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It is difficult to find out about the lives of ordinary people in the early English kingdoms. Monks who kept historical records usually wrote only about kings and churchmen. Even then, most of the kings are just names to us. We usually know the dates of their reigns and battles they fought. But we have no pictures of them and little idea of what they were like as people.
All we have left are some of their possessions-armour, weapons, jewels, rings, and perhaps coins. Their wooden buildings and furniture have rotted away, so to imagine the halls kings lived in we must turn to the works of poets. Old English was mainly a spoken language. Only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon verse was written down and preserved. But luckly we have all 3,182 lines of Beowulf, a stirring tale of kings and warriors, composed in England probably some time in the eighth century.

‘The joys of the hall’

Beowulf, the hero of the poem, goes to help the Danish king and his followers, who are living in fear of an evil monster called Grendel. After a fierce struggle Beowulf overcomes the monster, and then dives into the sea to kill its mother in her under-water cave. Years later he becomes a king himself, and has to rescue his people from a terrible dragon, which destroys their homes with its fiery breath. The aged Beowulf slays the dragon in its lair, but in the struggle he is wounded and dies.
The story is a fairy tale, yet its background helps us to understand the way real kings, and their followers lived. For instance the Danish king, Hrothar, had a banqueting hall, which was a large barn building, made of wood. To celebrate Beowulf’s killing of Grendel, we are told that Hrothgar decorated its walls with golden tapestries and had agreat feast prepared. The guests drank toasts of mead, an intoxicating drink made with honey.
The evening closed with a visit from the queen, who carried a jewelled goblet round the hall for all to drink. The royal couple left to sleep in a separate chamber, but the king’s followers, or thanes, stadyed in the hall. ‘Benches were cleared away and pillows and bedding spread upon the floor’ .The warriors slept with their weapons close at hand, for’…it was their practice to be ready to fight at any moment’
This reminds us that there was more to a thane’s life than ‘the joys of the hall’. He had to serve and protect his lord at all times. Thanes accompanied the king when he rode out to hunt the stag, fox, and wild boar. They also went on longer expeditions, to fight wars and help keep law and order in the kingdom. A king’s power depended on the loyalty, strength, and courage of his thanes.

Kings and thanes

In Bede’s “History”, the Christian kings of Northumbria seem peace loving, almost saintly men. Priests and monks were honoured members of their household. No doubt this was true, but it is a rather one-side picture. Bede was not a fighting man. From Beowulf we get a more down-to-earth view of kinks surrounded by their warriors. In the poem we see how important it was for a king to have plenty of gold and precious things.
In return for their services, thanes expected to be given weapons, horses and other gifts; and also food and drink - ‘the joys of the hall’. The most valuable gift of all was land, the real basis of wealth and power.
From time to time each king called together an assembly of thanes, to discuss new laws, gifts of land and other such matters. Church leaders were also invited -; bishops, abbots of the larger monasteries and perhaps the king’s own priest. This assembly was called a Witan. The word means ‘wise men’, although not everyone who attended was necessarily wise.

Churls and thralls

The ordinary people in the English kingdoms farmed the land or worked in village trades. Most were freemen called churls, but there were also thralls, or slaves. From laws and other documents we can get some idea from of the way these ‘lower orders’ of society lived.
Many thralls were descended from the unfortunate Britons who lost their lands to the English invaders. In fact the word Briton was ofen used to mean ‘a slave’.
Churls were mostly peasant farmers, owning a hide -; a piece of land large enough to support a household. The size of a hide varied from place to place, but it was normally at least 50 acres. The churls and his family lived in a simple wooden hut, its roof thatched with straw, reeds, or heather. Inside there was probably one all purpose-room. In cold weather a fire burned in a open hearth and the smoke escape through a hole in the roof. Nearby there may have been outbuildings for storing grain and keeping tools.


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