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ENGLISH LITERATURE

I. PERIOD OF PREPARATION

CHAPTER I

FROM THE BEGINNING TO THE NORMAN

CONQUEST

THE EARLY ENGLISH PEOPLE

ENGLAND was not always the land of the English, although it is now nearly fifteen hundred years since they first settled in the island then known as Britain. If

you will look at a map of Europe in the days when the Romans were the masters of the civilized world, you will see that beyond the northern borders of the Roman Empire there stretched a vast region, which the Romans called Germania, or the land of the Germans. This region was then a wilderness of forest and morass. For a long time the Romans knew but little about it, for it was almost beyond the farthest limits of civilization. It was inhabited by various fierce, half-barbarous, German tribes, whose stubborn courage grew to be a menace to the Empire. Upon the northwestern edge of this forbidding wilderness, on the borders of the North Sea, just north of what is now Holland, three German tribes, the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons, had made their home. These three tribes, living side by side, came of the same stock; spoke the same language, and had the same customs and beliefs, though each tribe

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held its own lands, and lived in some respects as a separate community. At a later time, after their settlement in England, a member of any one of these three tribes, whether he were Jute, Angle, or Saxon, came to be known by the general name of Englishman.

These English were a hardy, vigorous race; deepchested, big-limbed men, with ruddy faces, straw-colored hair, and blue or gray eyes. They were fishermen, farmers, and sailors; above all they were daring and savage fighters by land and by sea. Living on bleak, cheerless coast, with a dense wilderness of forest on the one hand, and the dull-hued, stormy waters of the North Sea stretching away upon the other, the very necessities of their situation demanded strength, courage, and endurance. On the western side the land sloped in meadow, marsh, or sandy flats to the sea, and fierce storms drove down upon the sunken coasts, then unprotected by dyke or sea-wall, flooding the shoals and winding inlets so that the waters often spread far inland. There were many things in this early home of the English to encourage somber and melancholy thoughts. Chilling and dismal fogs settled down upon it, and the depths of its forests, where at best the sunshine hardly penetrated, were often soaked and dripping from the frequent rains. In such a world there was little room for the weakling or the coward; if a man were to live at all he must live bravely and masterfully, fighting for his place.

Early English Life and Character. When we remember that these Early English were a long way from the civilization of the Roman world, in the savage wilderness of the north, we need not be surprised to find that they were in many ways rough, coarse, and cruel. They were strong men, untaught and undisciplined; they

knew nothing of Christianity with its teachings of love and forgiveness, and their faults were those natural to their situation and their time. Life was full of hate and violence: murderers were not tried and punished by the government, or the State. If a man was killed, it became the duty of his relatives that is, the men of his family or clan to avenge his death. So it happened that mortal quarrels, or blood-feuds, often existed between one clan and another. And not only did the English fight among themselves, they were what we should call pirates. They thought it a glorious and a noble thing to take to their ships, swoop down on some neighboring coast settlement, and then, having butchered the inhabitants, and given the village to the flames, to sail away in triumph, laden with plunder. We are told that sometimes, despising danger, they would land in a storm, so that, in the midst of the darkness and confusion of the tempest, their approach could not be seen so easily, and their victims be thus caught unprepared. The dwellers in the coast towns and villages far to the southward, and the people on the eastern shores of Britain, grew to fear the sudden attacks of these pitiless marauders. They dreaded the appearance of these pirate ships, as the early settlers in America dreaded an Indian raid. One of the petitions of an early prayer, or litany, is said to have been: “Lord, deliver us from the fury of the Jutes."

Terrible abroad, at home these English were not free from the coarseness and brutality natural to a physically powerful and imperfectly civilized race. They loved to gather about the long table in the great feast hall; eating greedily, with the eager hunger of the savage, and draining cup after cup of mead, - an intoxicating drink sweetened with honey. A fire burned in the

center, and, as there were no chimneys, the smoke had to find its way out, as best it could, through openings in the roof. The host sat about half-way down the rude table, raised a little higher than the others; the men boasted of their brave deeds, and told stories of their battles, and of dangers faced and escaped on sea and land. Perhaps, as it grew late, the company became more boisterous and quarrelsome, for the wild passions of these men were easily aroused. Outside were the woods, stretching away black and solitary; the dismal wastes of marsh and sand, and the sea. All was rude and wild, with the harshness and simplicity of the primitive world.

The English Virtues. But there was another side to the English character which we are sometimes too apt to slight or to forget. It is not remarkable that these Early English should have been coarse or violent, for that is only what we should expect from such a people in such surroundings; the truly wonderful and important fact is, that with all their roughness they possessed splendid virtues, and a wonderful depth and nobility of soul. They were not only brave, they were loyal and grateful. Each chief, or lord, had his band of followers, men who had eaten and drunk at his table, ready and glad to be faithful to death, and to give their own lives for their leader in the time of need. In an old English poem, one of these followers, or thegns, seeing Beowulf, his leader, in mortal peril, cries out:

“Well do I mind when we drank mead in the hall, how we promised our lord who gave us these rings, that we would repay him his war-gifts, helmets, and hard swords, if ever the need should arise. Us he picked from the host for this venture, and heartened with hope of glory; he gave us these gifts because he thought us good fighters, gallant wearers of helmets; though all the while our lord meant

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