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Index by Period

Anglo-Saxon Literature
(450 - 1066)

  Then the warrior, battle-tried, touched the sounding glee-wood:
  Straight awoke the harp's sweet note; straight a song uprose,
  Sooth and sad its music. Then from hero's lips there fell
  A wonder-tale, well told.

                    Beowulf, line 2017 (a free rendering)


In its beginnings English literature is like a river, which proceeds not from a single wellhead but from many springs, each sending forth its rivulet of sweet or bitter water. As there is a place where the river assumes a character of its own, distinct from all its tributaries, so in English literature there is a time when it becomes national rather than tribal, and English rather than Saxon or Celtic or Norman. That time was in the fifteenth century, when the poems of Chaucer and the printing press of Caxton exalted the Midland above all other dialects and established it as the literary language of England.

Tributaries of Literature

Before that time, if you study the records of Britain, you meet several different tribes and races of men: the native Celt, the law-giving Roman, the colonizing Saxon, the sea-roving Dane, the feudal baron of Normandy, each with his own language and literature reflecting the traditions of his own people. Here in these old records is a strange medley of folk heroes, Arthur and Beowulf, Cnut and Brutus, Finn and Cuchulain, Roland and Robin Hood. Older than the tales of such folk-heroes are ancient riddles, charms, invocations to earth and sky:

  Hal wes thu, Folde, fira moder!
  Hail to thee, Earth, thou mother of men!


With these pagan spells are found the historical writings of the Venerable Bede, the devout hymns of Cędmon, Welsh legends, Irish and Scottish fairy stories, Scandinavian myths, Hebrew and Christian traditions, romances from distant Italy which had traveled far before the Italians welcomed them. All these and more, whether originating on British soil or brought in by missionaries or invaders, held each to its own course for a time, then met and mingled in the swelling stream which became English literature.

To trace all these tributaries to their obscure and lonely sources would require the labor of a lifetime. We shall here examine only the two main branches of our early literature, to the end that we may better appreciate the vigor and variety of modern English. The first is the Anglo-Saxon, which came into England in the middle of the fifth century with the colonizing Angles, Jutes and Saxons from the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic; the second is the Norman-French, which arrived six centuries later at the time of the Norman invasion. Except in their emphasis on personal courage, there is a marked contrast between these two branches, the former being stern and somber, the latter gay and fanciful. In Anglo-Saxon poetry we meet a strong man who cherishes his own ideals of honor, in Norman-French poetry a youth eagerly interested in romantic tales gathered from all the world. One represents life as a profound mystery, the other as a happy adventure.

Specimens of the Language

Our English speech has changed so much in the course of centuries that it is now impossible to read our earliest records without special study; but that Anglo-Saxon is our own and not a foreign tongue may appear from the following examples. The first is a stanza from "Widsith," the chant of a wandering gleeman or minstrel; and for comparison we place beside it Andrew Lang's modern version. Nobody knows how old "Widsith" is; it may have been sung to the accompaniment of a harp that was broken fourteen hundred years ago. The second, much easier to read, is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was prepared by King Alfred from an older record in the ninth century:

  Swa scrithende
      gesceapum hweorfath,
  Gleomen gumena
      geond grunda fela;
  Thearfe secgath,
      thonc-word sprecath,
  Simle, suth oththe north
      sumne gemetath,
  Gydda gleawne
      geofam unhneawne.

  So wandering on
      the world about,
  Gleemen do roam
      through many lands;
  They say their needs,
      they speak their thanks,
  Sure, south or north
      someone to meet,
  Of songs to judge
      and gifts not grudge. 

    Her Hengest and Aesc, his sunu, gefuhton wid Bryttas on thaere
    stowe the is gecweden Creccanford, and thaer ofslogon feower
    thusenda wera. And tha Bryttas tha forleton Cent-lond, and mid
    myclum ege flugon to Lundenbyrig.

    At this time Hengist and Esk, his son, fought with the Britons at
    the place that is called Crayford, and there slew four thousand
    men. And the Britons then forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled
    to London town.


Authors Related Articles
Anon. Author of Beowulf
Cynewulf
Cędmon
Beowulf
Anglo-Saxon Songs
Anglo-Saxon Songs
Types of Saxon Poetry
Later Prose and Poetry
Summary of Beginnings
Bibliography
Anglo-Saxon Literature
Wessex and the Northmen - 796-947


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