It is a true fact that the British are a people of mixed blood and therefore, English Literature is a “coat of many colours”. “To its making,” Compton Rickett says, “have gone the prismatic fancy of the Celt, the somber passion of the Teuton, the golden gaiety of France, Scandinavian greys, Italian purples.” Before going through the English Literature in brief let us discuss on the early inhabitants of Britain and the early invasions till the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons.
In the Paleolithic Age a rude primitive race lived within a strict limited area perhaps near the river Tames. They generally used tomahawk, a stone with a butt, and hand daggers with a hollowed place for the thumb as their weapons.
They were dark, curly haired, narrow-headed dwarfish men. They succeeded the Paleoliths. They speeded all over the country and possessed it until the Celts ran their keels ashore upon the gravels and sands of Kent.
The Goidels or the Gaels:-
Around 600 B.C. the first Celtic invasion came from the Central Europe. They are known as the Goidels or the Gaels. They drove the inhabitants to the West and North but ultimately intermingled with them.
Around 300 B.C. the second inroad of Aryan people took place. They are distinguished as Brythons. They largely settled in the South-West and West. Later they are known as Cymri or as the English called the Welsh.
The Roman Invasion:-
After conquering Gaul (France) Julius Caesar thought of an expedition to Britain. In 55 B.C. he invaded Britain but nothing was gained. Again in 54 B.C. he invaded for the second time but the success was very brief. No Roman general was to land on Britain. In 43 A.D. after the conversion of Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, Claudius, the fourth Emperor began seriously to conquest Britain. The conquest was completed by Agricola, the famous Roman Governor of Britain. The Roman rule in Britain lasted for about 350 years.
Before the Romans came the Britons lived in small tribes, and each one often fighting with its neighbours. The Romans did not kill the people they conquered, or drive them out. They treated them wildly. They made good roads and built towns, and built towns, and forced the people to live with place. The Romans were great builders, and the remains of some of their fortifications are still to be seen. The streets of the towns swarmed with citizens. The rich people built comfortable country houses for themselves to live in. Corn was grown in abundance, and besides, the tin mines of Cornwall, there were mines of iron. Christian missionaries arrived, and many of the people became Christians. In some parts the Latin language was spoken, but the conquered people for the most part continued to address one another in their own tongue. On the whole, the Romans tried to rule justly. They encouraged trade, and made good laws in their dominions in Britain as well as on the continent.
In 410 A.D. the Romans left England to protect the falling Western Empire against its barbarian enemies. As they went away the Celts of the Welsh and Cumbrian borders and the Piets of the Scotland swept down into the Romanized section of the population. They ruthlessly killed the unhappy countryman. They destroyed almost every trace of civilization. Every where chaos reigned supreme, none was there to control or guide the aimless nation. None was to protect the land from the further invasion.
THE COMING OF THE ANGLES, SAXONS AND JUTES:-
Beyond the North Sea were a different people living on the both sides of the mouth of the river Elbe. They were called Angles, and Saxons, and Jutes, speaking a language which was German, though it was not quite the same as the German spoken in Germany now. It is called Low German, and was more like the Dutch language. The Angles, and Saxons, and Jutes were as fierce as the Scots and Piets. They had small vessels and were hardy sailors. They came across the sea, plundering, and burning, and slaving, like the Scots and Piets. About the year 449, some Jute landed in the Isle of Thanet. Other chiefs with bands of armed followers landed in other parts of the island.
They did not conquer the country all at once. They first conquered the south-eastern part of England and gradually conquered all most all the North and West portion of England.
Introduction of Christianity:-
The conversion of the English people began with the arrival of St. Augustine in Kent in 597 A.D. He had been sent by Gregory the Great with a band of monks in order to achieve this missionary task. Monasteries were established over the whole country and Christianity spreaded all over England.
Beginning of the English Literature:-
The earliest English Literature is unwritten. It consists of songs and legends, heroic and stirring in Character. They were sung by the minstrel and gleeman, and handed down from one generation to another. It was after the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain the regular history of English literature began. The Anglo-Saxons brought to Britain their unwritten literatures which were sung by the minstrel. Addition and omissions were obvious as they were formed and reformed by the different minstrel. It was much later on, after the introduction of Christian sentiments in these poems. It can be said that the non-Christian had their stories and their songs but it was the Christian cleric who wrote them.
In four manuscript volumes we have come across the poetry of Old English Period what is known as Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Four volumes are-
1) The Junius Manuscript: It contains the poems of Caedmon; it was given to the Bodleian library by Junius, Librarian to the Earl of Arundel.
2) The Vercelli Book: It contains two of the signed poems of Cynewulf; it was found at Vercelli near Milan.
3) The Exeter Book: It contains two of the signed poems of Cynewulf; it was donated to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric, sometime after c.1050.
4) The Cotton Vitellins Manuscripts: They are collected by Sir Robert Cotton, and are now in the British Museum.