Music in Anglo Saxon England was a fairly significant part of social life. Two distinct types of music existed in Anglo-Saxon society, namely music associated with religious services, and secular music played on other occasions. The first type of music was usually composed and played by church composers at different religious occasions.
This was also the type of music to which most of the commoners had access to and would occasionally enjoy carol dancing in churchyards. The secular type of music was most typically played at the frequent feasts which were thrown by the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Music was also played by the poets in Anglo-Saxon England. Extant historical sources reveal that a wide range of musical instruments were used in the Anglo-Saxon society.
During the Anglo-Saxon rule in Britain which lasted from the 5th century until the 11th century, a wide range of instruments were used in England. During the early Anglo-Saxon days, more rudimentary instruments were used which had native Breton-Celt origins or Germanic origins. Towards the subsequent centuries, Anglo-Saxons came to admit significant influence from Continental Europe and consequently, many contemporary European musical instruments reached Anglo-Saxon England as well.
According to extant sources, a quadrangular instrument with multiple strings called crot or cytere by the Anglo-Saxons was popular in England. Towards the 9th and 10th centuries, this instrument was replaced by a harp. Both harps and cyteres have been found in the discovered Anglo-Saxon burials, underlining their significance.
Wind instruments such as horn were being used in Anglo-Saxon England by the 10th century. And by the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon music utilised a vast variety of instruments including the rebec, flutes, drums, bells and panpipes.
Music was a regular part of Anglo-Saxon feasts where soft music was played during dining to aid in digestion while more jovial music was later played by the guests assembled. In fact, it was a common tradition among the Anglo-Saxons for all guests on a feast to come together and then play the harp one after the other. Male members of the Anglo-Saxon nobility were expected to know how to play the harp and their failure to do so occasioned embarrassment at events such as a feast.
There is some evidence in historical sources that like the music traditions in many other parts of the medieval world, poets in Anglo-Saxon England frequently made use of an instrument to accompany their poetry recitals. Poetry comprising of heroic ballads and epic historical narratives was common in Anglo-Saxon England and the poets probably used harp’s or some other stringed instruments when reciting their compositions to a crowd.
Once the Church began to exercise significant influence over the Anglo-Saxon society, music became more and more associated with religious services. As a result, secular music especially one which could induce different emotional states was looked upon with suspicion by the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical offices. Despite this, music remained strongly associated with Anglo-Saxon tradition of feasting as well which ensured that secular music would survive despite the Church’s disapproval.