In literature, what is the Old English period?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For historical background, Old English is one of the many precursors to the Modern English language, and was spoken and written between the 5th and 12th centuries C.E. (Wikipedia). It originated with the entrance of Germanic Anglo-Saxons. Latin influence left from the Roman Britain period is not clearly discernible (OED). Old English was a non-standardized collection of regional dialects, so there is no single dictionary for translation as there was no single language.

The Old English literary Period started sometime in the 5th century, but there are no surviving documents from that time to serve as examples (runic texts and carvings allow the generalization of the time-frame). The fluxtuating dialect emphases continued throughout the centuries until the 11th century, when it began to change into Middle English based on the London dialect. Middle English held dominance until the standardization of Modern English in the 16th and 17th centuries (the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries like Spenser and Philips are considered the first properly documented works of Modern English). Therefore, the Old English Period would start sometime in the 5th century and last until the end of the 11th century, when Old English became obsolete.

The most famous work written in Old English is the epic poem Beowulf, of unknown author, which is still translated and performed today. The oldest surviving Old English document is Cædmon's Hymn, from the 7th century, which was originally a verbal poem and was never written down by the author. The last surviving document in Old English is a historical record, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dated 1154, and shows the beginning influence of Middle English. Middle English was Chaucer's period.

tanughosh | Student


The Angles and Saxons first landed in England in the middle of the fifth century, and by 670 A.D. they had occupied almost the whole of the country. Unlike the Romans who came as conquerors, these tribes settled in England and made her their permanent home. They became, therefore, the ancestors of the English race. The Anglo-Saxon kings, of whom Alfred the Great was the most prominent, ruled till 1066, when Harold, the last of Saxon kings, was defeated at the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror of Normandy, France. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period in English literature, therefore, extends roughly from 670 A.D. to 1100 A.D.
As it has been made clear in the First Part of this book that the literature of any country in any period is the reflection of the life lived by the people of that country in that particular period, we find that this applies to the literature of this period. The Angles and Saxons combined in themselves opposing traits of character—savagery and sentiment, rough living and deep feeling, splendid courage and deep melancholyresulting from thinking about the unanswered problem of death. Thus they lived a rich external as well as internal life, and it is especially the latter which is the basis of their rich literature. To these brave and fearless fighters, love of untarnished glory, and happy domestic life and virtues, made great appeal. They followed in their life five great principles—love of personal freedom, responsiveness to nature, religion, love for womanhood, and struggle for glory. All these principles are reflected in their literature. They were full of emotions and aspirations, and loved music and songs. Thus we read inBeowulf:
Music and song where the heroes sat—
The glee—wood rang, a song uprose
When Hrothgar’s scop gave the hall good cheer.
The Anglo Saxon language is only a branch of the great Aryan or Indo-European family of languages. It has the same root words for father and mother, for God and man, for the common needs and the common relations of life, as we find in Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek and Latin. And it is this old vigorous Anglo-Saxon language which forms the basis of modern English.
tanughosh | Student


Though much of this Anglo-Saxon poetry is lost, there are still some fragments left. For example, Widsith describes continental courts visited in imagination by a far-wandering poet; Waldhere tells how Walter of Aquitaine withstood a host of foes in the passes of the Vosges; the splendid fragment called The Fight at Finnesburg deals with the same favourite theme of battle against fearful odds; and Complaint of Deor describes the disappointment of a lover. The most important poem of this period is Beowulf. It is a tale of adventures of Beowulf, the hero, who is an champion an slayer of monsters; the incidents in it are such as may be found in hundreds of other stories, but what makes it really interesting and different from later romances, is that is full of all sorts of references and allusions to great events, to the fortunes of kings and nations. There is thus an historical background.
After the Anglo-Saxons embraced Christianity, the poets took up religious themes as the subject-matter of their poetry. In fact, a major portion of Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The two important religious poets of the Anglo-Saxon period were Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon sang in series the whole story of the fate of man, from the Creation and the Fall to the Redemption and the Last Judgment, and within this large framework, the Scripture history. Cynewulf’s most important poem is the Crist, a metrical narrative of leading events of Christ’s ministry upon earth, including his return to judgment, which is treated with much grandeur.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is markedly different from the poetry of the next period—Middle English or Anglo-Norman period—for it deals with the traditions of an older world, and expresses another temperament and way of living; it breathes the influence of the wind and storm. It is the poetry of a stern and passionate people, concerned with the primal things of life, moody, melancholy and fierce, yet with great capacity for endurance and fidelity.
The Anglo-Saxon period was also marked by the beginning of English prose. Through the Chronicles, which probably began in King Alfred’s time, and through Alfred’s translations from the Latin a common available prose was established, which had all sorts of possibilities in it. In fact, unlike poetry, there was no break in prose of Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle English period, and even the later prose in Englandwas continuation of Anglo-Saxon prose. The tendency of the Anglo-Saxon prose is towards observance of the rules of ordinary speech, that is why, though one has to make a considerable effort in order to read verse of the Anglo-Saxons, it is comparatively easy to understand their prose. The great success of Anglo-Saxon prose is in religious instructions, and the two great pioneers of English prose were Alfred the Great, the glorious king of Wessex, who translated a number of Latin Chronicles in English, and Aelfric, a priest, who wrote sermons in a sort of poetic prose.