Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Life

Dr. Susan Oldrieve ©

            "The Battle of Maldon" was written late in the Anglo-Saxon period,  but we are beginning with it because it epitomizes what was, perhaps, most typical about Anglo-Saxon and early Germanic culture--the focus on loyalty to one's lord (hlaford or eorl) to the point of sacrificing one's family, one's children, and even one's life.

            The early Germanic culture was basically a tribal culture, not unlike that of the North American Plains Indians in the 19th century.  People lived in groups of kindred called by the Irish septs and by the Germanic tribes sippe (see Herlihy, Medieval Households for more detail) with several sippe serving a chief or lord who was elected by the tribe to be their leader in staving off the double dangers of external and internal destruction.  The sippe were not nuclear families, by any means, but combinations of up to 50 related households farming, hunting, owning, and ranging over a particular geographical territory.  Each household consisted of a chief and his wife (or wives) and concubines, their young children, and various older children of other kindred.  The Germanic sippes tended to foster their children out, sending them after what we now call the "preschool years" into the homes of relatives--usually aunts or uncles--to be raised.  This practice of fostering persisted well into the 16th and 17th centuries, until the church's push towards the "affective" marriage and family relationships, along with demographic and political factors, finally shaped the slow development of the nuclear (but often extended) family in the 18th century. (For more information, see Stone, Family, Sex, and Marriage, 1500-1800).

            Richer households tended to garner more of the women, who were valued for their skills as administrators, manufacturers of household goods (including beer--women were the brewers of that all important staple food), agricultural labors, and sexual attractiveness.  Sexual behavior was quite loose among early medieval peoples, and because a man could never know for sure if his wife's or concubine's children were his or

another's, the strongest adult-child ties tended not to be parent-child, but uncle-nephew, nephew-aunt, aunt-niece, etc. A person could always count on his or her sister's children to be blood relatives; hence the most important relationships were usually sibling, aunt/uncle/niece/nephew, and cousin relationships. (See Herlihy, pp. 52-55).

           If you are interested in seeing what an Anglo-Saxon house might have looked like, take a trip to the Olentangy Indian Caverns in Delaware, Ohio and visit the Iroquois Long House in their "Frontier Town" there.  Or go to the Web page for The Wharram Percy archaeology project (Web address: This project has been uncovering and studying British peasant homes, and there are some good pictures on their Web site.  Homes of wealthier chiefs would undoubtedly have been bigger but probably not much more complex

            The political system of the Anglo-Saxons, as of most Germanic tribes, centered around a hlaford or eorl who was elected by the chiefs of the sippes united in a particular area.  This lord would gather around him a comitatus of warriors.  Their job was to keep the tribe safe from attacks from other tribes, natural disasters, and feuds within the tribe.  In exchange for their dedicated loyalty to fighting for the lord, the hlaford dispensed gold, rings, horses, and other movable goods (including the surviving men, women, and children of the defeated tribe who would become slaves) according to the tribe's success in raiding other tribes. Hence in the literature, the lord is frequently called the "treasure-giver."

            The comitatus would live in the "mead hall" with their lord; when they were not preparing for or recovering from battle, they would spend their evenings eating, drinking huge quantities of beer, recounting old glories, listening to the scop or minstrel sing heroic, epic songs about the feats of others, and boasting about what they would do in the future to demonstrate their loyalty to their lord.  We think of boasting today as silly and egotistical, but it served an important function in Anglo-Saxon society Boasting was not mere bragging, but more like the declaration of a promise--a statement of one's intention to serve the lord and the tribe even in the most extreme circumstances, putting the good of the whole community before one's personal desires and needs.

Words have the power to shape reality, and standing up in front of the comitatus and bragging about how in battle he would slaughter twenty men, steal 50 horses, grab 20 gold arm bands, and defend his companions and his lord to the death was a sure way of making certain that a young man might actually do the hard and frightening work of the warrior. Not living up to one's boasts (and surviving battle through cowardice rather than through prowess) earned derision and loss of status; in severe cases of cowardice or betrayal, it could earn a warrior the ostracism of the tribe or even exile--the worst of all Anglo-Saxon punishments.

Unfortunately, words, especially drunken words, can also lead to anger, and a frequent problem in Anglo-Saxon life was the breaking out of feuds between members of a sippe or comitatus.  Sometimes a result of a "bar room brawl, " sometimes as a result of a sexual betrayal, sometimes as a result of quarrels over property, or perhaps as a result of an attempt to take political control of the sippe, or over an old grudge going back as much as two or three generations, Anglo-Saxon people would kill members of their own sippe or kingdom.   Revenge was powerfully built into Anglo-Saxon cultural expectations:  if someone killed one of your family members, you were obligated to return the favor by killing them or one of their family members.  Feuds would therefore escalate and could result in the complete destruction of a sippe or comitatus.  Anglo-Saxon law attempted to curb the destructive power of revenge by assigning a wergild or payment to be exacted in case of damages for every person in the society.  According to the law, if you killed someone, you were supposed to pay their family the worth of the dead person's wergild, and that payment was meant to stop actions of revenge.  It's unclear how successful the law was in staving off tribal destruction from within, but certainly much of the literature focuses on feuding, betrayal, and destruction of sippes due to internal violence.

Works Cited
Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.