Old English literature (c. 450–1066)

Old English literature or Anglo-Saxon literature encompasses the surviving literature written in Anglo-Saxon England, after the settlement of the Saxons and other Germanic tribes in England (Jutes and the Angles) in c. 450. These works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, and riddles. In all, there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English, from the 9th century, that chronicle the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The poem “Battle of Maldon” also deals with history. This is a work of uncertain date, celebrating the Battle of Maldon of991, at which the Anglo-Saxons failed to prevent a Viking invasion.

Oral tradition was very strong in early English culture and most literary works were written to be performed.Epic poems were very popular, and some, including Beowulf, have survived to the present day. Beowulf is the most famous work in Old English and has achieved national epic status in England, despite being set in Scandinavia. The only surviving manuscript is the Nowell Codex, the precise date of which is debated, but most estimates place it close to the year 1000. Beowulf is the conventional title, and its composition is dated between the 8thand the early 11th century.

Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous: twelve are known by name from medieval sources, but only four of those are known by their vernacular works with any certainty: Cædmon, Bede, Alfred the Great, and Cynewulf. Cædmon is the earliest English poet whose name is known, and his only known surviving work “Cædmon’s Hymn” probably dates from the late 7th century. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry. It is also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. The poem,” The Dream of the Rood” was inscribed upon the Ruthwell Cross.

Two Old English poems from the late 10th century are “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”. Both have a religious theme, and Richard Marsden describes “The Seafarer” as “an exhortatory and didactic poem, in which the miseries of winter seafaring are used as a metaphor for the challenge faced by the committed Christian”.

Classical antiquity was not forgotten in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English poems are adaptations of late classical philosophical texts. The longest is King Alfred’s (c. 849–99) 9th-century translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.

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