Giants, dragons and Middle Earth: the Anglo-Saxon fear of the past

When the Anglo-Saxons discovered the Roman ruins and ancient burial sites that dotted the British landscape, they were gripped by wonder – and no little dread, as Tim Flight reveals

The west Cornish tomb Lanyon Quoit, which dates to the Neolithic period (3500–2500 BC). The Anglo-Saxons believed that ancient burial sites were cursed – and guarded by dragons. (Image by Dreamstime)

The long, hot summer of 2018 proved an unexpected boon to archaeologists by scorching away the grass to reveal long-forgotten monuments dotted across the British landscape. We in the 21st century know more than ever about the past. But that didn’t stop these new discoveries reinvesting the landscape with a sense of wonder.

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But how would our ancestors have reacted to the same phenomenon? An Old English poem might have left us a clue. Dating from somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries, Guthlac A tells the story of Saint Guthlac, a former soldier who became a hermit in the Lincolnshire Fens.

The poem tells us that, while Guthlac was attempting to find a hermitage, a burial mound of indeterminate antiquity was suddenly revealed to him. “That place in the land had been hidden from the eyes of men until the Creator revealed a barrow in the woods,” we’re told. On the face of it, this is a description of God giving Guthlac a helping hand when he needed it most. But could this also be a reference to hot weather burning away the vegetation to reveal a forgotten prehistoric site? Given the uncertainty of the poem’s date, it is impossible to say. Intriguingly, however, experts believe that the Anglo-Saxon period was marked by meteorological extremes, with temperatures periodically matching the highs of the 21st century.

Beware of the dragon

Guthlac’s barrow was far from a rarity in early medieval England. When the Anglo-Saxons began arriving in the British Isles in the fifth century, they found a landscape punctuated by prehistoric barrows and henges, and the stone remains of a more sophisticated architectural period: Roman Britain. What they saw filled them with wonder –and fear.

Barrows, in particular, terrified many, perhaps because so little was known about the origins of these ancient burial mounds. The Anglo-Saxons had no idea who erected them but they believed they were full of treasure – and cursed. Dragons, such as the one that battles the legendary hero Beowulf, were thought to guard the contents. (Hence the Anglo-Saxon proverb: “The dragon must be in the funeral-mound, wise and proud with treasures”). Stealing grave treasure was a bad idea, and it is this very act that causes the dragon in Beowulf to stir and slay the titular hero. In the later Anglo-Saxon period, prehistoric sites were used as places to execute criminals, suggesting that they continued to be seen as nefarious spaces.

Roman remains also inspired fear, but for different reasons. When the Romans left Britain, most of their settlements remained abandoned, even when the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Given these buildings’ magnificence, this may seem surprising. But the new settlers did not have an urban culture and built structures out of wood; cities such as Chester and Bath simply did not suit their way of life.

The ruins of great Roman cities like Bath reminded the Anglo-Saxons of the coming apocalypse

So Roman buildings were left to stand as grim monuments to the fall of a once-great civilisation. The Anglo-Saxons knew the identity of the civilisation that produced these great edifices, thanks to cultural memory and writers such as Orosius and Gildas. And this knowledge may have been responsible for the rich tradition of lament for the buildings’ fate that fills Anglo-Saxon poetry.

One poem, The Ruin, describes the remnants of a Roman bathhouse, and so has long been interpreted as an account of the Roman ruins at Bath (a city not resettled until the nun Bertana founded Bath Abbey in the late seventh century). The poem notes how “the roofs are fallen, towers collapsed, the barred-gate removed”.

The narrator imagines the city in its pomp, with “many meadhalls full of joys”. But, ominously, he also describes a former inhabitant as “decked with splendours, proud and merry with wine”. He writes that the structures were “the work of giants”, a reference to the belief that the great Tower of Babel was built by leviathans whose arrogance had got the better of them. This takes us to the crux of the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of the Romans’ downfall: they had become too sinful and so were punished by God.

Another Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, is even more unsparing in its description of a great civilisation’s fall. “The wise man must understand how terrible it will be when all of this world’s riches stand to waste,” it observes, “just as now variously throughout this middle-earth walls stand, blown against by the wind.” By contemplating the ruins, The Wanderer’s narrator is reminded of the coming apocalypse, when the world will be destroyed at God’s behest.

Building on the past

The Anglo-Saxons may have contemplated ancient monuments with a sense of foreboding, but they were also content to re-appropriate them. Some important early Anglo-Saxons were buried in or alongside prehistoric barrows, and the Roman missionaries who arrived to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons in 597 were given a mandate by Pope Gregory I to build churches over existing sites of communal importance.

One reason for this is that Roman remains provided useful masonry for the churches founded from the seventh century. But the policy of building on existing monuments can also be seen as an attempt to align the present with the past. It was a means of signalling the continuity of religious practices and of providing a visible demonstration of the new English church’s links with Rome. This also applies to the re-use of prehistoric barrows for Anglo-Saxon graves, which was surely an example of an immigrant population aligning itself with the past in order to signal its right to own and occupy the land.

Like us, the Anglo-Saxons were fascinated by history. The visible remains of the past helped forge a sense of national identity, just as they do today. Yet, with authorities such as the Venerable Bede advising that the world was already into its final age, archaeological remains of the former occupiers of the British Isles also reminded them of the coming apocalypse, and the ephemeral nature of their own achievements.

We do not share this sentiment, but perhaps we should. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned world leaders that they have just 12 years to save the world from “catastrophe”. The very increase in global temperatures highlighted by the report may lie behind the sudden reappearance of ancient monuments in summer 2018. Faced with such a looming threat, perhaps we should all take a leaf out of The Wanderer’s book when admiring archaeological remains.


Dr Tim Flight is a freelance writer specialising in medieval England. His book Basilisks and Beowulf will be published by Reaktion Books

Radio: For more on this topic, listen to Radio 3’s Anglo-Saxon Portraits series: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nf9g4

Read more about the Anglo-Saxons at historyextra.com/anglosaxons

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This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine