From charlesreid1

Nice cross-references to Ulysses, Chapter 14, Oxen of the Sun.


George K. Anderson. Old and Middle English Literature. (1950)

Literature of the Old English Period


No literature survives from England at the time of the Roman occupation

End of Roman occupation of Britain: 410

Anglo-Saxon (Germanic invaders) conquest of Britain - fifth century onward

King Alfred the Great of Wessex (849-901)

King Edward the Confessor - 1042

But at least we can no longer rightfully call these centuries the Dark Ages. Besides, such generalizations only go to show the fatal fallacy of attempting to read and interpret life from the imperfect written records of an era. Even the apparently clod-like Anglo-Saxon of this period might have uttered indignantly the simple speech of the murderer in Macbeth: "We are men, my liege!"

- p. 19

Heroic and Christian Epics

Four surviving heroic epic poems:

  • Widsith
  • Beowulf
  • The Fight at Finnsburg
  • Waldere

Four important manuscripts of Old English poetry:

  • Exeter Book (975)
  • Beowulf Manuscript (1000 - British Museum)
  • Junius Manuscript (1000 - printed by Huguenot scholar Dujon in 1655)
  • Vercelli Book (1000s - large number of prose compositions)

The author wisely decides not to quote from the poem, as that would have ballooned a pocket-sized book into a doorstop, but here are the sections of Beowulf the author highlights:

Lack of space forbitds the quoting here of extensive passages from the poem, but certain lines are especially recommended. There are the final measures of the Prologue, the stern commentary on the passing of Scyld; the grim stage-entrance of Grendel; the horrifying account of the destruction of Grendel's prey; the picturesque contest with Breca in the storms of the winter sea. There are the lines describing the behavior of the Danes on the morning after Beowulf's fight with Grendel, how they went to visit the scene and then came home rejoicing - and here we are told something of the real genesis of a heroic epic, for the Danes spoke of Bowulf's deed...

A most noteworthy passage, sometimes called the first bit of landscape in English literature, although this honor would be a difficult one to bestow justly, is the description of the approach to Grendel's lair.

- p. 27-28

Other heroic epics are listed, two in particular:

  • The Battle of Brunanburh - part The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (year 937), chronicles defeat of Norsemen and Scots by English under Athelstan, successor of King Alfred
  • The Battle of Maldon - tale of defeat of band of Englishmen under Byrhtnoth by invading Danes in 991

Excerpts from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are on that page.

Cynewulfian Cycle:

  • Andreas
  • The two Guthlac poems
  • Dream of the Rood
  • The Phoenix
  • The Harrowing of Hell
  • The Bestiary (or Physiologus)

Other Old English Poetry

The Christian epic shows that the cleric, while he was aware of the grimness of nature and the mighty adversaries of the soul, was able to soften them through the essential hopefulness of his religion.

- p. 35

Two poems:

  • The Wanderer (eloquent poem of brooding sadness)
  • The Seafarer (in the Exeter book)
  • The Ruin (in the Exeter book, beautiful example of Old English elegiac verse)

The Harrowing of Hell - recounts a story of Christ's three days in Hell

Anglo-Latin Literature of the Old English Period

Venerable Bede - Anglo-Latin writer

Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne - important Anglo-Latin writer

Bede's writings:

  • Commentaries on the Bible
  • Works on scientific subjects/natural phenomena
  • Lives of martyrs and saints
  • The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731)
  • On Metrics, On Orthography, and On the Tropes of the Scriptures serve to illustrate clerical didacticism
  • De Temporibus, De Ratione Temporum, and De Natura Rerum exemplify encyclopedic knowledge of "divine operation"
  • Lives of the Holy Abbots - contributions to ecclesiastical biography
  • Ecclesiastical History - unmatched

Alcuin (735-804) played an important part in the conduct of Charlemagne's Palace School

Alcuin is not the equal of Bede either in literary skill or in intellectual versatility. It takes a corageous and confirmed scholar to wade through Alcuin's tracts...

A realization of Alcuin's position and achievement adds greatly, nevertheless, to an understanding of the work of Alfred the Great.

- p. 47

Alfred the Great

He was born in the midst of conflict and spent his early manhood in wars against the Viking Danes. A great invasion of these ruthless warriors had taken place in 865; and when Alfred came to the throne in 871, affairs were in a critical state.

- p. 48

Alfred had five works translated and distributed, which he believed were authoritative:

  • Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (De Consolatione Philosophae) - a philosophical work from 6th century, Platonic thought
  • Bede's Ecclesiastical History
  • Orosius's Compendius History of the World
  • Blostman, based on the Soliloquies of Saint Augustine
  • Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care

Alfred encouraged and systematized the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy is one of the most important works in early European literature and, next to the body of Catholic doctrine and dogma, the most important philosophical influence felt in the Middle Ages.

- p. 51

This work is divided into five books, alternating sections of poems and prose:

  • Book 1 - Boethius tells of his misfortunes, and enters into a conversation with a woman he meets while he is in prison, who is his guardian Philosophy (Wisdom). She discovers he lacks self-knowledge, the cause of his misfortunes.
  • Book 2 - Philosophy introduces Fortune, who shows Boethius the possibility of happiness.
  • Book 3 - Philosophy promises to show Boethius true happiness: God Himself. God cannot allow evil.
  • Book 4 - Boethius questions why evil exists. Philosophy says that no evil goes unpunished; considers Privdence and Fate; and shows that everything works out in the end.
  • Book 5 - Man's free will and God's foreknowledge - attempts to show these are not contradictory.

Five books, 42 chapters

More fairly represented in Chaucer's version than Alfred's version (although more dull)

Aelfric, Wulfstan, and the Homilies

At first glance the tenth century, following Alfred's death, seems a story of material gains only. Actually, however, English literature owes a great debt to the Church in the tenth century.

- p. 53

Aelfric - most important person between death of Alfred and Normal Conquest.

  • Born about 955
  • Lived in monastery at Winchester until 987
  • Died about 1025

Aelfric's works:

  • Passion of Saint Thomas
  • Colloquy on the Occupations

It further demonstrates the disturbing fact that social problems tend to remain the same, regardless of age of environment.

- p. 55

Hexameron - deals with six days of creation

Heptateuch - translation with extensive commentary of selected portions of the Pentateuch

It must not be supposed that the homilies of the Old English period were all arid stretches of theological exposition, stripped of all humanity and all sense of reality.

- p. 57

The harangue is punctuated by rhythmic phrases of similar device: "let him believe who will!" "let him understand who will!" "let him do more if he can!" which add to the emotional and dramatic tone of the whole.

- p. 58

Three beautiful examples of medieval book-making and manuscript illumination:

  • Lindisfarne Gospels
  • Rushworth Gospels
  • Vespasian Psalter

Secular Didactic Writing and Prose Fiction

Apollonius of Tyre - originally an oldGreek romance, entering collection of Western European legends via Gesta Romanorum

Letters of Alexander to Aristotle - Alexander legend; translation by Anglo-Saxon cleric included with Beowulf Manuscript

  • Letters from Alexander when he reached India back to Aristotle
  • Swaggering ingenuousness of an epic hero
  • Boastful, arrogant, childish
  • Tropical lushness in contrast to Nordic atmosphere of Beowulf or Scandinavian sagas
  • Larger geographical horizon

Informational Writing Before Norman Conquest

Considerable interest in practical science; no spirit of investigation or experimentation

Science was a body of residual knowledge, built up from hard experience over the ages

Folklore, and Hippocrates, Galen, and Pythagoras

Venerable Bede was medieval academician - versed in mathematics, astronomy, cosmography

Bridferth or Byrhtferth - scholar who wrote several important books

Enchiridion, or Handbook - the most important book

Herbarium Apuleii

The grand resultant of all the component forces - pagan folklore, classical learning, superstition, pseudo-science, and crude experimental findings - is the Anglo-Saxon Leechbook (10th century)...

The Leechbook, quite apart from any intrinsic scientific value it may possess - and such value is really very little - shines as a brilliant sidelight on the life of the times. It is instructive to realize that people in every age have suffered from colds and toothaches and indigestion; it is helpful to know that King Alfred suffered from what appear to have been stomach ulcers. For some reason it has been particularly difficult to convince readers that the writers of Anglo-Saxon literature were not all ghostly unrealistic. The Leechbook shows that they were at least human.

- p. 65

An interesting note about the development of linguistic science during this time lists Aelfric's Grammar and Glossary

The various glosses that have survived are embryonic dictionaries; they are word lists that give a Latin word of some difficulty with its English equivalent beside it.

Glosses usually named after the town/city where they were discovered

List of glosses:

  • Epinal
  • Erfurt
  • Brussels
  • Boulogne
  • Leiden Glosses

Date range: 700-1000


If we confine ourselves for the moment to Old English literature, we discover that it is naive and rudimentary, sometimes clumsy and awkward, sometimes inadequate, sometimes strikingly effective, but always endowed with personality and never ignoble.

- p. 68