The Anglo-Saxon Period

Around 400 AD, these tribes came to Celtic England from their German homes in search of new land. They were invited, but they eventually pushed the Celts into remote regions.
The Anglo-Saxons left their mark on the English language in its German grammar and in thousands of words, including perhaps a fifth of the words we use today. In structure, Old English and Old German are very close.

Old English was the chief literary language of England until about 1100. In 597, Saint Augustine of Canterbury began converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. English literature began through the combined influence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Christian church.
While the stories of King Arthur and the tales of the Round Table generally have a medieval setting, the actual legend began in this period, based on a Celtic lord who refused to surrender, winning battles in a lost war.

The Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Many Old English poems glorified a real or imaginary hero and tried to teach the values of bravery and generosity. Poets used alliteration (words that begin with the same sound) and kennings (elaborate descriptive phrases).
Old English poetry also featured mid-line splits called caesuras and a four beat line that had four accented syllables, two on each side of the caesuras. Poets called scops recited these poems during ceremonies while playing a musical instrument.


This epic poem is believed to be a 7th century composition that was first written down in the 9th century. Though it is often considered as a simple battle of good and evil, this tale shows the cultural conflicts that developed as the Anglo-Saxon people were converted to Christianity.
Beowulf is divided into three sections: the victory over Grendel, the victory over Grendel's mother, and the fatal victory over a dragon. Each battle gets more difficult, as Beowulf, the Geat warrior, fights for the Danes and later, as an eighty year-old king, fights for his own people..
As the world's greatest warrior, Beowulf blends his faith in God with his boldness and pride. He renders generous aid to the Danes, even though they seem to have lost their faith in God. In death, as a true ring lord, Beowulf wins a great fortune for his own people, willingly giving his life for the service of the Geats who no longer deserve his loyalty.
Beowulf is shown to be a mighty warrior who has the qualities most admired by the Anglo-Saxons—strength, courage, loyalty, and generosity. However, his ideal perfection actually diminishes his quality as an epic hero. Lacking flaws or weaknesses, he does not seem human, and modern readers expect realistic heroes.

"The Seafarer"

"The Seafarer" has two essential parts: the first section explores the life of a man who battles the sea and all of its dangers while the second section examines what a man must do in his life to prepare himself for the afterlife and his day of reckoning. In the first part, a man deals with luck and uncertainty while in the second he knows that he must do on his "journey through life."The first section of "The Seafarer" was most likely composed by an Anglo-Saxon in the pre-Christian era because it looks at man's battle with nature as a complete meaning of a man's life.
The first section of "The Seafarer" was probably added on by a monk at Exeter who determined that there was a spiritual side of life that must be addressed. "The Seafarer" captures most of the key elements of the Anglo-Saxon culture, including the hate/love paradox of man's battle with the nature, especially the sea. Still, this poem seems to be rendered through the voice of a seafarer who has taken his last journey, saying ironically that when at sea he greatly missed the land, but when back home he longed for the adventure of the sea.

"The Wanderer"

"The Wanderer"is more concerned with an isolated situation and incident in which his ring lord has died and he has neglected his tribal duty by staying alive. Because of this, he can never return to his home; he must travel to his eventual death or find acceptance in another tribe. He journeys with sorrow from the past and no hope for the future.
Like other excerpted poems from The Exeter Book, "The Wanderer"appears to be the work of an Anglo-Saxon in the pre-Christian era which was altered by a monk. In this case, the alterations consist of a few lines at the beginning and a few lines at the end. Only in the beginning and end will there be references to Christian beliefs and God.

Bede's A History of the English Church and People

Bede's A History of the English Church and People, though written in Latin, is very important to the study of English literature. Bede was English and his entire subject was the people of the British Isles, who are weakly represented in other literary efforts. Bede's work was considered so important that it was the first book King Alfred the Great ordered to be translated into the vernacular.
Bede's writings on history, science, and theology, while far from accurate and filled with opinions and superstitions of the people of that period, are regarded as the most intelligent summary ever prepared of Western knowledge in the 600's and 700's, a time when English monasteries were chief centers of learning. The work is also our main source for Anglo-Saxon history.

Old English Text Excerpt from "The Wanderer" (opening)

Oft him anhaga         are gebideš, 
metudes miltse,         žeah že he modcearig 
geond lagulade         longe sceolde 
hreran mid hondum         hrimcealde sę, 
wadan wręclastas.         Wyrd biš ful aręd! 
Swa cwęš eardstapa,         earfeža gemyndig, 
wražra węlsleahta,         winemęga hryre: 
"Oft ic sceolde ana         uhtna gehwylce 
mine ceare cwižan.         Nis nu cwicra nan 
že ic him modsefan         minne durre 
sweotule asecgan.         Ic to sože wat 
žęt biž in eorle         indryhten žeaw, 
žęt he his feršlocan         fęste binde, 
healde his hordcofan,         hycge swa he wille. 
Ne męg werig mod         wyrde wišstondan, 
ne se hreo hyge         helpe gefremman.