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THE SAXONS (55 B.C. TO 1100 A.D.) “An overwhelming proportion of the words which make up our daily speech is
drawn from Anglo-Saxon roots, and our syntax is as distinctly and as generally to be traced to the same source.
-George P. Marsh. THE year 55 B.C. is the 1492 of England. The British Isles in that year emerged from the mists of tradition into the clear sunlight of authentic history. For this event we are indebted to the adventurous spirit of that Julius Cæsar whose fate has been immortalized by Shakespeare and in whose Commentaries those who are fortunate enough to study Latin may still read how he with his Roman legions crossed the British Channel. Julius Cæsar may therefore in a sense be called the Christopher Columbus of England. In this connection it is worth noting that both of the great homes of the Anglo-Saxon race were revealed, as it were, by natives of the Italian peninsula.
Cæsar, however, did not find any Anglo-Saxons in Britain. It was peopled in his time by the same Celtic race which inhabited Gaul and Spain. These Celts, while by no means savages, were still barbarians. They had no property but arms and cattle. War was their favorite business. Their favorite pastime was a game played with balls made of a mixture of lime and the brains of their fallen foes. They buried their dead, as did the Indians of North America, with their weapons by their sides. One of the characteristics of their religion was human sacrifice. Cæsar says that they used innocent persons for this purpose when the supply of criminals ran short. On the other hand, there was in their natures, as there is in that of their descendants, the Welsh and Irish of to-day, much to admire and to love. As a race they were tender, vivacious, and melancholy; they held poets and poetry in high esteem; and they thought it infamous for a chieftain to close the door of his house at all, lest a stranger come and behold his contracting soul. This indisposition to close the door may still be noted in their descendants. A few years ago, when a reform administration in Chicago undertook to enforce an ordinance requiring all saloons to be locked up at certain hours, it was found that one proprietor of unmistakably Celtic origin had lost his key; his hospitable door had stood open day, night, and Sunday for twenty years.
Cæsar did not subdue these fierce islanders. It is probable that he left their shores in some baste. At all events, it was not until almost a century more had elapsed (43 A.D.) that the Romans effected a permanent lodgement in Britain, and it was not until 81 A.D. that they can be said to have conquered the country. Even then their subjugation of the islands appears to have been incomplete. The remains of a great wall which they built, 140 A.D., from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth bear mute but eloquent testimony to the limits of their power.
Under Roman rule the characteristics of the Celts were softened by humane laws and a milder worship. Roads were built, schools established, fine buildings arose, and agriculture flourished to such an extent that, in the fourth century, warehouses were built in Rome for the storage of British corn. Along with the rest of the Roman world, Britain toward the end of this period was gradually Christianized. The student who wishes to obtain a vivid conception of the island under Roman rule should read in Mr. Rudyard Kipling's “ Puck of Pook's Hill ” the fascinating stories entitled "A Centurion of the Thirtieth," "On the Wall," and the “ White Hats.” In these tales, as Dr. Johnson with great felicity says of another book, are illustrated two of the most agreeable functions of literature: familiar things are made new and new things familiar.
The story of our literature begins with the Celts. As Henry Morley says, it cannot be dissociated from the lively Celtic wit in which it has one of its sources. Without this element England could never have produced a Shakespeare. Its fantastic but fascinating nature may be inferred from the story of the slanga-pig, which had the magical power of being alive again and in good condition after it had been killed and eaten. The story of the banquet of Dun na n-Gedh, which led to the battle of Magh Rath, shows likewise in every line the effervescent spirit of these early inhabitants of Britain. It is, in brief, as follows:
“ There were no eggs for that banquet, and eggs were scarce. Those sent in search of them carried off a tub of goose-eggs belonging to a holy man, whose custom was to spend the day in the Boyne up to his arm-pits praying from his Psalter open on the shore before him and then go home and dine on an egg and a half and three cresses. When this saint found his eggs gone he cursed the banquet as powerfully as he could. Unfortunately one of the guests cracked an egg without waiting for grace to be said. Thence came a great crack in the peace of Ireland, though the king summoned the twelve apostles of Erin to bless and consecrate it. They came and each brought a hundred saints and they said grace powerfully but they could not avert the curse because one greedy guest had tasted of the feast before it had been blest.
At the banquet there were two remarkable guests, a woman and a man. Each limb of their limbs was larger than the summit of a rock on a mountain, sharper than a shaving-knife each edge of their shins. Their heels and hams were in front of them. Had a sackful of apples been thrown on their heads not one of them would have fallen to the ground, for they would have stuck on the points of their strong bristly hair. A lock of the lower beard went up over the head and a lock of the upper beard went down over the knees; the woman had whiskers and the man had none. They carried a basket of goose-eggs and informed the king that they brought them as their share of the banquet. Meat and ale for three hundred was then set before them. When they had consumed it, they said, 'Give us food.' 'You can have no more,' said the steward, 'till the men of Erin join in the feast.' 'It shall be an evil feast for them, they answered and vanished.
“A goose-egg was then set on a silver dish before every king in the house, but when the dish and egg were placed before Congal, who was the greedy one who had broken his fast before grace, the silver dish changed to a wooden dish and the goose-egg to the egg of a red-feathered hen. And one of Congal's followers urged him to resent the insult, until his bird of valor fluttered over him and he struck at friend and foe.”
The nature of the Roman influence on British life may be to some extent inferred from the words which they brought into the country. “Street," "wine," " butter," "pepper," " cheese," "silk," "alum," "pound,” “inch," “mile," and " mint” are all of Latin origin and probably found their way into British speech during the Roman occupation. In Chester and Manchester we still possess the Roman word castra, which means camp. To this same class of words belong likewise a number of church terms—“bishop,” “ candle,"
creed," " font," mass, monk,” and “ priest.” The names of the months are all Roman. “January "comes from Januarius, which is derived from janua,“ door,” and has obviously given us the word “janitor”; “February
” from februare, " to purify"; "March " from “Mars”; “ April ”from“ Aphrodite ”; “May "from" Maia”; “June" from "Juno "; "July" from "Julius” Cæsar; "August" from his successor Augustus "; September from septem, seven ”; October
eight "; November from novem,“ nine"; and “ December" from decem,"ten." In all about 400 Latin words became fixed in the British Isles during the first thousand years of the Christian era.
On the other hand, very few Celtic words have passed over into English. Up to the twelfth century probably not more than twenty of these in all had become a part of our ancestors' speech. Among our common words of Celtic origin are ' brag, brat, brawl, “ bump,” “ dad,” “ dagger," "fun," " gridiron,” “jag,” “job,” lad, lass,'
nap,” and “pet.” Early in the fifth century, that is to say, in 410 A.D., the Romans, hard pressed on the continent by the Goths, withdrew their last legion from Britain. The Celts who had submitted to their domination were almost immediately attacked and finally well nigh overwhelmed by their more warlike kinsmen, the Scots of Ireland and the Picts who lived beyond the Roman wall. To these were soon added a swarm of pirates belonging to three Teutonic tribes who dwelt in that district of southern Denmark which is now called Schleswig. These tribes, all closely related in manner, blood, and speech, were then known as Jutes, Angles, and Saxons.
In an unhappy moment for themselves the British leaders decided to try to save their country by inviting these freebooters to join with them against the Picts and Scots. Accordingly, in 449 A.D., there landed at Ebbsfleet, in the Island of Thanet, a band of warriors from Jutland, with their leaders, Hengist and Horsa, at their head. With this event begins English history. “No spot of English ground," says John Richard Green, “should be so sacred to Englishmen as that which first felt the print of English feet.”
The race which was thus introduced into the British Isles must have appeared to the Celts to be singularly undesirable. They belonged to the same Low German family as the modern Dutch. In their continental home they seem to have been plain farmers until poverty, the aggressions of their neighbors, growth in population, or love of adventure led them to adopt the vocation of piracy. In this gentle art their success had been rapid and complete. Huge in bulk, of matchless strength, pitiless, and daring beyond measure, they speedily became the scourge and terror of the sea. Their capacity for food and drink excited the wonder and disgust of strangers. In religion they were pagans. The main features of their crude theology are preserved in the names by which we designate the days of the week. As “Sunday” and “Monday" signify, they must at some time have worshipped the sun and moon. In “Tuesday” is preserved the name of Tiw, the dark God, to meet whom was death. “Wednesday” is the day of Wodin, the Teutonic Mars; “ Thursday” of Thor, the God of Thunder; “ Friday ” of Frea, the northern Venus, the goddess of peace and joy and fruitfulness; “Saturday” of Saetere, a water deity to whom it was natural that these primitive people, dwelling as they did in a land surrounded by the sea and saturated by almost constant mist and rain, should pay marked homage.
Rough as they were, however, these Anglo-Saxons possessed certain virtues which were destined to make them in many respects the most remarkable and most powerful race in the world. For courage and solidity they have never been surpassed. No other race has equalled their genius for practical affairs. As colonizers, as seamen, as warriors, and as farmers they have outstripped all of their rivals.