Advertisement

Anglo-Saxon literature

From Academic Kids

Missing image
British.Library.MS.Add.33241.jpg
Opening pages to a 11th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript. Queen Emma of Normandy receiving the Encomium emmae, with her sons Harthacanute and Edward the Confessor in the background.

Anglo-Saxon literature (or Old English literature) encompasses literature written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) during the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period of Britain, from the mid-5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. These works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, riddles, and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period, a significant corpus of both popular interest and specialist research.

The most famous works from this period include the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of important early English history. The poem Hymn from the 7th century is the oldest surviving written text in English.

Anglo-Saxon literature has gone through different periods of research—in the 19th and early 20th centuries the focus was on the Germanic roots of English, later the literary merits were examined, and today the interest is with paleography questions and the physical manuscripts themselves such as dating, place of origin, authorship, and looking at the connections between Anglo-Saxon culture and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Contents

Overview

History of England
Missing image
Tudor_rose.gif


A large number of manuscripts remain from the 600 year Anglo-Saxon period and most were written during the last 300 years (9th11th century), in both Latin and the vernacular. Some of the earliest written vernacular literature in western Europe is in Old English, second only to Gothic). It began, in written form, as a practical necessity in the aftermath of the Danish invasions—church officials were concerned that because of the drop in Latin literacy no one could read their work. Likewise King King Alfred the Great (849899), wanting to restore English culture, lamented the poor state of Latin education:

"So general was [educational] decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could...translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe there were not many beyond the Humber" (Pastoral Care, introduction).

Alfred noted that while very few could read Latin, many could still read Old English. He thus proposed that students be educated in Old English, and those who excelled would go on to learn Latin. In this way many of the texts that have survived are typical teaching materials, such as rulebooks, sermons, and other student-oriented texts.

In total there are about 400 surviving manuscripts containing Old English text, 189 of them considered "major." These manuscripts have been highly prized by collectors since the 16th century, both for their historic value and for their aesthetic beauty of uniformly spaced letters and decorative elements.

Not all of the texts can be fairly called literature, such as lists of names or aborted pen trials. However those that can present a sizable body of work, listed here in descending order of quantity: sermons and saints' lives (the most numerous), biblical translations; translated Latin works of the early Church Fathers; Anglo-Saxon chronicles and narrative history works; laws, wills and other legal works; practical works on grammar, medicine, geography; lastly, but not least important, poetry.

Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous, with some exceptions.

Research in the 20th century has focused on dating the manuscripts (19th-century scholars tended to date them older than modern scholarship has found); locating where the manuscripts were created—there were seven major scriptorias from which they originate: Winchester, Exeter, Worcester, Abingdon, Durham, and two Canterbury houses Christ Church and St. Augustine; and identifying the regional dialects used: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, West Saxon (the latter being the main dialect).

Old English Poetry

Missing image
CaedmonManuscriptPage46Illust.jpg
In this illustration from page 46 of the Caedmon (or Junius) manuscript, an angel is shown guarding the gates of paradise.

Old English poetry is of two types, the heroic Germanic pre-Christian and the Christian. It has survived for the most part in four manuscripts. The first manuscript is called the Junius manuscript (also known as the Caedmon manuscript), which is an illustrated poetic anthology. The second manuscript is called the Exeter Book, also an anthology, located in the Exeter Cathedral since it was donated there in the 11th century. The third manuscript is called the Vercelli Book, a mix of poetry and prose; how it came to be in Vercelli, Italy, no one knows, and is a matter of debate. The fourth manuscript is called the Nowell Codex, also a mixture of poetry and prose.

Old English poetry had no known rules or system left to us by the Anglo-Saxons, everything we know about it is based on modern analysis. The first widely accepted theory was by Eduard Sievers (1885) in which he distinguished five distinct alliterative patterns. The theory of John C. Pope (1942) uses musical notations which has had some acceptence; every few years a new theory arises and the topic continues to be hotly debated.

The most popular and well known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. Another common feature of Old English poetry is Kennings (figurative phrases), often formulaic, describeing something in terms of another, e.g. in Beowulf, the sea is called the swan's road. Also frequently employed are Litotes, a figure of speech which is dramatically understated, often with ironic intent and effect.

Old English poetry was an oral craft, our understanding of it in written form is incomplete—for example we know that the poet (referred to as a Scop) could be accompanied by a harp—there may be other audio traditions we are not aware of.

Poetry represents the smallest amount of the surviving Old English text, but Anglo-Saxon culture had a rich tradition of oral story telling, just not much was written down or survived.

The poets

Most Old English poets are anonymous; twelve are known by name from Medieval sources, but only three of those are known by their works to us today: Caedmon, Aldhelm, and Cynewulf.

Caedmon is the most well known and considered the father of Old English poetry. He lived at the abbey of Whitby in Northumbria in the 7th century. Only a single nine line poem remains, called Hymn, which is also the oldest surviving text in English:

Now let us praise the Guardian of the Kingdom of Heaven
the might of the Creator and the thought of his mind,
the work of the glorious Father, how He, the eternal Lord
established the beginning of every wonder.
For the sons of men, He, the Holy Creator
first made heaven as a roof, then the
Keeper of mankind, the eternal Lord
God Almighty afterwards made the middle world
the earth, for men.
--(Caedmon, Hymn, Leningrad manuscript)

Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is known through William of Malmesbury who said he performed secular songs while accompaied by a harp. Much of his Latin prose has survived, but none of his Old Enlish remains.

Cynewulf has proven to be a difficult figure to identify, but recent research suggests he was was from the early part of the 9th century to which a number of poems are attributed including The Fates of the Apostles and Elene (both found in the Vercelli Book), and Christ II and Juliana (both found in the Exeter Book).

Heroic poems

First page of Beowulf, contained in the damaged Nowell Codex.
Enlarge
First page of Beowulf, contained in the damaged Nowell Codex.

The Old English poetry which has recieved the most attention deals with the Germanic heroic past. The longest (3,182 lines), and most important, is Beowulf, which appears in the damaged Nowell Codex. It tells the story of the legendary Geatish hero Beowulf who is the title character. The story is set in Scandinavia, in Sweden and Denmark, and the tale likewise probably is of Scandinavian origin. The story is biographical and sets the tone for much of the rest of Old English poetry. It has achieved national epic status, on the same level as the Iliad, and is of interest to historians, anthropologists, literary critics, and students the world over.

Beyond Beowulf other heroic poems exist. Two heroic poems have survived in fragments, The Fight at Finnsburh, a retelling of one of the battle scenes in Beowulf (although this relation to Beowulf is much debated), and Waldere, a version of the events of the life of Walter of Aquitaine. Two other poems mention heroic figures: Widsith is believed to be in parts very old dating back to events in the 4th century concerning Eormanric and the Goths, and contains a catalogue of names and places associated with valiant deeds. Deor is a lyric, in the style of Consolation of Philosophy, applying examples of famous heroes, including Weland and Eormanric, to the narrators own case.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains various heroic poems inserted throughout. The earliest from 937 is called The Battle of Brunanburh, which celebrates the victory of King Athelstan over the Scots and Norse. There are five shorter poems: capture of the Five Boroughs (942); coronation of King Edgar (973); death of King Edgar (975); death of Prince Alfred (1036); death of King Edward the Confessor (1065)

The 325 line poem Battle of Maldon celebrates Earl Byrhtnoth and his men who fell in battle against the Vikings in 991. It is considered one of the finest, but both the beginning and end are missing and the only manuscript was destroyed in a fire in 1731. A well known speech is near the end of the poem:

Thought shall be the harder, the heart the keener, courage the greater, as our strength lessens.
Here lies our leader all cut down, the valiant man in the dust;
always may he mourn who now things to turn away from this warplay.
I am old, I will not go away, but I plan to lie down by the side of my lord, by the man so dearly loved.
--(Battle of Maldon)

Old English heroic poetry was handed down oraly from generation to generation. As Christianity began to appear, retellers often recast the tales of Christianity into the older heroic stories.

Wisdom poetry

Related to the heroic tales are a number of short poems from the Exeter Book which have come to be described as "Wisdom poetry". They are lyrical and Boethian in their description of the up and down fortunes of life. Gloomy in mood is The Ruin, which tells of the decay of a once glorious city of Roman Britain (Britain fell into decline after the Romans departed in the early 5th c.), and The Wanderer, in which an older man talks about an attack that happened in his youth, where his close friends and kin were all killed; memories of the slaughter have remained with him all his life. He questions the wisdom of the impetuous decision to engage a possibly superior fighting force: the wise man engages in warfare to preserve civil society, and must not rush into battle but seek out allies when the odds may be against him. This poet finds little glory in bravery for bravery's sake. The Seafarer is the story of a somber exile from home on the sea, from which the only hope of redemption is the joy of heaven. Other wisdom poems include Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, and The Husband's Message.

Classical and Latin poetry

Several Old English poems are adaptions of late classical philosophical texts. The longest is a 10th century translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy contained in the Cotton manuscript. Another is The Phoenix in the Exeter Book, an allegorization of the De ave phoenice by Lactantius.

Other short poems derived from the Latin bestiary tradition such as The Panther, The Whale and The Partridge.

Christian poetry

Saints' Lives

The Vercelli Book and Exeter Book contain four long narrative poems of saints' lives, or hagiography. In Vercelli is Andreas and Elene and in Exeter is Guthlac and Juliana.

Andreas is 1,722 lines long and is the closest of the surviving Old English poems to Beowulf in style and tone. It is the story of Saint Andrew and his journey to rescue Saint Matthew from the Mermedonians. Elene is the story of Saint Helena (mother of Constantine) and her discovery of the True Cross. The cult of the True Cross was popular in Anglo-Saxon England and this poem was instrumental.

Guthlac is actually two poems about English Saint Guthlac (7th century). Juliana is the story of the virgin martyr Juliana of Nicomedia.

Biblical paraphrases

The Junius manuscript contains three paraphrases of Old Testament texts. These were re-wordings of Biblical passages in Old English, not exact translations, but paraphrasing, sometimes into beautiful poetry in its own right. The first and longest is of Genesis. The second is of Exodus. The third is Daniel.

The Nowell Codex contains a Biblical paraphrase, which appears right after Beowulf, called Judith, a retelling of the story of Judith.

The Psalter Psalms 51-150 are preserved, following a prose version of the first 50 Psalms. It is believed there was once a complete psalter based on evidence, but only the first 150 have survived.

There are a number of verse translations of the Gloria in Excelsis, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles Creed as well as a number of hymns and proverbs.

Christian poems

In addition to Biblical paraphrases are a number of original religious poems, mostly lyrical (non-narrative).

The Exeter Book contains a series of poems entitled Christ, sectioned into Christ I, Christ II and Christ III.

Considered one of the most beautiful of all Old English poems is Dream of the Rood, contained in the Vercelli Book. It is a dream vision of Christ on the cross, with the cross personified, speaking thusly:

"I endured much hardship up on that hill. I saw the God of hosts stretched out cruelly. Darkness had covered with clouds the body of the Lord, the bright radiance. A shadow went forth, dark under the heavens. All creation wept, mourned the death of the king. Christ was on the cross."
--(Dream of the Rood)

The dreamer resolves to trust in the cross, and the dream ends with a vision of heaven.

There are a number of religious debate poems. The longest is Christ and Satan in the Junius manuscript, it deals with the conflict between Christ and Satan during the forty days in the desert. Another debate poem is Solomon and Saturn, surviving in a number of textual fragments, Saturn is portrayed as a magician debating with the wise king Solomon.

Other poems

Other poetic forms exist in Old English including riddles, short verses, gnomes, and mnemonic poems for remembering long lists of names.

The Exeter Book has a collection of ninety-five riddles. The answers are not supplied, a number of them to this day remain a puzzle, and some of the answers are obscene.

There are short verses found in the margins of manuscripts which offer practical advice There are remedies against the loss of cattle, how to deal with a delayed birth, swarms of bees, etc.. the longest is called Nine Herbs Charm and is probably of pagan origin.

There are a group of mnemonic poems designed to help memorise lists and sequences of names and to keep objects in order. These poems are named Menologium, The Fates of the Apostles, The Rune Poem, The Seasons for Fasting, and the Instructions for Christians.

Old English prose

The amount of surviving Old English prose is much greater than the amount of poetry. Of the surviving prose, sermons and Lain translations of religious works is the majority. Old English prose first appears in the 9th century, and continues to be recorded through the 12th century.

Christian prose

The most widely known author of Old English was King Alfred, who translated many books from Latin into Old English. These translations include: The Pastoral Care, a manual for priests on how to conduct their duties; The History of the World by Orosius, a companion piece for Augustine of Hippo's The City of God; The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius; The Soliloquies of Saint Augustine; Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede.

While all of these works have been traditionally associated with King Alfred, the style and language used in each is so variable that it is probable they were done by different people, even in different time periods.

Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham, wrote in the second half of the 10th century. He was the greatest and most prolific writer of Anglo-Saxon sermons, which were copied and adapted for use well into the 13th century. He also wrote a number of saints lives, an Old English translation of the Rule of Saint Benedict, pastoral letters, translations of the first six books of the Bible, glosses and translations of other parts of the Bible including Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus.

In the same category as Aelfric, and a contemporary, was Wulfstan II, archbishop of York. His sermons were highly stylistic. His best known work is Sermo ad Anglos in which he blames the sins of the British for the Viking invasions. He wrote a number of clerical legal texts Institutes of Polity and Canons of Edgar.

One of the earliest Old English texts in prose is the Martyrology, information about saints and martyrs according to their anniversaries and feasts in the church calendar. It has survived in six fragments. It is believed to date from the 9th century by an anonymous Mercian author.

The oldest collection of church sermons are the Blickling homilies in the Vercelli Book and dates from the 10th century.

There are a number of saint's lives prose works. Beyond those written by Aelfric are the prose life of Saint Guthlac (Vercelli Book), the life of Saint Margaret and the life of Saint Chad. There are four lives in the Julius manuscript: Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Eustace and Saint Euphrosyne.

There are many Old English translations of many parts of the Bible. Aelfric translated the first six books of the Bible (the Hexateuch). There is a translation of the Gospels. The most popular was the Gospel of Nicodemus, others included the Authentic Gospel of Matthew, Vindicta salvatoris, Vision of Saint Paul and the Apocalypse of Thomas.

One of the largest bodies of Old English text is found in the legal texts collected and saved by the religious houses. These include many kinds of texts: records of donations by nobles; wills; documents of emancipation; lists of books and relics; court cases; guild rules. All of these texts provide valuable insights into the social history of Anglo-Saxon times, but are also of literary value. For example, some of the court case narratives are interesting for their use of rhetoric.

Secular prose

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably started in the time of King Alfred and continued for over 300 years as a historical record of Anglo-Saxon history.

A single example of a Classical romance has survived, it is a fragment of a Latin translation of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus (220 AD), from the 11th century.

A monk who was writing in Old English at the same time as Aelfric and Wulfstan was Byrhtferth of Ramsey, whose books Handboc and Manual were studies of mathematics and rhetoric.

Aelfric wrote two neo-scientific works, Hexameron and Interrogationes Sigewulfi, dealing with the stories of Creation. He also wrote a grammar and glossary in Old English called Latin, later used by students interested in learning Old French because it had been glossed in Old French.

There are many surviving rules and calculations for finding feast days, and tables on calculating the tides and the season of the moon.

In the Nowell Codex is the text of The Wonders of the East which includes a remarkable map of the world, and other illustrations. Also contained in Nowell is Alexander's Letter to Aristotle. Because this is the same manuscript that contains Beowulf, some scholars speculate it may have been a collection of materials on exotic places and creatures.

There are a number of interesting medical works. There is a translation of Apuleius's Herbarium with striking illustrations, found together with Medicina de Quadrupedibus. A second collection of texts is Bald's Leechbook, a 10th century book containing herbal and even some surgical cures. A third collections is known as the Lacnunga, which relies of charms, incantations, and white magic.

Anglo-Saxon legal texts are a large and important part of the overall corpus. By the 12th century they had been arranged into two large collections (see Textus Roffensis). They include laws of the kings, beginning with those of Aethelbert of Kent, and texts dealing with specific cases and places in the country. An interesting example is Gerefa which outlines the duties of a reeve on a large manor estate. There is also a large volume of legal documents related to religious houses.

Historiography

Missing image
Jrrtolkien2-sm.jpg
J.R.R. Tolkien was an influential scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature.

Old English literature did not disappear in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. Many sermons and works continued to be read and used in part or whole up through the 14th century, and were further catalogued and organised. During the Reformation, when monastic libraries were dispersed, the manuscripts were collected by antiquarians and scholars. These included Laurence Nowell, Matthew Parker, Robert Bruce Cotton and Humfrey Wanley. In the 17th century begun a tradition of Old English literature dictionaries and references. The first was William Somner's Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum (1659). Lexicographer Joseph Bosworth began a dictionary in the 19th century which was completed by Thomas Northcote Toller in 1898 called An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, which was updated by Alistair Campbell in 1972.

Because Old English was one of the first vernacular languages to be written down, nineteenth century scholars searching for the roots of European "national culture" (see Romantic Nationalism) took special interest in studying Anglo-Saxon literature, and Old English became a regular part of university curriculum. Since WWII there has been increasing interest in the manuscripts themselves—Neil Ker, a paleographer, published the groundbreaking Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon in 1957, and by 1980 nearly all Anglo-Saxon manuscript texts were in print. J.R.R. Tolkien is credited with creating a movement to look at Old English as a subject of literary theory in his seminal lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936).

Old English literature has had an influence on modern literature. Some of the most well known translations include William Morris' translation of Beowulf and Ezra Pound's translation of The Seafarer. The influence of the poetry can be seen in modern poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W. H. Auden. Much of the subject matter and terminology of the heroic poetry can be seen in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and many others.

See also

External links

Navigation

Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)

Information

  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Toolbox
Personal tools