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Anglo-Saxon Literature

8.1. General Characteristics

The Old English language, also called Anglo-Saxon, was the earliest form
of English. It is difficult to give exact dates for the rise and development of any
language, because changes in languages do not occur suddenly. However, Old
English was in use from about 600 AD to about 1100.
Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) literature refers to literature written in
Anglo-Saxon (Old English) during the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period of Britain,
from the mid-5th century AD 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.
A large number of manuscripts remain from the Anglo-Saxon period,
most of them written during the last 300 years (9th–11th century AD), in both Latin
and the vernacular1. Old English literature is among the oldest vernacular
languages to be written down, second only to Gothic. Old English began, in written
form, as a practical necessity after the Danish invasions. Church officials were
concerned that because of the drop in Latin literacy no one could read their work.
Likewise King Alfred the Great (849–899 AD), tried to restore English culture,
and lamented the poor state of Latin education. 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 and student-
oriented texts.
Not all of the remaining texts from the Anglo-Saxon period can be fairly
called literature, such as lists of names or aborted pen trials. However there are
many of them that can present a sizable body of work, such as 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; poetry.
Nearly all the Anglo-Saxon authors remain anonymous, with few exceptions.
Anglo-Saxon literature was divided according to various criteria. One of
the generally accepted classification divides it into Old English Pagan Poetry (449-
670 AD); Old English Christian Poetry (671-871 AD); Old English Prose (871-
1100 AD) (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 6).

8.2. Old English Poetry

Old English poetry can be divided into pre-Christian (pagan) heroic poetry
(of Germanic origin) and Christian poetry. Old English heroic poetry is the earliest

A vernacular language is the standard native language of a country or locality.

extant in all of Germanic literature. It is thus the nearest we can come to the oral
pagan literature of Germanic culture, and is also of inestimable value as a source of
knowledge about many aspects of Germanic society.
Old English heroic poetry falls into two categories: those poems presenting
figures and events of the so-called heroic age and those describing contemporary
events. The heroic age is a temporal construct that features people and tribes of the
early European migration age. Heroic poems are written in an elegiac tone. They
describe grim scenery: cliffs and swamps, grey waves crushing against the rocks,
monsters living in the swamps and forests. A grim imagination, a pessimistic and
sad world view led to the creation of these impressive pictures; we can recognize
the imprint of a people that lived in a harsh environment. The sea is admirably
described in many heroic or elegiac poems. The Anglo-Saxon poems have been
often compared with Homeric poems, as they also illustrate the features of the
heroic age (Maurois: 1970, pp. 70-71).
Old English poetry has survived for the most part in four manuscripts. The
first manuscript is called the Junius manuscript (also known as the Caedmon
manuscript), an illustrated poetic anthology. The second 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, and it is also a mixture of
poetry and prose. The Nowell Codex is part of the Cotton collection1.
Old English poetry had no known rules or system left to us by the Anglo-
Saxons, and everything we know about it is based on modern analysis. The first
widely accepted theory was by Eduard Sievers2 in which he distinguished five
distinct alliterative patterns. The theory of John C. Pope3 uses musical notations
which has had some acceptance.
The most popular and well known understanding of Old English poetry
continues to be Sievers’ alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent,
alliteration4, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It
consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme. 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, describing 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
The Cotton or Cottonian library was a library compiled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 - 1631). This
collection is the single greatest resource of literature in Old English and Middle English we have.
Eduard Sievers (25 November 1850, Lippoldsberg - 30 March 1932, Leipzig) was a German philologist, of the
classical and Germanic languages. He developed a theory of the meter of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse.
John C Pope developed a theory on the rhythm and tempo of Old English verse during recitation, together with
Andreas Heusler. His system takes the musical concept of the measure as its basis and states that four isochronous
(equally timed) measures are found in all lines. When a normal enunciation of the syllables in the half-line does not
fill the measure, Pope has suggested that the harp would be struck to fill in the rest in the verbal music.
Alliteration, in Old English poetry, is the repetition of consonant sounds in stressed or initial syllables. (Gavriliu:
2003, p. 143)

Old English poetry was an oral craft, and our understanding of it in written
form is incomplete. For example, we know that the poet, referred to as a Scop1,
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.
Most Old English poets are anonymous. Twelve of them 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.
Caedmon adapted the heroic vocabulary of the oldest English verse and the poetic
technique of traditional Germanic versification to a Christian purpose. Some
paraphrases or altered versions of his poems on biblical subjects are found in the
Junius manuscript: Genesis (Genesis A contains the first 22 chapters of the Old
Testament; Genesis B talks of the rebellion of the angels led by Satan); Exodus (a
paraphrase of the crossing of the Red Sea by Israelites); Judith (the story of a
Jewish heroine who helped her people defeat the Assyrians).
Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne2 (709 AD), is known thanks to William of
Malmesbury3 who talked of his performance of secular songs. Most of his Latin
prose has survived, but none of his Old English remains.
Cynewulf has proven to be a difficult figure to identify, but recent research
suggests he wrote his works in the early part of the 9th century, to which a number
of poems are attributed including The Fates of the Apostles and Helene (both
found in the Vercelli Book), and Christ II and Juliana (both found in the Exeter
The Old English poetry which has received 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 from the Cotton
Collection. 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.
Other heroic poems include 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, a west

A Scop or a bard was a highly trained poet, composer, singer, and harpist who served as oral historian, political
critic, eulogizer, and entertainer.
Sherborne is an affluent market town in North West Dorset, England. The town was named scir burne by the
Saxon inhabitants, a name meaning clear stream. It became the capital of Wessex, one of the seven Saxon kingdoms
of England, and King Alfred's elder brothers King Ethelbert and King Ethelbald were buried in its abbey.
William of Malmesbury (c. 1080/1095 AD– c. 1143 AD) was an English historian of the 12th century, born in
Wiltshire. He spent his whole life in England with his best working years as a monk at Malmesbury Abbey.

Gothic hero. These two poems have survived in fragments. Other two poems
mention heroic figures: Widsith and Deor’s Lament. Widsith is believed to be in
parts very old, dating back to events in the 4th century concerning Eormanric1 and
the Goths. The narrator, Widsith, is a travelling minstrel who wondered away from
his tribe and speaks of the princes who have given him presents. Some seventy
tribes and sixty-nine heroes, many of whom are proved to have existed, appear in
this epic poem. Deor’s Lament is a lyric, applying examples of famous heroes,
including Weland2 and Eormanric, to the narrators own case. Deor is taken up with
stories of misfortune, which are brought forward in illustration of the poet’s
troubles. The strophic form is preserved throughout and, except in the last fifteen
lines, which seem to have been somewhat remodelled, each strophe ends with a
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains various heroic poems inserted
throughout. The earliest from 937 AD is called The Battle of Brunanburh, and
celebrates the victory of King Athelstan over the Scots and Norse. There are five
shorter poems: capture of the Five Boroughs; coronation of King Edgar; death of
King Edgar; death of Prince Alfred; death of King Edward the Confessor.
The 325 line poem Battle of Maldon celebrates Earl Byrhtnoth3 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.
Old English heroic poetry was handed down orally from generation to
generation. As Christianity began to appear, re-tellers often recast the tales of
Christianity into the older heroic stories.
While Beowulf, The Fight at Finnsburh/ Finnesburgh, and Widsith are
epic poems, Deor’s Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament/
Complaint, The Husband’s Message, The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Ruin
fall under the category of lyrical poetry. They are mostly elegies or wisdom poems
and some are remarkable in quality and expression.
Besides enumerating historical and fictional characters, Deor’s Lament
contains the story of Deor, a scop who was dismissed by his lord in favour of his
rival, Heorrenda. Deor takes consolation in the stories of other victims of fortune
such as himself. The theme of the seven-stanza poem could be the futility of life
and glory. Each of the seven stanzas ends with a refrain which is characteristic to
many Old English lyrical poems. (Gavriliu, Universitatea Dunarea de Jos, Galati,
2000, pp.11-12)
Wulf and Eadwacer is a 19-line poem found in the Exter Book. It contains
the lament of a woman who longs for someone named Wulf, a son or a lover. Like
Deor’s Lament, this poem also has a refrain. The woman is either a prisoner, either
the unfortunate wife of Eadwacer, and dreams of escaping and meeting her

Eormanric the Goth, a Gothic king, was defeated by the Huns.
In Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon legends Weland / Wayland is a smith of outstanding skill.
Earl Byrhtnoth was a royal deputy in Essex. In 991 AD he refused to pay the money demanded by the Viking
invaders and fought them to death.

beloved Wulf again. (Oltean, Dunăreanu, Universitatea Babeş-Bolyai, Cluj-
Napoca, 1977, p. 10)
The Wife’s Lament (written around 900 AD) is an elegy found in the
Exter Book. It contains the lament of a woman who is separated by her husband
because of his hostile family. She is forced to live in a cave in the forest and she
cries her sorrow while remembering the man she loves and hoping he also longs
for her. (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 12)
The Husband’s Message (written around 950 AD), also found in the Exter
Book, has come down to us in bad shape, as it has several burn-marks. It contains
the message of an exile towards his lady by means of runes carved in wood. The
husband tells his beloved to join him in spring, when the cuckoo sings. Melancholy
is not found in this poem, as in almost all lyrical Old English poems. (Gavriliu:
2000, p.12)
The Wanderer (725 AD), found in the Exter Book, is a sad song of a
young thane who has lost his lord and fellows in arms. He remembers them while
sailing on wintry weather and holds the pain in his soul, as he knows a warrior
should never show his grief. (Gavriliu: 2000, p.13)
The Seafarer (725 AD, Exter Book) is the only Old English poem that
deals exclusively with the sea. It is a poem of about the same length as The
Wanderer and resembles it in several passages rather closely. The sequence of
thought, however, is much less clear. The poet begins by reflecting on the miseries
which he has endured when travelling by sea, yet later on in the poem he says that
he has an irresistible impulse to try the seaman’s life. The Seafarer was
considered to have both pagan and Christian influences (the content was of heathen
origin, and a Christian conclusion was later added). It is the story of a seaman who
remembers all his suffering while at sea. Despite the hardships of the sea, he
remains attracted to it and always returns to it. (Gavriliu: 2000, p.13)
The Ruin (written around 700 AD), also found in the Exter Book, is a
fragment containing a lament written to the ruins of a Roman Celtic town. It is the
first of many English meditations on old stones. The city in the poem could be
Aquae Sulis, the Roman Bath. The Roman ruins were called the work of giants by
Anglo-Saxons, because the Romans introduced for the first time the art of massive
constructions in stone to Britain. (Oltean, Dunăreanu: 1977, p. 10)
Several Old English poems are adaptations 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.
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.

In addition to Biblical paraphrases there are some original religious poems,
mostly lyrical (non-narrative).
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 and speaking. It is divided into three parts: the
vision of the Cross, its speech and the concluding reflections of the dreamer. The
Cross is seen as a faithful retainer, but in order to obey its Lord, it has to become
his slayer. The poem has quite a few apocalyptic elements, like the idea that the
Cross is a salvation instrument before judgement.
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.
Old English miscellaneous poetry consists in minor pieces of popular
literature, not destined for recitation in kings’ halls, but spread among common
people. The Exeter Book has a collection of ninety-five riddles. The answers are
not supplied, and a number of them to this day remain a puzzle.
There are short verses found in the margins of manuscripts which offer
practical advice (charms). 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 also a group of mnemonic poems designed to help memorize
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.

8.3. Anglo-Saxon Prose

The amount of surviving Old English prose is much greater than the
amount of poetry. Of the surviving prose, sermons and Latin translations of
religious works is the majority. Old English prose first appeared in the 9th century,
and continued to be recorded through the 12th century.
The first known Anglo-Saxon prose writer was Aldhelm, the founder of
Malmesbury Abbey and later bishop of Sherborne. His works were written in Latin
and consisted in Letters and Riddles. His style was heavily decorated with
complex metaphors. (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 18)
King Alfred the Great (871 – 899 AD) tried to save his country from
barbarism and ignorance by encouraging his people to study at his schools and
monasteries. Scholars such as Johannes the Saxon, Grimbald from Flanders, or
Denwulf from Winchester came to teach in his schools. Alfred learned Latin and
translated into Old English many Latin writings. The translations of The Pastoral
Care (a manual for priests on how to conduct their duties), The History of the
World by Orosius, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, The Soliloquies
of Saint Augustine, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede
have been traditionally associated with King Alfred, but the style and language
used in each is so different that it is more likely that they were written by different
people, and even in different time periods. (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 19)
During Alfred’s reign, the capital of Winchester became a great cultural
centre. Alfred also collected in a Law Book all the laws existing in England at that
time. He is the initiator of the keeping of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first
historical record ever composed in English. (Gavriliu: 2000, p. 19)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was started in the time of King Alfred,
around 891 AD. These prose Annals started with Caesar’s invasion, up to the reign
of Alfred. Much of the information in these documents may be unreliable.
However for some periods and places, the chronicle is the only substantial
surviving source of information. After the original chronicle was compiled, copies
were kept at various monasteries and were updated independently. There are nine
surviving manuscripts (including two copies), of which eight are written entirely in
Anglo-Saxon, while the ninth is in Anglo-Saxon with a translation of each annal
into Latin. One (the Peterborough Chronicle) contains early Middle English as well
as Anglo-Saxon. It extends down to the death of King Stephen in 1154, and is the
longest of the Annals. The oldest (Corp. Chris. MS 173) is known as the Parker
Chronicle, after Matthew Parker who once owned it, or the Winchester Chronicle.
Aelfric (955 – 1020 AD), Abbot of Eynsham, wrote his works 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 saint’s 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, a Colloquium for
teaching Latin conversation, and a vocabulary (the first Latin-English dictionary).
A contemporary of Aelfric was Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York and
Bishop of Worchester. His sermons were highly stylistic. His best known work is
The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Wulf’s Sermon to the English) in which he blames the
sins of the British for the Viking invasions. He also wrote a number of clerical
legal texts: The Institutes of Polity and The Canons of Edgar.
Martyrology (information about saints and martyrs according to their
anniversaries and feasts in the church calendar) was written around the 9th century
AD by an anonymous Mercian author, and has survived in six fragments.
The oldest collection of church sermons is the one known as the Blickling
homilies, found in the Vercelli Book and written around the 10th century AD.
There are a number of saint's lives prose works beyond those written by
Aelfric: the prose life of Saint Guthlac (Vercelli Book), the life of Saint
Margaret and the life of Saint Chad. There are four saint’s lives in the Junius
manuscript: Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Eustace and
Saint Euphrosyne.
There were also many Old English translations of different parts of the
Bible. Aelfric translated the first six books of the Bible (the Hexateuch). There are
some translations of the Gospels; the most popular is the Gospel of Nicodemus,

while others include the Authentic Gospel of Matthew, Vindicta salvatoris,
Vision of Saint Paul and the Apocalypse of Thomas.
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
Byrhtferth of Ramsey, a monk who was contemporary to Aelfric and
Wulfstan, wrote two books, a Handboc and a Manual. These were studies of
mathematics and rhetoric.
Aelfric didn’t only write religious works. He is also the author of two
neo-scientific works, Hexameron and Interrogationes Sigewulfi, dealing with the
stories of Creation. He even wrote a grammar and glossary in Old English, called
Latin, and later used by students interested in learning Old French because it had
been glossed in Old French.
The legal texts written in Old English also come in great numbers. They
include 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.
By the 12th century they had been arranged into two large collections which
included the laws of the kings, beginning with those of Aethelbert of Kent, and
texts dealing with specific cases and places in the country. There is also a large
volume of legal documents related to religious houses.
There are a number of interesting medical works in Old English. 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
collection is known as the Lacnunga, and relies on charms, incantations, and white


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