Anglo-Saxon Literature

Anglo-Saxon literature, the literary writings in Old English (see English language), composed between c.650 and c.1100.

See also English literature.

Poetry

There are two types of Old English poetry: the heroic, the sources of which are pre-Christian Germanic myth, history, and custom; and the Christian. Although nearly all Old English poetry is preserved in only four manuscripts—indicating that what has survived is not necessarily the best or most representative—much of it is of high literary quality. Moreover, Old English heroic poetry is the earliest 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. The 7th-century work known as Widsith is one of the earliest Old English poems, and thus is of particular historic and linguistic interest.

Beowulf, a complete epic, is the oldest surviving Germanic epic as well as the longest and most important poem in Old English. It originated as a pagan saga transmitted orally from one generation to the next; court poets known as scops were the bearers of tribal history and tradition. The version of Beowulf that is extant was composed by a Christian poet, probably early in the 8th cent. However, intermittent Christian themes found in the epic, although affecting in themselves, are not integrated into the essentially pagan tale. The epic celebrates the hero's fearless and bloody struggles against monsters and extols courage, honor, and loyalty as the chief virtues in a world of brutal force.

The elegiac theme, a strong undercurrent in Beowulf, is central to Deor, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and other poems. In these works, a happy past is contrasted with a precarious and desolate present. The Finnsburgh fragment, The Battle of Maldon, and The Battle of Brunanburh (see Maldon and Brunanburh), which are all based on historical episodes, mainly celebrate great heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. In this heroic poetry, all of which is anonymous, greatness is measured less by victory than by perfect loyalty and courage in extremity.

Much of the Old English Christian poetry is marked by the simple belief of a relatively unsophisticated Christianity; the names of two authors are known. Cædmon—whose story is charmingly told by the Venerable Bede, who also records a few lines of his poetry—is the earliest known English poet. Although the body of his work has been lost, the school of Cædmon is responsible for poetic narrative versions of biblical stories, the most dramatic of which is probably Genesis B.

Cynewulf, a later poet, signed the poems Elene, Juliana, and The Fates of the Apostles; no more is known of him. The finest poem of the school of Cynewulf is The Dream of the Rood, the first known example of the dream vision, a genre later popular in Middle English literature. Other Old English poems include various riddles, charms (magic cures, pagan in origin), saints' lives, gnomic poetry, and other Christian and heroic verse.

The verse form for Old English poetry is an alliterative line of four stressed syllables and an unfixed number of unstressed syllables broken by a caesura and arranged in one of several patterns. Lines are conventionally end-stopped and unrhymed. The form lends itself to narrative; there is no lyric poetry in Old English. A stylistic feature in this heroic poetry is the kenning, a figurative phrase, often a metaphorical compound, used as a synonym for a simple noun, e.g., the repeated use of the phrases whale-road for sea and twilight-spoiler for dragon (see Old Norse literature).

Prose

Old English literary prose dates from the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Prose was written in Latin before the reign of King Alfred (reigned 871–99), who worked to revitalize English culture after the devastating Danish invasions ended. As hardly anyone could read Latin, Alfred translated or had translated the most important Latin texts. He also encouraged writing in the vernacular. Didactic, devotional, and informative prose was written, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably begun in Alfred's time as an historical record, continued for over three centuries. Two preeminent Old English prose writers were Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, and his contemporary Wulfstan, archbishop of York. Their sermons (written in the late 10th or early 11th cent.) set a standard for homiletics.

A great deal of Latin prose and poetry was written during the Anglo-Saxon period. Of historic as well as literary interest, it provides an excellent record of the founding and early development of the church in England and reflects the introduction and early influence there of Latin-European culture.

Bibliography

See G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 vol., 1932–53); G. K. Anderson, The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons (1949, repr. 1962); S. B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (1965); C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (1967); J. D. Niles, Old English Literature in Context (1981).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature
Gilbert Highet.
Oxford University Press, 1985
A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Three Medieval Centuries of Literature in England, 1100-1400
Charles Sears Baldwin.
Little, Brown, 1932
Librarian’s tip: Includes "The Epic Centuries: Anglo-Saxon Literature"
FREE! English Literature from the Beginning to the Norman Conquest
Stopford A. Brooke.
Macmillan, 1898
Making Thanes: Literature, Rhetoric and State Formation in Anglo-Saxon England
Richardson, Peter R.
Philological Quarterly, Spring 1999
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Paradise, Death, and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature
Ananya Jahanara Kabir.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England
Clare A. Lees.
University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature
Stephen J. Harris.
Routledge, 2003
Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature
Jonathan Wilcox.
D.S. Brewer, 2000
Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity
Allen J. Frantzen; John D. Niles.
University Press of Florida, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Poems and the Making of the English Nation"
The Church in Anglo-Saxon England
John Godfrey.
Cambridge University Press, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 20 "Homilists and Writers"
The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet
Niles, John D.
Western Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 1/2, Winter/Spring 2003
Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry
Jennifer Neville.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
Anglo-Saxon Poetry
R. K. Gordon; R. K. Gordon.
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1954
Librarian’s tip: This is a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry
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