Social Condition at the Transition Period

Book 2, Chapter 1, 449 AD to 597 AD – Introduction of Christianity – Continued

The mission of Augustine marks an era in the country’s history, and when the various Saxon states had nominally embraced Christianity, a moral and social transition was initiated, even long before the union of those states into one monarchy. Before proceeding to narrate the events which brought about this union, it will be convenient at this stage to describe the domestic condition of the people, so far as it can be ascertained from scattered and incidental sources. The art of husbandry was cultivated with much attention, the rougher menial work being probably performed for the most part by such of the native Britons as had been reduced to servitude. At the same time very large tracts of land were left un-reclaimed, and consisted of woods, forests, heath, moor, slough, marshes, and lakes, which they had not the skill or the means to drain. Wheat was sown in spring, and in the processes of agriculture the implements used, such as ploughs, rakes, sickles, forks, flails, picks, &c., greatly resemble those still used in the northern counties. Carts, wagons, windmills, and watermills of a rude description were also used.

Great care was taken of sheep, more, however, for their wool than for their flesh. Pork was the favourite meat, and of this enormous quantities were consumed, for the earlier Anglo-Saxons seem to have possessed voracious appetites. The swineherd was an important and useful servant, whose chief occupation was to lead the pigs into the vast woods and forests where they could roam at will and feed upon acorns, beech nuts, and similar produce, to which the Saxon name of mast was given. The rich and powerful ate also poultry and venison, the latter of which even at that early time, began to be preserved with rigorous severity. Fish was freely used, especially eels, which abounded in the numerous dykes and streams, and porpoises also were eaten.

The common modes of cooking were boiling, baking, roasting, and broiling, but chiefly the first and herbs were freely used in dressing the food. Diet consisted to a much greater extent of animal food than in later times, and bread was only to be met with on the tables of the rich. Excessive eating was fully equalled by hard drinking, ale and mead being the chief beverages. The former was a German drink, the latter was probably copied from the native Britons, and both were so freely indulged in that intoxication became a daily and universal habit.

Not much is known of the domestic architecture of the period, although it may be concluded to have been rude and comfortless in the extreme. Then, and for centuries afterwards outdoor occupations and sports largely occupied the time, and luxuries in the house were comparatively unknown. Dress consisted chiefly of coarse woollen fabrics, roughly spun. The hair was cherished to a great length, yellow, or golden, being the prevalent shade. To pull the hair was punishable, and forcibly to cut or injure it was considered as criminal as cutting off the nose or putting out the eyes. The face was sometimes painted, and probably tattooed. Chains and bracelets of gold, and ornaments made of glass beads were used to a great extent, both by men and women. Thus ignorant in sciences and arts, and unpractised in trade or manufacture, military exercises, war, and the preparation for war, were their employment, while hunting was their pleasure. They dwelt in cottages of wicker work, plastered with clay, and thatched with rushes, where they sat with their families, their officers, and domestics, round a fire made in the middle of the house. In this manner their greatest princes lived amidst the ruins of Roman magnificence.

A first principle of the Anglo-Saxon education was to render children fearless and strong, and fitted for war and hunting, which were likely to prove the most general occupation of their lives. It was usual to make rough trial of a child’s courage in some such way as placing him on the sloping roof of a building, to which if he held fast without screaming or fear, he was called a stout, brave boy. Among favourite sports were leaping, running and wrestling, to impart flexibility of limb. At the age of fourteen a boy was pre-pared to bear arms. The animals chiefly hunted at that time were wolves, boars, deer, and the hare. Birds of game were snared, trapped, shot with bows and arrows, or brought down with the sling and stone. Horse-racing, in a somewhat primitive fashion, was a favourite sport, if a passage in Bede, concerning his own early life, may be taken as a guide. These particulars of the domestic and social life of the earlier Anglo-Saxons are necessarily imperfect and fragmentary, from the want of accurate data but of their domestic usages two or three centuries later, when the nation had become consolidated, more is known, as will appear in the proper place.

Chapter 1, The Saxons

Invasions by Picts and Scots

Fables and Traditions of the Period

Contemporaneous Accounts of Them

Divided State of British Tribes

Origin of the Saxons and Derivation of the Name

Chapter 1, The Saxon Kingdoms

Their Character Habits and Leaders

Successive Landings and Formation of States

The Saxon Kingdoms

Chapter 1, Introduction of Christianity

Mission of Augustine and Introduction of Christianity

Social Condition at the Transition Period


Categories: Book 2

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