Hlafdige Arastorm aka Tchipakkan mka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor ©2015
Studying the Anglo-Saxon culture requires many things, who are we calling Anglo-Saxons? What is the period we’re talking about? What sources are we using, and what bias may they include?
Generally, I am referring to those Germanic people who invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries, including Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians. The period incompasses the beginning of the invasion until a bit after the Normans conquered England, but because that is such a huge span of time, it is usually broken into three sub-periods: Early, the Migration Era 450-650, Middle, 650- 900 the Viking period, and Late: 900-1100 Danish and Norman Conquests. It’s a huge over simplification, and I must admit to my own bias because my SCA Persona is 7th century, so that’s where I tend to pay most attention. But I’m trying with this series to fill the need to remember that we cannot study any culture without looking at what was going on around it.
In the case of the Anglo-Saxons, very obviously, they were affected by the Celtic people they invaded (and the Romans who’d invaded them centuries before). The “sullen” Saxons who had to deal with the Normans who seized and abused their lands were different than the Saxons who’d been part of the Danish Empire under Cnut. The Saxons who defended their country from the invading Vikings, were changed by sharing their country with them. Initially heathen, they were Christianized by the Celtic Christians they moved in on, and by the Cathoic Church that was invited in by political marriages with Franks and others.
Trade made differences in what they ate and what they ate it from, what they wore, and what they sold to meet demand on the continent. Political and economic forces from what we now think of as Germany, France and Spain as well as smaller and more distant lands had impact in England. From Aksum (a trading empire on the south end of the Red Sea to Byzantium, goods made it to England. For example, we know when the Justinian Plague reached Tintagel (legendary birthplace of Arthur), because of the stamps on amphora, which recorded where they’d come from (the Eastern Mediteranean) and when, that record ends abruptly in 543 ad.
I am not arguing that contacts with people from other countries was frequent or common, the great majority of people probably stayed near their farms for most of their lives, and saw few outsiders other than those from the traveling groups: merchants, pilgrims, representatives of the kingdom or earldom to which they belonged, however the influences of these other groups reached them, through goods, information, and the results of the political and economic pressures on those in more cosmopolitan circles. They would interact frequently with descendants of invaders or invadees. They would pass on traditions from their own ancestors. If a Saxon ate cabbages, he probably had no idea that it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, only that his father planted them.
Another factor that influenced culture but is rarely mentioned is climate fluctuation. Many people know about the “Little Ice Age” (1550-1850) and the “Medieval Climactic Optimum” (950-1250) but are unaware that these cycles are part of cycles that included another “warm period” that allowed Romans to grow grapes in England which lasted from about 350 bce to 400 ce. What influence this had on, for example, the Migration Period is hard to gage, but easy to speculate. So onward to the exploration of who else was out there interacting with the Anglo-Saxons.
Cover Mappe Mundi 1025-1050 Cotton Collection