1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > Anglo-Saxon Period (596-1066 AD): Beowulf, Caedmon, Venerable Bede

English Literature
(Part 1)


Beowulf, Caedmon, Venerable Bede...

The early history of literature in England might lend some countenance to the theory that the development of a nation’s literature is, at bottom, but a chapter of its religious history. While the religion of our fathers was in the main a rude awe – struck worship of the forces of nature, literature either no existence for them, or was in a state not less elementary, consisting of a few songs and oracles, and nothing more. With the advent of the religion of Christ – the only faith which at once recognizes the original dignity of human nature and repairs its fall – came an intellectual as well as a spiritual awakening to the Teutonic nations – for into such the original tribes or clans of the invaders had now grown – that were planted in the old provinces of Roman Britain. Fortified by gospel precept for the present life, and thrilled with the hope of the life to come, the Saxon mind, released from disquietude, felt free to range discursively through such regions of human knowledge as its teachers opened before it, and the Saxon heart was fain to pour out many a rude but vigorous song. Pope Gregory himself, who, according to the old phraseology, sent baptism to the English, is said indeed to have spoken disparagingly of human learning. But the missionaries could not fail to bring with them from Rome the intellectual culture of the countries bordering on the Mediterranean so far as it had survived the fall of the Western empire and the irruption of the barbarians. The Roman alphabet, paper or parchment, and pen and ink, drove out the Northern runes, the beechen tablet, and the scratching implement. The necessity of the preservation, and at least partial translation, of the Scriptures, the varied exigencies of the Catholic ritual, the demand for so much knowledge of astronomy as would enable the clergy to fix beforehand the date of Easter, all favored, or rather compelled, the promotion of learning and education up to a certain point, and led to continual discussion and interchange of ideas. Gratefully and eagerly our forefathers drew in the warm and genial breath which came to them from the intense life and higher enlightenment of the south. Beda dates his history by the indications of the Eastern emperors; and while in practice he obeyed his native king descended from Woden, in theory he recognized the larger and more rational sway of the Ceasar enthroned at Constantinople.

On a closer examination, we find that there were two principal centres, during the first two centuries after the conversion, where learning was honored and literature flourished. These centres were Wessex and Northumbria. For although Christianity was first preached in Kent, and the great monastery at Canterbury was long a valuable school of theology and history (witness the liberal praise awarded by Beda to Abbot Albinus in the preface to his Ecclesiastical History), yet the limited size of the kingdom, and the ill fortune which befell it in its wars with Mercia and Wessex, seem to have checked its intellectual growth. When we have named the oldest form of the saxon Chronicle,- that represented by the Parker MS._,- and the not very interesting works of Abbot Elfric, there is little left in the shape of extant writings, dating before the Conquest, for which we have to thank the men of Kent. But in Wessex and Northumbria alike, the size of the territory, the presence of numerous monastries, perhaps also the proximity of Celtic peoples or societies endowed with many literary gifts,- the Britons in the case of Wessex, the Cludees of Iona in the case of Northumbria,- co-operated to produce a long period of literary activity, the monuments of which it must now be our endeavor briefly to review and characterize.

But before we consider the Anglo-Saxon literature which was founded on Christianity, the question whether any Anglo-Saxon literature exists of date prior to the conversion demands an answer. It was formerly thought that the important poem of Beowulf was in the main a pagan work, and must have been produced before the Angles and Saxons quitted their German homes; but closer investigation has shown that it is permeated almost everywhere by Christian ideas, and that it cannot be dated earlier than the first quarter of the 8th century. But two poems remain, presenting problems of great difficulty, many of which have not yet been satisfactorily solved, which so far as appears must have been composed in Germany while our forefathers were still in their German seats. These are The Traveller’s Song and Dor’s Complain. In the first, Widsith, a poet of Myrging race (the Myrgings were a tribe dwelling near the Eider), recounts the nations that he had visited as a traveling gleeman, names the kings who ruled over them, and singles out two or three whose open – handed generosity he had experienced, and to whom he accordingly awards the tribute of a poet’s praise., this poem amy perhaps be dated from the second half of the 6th century. Though written in or near anglen, after the migration of most of the Angles to Britain, the language of the poem seems to have been accommodated to the ordinary West-Saxon dialect, for in the respect it differs in no degree from the other poems which stand before and after it in the Exeter Codex. Doer’s Complaint mentions Weland, the Teutonic demi-god corresponding to Vulcan, Theodric, Eormanric, &c.; it is the lament of a bard supplanted by a rival in his lords’s favour. In date it is probably not far distant from the Traveller’s Song.

We may now return to the literary development in Wessex. Christianity was introduced into Wessex by Bishop Birinus in 634, and spread over the whole kingdom; with marvelous celerity. The bishop’s see was fixed at first at Dorchester, near Oxford; thence it was moved to Winschester; before the end of the century it was necessary to carve out another bishopric father to the west, and the see was fixed at Sherborne. Winchester, Malmesbury, and Glastonbury were great and famous monastries early in the 8th century. The heroic Winfrid (better known as St. Boniface), trained in a monastery at Exeter, could not rest contented that Wessex should have received the faith, but carried Christianity to the Germans. Great spiritual fervour, ardent zeal, great intellectual activity, seems to have prevailed in every part of the little kingdom. The interesting letters of St. Boniface give us tantalizing glimpse of a busy life, social and monastic, in the west of England, no detailed pictures of which it is now possible to reconstruct. The most distinguished known writer was Aldhelm, a monk of Malmesbury, and, for a few years before his death in 709, bishop of Sherborne. His extant works in Latin are chiefly in praise of virginity, that form of self – mastery which, difficult as it was for a people teeming with undeveloped power and unexhausted passion, included, he might think, and made possible every other kind of self – mastery. The Saxon writings of St. Aldhelm are lost, unless we accept a conjecture of Grimm that he was the author of Andreas, one of the poems in the Vercelli Codex. Cynewulf, the author of Crist, Elene, and Juliana, though to us unhappily no more than a name, was a poet of no mean powers. Mr. Kemble was disposed to identify him with an abbot of Peterborough who lived in 11th century; but it is far more probable – whatever weight we may attack to Grimm’s hypothesis that he was a pupil of St. Aldlem, that Cynewulf was a West – Saxonl writer, and lived in the first half of the 8th century. Christ is a poem of nearly 1700 lines, incomplete at the beginning. When first edited my Mr. Thorpe along with the other contents of the Exeter Codex, it was believed to be a string of disconnected poems. Dietrich was the first who pointed out the internal connection of these, and showed that they constituted one organic whole. Cynewulf seems to revel in the task of existing in his mother tongue the new religious ideas which had come to his race. Beginning from the Annuniciation, he expatiates on the various and inestimable benefits which Christ by his incarnation bestowed on men, concluding with a vivid picture of the last great day of account. The key-note of the poem seems to be found in the 15th canto, where the six "leaps ", or movements, of Christ are enumerated: - the first, when He became incarnate; the second, when He was born; the third, when He mounted on the cross, and so on. The name "Cynewulf" is given in runes in the 16th canto; it occurs in the same way in the other poems attributed to this writer. Elene is the legend of the covery f the true cross at Jekrusalem by the empress Helena, the mother of Constantine; Juliana is the story of the martyrdom of the saint so named, under Maximian. Guthlac, a free version of the Latin life of St. Guthlac (who died in 714) by Felix, a monk of Croyland, is probably the work f a Mercian writer, whose language was altered by a West – Saxon transcriber into with that of the poems already mentioned. Andreas, a poem of more than 1700 lines, ascribed by Grimm, as we have seen, to St. Aldhelm, but at any rate a West – Saxon poem of the 8th century, is founded on an apocryphal Greek narrative of the "Acts and Matthew". The first-named apostle, after rescuing the second from confinement in a barbarous land named Mermedonia, and working numerous miracles of an amazing character, converts them to the charge of a pious bishop name Plato.

All the poems hitherto named, and indeed the great mass of Anglo – Saxon poetry, are written in that alliterative metre which was the favourite rhythm of the whole Teutonic north, and of which one variety may be seen in the famous poems of the Edda. Each line is in two sections, balanced the one against the other, and containing usually from four to eight syllables and two accents. The general rule of the metre is that the two accented words in the first section, and one of those in the second section, begin upon the same letter, is a consonant, but if the accented words begin with vowels, then upon different letters.

The preponderance of opinion is now in favour of ascribing to Beowulf, the most important surviving monument of Anglo – Saxon poetry, a West – Saxon origin and a date not later than the middle, nor earlier than the first decade, of the 8th century. Yet the difficulty of the problem may be estimated from the facts, that Thorkelin, the first editor, described Beowulf as a "Danish poem," that Mr. Kemble wrongly identifying the Geatas with the Angles, believed it to have been composed, in Anglen before the migration, and brought over to Wessex before the end of the 15th century, and that Mr. Thorpe considered it to be merely a translation of a Swedish poem of the 11th century. Not withstanding this discrepancy, the general view taken above is that of Grein, Mullenholf, and other eminent scholars, and we are convinced that the further investigation is carried the more firmly will its soundness be established. Founded on a single MS., which,, as originally written, was full of errors, and now is much defaced, the text of Beowulf can never, unless another MS., should be discovered, the placed on a thoroughly satisfactory footing; much, however, has been done for its improvement by the labours of German and Danish critics. The general drift of the poem is to celebrate the heroic deeds of Bewulf, who, originally of Swedish race, was adopted by the king of Gautland, or Gotland (as the southern portion of Swedish is still called), and brought up with his own sons. Hearing that the Danish king Hrothgar is harassed by the attacks of a man – eating monster called Grendel, he sails to Zealand to his aid, and after various adventures kills both Grendel and his mother. After this Beowulf is chosen king of Gotland, and reigns many years in great ravages among his subjects, he succeeds in killing it, but receives a mortal injury in the struggle. The burning of his body, and the erection of a huge mound or cairn over his ashes, as a beacon "easy to be seen far off by seafaring men," conclude the poem, and form a passage of remarkable beauty.

Towards the end of the 8th century the descents of the piratical heathens known by the general name of Danes, but probably born for the most part in Scandinavian countries lying to the north of Denmark, began to plague the English coasts. These destroying savages resembled the modern Turks in possessing fine military qualities, and above all indomitable couragel they were also like the Turks in the respect that, wherever they set their foot, progress of every kind was arrested, culture was blasted, and the hopes of civilization died away. Fortunately they were not, like the Turks, absolutely deaf to the voice of the Christian missionary. Though their natural brutishness made them difficult to convert and prone to relapse. With incredible pains, and a charity that nothing could disgust or deter, the church gradually won over these Scandinavian Calibans to the Christian creed; and when once converted their immense natural energy and tenacity were turned into right and beneficial channels, at least in great measure. But for 230 years, - from the sack of Lindisfarne to the accession of Canute, - the so-called Danes were the curse of England, destroying and the schools maintained by them, burning churches and private houses, making life and property everywhere insecure, and depriving the land of that tranquility without which literature and art are impossible. After a long prevalence of this state of things, society in Wessex having been, one would think, almost reduced to its first elements. Alfred arose, and after obtaining some successes in battle over the Danes, leading to a treaty and the conversion of part of them to Christianity, obtained a period of peace for his harassed and dejected countrymen. History tells us how well he wrought to build up in every way the fallen edifice of West – Saxon society. Among his labours not the least meriltous was his translation of Beda’s Historia Ecclesiastica, Pope Gregory’s work De Cura Pastorali, the famous treatise of Boethius De Consolatione, and the Universal History of Orosius. He also founded several schools, and made a beginning in the work of restoring monasteries. Yet spite of his generous efforts, the evils caused by the Danes could not be repaired. A sort of blight seemed to have passed over the Anglo – Saxon genius the claims of material existence suddenly seemed to engross their thoughts, perhaps because their sufferings had taught them that, however it may be with individuals, for nations all higher developments must have a basis of material prosperity to rest upon. Now and then a great man appeared, endowed with a reparative force, and with a courage which aimed at raising the fallen spirit of the people, and turning them back again into the old paths of nobleness.such a man was St. Dunstan, who fought with a giant’s strength against, sloth, and ignorance, and was ever faithful to the interests of learning. There is in the Bodleian Library a little volume, probably written in his own hand; it is a sort of common – phase book; the frontispiece is a drawing of the saint prostrated at the feet of the throned Christ, executed by Dunstan himself; among the contents of the volume are – a grammatical treatise by Eutyhius with extremely curious Welsh glosses, part of Ovid De Arte Amandi with similar glosses, and lessons, in latin and Greek, taken from the Pentateuch and the prophets. But his work was undone during the disastrous reign of Etherland II., at the end of which the Danish power establishment itself in England. Under Edward the Confessor, French influences began to be greatly felt. The two races of the Teutonic north and had torn each other to pieces, and the culture which Saxon had been able to impart to Northman was not sufficient to discipline him into a truly civilized man. England, though at a terrible cost, had to be knit on to the state – system of Southern Europe; her anarchy must give place to centralization; her schools, and her art, and her architecture be remodeled by Italians and Frenchman; her poets turn their eyes, not towards Iceland, but towards Normandy or Provence.

Turning now to the other literacy centre, the Northumbrian kingdom, we find that impulse and initiation were due to more than one sources. In the main, the conversion of the Angles north of the Tees, and the implantation among them of the germs of culture, are traceable to Iona, and, indirectly, to the Irish Church and St. Patrick. From Ireland, in the persons of St. Columba and his followers, was wafted to the long low island surrounded by the mountains of the Hebrides, a ministry of light and civilization, which from the 6th and 11th century, diffused its blessings over northern Europe. Oswald, son of the Bernician king Etherfrid, was driven out of Northumbria after his father’s death by Edwin of Deira, and took refuge among the northern Piets. He embraced Christianity through the teaching of the monks of Iona or some monastery dependent on it; and when he became king of Bernicia in 634, one of his first thoughts was to send to his old teachers, and ask that missionaries might be sent to instruct his people. Aidan accordingly came from Iona and founded a bishop’s see at Lindisfarne, or Holy Isle. Hence issued the founders of the monasteries of Hexham, Coldingham, Whitby, and many others places. The actual representatives of the monks of Iona returned after some years to their own country, because they would not give way in the dispute concerning Easter; but the civilizing effects of their mission did not pass away. The school of piety and learning which produced an Aidan, an Adamnan, and a Cuthbert deserved well not of England only but of humanity. Adamnan, abbot of Iona about the year 690, has a peculiar interest for us, because a long extract from his work on the holy places is incorporated by beda in his Ecclesiatilal History. He also wrote a life of his founder, St. Columba printer by Canisius and in the Florilegium Insulae Sanctorum. To the encouragement of Bishop Aidan we owe it that Hilda, a lady of the royal house of Deira, established monasteries at Hartlepool and Streoneshalch (afterwards Whitby); and it was by the monks of Stroneshalch that the seed was sown, which, falling upon a good heart and capacious brain. Bore fruit in the poetry of Caefmon, the earliest English poet. We need not repeat the well – known story of the vision, in which the destined bard, then a humble menial employed about the stables and boat – service of the monastery, believed that an injunction of more than mortal authority was laid upon him, to "sing of the beginning of creation." The impulse having been once communicated, Caedmon, as Beda informs us, continued for a long time to clothe in his native measures the principal religious facts recorded in the Pentateuch and in the New Testament. Is the work commonly known as Caedmon’s Paraphrase identical with the work described by Beda? Have we in the paraphrase a genuine utterance of the 7th century? The answers to these questions are still involved in doubt, and to enter upon the discussion which they presuppose would be foreign to our present purpose. We will merely say that the unique MS. Of the Paraphrase, which is the 10th century, contains no indication of authorship, and that it opens in a manner different from the prologue made by the real Caedmon, of which we have a Latin version in Beda and an Anglo-Saxon version in Alfred’s translation of Beda. On the other hand, the portion of the MS.which is written in the first hand agrees tolerably well in its contents with thw real work of Caedmon, as Beda describes it. The portion of MS. which is writtenin the second hand is probably of much later date ; some critics have not hesitated to designate its authoer as the "pseudo-Caedmon." The opening cantos of the Paraphrase, which treat of the rebellion of the angels and the fall of man, are allowed by general consent to be those most vividly expressed, and most characterized by poetical power. It is here that bright strong phrases occur, which, as is believed, Milton himself did not disdain to utilize, and his known acquaintance with Francis Junius, the then possessor of the Caedmon MS., seems to lend some countenance to the belief.

Hitherto the influences in Northumbia tending to culture have been found to be only indirectly Roman; the immediate source of them was Iona. But when we come to the Venerable Beda, The great light of the Northumbrian church, the glory of letters in a rude and turbulent age, nay, even the teacher and the beacon light of all Europe for the period from the 7th to the 10th century, we find that the fountain whence he drew the streams of thought and knowledge came from no derivative source, but was supplied directly from the well-head of Christian culture. Benedict Biscop, a young Northumbrian thane, much employed and favoured in the court of Oswy, abandoned the world for the church, and traveling to Rome resided there several years, diligently studying the details of ecclesiastical life and training, and the institutes of liturgical order. Returning to England in 668, with Theodore, the new primate, and the abbot Hadrian, he brought into Northumbria a large number of books, relics and other eccleciastical objects, and, being warmly welcomed by King Egfrid, founded a monastery in honour of St. Peter on land granted by the king at the mouth of the Wear. That the other great apostolic name venerated at Rome might not go without due honour, he built a second monastery soon afterwards in honour of St. Paul at Jarrow on the Tyne, seven miles from Weamouth. After the founder’s time the two monasteries were usually governed by one abbot. When only seven years old, Beda, like Orderic in a later, age, was brought by his father to Jarrow, and given up to the abbot to be trained to monastic life. The rest of his life, down to the year 731, was passed in the monastery, as we know from his own statement; in 735 he died. His works, which have several time been edited in a complete form abroad, but never yet in his own country, may be grouped under five heads – 1, Educational; 2, Theological; 3, Historical; 4, Poetical; 5 Letters. To the first class belong the treatises De Orthographia and De Arte Metica, the first being a short dictionary, giving the correct spelling and the idiomatic use of a considerable number of Latin words, (in many cases) their Greek equivalents, - the seconds a prosody, describing the principal classical metres, with examples. De Natura Rerum is cosmogony and cosmography, with numerous diagrams and maps. A number of treatises, of which the most important are De Ratione Temporous and De Ratione Computi, fall under the same head; their general object being to elucidate all questions connected with the ecclesiastical calendar and the right calculation of Easter. Under the second head, that of theological works, fall his Expositiones on St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s Gospel, on the Acts, and other books of the New Testament, his homilies, forty nine – in number, and a book of Prayers, chiefly made up of verses taken from the Psalms. Under the head of "Historical lives of five abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, a life of St. Cuthbert, another of St. Felix, bishop of Nola, and a Martyrology, which has several times been printed. The Ecclesiatical History opens with a preface, in which, in that tone of calmness and mild dignity which go far to make a perfect prose style. Beda explains in detail the nature and the sources of the evidence on which he has relied in compiling the weak. A short introduction then sketches the general history of Britain from the landing of Julius Caesar to the coming of Augustine, giving special details respecting the martyrdom of St. Alban under Diocletian, and the missionary preaching of St. Germanus of Auxerre in the 5th century. From the landing of Augustine in 596 to the year 731, the progress of Christianity, the successes and the reverse of the church in the arduous work of bringing within her pale the fiercely warring nations of the Heptachy, are narrated, fully but unsystematically, for each kingdom of the Heptatchy in turn. A short sketch of "Universal History", forming the latter portion of the De Ratione Temporum, has been treated by the edition of the Monumenta Hist. Brit. as if it were a separate work’, and printed, with the title De Sex Etatibus Mundi, in that useful but unwieldy volume. Among the poetical works are a life of St Cuthbert in Latin hexameters, a number of hymms, most of which are written in the lively iambic metre of which a familiar instance is the hymm beginning "Vexilla Regis prodeunt," a poem on Justin Martyr in a trochaic metre, and another in hexameter on the Day of Judgment. This last seems to have been much admired; Simeon of Durham copied it entire into his history. The versification of this remarkable poem has considerable merits; in that respect it is not more than three hundred years behind Cluadian. But when we come to the spirit of the poem, and think of the moral atmosphere which it implies, and aims at extending, we see that ten thousand years would not adequately measure the chasm which divides the monastric poets from thee last "vates" of heathen Rome. For the key – note of Beda’s poem is the sense of sin; whatever is expressed by the worlds compunction, penance, expiation, heart – crushing sorrow for having offended God, trust in the one Redeemer, pervades all his lines, and we not say how alien is all this to the spirit of the poets, who, with little thought of individual and personnel reformation, staked their all in the future upon the greatness and stability of Rome. "Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento." The letters, most of which are merely the dedications and address prefixed to some of his works, refer little to contemporary events; two or three, however, are of great interest.

At the time when Beda died(735), the Angles of Northunbria were beginning to lay aside the use of arms, and zealously to frequent the monastery schools; among their princess, as among those of Wessex some were found to exchange a crown and a throne for a cell. But a reaction set in; perhaps some had tried asceticism who had no vocation for it; and after the middle of the century Northumbria history is darkened by the frequent record of dissension among the members of the royal house, civil war, and assassinations. On this state of things came the ravages of the Northmen, and made it incurable. Lindisfarne, with all its treasures and collections, was destroyed by them in 793. this is but a sample of the havoc wrought by those barbarians; yet for a long time many monasteries escaped, and, in particular, that of Work was a centre of learning far on into the 9th century, probably till the disastrous battle occurred before York, described in the Saxon Chronicle under 867. At this monastery Alcuin was educated, and when grown up he had charge of its school and library. In 780 he was sent on a mission to Rome; on his return, at Parma, he fell in with the emperor Charlemagne who invited him to settle at Aix – la – Chapelle, at that time the chief imperial residence, to teach his children, and aid in the organization of education throughout his dominions. Having obtained the permission of his superiors at Work, Alcuin complied with the request; and from that time to his death, in 804, resided with little intermission, either at the imperial court or at ZTours. Alcuin’s letters, though the good man was of somewhat dry and pedantic, turn contain much matter of interest. His extent works are of considerable bulk; they are chiefly educational and theological treatises, which for lack of vigour or originality or treatment have fallen into complete oblivion. What is still of value in the works of Alcuin, is besides the letters, the lives of St. Willirbrod, the English apostle of Friesland, St. Vedast, and st. Richer.

After the death of Alcuin, the confusion in Northumbria became ever worse and worse, for the Danes forced their way into the land, and many years passed before the two nations could agree to live on friendly terms together side by side. But for the Durham Gospels, a version in the Angle dialect, of the four gospels, and a few similar remains, the north of England presents a dead blank to the historian of literature from Alcuin to Simeon of Durham, a period of more than three hundred years. Ink the south, as we have seen, the resistance to the intrusion of the barbarian element was more successful, and the intellectual atmosphere far less dark. The works of AElfirc, who died archibishop of Canterbury in 1006, are the last subject of consideration in the present section. They are chiefly interesting because they show the growing importance of the native language. AElfric’ Homilies are in Anglo – Saxon; his Colloquy is a conversation on common things, in Latin and Anglo –Saxon, between a master and his scholar; his Grammar, adapted from Priscian and Donaltus, has for its object to teach Latin to Anglo-Saxons; its editorial and didactic part is therefore in Anglo – Saxon. The annals of public events, to which, as collected and arranged by Archibishop Plegmund at the end of the 9th century, we give the name of the Saxon Chronicle, continued to be recorded at Canterbury in the native language till about the date of the Conquest; after that time the task passed into the hands of the monks of Peterborough, and was carried on by them for nearly a hundred years. A work of collecting and transcribing the remains of the national poetry began, of which the priceless volume known as the Exeter Codex, given by bishop Leofric to the library of Exeter cathedral in the reign of Edward the Confessor, s the monument and the fruit. The collection contained in the manuscript discovered about fifty years ago at Vercelli was probably made about the same time. In these two collections are contained the works of Cynewulf, the Traveller’s Song, Guthlac, Andreas, the poem on the Phoenix, &c. Being thus made more widely known, the ancient poems would soon have found imitators, and a fresh development of Anglo-Saxon poetry would have been the result. Had there been no violent change, England would by slow degrees have got through with the task of assimilating and training the Northmen; and, in spite of physical isolation, would have participated, though probably lagging far behind the rest, in the general intellectual advance of the nations of Europe. The tissues of her civilizations, would have been, in preponderating measure, Teutonic, like that of Germany; but it would have lacked the golden thread of the "Holy Roman Empire", which brought an element if idealism and beauty into the plain texture of German life. For good or for evil, the process of national and also of intellectual development was to be altered and quickened by the arrival of a knightly race of conquerous from across the channel.

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