Mini-Lecture 1: The World of the Anglo-Saxons &
Celtic Britannia was occupied by the Roman Empire from 43-420 AD. They held most of
what is presently England, up to approximately the Humber River, the northern border of
which was marked by Hadrian’s Wall. Most of present-day Scotland, Wales, and Ireland
were not part of the Roman territory.
The Christianization of England occurred over a span of centuries and in fits and starts,
though it began when Constantine the Great adopted Christianity as the official religion
of the Roman Empire in 313, when Rome had already been occupying most of England
for almost 300 years. Celtic Britons thus became both Romanized and Christianized
during the Roman occupation of England, while the inhabitants of Scotland and Wales
remained pagan Celts.
Following the Roman retreat, the island, especially the southeast, became subject to
invasions by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, all pagan tribes from northern Germany and
Scandinavia. During the long period of these Anglo-Saxon invasions, Christian Britons
were driven west into Wales, and much of England reverted to paganism. Christianity
returned to England through two routes: The Irish, converted in the mid-400s, made
several inroads into England, especially along the northeastern coastline in Northumbria;
and, in 597, St. Augustine of Canterbury (not the famous St. Augustine of Hippo) was
sent to convert King Aethelbert of Sussex.
From those beginnings, Christianity spread to other kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England.
Some areas remained pagan through much of the period we are considering, while others
slid back into paganism periodically before returning to Christianity. This story of the
gradual conversion of England is what Bede relates in his
Ecclesiastical History of the
, completed in 731 at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in
At this time, all writing was done in monasteries. It was therefore always in Latin and
almost universally concerned with religious themes. The language of the people however
was Old English, which was not recorded in manuscripts until the 8
Century. The poetry
of the people was derived from a culture of oral delivery (very much like Homer’s
works). It is therefore highly formulaic, has its own stylistics, and a specialized