07 January 2009

Professions: The Anglo-Saxon Warrior

By Sandra Schwab

When the Anglo-Saxons first came to England, they settled in small groups. The cynn ("the kin" or "the tribe") consisted of the cyning (the lord and guardian of the cynn--I think you can guess what eventually became of this Old English word!) and his followers, and it was held together by mutual loyalty. The Anglo-Saxon warrior fought for his lord and got his reward in treasure, land, slaves or cattle. Because of this, the cyning is often referred to as "treasure-giver" or "ring-giver" in Old English literature.

The Sutton Hoo helmet, a parading helmet which had been included among the treasure of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo

For an Anglo-Saxon warrior it was a matter of life and death to belong to a war band led by a strong leader. The worst thing that could happen to him was to lose his lord and his comrades. In that case, he would have no place in society and no identity in a hostile world. This is exactly what has happened to the warrior in the Old English poem "The Wanderer":

Oft the solitary man waits for prosperity,
the mercy of God, even though he with troubled heart
has long had to stir the ice-cold sea with his hands,
to travel exile-paths. Destiny is completely inexorable!
So spoke the earth-walker, mindful of hardships,
of fierce killings, of the deaths of kinsmen:
Oft did I have to bewail my sorrow alone,
every dawn. There is no one alive now
to whom I would dare to reveal my thoughts openly.
In the early decades of Anglo-Saxon Britain, the hall formed the centre of life. It was here that the lord would give his warriors their rewards; it was here that the cynn would gather to eat and drink and listen to the stories of their bards; and it was here that the common warriors would sleep. The Beowulf poet describes the building of such a mead-hall: the splendid Heorot, the hall of King Hrothgar, which is visited nightly by the horrible monster Grendel (until Beowulf puts a stop to that!) and is eventually destroyed by a fire. The hall was also used for displaying battle trophies: after Beowulf has defeated Grendel, he hangs the monster's arm and shoulder (which he has wrenched off during the fight) up under the roof.

Oh yes, those Anglo-Saxons were a blood-thirsty lot!