The earliest English documents

Chrysa Staiano AL6310 Hawaii Pacific University Dr. Ed Klein April 29, 2013 Revised February 04, 2014



The earliest English documents Introduction The term for literature has changed over centuries since it was first introduced by Middle English. Litteratura, directly from Latin, referred to texts made of (Greek) letters. This term replaced boccræft meaning “book skill” in Old English. Even though (what we know as present day) literature had been written for many years by 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson omitted this term in his A Dictionary of English Language. In Middle English, the term meant “a text that could move an audience or earn money from a publisher,” which is somewhat still true of the modern day definition (Scholes, 2011, p. 1). As emphasis on academic study has grown, the field has changed to differentiate between scholarly writing (which may move a few budding scientists) to writing more fiction. However, even the “fiction vs. literature” assignment is debatable today, which is signified by their separate sections in bookstores. University academic catalogues also convey this complexity which majors like English Literature and Creative Writing. The paper below aims to inform readers about the influential authors and their writings beginning in the period of Old English. The paper will also discuss discrepancies found in current literature about the pieces.

Many scholars consider the Old English period to have started in 449 as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians began to occupy Great Britain subsequently bringing an influx of English speakers to the land. Even 449 is debatable though as “migrations doubtless began earlier” (Algeo, 2010, p. 78). Burnley (2000) suggests that the Old English period started a few years later, in roughly 700 (p. 1). It is around this time that the first piece of English literature was written: Cædmon’s Hymn (modern English Caedmon) in the late seventh century. Other writings followed, but this small number in no way indicates their level of complexity or value.



Writings like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and historical poetry are some of the only sources of information from that period of time. They also contained important literary elements like alliteration and themes that are still examined today. Through these writings, present day students and scholars may recognize similarities between the temperament of the people and major historical events of both past and present time frames. Caedmon is widely believed to be the first known author of the Old English period. Though the only proof of this is through Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the author of this paper can find no credible source to dispute it. That being said, just the association of Caedmon’s name with his work is an accomplishment because most pieces from this time period were anonymous. The works were also without titles, which made them even harder to identify. Titles were added only by editors in the Early Modern English times (Crystal, 2003, p. 13). Like Bede, Caedmon was a Northumbrian. For the majority of his life, he lived unrecognized as a cowherd at the monastery of Abbess Hild of Whitby. According the Ecclesiastical History, one night Caedmon embarrassedly left a party when prompted to perform some poetry, a common source of entertainment then. Sadly, he knew none. Later he received a divine intervention to perform Christian verses, even though they were completely unfamiliar to him. Caedmon followed these orders and wrote and performed songs until the end of his life. He died a peaceful and happy brother at Whitby with the “devout self-possession of a saint” (Marsden, 2004, p. 76). Like the works that would soon follow these, Caedmon’s Hymn was meant to be performed (sung) and not read as literature. Therefore, the piece was never recorded by Caedmon himself, but instead by individuals after him. The most likely candidates for translators were men



associated with the church, like monks because they were the most familiar with Christian writings. Because their duty was to spread the word of God, they were also likely aware of the story-telling traditions of the time. Caedmon’s Hymn was first recorded in the late seventh century (which is consistent with the time of Caedmon’s life) and then reproduced only a few years later. The earliest surviving versions of Caedmon’s Hymn, less than thirty in totality, are in the Old English Northumbrian dialect. The version provided in Ecclesiastical History is nine lines and is only a Latin paraphrase, for which Bede apologizes. In the Old English translation of Ecclesiastical History, the hymn is presented in the West Saxon dialogue (Marsden, 2004, p. 77). Vast differences between the Old English and Latin versions can be seen by even an amateur linguist, especially when it comes to grammar. What happened to Caedmon, factual or not, is considered a true miracle. Without question the content of Caedmon’s Hymn is surrounded by controversy as are all stories of humans with visions directly from God, like Joan of Arc. Disputes regarding Caedmon’s Hymn are further perpetuated by the fact that Bede is the sole source of information about Caedmon. As Bede lived from 673-735, it is unlikely he ever crossed paths with Caedmon even though they lived in close proximity to each other; Bede located at Jarrow from age seven and older. Dates for when Caedmon experienced his vision range from 657-680 (Burnley, 2000) and the precise 670 (Marsden, 2004). Regardless, the miracle either preceded Bede’s life altogether or occurred during his toddler years when he certainly was not writing. As Bede was one of the most learned men of his time (theologian, scientist, biographer and overall historian), his accounts are considered to be very accurate.



Unlike Bede, not all men were scholars throughout their entire lives. After his 878 victory at Edignton of the Viking tribes, King Alfred the Great became a learned man at age thirty-eight when he first learned to read and write. As Wessex’s ruler, he determined law codes, rebuilt monasteries, defensively fortified his kingdom and reorganized the military. But Alfred’s greatest accomplishment is his encouragement of education and the English language. According to Algeo (2010) Alfred ordered the translations of Pastoral Care (Pope Gregory), History (Orosius), Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius), Soliloquies (Saint Augustine) and Ecclesiastical History (Bede) (p. 83). Pastoral Care (Latin: Cura Pastoralis) is a guide on the duties of a bishop and makes recommendations about how to spread Christianity. It was selected for translation because King Alfred judged it as extremely important information for even the lowest-level clergyman. It also gained popularity through the name of its original famous author, Pope Gregory. Alfred himself wrote the preface to the translation, which makes it one of the oldest pieces of prose on record. According to Burnley (2000), Alfred placed a “prefatory letter” in which he explains why he decided to translate the work and “canvasses the collaboration of the reader in his educational plans” (p. 20). He also discussed the state of England before and after the Viking Invasion. The preface and translation were completed in the ninth century, roughly three hundred years after Pope Gregory had written it. Initially they were copied by Alfred’s own scribes and distributed to dioceses since Alfred considered this an all-important document. According to Burnley (2000), copies survive today in a half dozen manuscripts, two of which are from Alfred’s lifetime. The oldest believed version is found on parchment in the Hatton 20 manuscript, currently located in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Alfred had sent this manuscript to Bishop Wæferð of Worcester. It is known that the piece remained there for centuries because



glosses added in the thirteenth-century can be directly traced to a prolific Worcester scribe with particularly bad handwriting. This history of this manuscript is well documented. It was one of many collected by Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canterbury 1559-1575) and his assistant, John Joscelyn during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (pp. 20-21). Once in the hands of these men, the manuscript was borrowed by Lord Christopher Hatton, William Dugdale and Franciscus Junius for their own scholarly pursuits. Later, it was sold to Robert Scot, a London bookseller. In 1671 he sold it to the Bodleian, where it has remained ever since (Da Rold, 2010). The greatest epic poem surviving in Old English is Beowulf. Therefore, no discussion of documents from this time period can occur without a mention of this piece. Though Beowulf is certainly not the oldest piece on record, it is familiar to the current population, which signifies its consistent prowess throughout history. Mitchell and Robinson (2009) add that Beowulf is the “most sustained demonstration of the power and range of Old English poetry” which is why every modern reader and textbook cover it (p. 295). Beowulf is about a sixth century Scandinavian who aids the Danish against a monster named Grendal. Beowulf travels from Sweden to Denmark in order to kill the beast, who has been terrorizing Hrothgar’s kingdom. In a second fight Beowulf kills Grendal’s mother and then after fifty years as king of the Geats, Beowulf slays a monster. This final fight brings Beowulf to his own demise. Sources provide different dates for Beowulf’s composition and author(s). According to Burnley (2000), the Beowulf manuscript was written by two scribes between 1000 and 1010 (p. 270). The British Library’s official page generally agrees with this but notes that since the manuscript is without a date, age has to be calculated by analyzing the scribes’ handwriting. It may date back to 1035, the time of King Cnut (British Library, 2009). Burnley also



acknowledges this by saying that a recent analysis of errors made by one scribe were caused by a “misreading” of certain letters. This indicates that the scribe was copying from a certain Anglo Saxon script (likely to give rise to specific errors) which was only in use until about 750 (p. 271). As for author(s), there is wide debate about whether a single scribe or more than one copied the 3182 line poem. The scribe(s) could have also been the original author. In addition, Crystal (2003) offers debate about whether Beowulf is “a product of oral improvisation or a more consciously contrived literary work” (p. 11). Historians largely agree that Beowulf was first shared orally like others of its timeframe, but Crystal notes that with such complex narrative structure and metrical control, the poem could have been composed on paper and not orally. The first known author of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell, who acquired it in 1563. Nowell worked primarily as a cartographer but is widely known for his scholarship of Anglo-Saxon language and literature. He inscribed his name at the top of Beowulf and then bound it with a few other pieces to form the Nowell Codex. Next, the manuscript entered the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who possessed many other famous pieces. It stayed in the Cotton Family through the deaths of Sir Robert’s son Thomas (died 1662) and grandson John (died 1702). The youngest Cotton left the manuscript to “the nation.” It and all the contents of the Cotton Library were adopted into the British Museum in 1753 (British Library, 2009). Beowulf did not get there easily however. After the death of Sir John Cotton, it was moved to the Ashburnham house at Wessex for safekeeping. Ironically, a devastating fire occurred there on October 23, 1731. Beowulf was damaged but still intact unlike a few other works which were destroyed completely. After the fire, Beowulf changed hands and locations frequently, which diminished the quality of the pages. (Of course, the age of the manuscript has also contributed to this.) In 1845, it was finally placed in paper frames (British Library, 2009).



The Beowulf manuscript was not transcribed until 1815 when the work by Griumur Jonsson Thorkelin was completed. Thorkelin was an Icelandic scholar hired by the British Museum in 1787. He began his transcription immediately but lost it twenty years later in a house fire. He began again and his two manuscripts are now invaluable. Like the rest of the Nowell Codex, Beowulf remained at the British Museum until 1973, when it was incorporated into the British Library.

All of the pieces mentioned above and other surviving works of Old English stand not alone. Instead, they are part of four major manuscripts whose names are merely overshadowed by the most famous works found in them. The first, called the Junius Manuscript was originally attributed to Caedmon because its subjects correspond largely to what Bede attributes to Caedmon in the Ecclesiastical History. Therefore, Junius was first known as Caedmon’s Paraphrase and later, the Caedmon Manuscript (“Caedmon manuscript,” n.d.). However, during the late Early Modern English period to the early Late Modern English period, scholars determined the works in Junius to be not from a single author, thus ruling out Caedmon as the single source. According to Marsden (2004), the manuscript was compiled in the second half of the tenth century or the beginning of the eleventh (p. 130). It is named after Franciscus Junius, a Dutch scholar who published it in 1655 after four years of study. The pieces were originally given to him by James Ussher (Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh) in 1651. Today the manuscript contains four poems: Genesis, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan and is preserved under the label Junius 11 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The 2936 line Genesis is the most substantial work in the manuscript.



The second extensive manuscript is the Exeter Book. It is known by no other names besides the Latin Codex Exoniensis and its library identifier, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501. According to Marsden (2004), its name was acquired because it had been in Exeter, England before donation to the cathedral library by Bishop Leofric (p. 222). The manuscript was copied in 975 by a single scribe and then given before Leofric’s death in 1072. Exeter Book is the largest collection of Old English poetry that exists today. The most famous works found in this manuscript are: Christ I, Christ II, Christ III, Juliana, The Phoenix, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Whale, The Wife’s Lament, The Ruin and many Anglo Saxon riddles. Besides its length, the variety of the types of work found in Exeter Book are what makes it truly unique. The manuscript begins with long religious poems and then turns to shorter, more secular ones. The latter of these contains The Phoenix, which is the first example of Christian allegory. It is also comprised of narrative poems, wisdom poems, prayers and monologues. 94 total Anglo Saxon riddles are found here. They are mostly of religious themes but some are about everyday items of the time. These humorous pieces often have double meanings. The most popular riddle today is number twenty-five and translations are widely available. The riddle uses (translated) descriptions like wondrous creature, neighbor, stem, erect, stand up and dares, which cause readers to believe the answer is a penis (Burlney, 2000, p. 313) However, for conservatives, onion is also perfectly acceptable too. The answers to the riddles are mostly all provided in the original versions, yet some answers remain a mystery today. The Vercelli Book (Latin: Codex Vercellensis) is the third major manuscript remaining in Old English. It dates back to the late tenth century, though many of the pieces are believed to have been written earlier, such as Elene and The Fates of the Apostles by Cynewulf. Writing in the margins of the Vercelli Book indicate it was used for scholarship until at least the eleventh



century. “Vercelli,” (n.d.) says that the manuscript was likely taken to Italy by an Anglo-Saxon pilgrim enroute to Rome. Italy is where the manuscript remained as it was found in the northwest region in 1822 at the cathedral library. The manuscript took on the name of the city where it was located, Vercelli. Vercelli Book is hard to classify because it has a limited amount of intact works, which focus on a common theme: religion. The 135 folio manuscript is comprised of twenty-three homilies, which are also known as the Vercelli homilies. It is believed they were collected from different authors and then eventually copied by a single scribe. Other works include The Fates of the Apostles, Elene, Dream of the Rood, Andreas, the Vercelli Guthla (prose piece on the life of Saint Guthlac), and a fragmented homiletic poem. Besides Cynewulf, the authors of most of these pieces are unknown. However, Andreas is located directly next to Fates in the Vercelli Book, so the pieces are both attributed to Cynewulf. Dream of the Rood, the most famous piece in this manuscript has been credited to either Cynewulf or Caedmon. The final Old English manuscript is the Nowell Codex, which is often referred to as the Beowulf Manuscript because it contains this famous piece. The Nowell Codex is actually two manuscripts. The first one is named the Southwick Codex, but the entire manuscript is known by Nowell. The Southwick Codex got its name from a signature of ownership within the pages (Electronic Beowulf, n.d.). Southwick dates from the twelfth century and contains the Soliloquies of St. Augustine, Solomon and Saturn and fragments of the Gospel of Nicodemus and the St. Quintin Homily. The second section was probably written around 1000, but as stated above, the only date found in this manuscript is 1563, when Lawrence Nowell inscribed his name on it. Nowell contains the Life of St. Christopher, Wonders of the East, Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle,



Beowulf and Judith. It is currently located in the British Library, in London. The Beowulf connotation to the manuscript causes many of the other pieces to often get overlooked, but Judith is still widely known. According to Mitchell and Robinson (2007), stylistic features of Judith suggest it was composed early in the Old English period and that it may be associated with King Æthelwulf’s wife because her name was Judith (p. 314). Before the fire in 1731, Junius made a transcription of this piece, which indicates Judith became detached from its original manuscript because otherwise, it would have been included in the Junius Manuscript. This transcription is currently housed in the Bodeleian Library and present day readers only have access to the full version of Judith because of this transcription, as the fire damaged much of it. Mitchell and Robinson (2007) surmise that as much as nine hundred lines of Judith may have been lost. This is because Judith’s fitts (sections by Anglo Saxons) begin at number X, the Roman numeral for ten. However, nine sections of text would hold a very long preamble to a relatively short poem there afterwards (p. 313). It is also possible that sections I – IX were from a completely different work and had no relation to Judith. The age of the Old English pieces should never cause them to be mistaken for simplicity. Scholars actually claim them to be quite sophisticated, which is overlooked due to their narrow field of content. This is simply because the people living during these times just did not know that much about the world. In fact, Mitchell and Robinson (2007), claim it to be rather easy to classify the subject matter of all the pieces from this time (pp. 141-143): Poetry 1. Poems treating historic subjects: Beowulf, Waldere 2. Historic poems: The Battle of Maldon, The Battle of Brunanburh 3. Biblical paraphrases and reworkings of biblical subjects: the poems found in the Junius Manuscript



4. Lives of saints: Elene, Juliana, Andreas 5. Other religious poems: The Dream of the Rood; allegories The Phoenix, The Panther, The Whale 6. Short elegies and lyrics: The Wife’s Lament, The Ruin, The Wanderer 7. Riddles: various Anglo Saxon riddles 8. Miscellaneous: Charms, The Runic Poem, The Riming Poem Prose 1. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles 2. The translations of (selected by) Alfred 3. Homiletic writings: The Bickling Homilies (971), Lives of Saints (993-998) 4. Other religious prose: translations of Old and New Testaments 5. Prose fiction: The Wonders of the East, Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle 6. Scientific and medical writings 7. Laws, charters and wills

Despite a seeming abundance of documents, any serious researcher must ask him/herself: why do we not know more? There are many answers to this question, which mostly concern external history. All of these documents were written before the time of the printing press, so they were not easily reproduced. Once an original copy was damaged or destroyed, it was usually gone forever. Manuscripts were not written on durable materials, so they were more susceptible during long trips with scribes or transfers. Little protection could be given to manuscripts once they were considered to be in a final resting place. Documents had been moved from the Cotton Library proper to the Ashburnham building for protection, yet they were still accidentally burned on October 23, 1731.



The darkness surrounding Old English documents can be attributed to the oral traditions of time, during which poetry was performed by a scop and accompanied by music. Warfare posed a serious threat as well because monasteries, likely housing documents, were the first sites to be ransacked by invaders. Despite all the potential devastators, many documents from Old English are still in existence due to the care they received hundreds of years ago. Even nowadays, the documents offer enjoyment and learning benefit for current students, scholars and generations yet to come.



References Algeo, J. (2010). The origins and development of the English language. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. British Library. (2009, March 26). Beowulf. Retrieved from Burnley, D. (2000). The history of the English language: A source book. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education. Caedmon manuscript. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from Crystal, D. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Da Rold, O. (2010, July). Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20. The production and use of English manuscripts 1060 to 1220. Retrieved from Electronic Beowulf. (n.d.). Cotton vitellius A. xv. Retrieved from Marsden, R. (2004). The Cambridge Old English reader. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Mitchell, B., & Robinson, F. (2007). A guide to Old English. (7th ed.). Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing. Scholes, R. (2011). English after the fall. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press. Vercelli Book. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from