While in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, culture as defined by the Romans, persisted after 476, thanks to the barbarian integration and preservation of Roman custom, in the Western half of the Roman Empire, such as in Anglo-Saxon England, Rome had fallen before 476.

Following the barbarian crossing of the Rhine, Roman military generals in Britain rebelled and proclaimed one of their own generals, Constantine, as the rightful emperor. This Constantine—Constantine the Third—withdrew nearly all of the Roman Army from Britain in 409 in order to fend off the barbarians who had recently entered the Roman Empire as well as to fight for control of the Western Empire itself. The Roman army never came back to Britain and those units left behind were never able to do much when the barbarian forces attacked.

To which, the barbarian forces had impeccable timing as they started their attack almost immediately after the Roman army withdrew. Professor Daileader remarks that it is possible the barbarians were tipped off that the Romans were no longer watching this part of the Roman Empire.

The Scotti of Ireland and the Picts from Scotland, though part of the barbarian forces who attacked Britain, had a long history of raiding. However, groups who had no history of attacking Britain begun to attack as well. Starting in the fifth century, barbarian groups such as the Angles and the Saxons (residents of Northwestern Germany), and the Jutes (residents of Southern Denmark) initiate hostilities against post-Roman withdrawal Britain. In 408, Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes began first to raid and then settle in Roman Britain. (In fact, the modern borders of England roughly correspond to the settlements of the Anglo-Saxons during the invasion period.)

By six-hundred, Anglo-Saxon invaders had established a number of independent kingdoms in Britain. Kingdoms such as Wessex (West Saxons), Suffix (where the South Saxons lived), and North Umbria.

Anglo-Saxons, however, were not wholly alien to Roman life. It is, in fact, possible that Anglo-Saxon mercenaries serving in the Roman army, notified their ethnic relatives living in Germany that the Roman garrison had withdrawn and that now may have been a good time for migration. The Anglo-Saxons who come to England are still barbarians as the Romans would define them: they speak Germanic languages and worship Norse gods, so they are pagan. They are also illiterate.

Needless to say, the indigenous Celtic population of England resisted the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, just as they had against the Romans. Unfortunately, they had as much luck against the Anglo-Saxons as they had against the Romans. As covered in previous lectures, it is possible, though not by any means certain, that a certain Celtic war-leader by the name of Arthur resisted the coming of the Anglo-Saxons (for a fuller history, see my Notes on ‘King Arthur: History and Legend’).

But to move on, we know that not all Celts chose to fight against Anglo-Saxon invaders, as there is a substantial migration of Celts from the territories conquered by the Anglo-Saxon; these migrants will eventually come to settle in Brittany. Along the West coast of Britain, meanwhile, the Scotti take advantage of the situation to settle alongside the Anglo-Saxons, though in not as large a number. The Scotti establish a number of small kingdoms, the most important of which is Dalriada; this is important because, though Scotland’s part of the British Isles, the Scotti hail from Ireland, but those who settle on the West coast of Britain, go on to conquer Scotland from the Picts, thereby causing modern Scotland to derive their name from the Scotti who conquered the land from the original Pict rulers.

Some of the consequences of these developments were that Britain developed a short, and sharp break with the Roman past. Because the Romans had come to Britain fairly late—not until the first century A.D—Romans had not put down deep roots by the time of the Anglo-Saxon migrations. When the Romans came to Britain, they transformed the economy of Britain; the only region to use coins before the Roman arrival was the far southeast since it was located relatively close to the continent and because manufacturing was much localized. After the Romans come, they introduce the idea of money and towns wherever they conquer. They create a larger and more integrated economy. Pottery is thus introduced and since pottery shards stand the test of time well, much of what we know today is based on those surviving shards.

By about 450 A.D., this economic system had broken down. Britain had reverted to small-scale manufacture of pottery, the use of coins as an economic medium is abandoned (coins, in fact, are repurposed as bodily decoration such as necklaces), and town life itself dwindles until it is essentially dead (only a few squatters remain in any Roman town and these people often took up residence in the oddest of places, such as Roman baths). Needless to say, this happens to a degree in the countryside as well, with the abandonment of Roman villas. This break, though only lasting a couple of generations, would have a long-lasting impact on British history.

These changes? There is a change of name from Britannia—which becomes an archaic— to Angle-Land or the place where Angles lived. Otherwise known as England. There is also an important linguistic change, one which has no parallels on the continent. Whereas in other parts of the former Roman Empire, the base Latin evolves into a Romance Language, it does not make a similar shift in Britain. Instead, the vernacular of the conquers’ language, becomes the standard—hence, Old English. Meanwhile, in the places where the Romans had never conquered, you hear non-Germanic, Celtic, languages. Perhaps the most important change, however, concerns religion. While in other parts of the empire, as we have seen, the invaders adopt the religion of those whom they conquer; not so in England, where the population re-adopts their old paganism or adopts the Norse-influenced paganism of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Christianity exists only in the Celtic borderlands, in Ireland and in Scotland. At the beginning of the sixth century, there is no evidence that Christianity is practiced anywhere in Anglo-Saxon England. This impacts what we know about this period since the only records are of what we can derive via archeology, by Celtic historians who were somewhat removed from Anglo-Saxon England, or hundreds of years later when Christianity is re-introduced; with the disappearance of Christianity, after all, also heralds the vanishing of literacy.

In 597, missionaries dispatched by the pope, Gregory the Great. Supposedly, Gregory the Great first noticed these people as a group of Anglo-Saxons walked about Rome. Being very distinctive with their fair skin and wild appearance, Gregory asked who they were. Whether this story is true or not, Gregory does dispatch missionaries to England, led by someone named Augustine (of Canterbury, not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo, the one who wrote the City of God and lived much earlier in Roman history). Augustine Arrived in the Southeast kingdom of Kent, where the king, Ethelbert, had a Christian wife; so Augustine had a certain amount of luck in converting Ethelbert and his followers.

In general, the missionaries did not encounter a great deal of difficulty from the Anglo-Saxons when working among them. However, the Anglo-Saxons were quick to relapse back into paganism at the first sign of any problem (bad weather, a military defeat, etc.), believing it to be an omen of their conversion to Christianity, thus entreating them to return to paganism. So missionaries found themselves often converting the same people over and over again in an effort to get the conversion to stick.

Though Augustine of Canterbury had some success in his efforts, the most successful missionaries were not from the continent, but rather, Irish missionaries; people who, largely on their own prompting, decided to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Since Ireland had been substantially Christianized from about 500, thanks to the activities of St. Patrick, it had a decent history of the religious practice. The Irish missionary who led much of the conversion efforts was a man by the name of Columba; he was responsible for converting many of the Picts to Christianity. In 563, Columba founded a famous monastery off the coast of Scotland named Iona. This monastery would become the base for the successful conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Though it took several generations for the Irish missionaries and the continental missionaries to get Christianity to stick, by about the 660s, the Anglo-Saxons stopped their practice of going back to the pagan beliefs and essentially stuck with Christianity.

The adoption of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England meant quite a bit. It set in motion a chain of events which would cause other important changes. One, literacy is re-introduced; the first Anglo-Saxon law code is put together by Ethelbert, who was converted by Augustine of Canterbury. Two, Christianity re-established, to a certain extent, the growth of towns and cities. When bishops arrived in England, they were required by canon law to reside in towns; so you could not live in the countryside as a bishop except in far-flung locales in Ireland where canon law was not always in force. The bishops and their entourage—their deacons and priests—would take up residence in these abandoned Roman towns, thus encouraging others to take up residence as well since people were needed to provide the services for these officials. As a result, one starts to see substantial habitation and economic activity in these formerly abandoned towns. One such sign is the re-introduction of the minting of coins which resumes in the late seventh century.

The reintroduction of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England would have wider reaching consequences for two reasons. One, Anglo-Saxon and Irish Monks would become the leading intellectuals in Europe during the late seventh and eighth centuries. Secondly, Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks would travel together to the European continent during the seventh century and change the nature of monasticism, since the monasticism that they knew was greatly different from what was practiced in other parts of Europe (such as Frankish Gaul, for example).

Monasteries in Gaul were not hotbeds of academic pursuit. They were more like retirement homes or orphanages. However, Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks were known for their zealous studies; the residents of monasteries on the continent, either spoke Latin or were speaking a form of Latin which was becoming Old French or Old Spanish or Italian. The form of language which they were studying was already familiar to them, so they did not have to study very hard at all. In comparison, Anglo-Saxon monks spoke a Germanic language. Irish monks spoke Celtic. Latin was entirely alien to them. To learn Latin, then, as an Irish or Anglo-Saxon monk meant that you had to study long and hard in order to learn this unknown tongue. As a result, the monasteries founded by the Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks, become the leading intellectual centers for their day, taking over where the Roman public schools had left off as they started to vanish during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries as Roman urban life begins to decline.

Boethius and Bede, meanwhile, become the dominant thinkers during this time of monastic replacement.

 If you were a student in the Mediterranean, then you wanted to travel to Italy and study Boethius. Roman in many respects, Boethius serves in the Ostrogothic government, where he held the title of consul and was executed by his government under suspicion of treason. An important translator of Aristotle from Greek to Latin, he also wrote the Consolation of Philosophy, what would become one of the most important books in the middle ages.

But, by the late seventh century, if you wanted to study seriously, you didn’t travel to Italy but rather England. Specifically, you wanted to go to a monastery named Jerel. The abbot there was named Bede, someone who spent almost all of his life within a monastery and had become known as the best Latin-stylist writer in Europe. Consequently, Bede’s influence would last throughout the ages as his books helped pierce the fog which surrounded many events, such as the pagan period of Anglo-Saxon England.

Irish monks came from an entirely rural environment. Accordingly, they found continental monasticism pretty odd. Why is because many of the continental monasteries were located in towns, which was foreign to rural-based Irish monks. Bringing Anglo-Saxon monks with them to the continent, these Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks attempted to reshape continental monasticism into something which they were familiar.

The most important monk in this effort was named Columbanus. He arrived on the continent around 590, and spends much of his time in Gaul, dying in 615. He and his followers, of course, find the continental monasteries to be very lax (one such example is where penance for transgressions appear very mellow). Columbanus would travel to the court of Marvingtion Kings and publicly berate them for allowing monasticism of this nature to exist. Surprisingly, the berated kings responded well to these criticisms and entrusted their monasteries to Columbanus and his followers, asking them to be reformed or to establish new ones deep in the countryside. As a result, a much more rigorous form of monastic life is established and where asceticism is the norm and intellectual activity is prized. 

Columbanus himself founds two monasteries which will be especially important—one in Gaul named Lu-Soy (probably did not spell that right) and another in Northern Italy (whose name I will not even attempt to write).

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