How the Anglo-Saxons thought

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The Anglo-Saxons lived over a thousand years ago. It is impossible to know exactly how they thought but thanks to historians we can see a partially complete picture.

Rosamond Faith’s book The Moral Economy of the Countryside is packed with information that gives insight into what it might’ve been like to live in those days. Here are three snippets.

(1) A cooperative landscape

The Anglo-Saxons were an agricultural people. Traditional agriculture requires a high level of cooperation within and between communities. People need to ensure that everyone is on the same page with regards to rights over water supplies, pastures, routes for moving livestock, haymaking etc …

So, an Anglo-Saxon going for a walk through their local countryside may have “read” the land through a complex filter of local rights and obligations that their family was party to. In comparison, when I walk through the countryside my reading is “ah there’s a field, it belongs to a farmer, I wonder what the crop is, I shouldn’t trespass on it.”

(2) A people of Europe

Faith writes that “The earliest English poetry feels not nationalistic but European.” She then refers to the Old English poem Deor.

The narrator of the poem is a ‘scop’ (a court poet) who has lost his position to another poet. To console himself he thinks back on tragedies that befell men and women from European history and mythology. The poem with notes on the men and women is available on Anglo-Saxons.net.

Faith describes how the Anglo-Saxons thought of themselves as a people who had come from mainland Europe and taken the land by conquest. Interestingly, she writes (p30): “For … Bede and Alcuin, the invasion narrative was a vital part of their political philosophy: it was because England had been won by conquest that it was important that it must remain ever cautious and ready to defend itself against threats from abroad.”

Mainland Europe seems far off when you are standing in the middle of an English field. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the Anglo-Saxons were island isolationists. They had a relationship with Europe in terms of their culture and trade networks.

(3) The travelling kings and a time of change

The kings and queens of England have long been associated with their great palaces and castles. Before Covid-19 any child in England could have told you that Queen Elizabeth II lived in Buckingham Palace.

Faith tells us that the earlier Anglo-Saxon kings were itinerant. They and their entourage travelled around their kingdoms, meeting the local elites and consuming produce from local farms. She writes (p51): “This obligation to provide what was essentially a forced levy of peasant supplies was called feormian, which meant ‘to provide hospitality’, and the goods themselves were feorm.”

By doing this, the rulers were able to meet all the elites in their kingdoms. It was far less possible for troublemakers to tuck themselves away in far off corners of the realm.

Faith (p53) points out that provisioning a king who turned up occasionally was very different to supplying a landowner who stayed in one place. From the late seventh century onwards increasing amounts of land was given to the Church. The king gave his right of feorm to minsters and to communities of monks and nuns. This, writes Faith, “led to the people on those estates being organized so as to exploit them more efficiently.”

This makes me wonder how the first monasteries were thought of in the first few years by the people who worked the land.

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