You are on page 1of 5

LECTURE NOTES III

ANGLO-SAXON LITERATURE
Sources:
Primary Sources:
Anonymous, Beowulf, ed. Wren, C.L. (London: Harrap, 1953)
Anonymous, Beowulf, modern English version in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, ed.
Kermode, F., J. Hollander et al., (Oxford: OUP, 1973), pp. 20-98
Assers Life of King Alfred, Trans. S. Keynes, M. Lapidge, Penguin, 1983
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Trans.L.Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990
Caedmons Hymn, both versions in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, ed. Kermode, F.,
J. Hollander et al., (Oxford: OUP, 1973), pp. 19-20
Secondary sources:
Baugh, A.C., ed., A Literary History of England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948), pp. 3105
Daiches, D., A Critical History of English Literature, vol.1 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1969),
pp. 3-30
Day, M.S., A History of English Literature to Sixteen Sixty (Doubleday, 1963), pp.39-45
Fletcher, R.H., A History of English Literature (Boston: Badger, 2007 [1919]), pp. 35-52
Moody, W.V., Lovett, R. M., History of English Literature (New York: Scribner, 1918), pp, 1-22
Wren, C.L., Introduction.Beowulf (London: Harrap, 1953), pp. 9-84

A. Historical Background:
1. The Anglo-Saxon invasions and their organization:
- [see detailed account in Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Bk.I, 15; 25].
- beginning with the 5th c. England was invaded by Germanic tribes:
The Jutes : Kent, Isle of Wight
The Saxons: Essex, Sussex, Wessex
The Angles: East Anglia, Middle Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria
- after their invasion, the Anglo-Saxons settled down into seven kingdoms [Heptarchy] that began
to fight for supremacy
- he most important kkingdoms that emerged were
- Mercia under King Offa
- Wessex under King Alfred the Great
2. The Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity:
(i) The Celtic mission:
- After St. Patrick converted the Irish (5th c), Ireland becomes a center of Christian spirituality
and missionarism.
- Sister monasteries houses
- 6th c. Columba (Iona)
- 7th c. Aidan (Lindisfarne)
- 8th c. Bede (Jarrow and Wearmouth)
(ii) The Roman [Gregoria] mission:
- 6th c. (597) a mission was sent by Gregory the Great led by St Augustine. In Kent he converted
Ethelred, whose Frankish wife, Ethelberga, was already a christian

- later, Paulinus converted king Edwin (Northumbria)


- major centres: Canterbury and Glastonbury
- 7th c. Theodore of Tarsus, Hadrian, Benedict Biscop brought about important Byzantine and
Mediterranean influences and organized education.
- in the 10th .c. the Benedictine monks contributed to the manuscript tradition in England
- two authors best known for their [prose] sermons: Aelfric and Wulfstan

B. Anglo-Saxon literature:
1. General aspects of Anglo-Saxon literature
(i) Anglo-Saxon literature combines:
- The Germanic tradition of heroic poetry
- Christian themes, which are borrowed or adapted
- Latin and Greek themes, adapted by Christianity (classical elegy, eulogy, consolatio, the
ubi sunt theme, etc).
- Adaptations of style and conventions can be found working in both ways:
- Christian personalities are describes as warlike figures: Moses [Exodus}, Christ [Dream
of the Rood]
- Germanic heroes take over Christian features [Beowulf]
(ii) Purposes of Anglo-Saxon literature: entertainment, morality, history
- to entertain (the scop or bard)
- to praise or console
- to preserve important events, personalities, lineages (historical and exemplary, moral)
(iii) Style (written texts) marked by
- caesura into half lines
- alliteration
- kennings (fixed metaphors) : sea - riding place of the whale; feather- bird's joy, etc.,

2. Corpus of manuscripts
- Cotton Vitellius:
The Life of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander, Beowulf,
Judith
- The Junius Ms.,
- The Book of Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, Christ and Satan
- The Exeter Book:
- Christ, Juliana, The Wanderer, The Seafrer, Widsith, Deor's Lament
- The Vercelli Book:
- The Book of Andreas, The Fate of Apostles, The Address of the Soul to the Body, The
Dream of the Rood, Elene
3. Chronology:
First period: 7th-9th centuries
Poetry:
(a) Religious poetry (7th c.):

- Caedmon's school: Caedmon's Hymn; also: Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, Christ and Satan
- Cynewulf's school: The Fate of the Apostles, Christ (Ascension), Juliana, Andreas,
Guthlac, Elene)
- The Dream of the Rood
- The Anglo-Saxon Bestiary: The Whale, The Panther; The Phoenix (Lactantius)
(b) Courtly poetry:
- Widsith, Deor's Lament
(c) Heroic poetry:
- Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon
Prose:
- Anglo-Latin prose writings and translations (7th c.-9th c);
- 7th -8th c. The Canterbury School (Theodore of Tarsus, Hadrian)
- Aldhelm (rhythmical poetry in Latin)
- 7th c. The Jarrow and Wearmouth School (Benedict Biscop)
- 7th -8th Venerable Bede : Anglo Latin writer, monk (Jarrow); he wrote grammatical and
rhetorical handbooks; scientific treatises; biblical commentaries;
-The Ecclesisastical History of the English People: useful information concerning the life
and mentality of the Anglo-Saxons
Second period: 10th 11th centuries: the early Renaissances:
(a) The Alfredian Renaissance (9th-10th c.)
(b) The Benedictine Revival (10th c.)
(a) The Alfredian Renaissance:
- King Alfred the Great (871-900) of Wessex:
- a significant military leader, administrator and scholar
- Alfred's educational programme was meant:
- to link Anglo-Saxon culture to the continent, especially to the classical European
traditions of ancient Greece and Rome;
- to institute some continental legitimacy for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom
- to educate the clergy into classical and Christian culture
- to develop a complex programme of translations from Latin into Anglo-Saxon:
- Alfred wanted to develop a complex programme of translations from Latin into Anglo-Saxon:
- He himself translated various works:
Historical: (5th c), Orosius, Historia universalis (The History of the World); Venerable
Bede (7th c), Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum
Biblical: The Psalms
Theological: Gregory the Great, The Pastoral Care (De cura pastoralis): the duties of the
clergy; bishops must be learned in order to be able to teach others; St. Augustine,
Soliloquies (Soliloquia):
Bk I. Search for the presence of God through: hope, faith, charity and truth (sperantia,
fides, caritas, veritas)
Bk.II.on the immortality of the soul
Bk.III. of Seeing God (wisdom that accompanies the soul in its afterlife)
Philosophical: Boethius (6th c.): The Consolation of philosophy
Bk.I.: knowledge of the self
Bk.II.: the fickleness of Fortune
Bk.III.true happiness is in God alone
Bk.IV.: evil never goes unpunished nor good unrewarded
Bk.V. on man's free will which is consonant with God's foreknowledge

(b) 10th 11th c. The Benedictine Revival


- under King Edgar): the Benedictine monks wrote books on grammar, historiography,
hagiography (lives of the saints)
- two other authors contributed to the development of literature soon after:
- Aelfric [11thc.]: grammars, glossaries, homilies [sermons] (in Latin and in the vernacular)
- Wulfstan [11th.c]: Sermo Lupi ad Anglos [Wulfs sermon to the English]
C. Textual excerpts from the readings.
TEXT I
Caedmons Hymn [The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, ed. Kermode, F., J. Hollander et
al., (Oxford: OUP, 1973), pp.19-20]
- the poem was assigned to Caedmon [7th c.]
- it lists several attributes of the Godhead, insisting on those of creator, all mighty protector,
eternal, some of which were current in liturgy
Now we must praise
Of the Lord the power
The work of the Glory-Father,
The eternal Lord,
He first created
Heaven as a roof,
Then the middle-enclosure
The eternal Lord,
For men, earth

of heaven's kingdom the Keeper


and his Wisdom
as he of marvels each,
the beginning established.
the earth for the sons
the holy Creator.
of mankind the Protector
thereafter made
the Lord Almighty.

TEXT II
Beowulf
1. Basic information:
- Ms. Cotton Vitellius A XV
- Composed in East Anglia probably by a Danish cleric around 700, subsequently in written
form around 1000, in Late Wessex dialect, recorded by two scribes
- the earliest epic, it deals with Scandinavian characters: Geats, Danes, Swedes
- contains significant pagan elements in descriptions of customs, rites, deities
- Christian elements refer mostly to Old Testament [Cain, Fall of Angels, the Deluge], while
other [references to Christ, angels, holy relics, cross, etc] are missing
- influences: it is possible the English author may have known the Aeneid], perhaps Homer, as
well as religious Anglo-Saxon poems
2. Structure [narrative]:
- divided into two episodes: B. as a young warrior and B as old king
- elaborate complex of fact and myth
3. Characterization of Beowulf:
- Beowulf, the hero, is high-minded, courageous, gentle, and eventually sacrifices himself for
his people
4. Aim of the poem
- similar to the Roman Aeneid, exalting a past belonging to the poet's culture, but which is
expressed under the influence of a foreign civilization (as was Greece to the Latin poet Virgil)
- a picture of a heathen and heroic society coloured by Christian ideals of thought and deed
Excerpt: Beowulf [final part]

[] Then fashioned for him the folk of Geats


firm on the earth a funeral-pile,
and hung it with helmets and harness of war
and breastplates bright, as the boon he asked;
and they laid amid it the mighty chieftain,
heroes mourning their master dear.
Then on the hill that hugest of balefires
the warriors wakened. Wood-smoke rose
black over blaze, and blent was the roar
of flame with weeping (the wind was still),
till the fire had broken the frame of bones,
hot at the heart. In heavy mood
their misery moaned they, their master's death.
Wailing her woe, the widow old,
her hair upbound, for Beowulf's death
sung in her sorrow, and said full oft
she dreaded the doleful days to come,
deaths enow, and doom of battle,
and shame. -- The smoke by the sky was devoured.
The folk of the Weders fashioned there
on the headland a barrow broad and high,
by ocean-farers far descried:
in ten days' time their toil had raised it,
the battle-brave's beacon. Round brands of the pyre
a wall they built, the worthiest ever
that wit could prompt in their wisest men.
They placed in the barrow that precious booty,
the rounds and the rings they had reft erewhile,
hardy heroes, from hoard in cave, -trusting the ground with treasure of earls,
gold in the earth, where ever it lies
useless to men as of yore it was.
Then about that barrow the battle-keen rode,
atheling-born, a band of twelve,
lament to make, to mourn their king,
chant their dirge, and their chieftain honor.
They praised his earlship, his acts of prowess
worthily witnessed: and well it is
that men their master-friend mightily laud,
heartily love, when hence he goes
from life in the body forlorn away.
Thus made their mourning the men of Geatland,
for their hero's passing his hearth-companions:
quoth that of all the kings of earth,
of men he was mildest and most beloved,
to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise.