Old-English literature, also known as Anglo-Saxon literature, falls under the era from c. 500 AD to 1066 AD (up till the Norman Conquest of Britain). Now the truth is, in my beginning years as a student, I never found Old-English literature to be that exciting. In fact, I thought what Shakespeare wrote was Old English! (embarrassing laughs) Though as years passed, I realized words from our ancestors hold value and their history makes up our present. A study of Anglo-Saxon literature is the foundational study of English.
But what literature did they write when English was not fully standardized?
Let’s find out!
The Anglo-Saxon period witnessed the emergence of three types of poetry inspired by their way of life and origin. The heroic poetry represented their courage and barbarian valor; the lyrical poetry expressed their sorrows and suffering; while the religious poetry showed their optimism and faith in a power higher than them. A primitive people that Anglo-Saxons were, prose didn’t develop during the early years of native English, until Christianity arrived in England.
The Anglo-Saxons composed three kinds of poetry in the Old-English period. The foremost kind is heroic poetry. Tales of bravery and valor, courage and wars made up such epic poems. These people were a pack of a proud race. Their heroic poetry is a representation of their way of life. The next type is lyric poetry. Sea and voyages played a huge role in Anglo-Saxon civilization. These pagan worshippers witnessed hardships at the hands of nature’s fate. The tales of lament or loneliness, of wandering and suffering, made up lyric poetry. And the third kind of poetry is religious. While Christianity was still not introduced in “Anglalond” when they started composing literature, they had incorporated religious themes in their works following their beliefs. The Christian elements only began to appear later. In fact, a lot of older texts were rewritten to convert ordinary religious poetry into Christian poetry. Apart from these three kinds of poetry, the Anglo-Saxons composed riddles. The prose didn’t develop until King Alfred’s time. Although some references could be made to early prose writers, it was during King Alfred’s reign that English was given a standardized form and prose emerged as an important genre of Old-English literature. Yet all the prose that was produced couldn’t be considered literary for it consisted of bible translations, hagiographies, legal codes, transactional records, and chronicles.
|Heroic Poetry||Lyric Poetry||Religious Poetry|
|Features||– Alliterative and stressed verse|
– No external rhyme
– Use of Caesura
– Use of Kennings
– Heroic idealism
– Use of allusions
– Non-uniform tone
|– Elegiac mood|
– Intense and passionate
– Personal emotions
– Not morally-inclined
– Not tampered with by missionaries
|– Latin inspiration|
– Heroic styles adapted to biblical subjects
– Dramatic details
– Use of rhetoric
– Narrative verse
– Influence of classical models
– Didactic or religious passion
– The Deor’s Lament (has elements of both heroic and lyric)
– Finn and Waltharius’ Stories
– The Battle of Brunanburh
– The Battle of Maldon
– The Fight at Finnsburh
|– The Wanderer|
– The Seafarer
– The Wife’s Lament
– The Husband’s Message
– The Ruin
– Wolf and Aedwacer
|– Paraphrase (Genesis, Exodus, Daniel)|
– The Christ
– The Fate of the Apostles
– The Dream of the Rood
– The Descent into Hell
The Anglo-Saxons had the diversity of many Germanic tribes combined. They had a new language and different cultures merging together, and a passion to create literature.
However, it all sounds irrelevant to someone who sits in their comfortable modern room, with technologically-equipped gadgets and services at their disposal. Why would you want to read about these age-old works? (Except that you gotta pass that test!)
Well, reading a people, their culture, and their literature is a way of understanding our lineage. The language that we use today didn’t appear magically but took years and various forms to develop. While classical literature had already been in its golden age, English literature had just begun to take baby steps – wonderful despite it all. Poetry, being our natural inclination to express, was the first to emerge, followed by prose and drama.
So, in the article ahead we’ll look at the lifestyle and cultural shifts of Anglo-Saxon life, the three kinds of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the development of prose, and the existence of their manuscripts today.
(Note: All the notable figures and authors you come across in this article will be discussed in detail in the further notes of the Old-English Literature series by A Good Library. Here, we will only be providing a brief sketch about the same.)
Life and Background of the Anglo-Saxons:
Three Germanic warring tribes – the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons left their native lands somewhere around the 5th century and came to settle down in the distant land of Britain. Their barbarous but struggling life poured itself out into their literature. The perpetual hardships against nature – the North Sea, the constant battles, and the ruthless hunting was in contrast to their intense emotions and passionate sensitivity. With such paradoxes, they produced, though primitive, a great legacy of literature.
Just by a glimpse at all the heroic and lyric poetry they composed, we can observe the same paradox at work. They were a “marvelous mixture of savagery and sentiment, of rough living and of deep feeling, of splendid courage and the deep melancholy of men who knew their limitations and have faced the unanswered problem of death.” (Long 28) By understanding their lifestyle, we can also understand the basis of their poems, which is why these three kinds of poetry emerged from this period. Heroic poetry from their bravery, lyrics from their hardship, and religion from their hope.
“It is this great and hidden life of the Anglo-Saxons that finds expression in all their literature. Briefly, it is summed up in five great principles – their love of personal freedom, their responsiveness to nature, their religion, their reverence for womanhood, and their struggle for glory as a ruling motive in every noble life.” (Long 29)
Poetry from the Old English Period:
Anglo-Saxon poetry is derived from the early oral tradition. Poems were written down many years after they were performed. And for the same reason, their features are similar to that of oral literature. Most of the poems are alliterative with repetitive sound patterns and highly accented for better memorization. The use of caesura (a long pause in the middle of the sentence) gives the poem a martial rhythm. A minstrel or a scop then performed the poem. And to heighten the musical effect, they would often use a harp.
From allegory to allusions, and a few rhetorical devices, one of the most significant figurative aspects of Old-English poetry is the use of kennings. Kennings are like compound words that held multiple interpretations and were used to fit the rhythm. Examples – hronrad (whale-road) or swanrad (swan-road) – a description of the sea. Another example is banhus (bone-house) – a reference to the human body. These kennings allowed abstract notions to be communicated by using familiar words. Kennings were also representative of the old diction and decorative phrases, all for the sake of memorization and vivid descriptions.
The third-thousand lines of poetry that survived from the Anglo-Saxon period are preserved in four manuscripts namely – 1. MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, 2. The Junius Manuscript, 3. The Exeter Book (the biggest of all), 4. The Vercelli Book. These manuscripts are kept at different museums today in their original form and give us insight into our heritage which would have been long lost without them. Beowulf, our great epic, belongs to the Exeter Book.
(The background behind how these kinds of poetry developed is explained in the previous section of the article.)
The earliest and the greatest epic or heroic poem in our literature, Beowulf is a long narrative poem that tells us about the culture and society of the Heroic Age of the Germanic peoples. It is about great battles and heroism, fatalism and unwavering courage, of monsters and heroes. (You will find a detailed summary and explanation of the poem here.) The origin of all such stories is folklore. It is marked with all the features of heroic poetry. The authorship of Beowulf is still in question. Nonetheless, it remains to date the greatest epic in the native English language.
Waldere is a fragment of two leaves derived from the original Latin version – Waltharius. It was well-known on the continent for ages and can be found in a complete form in the Latin epic of Waltharius by Ekkehard of St. Gall. The Anglo-Saxon version has hints of Christian editing and has come down to us as the only preserved version. This poem is important from the point of view that it shows our ancestors’ ties with other Germanic peoples.
- The Fight at Finnsburh
It is a fragment of fifty lines, which was discovered on the inside of a parchment piece drawn over the wooden covers of a book of homilies. Considered a magnificent war song, it describes the defense of a hall by Hnaef with sixty warriors against the attack of Finn and his army. Unfortunately, we don’t know the end of the battle.
Widsith, also known as the Traveller’s Song, is a personal account of a minstrel’s life and his travels. It depicts the wandering life of a gleeman, singing through his way and receiving appraisals along with rewards for the same. It also gives us a glimpse that literature has acted as a paying profession since ancient times.
- The Battle of Brunanburh and The Battle of Maldon
Both these heroic verses appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Yet a contrast is that The Battle of Maldon is in the older epic manner that focuses on the individual hero despite his national origins, whereas the Battle of Brunanbruh lays emphasis more on the victory of Wessex against the combined forces of Norsemen, Scots, and Britons.
- The Wanderer
Quite similar to the Seafarer, the Wanderer falls under lyric poetry which pours out as self-expression of suffering and loneliness, or feeling and emotions. The Wanderer is a lament of a solitary man who had once been happy in the service of his loved lord. But after his lord’s death, his own exile acts as a reminder of the emptiness of all the joy and happiness his lord’s companionship had brought to him. Although it ends with moralizing, the poem portrays a personal, elegiac feeling of the writer.
- The Seafarer
Having the same melancholy tone, the Seafarer expresses its narrator’s self-pity and regret. The monologue of an old sailor who recalls the struggles and loneliness at sea is sympathetic as well as fascinating. It is also an allegory in which the troubles of sea life become the symbols for the troubles of life.
- The Wife’s Lament
Another elegiac monologue, the Wife’s Lament focuses on a wife’s separation from her husband and her forceful circumstance to dwell in a cave. Although the poem doesn’t clearly specify her exact situation, the feelings are intense with a note of personal passion showing a wife’s love and longing for her husband.
- The Deor’s Lament
The Deor’s Lament is another story of a minstrel/scop wandering sorrowfully to please his chief. While sharing his experience, he talks about the experiences of people more unfortunate than he and finds some comfort in this understanding. With the refrain – “His sorrow passed away; so will mine”, Deor becomes the one perfect lyric of the Anglo-Saxon period.
- The Husband’s Message
Like the Wife’s Lament, the Husband’s Message is of deep feeling and longing. The speaker is the piece of wood on which a letter is carved. It goes on to narrate its life story to the wife and then talks about the message carved on it. The husband, who is waiting across the sea, reminds his wife of their old love and vows and urges her to forget petty feuds, to join him across the sea.
Christian / Religious Poetry:
- Cædmon’s Hymn
The story goes that Cædmon was a lay worker in Northumbria and one day the voice of God came to him. This is what we today call Cædmon’s Hymn. His hymn praises the English culture and is also considered the first Christian religious poem from the period. It expresses his faith in God and is often considered an overtly religious piece.
- Cynewulf –
i. The Fate of Apostles
In this work, Cynewulf mediates on the adventures of various apostles after they dispersed to spread the word of the Gospel. What’s interesting is how Cynewulf has incorporated personal passages, giving the poem a hint of elegiac mood behind the religious setting. This poem is quite shorter than his other works consisting only of 122 lines.
Juliana is rather more conventional than his other works, following a typical saint’s life from the original Latin prose. There are not many changes to the original piece but it is considered his second-largest work. It was written majorly in English alliterative verse.
Elene depicts the search and discovery of the true cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine. It includes a lot of romantic elements of distant places and scenes. Cynewulf adds a personal note to this poem, signing his name in runes. It directs us to how he found the cross in his own heart.
iv. The Christ
The Christ is a didactic (preaching morals) poem divided into three parts. The first part celebrates the Nativity; the second, the Ascension; and the third, Doomsday. Cynewulf’s deep love and reverence for Christ and Virgin Mary are visible through his intense dramatic force. It also reflects the spirit of Latin Christianity.
- The Dream of the Rood
One of the most Christianized representations of Anglo-Saxon poetry is The Dream of the Rood. It has a lot of images through words and phrases for the figure of Christ and his cross. Again, one can find many references to Latin hymns and liturgy in the poem. Being highly visual in its depiction, The Dream of the Rood strikes a chord between the balances of joy and suffering, light and darkness, and earthy reality against heavenly bliss.
The Exeter Book is the largest collection of surviving manuscripts from the Old-English Period, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The manuscript was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric. Most of the poems that we have mentioned above are found in this book. Additionally, we would have lost the treasure of Anglo-Saxon riddles if it were not preserved in this book. It was written c. 970 AD.
“The anthology (Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501) was written down by a single scribe – no doubt a monk – in about 970. Most surviving Old English texts are in prose (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example) and there are only four known poetic manuscripts: the Beowulf manuscript in the British Library, the Junius manuscript in Oxford, the Vercelli Book in Italy, and the Exeter Book. There is no duplication of contents between the four codices. Though incomplete and damaged in a few places, the Exeter Book is the largest, the best preserved, and probably the earliest of them – the oldest book of English literature in the world, of incalculable value.”Source
Prose during the Old English Period:
It was only after the decline of Northumbrian literature that the era of prose began. With King Alfred’s vigor for the standardization of the English language, he not only translated numerous works but also developed The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
One of the reasons why prose couldn’t develop before King Alfred’s time was because it wasn’t necessary. The natural expression of a people usually pours out in the form of poetry. On the other hand, the prose is more technical and requires a higher level of standardized rules and sophistication. The clerical records and transactions were the only things that necessitated prose. For literary purposes, people preferred their native versions of English to compose verses.
Also, Christianity brought Latin to the land, which was considered immensely superior to the newborn English. It was the Christianization of England that led the natives to realize the importance of prose. To not be dominated by a foreign language and its culture, to replace the language of classics with the language of the natives was a mammoth task in itself.
King Alfred from Wessex, famous for his Danish conquest of England, thought that English had the same potential to become a renowned language, a language of his people. As much as the worth was given to Latin, he tried to promote and propagate English during his reign. He, along with many of his associates, undertook the responsibility to translate classics or Latinized literature into English. He also made English the legal/official language of his kingdom.
“Hitherto all education had been in Latin; now he set himself the task, first, of teaching every freeborn Englishman to read and write his own language, and second, of translating into English the best books for their instruction. […] Alfred and his scholars treasured the rare fragments and copied them in the West Saxon dialect. With the exception of Cædmon’s Hymn, we have hardly a single leaf from the great literature of Northumbria in the dialect in which it was first written.” (Long 45)
King Alfred’s Contributions:
|Translations into English|
|Orosius’s Universal History and Geography|
|Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People|
|Pope Gregory’s Shepherds’ Book|
|Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy|
|Saint Augustine’s The Soliloquies|
A Small Note about The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was started during King Alfred’s reign and was continued up till a century (or more) later his death. The Chronicle narrates the historical events chronologically from the times of Julius Caesar to the era of the Norman Conquest. From being a dry record of births and deaths of important people in history, it became a splendid account of stories under King Alfred’s influence.
Drama during the Old English Period:
NOTE: – I couldn’t find a single hint on the existence of drama in the Old-English period. The earliest drama in English literature belongs to the middle ages. But if you come across any information about the existence of drama during the Anglo-Saxon times, do let us know in the comments or in our inbox!
Notable Authors, Poets, & Other Literary Figures from the Old English Period:
Also known as the Anglo-Saxon Milton, the limited information that we have about Caedmon is taken from Bede’s History. It was said that he was a natural poet. Poetry came to him full of sweetness of its own accord. Despite being a layman, he would compose songs from the bits of information he would hear and sing them like a bard all over.
His most famous work is Hymn, also known as Caedmon’s Hymn. Another work, Paraphrase, which is also referred to as three poems in parts – Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, is considered of supreme importance. The Junius manuscript contains four Caedmonian poems. Caedmon’s poems fall under the religious category of poetry.
Popularly known as the Venerable Bede, he is considered ‘the father of our English learning.’ He wrote in Latin extensively, and his most famous work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (later translated by King Alfred into Old English). With his authority on the subject, research based on reliable sources (from Pliny to Gildas), and the ability to narrate history as a fascinating fabric of various woven tales, Bede’s History is still considered to be one of the finest works of the Anglo-Saxon period.
In 878, King Alfred became the overlord of the whole northern country. From being a great military strategist to a moral statesman, the patriot – King Alfred worked with swords as well as words. He didn’t want to develop his kingdom only in lands and territories, but in education and language too. He set out to take his kingdom to huge heights by propagating English, their native language, as the primary language – worthy of creating great literature just as classical Latin.
First, he gave his people the laws, the Ten Commandments, and ending with the Golden Rule, he established courts. He opened schools and brought in scholars from all over Europe to teach in them. He respected every scholar, and gathering such a team of associates, set down the task of translating all literature worthy of his time into English. (His contribution is listed in the prose section of this article.) After his death, the literature came to a standstill for almost a century, until of course the Norman Conquest.
The first Anglo-Saxon poet to sign his work through the means of secret runes, Cynewulf composed a lot of religious poetry. His poems are not only considered biblical but also mystical, devotional, and didactic. Works like The Christ, Juliana, The Fate of the Apostles, and Elene form the Christian base of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The Dream of the Rood, the Descent into Hell, Guthlac, and the Wanderer are other poems attributed to him. In Andreas und Elene, Cynewulf reaches his peak. His intense religious passion and deep contemplation are visible in all of his works. Anglo-Saxon poetry would not amount to this height without Cynewulf’s contribution.
Ælfric, the abbot of Eynsham and the great English scholar of the Benedictine reformation of the 10th Century, gave sermons in vernacular languages. He produced a somewhat abbreviated version of the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon English in carefully balanced sentences. His most popular work for the modern reader is the Colloquy which was written to teach Latin to boys in a monastic school. He used the dialogic form to make conversational language easy to understand for the students. These very dialogues proved to be an interesting glimpse for us into the daily lives of the Anglo-Saxons.
Contemporary of the great scholar Ælfric, Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York from 1002 to 1023, was more fierce in his approach. His famous sermon of 1014 – Sermon to the English, depicts the horrors brought about by the Danish invasion. His vivid expressions and intensely passionate oratory move the audience under his spell. His initial reference to the “doomsday” hangs over the entire sermon like a ticking clock. Wulfstan, along with Ælfric, is considered to be one of the primary writers who “extended the range of effective Anglo-Saxon prose.” (Daiches 29)
Anglo-Saxon literature chiefly consists of poetry and later development of prose. Their poetry was divided into three categories – heroic, lyrical, and religious. It reflected their native life and their faith. Deriving from an oral tradition, the poetry was accentuated and alliterative. To keep a steady rhythm, they used internal rhymes and their vocabulary is filled with kennings. In general, it was earnest with hints of fatalism and religious feeling. Their strong conviction and responsiveness to nature are visible in their literature. Soon after Christianity came to England, the prose started to develop in bits and pieces until it fully bloomed in the times of King Alfred. His extensive translations and dedication to English left us with gems of literature in Old English. The most renowned prose from these times is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Anglo-Saxon or Old-English period gave us our heritage in the form of Beowulf, the great epic, as well as a few notable mentions such as Widsith, Deor’s Lament, the Wanderer, and so on.