Our knowledge of the OE language comes mainly from manuscripts written in Latin characters. Like elsewhere in Western Europe Latin in England was the language of the church and also the language of writing and education. The monks were practically the only literate people; they read and wrote Latin and therefore began to use Latin letters to write down English words. Like the scribes of other countries, British scribes modified the Latin script to suit their needs: they changed the shape of some letters, added new symbols to indicate sounds, for which Latin had no equivalents, attached new sound values to Latin letters.
The first English words to be written down with the help of Latin characters were personal names and place names inserted in Latin texts; then came glosses and longer textual insertions.
All over the country, in the kingdoms of England, all kinds of legal documents were written and copied. At first they were made in Latin, with English names and place-names spelt by means of Latin letters, later they were also written in the local dialects. Many documents have survived on single sheets or have been copied into large manuscripts: various wills, grants, deals of purchase, agreements, proceedings of church councils, laws, etc. Most of them are now commonly known under the general heading of "Anglo-Saxon Charters"; the earliest are in Kentish and Mercian (8-9th c.); later laws and charters, are written in West Saxon though they do not necessarily come from Wessex: West Saxon as the written form of language was used in different regions.
Glosses to the Gospels and other religious texts were made in many English monasteries, for the benefit of those who did not know enough Latin. Their chronology is uncertain but, undoubtedly, they constitute early samples of written English. We may mention the Corpus and Epinal glossaries in the 8th c. Mercian, consisting of words to the Latin text arranged alphabetically, the interlinear glosses to the Lindisfarne Gospels: separate words and word-for-word translations scribbled between the Latin lines of beautifully ornamented manuscripts, and the glosses in the Durham Ritual, both in the 10th c. Northumbrian; and 65 also the Rushworth Gospels in Mercian and Northumbrian of the same century.
Among the earliest insertions in Latin texts are pieces of OE poetry. Bede's HISTORIA ECCLESIASTICA GENTIS ANGLORUM (written in Latin in the 8th c.) contains an English fragment of five lines known as “Bede's Death Song” and a religious poem of nine lines, “Cædmon's Hymn”.
OE poetry constitutes a most precious literary relic and quite a substantial portion of the records in the vernacular. All in all we have about 30,000 lines of OE verse from many poets of some three centuries. The names of the poets are unknown except Cædmon and Cynewulf, two early Northumbrian authors.
OE poetry is mainly restricted to three subjects: heroic, religious and lyrical. It is believed that many OE poems, especially those dealing with heroic subjects, were composed a long time before they were written down; they were handed down from generation to generation in oral form. Perhaps, they were first recorded in Northumbria some time in the 8th c., but have survived only in West Saxon copies made a long time afterwards ─the 10th or 11th c.
The greatest poem of the time was BEOWULF/ 'beɪəwʊlf/ , an epic of the 7th or 8th c. It was originally composed in the Mercian or Northumbrian dialect, but has come down to us in a 10th c. West Saxon copy. It is valued both as a source of linguistic material and as a work of art; it is the oldest poem in Germanic literature. BEOWULF is built up of several songs arranged in three chapters (over 3,000 lines in all). It is based on old legends about the tribal life of the ancient Teutons. The author (unknown) depicts vividly the adventures and fights of legendary heroes some of which can be traced to historical events.
In the 10th c., when the old heroic verses were already declining, some new war poems were composed and inserted in the prose historical chronicles: THE BATTLE OF BRUNANBURH, THE BATTLE OF MALDON. They bear resemblance to the ancient heroic poems but deal with contemporary events: the wars with the Scots, the Picts and the raiders from Scandinavia.
Another group of poems are OE elegiac (lyrical) poems: WIDSITH ("The Traveller's Song"), THE WANDERER, THE SEAFARER, and others. THE WANDERER depicts the sorrows and bereavement of a poet in exile: he laments the death of his protectors and friends and expresses his resignation to the gloomy fate. THE SEAFARER is considered to be the most original of the poems; it gives a mournful picture of the dark northern seas and sings joy at the return of the spring. Most of those poems are ascribed to Cynewulf.
Religious poems paraphrase, more or less closely, the books of the Bible ─ GENESIS, EXODUS (written by Cædmon). ELENE, ANDREAS, CHRIST, FATE OF THE APOSTLES tell the life-stories of apostles and saints or deal with various subjects associated with the Gospels (e.g. in the DREAM OF THE ROOD, the tree of which the cross was made tells its story from the time it was cut to the crucifixion of 66 Christ; extracts from this poem were carved in runes on the Ruthwell Cross).
OE poetry is characterised by a specific system of versification and some peculiar stylistic devices. Practically all of it is written in the OG alliterative verse: the lines are not rhymed and the number of the syllables in a line is free, only the number of stressed syllables being fixed. The line is divided into two halves with two strongly stressed syllables in each half and is bound together by the use of the same sound at the beginning of at least two stressed syllables in the line.
Here is the beginning of BEOWULF arranged in lines with stressed syllables and alliterating sounds italicized:
Hwæt w ē ʒār-Dena in ʒēardaʒum
"Lo, we of the spear-Danes in yore-days
peodcynin a prym efrunon
of the(ir) folk-kings the fame have heard
hu pa pelin as ellen fremedon
how the nobly-descended (ones) deeds of valour wrought."
The style of OE poetry is marked by the wide use of metaphorical phrases or compounds describing the qualities or functions of the thing; e.g. OE hēapu-swāt ─ 'war-sweat' for blood, OE brēost-hord ─ 'breast-hoard' for thought. This kind of metaphor naturally led to the composition of riddles, another peculiar production of OE poetry. (Some riddles contain descriptions of nature; many riddles describe all kinds of everyday objects in roundabout terms and make a sort of encyclopedia of contemporary life; for instance, the riddle of the shield which describes its sufferings on the battle-field; of an ox-horn used as a trumpet and as a drinking cup: a swan, a cuckoo, a bookworm) ...
OE prose is a most valuable source of information for the history of the language. The earliest samples of continuous prose are the first pages of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES: brief annals of the year's happenings made at various monasteries. In the 9th c. the chronicles were unified at Winchester, the capital of Wessex. Though sometimes dropped or started again, the Chronicles developed into a fairly complete prose history of England; the Winchester annals were copied and continued in other monasteries.
Several versions of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES have survived. Having no particular literary value they are of greatest interest to the philologist, as they afford a closer approach to spoken OE than OE poetry or prose translations from Latin; the style lacks conciseness, the syntax is primitive, for it reflects faithfully the style of oral narration.
Literary prose does not really begin until the 9th c. which witnessed a flourishing of learning and literature in Wessex during King Alfred's reign. The flourishing is justly attributed to King Alfred and a group of scholars he had gathered at his court at Winchester. An erudite / erudaɪt / himself, Alfred realised that culture could reach the people only in their own tongue. He translated from Latin books on geography, history and philosophy, popular at the time. One of his most important contributions is the West Saxon version of Orosius's World History (HISTORIARUM ADVERSUS PAGANOS LIBRI SEPTEM "Seven books of history against the heathens"). It abounds in deviations from the original, expansions and insertions, which make it the more interesting; he included there a full description of the lands where Germanic languages were spoken; two accounts of voyages: one made by Ohthere, a Norwegian, who had sailed along the coast of Scandinavia into the White Sea; another by Wulfstan, a Dane, who had travelled round the Baltic Sea. Alfred’s (or his associates’) other translations were a book of instruction for parish priests PASTORAL CARE (CURA PASTORALIS) by Pope Gregory the Great; the famous philosophical treatise ON THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY (DE CONSOLATIONE PHILOSOPHI E) by Boethius, a Roman philosopher and statesman. Bede's ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE, written about a hundred and fifty years before, was first rendered in English in Alfred's time, if not by Alfred himself.
By the 10 th c. the West Saxon dialect had firmly established itself as the written form of English. The two important 10 th c. writers are Elfric and Wulfstan; they wrote in a form of Late West Saxon which is believed to have considerably deviated from spoken West Saxon and to have developed into a somewhat artificial bookish language.
Elfric was the most outstanding writer of the later OE period. He produced a series of homilies to be used by the clergy during a year’sservice; the LIVES OF THE SAINTS written in alliterative metrical prose. He was the first to translate from Latin some parts of the Bible. Of especial interest are his textbooks: the COLLOQUIUM, which is a series of dialogues written as a manual for boys at a monastic school in Winchester and a LATIN GRAMMAR giving OE equivalents of Latin forms and constructions. The grammar shows the author's great ingenuity /ɪnʤɪ'nju:ətɪ/ in devising English grammatical terms by means of translation-loans.
Wulfstan, the second prominent late West Saxon author, was Archbishop of York in the early 11th c. He is famous for his collections of passionate sermons known as the HOMILIES.
It was many hundred years later that scholars began to take an interest in older forms of the language and turned their attention to the old manuscripts. In the 17 th c. Franciscus Junius, of Holland, accomplished an enormous amount of work in the study of early written records in OG tongues. He published the Gothic Gospels and a number of OE texts. Later, in the 18 th and 19 th c., many more OE texts were discovered; they were published in facsimile editions, and in the more modern English script, with commentary and translations. Most of the OE written material is kept in the British Museum; some of it is scattered elsewhere. A valuable manuscript of Bede's ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY dated in the year 746 is preserved in the Leningrad Public Library; the Latin text contains OE personal names, place-names and an early version of Cædmon's famous hymn in the Northumbrian dialect.
In modern publications, and especially in readers designed for students, the old records are edited. The runes are usually replaced by Latin characters, the abbreviations are deciphered, marks of length and missing letters are supplied, punctuation marks inserted. The spelling is to some extent regulated and normalised. In poetry the lines are shown in accordance with modern standards (in OE manuscripts verse was written out continuously, like prose). Apart from these minor adjustments all the peculiarities of the records are carefully reproduced, so that modern publications can be used as reliable material for the study of the OE language.