Old English

Old English
(ca. 450–ca. 1100)
   Old English is the name given to the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons from the time of their conquest of Britain in the fifth century until their own conquest by the Normans in 1066, after which the influence of Norman French on the language helped produce some of the changes that resulted in the development of Old English into MIDDLE ENGLISH. Old English literature includes a complex and sophisticated poetic tradition that preserves some of the prehistoric heroic tradition of the Anglo-Saxon people, as well as a rich prose tradition of texts concerned chiefly with Christian themes. Old English is the earliest written vernacular literary tradition in Europe.
   The Old English language was a Germanic language, and like modern German was highly inflected, relying on case endings that designated the function of nouns in sentences. Nouns were categorized as masculine, feminine, and neuter, and the grammatical genders were inflected differently. Adjectives were also inflected, agreeing with the nouns they modified in case, number, and gender. Some verbs had a weak conjugation that formed its past tenses by a dental suffix (like -ed in modern English), but most fell into one of seven classes of “strong” verbs (as in modern German) that give us “irregular” verbs like write, wrote, written in modern English.Written Old English used three characters unknown in modern English: the thorn (lo) and the eth (´ ?), which indicated the sounds spelled as th in modern English, and the oesc—pronounced “ash”—(oe), which indicated the sound in modern English called the short a.
   According to the Venerable BEDE (d. 735), the chief historical source for the period, three Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes— began their invasion of Celtic Britain in 449 C.E. They came from the southern part of the Jutland peninsula, from northwestern Germany, and from the Low Countries and spoke mutually intelligible but somewhat distinct dialects of Germanic that developed eventually into four Old English dialects: Kentish (spoken by the Jutish people who presumably settled Kent),West Saxon (spoken by the Saxon people who settled in the southwestern part of Britain), and the more closely related Mercian and Northumbrian (spoken by the Angles who settled the rest of the island). By the time the Christian missionary St.Augustine arrived in Kent in 597, there were seven established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Christianity brought the Latin alphabet and with it the potential to produce written texts. By the eighth century, the monasteries of Anglo-Saxon England had become the most important centers of intellectual culture in Europe, and Bede, a Benedictine monk from the monastery at Jarrow, was probably the most learned man on the continent—a scientist, grammarian, theologian, and historian. By the end of the century, CHARLEMAGNE was to turn to ALCUIN OF YORK (735–804), the product of this English monastic system, to direct the renaissance of learning in the Carolingian empire.Viking invasions in the ninth century colonized much of northeast England and threatened to put an end to this vital Anglo-Saxon civilization, but the military genius of the king of Wessex,ALFRED THE GREAT (r. 871–899), prevented that destruction.
   Alfred also fostered a renaissance of learning in England, which had declined since the time of Alcuin. He wrote and translated a number of texts himself, and also encouraged the production of other texts, including the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE (a record of events in England from the eighth century through his own reign) and a translation of Bede’s most important work, his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, into Old English. Alfred and his descendents, who further limited Viking incursions into England (though many Norsemen settled on the island peaceably), were the first monarchs able to call themselves kings of all England. But by the time of Ethelred the Unready (as he is commonly known—actually the Old English adjective usually attached to his name means “unadvised”), Viking raids had increased again, and Danish influence in England grew so strong that after Ethelred’s death in 1016, the Danish king Canute became king of England. After his death, the line ofWessex was restored and Edward the Confessor became king in 1042, but upon his death the claim to the throne by his successor Harold was challenged by Duke William of Normandy, who successfully invaded England, killed Harold in battle, and was crowned king of England on December 25, 1066, effectively bringing the Old English period to an end.
   There are only some 189 extant manuscripts containing a significant amount of writing in the Old English language, and of these, 125 are essentially ecclesiastical collections.As a result of his work to revitalize learning in England, almost all of these manuscripts are in the late West Saxon dialect of King Alfred’s Wessex. The most admired genre of Old English literature in modern times has been poetry, yet nearly all Old English poetry survives in only four manuscripts, known as the JUNIUSMANUSCRIPT, the EXETER BOOK, the VERCELLI BOOK, and Ms. COTTON VITELLIUS A.xv, the manuscript containing the great epic BEOWULF. There are 140 poems in these four manuscripts, and another 45 scattered among other texts. Like Germanic poetry in general, Old English verse was based on stress and alliteration: Each line contained four stressed syllables (plus an unspecified number of unstressed syllables). The line was divided into two half-lines by a caesura between the second and third stressed syllable. The two half-lines were linked by alliteration: The initial sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half line is also used in either or both of the stressed syllables of the first half line. Other characteristics of Old English poetry include the use of KENNINGS—truncated metaphors that refer to common nouns in figurative terms, as “whale’s road” for the sea, and LITOTES, or understatement—in which the poet ironically understates a condition or emotion, saying perhaps “with few companions” to mean “alone.”
   The earliest surviving poem in English is a seventh-century lyric known as CAEDMON’S HYMN. A poem praising God for the creation of the world, Caedmon’s Hymn adapts the Germanic heroic poetic tradition to Christian themes, and in doing so establishes a pattern that most Old English poetry would follow.There are SAINTS’ LIVES and prayers, for example, as well as long narrative retellings of Old Testament stories in poems like GENESIS, EXODUS and DANIEL, as well as the impressive Old English version of the apocryphal book JUDITH. The best-known of all Old English religious poems is the DREAM OF THE ROOD, a retelling of the crucifixion of Christ from the point of view of the Cross itself.
   Other Old English poems generally fall into three categories: ELEGAIC poems, heroic poems, or GNOMIC VERSE.Well-known elegiac lyrics like The WANDERER, The SEAFARER and The WIFE’S LAMENT deal with the experience of loss and the transience of earthly goods and power. Gnomic verses include a number of maxims that survive in two short collections, as well as a large number of RIDDLES in the Exeter Book. The heroic tradition continues in poems like The BATTLE OF BRUNNANBURH—a celebration of a great English victory in 937 by King Alfred’s grandson Aethelstan over an alliance of invaders that survives in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and The BATTLE OFMALDON—a poem celebrating the old Germanic heroic customs by lauding the courage of retainers who go down to glorious defeat after the death of their lord in a battle with Vikings in 991. Beowulf, whose 3,182 lines make it the longest poem in Old English (with 10 percent of the entire body of Old English verse), also celebrates the Germanic warrior code, but does so from the view of a Christian poet who sees it as glorious but flawed, and invokes a kind of elegiac mood for the lost glory of those heroic days. Thus Beowulf is a compendium of all the most important themes of Old English poetry.
   Of course, far more Old English prose survives than poetry, much of it of literary significance. Aside from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself and the Old English translation of Bede, a number of Alfred’s translations are much admired, including his English version of Saint GREGORY THE GREAT’s Cura pastoralis and his translation of BOETHIUS’s CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY. But the most popular genre of Old English prose is the sermon. The two most admired prose stylists in Old English, WULFSTAN and AELFRIC, both active around the year 1000, in the period of Viking invasions under the ill-advised Ethelred, are both known for their sermons.Wulfstan’s famous Sermon of Wolf to the English in 1014 attributes the Viking atrocities to the punishment of a just God for the English sins. Aelfric, the greatest scholar of his age and the most admired Old English prose writers, left two large collections of sermons for use during two seasons of the Christian year.
   When the Normans displaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility and ended the Old English culture that was superior to their own, they effectively ended written literature in English for 200 years. It was not until the 14th century that English literature regained the heights it had reached in the Old English period. Indeed, European vernacular literature begins with Old English texts.
   ■ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated and edited by M. J. Swanton. New York: Routledge, 1998.
   ■ Dobbie, Elliott van Kirk, ed. Beowulf and Judith. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, IV. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.
   ■ Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
   ■ Greenfield, Stanley B., and Daniel G. Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986.
   ■ Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. First bilingual ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
   ■ Hogg, Richard M. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1: The Beginnings to 1066. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
   ■ Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, III. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.
   ■ Krapp, George Philip, ed. The Junius Manuscript. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, I.New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.
   ■ ———, ed. The Vercelli Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.
   ■ Smyth, Alfred P. King Alfred the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
   ■ Swanton, Michael, ed. Anglo-Saxon Prose. London: Dent, 1975.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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