As there is no way to identify the multiple authors of the Old English poems and riddles found in The Exeter Book, this section explores a brief history of the Anglo-Saxons and their literary tradition.
Historians define the Anglo-Saxon period as taking place between 449 CE and 1066 CE. The major events that occurred during this era appear in its seminal literary work, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 449 CE, Vortigern, the Romano-British king, brought troops from the European Mainland to Britain to support him the war against the Picts. This new contingent was made up of members of three Germanic tribes: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, and was led by the brothers Horsa and Hengest. Soon, Vortigern and his forces overran the native Britons, and Germanic settlements began to sprout up all over the island. While there was no new central authority, several kingdoms arose. The Angles established Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia; the Jutes settled on the Isle of Wight and in Kent; and the Saxons established Sussex, Wessex, and Essex.
These Anglo-Saxon tribes valued honor, loyalty, and courage. They believed that one of the most important relationships was that between a lord and his retainers. The lord protected and rewarded his men and in return, they fought valiantly for him and remained unequivocally loyal. Duty to one's family was also a significant trait for the Anglo-Saxons. They valued women, who played important roles in all the social classes. There was no public system of justice; rather, a personal blood feud often served to settle debts. In these close-knit societies, exile was considered a devastating occurrence, whether forced or voluntary. Anglo-Saxons also possessed a strong sense of fate, or wyrd. They believed that fate guided an individual's life and the course of the world. The way an individual accepted his or her fate spoke volumes about that person's character.
The Anglo-Saxons were mostly unlettered and had a system of orally composed poetry like the Greeks. Historians commonly assume that the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf was originally derived from an oral composition. Scops, meaning bards or singers, generally composed the poetry of this time. These scops usually belonged to a particular court and also served as informal historians and teachers. Scholars believe that most Old English poetry was performed orally, and perhaps accompanied by a musician keeping rhythm on a lyre or a harp. In the introduction to his anthology of Old English poetry and prose, Burton Raffel explains the nature of this type of composition, "...it used an additive style, formulaic diction, and themes. The building blocks of a traditional narrative are termed formulas, abstract verbal patterns whose metrical and syntactical contours are fixed but whose actual words vary depending on the alliterative context."
In 597, Augustine of Canterbury led Pope Gregory's mission to Anglo-Saxon England, which catalyzed the growth of literacy there. Literacy, and therefore, Christianity, soon spread throughout the kingdoms. An era of vernacular literacy and, as Raffel writes, "a second flowering of civilization," occurred during the reign of Alfred the Great. During this time, the Anglo-Saxons began writing poetry and prose in addition to constructing weapons, tools, household items, and decorative objects.
The Anglo-Saxon era ended with the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066.
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