Essay Anglo Saxon Prose
2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Literature types
Anglo-Saxon literature (or Old English literature) encompasses literature written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) during the 600-year Anglo-Saxon period of Britain, 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.
Some of the most important works from this period include the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of early English history. The poem Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century is one of the oldest surviving written texts 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 examined, and today the interest is with paleography questions and the physical manuscripts themselves such as dating, place of origin, authorship, and looking at the connections between Anglo-Saxon culture and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages.
| History of England|
|Prehistoric Britain||(before AD 43)|
|Roman Britain||( 43– 410)|
|Anglo-Saxon England||(ca. 410– 1066)|
|Anglo-Normans||( 1066– 1154)|
|Plantagenets||( 1154– 1485)|
|House of Lancaster||( 1399– 1471)|
|House of York||( 1461– 1485)|
|House of Tudor||( 1485– 1603)|
|House of Stuart||( 1603– 1714)|
|United Kingdom||(after 1707)|
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 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.
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.
Not all of the texts can be fairly called literature, such as 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.
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 latter being the main dialect).
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 four manuscripts. The first manuscript is called the Junius manuscript (also known as the Caedmon manuscript), which is an illustrated poetic anthology. The second manuscript 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, also a mixture of poetry and prose.
Old English poetry had no known rules or system left to us by the Anglo-Saxons, everything we know about it is based on modern analysis. The first widely accepted theory was by Eduard Sievers (1885) in which he distinguished five distinct alliterative patterns. The theory of John C. Pope (1942) uses musical notations which has had some acceptance; every few years a new theory arises and the topic continues 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 swan's road and Litotes, a dramatic understatement employed by the author for ironic effect.
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 the Scop) could be accompanied by a harp, and there may be other aural 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 are known by name from Medieval sources, but only four of those are known by their vernacular works to us today with any certainty: Caedmon, Bede, Alfred, and Cynewulf. Of these, only Caedmon, Bede, and Alfred have known biographies.
Caedmon is the best-known and considered the father of Old English poetry. He lived at the abbey of Whitby in Northumbria in the 7th century. Only a single nine line poem remains, called Hymn, which is also the oldest surviving text in English:
Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is known through William of Malmesbury who said he performed secular songs while accompanied by a harp. Much 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 was from the early part of the 9th century to which a number of poems are attributed including The Fates of the Apostles and Elene (both found in the Vercelli Book), and Christ II and Juliana (both found in the Exeter Book).
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. 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.
Beyond Beowulf, other heroic poems exist. Two heroic poems have survived in fragments: 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. Two other poems mention heroic figures: Widsith is believed to be very old in parts, dating back to events in the 4th century concerning Eormanric and the Goths, and contains a catalogue of names and places associated with valiant deeds. Deor is a lyric, in the style of Consolation of Philosophy, applying examples of famous heroes, including Weland and Eormanric, to the narrator's own case.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains various heroic poems inserted throughout. The earliest from 937 is called The Battle of Brunanburh, which celebrates the victory of King Athelstan over the Scots and Norse. There are five shorter poems: capture of the Five Boroughs (942); coronation of King Edgar (973); death of King Edgar (975); death of Prince Alfred (1036); and death of King Edward the Confessor (1065).
The 325 line poem Battle of Maldon celebrates Earl Byrhtnoth 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. A well known speech is near the end of the poem:
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.
Related to the heroic tales are a number of short poems from the Exeter Book which have come to be described as "Wisdom poetry". 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 (Britain fell into decline after the Romans departed in the early 5th c.), 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 derived from the Latin bestiary tradition such as The Panther, The Whale and The Partridge.
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.
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.
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 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.
Specific features of Anglo-Saxon poetry
Simile 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.
It is also a feature of the fast-paced dramatic style of Anglo-Saxon poetry that it is not prone, in the way that, say, Celtic literature of the period was, to overly elaborate decoration. Where typically a Celtic poet of the time might use 3 or 4 similes to make a point, typically an Anglo-Saxon poet might reference a kenning, before moving swiftly on.
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.
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 resposible 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".
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.
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 a Latin translation of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus (220 AD), 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 collections is known as the Lacnunga, which relies of charms, incantations, and white magic.
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 Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (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. Much of the subject matter and terminology of the heroic poetry can be seen in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and many others.
- "I knew that at home, on a certain top shelf, I had copies of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. When the students came the next Saturday morning, we began reading these two books. We skipped grammar as much as we could and pronounced the words like German. All at once, we fell in love with a sentence in which Rome (Romeburh) was mentioned. We got drunk on these words and rushed down Peru Street shouting them at the top of our voices. And so we set out on a long adventure. I had always thought of English literature as the richest in the world; the discovery now of a secret chamber at the very threshold of that literature came to me as an additional gift. Personally, I knew that the adventure would be an endless one, and that I could go on studying Old English for the rest of my days."
Recognizing the dramatic changes in Old English studies over the past generation, this up-to-date anthology gathers twenty-one outstanding contemporary critical writings on the prose and poetry of Anglo-Saxon England, from approximately the seventh through eleventh centuries. The contributors focus on texts most commonly read in introductory Old English courses while also engaging with larger issues of Anglo-Saxon history, culture, and scholarship. Their approaches vary widely, encompassing disciplines from linguistics to psychoanalysis.In an appealing introduction to the book, R. M. Liuzza presents an overview of Old English studies, the history of the scholarship, and major critical themes in the field. For both newcomers and more advanced scholars of Old English, these essays will provoke discussion, answer questions, provide background, and inspire an appreciation for the complexity and energy of Anglo-Saxon studies.
Subjects: Language & Literature