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KEY IDEA Anglo-Saxon literature often focused on great heroes such as Beowulf, though sometimes it addressed everyday concerns.

Literature Focus I. Literature of the Time

The Anglo-Saxon era left a rich legacy of language and literature. The two most important influences on Anglo-Saxon (Old English) literature were the Germanic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons and the Christian traditions of the Roman church.

Germanic TraditionsThe Anglo-Saxons brought their Germanic language, religion, warrior culture, and oral literary tradition to Britain. All of these elements provided a foundation for early written literature in Old English.

Christian TeachingsAs Christianity spread through Anglo-Saxon England, Christian monks established libraries and schools within their monasteries, where they emphasized the importance of the written word—especially of the Bible. Their emphasis on scholarship and teaching resulted in the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and other religious and historical writings. The work of such monks also resulted in the preservation of much of the Old English literature that survives today.

Old English Poetry

Oral Tradition The early Anglo-Saxons spoke various Germanic dialects, a mixture of which formed the basis of Old English. To present-day readers of English, Old English looks like a foreign language, as these lines from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon show (translation follows):

Hige sceal ϸe heardra, The mind must be the tougher,

heorte ϸe cenre, the heart the keener,

mod sceal ϸe mare, the courage must be greater, as our

ϸe ure mægen lytla. strength diminishes.

Anglo-Saxon storytellers created heroic verses (epic poems) glorifying earthly virtues and concerns, such as bravery and loyalty, which were crucial to Anglo-Saxon life. The early Anglo-Saxons developed a rich oral tradition of songs and stories about the valiant struggles of heroic warriors. These songs and stories were often performed by professional poets, bards called scops at the banquets of Anglo-Saxon rulers who brought the epic poems to life. Strumming a harp, the scop would chant in a clear voice that carried over the shouts and laughter of the crowd, captivating them for hours on end with tales of courage, high drama, and tragedy. With illiteracy widespread, the oral tradition of songs and tales became the major literary entertainment for Anglo-Saxons.

To the Anglo-Saxons, these epic poems were far more than simple entertainment. The scop’s performance was a history lesson, moral sermon, and pep talk rolled into one, instilling cultural pride and teaching how a true hero should behave. At the same time, in true Anglo-Saxon fashion, the scop reminded his listeners that they were helpless in the hands of fate and that all human ambition would end in death. With no hope for an afterlife, only an epic poem could provide a measure of immortality.

These epic poems were an oral art form:memorized and performed, not written down. Later, as Christianity spread through Britain, literacy spread too, and poems were more likely to be recorded. In this age before printing presses, however, manuscripts had to be written out by hand, copied slowly and laboriously by scribes. Thus, only a fraction of Anglo-Saxon poetry has survived, in manuscripts produced centuries after the poems were originally composed. The most famous survivor is the epic Beowulf, about a legendary hero of the northern European past. In more than 3,000 lines, Beowulf relates the tale of a heroic warrior who battles monsters and dragons to protect the people. Yet Beowulf, while performing superhuman deeds, is not immortal. His death comes from wounds incurred in his final, great fight.

The Epic Tradition • Epic poems praised deeds of heroic warriors. • Poems were recited by scops in mead halls. • Poems instilled cultural pride. Common Life • Lyric poems reflected everyday reality. • Exeter Book contains surviving lyrics. • Writing moved from Latin to English. • Medieval literature also explored everyday concerns.
Almost all Old English poetry that has been preserved comes from four manuscripts—the Beowulf manuscript, the Exeter Book, the Junius manuscript, and the Vercelli Book. These manuscripts contain three major types of poetry:

v heroic verse celebrates courage, honor, and loyalty;

v the elegy mourns a loss or laments the fleeting nature of life’s joys;

v religious verse focuses on Christian teachings and stories.

Some poems, such as Beowulf, contain all three types of poetry.

Poetic StyleOld English poems display a similarity in meter—the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that gives a line of poetry its rhythm. Stress, or emphasis, tends to fall on the first syllable of a word. Stressed syllables often alliterate; that is, the initial consonant or vowel sound repeats at the beginning of other words or stressed syllables.

Lines of Anglo-Saxon verse typically consist of two parts divided by a caesura, or natural pause, with two major stressed syllables in each part. At least one stressed syllable in the first part alliterates with the first stressed syllable in the second part, thus linking the two parts in a complete, balanced line. The following lines from Beowulf show this two-part alliterative verse pattern. The caesura is indicated by a space, though writers of Old English verse did not space lines of verse in this way.

ϸá com of móre under místhléo ϸum Then came from the moor under the


Gréndel góngan, Gódes yrre bær. Grendel walking, he bore God’s


The English poet and critic Robert Graves compared the rhythm of Old English poetry to the heave-ho of rowing on a ship, recalling the seafaring tradition of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.

Themes in Old English PoetryIn Beowulf and other Old English poems, seafaring warriors figure prominently. The poems depict a society like that of the Anglo-Saxons, bound together by military and tribal loyalties, in which the bravery of warriors and the generosity of rulers are highly valued. Yet the writer of Beowulf interprets the monster-slaying stories he inherited from pagan Germanic folklore as struggles between good and evil that his Christian contemporaries could appreciate. The epic depicts the monster Grendel as an enemy of God and a descendant of Cain, the first murderer in the Bible. Thus, Beowulf is a blend of the Germanic heroic tradition and the Christian tradition.

While epics such as Beowulf gave Anglo-Saxons a taste of glory, scops also sang shorter, lyric poems, such as The Seafarer,that reflected a more everyday reality: the wretchedness of a cold, wet sailor clinging to his storm-tossed boat; the misery and resentment of his wife, left alone for months or years, not knowing if her husband would ever return.

Some of these poems mourn loss and death in the mood of grim fatalism typical of early Anglo-Saxon times; others, written after the advent of Christianity, express religious faith or offer moral instruction. A manuscript known as the Exeter Bookcontains many of the surviving Anglo-Saxon lyrics, including more than 90 riddles, such as this one: Wonder was on the wave, when water became bone. Answer: an iceberg.

Early Authors: Histories and Sermons

Much of the notable Old English prose was created during the rule of King Alfred, which lasted from 871 to 899. Alfred was a courageous leader and a deeply religious scholar; he was the force and intelligence behind the establishment of English law. He was so remarkable, in fact, that he came to be called Alfred the Great—the only British monarch in history to be so honored. Alfred instituted a program to translate significant learning and literature from Latin into Old English. One of the most important of these translations was that of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. One literary figure Bede describes is Caedmon, the earliest known poet to compose in Old English.

King Alfred also encouraged prose writers to compose new works in Old English. The first great prose work written in Old English was The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of historical events compiled by a number of writers over more than three centuries. Writers also composed homilies, biographies of saints, and other works that helped establish Old English as a versatile literary language. Among the most important of these writers was Ælfric, a Benedictine monk who produced the Catholic Homilies and Lives of Saints.

As England moved into the Middle Ages, its literature continued to capture the rhythms of everyday life. The medieval period was one of social turbulence and unrest, and several works give modern readers a glimpse of the individual hopes and fears of people of the time. Margery Kempe,for example, describes a crisis of faith brought on by childbirth; the letters of Margaret Pastonand her family mainly deal with issues of marriage and managing the family estate.

Date: 2016-03-03; view: 2660

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