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The written word has existed for thousands of years, with the style and subject matter of literature changing to fit the times. English literature is no different, with three distinct periods of writing (Old English, Middle English and modern English). As the earliest period of documented literature, the Old English period is marked by the primitive styles and language of the Anglo Saxon people. Though they were sea-faring warriors, the Anglo Saxons were capable of strong emotions, best captured in poetry. However, these works were not written down. Rather, they were recited or sung. Some men even devoted their lives to this purpose. These skilled minstrels were known as scops.
The scop was an Anglo-Saxon poet who was commissioned by the early Germanic kings or soldiers to entertain them by reciting the poetry to the accompaniment of a harp or a similarly stringed instrument. From the Old English word “scieppan”, scop means to create, form or shape. The scop was also referred to as a gleeman, from the Old English word “gleoman”, who was a musician or performer. Though the scop was a performer, like the gleeman, the work of the scop was more artistic, as the name denotes. Unlike the gleeman, scops also wrote and performed their own poetry. Also, they had to be able to insert fitting verse where necessary, depending upon the occasion or celebration .
Scops were known to travel from village to village; however, many had permanent posts in the king’s court or mead halls. Usually, they performed for great feasts, celebrations, or the homecoming of soldiers from war. Their performances were usually short, but there were usually many lines of verse. Beowulf itself is over 3000 lines long. Any given song could deal with events from the present, such as battles won or recent adventures had. In Beowulf, the scop announced Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel the morning after the deed. Some songs might deal with figures from the past like the ancestors of the Anglo Saxons. Other subjects reflected in the poetry include the sea, brave deeds, glory of warriors, and the love of home. Scops were also commissioned to write elegies or songs for the dead. It was considered an honor to have a scop sing one's praise or mourn one’s death. But, regardless of the subject matter, the theme was lofty and its tone was earnest.
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The scops were very important to Anglo-Saxon society. The scops were messengers of traditional morality. They used the poetry to motivate their listeners to live good and honest lives. Also, because most of the historic events were recorded in poetry, they were carried by the scops to places far and near. By traveling with these stories, the scops helped to preserve the history of the Germanic people for generations later. The Anglo Saxon people believed that poetry was the closest thing to immortality. Thanks to the work of these oral historians, we can still read about their culture, achievements, and beliefs. The dream of being remembered has become a reality.
Important Anglo-Saxon Words
Here is a collection of some of the more important and widely known Anglo Saxon words-
The agreement between the king and his warriors which stipulates that, in return for shelter, food, and gifts, the warriors will protect the king in battle with their lives.
A rash promise or pledge to perform an act, usually made in the meadhall due to intoxication. Originally, this simply meant a pledge
. Blood vengeance
Belief that a family is honor bound to retaliate against another tribe that has offended or attacked a member of their clan.
The alternative to blood vengeance or the man price or payment to the opposing tribe as a peaceful way to end disputes.
The name for the warriors, which represented their elevated status over the common man.
Name of the tribe to which the hero Beowulf belonged.
The name given to women who are married off to the men from opposing tribes as way to bring about peace.
Alcoholic beverage that was staple during Anglo Saxon times. The mead-hall evolved around the drink and became the center of the community.
Name for the king, who gave gifts of gold rings and other treasures as prizes to deserving warriors.
The afterlife for the Anglo-Saxon people. In Valhalla, warriors battle all day and feast all night.
Word meaning secret; early form of writing used during the Anglo Saxon period. These symbols were usually inscribed on weapons and armor and included magical charms.
War banner given to a hero after a great victory or buried with a great king as a tribute into the Afterlife.
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