Old English Literature

In 5th century people migrating from Germany to Britain started to write their own literature, known as Old English Literature, which was full of wisdom and high moral tones.

Tempo di lettura articolo: 3 minuti

The Anglo-Saxon period started around 4th century B.C. when people from Germany migrated to Britain. They started to write their own literature, known as the Anglo-Saxon or Old English literature. This definition refers to poetry and prose composed between 5th century and the Norman Conquest in 1066. Many manuscripts were written down between 9th and 11th centuries, in two languages: Latin and vernacular

Unfortunately, most Anglo-Saxon poets are anonymous; only four of them are known by their works: Bede (best-known work: “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), Caedmon (“Caedmon manuscript”), Alfred (“Consolation of Philosophy”) and Cynewulf (“Juliana” and “Elene”). 

Old English Poetry is composed of two types: the Christian and the heroic Germanic pre-Christian, of which four manuscripts survived. The first manuscript is the Junius manuscript or Caedmon manuscript, which illustrated a poetic anthology. The second manuscript is the Exeter Book, which is also an anthology, and it is in the Exeter Cathedral after it was donated in the 11th century. The third manuscript is the Vercelli Book, a mix of prose and poetry, about which none knows how it came to be in Vercelli. The fourth manuscript is the Beowulf Manuscriptsometimes called the Nowell Codex, which is also a mixture of prose and poetry, typically dealing with monstrous themes, including Beowulf itself.As Old English poetry was an oral craft, we only have an incomplete understanding of it in the written form.

An example of an Old English text

Wisdom poetry is made of the short poems from Exeter Book. Dark in mood are “The Ruin”, that is about the decay of an once glory city of Roman Britain, and “The Wanderer, in which an older man talks about an attack happened in his youth, during which his kin and close friends were killed; after that, the wise man went to war to preserve the civil society. 

Classic and Latin poetry are several poems which are adaptations of late classical philosophical texts. The longest is “Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius that is a reflection on how a lord’s favor could change quickly and why friends would turn against him; it is contained in the Cotton manuscript.

Christian poetry is another type of poetry of the period. There are four long narrative poems of saints’ lives in the Vercelli Book and Exeter Book, three paraphrases in the Junius manuscript, and one paraphrase in the Nowell Codex

In the first one there are “Andreas” and “Elene”. “Andreas” is 1722 lines long and is the closest to “Beowulf” in tone and style. It is about Saint Andrew and his journey to rescue Saint Matthew from the Mermedonians. “Elene”, instead, is about Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, and her discovery of the True Cross (popular cult).

In the second one there are “Guthlac” and “Juliana”. “Guthlac is composed of two poems, “Guthlac A and “Guthlac B”, about English Saint Guthlac (7th century). “Juliana”, instead, is the story about virgin martyr Juliana of Nicomedia.

The Junius manuscript has three paraphrases of Old Testament texts. The first and longest one is the “Genesis”. The second and the third ones are “Exodus and “Daniel”.

The Nowell Codex contains a Biblical poetic paraphrase called “Judith”, a retelling of the story of Judith.

Christian prose contains translations of many books. King Alfred was the one who made translations of books and fifty Psalms, from Latin into Old English. Other important translations are:“The History of the Worldby Orosius and “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede.

There are about 400 surviving manuscripts containing Old English text, 189 of which are considered major ones. They are very important as they have a historic value and an aesthetic beauty; moreover, they are the only remaining texts of what is considered as the beginning of British Literature.


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