Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors - all things wyrd and wonderful?
by Lawrence Middlehurst
Taken from Steadfast Magazine Issue 10
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How would our ancestors have coped with our current situation? Lawrence Middlehurst argues it is time for the English Nation to re-establish our links with some of the values, beliefs and perceptions of our forebears.
It was CS Lewis who pointed out that every generation, in modern times at least, suffers from the ‘snobbery of chronology’: the belief that one’s own generation is superior to all others that have gone before simply because they have gone before. Even a casual study of history shows how mistaken this attitude can be. We present-day Englishmen and women can learn a great deal from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, not least on how to cope with life, and the most taboo subject of modern times, death. Indeed, the attitudes and values of those times helped people deal with adversity generally. Their approach to life is much needed now with the English nation under the threat of being slandered, legislated and generally swamped out of existence. The early English were tough, both physically and mentally – they had to be in an age when sudden death was a very real possibility. Average life-expectancy for men was around 32 or 33 years; for women – perhaps because of the perils of childbirth – it was even less. Over 80% of the population died by age 40 – 97% by 50. Aristocrats, monks, and nuns had a better chance than others of living longer because they were better fed and endured fewer hardships.
How did the early-English cope with this? What must it have felt like when the ruling elite converted to Christianity and congregations learned from the Bible that a man’s allotted span was not 30 or 40 or even 50 but actually ought to be three score years and ten? Did they feel resentful; that they must have sinned somehow for God to give them such short lives? Did they feel a lifespan of 70 years could only be a fairy-tale? However they felt, the hard facts remained and they had to deal with them – and they did. How did they do it? From what source was their toughness derived? The answer may lie in their ‘belief-system’ to use the repellently slick but convenient modern term. When our ancestors started arriving here from Northwest Europe about 1,600 years ago, they brought their beliefs, already centuries old, with them. Of their religion we have only a confused and very incomplete picture – this being largely due to the Church suppressing the old ways or adapting them and making them Christian, e.g. Yule and Easter.
Thanks to the Roman historian Tacitus, and a few other ancient authors, we know something about their pre-migration beliefs and values, which promoted a vigorous and positive approach to life. Modern scholars (though not those who practised it) have called it ‘The Germanic Heroic Code’. Versions of this were to be found amongst all the Germanic peoples, including the English, the Continental Germans, and Scandinavians.
The basis of these beliefs could be expressed in a ‘short-hand’ way for our ancestors – though not for us – in just two words: wyrd and lof. From the ancient word wyrd we derive the modern ‘weird’ which most of us take to mean ‘strange’ or even just ‘odd’. But wyrd, in Old English, meant literally ‘what is’ or ‘what will be’, and it had mystical overtones for our ancestors. The nearest modern equivalent is, perhaps, ‘Fate’ – a property of life that is simply inescapable. Wyrd is the most powerful of forces; even the Gods are subject to it. In our modern world – where we have more than enough to eat, in which we occupy centrally-heated houses, in which we are saved from ‘early’ death by modern medicine, in which even entertainment comes to us at the press of a TV or video button – we are, until illness and death visit our friends, our family, and ourselves, ‘insulated’ from the worst life can throw at us.
Most of us have lost all contact with the living power of fate, of wyrd. However, the early English found evidence of the force of wyrd about them for most of their comparatively short lives – it was vivid for them, and their poetry reflects that. One poem, The Fates of Men, even lists the many ways in which every living man could meet the end of his life: death at sea in a storm; death in battle; dying from a broken neck after falling from an apple tree at harvest-time; death from any number of diseases; death by the knife’s sharp edge after a drunken argument at the mead-bench. To modern sensibilities this preoccupation with death will seem ‘morbid’ but to our ancestors it wasn’t. Indeed, in contrast to the obsession with death, they had a counterweight obsession – Life. They seem to have enjoyed life, companionship, and good fortune with a relish modern man has lost; to be ‘insulated’ from the worst Life throws at us also means we are insulated, cut off from, the best of Life too.
The early English appreciated the warmth of a hearth-fire in a snow-cloaked winter; the mellow light of the hall after a journey in a dead darkness un-illuminated by ghastly-yellow street-lamps; the taste of food from a good harvest when next year might bring starvation; human company and conviviality when the world was far emptier than it is now. Who had the better life, them or us? I am not claiming that theirs was necessarily better. All I say is that when it comes to living a life, we have the advantage in quantity but perhaps it is they who had the advantage in quality. Perhaps they were more alive altogether, life was more vivid and they perceived things we have lost sight of. The warrior-class, in what was a dangerous world, was the most prestigious of all classes. Tacitus tells us something of this. Every warrior belonged to a ‘comitatus’ – a band of warriors, each band led by an acknowledged warrior of renown. When a warrior joined the band, he and his lord exchanged sacred oaths. The warrior could expect to be fed at the lord's table (‘lord’ is derived from OE ‘hlaf-weard’ i.e. loaf-ward or loaf-keeper); he would be given weapons and armour, a horse, lands, personal gifts such as armbands and rings.
In return, he would fight for his lord. This was not merely a mercenary relationship, however. It was a deeply personal one based on loyalty and honour, both to the lord and to other members of the band. Tacitus says that while a war-leader fought for victory, his warriors fought only for their lord; they would even ascribe their own bravest deeds to him. So great was this loyalty that warriors were prepared to die for their lord and he for them: it was the duty of both warrior and lord each to avenge the other or die trying. There are instances of English warriors doing exactly that in hopeless circumstances. ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is a poem describing such an event that occurred in 991. The war-leader Byrhtnoth fell in this battle against Vikings. His men were overwhelmed by the enemy but fought to the death to avenge the slaying of their leader. This attitude of loyalty, to one’s lord and to one’s kin, was deeply ingrained in the English character, as it was in those belonging to other similar societies.
There are instances of womenfolk who did just the same as the men; likewise youngsters, barely in their teens, thralls (slaves), and household guests felt obliged to fight on a host’s side in repayment for his hospitality. This same ancient sense of honour lived on through the knights of mediaeval times, through the Empire-builders. Even the ‘butcher’s shop’ that was the First World War did not destroy it entirely in either the English or the Germans. Indeed, among the German soldiers at this time, the old war-band mentality seems to have resurfaced quite naturally. When, in the terror, squalor and anarchy of the trenches, the formal system of command broke down, the German soldiers chose their own leaders and gave them their own title, Fuehrer – a tainted title now in view of who later appropriated it for himself. The WWI warriors and their ancestors seem to have had exactly the same feelings of loyalty towards their war-band leaders. “No lord was dearer to me than my own dear lord ...” an Anglo-Saxon warrior declared after his lord’s death. “We all worshipped Lt. Colonel Engelhardt...” said one German soldier after his commander’s death. The point of war – at least for the Old English warriors if not so much for their descendants caught in the meat-grinder of WWI - lay not in killing but in proving one’s honour and loyalty. As one historian has said: “It was no ignoble way of life.” The ultimate aim of this proving and testing was, for the Anglo-Saxon warrior, the acquisition of lof. This word meant, ‘praise’ or ‘reputation’; a reputation for courage – the most enviable of all personal qualities, perhaps even in our own materialistic age. Often lof is described as ‘word-fame’, which suggests approval by one’s fellows and by one’s community. As with wyrd, lof seems to have had mystical overtones.
Despite their acquired Christianity, one suspects that many early English folk found themselves often enough in the same quandary that some modern English experience: one moment it is easy to believe there must be a God and an afterlife; the next scepticism prevails. Our ancestors seem to have felt much the same whether they had their ‘heathen’ religion or Christianity to comfort them. In a typically English way – i.e. with a combination of utter practicality and outrageous mysticism – they got round the problem of death with the concept of lof.
Lof was, perhaps, both a real belief and an early mediaeval ‘spiritual insurance policy’. The belief seems to have been that if one acquired enough of a reputation for courage, then later generations would remember, would tell and re-tell stories of the man and his courage. In the act of telling, the dead man would be ‘conjured up’, he would ‘live’ once again. In short, he would acquire a form of immortality. Speaking of courage, the narrator of ‘Beowulf' declares: “So must a man do when he thinks to win enduring fame in battle; he will show no concern for his life”. Besides, the narrator goes on: “Fate often spares an un-doomed man when his courage is good". Meanwhile, the man who does not risk his life, who tries to hide from the enemy and the force of wyrd, is often the first to be taken from this world. A ‘belief-system’ such as this was not the product of an unsophisticated people; the paradoxes contained within it are worthy of, say, Buddhism. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had many admirable qualities; we, their descendants, would do well to recall them and try to emulate them in our own battle for the survival of our nation.
Writes from Wigan.