From the notices left us by Bæda in Britain, and by Nithard and others on the continent, of the habits and manners which distinguished those Saxons who remained in the old fatherland, we are able to form some idea of the primitive condition of those other Saxons, English, and Jutes, who afterwards colonized Britain, during the period while they still all lived together in the heather-clad wastes and marshy lowlands of Denmark and Northern Germany. The early heathen poem of Beowulf also gives us a glimpse of their ideas and their mode of thought. The known physical characteristics of the race, the nature of the country which they inhabited, the analogy of other Germanic tribes, and the recent discoveries of pre-historic archæology, all help us to piece out a fairly consistent picture of their appearance, their manner of life, and their rude political institutions.
We must begin by dismissing from our minds all those modern notions which are almost inevitably implied by the use of language directly derived from that of our heathen ancestors, but now mixed up in our conceptions with the most advanced forms of European civilisation. We must not allow such words as "king" and "English" to mislead us into a species of filial blindness to the real nature of our Teutonic forefathers. The little community of wild farmers and warriors who lived among the dim woodlands of Sleswick, beside the swampy margin of the North Sea, has grown into the nucleus of a vast empire, only very partially Germanic in blood, and enriched by all the alien culture of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. But as it still preserves the identical tongue of its early barbarous days, we are naturally tempted to read our modern acquired feelings into the simple but familiar terms employed by our continental predecessors. What the early English called a king we should now-a-days call a chief; what they called a meeting of wise men we should now-a-days call a palaver. In fact, we must recollect that we are dealing with a purely barbaric raceónot savage, indeed, nor without a certain rude culture of its own, the result of long centuries of previous development; yet essentially military and predatory in its habits, and akin in its material civilisation to many races which we now regard as immeasurably our inferiors. If we wish for a modern equivalent of the primitive Anglo-Saxon level of culture, we may perhaps best find it in the Kurds of the Turkish and Persian frontier, or in the Mahrattas of the wild mountain region of the western Deccan.
The early English in Sleswick and Friesland had partially reached the agricultural stage of civilisation. They tilled little plots of ground in the forest; but they depended more largely for subsistence upon their cattle, and they were also hunters and trappers in the great belts of woodland or marsh which everywhere surrounded their isolated villages. They were acquainted with the use of bronze from the first period of their settlement in Europe, and some of the battle-axes or shields which they manufactured from this metal were beautifully chased with exquisite decorative patterns, equalling in taste the ornamental designs still employed by the Polynesian islanders. Such weapons, however, were doubtless intended for the use of the chieftains only, and were probably employed as insignia of rank alone. They are still discovered in the barrows which cover the remains of the early chieftains; though it is possible that they may really belong to the monuments of a yet earlier race. But iron was certainly employed by the English, at least, from about the first century of the Christian era, and its use was perhaps introduced into the marshlands of Sleswick by the Germanic conquerors of the north. Even at this early date, abundant proof exists of mercantile intercourse with the Roman world (probably through Pannonia), whereby the alien culture of the south was already engrafted in part upon the low civilisation of the native English. Amber was then exported from the Baltic, while gold, silver, and glass beads were given in return. Roman coins are discovered in Low German tombs of the first five centuries in Sleswick, Holstein, Friesland, and the Isles; and Roman patterns are imitated in the iron weapons and utensils of the same period. Gold byzants of the fifth century prove an intercourse with Constantinople at the exact date of the colonisation of Britain. From the very earliest moment when we catch a glimpse of its nature, the home-grown English culture had already begun to be modified by the superior arts of Rome. Even the alphabet was known and used in its Runic form, though the absence of writing materials caused its employment to be restricted to inscriptions on wooden tablets, on rude stone monuments, or on utensils of metal-work. A golden drinking-horn found in Sleswick, and engraved with the maker's name, referred to the middle of the fourth century, contains the earliest known specimen of the English language.
The early English society was founded entirely on the tie of blood. Every clan or family lived by itself and formed a guild for mutual protection, each kinsman being his brother's keeper, and bound to avenge his death by feud with the tribe or clan which had killed him. This duty of blood-revenge was the supreme religion of the race. Moreover, the clan was answerable as a whole for the ill-deeds of all its members; and the fine payable for murder or injury was handed over by the family of the wrong-doer to the family of the injured man.
Each little village of the old English community possessed a general independence of its own, and lay apart from all the others, often surrounded by a broad belt or mark of virgin forest. It consisted of a clearing like those of the American backwoods, where a single family or kindred had made its home, and preserved its separate independence intact. Each of these families was known by the name of its real or supposed ancestor, the patronymic being formed by the addition of the syllable ing. Thus the descendants of Ælla would be called Ællings, and their ham or stockade would be known as Ællingaham, or in modern form Allingham. So the tun or enclosure of the Culmings would be Culmingatun, similarly modernised into Culmington. Names of this type abound in the newer England at the present day; as in the case of Birmingham, Buckingham, Wellington, Kensington, Basingstoke, and Paddington. But while in America the clearing is merely a temporary phase, and the border of forest is soon cut down so as to connect the village with its neighbours, in the old Anglo-Saxon fatherland the border of woodland, heath, or fen was jealously guarded as a frontier and natural defence for the little predatory and agricultural community. Whoever crossed it was bound to give notice of his coming by blowing a horn; else he was cut down at once as a stealthy enemy. The marksmen wished to remain separate from all others, and only to mix with those of their own kin. In this primitive love of separation we have the germ of that local independence and that isolated private home life which is one of the most marked characteristics of modern Englishmen.
In the middle of the clearing, surrounded by a wooden stockade, stood the village, a group of rude detached huts. The marksmen each possessed a separate little homestead, consisting usually of a small wooden house or shanty, a courtyard, and a cattle-fold. So far, private property in land had already begun. But the forest and the pasture land were not appropriated: each man had a right from year to year to let loose his kine or horses on a certain equal or proportionate space of land assigned to him by the village in council. The wealth of the people consisted mainly in cattle which fed on the pasture, and pigs turned out to fatten on the acorns of the forest: but a small portion of the soil was ploughed and sown; and this portion also was distributed to the villagers for tillage by annual arrangement. The hall of the chief rose in the midst of the lesser houses, open to all comers. The village moot, or assembly of freemen, met in the open air, under some sacred tree, or beside some old monumental stone, often a relic of the older aboriginal race, marking the tomb of a dead chieftain, but worshipped as a god by the English immigrants. At these informal meetings, every head of a family had a right to appear and deliberate. The primitive English constitution was a pure republican aristocracy or oligarchy of householders, like that which still survives in the Swiss forest cantons.
But there were yet distinctions of rank in the villages and in the loose tribes formed by their union for purposes of war or otherwise. The people were divided into three classes of æthelings or chieftains, freolings or freemen, and theows or slaves. The æthelings were the nobles and rulers of each tribe. There was no king: but when the tribes joined together in a war, their æthelings cast lots together, and whoever drew the winning lot was made commander for the time being. As soon as the war was over, each tribe returned to its own independence. Indeed, the only really coherent body was the village or kindred: and the whole course of early English history consists of a long and tedious effort at increased national unity, which was never fully realised till the Norman conquerors bound the whole nation together in the firm grasp of William, Henry, and Edward.
In personal appearance, the primitive Anglo-Saxons were typical Germans of very unmixed blood. Tall, fair-haired, and gray-eyed, their limbs were large and stout, and their heads of the round or brachycephalic type, common to most Aryan races. They did not intermarry with other nations, preserving their Germanic blood pure and unadulterated. But as they had slaves, and as these slaves must in many cases have been captives spared in war, we must suppose that such descriptions apply, strictly speaking, to the freemen and chieftains alone. The slaves might be of any race, and in process of time they must have learnt to speak English, and their children must have become English in all but blood. Many of them, indeed, would probably be actually English on the father's side, though born of slave mothers. Hence we must be careful not to interpret the expressions of historians, who would be thinking of the free classes only, and especially of the nobles, as though they applied to the slaves as well. Wherever slavery exists, the blood of the slave community is necessarily very mixed. The picture which the heathen English have drawn of themselves in Beowulf is one of savage pirates, clad in shirts of ring-armour, and greedy of gold and ale. Fighting and drinking are their two delights. The noblest leader is he who builds a great hall, throws it open for his people to carouse in, and liberally deals out beer, and bracelets, and money at the feast. The joy of battle is keen in their breasts. The sea and the storm are welcome to them. They are fearless and greedy pirates, not ashamed of living by the strong hand alone.
In creed, the English were pagans, having a religion of beliefs rather than of rites. Their chief deity, perhaps, was a form of the old Aryan Sky-god, who took with them the guise of Thunor or Thunder (in Scandinavian, Thor), an angry warrior hurling his hammer, the thunder-bolt, from the stormy clouds. These thunder-bolts were often found buried in the earth; and being really the polished stone-axes of the earlier inhabitants, they do actually resemble a hammer in shape. But Woden, the special god of the Teutonic race, had practically usurped the highest place in their mythology: he is represented as the leader of the Germans in their exodus from Asia to north-western Europe, and since all the pedigrees of their chieftains were traced back to Woden, it is not improbable that he may have been really a deified ancestor of the principal Germanic families. The popular creed, however, was mainly one of lesser gods, such as elves, ogres, giants, and monsters, inhabitants of the mark and fen, stories of whom still survive in English villages as folk-lore or fairy tales. A few legends of the pagan time are preserved for us in Christian books. Beowulf is rich in allusions to these ancient superstitions. If we may build upon the slender materials which alone are available, it would seem that the dead chieftains were buried in barrows, and ghost-worship was practised at their tombs. The temples were mere stockades of wood, with rude blocks or monoliths to represent deities and altars. Probably their few rites consisted merely of human or other sacrifices to the gods or the ghosts of departed chiefs. There was a regular priesthood of the great gods, but each man was priest for his own household. As in most other heathen communities, the real worship of the people was mainly directed to the special family deities of every hearth. The great gods were appealed to by the chieftains and by the race in battle: but the household gods or deified ancestors received the chief homage of the churls by their own firesides.
Thus the Anglo-Saxons, before the great exodus from Denmark and North Germany, appear as a race of fierce, cruel, and barbaric pagans, delighting in the sea, in slaughter, and in drink. They dwelt in little isolated communities, bound together internally by ties of blood, and uniting occasionally with others only for purposes of rapine. They lived a life which mainly alternated between grazing, piratical seafaring, and cattle-lifting; always on the war-trail against the possessions of others, when they were not specially engaged in taking care of their own. Every record and every indication shows them to us as fiercer heathen prototypes of the Scotch clans in the most lawless days of the Highlands. Incapable of union for any peaceful purpose at home, they learned their earliest lesson of subordination in their piratical attacks upon the civilised Christian community of Roman Britain. We first meet with them in history in the character of destroyers and sea-robbers. Yet they possessed already in their wild marshy home the germs of those free institutions which have made the history of England unique amongst the nations of Europe.