Romans ruled over Britain for approximately 400 years, i.e., from about the middle of the first century until sometime in the first half of the fifth century. It was during this period of Roman rule that Christianity was introduced among the Celts in England, perhaps for the first time. Some Celts embraced Christianity during the Roman rule no doubt but the impact of this religion during that period was confined to certain small and lower sections of society.
As a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, these Christians, like the non-Christian Celts, were obliged to find shelter in the bleak forests and mountains in the northern and western parts of England. The tide turned in 597, however, when St Augustine arrived in Kent with about forty Christian missionaries under his leadership.
He was deputed by Pope Gregory the Great to propagate Christianity in England and had, therefore, the financial and moral support of the Roman church. In the beginning, these missionaries were tormented by fear that the Anglo-Saxons, known for their ruthlessness and cruelty, might be violent to them.
But to their pleasant surprise, they were cordially and warmly received by King Ethelbert of Kent. Women have at times played a crucial role in giving an unexpected turn to history and this is what happened in the history of Christianity in England. King Ethelbert (c. 560-616) had a beautiful and charming wife, who was a Christian. Understandably, he was soon converted to Christianity because of the persuasive charm of his wife. Soon after that the whole royal family was converted to a devout Christian family.
“There is a tide”, says Shakespeare, “in the affairs of men”. What the Old English period witnessed was not a tide in the affairs of men but a swelling tide in favour of Christianity. One after another circumstances changed in favour of Christianity in England. King Edwin, the king of Northumbria, married one of the daughters of King Ethelbert and like the queen of Kent this queen of Northumbria got her husband, the king, converted to Christianity.
The conversion of these two royal families led to a mass-scale conversion of the people in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria and in his famous book of history, Bede presents a vivid account of how a bishop called Bishop Paulinus baptized numerous converts in the river Trent.
Because of this wave of circumstances, noblemen and intellectuals alike extended all their moral support to the spread of Christianity in England. St Hilda, a princess of the royal Northumbrian family, founded the famous monastery at Whitby and became the abbess of that monastery.
Benedict Bishop, a Northumbrian noble, devoted all his life to the spread of Christianity, particularly to the task of adorning monasteries and equipping them with scholarly collections of Latin books on Christianity. Bede, England’s first historian, wrote his famous Historia Ecclesiastica in a monastery of Northumbria.
He introduced into England the system, now in vogue all over the world, of dating events from the year of the birth of Christ and thereby placed Christianity at the centre of historical chronology. Fact and fiction, legend and reality, superstition and religious devotion, literary activities and recording of chronology—all these mingled together to create during the Old English period an attitudinal climate in support of Christianity.
When St Augustine arrived in England, the English people thought, for example, that he and his companions had supernatural powers. So much so that King Ethelbert, fearing that St Augustine and the other missionaries in his team were magicians, insisted that their first interview be held in the open air.
Caedmon, a labourer working at the stables at Whitby came to St Hilda, the abbess, and recited to her a religious hymn in praise of God and said that that hymn had been revealed to him in a dream. Caedmon’s report about what had happened in his dream could not be dismissed as a tale told by an idiotic labourer. Caedmon turned out to be “the first English poet clearly known to us by name” and the Caedmonian hymn proved to be “possibly the oldest surviving piece of English poetry composed on English soil” (Sampson 1970:6).
The Anglo-Saxons were basically a militant and barbaric race that delighted in warfare and bloodshed. Their primary occupation was to plunder and their main pastime was to recount the deeds of their ruthless warriors.
As Willson (1972:16) has said, “the Anglo-Saxon mother lulling her baby to sleep whispered in his ear that in time he would be a fighter who would redden the field with the blood of his victims”. Christianity for these barbaric people was a new experience, a new ideology, a new perspective on life and an entirely new mode of living.
It was for them nothing like a loaned garment which they could discard any time. It thoroughly permeated their emotive being and became an integral part of their national psyche. Whenever a language community is heavily preoccupied with new ideas or experiences, it inevitably exerts its inventiveness to find suitable expressions for those ideas and experiences.
This is what happened in the case of the people of England after the introduction of Christianity. The new experience of Christianity proved to be both an opportunity and a challenge for the Germanic tribes now settled in England to stretch their linguistic potential and their resourcefulness, particularly in the field of vocabulary. How the linguistic inventiveness of these people manifested itself will be discussed under the heading of Old English vocabulary and later in the section on borrowings.
2. The Scandinavian Influence:
The second event during the Old English period that had an everlasting influence on the history of the English language was the violent inroads made by the Scandinavians known as Vikings. These Vikings were “fierce heathen warriors with a lust for pillage and slaughter” (Willson 1972:26). They offered human sacrifices to their gods, burnt widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands and enjoyed mutilating their prisoners.
They preferred the exciting and adventurous life of a pirate to the dull and monotonous labour needed for agriculture. “It was their practice to seize or build an armed camp near their ships, to round up the houses of their locality and to make rapid inland raids until the terrified inhabitants paid them great sums to move away” (p. 26).
Their first few incursions into England were in the nature of plundering adventures but in 865 numerous bands of fierce fighters landed in East Anglia with the intention of settling there forever. Sometimes history repeats itself and these Vikings did to the Englishmen, now settled in England, what these Englishmen had done to the Celts a few hundred years earlier.
These Vikings destroyed the kingdom of East Anglia and Northumbria and firmly established themselves in those kingdoms, the most well known Viking king of England being King Cnut (1016-1035). Though these Vikings plundered and slaughtered Anglo-Saxons mercilessly for years, they were more or less of the same tribal origin and were from the same part of Europe which was the original homeland of the Anglo-Saxons.
The language of these Vikings was basically the same as the language of the early Germanic settlers in England. These Vikings influenced the English language in a big way, nevertheless. Their presence infused a new life and vitality into a number of words which were about to die.
A large number of words which the Anglo-Saxons had brought with them from their original homeland in north-western Europe had by now become obsolete. Because of the impact of the Vikings, however, many such obsolete words gained currency once again. The Scandinavian influence on the English language will be discussed in some detail later.