Old English or Anglo Saxon Period (410-1066)
The term “Anglo-Saxon” is used historically to describe the three Germanic tribes, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, who ruled Britons, today’s Great Britain, from the 5th century CE to the time of the Norman Conquest (1066).
The Anglo-Saxon respected scholar St. Bede in his great book called “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” has mentioned that three different Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from northern Germany to the island of Britain in the 5th century, 410 CE, because after the departure of the Romans, the Britons suffered much from plundering raids of Picts and Scotti that is why the contemporary ruler of Britons named “Vortigern” invited them to defend his kingdom against the invasions of the Picts and Scotti, today’s Ireland and Scotland. They defended the Britons but turned against Vortigern and took control over the country and divided the country into eight kingdoms. The Saxons controlled the southern part of England dividing it into three kingdoms such as Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. The Jutes took the southeast part and named the kingdom Kent. And the Angles took over control of the northern and central parts of the country and divided them into four kingdoms such as East Anglia, Middle Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria.
Development of Old English Language
The people of each of the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms spoke a distinct dialect that developed over time and came to be known as Old English. So, we can say that the English language basically originated from German dialects. The four major dialects are:
- Northumbrian or North Dialect – The first dialect
- Merican dialect – The Language of Midlands
- Kentish dialect – The Language of South-East
- Alfred The Great – The Language of West Saxon
The important facts
Though the German tribes violated their promise, they contributed much that can be traced by the following facts which influenced the literature of this period:
- Christianization of the pagan tribes
- Beginning of written literature in 7th century
- Development of education
- The lifestyle based on five principles;
- Responding to nature
- Love of personal freedom
- Love of religion
- Love for femininity
- Struggle for glory
Main literary features
For the first time English literature came into trace in Old English or Anglo-Saxon Period with some transparent features which are as follows;
- Anonymous literary works
- Domination of paganism
- Strong belief in fate
- Absence of romantic love
- Respectful attitude to women
- Love for adventure and heroic activity
- Complicated language using metaphors, similes and alliteration
- End-rhyme is ignored
Famous literary works
The famous literary works of this period have survived for the most part in four manuscripts such as:
Exeter Book: It is an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The most famous elegiac poems of this manuscript are: The Ruined Burg or The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message The Battle of Maldon, Deor’s Laments, Widsith and others are Maxims I, Riddles 1-59, , Riddle 30b, Riddle 60, Riddles 61-95.
Junius manuscript: It is also known as the Caedmon manuscript and contains poetry dealing with Biblical subjects. The famous Christian poems of this manuscript are – Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, Christ and Satan.
Vercelli Book: It is an anthology of Old English prose and verse. This manuscript was probably compiled and written in the late 10th century. The poems of Cynewulf of this manuscript are “The Fates of the Apostles” and “Elene”. The book contains 23 prose homilies or religious discourses and a prose vita or C. V. of Saint Guthlac including with six poems:
- The Fates of the Apostles
- Soul and Body
- Dream of the Rood
- a fragment of a homiletic poem
Nowell Codex: This manuscript contains the unique copy of the epic poem Beowulf, national poem of England.
Famous Writers and Poets and their contributions
There were five Writers and Poets who have written much in the Anglo-Saxon era.
Caedmon: He is the first Christian poet in the history of English literature. He has written hymns and is considered the Anglo-Saxon Milton, a great epic poet of Neoclassical period.
Cynewulf: He is another Christian poet and his famous poems are:
Elene: It is a poem of 1,321 lines and an account of the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena.
The Fates of the Apostles: It is a short poem comprising 122 lines. It is a verified martyrology describing the mission and death of each of the Twelve Apostles.
Christ II: It is a lyrical version of a homily on the Ascension written by Pope Gregory I the Great. This poem is part of a trilogy on Christ by different authors.
Juliana: It is a poem of 731 lines. It is a retelling of a Latin prose life of St. Juliana, a maiden who rejected the love proposal of Eleusius, a Roman perfect, because of her faith and consequently was made to suffer numerous torments.
St. Bede The Venerable: He is the famous prose writer of this period and because of his book we can learn in detail about Anglo-Saxon period. His famous book is “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”.
Alfred The Great: He was the ruler of Wessex kingdom from 871 to 899. During his reign, he protected England from the invasion of the Danes. He brought huge change and development in the field of education for all. Regarding education, his view is that illiteracy is a great sin and only through learning humans can acquire wisdom and can lead a life in accordance with God’s will. Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle got started during his reign in 890.
Aelfric: He is an Anglo-Saxon prose writer, considered the greatest of his time. He wrote to instruct the monks and to spread the learning of the 10th-century monastic revival.
The English brought with them a complete system of self-government. Each village or township had its council called the town-root. It was composed of all freemen and was presided over by the village head-man called the reeve. There was a monthly meeting called hundred-moot. It settled disputes about property and tried criminal cases. The meeting of the whole folk or tribe was called the folk-moot. It formed a final court of justice and decided all questions of war and peace.
So, Among the various dialects, an exceptionally rich indigenous literature emerged. Examples include a compilation of manuscripts covering the events of early English history, the Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.