were believed to occur around your burial. Therefore these burials started to function as pilgrimage sites. Even though these mixed-rites burials are not typical for modern day Britain anymore, with their mixed cultures and burial treasures, proof of their existance is still occasionally found. The best known archeological find of an Anglo-Saxon mixed-rites burial is, perhaps, Sutton Hoo, where a 27-metre long ship loaded with treasure was found. The treasures found in Sutton Hoo perfectly portrayed all the different cultural and religous aspects of the mixed-rites burials. Pagan features, Christian features, Vikings elements, and Norman elements: all these influences and cultures which were represent in the Anglo Saxon society, were represented in the Sutton Hoo burial treasure.
An Anglo-Saxon tradition that concerned itself with story telling was oral tradition. As the tradition of printing press only occurred centuries later, an oral tradition was needed for the distribution of verse and prose. Because of this oral tradition, the Anglo- Saxon society was forced to think of clever tips and tricks that made it easier for them to remember and recite a story or a poem. They achieved this through alliteration, repetition, formulas and variation. Due to this need for variation, repition and synonyms in literature, a specialized diction was essential.
There was not one set religion in Anglo-Saxon society. Rather, a mixture of Norse religion, Celtic religion, and Christian religion was often practiced. The best known God that the Anglo-Saxons ‘borrowed’ from the Norse religion, who is often portrayed in Old English literature as well, is the pagan God Woden, the Germanic counterpart to the Norse God of war. As the Anglo- Saxons often adopted the notion of God as a battle warrior, they too incorperated the Germanic God of war. As a result, Woden quickly became a prominent figure in Anglo-Saxon literature. The influence of Woden on Britain is still evident today, as we still have a day of the week named after this great Germanic god, namely the day of Woden: Wednesday.
Before the Roman missionaries came to Britain, there was no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon classroom. Everything regarding to education, Anglo-Saxons society owed to the Church. As a result, the content in the Anglo-Saxon classroom was mainly aimed at Christianity and Latin, rather than literature written in Old English and Anglo-Saxon features. The Church benefited greatly from this, as it allowed for Christianity to flourish. Even though the content of education was mainly aimed at religion features that portrayed the mutlicultural Anglo-Saxon society. For instance, both the roman and the runic alphabet were used. Even when the roman alphabet was believed to take the upper hand as a lingua franca, Anglo-Saxon society retained the use of some runic feautures in the Roman alphabet, such as runes Thorn, Eth, and Ash.
Wergeld was a direct consequence of the Anglo-Saxon tribal society. If someone had committed a crime, they would not go to prison, but they had to pay wergild. This word literally means man money, because ‘were’ means ‘man’ in Old English, and ‘geld’ is the Old English word for ‘money’. The idea was that everyone was worth something, and you had to pay a fine according to the person you had wronged. If a nobleman was killed, the murderer had to pay 1200 shillings. For a free man, 200 shillings had to be paid. The worth of an unmarried woman was based on her father’s social status, and a married woman’s worth on her husband’s. The wergild was also used as punishment for lesser crimes such as burglary or injury. The amount of the fine that had to be paid was based on the social status of the person who was wronged and the kind of crime that was committed.
Charms and Magic
Charms were often seen in Anglo-Saxon society as “incantations or formulae aimed at achieving an end by magic means.” (Godden 235) If you, for instance, were hit by an arrow, something similar to the shape of an arrow was used to heal your wound, alongside the incantation of a charm. The sense of magic in Anglo-Saxon society tells us a lot about their belief in superstition and their traditional way of practicing medice.
In final consideration, Anglo-Saxon customs and traditions show us a wonderful mix of religions, cultures and beliefs. Some Anglo- Saxon traditions even made it to current day British society, such as the days of the week, Easter, and Christmas. It appears that all of these traditions combined portray the history of Britain, the strive and the sorrow, the invaders en the victories, the foreign influences and the diff erent authorities, quite perfectly.
by Jolijn Bronneberg
Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.