Writing: A Revolution in Saxon England

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So the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes all began landing in Britain in the 5th century. They sought their fortunes and plunders and eventually took control of all Britain. Why, then, don’t we have written records of these times? Why indeed? The answer is very simple: The invaders couldn’t write. Moreover, they didn’t really want to learn.

The Saxon tradition was a proud one, one that had many wonderful epics and songs. But they didn’t exist in written form because no one wrote them down.

The Saxons moved around a lot–being on the run from the Huns and the Picts and the Briton hit-and-run squads–and they didn’t have much call for lugging around implements for writing things down. So they didn’t.

This had two important ramifications:

First, the accuracy of certain accounts of events and such must be called into question because the telling and retelling of these accounts would most certainly have been embellished or at the very least misunderstood at least once in the generations before the Saxons started writing things down. (Remember the game Rumor, in which a group of kids takes turns whispering something that is essentially the same but can turn out to be something entirely different once the circle is complete?) In addition, the people who finally started chronicling the Saxon life efforts were writing about things that had happened years before they were born, a frustrating and ultimately unrewarding practice at best and a license for fiction at worst. So we are at the mercy of those who wrote but didn’t have all the facts. Yes, it makes for interesting reading much of the time, but also no, it doesn’t guarantee veracity. In the end, we must embrace questionable facts and figures, accepting them as possible while acknowledging that they might very well be created out of whole cloth.

Second, the increasing number of victories by the Saxons and the Angles over the Britons and the Picts and the Celts meant that the victors ruled the Island, for the most part. And in conquered lands, the conquerors ruled. So, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of not writing things down carried over into these conquered lands as well. The conquered Celts may very well have wanted to continue to write things down, but the conquering Saxons were likely to confiscate such writings and watch them go up in flames, much like the villages they laid waste in their drive west and north. In essence, written records in these areas stopped for a period of time.

What does it all mean? For all we know, nothing happened during those years when Saxon abhorrence of written records reigned supreme. This is probably an unrealistic assumption, but written evidence to disprove it does not exist. We have archaeological evidence, most of which is circumspect. We have written accounts composed after the fact, most of which must be regarded as suspect. We have oral accounts, all of which have been transcribed by writers who faced the same set of difficulties described above. We are left with a very incomplete picture of Anglo-Saxon life in the 5th, 6th, and early 7th centuries. Not until monks arrived from the Continent at the turn of the 7th century did creating written records come into favor with a majority of Anglo-Saxons. But when it did, the results were staggering.