Anglo-Saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon literature (or Old English literature) encompasses literature written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) during the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period of England, from the mid-5th century 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.

Among the most important works of this period is the poem "Beowulf", which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" otherwise proves significant to study of the era, preserving a chronology of early English history, while the poem "Cædmon's Hymn" from the 7th century survives as the oldest extant work of literature in English.

Anglo-Saxon literature has gone through different periods of research—in the 19th and early 20th centuries the focus was on the Germanic roots of English, later the literary merits were emphasized, and today the focus is upon paleography and the physical manuscripts themselves more generally: scholars debate such issues as dating, place of origin, authorship, and the connections between Anglo-Saxon culture and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages.


A large number of manuscripts remain from the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period, with most written during the last 300 years (9th–11th century), in both Latin and the vernacular. Old English literature is among the oldest vernacular languages to be written down. Old English began, in written form, as a practical necessity in the aftermath of 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), wanting to restore English culture, lamented the poor state of Latin education::"So general was [educational] decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could...translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe there were not many beyond the Humber" (Pastoral Care, introduction).

King Alfred 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.

Extant manuscripts

In total there are about 400 surviving manuscripts containing Old English text, 189 of them considered major. These manuscripts have been highly prized by collectors since the 16th century, both for their historic value and for their aesthetic beauty of uniformly spaced letters and decorative elements.

There are four major manuscripts:
* The "Junius manuscript", also known as the "Caedmon manuscript", which is an illustrated poetic anthology.
* The "Exeter Book", also an anthology, located in the Exeter Cathedral since it was donated there in the 11th century.
* 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 "Nowell Codex", also a mixture of poetry and prose. This is the manuscript that contains Beowulf.

Research in the 20th century has focused on dating the manuscripts (19th-century scholars tended to date them older than modern scholarship has found); locating where the manuscripts were created—there were seven major scriptoria from which they originate: Winchester, Exeter, Worcester, Abingdon, Durham, and two Canterbury houses Christ Church and St. Augustine; and identifying the regional dialects used: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, West Saxon (the last being the main dialect).

Not all of the texts can be fairly called literature; some are merely lists of names or aborted pen trials. However those that can present a sizable body of work, listed here in descending order of quantity: 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; lastly, but not least important, poetry.

Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous, with some exceptions.

Old English Poetry

Old English poetry is of two types, the heroic Germanic pre-Christian and the Christian. It has survived for the most part in the four major manuscripts.

The Anglo-Saxons left behind no poetic rules or explicit system; everything we know about the poetry of the period is based on modern analysis. The first widely accepted theory was constructed by Eduard Sievers (1885). He distinguished five distinct alliterative patterns. The theory of John C. Pope (1942), which uses musical notation to track the verse patterns, has been accepted in some quarters;to be hotly debated.

The most popular and well-known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers' alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited from and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. Two poetic figures commonly found in Old English poetry are the kenning, an often formulaic phrase that describes one thing in terms of another (e.g. in Beowulf, the sea is called the "whale's road") and litotes, a dramatic understatement employed by the author for ironic effect.

Roughly, Old English verse lines are divided in half by a pause; this pause is termed a "caesura." Each half-line has two stressed syllables. The first stressed syllable of the second half-line should alliterate with one or both of the stressed syllables of the first half-line (meaning, of course, that the stressed syllables in the first half-line could alliterate with each other). The second stressed syllable of the second half-line should not alliterate with either of the stressed syllables of the first half.

Old English heroic poetry was handed down orally from generation to generation. As Christianity began to appear, retellers often recast the tales of Christianity into the older heroic stories.

Elegiac Poetry

Related to the heroic tales are a number of short poems from the Exeter Book which have come to be described as "elegies" [ [ elegies] ] or "wisdom poetry". [Angus Cameron (1983). "Anglo-Saxon literature" in "Dictionary of the Middle Ages", v.1, pp.280-281] [Carl Woodring (1995). "The Columbia Anthology of British Poetry". [ Page 1] ] They are lyrical and Boethian in their description of the up and down fortunes of life. Gloomy in mood is "The Ruin", which tells of the decay of a once glorious city of Roman Britain (cities in Britain fell into decline after the Romans departed in the early 5th c., as the early English continued to live their rural life), and "The Wanderer", in which an older man talks about an attack that happened in his youth, where his close friends and kin were all killed; memories of the slaughter have remained with him all his life. He questions the wisdom of the impetuous decision to engage a possibly superior fighting force: the wise man engages in warfare to "preserve" civil society, and must not rush into battle but seek out allies when the odds may be against him. This poet finds little glory in bravery for bravery's sake. "The Seafarer" is the story of a somber exile from home on the sea, from which the only hope of redemption is the joy of heaven. Other wisdom poems include "Wulf and Eadwacer", "The Wife's Lament", and "The Husband's Message". King Alfred the Great wrote a wisdom poem over the course of his reign based loosely on the neoplatonic philosophy of Boethius called the "Lays of Boethius".

Classical and Latin poetry

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 derive from the Latin bestiary tradition. Some examples include "The Panther", "The Whale" and "The Partridge".

Christian poetry

aints' Lives

The Vercelli Book and Exeter Book contain four long narrative poems of saints' lives, or hagiography. In Vercelli are "Andreas" and "Elene" and in Exeter are "Guthlac" and "Juliana".

"Andreas" is 1,722 lines long and is the closest of the surviving Old English poems to "Beowulf" in style and tone. It is the story of Saint Andrew and his journey to rescue Saint Matthew from the Mermedonians. "Elene" is the story of Saint Helena (mother of Constantine) and her discovery of the True Cross. The cult of the True Cross was popular in Anglo-Saxon England and this poem was instrumental.

"Guthlac" is actually two poems about English Saint Guthlac (7th century). "Juliana" is the story of the virgin martyr Juliana of Nicomedia.

Biblical paraphrases

The Junius manuscript contains three paraphrases of Old Testament texts. These were re-wordings of Biblical passages in Old English, not exact translations, but paraphrasing, sometimes into beautiful poetry in its own right. The first and longest is of "Genesis". The second is of "Exodus". The third is "Daniel".

The Nowell Codex contains a Biblical poetic paraphrase, which appears right after "Beowulf", called "Judith", a retelling of the story of Judith. This is not to be confused with Aelfric's homily "Judith", which retells the same Biblical story in alliterative prose.

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, and the Apostles' Creed, as well as a number of hymns and proverbs.

Christian poems

In addition to Biblical paraphrases are a number of original religious poems, mostly lyrical (non-narrative).

The Exeter Book contains a series of poems entitled "Christ", sectioned into "Christ I", "Christ II" and "Christ III".

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, speaking thus:

The dreamer resolves to trust in the cross, and the dream ends with a vision of heaven.

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.

Other poems

Other poetic forms exist in Old English including riddles, short verses, gnomes, and mnemonic poems for remembering long lists of names.

The Exeter Book has a collection of ninety-five riddles. The answers are not supplied, a number of them to this day remain a puzzle, and some of the answers are obscene.

There are short verses found in the margins of manuscripts which offer practical advice 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 a group of mnemonic poems designed to help memorise 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".

pecific features of Anglo-Saxon poetry

imile and Metaphor

Anglo-Saxon poetry is marked by the comparative rarity of similes. This is a particular feature of Anglo-Saxon verse style, and is a consequence of both its structure and the rapidity with which images are deployed, to be unable to effectively support the expanded simile. As an example of this, the epic Beowulf contains at best five similes, and these are of the short variety. This can be contrasted sharply with the strong and extensive dependence that Anglo-Saxon poetry has upon metaphor, particularly that afforded by the use of kennings. The most prominent example of this in The Wanderer is the reference to battle as a “storm of spears”. [ "The Wanderer line 99"] This reference to battle gives us an opportunity to see how Anglo-Saxons viewed battle: as unpredictable, chaotic, violent, and perhaps even a function of nature. It is with these stylistic and thematic elements in mind, that one should first approach Anglo-Saxon poetry.


Old English poetry traditionally alliterates. Meaning that sounds (usually the initial consonant sound) is repeated throughout a line. For instance in Beowulf the line "weras on wil-siþ wudu bundenne" [ Alexander, Michael, ed. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. London: Penguin Books, 1995. (ln. 216)] “man on desired journey bound the ship”, most of the words alliterate on the consonant “w”. So pervasive and important is the alliterative form that in the Beowulf line just cited, the poet probably started off with the word wil-siþ (“desired journey” the most important idea of the line) and then put other words in the line that alliterated with it. So important is alliteration then that it even shapes the meaning of the line. This is not a foreign concept to the study of oral tradition in transcription.


Old English poetry is also commonly marked by the German caesura or pause. In addition to setting pace for the line the caesura also grouped each line into two couplets.


Anglo-Saxon poetry has a fast-paced dramatic style, and accordingly is not prone to the comparatively expansive decoration that may be found in, for example, Celtic literature of the period. Where a Celtic poet of the time might use 3 or 4 similes to make a point, an Anglo-Saxon poet might insert a single kenning before moving swiftly on.

Old English Poetry and the Oral-Formulaic Theory

Though Old English Poetry has been extensively studied for evidence of the theory that it was recited using Oral-Formulaic Composition, it seems that it was composed partly in the modern, word-by-word manner and partly by using cobbled-together themes and formulas. [ Oral-formulaic theory and the "Hero on the Beach." Online. 3 June 2003. Available 23 November 2007.]

Old English 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 are the majority. Old English prose first appears in the 9th century, and continues to be recorded through the 12th century.

Christian prose

The most widely known author of Old English was King Alfred, who translated many books from Latin into Old English. These translations include: Gregory the Great's "The Pastoral Care", a manual for priests on how to conduct their duties; "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius; and "The Soliloquies" of Saint Augustine. Alfred was also responsible for a translation of the fifty Psalms into Old English. Other important Old English translations completed by associates of Alfred include: "The History of the World" by Orosius, a companion piece for Augustine of Hippo's "The City of God"; the Dialogues of Gregory the Great; and the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" by Bede.

Ælfric of Eynsham, wrote in the late 10th and early 11th 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 saints lives, an Old English work on time-reckoning, pastoral letters, translations of the first six books of the Bible, glosses and translations of other parts of the Bible including Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus.

In the same category as Aelfric, and a contemporary, was Wulfstan II, archbishop of York. His sermons were highly stylistic. His best known work is "Sermo Lupi ad Anglos" in which he blames the sins of the British for the Viking invasions. He wrote a number of clerical legal texts "Institutes of Polity" and "Canons of Edgar".

One of the earliest Old English texts in prose is the "Martyrology", information about saints and martyrs according to their anniversaries and feasts in the church calendar. It has survived in six fragments. It is believed to date from the 9th century by an anonymous Mercian author.

The oldest collection of church sermons are the "Blickling homilies" in the Vercelli Book and dates from the 10th century.

There are a number of saint's lives prose works. Beyond those written by Aelfric are the prose life of Saint Guthlac (Vercelli Book), the life of Saint Margaret and the life of Saint Chad. There are four lives in the Julius manuscript: Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Eustace and Saint Euphrosyne.

There are many Old English translations of many parts of the Bible. Aelfric translated the first six books of the Bible (the Hexateuch). There is a translation of the Gospels. The most popular was the "Gospel of Nicodemus", others included "..the "Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew", "Vindicta salvatoris", "Vision of Saint Paul" and the "Apocalypse of Thomas". [Cameron (1982). "Anglo-Saxon Literature". "Dictionary of the Middle Ages". Volume 1. pg. 285]

One of the largest bodies of Old English text is found in the legal texts collected and saved by the religious houses. These include many kinds of texts: 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. For example, some of the court case narratives are interesting for their use of rhetoric.

ecular prose

The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" was probably started in the time of King Alfred and continued for over 300 years as a historical record of Anglo-Saxon history.

A single example of a Classical romance has survived, it is a fragment of the story of "Apollonius of Tyre", from the 11th century.

A monk who was writing in Old English at the same time as Aelfric and Wulfstan was Byrhtferth of Ramsey, whose books "Handboc" and "Manual" were studies of mathematics and rhetoric.

Aelfric wrote two neo-scientific works, "Hexameron" and "Interrogationes Sigewulfi", dealing with the stories of Creation. He also wrote a grammar and glossary in Old English called "Latin", later used by students interested in learning Old French because it had been glossed in Old French.

There are many surviving rules and calculations for finding feast days, and tables on calculating the tides and the season of the moon.

In the Nowell Codex is the text of "The Wonders of the East" which includes a remarkable map of the world, and other illustrations. Also contained in Nowell is "Alexander's Letter to Aristotle". Because this is the same manuscript that contains "Beowulf", some scholars speculate it may have been a collection of materials on exotic places and creatures.

There are a number of interesting medical works. 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, known as the "Lacnunga", includes many charms and incantations.

Anglo-Saxon legal texts are a large and important part of the overall corpus. By the 12th century they had been arranged into two large collections (see "Textus Roffensis"). They include laws of the kings, beginning with those of Aethelbert of Kent, and texts dealing with specific cases and places in the country. An interesting example is "Gerefa" which outlines the duties of a reeve on a large manor estate. There is also a large volume of legal documents related to religious houses.


Old English literature did not disappear in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. Many sermons and works continued to be read and used in part or whole up through the 14th century, and were further catalogued and organised. During the Reformation, when monastic libraries were dispersed, the manuscripts were collected by antiquarians and scholars. These included Laurence Nowell, Matthew Parker, Robert Bruce Cotton and Humfrey Wanley. In the 17th century begun a tradition of Old English literature dictionaries and references. The first was William Somner's "Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum" (1659). Lexicographer Joseph Bosworth began a dictionary in the 19th century which was completed by Thomas Northcote Toller in 1898 called "An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary", which was updated by Alistair Campbell in 1972.

Because Old English was one of the first vernacular languages to be written down, nineteenth century scholars searching for the roots of European "national culture" (see Romantic Nationalism) took special interest in studying Anglo-Saxon literature, and Old English became a regular part of university curriculum. Since WWII there has been increasing interest in the manuscripts themselves—Neil Ker, a paleographer, published the groundbreaking "Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon" in 1957, and by 1980 nearly all Anglo-Saxon manuscript texts were in print. J.R.R. Tolkien is credited with creating a movement to look at Old English as a subject of literary theory in his seminal lecture "" (1936).

Old English literature has had an influence on modern literature. Some of the best-known translations include William Morris' translation of "Beowulf" and Ezra Pound's translation of "The Seafarer". The influence of the poetry can be seen in modern poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W. H. Auden. Tolkien adapted the subject matter and terminology of heroic poetry for works like "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings".


ee also

*History of the Anglo-Saxons
*List of illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
*List of poems
*List of national poetries
*Anglo-Saxon art
*Anglo-Saxon architecture


*Joseph Bosworth (1889). "An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary"
*Alistair Campbell (1972). "Englarged Addenda and Corrigenda"
*Angus Cameron (1982). "Anglo-Saxon Literature". "Dictionary of the Middle Ages". ISBN 0-684-16760-3

External links

* [ An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts] a free online seminar by the British Library.
* [ Anglo-Saxon Literature] , from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001
* [ Anglo-Saxon Bibliography]
* [ "An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary"]

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