Introduction to English Literature; The Role of Poetry in Early Cultures
Life in Merrie Olde England
Think about your typical day, from morning to night. The details will vary from person to person, of course, but most likely you will rise with the alarm clock, shower, eat breakfast, drive to work or school, drive home, eat dinner, watch t.v. or read, and go to bed.
Now think about how different this day would be if you lived in the Middle Ages or earlier, and were not among the aristocracy. You would rise when the sun did; there would be no alarm clocks or clock radios, and of course no electricity. Your bed would be a pallet of straw on the floor, or just the floor. You would eat, at best, a thin gruel or oatcakes for breakfast, if you had food for breakfast. You would go outside to the field where you would farm by hand (no machines) for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, which would be much longer than eight hours, you would eat a meagre dinner consisting of whatever you had grown on your own property or bartered with one of your neighbors and you would go to sleep.
Food would be scarce, especially in the winter; people starved to death frequently, and many lived their whole lives in a state of malnutrition. Health care would be non-existent, except for home remedies. Your life expectancy would be 35-40 years. Many lived to be older than that, but many died much younger. It was common for women to die in childbirth, and infant mortality rates were high. It was not uncommon to die from a cold (hence the warning, "You'll catch your death of cold.")
Both men and women married at young ages; gender roles were clearly defined, but everyone worked hard. The social structure was almost completely static: if you were born a peasant, you would die a peasant. You would probably have no education (and no use for one). You would, during the course of your life, probably never venture more than twenty miles from your home, since you had no money and the roads were very dangerous. You would, if you went anywhere, visit neighbors or attend religious services (the type of service or ritual would vary, depending on the century and your geographic location). You would walk everywhere you went; most peasants could not afford to keep a horse, and if they could, it was used only for work. Communication systems were non-existent; no one had phones, cell-phones, or fax machines--and for that matter, there were no banks or ATMs. If you needed to speak to someone who was not a member of your immediate family, you went to them and spoke. Entertainment occasions were infrequent and consisted of religious rituals or ceremonies and oral storytelling.
You would wear the same clothing all week, since you would own only one set of clothes (some owned two: one for the week and one for church on Sundays, but this was rare for many years); you might wash it once a week, but this was not always thought to be necessary. Bathing occurred at most once a week, since gathering bath water and heating it was a laborious chore, involving carrying lots of buckets and gathering lots of firewood. Bathing was also avoided because it was common for water supplies to be polluted, and bathing was thus dangerous to one's health. No one knew about germs yet, so they didn't know about basic sanitation rules: for example, no one knew that you shouldn't build the cemetery up the hill from the well. And it was common in villages and cities to dump raw sewage in the streets.
Life wasn't always boring, though. Sometimes the monotony would be broken by plagues, wars, or invasions. The Romans had "colonized" (that is, moved in, taken over by force, and forced the local people to conform to their way of life) the British Isles from about 20 B.C. on. (In fact, Pontius Pilate was born in what is now Scotland.) They brought with them their religions, including Christianity. By 500 A.D., their influence in Great Britain was declining, partly due to problems in the Roman Empire, but mostly due to the migration of Germanic tribes, beginning in about 410 A.D. By 600 A.D., these Germanic tribes controlled all of what is now England, where their customs and beliefs blended with Christianity. Thus Beowulf, which was an old Germanic tale, was adapted and retold by Christian minstrels, and acquired Christian overtones which at times seem at odds with the words and actions of the characters. (More on that in Lecture 2.)
At this time, there were four nations: the English (or the Angles, located in southern England), the British (or the Britons, located in Northern England), the Picts (located in Scotland), and the Scots (located, believe it or not, in Ireland), each with its own language and sharing Latin. London was controlled by the Angles, as was Canterbury, which was the center of Christianity in the British Isles. Canterbury's cathedral attracted pilgrims from many places, especially London; it took them 4 days to cover the 60 miles from London to Canterbury (more on that in Lecture 4). The four groups kept to themselves and didn't form a single, unified large nation, or even large governing bodies. They operated for a long time as tribes, not taking advantage of the Roman roads even to unite among their own kind. But eventually, trade began to unite the cultures, and by the 7th and 8th centuries, there was a flourishing civilization.
The 9th and 10th centuries saw the Viking invasions, which were brutal and effective. The Vikings took over large areas of land; those who remained were assimilated into the larger culture, and left their own mark on its literature.
The Catholic Church was the major unifying force in the country. Church patronage, education, and influence cannot be overemphasized; it touched every area of almost everyone's life, as you'll see in future lectures and works of literature.
The Role of Poetry
The poet, or bard, was a valued member of the primitive court: he could entertain, immortalize, and give inspiration to others in leading their own lives. The form in which most stories were told was the "epic," which was characterized by a solemn dignity of tone and elevation of style. It was not written down, but recited from memory; thus, most of the epics from that age have been lost. Beowulf is one of the few which survive.
Stories and epics began to be written down only after Christianity, with its written language, became dominant. The individual who provided the greatest impetus for the development of a written and national culture during this time was King Alfred, king of the West Saxons from 871-899. He united all of the southern kingdoms, and defeated and constrained the Vikings. He was an enthusiastic patron of literature. He himself translated many works into the English of the time (we now call it Old English); he also began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded yearly events until the mid-twelfth century. And he preserved many old Germanic works, among them Beowulf.
We don't know who wrote most of the Old English stories and epics. This is partly because records were lost, but more because of the medieval system of values. An individual's achievement was not important. All was submerged in the spiritual, not the material. Human civilization and its arts functioned (at least, ideally, if not practically) to assist man on the way to his union with God. The author was not important, therefore; only the work mattered.
Another factor adds mystery to the matter of authorship of early tales: the oral tradition was hard to trace: stories were passed on by word of mouth, with no thought of copyright or plagiarism. Often the credit for the stories (if any credit was given) was given to the man who wrote them down.
And writing down old tales was a low priority. Most of those who could write were monks, and they were occupied with copying the Bible or other religious works. Since copies of everything had to be made laboriously by hand (there was no printing press until much later), the number of works recorded and the number of copies made were few.
Thus, most poetry was handed down orally, in performances by minstrels, accompanied by a harp in noble households--an important feature of any feast.
For some examples of the different types of things that have been preserved from that time, read the following (all of these are in your Norton Anthology): "Caedmon's Hymn"; "The Dream of the Rood"; "The Wanderer"; "The Wife's Lament". There are no discussion questions to answer on these first readings; they're just for your edification.
If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.