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10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Anglo Saxons

1) Women had rights!

Anglo-Saxon women had more rights than women in any other period of History before modern day.

Anglo-Saxon women were able to own and inherit their own land, and if they wished could sell, or give away that land without the need to get permission from a man, such as their father or husband. If a woman was rich enough to own slaves, she had the power to grant them their freedom if she desired.

If a crime was committed against a woman in the time of the Anglo-Saxons then it was viewed as just as serious as a crime committed against a man. Women were able to speak for themselves in court and they were able to testify to another person’s truthfulness.

King Aelfred set a law in the 9th century which stated that no woman could be forced into a marriage that she didn’t want to enter in to. When she did marry she would be given a morgen-gifu, a gift of land, jewellery, animals or something else of value by her husband on the morning of their wedding. This morning-gift was hers to keep for life. Should a woman become dissatisfied with her marriage, or her husband treated her poorly then she was allowed to instigate a divorce. If the couple had children and they left to live with their mother, then the man could be forced to hand over some of his land to her at the time of divorce.

anglo saxon lady with a basket of wool fleece

2) They loved riddles

Although most Anglo-Saxons were not able to read and write, many were adept wordsmiths. Language and storytelling was a massive part of their culture. They would memorise and recite stories and poems to entertain and teach important life lessons.

They enjoyed using embellished language that makes the listener think, made their prose more interesting and often created vivid images in a persons mind. Anglo-Saxons would often replace a noun with a two-word phrase in order to do this, these phrases are known as kennings. Some famous examples of Anglo-Saxon kennings are wave-floater (ship), bone-house (body) and whale-road (the sea).

Anglo-Saxons adults and children alike would often tell each other riddles and add them into their stories and literature. Riddles keep your mind sharp and help with problem solving, great skills for a budding young Anglo-Saxon.

Can you solve an Anglo-Saxon riddle?

Four dilly-dandies Four stick-standies Two crookers Two lookers And a wig wag

anglo saxon mead hall

3) Bread wore away their teeth

Bread was a massive part of an Anglo-Saxon diet, both rich and poor people would eat bread with almost every meal.

In order to make bread they needed flour. Anglo-Saxons made flour by grinding wheat using a quern stone. Tiny fragments of stone would end up in the flour which, over time, would wear away their teeth as they ate their bread.

bread on a table

4) They used sign language

Certain orders of Anglo-Saxon monks followed the rule of St-Benedict, which insisted on silence during daily activities. As you can imagine communicating with each other would be very difficult without making a sound, so these monks developed their own version of sign language so they could communicate without breaking their vow of silence.

A manuscript written in the 11th century documents over 120 signs that these monks would have used to represent items that they would have used in their everyday life. Signs for things such as food, clothing, books and other common items and activities. For instance, the sign they developed for soap was to rub both their hands together, as if washing them.

monks using sign language

5) They knew the earth was round

It is a modern misconception that people in past believed that the world was flat. The fact that the earth is round is documented as far back as the 3rd century to the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Bede, in The Reckoning of Time, when writing about the Earth states: ‘It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions.’

medieval round earth

6) They believed in elves

The Anglo-Saxons believed that when you get pain in your body for no obvious reason it was caused by elves shooting invisible arrows at you. These pains were known as Elf-shot. Modern medicine has deduced that these pains are most likely to be caused by rheumatism, arthritis, muscle stitches or muscle cramps.

When people found stone arrow heads, which we now know are from the Neolithic period, they thought that they were left from these elves.

Elf-shot is described in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts as a medical condition in its own right. There were lots of cures for elf-shot. Elf-shot could (apparently) be prevented by visiting Church on specific dates. Charms to cure elf-shot could be made using various things, such as feverfew, red nettles and waybread.

flint arrow head

7) They wore fake keys

Anglo-Saxon women were in charge when it came to the home. Valuable possessions would be kept locked away in chests within the home. The women would be the ones to keep the keys to these chests, they would be kept attached to her belt. Keys were seen as a symbol of wealth as the more keys a woman had, the more chests were in her home and therefore the more possessions a person had.

It became fashionable for women to attach items known as girdle-hangers to their belts, these were key-like items that were made from metal and were hung from a belt. Women were often buried with girdle-hangers and they are likely to symbolise the power that the women had in the home. Due to their similarity to a key, wearing girdle-hangers may have also been a way for women to attempt to look more well off than they actually were.

anglo saxon girdle hanger

8) They gave us some of our place names

Many of the place names that we know today actually originate from the names given to them by the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons created their place names using a number of different methods. Often places were named after the Chieftain of the people who lived there. The first part of the name would be the leader’s name and the second part would be ‘ing’ or ‘folk’ which means ‘people’. For instance, Redding (spelt today as Reading) literally means ‘Redda’s people’.

Other ways that Anglo-Saxons named their towns included using features of the landscape, the name of a sacred god or religious aspect. For instance, Oxford was names as a place where Oxen were able to cross a river.

West Stow Saxon Village

9) They were talented craftsmen

It might be easy to think of the Anglo-Saxons as primitive, living simple lives in thatched round houses, but the skill level of accomplished crafts people was extremely high.

People needed pottery for plates and cups, fabric for clothing, leather for shoes, metal for weapons and utensils. All of these things were made with very intricate designs and were an opportunity for the high classes to show off their wealth.

Craftsmen for making jewellery and grave goods were also commonplace. One of the most iconic Anglo-Saxon burial finds was the hoard at Sutton Hoo. This collection includes impressive items such as a whetstone, a cup, a belt buckle and of course the famous Sutton Hoo Helmet.

10) Every person had a value

If a crime was committed against a person then the person who committed the crime could be forced to pay compensation to the victim (or the family of the victim in cases of murder), this compensation was known as Wergild.

The amount that the perpetrator was required to pay was partly determined by the severity of the crime committed and party determined by the status of the victim with society. The wergild of a Lord would be many times more than that of a common man.

The weregild of women was often equal to, or sometimes even greater than thatof a man of the same status. This may come as a surprise as women are often viewed as less important than men in History.

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