Wednesday, June 16, 2021

There Goes the Neighborhood: The Genius of the Anglo Saxons by Izzi Howell

Whether English was your language of birth or acquired later in life, you are lucky to be a speaker of one of the world's most-used and prolific tongues.

But English is like the little engine that could. Brought to the British Isles by a small group of tribes on the eastern coast of Europe when the Roman Empire pulled out of "Britannia" after around 410 A.D., the invading Angles gave their name to the land and speech--what became "English" and England. The neighboring Saxons and Jutes also contributed to a very different culture from that of the previous nearly 400 years of Romanic Britain.

Following the arrival of imperial Romans, Britain had become a civilized jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire. But unlike the sophisticated Romans with their universal language and their engineering and organizational prowess, the new immigrants were mostly illiterate farmer-herders. While the Romans had excelled in stone masonry and decorative arts, the newcomers built wood-and-daub houses with straw-thatched roofs, raised grains, and herded sheep. Unlike their former rulers' body of literature, the new settlers' written language was meagre, with angular letters called runes in an early alphabet and a partially shared culture. Constantly bedeviled by subsequent raids and invasions by the Norse Vikings, many of those linguistic cousins joined the Anglo-Saxons and the native Celtic Britons, and settled down as well, and after centuries, added their dialects and skills to the mix. By the time that King Athelstan managed to unite the six Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into one, local dialects were beginning to coalesce into a language with stable vocabulary and its own literature.

But it is to a later Saxon king, King Alfred (the Great), that English owes much of its current status. Alfred was the first ruler to insist that all citizens speak and read English, instituting reading and writing in their own language for all children, and what is now called "Old English" became a full-fledged national language, like the Roman Empire's Latin, on its way to becoming a world language in an empire "upon which the sun never sets."

But leaving that accomplishment to a yet unborn Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Queen Elizabet I, Izzi Howell's The Genius of the Anglo-Saxons (Genius of the Ancients) (Crabtree Publishing, 2019) goes on to discuss the other contributions of the Anglo-Saxons--their early version of local democracy and royal oversight through their powerful Witans (groups of powerful and wise local leaders who could even unseat a king), their system of laws, their citizen-soldiers, the Burh, their skills at metal working and penchant for shipbuilding and wide trading--all set the scene for the importance of this small group of early immigrant people whose influence ultimately helped created a vast empire.

Ample color photos of Saxon fabrics, goldsmithery, and graphic arts--jewelry and weapon-making--as well as the household arts of village life, fill these pages divided into sections on food, laws, weapons and armor, and social life in this fascinating book, part of The Genius of the Ancients series, which includes ancient Egyptian, Mayans, Romans, Greeks, and Viking societies, all perfectly paced for middle readers just beginning to be interested in the wide world and including an appendix with glossary, timeline, index, and bibliography with websites for the young historians among us.

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