Distinctive Features of Anglo-Saxon Prose

The Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain brought with them their old poetry, but there is no evidence of having possessed any literary prose tradition. The development of Old English prose does not, therefore, go back to the earlier Germanic origin, as the poetry does. It takes place wholly in England and largely as a result of the Christianization of England. It is not surprising that prose developed tales than poetry; that is the normal thing in the history of any literature. The primal urge of men for artistic expression is bound to be poetic while the proper maturing of the prose medium of communication usually comes after the emergence of political and cultural needs of the Anglo-Saxon people. The development of prose was delayed. It was because of their contact with the old and mature Graceo-Roman civilization. They needed a native poetry for the celebration of their own legends. But later they felt the need for prose when they came into contact with other civilization as conquerors. They had to make commercial, legal and other transactions with the natives which gave rise to a form of prose. There is little doubt that English prose began in the reign of King Alfred.

Latin was, of course, the language of the Christian Church and an essential tool in clerical education. Perhaps if English had been geographically close to Rome, Latin might have hindered the development of a native English prose. But Rome was far away and Latin was only a distant influence as one of the most perceptive historians of early English prose has put it – “When Gregory the Great sent his missionaries to England, Latin civilization reached a land which was so remote from Rome that Latin could influence the Native language without depressing it.” So, gradually English started taking the place of Latin. When the laws of Kent were amended to introduce new Christian nations the new classes were written not in Latin but in English.

More celebrated name in the history of Anglo-Saxon prose is that of King Alfred of Wessex. He gave the Anglo-Saxon people an awareness of their political unity as English men. He had a remarkable combination of the statesman, the military strategist, and the patriot. But he is even more important in the history of English education and the history of English literature. Throughout a reign troubled by military problems of desperate urgency, he found the time and the energy to medicate to “all the free-born young men of England”. He translated a member of Latin texts into English. In his preface to his translation of the Cure Pastorals of Pope Gregory the Great. He tells of his concern at the dearth of scholars in England at the time of his occasion to the throne (in 871). King Alfred realized that Christian culture had its roots in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin sources and that if these were made available to the people, an ambitious program of translation into the vernacular would have to be undertaken. In his own words – “When I remembered how Latin learning has already decayed throughout England, though many can read English writing, I began, among many other varied and manifold cares of this kingdom, to translate into English which is called Latin ‘Pastoralis’ and in English ‘Hierde – Boc’.” The translation of the ‘CuraPastoralis’ was done by Alfred with the assistance of scholars who explained the meaning to him. It is, on the whole, a literal rendering but it flows easily and there is little indication of the forcing of one language into the idiom of another such as we might expect in a pioneer translation. Alfred’s next work was a translation of the Historia Advarsum Paganos of the 5th century Latin writer Paulus Orasiu, a work written under the influence of St. Augustine. Orosires Chronicles the calamities of Mankind from the fall of man to the fall of Rome with an equal disregard for historical accuracy and literary grace. Fortunately, Alfred added two entirely new narratives; one told by Othere, a Norwegian who had explored from his home within the Arctic Circle, the other told him by a voyager named Wulfstan who had sailed the Baltic from Schleswig to the mouth of the Vistula. These lively accounts of foreign lands and people give this translation its present value. The voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan are justly celebrated as among the high-spots of Anglo-Saxon prose, and the prose is certainly Alfred’s own.

Alfred had also been given the credit for translating Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical history of the English people). Alfred’s two final conclusions were more philosophical works that of the De Consolation Philosophise (The Consolation of Philosophy) of Boethius, a Roman philosopher and statesman of the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Alfred’s last work was a book of Blossoms derived from the most part from the Solloquoiesof St. Augustine.

Another man who contributed to the Anglo-Saxon English prose is Bishop Bede (died in 735). He was said to have translated the Gospel of St. John from Latin into English, but the work has not survived.


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