Old English / Anglo-Saxon Poetry.

January 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

Written generally between 400 and 1066 AD, there is very little extant Anglo-Saxon poetry. As I said in class, cultural forces work against the survival of poetry up until and into the Middle Ages. First of all, there was no printing press until the late fourteenth century, which means any literature had to be scribed on parchment, a very laborious and expensive project that was generally relegated to historical and religious writing in the Old English period. Further, any poetry or stories that were scribed upon parchment would more than likely succumb to age, fire, war, and the mere vicissitudes of time. In a sense, the poetry we have–particularly the entire epic poem, Beowulf–is a miracle.

Keep in mind that in the period of English literature we are looking at, the culture did not value imaginative writing the way that we do. There was not a concept of a work being “literary” and therefore culturally “valuable” in England until the 17th and 18th century. A majority of people were illiterate–in the Anglo-Saxon period, the only people who could read were probably clerics in monasteries. Literacy in England does not really begin to rise significantly until the 17th and 18th centuries.

A majority of people depended upon an ORAL tradition to know and understand any kind of text and / or narrative, particularly the Bible. One of the major shifts in the literary worldview that we will examine in the class is the shift from an Oral to a Print Culture in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The stories and legends during the Anglo-Saxon period would have been orally transmitted and passed down over decades and centuries. Whoever the author of Beowulf was probably originated the epic poem in a series of songs based upon legends that had been orally transmitted before him.

Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf, reflects the dark, gloomy, fate-driven culture of the Germanic tribes that conquered the Romans and started settling England after 400 A.D. They were pagan, but fairly quickly they began to assimilate the Christianity left behind by the Holy Roman Empire. Anglo-Saxon poetry tends to reveal a mixture of warriorship and gloomy codes of heroism combined with a growing understanding of Christianity, with its positive message of everlasting life.


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Brief Background to Old English and Medieval Era. Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon Epic.

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