A culture that evolves and changes through time is a healthy culture indeed. From the early pagan warriors to the artisans of the Renaissance, the European world dramatically reformed. The literature of each era indicates the profound cultural innovations. The Anglo-Saxons arguably most important literary piece, Beowulf, is a story of a brave warrior who fights Grendel. Grendel is described as, A powerful monster, living down/ in the darkness(lines 1-2).
This affray demonstrates the timeless battle of good versus evil. The universal struggle is maintained in the medieval plight for an ideal of perfect chivalry. Knights were guarded with utmost respect and sincerity as Chaucers The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales mentions, There was a Knight, a most distinguished man, / Who from the day on which he first began / To ride abroad had followed chivalry, (lines 43-45). Although the fight of good versus evil is consistent, the moral code is held above pure strength in battle. The Renaissance period was more focused on ideals of intelligence and the arts rather than bravery or actions in battle. Sonnets and rhyming verse were very popular and the most famous were often love stories as was The
Passionate Shepherd to His Love. For example, the lines, And I will make thee beds of roses, / and a thousand fragrant posies (lines 9-10) express an ideal of romance and nature. The literature of these three time periods proves they are each very unique. However each culture stems from the previous development and are therefore similar. The Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Renaissance eras each possess characteristics of warfare, leadership, and religion that intertwine and reticulate among themselves.
The Anglo-Saxon period paved the way for years to come by forming a basic civilization to be shaped and molded into the world, as we know it today.
This era (beginning in 449 A.D. and ending in 1066 A.D.) was an age of fierce battles coupled with equally fierce loyalty to rulers and tribes. The epic poem Beowulf portrays the quintessential literary piece of the time by demonstrating both of these cultural elements. When the anonymous author tells, He/ And all his glorious band of Geats/ Thanked God that their leader had come back unharmed (lines 597-599), he or she is referring to the universal devotion expressed by the public to their gold-lord, king of tribe, earl or other ruling presence. Similar to the importance of Anglo-Saxon leadership, the chivalric loyalty to ones king is most apparent in the medieval period. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight express the kinship from a knight to his king when Sir Gawain offers, My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth; / and for that this folly befits not a king (lines 131-132). However, the Renaissance time period saw rulers unifying areas of land into nations. Instead of several different feudal lords, each one controlling only his estates (as some did have more than one), there was now a tendency to unite peoples under one ruler or monarch, and thus, a country was born.
The Anglo-Saxon period not only set the stage for widespread jurisdiction, but also the escalating fierce battles and fighting styles that occur throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. A look at their most famous epic hero, Beowulf, shows a culture that valued strength, will power and ferocity when the warrior is described as, the strongest of the Geats- greater/ and stronger than anyone anywhere in this world- (110-111). These values carried on into the Middle Ages when we begin to see a new code of conduct coming into play. This high ideal for the heroes of the time, now knights, is perhaps equally brutal on the battle field as those previous, but a new refinement has come to be expected. Consider an excerpt of Chaucers General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales as he gives a description of perhaps an ideal knight:
There was a Knight, a most distinguished man,
Who from the day on which he first began,
To ride abroad had followed chivalry,
Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy …
And though so much distinguished, he was wise,
And in his bearing modest as a maid,
He never yet a boorish thing had said
In all his life to any, come what might
He was a true, perfect, gentle knight(lines 43 – 68).
Along with a chivalric code of honor, the lingering sense of bloody violence remains as this excerpt states, And thus they fought all the long day, and never stinted till the noble knights were laid to the cold earth. (93, Malory). The two former eras show a people who deeply appreciate battle and the pursuit of heroic deeds, not great knowledge or understanding of the elements around them as seen in the Renaissance and some later periods. The Renaissance was a highly progressive time of advancements in the arts, literature, science, and education. This rebirth was much more modern than that of the English Anglo-Saxon period, although warfare and battles were still prevalent. Military innovations- primary cannons, new infantry tactics, and the royal standing armies combined to reduce the traditional dominance of the mounted feudal Knights. Knights were no longer important, as now there were armies. The Renaissance, Anglo-Saxon period, and medieval times each contained elements of violence and battle, although each era progressed and changed in their individual respective ways.
Along with the roles leadership and combat play in the cultures and societies of the individual time periods, religion and its interpretations change shape, yet cling to fundamental Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon period saw the great change of Christianity remolding the pagan cultures, although a belief in an impersonal and indifferent fate hung over their lives every day. The influx of Christianity began in the fourth century as the Romans began to accept it and introduce it into Britain. The impact of Christianity was clearly felt in the literature of the time. For instance The Seafarer reads:
‘But there isnt a man on earth so proud,
So born to greatness, so bold with his youth,
Grown so brave, or so graced by God,
That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl,
Wondering what Fate has willed and will do. ‘
These lines disclose several insights. We see the grim and overpowering ‘fate’ and the fear that was instilled into their culture. Yet close by we read an almost contradictory passage, … death / Can only bring you earthly praise/And a song to celebrate a place/With angels, life eternally blessed/In the hosts of Heaven. (Lines 76 – 80). Similarly, in Beowulf once again we read a description of Grendel, the evil monster, intrinsically woven with Christian elements as shown in the passage, Conceived by a pair of those monsters born / Of Cain, murderous creatures banished / By God, punished forever for the crime / Of Abels death. (20 – 23). Throughout the Medieval age Christianity establishes a firm hold. As Christianity begins uniting much of Europe in thought, the overwhelming presence of an impersonal fate is absent from the periods literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emphasizes the importance of Christianity by saying, No, by God /, said Sir Gawain, that granted me life, (line 346). The impact of Christianity develops into two churches during the Renaissance- the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Protestants and Catholics both suffered persecution and crimes of intolerance. The Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and Renaissance periods each contained Christian elements, yet differed in terms of beliefs in fate, and united Christianity.
The Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Renaissance eras each possess characteristics of warfare, leadership, and religion that intertwine and reticulate among themselves. Each time period shows evidence of Christianity, although the religion played a different role to each. Battles were prevalent in each era as they are today: Albeit, the true meaning of a hero varies through history. The Anglo-Saxon culture forms a basis of leadership among a small group of people called a tribe. By the Renaissance period, the small tribe has become a nation united under a monarchy. Throughout the evolution of early Europe from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, the only true constant has remained literature.