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What was life like for the Anglo-Saxons? And was there anything about the way they lived and thought that made Christianity particularly attractive? There are several difficulties in the way of giving a simple answer to these questions. For one, the Anglo-Saxon period, from the Conquest of Britain in the fifth century, through to the Norman Conquest of the eleventh, was a very long time; the amount of time since the death of Geoffrey Chaucer to now, or twice as long as there have been English-speaking people in America. For another, the records of Anglo-Saxon England were written by people who might be thought to have a bias towards Christianity. Churchmen, and people with education or status, are generally thought to be somehow insulated from the harshest conditions of life. So they might not be properly in touch with the experience of ordinary people. A third difficulty is that one or two scholars, such as Bede and Alcuin, dominated the intellectual life of early Anglo-Saxon England, and Northumbria in particular. It is all too easy to accept their views as the norm, when they may represent only a small constituency. Finally, the evidence we have from archaeology and literature is at best fragmentary. And it gives very little insight into the feelings of individuals.
So we must ask, `What of those who had no voice, no way of recording their experience, and no lasting memorial?' Conditions in Anglo-Saxon England varied according to place and time, but some features of life would be fairly constant. To hear these anonymous people, we have to build up a picture from archaeological, literary and historical sources. But without some effort of imagination on our part, they will not engage our sympathy, and we will not understand what Christianity meant to them. So let us go back to the turbulent days of early Northumbria, and imagine what life might have been like in the year 636, in a village in the immemorial hills and deep forests just north and east of the Northumbrian royal estate Ad Gefrin, Yeavering, and about the same distance from the king's fortress at Bebbanburh, Bamburgh.
AN ENGLISH VILLAGE
People count the years of the king's reign, so AD 636 is the third year of King Oswald of Northumbria. The village bustles with life, both human and animal: dogs sniffing around, chickens busily pecking at the rubbish. There are both advantages and disadvantages in being so close to the centre of the king's power: you get protection, but you also have to keep the supplies flowing for the king's use. Sometimes the protection fails, too, like the time four years ago when the ancient feud between the Northumbrians and their neighbours to the south and the west, the Mercians and the Welsh, flared up. The Mercian and Welsh armies had attacked Northumbria in retaliation for King Edwin's earlier raids. Moving to defend his lands, King Edwin had been killed at the battle of Hatfield Chase. Those people who survived told how the enemy armies had split up and gone over the whole country looting, burning and killing in an orgy of revenge.
For ordinary people, like those living in our village, great events repeated in fireside talk and song give a certain brightness to faces and fuel the fierce pride of the men. After the meat and over the mead, in the warmth of companionship, one or another brings out a sword, or a disc of curiously worked bronze with swirling foreign designs, or some other piece of booty, and tells the tale of where it came from and how it was won. The names of great heroes of the past, and their death-defying deeds, trip off the tongue, and the boys know they have great ancestors, and a great deal to live up to. The men know that they are part of a glorious, noble, historical and mythical tradition, stretching back as far as the poets can remember, even as far as the gods. The objects and the weapons are passed from father to son, and the stories with them: that is, if the father does not get killed on campaign, and if the son does not die from disease or the ravages of a raiding party from any of the nearby tribes of Britons. Remembering the years of the king's reign is sometimes difficult; but in this culture, and that of the British, resentment is harboured for generations, even when the origins of the feud can barely be remembered. Kings trace their genealogy back to Woden, god of cunning, war, poetry and drinking, and do not usually fail to inherit the family likeness.
WORK TO BE DONE
Tales of great deeds take the mind off the drabness of everyday existence. There is always work to be done on the house, where the thatch is leaking or the timbers sinking. In the old days they sacrificed a slave and threw his body into the hole in which they then sank the main timbers of the great hall: a recipe for subsidence, if you like. But even these days timbers slip and sink and split, and it is always at the wrong time. snow, wind and rain wreck houses. There is the constant worry about food. With the forest nearby, there are wild boar, deer, and smaller animals to be caught, and fish in the river. Fruit and nuts and berries make a decent sauce with almost any meat, and leeks and turnips and some green-leaf vegetables can be added to the pot, in season. Most of the domestic animals are killed off at the winter festival, just a good boar and a couple of sows kept for breeding, and they are at risk in a hard winter, as even the horses are. A couple of weeks of rich food, fat and filling, then the long struggle to keep warm and fed. The scent of life of any sort brings the wolves out of the forest in a hard winter, preying, scavenging and carrying off anything edible.
People die in winter. Diseases spread rapidly, cold and hunger take their toll, of beasts as much as people. There are people who remember King Æthelfrith's battle at Chester twenty or more winters ago, but there are not many of them. Some people reach the grand old age of forty, but by then they have lost their teeth, the use of their eyes, and the damp and cold has stiffened their joints so that they can barely move. The arts of hunting are useful in war, indeed it is easier to spear a man than a wily old boar, and the tusks of the boar are just as deadly as the weapons of the warrior. The lads of the upper class are called out for war service by the king from about the age of twelve, and a good proportion of them never make it from the band of the geoguth, 'the youth', to the duguth, the elite of seasoned warriors. Some are maimed, some killed, some are made slaves.
Excerpted from Anglo-Saxon Christianity by Paul Cavill Copyright © 1999 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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