One of the excitements of studying this period is to realise how much of the Britain that we know today had its origins so long ago. Many of the fundamental characteristics of Western society took shape in these centuries. Out of the collapse of Roman civilization, new forms of social and religious organization emerged. The forging of ethnic and political identities brought into being the entities that we now call England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This paper will look the makeup of Britain in this period, considering the influences of the Celts, Picts, and Vikings to name a few. It will also consider the developing artistic, literary and religious culture that was growing in Britain and what influenced it.
By 600, less than half of Britain was under English control. The West and North still comprised Celtic states, which remained Christian, literate and in contact with the Mediterranean world. The Irish, still in many respects an Iron Age society, were developing a remarkable artistic, literary and religious culture; their overseas impact involved the colonization of western Scotland and missionary activity in much of Western Europe. The conversion of the English to Christianity was associated with the building of kingdoms, and with an extraordinary interchange between Germanic, British, Irish, Gallic and Mediterranean cultures which produced such outstanding works of art as the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Lindisfarne Gospels. With the growth of continental trade, ports were established and coinage reintroduced. Prosperity financed a rich monastic culture, both in Ireland and, rather later, among the English. During c.680-750, north-east England became one of the intellectual centres of Europe, and the English launched missions to their still-pagan relatives abroad. Kingship and government operated on an ever-widening scale, though tempered by the enduring realities of warrior societies: marriage-alliances, gift-giving, plunder and the blood-feud. In 850 Britain was still divided between several British and English states, while in Ireland provincial kingships were forming. But soon the political map was transformed by Viking invasions. The countryside and its inhabitants were being organised into more self-contained farming and parish communities, often under an emergent class of small proprietors. To a large extent, it was during 900-1100 that market towns, villages and local churches came into existence. Important though it was, the Norman Conquest of 1066 changed little of this fundamentally.
Students are brought into contact with fast-developing investigations, not least in archaeology and ethnology. They also have an advantage which students of later periods lack: because the written sources are limited it is possible to approach the subject (and the work of historians) in direct and sometimes original ways. Texts such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Beowulf and the other Old English poems, may be read in translation.