Old English Period (in English literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Old English Period (in English literature)

Old English Period (in English literature): Also referred to as the Anglo-Saxon Period by historians, an era usually said to have begun in the first half of the fifth century A.D. with the migration to Britain by members of four principal Germanic tribes from the European continent: the Frisians, the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles (whose name, by the seventh century, was used to refer to all of the Germanic inhabitants of “Engla-land,” hence, England). Old English refers to the synthetic, or fairly heavily inflected, language system of these peoples, once they were separated from their Germanic roots.

By the time the Germanic tribes arrived, the British Isles had been inhabited for centuries by Celtic peoples, who had been under Roman occupation for nearly four hundred years (A.D. 43—410). While some of these native Britons had learned Latin, their Celtic language and culture had remained intact. Christianity had also been introduced under the Roman occupation, and a British (as well as Irish) church flourished almost completely independent of Rome, helping to sustain the literate and learned traditions of the Latin West when non-Christian Germanic peoples swept into the Roman Empire.

According to Bede, a Benedictine monk often called the “father of English history” for his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) (c. A.D. 730), the Britons, abandoned by the Romans, invited help from the Anglo-Saxons against marauding tribes to the north, only to have the mercenaries turn on them. King Arthur — if he ever existed — may have been a Romano-British war leader (perhaps nicknamed “Arcturus,” Latin for “The Bear”) and is credited with holding off the first waves of Germanic invader-immigrants in the early fifth century. But the Anglo-Saxons soon drove the native British into Wales and Cornwall. The invaders were themselves converted to Christianity after the arrival in 597 of Augustine (not to be confused with his famous predecessor of the same name, the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo), whose mission from Rome also included bringing the British Christian clergy into the Roman Catholic sphere. Christianity brought literacy to the orally based culture of the Anglo-Saxons; by the eighth century, Anglo-Saxon monks were prominent scholars and leading missionaries among the Germanic peoples on the Continent.

England was invaded several more times during the Old English Period by Germanic cousins of the Anglo-Saxons: Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, all of whom were called “Vikings” by the English. These peoples were not Christianized when they arrived, beginning in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, and again in the tenth century, but eventually, like the Anglo-Saxons, they settled the lands they seized and adopted the religion of their inhabitants. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 — at the hands of still other Germanic peoples, the “Northmen” who had settled the northern area of modern France and whose language was a dialect of Old French — is generally said to have ended the Old English Period and to have inaugurated the subsequent Middle English Period (1100—1500).

King Alfred, often referred to by the epithet “Alfred the Great,” is the best-known figure of the Old English Period because of his success in unifying the Anglo-Saxons against the Vikings during the ninth century. Alfred also sponsored the translation of several Latin works into Old English and inaugurated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of events in England that was kept through the twelfth century. Under his influence, West Saxon, the language of almost all of the period’s surviving manuscripts, emerged as a sort of “standard” among the four principal dialects.

The epic Beowulf, parts of which may have taken shape in early Germanic oral tradition but which was written down in Old English after A.D. 1000, is the period’s most famous literary work and is concerned exclusively with Scandinavian peoples and events. Other notable poems, most of which were committed to writing in the eleventh century, include “Deor,” “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Dream of the Rood” (or Cross). This last poem comes from the less well-known but large body of verse that is explicitly religious in theme, including stories from Genesis and Exodus, as well as saints’ lives and prose sermons. Although these works were put in writing in a Christianized culture, they nonetheless represent the pre-Christian Germanic past of the Anglo-Saxons. The work of a few poets, such as Cynewulf and Cædmon, was more obviously Christian in subject. Most of the writing of the period that was predominantly religious consisted of biblical narratives and saints’ lives retold in Old English verse and homilies or sermons in Old English prose, alongside and in communication with a flourishing Latin literature.