A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 3

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Circa 449—597


"The sea is their school of war and the storm their friend."

FASCINATING is the story of the Saxon conquest, but perhaps even more fascinating is that of the Saxon settlement, with all its latent germs of our social life to-day.

Though for the moment the desertion of Britain by the Romans seemed an irretrievable calamity, yet, looking back across the ages of time, we cannot but note with gratitude the influx of those hardy tribes from the shores of the wild North Sea, who were destined to be the forefathers of a race which plays a part in the world to-day wholly disproportionate to the size of its home.

The Celt was losing the force of his manhood and the strength of his freedom under the somewhat effeminate influence of the luxury-loving Roman, while Jutes, Angles and Saxons on the further shores were developing that rough-and-ready civilisation which was shortly to sweep over our island home. They had come to their own from beyond the distant Caucasus. Westward they had already fought their way till stayed by the waves of the "Western Sea," and amid the waste of sand and heather, where no man dwelt, they made their homes.

A fierce, free, fearless folk were these ancestors of ours—broad-shouldered, large-limbed giants, with masses of long fair hair and confident grey-blue eyes—utterly reckless of life and limb, pitiless, merciless, and bloodthirsty. Worshippers of Woden, whose name we commemorate every Wednesday of our lives, they lived on a traditional creed which enacted "eye for eye and limb for limb." Each limb had its value. An eye or a leg was valued at fifty shillings, the loss of a thumb at twenty shillings, the jawbone and front tooth at six shillings, while the brutality of the age is illustrated in the unwritten code that condoned for three shillings the tearing off a thumb nail or the pulling of hair till the bone became visible!

This sum, however, was not payable to the injured man, but to his family. And it is this sense of the value of the family bond that was such a marked characteristic of our forefathers, and has laid the foundation of so much in our social life to-day.

                "So long as The Blood endures,
I shall know that your good is mine; ye shall feel that my strength is yours."

Each kinsman was kinsman in very deed and truth, bound to guard and protect his brother from wrong, to suffer for him and revenge him. There was no forgiveness in the old Saxon creed.

War was their very existence, plunder and slaughter the "very breath of their lives." Splendid sailors, the "blast of the wind and the roar of the storm was as music in their ears," and still we seem to hear their shouts of glee as they breasted the salt waves to greet the undefended shores of deserted Britain. True, a stubborn defence by unorganised bands of the Celtic inhabitants of the island took place, but they were held together by no bonds of unity, bound by no patriotism, moved by no enthusiasm. Consequently, with daring spirit and boundless brutality the new-comers wrested from them portion after portion of the fair country, until Britain became Engle-land and the Celts were driven westward. Neither were the English slow to appreciate the material advantages of their newly acquired territory. If they were fierce warriors, they were also skilful agriculturists, and the rich water meadows, the flourishing condition of sheep, goats and cattle, the golden cornfields producing more grain than the island could consume, appealed to them with irresistible force. More so indeed than did the thirty walled towns, the elaborately warmed villas, the theatres and amphitheatres of their predecessors—the Romans.

Avoiding the towns as much as possible, they made their new homes in family clusters, surrounded by earthworks for protection. Here within these little townships, as they were called, dwelt the farmer freemen with their slaves, and under their Chief of the Clan. As they had crossed the North Sea, and as they had fought side by side for the land, so now they made their homes, each family taking the name of some ancestor. Thus the family of the Wellings named their new home Wellington, the family of the Paddings, Paddington, of the Millings, Millington.

Their houses varied with the wealth or rank of their owners; all were of wood, for the Angles and Saxons had only one word for "to build," and that was "getimbrian." The centre of the homestead lay in the long public hall, with its hearth-fire in the midst—the smoke escaping as best it might through holes in the roof. This was the common living-room, and not infrequently, when night fell and the fire flickered low, the common sleeping-room, where weary men threw themselves down to sleep on bundles of straw. The walls of the hall were hung with tapestry worked by the ladies, to keep out the draughts, which must have been piercing in winter, for the doors were never closed.

The hospitality of our forefathers was proverbial. Any stranger presenting himself at the door was cordially welcomed; water was brought to wash his feet and his hands, and he took his place at meat with the family. The food, though simple, was abundant. A board placed on trestles in the centre served as a table; it was covered with a linen cloth, while among the nobles bowls and dishes were of brass, silver, and gold, and drinking-cups were of horn and leather. On a raised platform at the head of the table sat the mistress of the house—the lady, or dispenser of bread—serving out the warm and freshly made loaves which formed one of the chief articles of diet in Anglo-Saxon times. Huge joints of meat were freely devoured, fingers taking the place of forks, while the bones were thrown about afterwards. For this reason finger bowls and tablecloths were introduced, a very necessary addition after a meal of this description. Butter, cheese, honey, and vegetables having been duly served, the board was cleared away, and the women of the household bore drinking horns of ale and mead to their lords and masters seated on benches round the walls. This was the main feature of the feast, and lasted late into the afternoon or evening. Hard drinkers were our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, and fastidious withal as to the quality of their drink. The brewers thereof were for the most part women, known as ale-wives, and punished for brewing bad ale.

While ale and mead were being consumed with fun and laughter, the wandering gleeman sang his song of heroic deeds performed by noble ancestors, or the harp was taken from the wall and handed round from hand to hand, for it was an accomplishment in those days that none could afford to neglect.

From this period, too, dates the wassail or loving cup, which is passed round to-day at large City feasts. When Hengist, the Saxon, brought his beautiful daughter Rowena to these shores she was introduced to the British King Vortigern at a royal banquet. Modestly advancing towards the King, according to the custom in her own country, she held out a golden cup of ale. "Waes hael hlaford Conny" ("Health to my lord"), she said in her own tongue. The words were interpreted to the British King, and the memory of the event has been preserved in England by the wassail cup at banquets and festivals. The sequel of the story is well known to readers of English history, and their marriage is one of our earliest romances.

Marriage in these early days was a simple business. Each woman had her value, and the man who selected her to be his wife had not only to pay her father a given sum of money, but he must produce a guarantor for his subsequent behaviour. Here we have the origin of the "best man" of to-day. Clasping hands in the presence of the family, at the house of either bride or bridegroom, constituted the marriage service of these pagan days. Nevertheless, we get many of the words in our Prayer-book to-day, copied, for the most part, from an old Anglo-Saxon marriage contract, couched in the language of a legal transfer of land:—

"I take thee, John, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health, to be bonny and buxom, in bed and at board, till death do us part, and thereto plight I my troth."

With the introduction of Christianity later the words "If Holy Church do so ordain" were added.

The consumption of the home-made loaf (ancestor to the wedding-cake), made by the bride to denote proficiency in housekeeping, as well as the satin slipper institution, date from this period. The origin was practical. Upon marriage the authority of the father over his daughter was transferred to the husband, a fact which was notified by the bride's shoe being delivered to the bridegroom, who touched her on the head with it in token of his supremacy over her.

With regard to this supremacy, girls were required to wear their hair long and loose before marriage, flowing locks being typical of their youth and freedom. After marriage the hair was cut short, like that of a slave, to show that a position of servitude had been accepted. As the social position of women advanced they rebelled against this idea, and obtained leave to bind it in folds and plaits close to the head.

It is a well-known fact that our forefathers systematically beat their wives. "Three blows with a broomstick" were considered salutary at times to keep them in order!

Notwithstanding this apparent subordination, women among the Angles and Saxons were greatly valued and respected, being encouraged to take their place in public affairs with even more freedom than is theirs to-day. While woman was still the "spinster," spinning the thread and weaving the wool of every garment worn by the men of the family, yet she was allowed to possess and inherit her own lands, she might sue and be sued in her own name in the courts of justice, she shared in all the social functions, she was present at the open-air moot, or meetings of freemen to settle the local affairs of the little family township; while in some cases she accompanied her husband to the larger Witenagemote, or Meeting of the Wise Men, to settle the more burning questions of the still embryonic nation.

With regard to children, the Angles and Saxons had somewhat Spartan ideas. No sooner was a child born than the momentous question arose. Was it to be allowed to live? It was deemed an act of parental love to put to death any child born to a life of misery or possible starvation, for famine stalked the land not infrequently in these days before the reign of Commerce. Or because to rear a sickly child might bring disgrace to a family of brave men. Children were rigidly brought up. Flogging was looked on not only as a punishment, but as a system of tuition. If a child would not learn, it was beaten; if it did learn, apparently it was beaten also, with a view to impressing the fact learnt on its memory. Thus a man referred to his childhood in the words, "When I was under the rod." A boy came of age when he could brandish his father's sword and bend his bow, tasks requiring no small amount of skill. But this accomplished, the young warrior was presented with shield and spear, and became a full-fledged citizen. Then the real business of his life began, for England in those days was a world of strife. Every man was a warrior as well as a legislator; every man bore arms alike as a duty and as a privilege. What all had helped to acquire, all demanded equally to share—a point of view somewhat lost sight of in these latter days.

All learnt the use of arms, and attended the local moot with spear and shield, assenting to the suggestions of chief or Ealdorman by the noisy clash of the one upon the other. Thus, it will readily be seen, the moot was in fact composed of the local militia, or "fyrd," just as the Witenagemote was the gathering of those Ealdormen who had not only presided at the local meetings, but had led the men in attendance to battle.

And yet a further strength was added to this early military organisation, involving some of those sterling qualities which characterised our Anglo-Saxon forefathers. Around each Ealdorman fought a group of warrior kinsmen, bound not only by ties of blood, but by personal devotion and that "mutual trust of men who had been lifelong comrades." To permit the death of their chief was the deepest shame of this bodyguard; to sacrifice their lives for him was the highest attainable glory. Such a death alone won for them the joy of eternal feasting in the halls of Walhalla off a boar's head that never grew less and from drinking cups of ale that never failed.

It was small wonder, then, that intellectual accomplishments should give way before the more practical training of wrestling, shooting, running, and other sports necessitating bodily exertion.

Hunting was a very favourite as well as a necessary pastime. The country was thick in forest land, abounding with animals of all sorts. There were bears, buffaloes, and wolves for the more daring spirits; harts, hinds, roebuck, foxes, and hares for the more timorous.

When darkness fell on the land they had their resources indoors. Games with dice—the ancestors of draughts, backgammon, and chess—were freely played; played often far into the night, when the dim hall was lit only by rushes smeared in fat, for high stakes involving loss of land and even of personal liberty.

Our forefathers loved practical jokes, many of which savour of barbaric cruelty. To tie thorns or prickles under the tail of a horse and set thereon a timid rider afforded them untold mirth, as did also the discomforting process of binding a man and chopping off half his long hair and beard, the pride and joy of his position of a freeman as opposed to that of a slave. The life of a wayfarer must have assumed new terrors by the knowledge that at any moment a band of facetious merrymakers might pounce on him, strip him of his clothes, dip him in hot pitch, and roll him in feathers!

The clothes of these days were very simple. Long white linen tunics with loose sleeves, girdled in at the waist, were worn by all alike, from slave to chief. Over this men and women wore a short cloak, while, in addition to and below these garments, the women wore a long gown reaching to the feet. No one went barefoot in Anglo-Saxon days; all wore shoes and stockings, though the latter more resembled the modern puttees than stockings. Indispensable to the woman of the period was the bright-coloured hood, couvre-chef, or kerchief, with which she invariably covered her neck and head. In bad weather the hood was likewise adopted by men, who ordinarily went bare-headed, taking great pride in their long hair and beards, which they divided in the middle and combed with care.

For ornaments of the living at this early period of civilisation we have ever to go to the dead. They were buried in graves arranged in rows, over which low mounds were raised, as is the custom to-day. Here they have been found—these tall, big-boned ancestors of ours—lying on their backs, sometimes in wooden coffins, more often in the bare earth, all in full dress: the men with sword and spear, women with ornaments and jewels. Still we find the idea that material possessions will be available in a future life: that warriors would need their carving knives and drinking-horns in Walhalla, while those who were doomed to the cold shades of Hel might find compensation in past earthly splendour. It is unnecessary to add that the advent of Christianity ended this custom.

Such then, very briefly, were the manners and customs of our forefathers who made their homes in England during the fifth and sixth centuries. They were blue-eyed, fair-haired giants, sturdy pagans, fierce warriors, fearless lovers of sea and storm, reckless of life for life's sake, ever ready to suffer and if need be to die for one of the Blood. Brave, valorous, energetic, cheerful, if devoid of mercy and pity, they have bequeathed that force of character and "grit" to their successors—qualities which have carried England's sons successfully through unequal contest and inconceivable hardship, enabling them to ride fearlessly through surf and storm, and with dogged perseverance to build up new homes in distant lands, carving out the destiny of the British Empire, even as their forefathers carved out the destiny of England.

From the shores of the North Sea came our ideas of freedom, our right of free meeting, of free speech, free thought, free work. It is with respect akin to reverence that we look back across the stretch of over a thousand years to see in the Meeting of the Wise Men the germ of our Parliament to-day. On the other hand, it is not without anguish that we realise how completely to-day we have lost sight of that principle grasped so firmly by the Angles and Saxons in their military organisation, a principle which made home defence not only the duty, but the privilege of every free-born man.

They have given us our language, they have given us our literature, they have bequeathed to us that invaluable legacy, not only of family life but of colonial instinct, in which lies the germ of that larger Imperialism which Englishmen of to-day are called to share with their kindred beyond the seas.

"Truly ye come of The Blood; slower to bless than to ban;
Little used to lie down at the bidding of any man.
Flesh of the flesh that I bred, bone of the bone that I bare;
Stark as your sons shall be—stern as your fathers were."