Backgrounds to Beowulf

Although we know that the British Isles were inhabited before the Celts arrived there, we know very little about England's original inhabitants. The Celts (pronounced Kelts) migrated from the east (all migrations of peoples into Europe seem to originate somewhere in Asia) long before the rise of the Roman Empire. These migrants populated all of Europe. Celtic remains (sculpture, for instance) can be found from southern Spain all the way to Scotland and from France to (present-day) Romania. They did not, however, leave written records.

In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar conquered what is now England and subdued the Celtic inhabitants (called Britons). Many Roman ruins can still be visited in southern England today: mosaic floors, Roman baths, forts, defensive walls, roads, and even a Roman theater. Note that Caesar did not conquer the Germanic tribes (the Frisians, Saxons, Angles, Alemanni, etc.) on the Continent. This was the northern extremity of the Roman Empire for a long time.

Now, bear in mind that the Celts had been a subjugated people for centuries at this point. When the Romans left, the Celts were fair game. In the chaotic period that followed the Roman withdrawal, the Celts (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of important events kept by the English kings in the Old English period) invited the people of northern Germany to help them fight their enemies to the north and east. When the first men arrived from the Continent, however, in about the year 450, they saw "that the land was fat [rich in resources] and the people, cowardly [perhaps not true]," so they sent word back to the Continent for reinforcements and conquered Briton (the land of the Celts) themselves.

Many of the Celts were killed, many intermarried, and many were driven to the north and west, where the present-day Celtic people (much intermarried with the English and others by now, of course) are called Scots, Welsh, and Cornishmen. Some Celts fled south across the English Channel from Cornwall to the northwest corner of France, called Brittany (Little Britain) to this day; the people of Brittany are called Bretons. (The Irish are also a Celtic people.) Their language, in various forms, is called Gaelic or Brythonic, though English is spoken throughout the British Isles today. The Germanic tribesmen who invaded England belonged to a number of tribes (called Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians) who lived along the northern coast of (present-day) Holland, Germany, and Denmark. (The Frisians still exist as a separate people with their own language in the north of Holland, along the North Sea). We know these tribes collectively as Anglo-Saxons. The languages and culture they brought with them (all closely related) became the basis for English (that is, Angle-ish) language and culture. The Germanic tribesmen settled fairly peacefully into the land they had conquered and (now Englishmen) set up kingdoms and administrative systems that were far in advance of those to be found in the rest of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. The form of English they spoke in the British Isles is called Anglo-Saxon or Old English.

Now we must pick up another strand of historical context. Christianity was practiced in some places in England even during the Roman occupation. St. Patrick (an Englishman) Christianized Ireland in the early 400s (that is, the fifth century, near the end of the Roman occupation of England), and the Church flourished in Ireland. With the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the Church was all but wiped out in England; the land held by the Anglo-Saxons reverted to paganism for more than a hundred years. Then Pope Gregory the Great decided to send a mission, headed by St. Augustine (not to be confused with another St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the early fifth century, who wrote The City of God), in 597 to England to convert the English. With them, they brought a book (the Bible) and a long tradition of learning based on writing (the cultures of the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons were predominately oral).

Why am I telling you all this? Because the story of Beowulf is Germanic, not Celtic. The poem as we have it was written probably in the eighth century, but it derives from stories of the pagan past of the Anglo-Saxons, when they lived along the North Sea coast of continental Europe. (The word pagan means: not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim.) Its Christian elements are therefore no part of the original stories. It is not, however, a Germanic epic, but an English epic, written down long after the events it recounts, probably by a cleric (monk), that is, a Christian.

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Rev 9/97