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Anglo-Saxon life


Influence of the Norman Conquest on English Civilisation - Review of Saxon and Norman Customs - Progress of Literature and the Arts - Social Life of the Anglo-Saxons - Sports and Pastimes - Condition of the People of Normandy-The Bayeux Tapestry.
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Any narrative purporting to be the history of a nation, and which at the same time should confine itself to an account of wars, cabals, and changes of dynasty, would be extremely imperfect. To form a just estimate of the character of a people, to appreciate fully the effect of the various causes which indirectly influence the progress of political events, it is necessary to study the condition of social life, and the state of the arts and industry of the period is intended, therefore, to interrupt, from time to time, the main current of the narrative, for the purpose of viewing the people at home, and of investigating, as far as the materials at command will permit, the the schools of the Middle Ages, in which all secular knowledge, as well as religious doctrine, was cultivated. Previous to the invention of printing, books were transcribed with great pains and labour. Not only was the mere task of copying a book by hand a work of considerable time, but the illuminations or embellishments with which the more valuable manuscripts were adorned, were executed with a degree of care and finish demanding great skill and industry. The annexed engravings are copied with scrupulous fidelity from various MSS. still extant, and serve to show some of the different kinds of writing which are found in those documents. Many of the MSS. also contain on each page paintings representing scenes either connected with the narrative in the text or otherwise. Sometimes they are ornamented with portraits of saints, kings, or other great men. These figures, as well as the other ornamental portions of the work, are brilliantly coloured, and are often represented on a gold ground.

The ancients wrote upon various substances, including stone, metals, leaves of different kinds of trees, wood, ivory, wax, skins of animals more or less prepared, and papyrus, which was the inner bark of a reed. The plant is found on the banks of the Nile, grows several feet high, and bears leaves. Papyrus was used by the Egyptians and Romans, and was commonly employed from a remote period until the eleventh century. The most ancient bulls of the Popes

were written on papyrus. The parchment used was of various kinds; that which

was the finest and whitest being used for the most valuable

manuscripts. For gilding upon parchment our ancestors employed both gold powder and leaf gold, which was fixed upon a white embossment, generally supposed to be a calcareous preparation. The subjects of the paintings were taken from sacred or profane history, but the artist invariably represented the costume and customs of his own, time, and to these illuminations we owe most of the knowledge we possess of those customs. The Anglo-Saxons displayed proficiency in this branch of painting at an early period; and though it is not easy to trace the rise and progress of the art, there is evidence of its flourishing condition from the eighth to the eleventh centuries, in the numerous manuscripts of that date, which still remain both in our own country and in the collections on the Continent.

Previous to the introduction of Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons possessed no literature worthy of the name. It is not, however, to be supposed that the people were destitute of intellectual power; for when our forefathers began to apply themselves to the pursuit of knowledge, the progress of literature was remarkably rapid. Within one hundred years after the light of knowledge dawned upon the Anglo-Saxons, Bede, surnamed the Venerable, appeared, with other men whose abilities and teaching exerted a marked influence upon the spread of English learning.

The Anglo-Saxon scholars, though defective in actual knowledge, had just conceptions of the objects of philosophy. Alcuin defines it to be the study of natural things, and the knowledge of divine and human affairs. All the subjects comprised by Alcuin in physics are arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. That larger field of science to which we now give the name of physics had not yet been discovered, nor had chemistry, mineralogy, and the other analogous sciences,

Turner, in his "History of the Anglo-Saxons," gives specimens of scholastic trifling from a dialogue of Alcuin with Prince Pepin, the son of Charlemagne. As examples of the manner in which the brain was exercised in the absence of solid learning, some portions of this dialogue are worthy of preservation. Some of the questions, with the answers, are subjoined: -

"What is life?-The gladness of the blessed; the sorrow of the wretched; the expectation of death.

"What is death? - The inevitable event; the uncertain pilgrimage; the tears of the living; the confirmation of our testament; the thief of man.

"What is sleep? - The image of death.

"What is man's liberty? - Innocence.

"What is the brain? - The preserver of the memory.

"What is the sun? - The splendour of the world; the beauty of heaven; the honour of day; the distributor of the hours.

"What is the moon? - The eye of night; the giver of dew; the prophetess of the weather.

"What is rain? - The earth's conception; the mother of corn.

"What is the earth? - The nurse of the living; the storehouse of life; the devourer of all things.

"What is the sea? - The path of audacity; the divider of regions; the fountain of showers.

"What is a ship? - A wandering house; a perpetual inn; a traveller without footsteps.

"What makes bitter things sweet? - Hunger.

"What makes men never weary? - Gain.

"What gives sleep to the watching? - Hope.

"Who is lie that will rise higher if you take away his head? - Look in your bed and you will find him there."

The following account, taken from William of Malmesbury, of the social condition of the Saxon people at the time of the Conquest, indicates a decline of literature and the arts at that period. The picture may probably be overdrawn, but the main facts are correct. "In process of time, the desire after literature and religion had decayed, for several years before the arrival of the Normans. The clergy, contented with a very slight degree of learning, could scarcely stammer out the words of the sacraments, and a person who understood grammar was an object of wonder and astonishment. The nobility were given up to luxury and wantonness. The commonalty, left unprotected, became a prey to the most powerful, who amassed fortunes, either by seizing on their property or by selling their persons into foreign countries; although it be an innate quality of this people to be more inclined to reviling than to the accumulation of wealth. Drinking was a universal practice, in which they passed entire nights, as well as days. They consumed their substance in mean and despicable houses, unlike the Normans and French, who, in noble and splendid mansions lived with frugality."

Music was cultivated by our ancestors from a very remote period. Among the Anglo-Saxons the music to which the greatest attention was bestowed was that employed in the services of religion. Singing in churches is said to have been introduced into this country in the fourth century.

Among the northern nations the Scalds were at once the poets and musicians. Like the bards of the Britons, they celebrated the deeds of the great and brave in heroic poems, which were sung to the sounds of the lyre or the harp. After the conquest of Britain by the Saxons, these minstrels remained in high favour among the people, and were received with respect and veneration in the courts of kings and the halls of the nobles. In the Anglo-Saxon language they were known by two appellations, the one equivalent to the English word, glee-men, or merry-makers, and the other harpers, derived from the instrument on which they usually played.

The glee-men were jugglers and pantomimists as well as minstrels, and they were accustomed to associate themselves in companies, and amuse the spectators with feats of strength and agility, dancing, and sleight-pf-hand tricks.

Among the minstrels who came into England with William the Conqueror was one named Taillefer, of whom it is related that he was present at the battle of Hastings, and took his place at the head of the Norman army, inspiriting the soldiers by his songs. Before the battle commenced he advanced on Horseback towards the English lines, and casting his spear three times into the air, he caught it each time by the iron head and threw it among his enemies, one of whom he wounded. He then drew his sword and threw it into the air, catching it, as he had done the spear, with such dexterity, that the English who saw him believed that he was gifted with the power of enchantment.

The term minstrel, or, in Norman French, ministraulx, came into use in England soon after the Conquest, at which time it is believed that the class of minstrels and jesters became much more numerous. The general language of France in the ninth century was the Roman language, or, as it has since been called, the lanyue d'Oc, which closely resembled the dialects of the Catalonian. The language of the North, or langue d'Oil, varied but little from it. At this period the flowing accents of the southern tongue were wedded to music by minstrels, who were called troubadours in the southern provinces, and trouveres in the North.

These poets became known throughout Europe for their songs of love and war, in which they celebrated the beauty of women and the achievements of the brave. The minstrels enjoyed many privileges, and travelled from place to place, in time of war as well as of peace, in perfect safety.

"Their persons were held sacred, and they were received wherever they went with the warmest welcome and hospitality.

la oar own country the professors of the minstrel's art were of various classes, which were distinguished by the several names of singers, relaters of heroic actions, jesters, balancers, jugglers, and story-tellers. At this period every great baron kept a jester as a part of his household establishment.

The word jester, in its original sense, did not necessarily mean joker, or buffoon, but teller of tales, which might be of a kind to excite either laughter or pity. The jesters, however, were usually employed at feasts and in the hours of conviviality, and they found the tales of merriment so much more popular at such times, that it is probable the more serious part of their vocation fell into disuse. In later times the jesters and japers became mere merry-andrews, whose business it was to excite mirth by jokes and ludicrous gesticulations.

In olden times the number of musical instruments was considerable, but their names were still more numerous, because they were derived from the form and character of instruments which varied according to the caprice of the maker or the musician. Each nation had its peculiar instruments of music, and as these were described in each language by names appropriate to their qualities, the same instrument was frequently known by many names, while the same names sometimes applied to several instruments. The Romans, after their conquests, were in the habit of carrying back with them the music and the instruments which they found among the conquered nations, and- thus it happened that, at a certain epoch, all the musical instruments of the known world were collected in the capital of the empire. At the fall of Rome, many of these fell into disuse and were forgotten; they were no longer needed to celebrate the festivals of pagan deities, or to add gaiety to the ovations to the emperors in the capitol. A letter of St. Jerome to Dardanus (de diversis generibus musicorum instrumentis) gives an account of those instruments which remained in existence in the fifth century. St. Jerome enumerates the organ, various kinds of trumpets, the cithar, in the form of a Greek delta (Δ) with twenty-four strings; the psalterium, a small harp of a square form, with ten strings; the tympanum, or hand drum; and several others.

These appear to have been almost the only musical instruments in use in the fifth century. A nomenclature of a similar kind appears in the ninth century, in a manuscript life of Charlemagne, by Aymerivle de Peyrae (In the Imperial Library at Paris.), from which we find the number of instruments to have been nearly doubled in the course of four centuries, and their forms during this period had continually varied.

The flute is the most ancient of all instruments of music, and in the Middle Ages was found in many varieties. Among these was the double flute of the classic form, having two stems. The stem held in the left hand (sinistra) was for the high notes, and that held in the right hand (dextra) for the low notes. The two stems were sometimes held together, sometimes separate.

About the year 951, Bishop Elfega caused to be made for his church at Winchester an organ which, in size and construction, surpassed any that had hitherto been seen. This organ was divided into two parts, each having its bellows, its key-board, and its player; twelve bellows above and fourteen below were set in motion by sixty-six strong men, and the wind was passed along forty valves into four hundred pipes, arranged in groups of ten, and to each of these groups corresponded one of the twenty-four keys of each keyboard. In spite of the great size of this organ, we can hardly believe that its sound was heard over the whole town (undique per urbem), as we are told by a contemporary poet.

The syrinx, which was, in fact, the Pandean pipes, was composed usually of seven tubes of unequal length, forming a straight line at the top, for the mouth of the player.

Trumpets were much in use among the Saxons, and were employed in the chase and in the tourney, as well as in sounding the charge in battle. They were also used at feasts, public assemblies, and as signals by which one man could communicate with another at a distance beyond the reach of the voice.

The lyre, which was the principal stringed instrument of the Greeks and the Romans, preserved its primitive form until the tenth century. The number of cords varied from three to eight. The lyre of the North - which was unquestionably the origin of the violin, and which already presented the shape of that instrument - had a bridge in the middle of the sound-board.

The psalterium, which must not be confounded with the psalterion of the thirteenth century, was a little portable harp, played either with one or both hands. After the fifth century its shape varied, and was sometimes square or triangular, and sometimes round. In the tenth century the psalterium gave place to the cithar, a name by which various stringed instruments had at first been vaguely described.

The Saxon harp was at first only a triangular cithar. Although some antiquaries have pretended to have discovered the harp among the records of Grecian, Roman, and Egyptian antiquity, there can be little doubt that its origin must be referred to the people of the North. The Gaelic etymology of the word harp may be taken as a proof of this.

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