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Old English Literature

Page history last edited by Ayşegül Yeşilbursa 15 years, 8 months ago



            Before the Anglo Saxons settlement Picts, Gaels and Celts which were local tribes and the Romans inhabited the British isles in the 5th century. After the invasion of the Romans, they gave the name "Britanni" or "Brittani" to the islands. The Romans, brought their language, their architects, engineers, garrisons and governors. What is more, they built towns, houses with central heating, puplic baths, theatres and roads. After all these improvements, as we know the Roman Empire eventually fell. The time of the fall of the Roman empire is also the time of the migrations of people such as the Goths and Vandals, who themselves broke the power of Rome. 

             British history begins with Celts and Picts. Before Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded the British Isles, local tribes, such as Picts and Gaelic Celts, inhabited in this area. Picts lived in Eastern and Northern Scotland, that was called Pictland at that time. The Celts, on the other hand, resided on the other parts of the British Isles as groups of tribes. Celts were a warring society and the most dominant power in Britain until the Roman Invasion. Celtic and Pictish religions were paganism-polytheism in general. They worshipped many gods and goddesses as well as spirits.


           Celts fell from power by the time Romans took control of the islands.The first Roman influence in Britain started with Julius Caesar’s expeditions in 55 and54 BC. The native British tribes resisted the new invaders; however, Roman conquest took place by 43 AD. Romans created  major impact on the culture and way of life of the tribal society as well as political system, architecture and engineering.. Roman rulers constructed numerous  towns, town houses, forums, temples, baths and theatres.

           Romans did not exist in eternity on the British Isles. The Migration Period in Europe precipitated the collapse of Roman Empire. At the end of the third century, the Roman army began to withdraw from Britain to defend the other parts of the Empire. Together with the Anglo-Saxon invasion, Roman influence on the British Isles disappeared gradually. As a result of this, Celtic culture replaced Roman civilization.

 The term “Britain” comes from “Brittannia”, which was used to refer to the British Isles under the Roman rule. In addition to this, an older term for “Britain” derives  from “Priteni” as an old Welsh term-in other words, “Prydain” in today’s time.      









               Anglo-Saxon is the term usually used to describe the invading tribes in the south  and east of Great Britain from the early 5th century AD to the Norman conquest of 1066. These tribes came from German regions of Angeln and Saxony. The Anglo-Saxons brought their own religious beliefs. The pre-Christian belief system of the Anglo-Saxons was a form of Germanic paganism which refers to the religious beliefs of the Germanic peoples preceding Christianization, but the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597 converted most of the country to Christianity. In spite of Christianisation, the names of the days which were the names from Germanic Gods still exist.

  •       Monday                      named after the Moon
  •        Tuesday                      named after Tiu
  •        Wednesday                 named after Woden
  •        Thursday                    named after Thor, god of thunder
  •        Friday                        named after Freya of Frigg, the god of love
  •        Saturday                    named after the planet and Roman god, Saturn
  •        Sunday                       named after the Sun



              The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years and in that time Britain's political landscape underwent many changes. The early settlers lived in small tribal groups, forming kingdoms and sub-kingdoms. By the ninth century, the country was divided into four kingdoms. They were Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. Loyalty to the leaders of these kingdoms was very important for people. Because the whole of the system was built on warriers.

            The Anglo-Saxon rule came to an end soon after the death of Edward the confessor who had no heir in 1066. At that time the Normans who were French tribes came over to make England theirs, and it was led by William the Conqueror.










             The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century A.D. These tribes -the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes- crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and Northern Germany.

     Old English should not be regarded as a single monolithic* entity just as Modern English is also not monolithic. There was language variations within Old English. There were four main dialectical forms of Old English Language. They were Mercian, Northumbrian (known as Anglian), Kentish and Wessex. Each of those dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. The pre-dominant dialect of written documents was Northumbrian. After all of Northumbria was overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century, Wessex became the religious and cultural center of Britain.

             Old English was first written in Runic alphabet. The word, Runic means “mystery” or “secret” in old Germanic languages. The Runic alphabet was probably created independently rather than evolving from another alphabet. Some extra letters were added to the Runic Alphabet to write Old English and it was used until about the 11th century.






*too regular or without interesting differences, and unwilling or unable to be changed.





             Old English (West Germanic) is one of the oldest vernacular languages to be written down. King Alfred, The Anglo-Saxon king (849-899AD),gave an enormous importance to education in Old English rather than Latin.

             Anglo-Saxon Literature (Old English Literature) includes literature written during Anglo-Saxon period in the British Isles. The lifestyle that Anglo-Saxon had reflected in their literature. They were tribal society. The loyalty to leader of tribe and kin were important parts of their lives. That’s the reason why they had many pieces that include high praise for leaders. They mostly produced epic poetry because they had warrior charactiristics. The effect of their belief -Paradigm until 800AD,Christianity after 800AD­­- was apperent in their literature. Therefore, the genres such as hagiography, sermons, bible translations were compiled. Also, legal works, riddles and chronicles(the record of the main events in Anglo-Saxon history) were among the genres of Old English Literature.


              After Viking invansion in the British Isles, almost all the literature works were destroyed. However, there are the four major extant manuscripts of Old English Literature. These are;


·         The Junius manuscript (The Caedman manuscript) – Poetic Anthology


·         The Exeter Book - Anthology


·         The Vercelli Book – The mixture of poetry and prose


·         The Nowell Codex – The mixture of poetry and prose


              The system of Old English Poetry is based on accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. There are two types of Old English poetry.These are;


1.      The heroic Germanic pre-Christian


·        Beowulf (the oldest poet in English Literature)


·        The Anglo-Saxon chronicle


2.      Christian


·        Caedmon’s Hymn


              Caedmon is the first English poet known by name. The story of how Caedmon composed his hymn is well-known in English Literature. He was an uneducated herdsman .An angel appeared to him in a dream as he lay in the straw near his cattle, and told him: " Sing praises to the glory of God ".Then,he began to sing verses which he had never heard before. Cædmon woke up with the “Hymn” on his mind.The hymn is below on the page;


































Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 1:53 pm on Dec 30, 2008

The language they used is very different. It has the origins of West Germanic.It was originallay writtten in the runic alphabet.In Old English Literature king is an important leader.

Anonymous said

at 5:55 pm on Dec 31, 2008

ı was really shocked when ı see the big difference between the old english and new one so ı understand all languages have the same process to be modernized as ı see in old Turkish...

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