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History of Britain before Shakespeare

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  1. Introduction
  2. Before 450 AD: Celtic
  3. Between 450 and 650 AD: Defeat of the Celts
  4. Importance of Celts and Saxons from the point of view of literature
  5. Organization of the Saxon kingdoms
  6. Religious strife
  7. The Elizabethan Age
  8. Conclusion

Before 450 AD: Celtic
Originally the populations of England were mixed, partly Neolithic and Celtic, Celts of Britonnic variety (the Britons), hence the first name of the island, Britannia when it was conquered by the Romans who only were stopped by the Scots up north. Between 450 and 650 AD: Defeat of the Celts Important invasions by populations of Germanic and Scandinavian origin: the Saxons, the Jutes and the Angles who gave their name to this new land they had conquered, England the land of the Angles (Angleterre in French).

By 650 AD, the Celts had been entirely defeated and they had retired west to Cornwall and Wales, also north to the Western borders between England and Scotland (Cumberland), and finally to France where they settled in Brittany (little Britain). Importance of Celts and Saxons from the point of view of literature: the Saxons gave the island its first language which was a variation of German, German still being an important component of modern English. The Celts left very little in terms of language (mostly geographic names and a few words like ?dun? brown, often found in Shakespeare).

However, the Celts surrounded England geographically, not only on English soil (in Wales) but also in Ireland and Scotland where another Celtic branch, the Gaels were developing their own culture. In these remote areas they protected an important civilization, with a wealth of legends and epic cycles whose influence would be great later during the Middle Ages and beyond. Celtic culture, in spite of the loss of the language, language, would leave its mark on English literature.

Organization of the Saxon kingdoms: the kingdoms were allowed to develop for 400 years unmolested and they also left their mark. These conquerors were mostly looking for land where they could settle peacefully and farm the soil. The Saxons also had a complex system of unwritten laws where right of custom prevailed over written statutes (droit coutumier). The point is to judge in keeping with precedent similar cases and not according to abstract precepts. Part of this system was preserved under the name of the Common Law or Custom Law and remains to this day.

Other features of Saxon rule were loyalty to the war leader, a strong attachment to individual rights and prerogatives and a gift for practical organization. In this short summary, one can trace a few ?English? characteristics which are famous to this day: common sense, stolidity, a love for the concrete rather than the abstract, faith in men rather than written laws and a strong attachment to individual freedom.

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