Old English Period (450–1066) (Anglo-Saxon)

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old english period
Old English Period (450–1066) (Anglo-Saxon) 9

Old English Period (450–1066)

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was the language spoken and written in England from the 5th to the 11th centuries. Here are some key points about the Old English language:

  1. Development and Dialects:
    English evolved from the dialects of the Germanic tribes, specifically the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who migrated to England in the early medieval period. Old English is a member of the Germanic sub-group within the larger Indo-European language family. It had four major dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. The Northumbrian and Mercian dialects collectively formed the Anglian group, while Kentish was the dialect of the Jutes in the southeast. In the late Old English period, the West Saxon dialect, spoken in the region of Wessex, emerged as the most important and became the standard for written prose.
  2. Pronunciation and Spelling:
    The pronunciation of Old English, especially long vowels, differed from modern English. The spelling of Old English words also varied, and the language utilized letters and consonant clusters that are no longer in use.
  3. Vocabulary:
    Old English vocabulary consisted primarily of purely Germanic words. There was a relative absence of French and Latin loanwords, which became more prevalent after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
  4. Grammar:
    Old English is classified as a synthetic inflectional language. This means that words themselves change to indicate grammatical information such as person, number, tense, and case. In contrast, Modern English is an analytical language where grammatical information is typically expressed through word order, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs.

Old English Literature:

  1. Time Period:
    Old English literature spanned from the 7th century to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which marked the Norman Conquest and the beginning of the Middle English period.
  2. Major Genres:
    The literature of this period encompassed various genres. Notable genres included epic poetry, hagiography (saints’ lives), sermons, Bible translations, and chronicles.
  3. Influences and Authors:
    Christian monasteries played a significant role in the preservation and production of Old English literature. Some prominent authors from this period include Caedmon, Cynewulf, and Venerable Bede, who made notable contributions to religious poetry, historical writings, and scholarly works.
  4. Beowulf:
    The epic poem Beowulf is considered the greatest work of Old English literature. It tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his heroic deeds, battling monsters and dragons. Beowulf is a remarkable example of the rich literary tradition of Old English.

Old English literature provides insights into the cultural, religious, and historical aspects of early medieval England. Despite the challenges of understanding the language, the surviving texts are valuable for studying the development of English literature and the foundations of English identity.

Old English manuscripts

Old English manuscripts are invaluable sources for studying the language, literature, and culture of early medieval England. Among the many surviving manuscripts, four major collections stand out, each containing significant texts from the Old English period. These collections are the Junius Manuscript, Exeter Book, Vercelli Book, and Nowell Codex (also known as the Beowulf Manuscript).

  1. Junius Manuscript:
    The Junius Manuscript, also referred to as the Junius XI manuscript, is an important collection of Old English religious poetry. It dates back to the 10th century and contains four long religious poems: “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Daniel,” and “Christ and Satan.” These poems are written in alliterative verse, a characteristic feature of Old English poetry.
  2. Exeter Book:
    The Exeter Book, housed at Exeter Cathedral in England, is a significant anthology of Old English poetry. It is one of the four major surviving manuscripts of Old English literature. The book dates back to the late 10th century and contains a diverse range of works, including religious and secular poems, riddles, elegies, and homilies. Notable poems in the Exeter Book include “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Ruin.”
  3. Vercelli Book:
    The Vercelli Book, also known as the Vercelli Codex, is an important manuscript written in Old English. It is named after the Italian city of Vercelli, where it was discovered in the early 19th century. The book dates back to the late 10th century and contains a collection of religious texts, including poems, homilies, and prose. Notable works in the Vercelli Book include “Andreas,” “The Dream of the Rood,” and “Homiletic Fragment.”
  4. Nowell Codex (Beowulf Manuscript):
    The Nowell Codex, commonly referred to as the Beowulf Manuscript, is perhaps the most famous Old English manuscript. It contains the epic poem “Beowulf,” which is the longest surviving piece of Old English literature. The Nowell Codex also includes other shorter texts, such as “The Fight at Finnsburg” and “The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle.” The manuscript dates back to the early 11th century.

These four major manuscript collections are essential sources for understanding the linguistic, literary, and cultural aspects of the Old English period. They provide valuable insights into the lives, beliefs, and artistic achievements of the people of early medieval England.


Old English Period (450–1066) (Anglo-Saxon) 10

Beowulf is considered England’s oldest extant national epic and is one of the most important works of Old English literature. It is an epic poem that tells the story of the Geatish hero Beowulf and his heroic deeds. Here are some key points about Beowulf:

  1. Dating and Manuscript:
    Beowulf is believed to have been composed in the 7th century AD, although the exact date is uncertain. The poem survives in a 10th-century manuscript called Cotton Vitellius A.xv, which is also known as the Nowell Codex. Unfortunately, the manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1731, resulting in some sections being lost forever.
  2. Length and Structure:
    Beowulf consists of 3,182 lines of poetry, written in Old English. The poem follows a traditional epic structure and is divided into two main parts.
  3. First Part:
    In the first part of Beowulf, the Geatish warrior Beowulf travels to Denmark to help King Hrothgar. The Danish kingdom is plagued by the monster Grendel, who attacks the royal hall, Heorot, every night. Beowulf successfully defeats Grendel in a fierce battle and mortally wounds him. Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son’s death and attacks Heorot, but Beowulf pursues her to her underwater lair and kills her as well.
  4. Second Part:
    The second part of Beowulf takes place 50 years after the events of the first part. Beowulf has become the king of the Geats and faces another threat, a mighty dragon that terrorizes his kingdom. Beowulf confronts the dragon in a tremendous battle but is mortally wounded in the process. With the help of his loyal warrior Wiglaf, Beowulf manages to slay the dragon, but he succumbs to his own injuries.
  5. Beowulf’s Burial:
    The poem ends with a sorrowful burial scene, where Beowulf’s loyal followers mourn his death and prepare his funeral pyre. Beowulf’s death marks the end of an era, as the poem reflects the passing of heroic traditions and the inevitable cycle of life and death.

Beowulf is renowned for its vivid descriptions, heroic ideals, and exploration of themes such as heroism, loyalty, fate, and the transience of human existence. It continues to captivate readers and remains an influential work in the realm of epic poetry.


Old English Period (450–1066) (Anglo-Saxon) 11

Cynewulf was an Anglo-Saxon poet who made significant contributions to religious poetry in Old English. He is known for moving beyond traditional Biblical themes and exploring didactic, devotional, and mystical subjects. Some of his notable poems include “The Fates of the Apostles,” “Juliana,” “Elene,” and “Christ II” (also known as “The Ascension”). Cynewulf’s works often delve into Christian themes and showcase his poetic skill and imaginative storytelling.

The School of Cynewulf, a group of poets influenced by Cynewulf’s style and themes, produced several remarkable works. These include “The Dream of the Rood,” which presents the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the Cross, and “Andreas,” a poem about the apostle Andrew and his missionary journey. Other notable works associated with the School of Cynewulf include “The Phoenix” and “Judith Elegies.”

In addition to Cynewulf’s poetry, Old English literature also encompasses a collection of seven elegies known as the Exeter Book. These elegies, which deal with themes of loss and consolation, include “Deor,” “Wulf and Eadwacer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Husband’s Message,” “The Ruin,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Seafarer.” They reflect the melancholic and reflective nature of Old English elegiac poetry.

Old English prose, on the other hand, primarily consisted of sermons and translations from Latin. There were two main types of Old English prose: Christian and secular. Christian prose included the works of influential figures such as Alfred the Great, who promoted education and religious learning, and Aelfric, a prolific writer of homilies. Wulfstan, an archbishop, also made notable contributions to Christian prose.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of events in England, is an example of secular prose. It chronicles the history of England from the Roman period to the Norman Conquest. Additionally, Old English prose covered various subjects like medicine, law, mathematics, rhetoric, geography, astronomy, and included collections of riddles that showcased the Anglo-Saxons’ wit and linguistic skill.

Venerable Bede

Venerable Bede
Old English Period (450–1066) (Anglo-Saxon) 12

Venerable Bede, also known as Saint Bede or the Venerable Bede, was an English monk, theologian, historian, and scholar who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in Anglo-Saxon literature and scholarship. Here are some key points about Venerable Bede:

  1. Life and Works:
    Venerable Bede was born around the year 672 and spent his entire life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Wearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria, England. He authored around 40 books on various subjects, including theology, history, and natural science. His works covered a wide range of topics, from commentaries on the Bible to observations of nature, music, and poetry.
  2. Ecclesiastical History of the English Race:
    Venerable Bede’s most renowned work is the “Ecclesiastical History of the English Race” (Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum), completed in 731. Originally written in Latin, it is a historical account of the early Christian period in England, starting with the Roman invasion and extending up to Bede’s time. It is divided into five books and serves as an important historical document for understanding the early development of Christianity in England.
  3. Themes and Contributions:
    Venerable Bede’s writings encompassed a wide range of themes, including theology, history, hagiography (saints’ lives), and scientific observations. His works contributed significantly to the study of chronology, biblical exegesis, and the history of the early English Church. Bede’s attention to detail and meticulous approach to historical research earned him a reputation as a reliable and scholarly historian.

King Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great
Old English Period (450–1066) (Anglo-Saxon) 13

King Alfred the Great, who reigned from 871 to 899, was another important figure in Anglo-Saxon history and literature. Some key points about King Alfred include:

  1. Danish Resistance:
    King Alfred is best known for successfully resisting Danish attacks and playing a crucial role in defending the kingdom of Wessex against Viking invasions. His military efforts and political acumen helped preserve English identity and lay the foundation for a unified England.
  2. Translations and Education:
    Alfred had a deep interest in learning and education. He actively promoted the translation of important theological and philosophical works from Latin into Old English. His translations included “The Pastoral Rule” by Pope Gregory, “The History of the World” by Orosius, “The Ecclesiastical History of the English Race” by Bede, and “The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius.
  3. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
    King Alfred initiated the work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals that recorded the history of England from Roman times to the 12th century. The Chronicle served as a significant historical document and provided valuable insights into the political and social developments of the time.

Both Venerable Bede and King Alfred the Great made significant contributions to Anglo-Saxon literature, history, and education. Their works and efforts continue to be studied and appreciated for their historical and cultural significance.

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Middle English Period


Age of Chaucer

other Sources: for reference https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/old-english#:~:text=Old%20English%20%E2%80%93%20the%20earliest%20form,the%20Norman%20Conquest%20of%201066). https://www.britannica.com/art/English-literature/The-Old-English-period, https://langster.org/en/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-english-language-from-old-english-to-modern-days, https://www.thoughtco.com/old-english-anglo-saxon

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