Anglo-Saxon literature, the literary writings in Old English (see English language), composed between c.650 and c.1100.
See also English literature.
There are two types of Old English poetry: the heroic, the sources of which are pre-Christian Germanic myth, history, and custom; and the Christian. Although nearly all Old English poetry is preserved in only four manuscripts—indicating that what has survived is not necessarily the best or most representative—much of it is of high literary quality. Moreover, Old English heroic poetry is the earliest extant in all of Germanic literature. It is thus the nearest we can come to the oral pagan literature of Germanic culture, and is also of inestimable value as a source of knowledge about many aspects of Germanic society. The 7th-century work known as Widsith is one of the earliest Old English poems, and thus is of particular historic and linguistic interest.
Beowulf, a complete epic, is the oldest surviving Germanic epic as well as the longest and most important poem in Old English. It originated as a pagan saga transmitted orally from one generation to the next; court poets known as scops were the bearers of tribal history and tradition. The version of Beowulf that is extant was composed by a Christian poet, probably early in the 8th cent. However, intermittent Christian themes found in the epic, although affecting in themselves, are not integrated into the essentially pagan tale. The epic celebrates the hero's fearless and bloody struggles against monsters and extols courage, honor, and loyalty as the chief virtues in a world of brutal force.
The elegiac theme, a strong undercurrent in Beowulf, is central to Deor, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and other poems. In these works, a happy past is contrasted with a precarious and desolate present. The Finnsburgh fragment, The Battle of Maldon, and The Battle of Brunanburh (see Maldon and Brunanburh), which are all based on historical episodes, mainly celebrate great heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. In this heroic poetry, all of which is anonymous, greatness is measured less by victory than by perfect loyalty and courage in extremity.
Much of the Old English Christian poetry is marked by the simple belief of a relatively unsophisticated Christianity; the names of two authors are known. Cædmon—whose story is charmingly told by the Venerable Bede, who also records a few lines of his poetry—is the earliest known English poet. Although the body of his work has been lost, the school of Cædmon is responsible for poetic narrative versions of biblical stories, the most dramatic of which is probably Genesis B.
Cynewulf, a later poet, signed the poems Elene, Juliana, and The Fates of the Apostles; no more is known of him. The finest poem of the school of Cynewulf is The Dream of the Rood, the first known example of the dream vision, a genre later popular in Middle English literature. Other Old English poems include various riddles, charms (magic cures, pagan in origin), saints' lives, gnomic poetry, and other Christian and heroic verse.
The verse form for Old English poetry is an alliterative line of four stressed syllables and an unfixed number of unstressed syllables broken by a caesura and arranged in one of several patterns. Lines are conventionally end-stopped and unrhymed. The form lends itself to narrative; there is no lyric poetry in Old English. A stylistic feature in this heroic poetry is the kenning, a figurative phrase, often a metaphorical compound, used as a synonym for a simple noun, e.g., the repeated use of the phrases whale-road for sea and twilight-spoiler for dragon (see Old Norse literature).
Old English literary prose dates from the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Prose was written in Latin before the reign of King Alfred (reigned 871–99), who worked to revitalize English culture after the devastating Danish invasions ended. As hardly anyone could read Latin, Alfred translated or had translated the most important Latin texts. He also encouraged writing in the vernacular. Didactic, devotional, and informative prose was written, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably begun in Alfred's time as an historical record, continued for over three centuries. Two preeminent Old English prose writers were Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, and his contemporary Wulfstan, archbishop of York. Their sermons (written in the late 10th or early 11th cent.) set a standard for homiletics.
A great deal of Latin prose and poetry was written during the Anglo-Saxon period. Of historic as well as literary interest, it provides an excellent record of the founding and early development of the church in England and reflects the introduction and early influence there of Latin-European culture.
See G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 vol., 1932–53); G. K. Anderson, The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons (1949, repr. 1962); S. B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (1965); C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (1967); J. D. Niles, Old English Literature in Context (1981).
Saxons, Germanic people, first mentioned in the 2d cent. by Ptolemy as inhabiting the southern part of the Cimbric Peninsula (S Jutland). Holding the area at the mouth of the Elbe River and some of the nearby islands, they gradually extended their territory southward across the Weser River. A politically unified people, the Saxons were ruled by princes or chieftains. Their assemblies, in which all classes except slaves were represented, were consulted on all issues of war and peace. In the 3d and 4th cent. the Saxons were active in raiding expeditions along the coasts of the North Sea. The European coast from the Loire to the Scheldt rivers and the southeastern coast of Britain, where defenses were erected against their piratical raids, were known to the Romans as litora Saxonica [Saxon shores]. By the 5th cent. Saxons had established settlements along the north shore of Gaul, especially at the mouth of the Loire, and eventually these Saxons came under Frankish domination. As the Roman occupation of Britain weakened, the Saxons increased their marauding attacks and also began (c.450) to make settlements there, resisting all efforts to drive them off. By the end of the 6th cent. they and their neighbors the Angles were firmly established in the island, laying the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (see Anglo-Saxons). Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, became dominant. After the migration to Britain, the Saxons on the Continent came to be identified by historians as the Old Saxons. By virtue of their conquest (531) of Thuringia, they occupied NW Germany. In 566 they were subjugated by the Franks and forced to pay tribute. The Old Saxons waged intermittent war with the Franks until the end of the 8th cent., when they were conquered by Charlemagne and absorbed into his empire. After this conquest they were forcibly converted to Christianity. In the division of the empire by the Treaty of Verdun (843), the lands of the Saxons were included in the section that formed the basis for modern Germany.