Events of External History between the 5th and 11th c.

§ 96. The history of Anglo-Saxon Britain from the 5th to the 11th c. has been reconstructed from multiple sources: Bede's ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon historical chronicles and legal documents. Some events of external history have a direct bear­ing on the development of the language and therefore must be re­called here. They are: the economic and social structure of society, the introduction of Christianity and the relations between the kingdoms.

The period from the 5th till the 11th c. (which is called Old English in the history of the language) was a transitional period from the tribal and slave-owning system to feudalism.

The basic economic unit was the feudal manor; it was a self-contained economic unit, as it grew its own food and carried on some small industries to cover its needs. Consequently, there was little social intercourse be­tween the population of neighbouring areas. Tribal and clan division was gradually superseded by townships and shires, which were local entities having no connection with kinship. The new economic and geo­graphical groupings and barriers did not necessarily correspond to the original areas of tribal settlement.

These conditions were reflected in the development of the West Germanic tongues brought to Britain. The economic isolation of the regions as well as the political disunity of the country led to the for­mation of new geographical boundaries between the speech of different localities. The growth of feudalism was accompanied by the rise of regional dialectal division replacing the tribal division of the Germanic settlers, These forces, however, worked together with the unifying force: the complete separation from related continental tribes (and tongues) united the people into one corporate whole and transformed their closely related dialects into a single tongue different from its continental relations.

§ 97. The relative weight of the OE kingdoms and their inter-influence was variable. Four of the kingdoms at various times secured superiority in the country: Kent, Northumbria and Mercia — during the Early OE, pre-written period, and Wessex — all through the period of Written OE.

The supremacy of Kent to the south of the Humber lasted until the early 7th c; it is attributed to the cultural superiority of Kent and its close contact with the mainland. The 7th and the 8th c. witnessed the temporary rise of Northumbria, followed by a period of balance of power of the three main rivals (Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex) and the dominance of Mercia, large and prosperous kingdom in the rich Midland plains. Yet already during Mercia's supremacy Wessex had secured the control of Sussex and Kent, and was growing more influen­tial. The conquest of Mercia by Wessex in the early 9th c. reversed the position of the two kingdoms: Wessex was brought to the fore and ac­quired the leadership unsurpassed till the end of the OE period (11th c). Wessex was a kingdom with good frontiers and vast areas of fertile land in the valley of the Thames; the control of London and the lower Thames valley (formerly part of Essex) as well as the growing contacts with the Franconian Empire contributed to the rise of Wessex. Apart from inter­nal reasons the unification of England under the leadership of Wessex was speeded up by a new factor: the pressure of a common enemy.

§ 98. In the 8th c. raiders from Scandinavia (the "Danes") made their first plundering attacks on England. The struggle of the English against the Scandinavians lasted over 300 years, in the course of which period more than half of England was occupied by the invaders and reconquered again. At first the Danes came in small bands, ravaged the district and escaped with the booty to their ships. About the middle of the 9th c. the raids increased in frequency and entered upon a new phase; great war hosts began to arrive making attempts at conquest and settlement. The Scandinavians subdued Northumbria and East Anglia, ravaged the eastern part of Mercia, and advanced on Wessex. Like their predecessors, the West Germanic invaders, the Scandinavians came in large numbers to settle in the new areas. They founded many towns and villages in northern England; in many regions there sprang up a mixed population made up of the English and the Danes. Their linguistic amalgamation was easy, since their tongues belonged to the same linguistic group. The ultimate effect of the Scandinavian invasions on the English language became manifest at a later date, in the 12th-13th c, when the Scandinavian element was incorporated in the central English dialects; but the historical events that led to the linguistic influence date from the 9th and 10th c.

Wessex stood at the head of the resistance. Under King Alfred of Wessex, one of the greatest figures in English history, by the peace treaty of 878 England was divided into two halves: the north-eastern half under Danish control called Danelaw and the south-western half united under the leadership of Wessex. The reconquest of Danish ter­ritories was carried on successfully by Alfred's successors but in the late 10th c. the Danish raids were renewed again; they reached a new climax in the early 11th c. headed by Sweyn and Canute. The attacks were followed by demands for regular payments of large sums of money (called Danegeld "Danish money"), which was collected from many districts and towns; about one eighth of Danegeld came from London, the largest and wealthiest of English towns. In 1017 Canute was acknow­ledged as king, and England became part of a great northern empire, comprising Denmark and Norway. On Canute's death (1035) his kingdom broke up and England regained political independence; by that time it was a single state divided into six earldoms.

§ 99. A most important role in the history of the English language was played by the introduction of Christianity. The first attempt to introduce the Roman Christian religion to Anglo-Saxon Britain was made in the 6th c. during the supremacy of Kent. In 597 a group of mis­sionaries from Rome despatched by Pope Gregory the Great ("St. Augustine's mission") landed on the shore of Kent. They made Canterbury their centre and from there the new faith expanded to Kent, East Anglia, Essex, and other places. The movement was supported from the North; missionaries from Ireland brought the Celtic variety of Christianity to Northumbria. (The Celts had been converted to Christianity during the Roman occupation of Britain.) In less than a century practically all England was Christianised. The strict unified organisation of the church proved a major factor in the centralisation of the country.

The introduction of Christianity gave a strong impetus to the growth of culture and learning. Monasteries were founded all over the country, with monastic schools attached. Religious services and teaching were conducted in Latin. A high standard of learning was reached in the best English monasteries, especially in Northumbria, as early as the 8th and 9th c. There was the famous monastery of Lindisfarne, founded by Aidan, who had come with the Irish priests; the monastery of Jarrow, where the Venerable Bede, the first English historian, lived and worked. During the Scandinavian invasions, the Northumbrian culture was large­ly wiped out. The monastery at Lindisfarne was destroyed by the Danes in one of their early plundering attacks. English culture shifted to the southern kingdoms, most of all to Wessex, where a cultural efflor­escence began during the reign of Alfred (871-901); from that time till the end of the OE period Wessex, with its capital at Winchester, re­mained the cultural centre of England.

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