According to the Venerable Bede, thefirst significant body of Germanic
settlers in England had been hired as mercenaries by the British Prince
Vortigern during fifth-century struggles for power among British Celts
that broke out when Roman colonial troops were withdrawn. After a falling-out with their employer, these Germanic warriors seized British territory in the south of England for themselves and brought their families over the English Channel to settle it. Archaeological evidence also reveals a gradual infiltration of Germanic peoples into England along the rivers of east central England, then a low-lying bayou country that would have been impossible to police.
Bede tells us that the Germanic settlers came from Anglian and Saxon regions of continental Europe, within the modern territories of Holland, Southern Denmark, and Western Germany. The settlers brought with them, in their heads, an extensive body of lore encoded in alliterative verse, including versified laws as well as historical and legendary narratives. Some of the settlers could use a runic alphabet to carve brief messages, mostly on wooden sticks, but writing was not used for Old English historical or literary material until the conversion to Christianity, when manuscript technology entered from Rome and Ireland.
Old English literature includes a number of works based on native Germanic legend, including the remarkable Beowulf, a complete epic peopled by half-Christian Germanic warriors. The interweaving of Christian elements with native Germanic materials in this work is so thoughtful and intricate that the two cultural strands are very difficult to unravel. Other epic poems in native style use imported Christian narratives. Two of the best, by a poet named Cynewulf, have heroic female protagonists. As in Celtic saga, representation of gender roles in Old English narrative may seem quite strange to a modern reader. In Beowulf, for example, Queen Wealhth…

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