Anglo-Saxon literature

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Anglo-Saxon literature,

the literary writings in Old English (see English languageEnglish language,
member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). Spoken by about 470 million people throughout the world, English is the official language of about 45 nations.
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), composed between c.650 and c.1100.

See also English literatureEnglish literature,
literature written in English since c.1450 by the inhabitants of the British Isles; it was during the 15th cent. that the English language acquired much of its modern form.
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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 WidsithWidsith
, 7th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. It is an account of the wanderings of a Germanic minstrel and of the legends he relates. The poem gives an excellent description of minstrel life in the Germanic heroic age.
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 is one of the earliest Old English poems, and thus is of particular historic and linguistic interest.

, oldest English epic, probably composed in the early 8th cent. by an Anglian bard in the vicinity of Northumbria. It survives in only one manuscript, written c.A.D. 1000 by two scribes and preserved in the British Library in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton.
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, 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 MaldonMaldon
, town (1991 pop. 14,754) and district, Essex, E England, on the Blackwater estuary. Maldon is a market town with iron foundries and other small industries. The Maldon area has long been known for its sea salt; salt has been harvested there for more than 2000 years.
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 and BrunanburhBrunanburh, battle of
, A.D. 937, a victory won by Athelstan, king of the English, over a coalition of Irish, Scots, and Britons (or Welsh) of Strathclyde. The site of the battle is not known. The battle is celebrated in a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
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), 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. CædmonCædmon
, fl. 670, English poet. He was reputed by Bede to be the author of early English versions of various Old Testament stories. According to Bede, Cædmon was an ignorant herder who received his poetic powers through a vision.
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—whose story is charmingly told by the Venerable BedeBede, Saint
, or Baeda
(St. Bede the Venerable), 673?–735, English historian and Benedictine monk, Doctor of the Church, also called the Venerable Bede. He spent his whole life at the monasteries of Wearmouth (at Sunderland) and Jarrow and became probably the
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, 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.

, fl. early 9th cent.?, Old English religious poet of Northumbria or Mercia. Four poems have been ascribed to him on the evidence of his signatures in runes in the text of each of these poems.
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, 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 literatureMiddle English literature,
English literature of the medieval period, c.1100 to c.1500. See also English literature and Anglo-Saxon literature. Background
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. 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 literatureOld Norse literature,
the literature of the Northmen, or Norsemen, c.850–c.1350. It survives mainly in Icelandic writings, for little medieval vernacular literature remains from Norway, Sweden, or Denmark.

The Norwegians who settled Iceland late in the 9th cent.
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Old English literary prose dates from the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Prose was written in Latin before the reign of King AlfredAlfred,
849–99, king of Wessex (871–99), sometimes called Alfred the Great, b. Wantage, Berkshire. Early Life

The youngest son of King Æthelwulf, he was sent in 853 to Rome, where the pope gave him the title of Roman consul.
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 (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 ÆlfricÆlfric
, c.955–1020, English writer and Benedictine monk. He was the greatest English scholar during the revival of learning fostered by the Benedictine monasteries in the second half of the 10th cent. His aim was to educate the laity as well as the clergy.
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, Abbot of Eynsham, and his contemporary WulfstanWulfstan,
d. 1023, English churchman, archbishop of York (1003–1023) and bishop of Worcester, whose Latin name was Lupus. He is buried at Ely. Homilies are attributed to him, but most of them are doubtful; from them as from those of Ælfric written for Wulfstan, many
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, 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.


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).

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