Medieval English Literature

Medieval English Literature
597 – 1066 – 1400
Old English or Anglo-Saxon Period
(until 1066 or ca. 1150)
410 - Withdrawal of Roman legions, afterwards Anglo-Saxon tribes conquer Britain.
597 - St. Augustine’s mission to England - sent by pope Gregory the Great – anything
written in the Latin alphabet in English must needs come from after this date, as it was
the missionaries who taught the Anglo-Saxons to write. Runes, their old script, only
served special purposes like marking objects as one’s own, etc.
601 - Paulinus’ mission to the North, the second attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons to
Christianity after a relapse upon the death of the first generation of Christian kings.
c. 625 - ship-burial at Sutton Hoo – this is an archaeological find with many valuable
objects, a strange parallel to what we read in the first 52 lines of the poem Beowulf.
634 - Aidan founds Lindisfarne with Irish monks from Iona, this is the second
mission, which affirms the influence of Irish Christianity in Britain. A proof of its high
artistic output is the “Lindisfarne Gospels,” a beautifully decorated manuscript now in the
British Library
664 - Synod of Whitby: assertion of Roman practices of Christianity over Irish – the
decision made at this synod about how to calculate the date of Easter in each year meant
that the English church will be closely attached to Rome and thus continental European
669 - Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian arrive in Canterbury - third wave of
conversion by missionaries whose mother tongue was not English, and who therefore
promoted the use of the vernacular more than anywhere else.
731 – The Venerable Bede completes his Ecclesiastical History
782 - Alcuin leaves York, where he was trained to be a scholar, and joins the court of
Charlemagne, who gives him the task of establishing his palace school. He is the first
English scholar of European fame.
793-5 Viking raids on Lindisfarne, Jarrow, and Iona. This is the end of the first great
period of Anglo-Saxon culture and literature in Latin.
867 - Northumbria falls to the Danes
870 - East Anglia falls to the Danes, murder of St. Edmund
871 - The Danes attack Wessex
871-899 - Alfred the Great, king of Wessex – he succeeds in re-gaining a large part of
Britain from the Vikings establishing peace in the south not only with the help of his
military projects, but also with his literary ones. His and his circle of scholar’s
translations of important scholarly works into English and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is
unprecedented in Europe.
937 - Battle of Brunanburh: Aethelstan’s, king Alfred’s grandson’s victory over the
Northern alliance of Scots and Norsemen celebrated in a poem in the Anglo-Saxon
Mid-10th century: Benedictine reform in England: A reform of monastic life after its
disruption by the Viking invasions. A similar movement started on the Continent in
Lotharingia and Flanders was introduced also in England with the aim to return to a
stricter following of the Rule of St. Benedict. The result of the reform was a flourishing
of scholarship and vernacular prose literature (Aelfric – Catholic Homilies, Wulfstan –
End of 10th century: renewed Viking invasions
991 - Battle of Maldon - practice begins of ‘buying off’ the Viking invaders with money
until at last Cnut the Dane becomes king of England (1014-1035) joining the country to
his large North-Atlantic empire.
1042-1066 – Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king
Oct. 14th 1066 - Duke William of Normandy defeats and kills king Harold
Godwinson of England at Hastings
1154 - Last entries in the Peterborough copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Literature especially in the early Middle Ages includes a much wider range of texts than
what we would normally put under that heading in later periods. Usually almost all
written texts except for the ones of very practical use like wills and legal texts are studied
as literature. E.g. historical texts like chronicles, religious prose like homilies, sermons,
saints’ lives, biblical exegesis (explanation of the meaning of biblical texts), scientific
philosophical and theological writings, etc. were all consumed by the small group of
contemporary readers and listeners of readings first of all because of their practical
didactic value and not because they wished to pass their time in a pleasant way reading
something. Teaching was supposed to be made more effective by literary means.
Literature was not cultivated for its own sake, i.e. for mere enjoyment.
Far more prose texts have come down to us in Anglo-Saxon or Old English than in any
other European language from the first millennium. Many are translations of Latin works,
which are still interesting to study as medieval translators re-worked their originals
according to their special needs. Many times they added their own ideas, updated the text,
conflated several sources to bring their ideas closer to their readers. Prose works can
usually be discussed in chronological order, because they can be dated. Often their
writers are known or at least the period and place when and where they were written can
be closely defined on the basis of the topic, the manuscript, the dialect, etc.
Poetry, on the other hand, has been composed by the Germanic peoples and others since
times immemorial, and it has been handed down to posterity without writing it down. No-
one felt that it was important to record poems, it was easy to recall the stories from
memory and put them into a poetic form according to the need of the occasion, i.e. sing
them again and again. It is a late development when the same poetic style that was
common to all Germanic peoples was put to the new use of versifying Christian topics
like biblical stories and saints’ lives. This is the time, when stories like that of the Geatish
hero Beowulf also found their way to paper through the effort of monks in a monastic
scriptorium. Earlier versions of the story made into poetry must have existed for several
centuries before this, because the story takes place on the Continent, and the scarce
historical figures in it, like Hygelac may have lived in the early 6th century. They were
handed down through several generations in an oral form.
It is clear for us from the above that there is no purely pagan poem among the 30.000
lines of poetry preserved. All of what we possess has been re-thought by someone
Christian, since only those trained in the religious orders could write. With minor
exceptions all Old English poems are preserved in late 10th century manuscripts. Since
we do not know any Anglo-Saxon poets with the exception of two names, Caedmon and
Cynewulf, and neither do we know the dates of the composition of poems, we cannot
discuss them in chronological order, but group them by genre. The major ones are:
heroic poems (Beowulf, the long primary epic, The Battle of Maldon, The Battle of
Brunanburh), so called elegiac poems (The Seafarer, The Wanderer), meditative
religious poems (The Dream of the Rood) and others, like biblical paraphrases, verse
saints’ lives, charms.
THE VENERABLE BEDE (672/3 - 735)
- He described his own life in V. 24. of his Ecclesiastical History: he was a monk, he
studied and taught all his life in the double monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow in
- He was a scholar of very wide learning, he only wrote in Latin: grammar, hagiography,
natural science, history, biblical exegesis, poetry.
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English
Bede’s most important aim with compiling this book was to prove that God
supports the English people who have conquered Britain, they have fulfilled
God’s wish, and that’s why they have been successful.
Consists of 5 books, ranging from the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion to Britain
in 60 B.C. to 731 A.D. when Bede finished the work.
Beside historical events he included: papal and episcopal correspondence, acta
of church councils, anecdotes, metrical epitaphs, poetic quotations, visions of holy
men, saints' lives, descriptions of miracles. Many of these would not be
considered historical documents, but in his time history was viewed in a different
ENGLISH HISTORY OF THIS PERIOD. It is a very varied and interesting
collection of documents
One of the best-known stories in the book is that of Caedmon, the shepherd who
lived in the Whitby monastery. He learnt to compose poems on biblical topics by
a miracle in his dream. For Bede he was important because he fulfilled a
missionary task, for us he reveals interesting details about the circumstances of
the composition of poems and how poetry was enjoyed.
Translated into Old English in King Alfred’s time (9th c.).
SERIOUS BREAK IN LATIN LEARNING because of the Viking invasions, until king
Alfred managed to fight them back, and the next three generations of West Saxon kings
preserved and enlarged their kingdom.
The Alfredian Revival
ALFRED, King of Wessex (871-99)
During and after managing to fight back the Vikings and fortifying the defence of his
country the king launched a cultural project of teaching his people by providing English
translations of the books he considered the most useful in the education of mainly the
clergy, but sometimes lay noblemen, too.
Asser, the Welsh monk described his career in his Latin Life, written during Alfred’s
lifetime - first biography of an English layman (combines the features of annals and
saint’s lives)
Cultural upsurge continued under his son Edward the Elder (899-924), and grandsons
Aethelstan (924-39) and Eadmund (939-46)
Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care - about the bishop’s duties; aiming at the
spiritual education of the clergy - Alfred had a copy sent to each bishop in the country.
This translation was created in stylistic vacuum, relatively close to the original. In the
Preface composed by the king he describes the poor state of learning in his country as a
result of the Viking invasions, and how he wants to remedy this with his translations and
with the education of young people – laymen to read in English, and clerics to go on
to learn Latin, too.
Bede’ Historia Ecclesiastica - A quarter shorter than the original, miraculous, parochial,
local features strengthened in the translation. Caedmon’s poem is included in Old
Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine: Soliloquies - radical adaptation
of Latin, very personal, additions of illustrations, comments, metaphors, similes, making
the abstract philosophical thoughts concrete.
Paulus Orosius’s History - insertions of contemporary local material: travels of Ohthere
and Wulfstan up the Scandinavian coast and to the Baltic, to the Vistula river.
The Chronicle is a year-by-year register of events in English from Julius Caesar’s
invasion on. The prototype is compiled to ca. 890, the last continuation is entered 1154
(Peterborough MS). As opposed to similar chronicles in Latin on the continent this is in
Old English prose. The historical writing style (historiography) can be seen in it
Six MSS (manuscripts) survive - Parker Chronicle is the oldest (CCCC 173: 1st
hand datable to c. 900).
Earlier entries are simple, factual, later ones longer, fuller, more complex in
syntax. They contain the description of more motivation, personality, cause and
effect of events.
Six poems included, the longest: The Battle of Brunanburh.
Benedictine Reform
- 2nd half of 10th century – re-enacted the Carolingian reform initiated by Louis the
Pious of France and Benedict of Aniane (+821). Introduction of uniform liturgical and
disciplinary practices - 973 Regularis Concordia accepted by the synodal council of
Winchester for “all England.”
Flourishing of Vernacular Prose
AELFRIC (+ c. 1020) - studied in Winchester, abbot of Eynsham
Catholic Homilies - 2 series of OE homilies, (altogether 80, often translated pieces) and
Lives of Saints - aim: to strengthen his people through learning against the horrors and
chaos of Viking attacks, private, speculative, intellectual approach, UNIQUE
- style: simple diction, poetic language, metrical Old English prose in imitation of
contemporary rhymed Latin prose
Colloquy - for teaching Latin. Later continuous interlinear gloss in Old English, a rich
source of everyday life.
WULFSTAN - (LUPUS) (+ 1023) - archbishop of York
- Energetic public man, homilist and statesman, helped rebuild York library after Viking
- 21 sermons, among them: Sermo Lupi ad Anglos - afflictions from the Vikings come to
the English as God's punishment because of treachery, disloyalty and other sins, brutally
realistic pictures.
- Style: alliteration, rhyme, parallelisms.
30.000 lines of poetry survives in single copies in four MSS.(The Exeter Book, The
Vercelli Book, The Beowulf MS, The Junius MS)
- Heroic poems are part of the common Germanic heritage: legends, verse making, style,
verse form (4-stress alliterative line) are similar in all Germanic languages.
- Shorter heroic lays and long epic are transformed by Christian literacy.
-These poems were not preserved in writing because of their literary value. A number
may have been lost. The ones extant probably survived by chance, e.g. Beowulf is
preserved in book about monsters, supposedly because there are monsters in it.
The longest complete Germanic primary epic poem from the early Middle Ages. It
consists of 3182 lines, survives in a single MS (BL Cotton Vitellius A XV.), definitive
modern edition by Fr. Klaeber (1922). There are several good verse and prose
translations into modern English, the most recent famous one by Seamus Heaney.
TOPIC: Patterns of behaviour of ideal Germanic kings/war leaders. The tragic conflict
within Germanic heroic ethic between the requirements of the ideal, and the possibilities
of life; fate, individual glory, and the good of the community.
STORY: Beowulf, a young Geatish hero, nephew of King Hygelac fights and kills
Grendel, a monster and his mother, who wants to take revenge for her son, in defence of
the ageing Danish king, Hrothgar and his great hall, Heorot. Beowulf goes on this exploit
with his retainers because he is indebted to Hrothgar as the Danish king had helped his
father earlier. Well rewarded with treasure, Beowulf returns home with his men. After
Hygelac’s and his son’s death Beowulf rules the Geats for fifty years, when a dragon,
whose treasure has been robbed, attacks the country. Beowulf fights the fire-spitting
monster in a single combat as all his men escape for fear except for Wiglaf, and he is
mortally wounded. Before he dies he kills the dragon.
Some persons in Beowulf are known from historical sources (but not the hero!), which
date the events to the early 6th century. Opinions about the date of the composition
differ, they range from the 8th c. to the date of the only manuscript, which is late 10th c.
1. In oral culture, when no written records were kept of historical events, heroic
poems, handed down from generation to generation in an oral form preserved the
memory of leaders and events. Germanic people first had an alphabet in their
languages after conversion.
2. The life and fights of earlier heroes set an example for both leaders and retainers
to follow. Retainers had to be loyal, and fight for their leaders until death in case
the tribe was attacked. This can be seen in The Battle of Maldon. On the other
hand war leaders, kings had to reward their retainers with treasure, weapon, and
horses in return, after the fight, and take care to protect them. After the fights
Beowulf gets such reward from Hrothgar.
3. Boasting, when the warriors committed themselves to be brave in battle, and giftgiving after the battle took place at great feasts with eating, drinking mead – a
strong alcoholic drink prepared from honey – and singing poems of earlier heroes
for the entertainment of the war band. There are several such occasions
described in Beowulf.
- According to earlier theories a collection of lays (heroic stories) were patched together
by a later Christian poet.
- ORAL-FORMULAIC THEORY - F. P. Magoun (and A. B. Lord as he described it in
The Singer of Tales) applied F Parry’s theory to OE poetry: Unlettered singers were
capable of extemporizing long epic poems about traditional topics, like heroes, wars,
using shorter or longer set units (formulas, formulaic expressions, and themes), varying
them according to actual needs of versification, narration, etc. Formulae are “ a group of
words regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential
idea” (Parry). Some critics think the epic was probably noted down after dictation.
- THEORY OF WRITTEN COMPOSITION: a clerical person, who was familiar with
the traditional ways, composed the epic in its present form in writing, but he poem shows
clear features of oral style, i.e. it is so called oral-derived poetry. Christian poems,
biblical paraphrases were written in the same way.
- Formal treatment of events, type-scenes (funeral, feast, arrival, fight), artificial world,
elaborately decorated speeches, slow-going narration. No everydays, no love, women
have little role.
- Beowulf is rather a monumental composition than an additive narration - it seems to
have an overall concept. The narration is interrupted by digressions, prophecy,
anticipations, parenthetic comments, backward and forward references - we know effects
before causes, consequences before events. Events often have to be reconstructed from
scattered references: e.g. Hygelac’s Frankish raid.
CHARACTERISTICS OF STYLE - heavily ornamented, poetic, manneristic.
Typical features:
Compounding - endless lines of synonyms, especially in the case of frequently occurring
words: warrior, sea, ship, sword, etc. It is argued if this is only a mechanical device in the
service of alliteration or a conscious one used by the poet.
kenning - a form of compound in which at least one element is metaphorical:
hron-rad = whale road=sea, woruld-candel= world candle= sun. The use of kennings in
OE poetry is not as extravagant as in Scandinavian Skaldic poetry.
Variation - simple syntax in a sentence is loaded with synonyms - “wordum wrixlan” (to
vary words) - syntactical breaks often placed over mid-line caesura.
Four-stress alliterative line - consisting of two half-lines with a caesura between them.
Alliteration connects the two halves. This is the only form used in Old English poetry.
- The poem is the work of a poet with a Christian frame of mind: e.g. Grendel is Cain’s
descendant, Hrothgar’s people seem to be punished as they are pagan, etc. It is discussed
in scholarship whether these are only later interpolations in an earlier text, or the poem as
a whole was composed with them in mind.
- Beowulf displays virtues like bravery, generosity, loyalty, fortitude and wisdom, which
are also Christian ones, and he is not put into situations, where he would have to be unChristian: e.g. ruthless.
- Problematic features:
Does Beowulf want to obtain the dragon’s hoard of treasure – does he have gold-lust?
Wyrd - pagan doom is often mentioned, but in the key scene, when Beowulf dies, the
word dom, used by the poet, might mean “fame” which Beowulf earned with killing
the dragon, or “judgement” of God, that he is facing after death.
The Danes are pagan, still they sing about the Creation at their celebrations.
The Battle of Brunanburh – a formulaic poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle celebrating
the 937 victory of the English over joint Scotch-Viking forces.
The Battle of Maldon - c. 300-l. a fragment about a major battle, which took place in 991
in East Anglia during the reign of Aethelred the Unready. The English lost, their leader
Byrhtnoth died, and they had to pay tribute for the first time to the Vikings in order to
keep them away. Parallels of the ideal behaviour described here (loyalty, dieing with the
lord on the battlefield) described in Tacitus’s Germania written 900 years earlier.
About ten poems all together, all in the EXETER BOOK.
They ‘call attention in unvarying degrees to the transitory nature of the pleasures of this
world’. They are short, reflective or dramatic, with contrastive patterns of loss (loss of
life or lord) and consolation for the loss inheaven. - Classifying them as one group is a
modern idea.
The Wanderer - 115 ll.
- Motives of exile, ruin, ubi sunt are framed by Christian attitudes of value.
- Topoi occupy the majority of the poem, to which (sometimes gnomic) comments are
The Seafarer - 124 ll. - 1st person narrator. Critics disagree whether it is one poem or a
- 1st part (to l. 64a) - personal: harsh lot of seaman is compared to that of land-dweller;
- 2nd part (to the end) - homiletic: about the inevitability of death, decline of earthly
splendour, gold cannot help the sinful soul, death comes unexpected, let us reach our true
- The span of the meaning: from despair to heaven.
- Deliberate ambiguity: possible allegorical interpretation: sea journey: real travelling or
peregrinatio pro amore Dei.
These poems are works of bookish, monastic, professional artists in respectable, only
rarely exceptional style. They are often based on Latin originals other than the Bible.
Intended for additional devotional readings and not as vernacular versions of the
Scripture for unlettered audiences who did not know Latin. They use heroic style, as this
is he dominant diction of vernacular poetry, some are clearly indebted to Beowulf.
The Caedmon story in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica gives an idea about why such poems
were made, and how the traditional verse-form, style, vocabulary are adapted to the
religious purpose:
- Transfer of heroic ethic and military terminology: Abraham and Moses behave like
Germanic chieftains, the apostles form a comitatus, a body of armed retainers, St.
Cuthbert is described as the soldier of Christ.
Scriptural poems (Genesis, Exodus, Daniel in the Junius MS) paraphrase parts of the
Bible, laying emphasis on a chosen idea. Often some episodes are elaborated in detail
(especially if they are fit topics for heroic poetry, e.g. description of the war of the
Elanites against Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s rescue of Lot). They all strongly
demonstrate God’s power to provide the feeling of protection to the monastic audience
and demonstrate his might to those who are not too deeply convinced in the new religion.
Saints’ lives like Andreas, or Elene are about the heroes of the new religion The former is
about St. Andrew’s journey to Mermedonia to rescue Matthew from the cannibals based
on a story from the apocriphal Acts of the Apostles. The latter is about St Helen, mother
of Constantine the Great, who according to the legend, found Christ’s cross. This is the
best of the four signed poems of Cynewulf, the otherwise unknown poet.
Devotional poems, like The Dream of the Rood served the purpose of individual
meditation outside the liturgy. In this the dreamer sees a vision, in which the holy cross
tells its own story, how it was cut down in the wood, made into a gallows and how Christ,
like good warrior eager for battle died on it. The vision persuades the dreamer to go and
teach this to everyone he meets. The poem’s connection with the runic inscription on the
8th c. Ruthwell cross located in the south of Scotland, where part of the poem, when the
cross talks, is reproduced, is intriguing. Nobody can tell which one is earlier, the cross or
the poem. The paradox of the cross, a sign of victory and at the same time a sign of
shame is described in
The persona of the poem, the dreamer sees a vision of the cross covered with gold, set
with jewels: it is s sign of victory and also suffering. The cross tells its own story, the
narrative of the crucifixion.
Charms- the oldest relics of pagan Germanic literature, often Christianised. Against
illnesses, vermin, etc.
Gnomic verse - maxims, wisdoms in a nutshell
Riddles - for popular entertainment, mostly based on Greek and Latin originals.
Bestiary - about animals
The story of Caedmon from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
King Alfred’s Preface to the translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care
The Battle of Brunanburh
The Battle of Maldon
Lines 1-52 of Beowulf
The entry of 1066 from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
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