Tag Archives: Saxon


The Saxon Invasions


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It is a matter of record that the ‘Saxons’ invaded Britain in the last years of the Roman occupation, and then in full force after the Romans left the island in 410 AD.  They marched away, seemingly without a backward glance, leaving the Britons–after 400 years of occupation–to fend for themselves.

From Gildas:

    From Britain envoys set out with their complaints, their clothes (it is said) torn, their heads covered in dust, to beg help from the Romans. … The Romans … informed our country that they could not go on being bothered with such troublesome expeditions; that Roman standards, that great and splendid army, could not be worn out by land and sea for the sake of wandering thieves who had no taste for war. Rather, the Britons should stand alone, get used to arms, fight bravely, and defend with all their powers their land, property, wives, children, and, more importantly, their life and liberty. Their enemies were no stronger than they, unless Britain chose to relax in laziness and torpor; they should not hold out to them for the chaining hands that held no arms, but hands equipped with shields, swords and lances, ready for the kill. This was the Romans’ advice.


These invaders, as the map to right shows, were not in fact all ‘Saxon’, but a combination of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Franks, and Frisians, each hailing from a different region of the western coast of Europe.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were Germanic peoples.  From Wikipedia:   They were “originally a small tribe living on the North Sea between the Elbe and Eider Rivers in the present Holstein. Their name, derived from their weapon called Seax, a knife, is first mentioned by the Roman author Ptolemy (about 130).

In 3rd and 4th century Germany, great tribal confederations of the Alamanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Franks, Frisians, and Saxons arose. These took the place of the numerous petty tribes with their popular tribal form of government. With the exceptions of the Saxons all these confederations were ruled by kings; the Saxons were divided into a number of independent bodies under different chiefs, and in time of war these chieftains drew lots. This leader the other chiefs followed until the war ended.

In the third and fourth centuries the Saxons fought their way victoriously towards the west, and their name was given to the great tribal confederation that stretched towards the west exactly to the former boundary of the Roman Empire, consequently almost to the Rhine. Only a small strip of land on the right bank of the Rhine remained to the Frankish tribe. Towards the south the Saxons pushed as far as the Harz Mountains and the Eichsfeld, and in the succeeding centuries absorbed the greater part of Thuringia. In the east their power extended at first as far as the Elbe and Saale Rivers; in the later centuries it certainly extended much farther. All the coast of the German Ocean belonged to the Saxons except that west of the Weser, which the Frisians retained.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Saxony

From then on, there are differing views about how rampant the Saxon spread was.  Certainly, it happened (language alone tells us that), but the exact timeline for the spread is not clear.  The Battle of Mt. Badon (whether or not fought by Arthur) is said to have occurred around 500 AD, which held back the Saxon tide for a generation.

After that, however, it was unstoppable.



The Invention of the Chimney

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Maybe this seems like a strange topic for a blog post, but I’m sitting here by my nice warm fire, typing into my laptop, while it’s about 15 degrees outside (F).  I am not a medieval person, but I hate being cold and get grumpy if my house is below 68 degrees (and with the fire, I can get it a lot warmer than that).

Saxon huts did not have chimneys.  They had fire pits in the center of the room and a hole in the roof for the smoke (ideally) to leave.  In the winter, then, people lived and worked in smoke-filled rooms, with a fire that constantly had to be stoked and was also a danger to the whole household.  Can you imagine raising a toddler in a hut like that?  Or the constant danger of a spark lighting the thatch?  “Buildings were square, rectangular, and round in plan. A central fire pit provided warmth and light, with smoke making its imperfect escape through a hole in the (typically) thatched roof above.”  http://www.octavia.net/anglosaxon/earlyEnglishArchitecture.htm

Typically, the Romans did have the knowledge of chimneys (for baking), and otherwise had a hypocaust venting system. “During the Roman era, some houses were warmed with interior pipes laid under floors and within walls, and bakeries had flues that piped smoke outside the building.” http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ny/retrospect/quick-history-chimneys-162580   They also used braziers, which could be moved from room to room and to which you could sit closer than a real fire.

“With the Norman Invasion (in 1066) came a new concept: two-story houses. An upstairs meant that you couldn’t have a fire in the middle of the floor anymore, and you needed to draw the smoke outside instead of straight up, so the fire was moved to a niche in the wall. (In stone houses, walls were so thick that the excavation of a fireplace did not effect the external appearance at all.) At first, holes were poked in the exterior wall to allow smoke to escape; eventually, flues were constructed to help control the downdraft. During the Gothic era, up to the end of the 14th century, some grander homes installed stone hoods to facilitate ventilation.”  http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ny/retrospect/quick-history-chimneys-16258

The first chimneys were constructed in castles.  The first one we know of is from the 12th century.

“If the later Middle Ages had made only slight improvements in lighting over earlier centuries, a major technical advance had come in heating: the fireplace, an invention of deceptive simplicity. The fireplace provided heat both directly and by radiation from the stones at the back, from the hearth, and finally, from the opposite wall, which was given extra thickness to absorb the heat and warm the room after the fire had burned low. The ancestor of the fireplace was the central open hearth, used in ground-level halls in Saxon times and often into later centuries. Such a hearth may have heated one of the two halls of Chepstow’s 13th-century domestic range, where there are no traces of a fireplace. Square, circular, or octagonal, the central hearth was bordered by stone or tile and sometimes had a backing of tile, brick or stone. Smoke rose through a louver, a lantern-like structure in the roof with side openings that were covered with sloping boards to exclude rain and snow, and that could be closed by pulling strings, like venetian blinds. There were also roof ventilators. A couvre-feu (fire cover) made of tile or china was placed over the hearth at night to reduce the fire hazard.

When the hall was raised to the second story, a fireplace in one wall took the place of the central hearth, dangerous on an upper level, especially with a timber floor. The hearth was moved to a location against a wall with a funnel or hood to collect and control the smoke, and finally, funnel and all, was incorporated into the wall. This early type of fireplace was arched, and set into the wall at a point where it was thickened by an external buttress, with the smoke venting through the buttress. Toward the end of the 12th century, the fireplace began to be protected by a projecting hood of stone or plaster which controlled the smoke more effectively and allowed for a shallower recess. Flues ascended vertically through the walls to a chimney, cylindrical with an open top, or with side vents and a conical cap.”  http://www.wtv-zone.com/Castle_Keep/castle_castle/Great_Hall/Hall-2/1.html


How did Latin get into English?


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It was the Romans right?

Well, ultimately, but not necessarily because they conquered Britian in 43 AD.

The Romans controlled Britain from 43 AD to when they marched away in the beginning of the 5th century.  During that time, they built roads, towns, forts, and established a government.  Upon their departure, the ‘dark ages’ consumed Britain, with the assistance of several invading groups (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, plus Picts, Scots, Irish).

The people who lived in Britain at the time were Celtic and spoke a language that eventually became what we know today as Welsh.  As the story goes, these invading groups pushed the Britons into Wales until a real wall (Offa’s Dyke) permanently created a barrier between them.

Latin had been spoken by the Romans, of course, and had entered the Welsh language as a result.  “These borrowed words are usually for things foreign to the British before the conquest, such as ‘pont’ (in Latin ‘pons’, a bridge), ‘bresych’ (‘brassica’, a cabbage), and ‘eglwys’ (‘ecclesia’, a church).”  http://tinyurl.com/74lgnl4

Percent of contribution of other languages to English

Latin had been the language of writing.  With the departure of the Romans, that also abated, until the coming of the Christian Church (first) and then the arrival of the Normans in 1066 (second).  The Normans were descendants of the Vikings but had adopted French as their language.  Thus, when William conquered England, he brought the language with him.  French is a ‘Romance’ language–a language derived from Rome, and thus, Latin.

For several hundred years afterwards, French was the language of the nobility, laid over a Saxon peasantry.  The Saxons spoke “English” (though interestingly, the Welsh still refer to the English as ‘Saxons’).  Over time, the Saxons adopted French words (and thus Latin words) into their vocabulary.

The French words didn’t necessarily replace the English ones, but coexisted alongside the Saxon ones or were adopted whole cloth:  “A lot of basic French vocabulary will look familiar to you: le restaurant (restaurant), la table (table), l’âge(age), lefruit (fruit),  l’hôtel (hotel),  l’animal (animal),  and so on. However, don’t be fooled by some words that may look or sound exactly the same as an English word, but don’t have the same meaning. For example, le collège is roughly equivalent to middle school in the United States, not university. Also, sale in French means dirty, and has nothing to do with discounts, and blessé(e) means wounded, not blessed.”    http://www.fodors.com/language/french/

30% of English words have a French origin with another 30% from Latin.  The borrowing from Latin (and Greek) is clear.  From a rap song I found on line:

“aqua” means water, “ami” means love
“bio” means life, “hemo” means blood
“geo” means earth, and “vita” means life

“pre” means before, and “fix” is to attach
“anti-” means against, “inter-” means between
“poly-” means many, while “homo-” means the same
“pseudo-” means false, and “trans-” mean across

“-ology” means study of, “-ism” is belief in
“-cide” means killing, and “-or” and “-er” mean demonstration
“-phobia” means fear of, “-kinesis” means movement


The Saxon, however, endured too.  For example, we have two words for ‘eat’:  ‘eat’ which is Saxon, and ‘dine’ which comes from the French word ‘to dine=diner’.  Another example is ‘go’, obviously Saxon, and ‘voyage’ from French.  “Many [Saxon] words had a single syllable, and compounding was a common practice. Most words with more than one syllable were characterized by a stress accent on the first syllable.”  http://www.ibiblio.org/lineback/words/sax.htm

Here is a list of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Anglo-Saxon_origin