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Anglo Saxon

OUR FIRST SPEECH. 
Our first recorded speech begins with the songs of Widsith and Deor, which the Anglo-Saxons may have brought with them when they first conquered Britain. In Old English, few books were written; most of those were written in Latin, for religious purposes. Most of those that got written have disappeared. Four books of Old English poetry exist today. All seem to have been written about the year 1000. First (the so-called Junius Manuscript) contains stories from the Old Testament turned into Old English poetry: Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. Second (The Vercelli Book, which turned up, rather mysteriously, in a small town in northern Italy) contains Christian poems based on themes from the New Testament or lives of saints; the best known of these is the “Dream of  the Rood,” spoken by the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Third (The Exeter Book) is a kind of anthology of different short poems; it contains “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament.” The fourth (known as the Cotton Manuscript, or, more formally, MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv), contains Beowulf. This manuscript was badly burned in 1731; today it is carefully preserved in the British Museum, in London, but its edges keep flaking off, making it harder and harder to read.
The religious poems in the old English written under the influence of Cynewulf, known as Cynewulf Cycle. The best-known “The Dream of the Rood,” (comes under The Vercelli Book—a collection of Christian poems based on themes from the New Testament or lives of saints) spoken by the the Ruthwell Cross of Northumbria on which Jesus was crucified. 

At first glance these songs in their native dress look strange as a foreign tongue; but when we examine them carefully we find many words that have been familiar since childhood. We have seen this in Beowulf; but in prose the resemblance of this old speech to our own is even more striking. Here, for instance, is a fragment of the simple story of the conquest of Britain by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors:

Her Hengest and AEsc his sunu gefuhton with Bryttas, on thaere stowe the is gecweden Creccanford, and thaer ofslogon feower thusenda wera. And tha Bryttas tha forleton Cent-lond, and mid myclum ege flugon to Lundenbyrig. (At this time Hengest and Aesc, his son, fought against the Britons at the place which is called Crayford and there slew four thousand men. And then the Britons forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled to London town.)

The reader who utters these words aloud a few times will speedily recognize his own tongue, not simply in the words but also in the whole structure of the sentences.

From such records we see that our speech is Teutonic in its origin; and when we examine any Teutonic language we learn that it is only a branch of the great Aryan or Indo-European family of languages. In life and language, therefore, we are related first to the Teutonic races, and through them to all the nations of this Indo-European family, which, starting with enormous vigor from their original home (probably in central Europe) spread southward and westward, driving out the native tribes and slowly developing the mighty civilizations of India, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the wilder but more vigorous life of the Celts and Teutons. In all these languages--Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek, Latin, Celtic, Teutonic--we recognize the same root words for father and mother, for God and man, for the common needs and the common relations of life; and since words are windows through which we see the soul of this old people, we find certain ideals of love, home, faith, heroism, liberty, which seem to have been the very life of our forefathers, and which were inherited by them from their old heroic and conquering ancestors. It was on the borders of the North Sea that our fathers halted for unnumbered centuries on their westward journey, and slowly developed the national life and language which we now call Anglo-Saxon.


It is this old vigorous Anglo-Saxon language which forms the basis of our modern English. If we read a paragraph from any good English book, and then analyze it, as we would a flower, to see what it contains, we find two distinct classes of words. The first class, containing simple words expressing the common things of life, makes up the strong framework of our language. These words are like the stem and bare branches of a mighty oak, and if we look them up in the dictionary we find that almost invariably they come to us from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

The second and larger class of words is made up of those that give grace, variety, ornament, to our speech. They are like the leaves and blossoms of the same tree, and when we examine their history we find that they come to us from the Celts, Romans, Normans, and other peoples with whom we have been in contact in the long years of our development. The most prominent characteristic of our present language, therefore, is its dual character. Its best qualities--strength, simplicity, directness--come from Anglo-Saxon sources; its enormous added wealth of expression, its comprehensiveness, its plastic adaptability to new conditions and ideas, are largely the result of additions from other languages, and especially of its gradual absorption of the French language after the Norman Conquest. It is this dual character, this combination of native and foreign, of innate and exotic elements, which accounts for the wealth of our English language and literature. To see it in concrete form, we should read in succession Beowulf and  Paradise Lost, the two great epics which show the root and the flower of our literary development.

Anglo Saxon Age or Old English or Pre Christian or Pagan Literature
The word Anglo-Saxon was first used by the Scholars Camden in his books History of Britain. The period extended from the invasion of Celtic England by Germanic tribes (The Jutes; Saxon Means Hook or Sword; Angel means Hook-man or Swordsman) in the first half of the fifth century to the conquest of England in 1066 by the Norman French under the leadership of William the Conqueror. Thus, English literature begins with songs and stories of a time when Teutonic ancestors were living on the borders of the North Sea. Period’s earlier literature had been oral. A high level of culture and learning was soon achieved in the various forms of the literature. All the great poems of the age “Beowulf”, “The Wanderer”, “The Seafarer”, “Deor” were composed by the Christian writers. These poems reflect the condition of the pagan past. Caedmon and Cynewulf were the poets who wrote on biblical and religious themes.

Hitherto the poetry, though written in English language is not strictly part of the literature of England. The first native maker of English verse is Caedmon. The poetry of Anglo-Saxon period resembles to the Hebrew poetry, including in parallelism, and metaphysical phrases. Rhyme is absent, and there is no number of definite of syllables. The form of poetry chiefly flavored by these writers is epic, it is both suited their manners and matters, and lent itself to the treatment of heroic deeds.

All the poetry is earnest and somber, and pervaded by fatalism and religious feelings. A careful reading of few remaining fragments of Anglo-Saxon literature reveals five striking characteristics:
1. love of freedom
2. responsiveness to nature, especially in her sterner moods;
3. strong religious conviction, and a belief in Wyrd, or Fate;
4. reverence for womanhood; and
5. a devotion to glory as the ruling motive in every warrior’s life.
The prose, unlike the verse, was not used as an emotional stimulant; it was for the mist part of educational. What did not inspire the maker of the verse has been seen; it was responsible also for the creation of the Monk Scholar. All the prose of the time was written in Latin language, important prose work of the age is Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was revised and enlarged by Alfred and which was continued for more than two centuries. It is the oldest historical record to any European nation in its own tongue. Anglo-Saxon Age is an age of credulity and miracles were in men’s minds continually.

Northumbrian Literature
In general, two great schools of Christian influence came into England, and speedily put an end to the frightful wars that had waged continually among the various petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxons. The first of these, under the leadership of Augustine, came from Rome. It spread in the south and the center of England, especially in the kingdom of Essex. It founded schools and partially educated the rough people, but it produced no lasting literature.

The other, under the leadership of the saintly Aidan, came from Ireland, which country had been for centuries a center of religion and education for all Western Europe. The monks of this school labored chiefly in Northumbriam and to their influence we owe all the best in Anglo-Saxon Literature. It is called the Northumbrian School; its center was the monasteries and abbeys, such as Jarrow and Whitby, and its three greatest names are Bede, Caedmon and Cynewulf. Alfred is the last poet of the age.

After Alfred’s death there is a little record, except the loss of two supreme objects of his heroic struggle, a national life and a national literature. It was at once the strength and the weakness of the Saxon that he lived apart as a free man and never joined efforts willingly with a large body if his fellows. The tribe was the largest idea of nationality, and, with all our admiration, we must confess as we first meet him that he has not enough sense of unity to make a great nation, nor enough culture to produce a great literature. A few noble political ideals repeated in a score of petty kingdoms, and a few literary ideals copied but increased—that is the summary of his literary history. For a full century, after Alfred, literature was practically at a standstill, having produced the best of which it was capable, and England waited for the national impulse and for the culture necessary for a new and greater art. Both of these came speedily, by way of the sea, in the Norman Conquest.

DECLINE OF NORTHUMBRIAN LITERATURE
The same northern energy which had built up learning and literature so rapidly in Northumbria was instrumental in pulling it down again. Toward the end of the century in which Cynewulf lived, the Danes swept down on the English coasts and overwhelmed Northumbria. Monasteries and schools were destroyed; scholars and teachers alike were put to the sword, and libraries that had been gathered leaf by leaf with the toil of centuries were scattered to the four winds. So all true Northumbrian literature perished, with the exception of a few fragments, and that which we now possess is largely a translation in the dialect of the West Saxons. This translation was made by Alfred's scholars, after he had driven back the Danes in an effort to preserve the ideals and the civilization that had been so hardly won. With the conquest of Northumbria ends the poetic period of Anglo-Saxon literature. With Alfred the Great of Wessex our prose literature makes a beginning.

Beowulf: First English Poem
The Lay of Beowulf: A Poem of Pagan Age
In reading the Beowulf we seem to be looking down into the translucent pool of ocean, fringled and shaded by seaweeds, in whose depths, monstrous fishes are slowly swimming and fierce crustaceans are energizing, and noiselessly engaging in combat Edmund Goose

The only poem which attempts a picture of the primitive age on a large scale is The Lay of Beowulf. The date of the composition of this book makes it the most ancient epic of the Teutonic world, and historically its subject takes us back to the first half of the sixth century. The scene of action is Denmark, and the characters are man of the race from which the invaders are descended. It is like one of these stories of Henryk Sikenkiewicz translated into English by an American citizen whose ancestors come from Poland. Like another national epics, Beowulf is a collection of several songs composed at several times. Beowulf, the hero, is a very wonderful person who is not at all backwards about boasting his exploits. He comes to King Hrothgar at Heorot and in single combat and unarmed over comes the monster Grendel, who for twelve years has been nightly visiting the mead hall and devouring alive thirty of Harothgar’s warriors. Then Beowulf undertakes to put Grendel’s witch mother out of the way. Many years go by, and now Beowulf is an old man and a king, he fights with a dragon and kills him but also received a mortal wound, and expires in the end. Longfellow remarks:

“Beowulf is like a piece of ancient armor; rustly and battered, and yet strong. From within comes a voice of sepulchral, as if the ancient armor spoke, telling simple, straightforward narrative; which here and there the boastful speech of a rough old Dane, reminding one of those made by the heroes of Homer.” In Beowulf, there is a complete absence of the conventional love story: Beowulf does not seek the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage and live happily with her; in fact there is no beautiful princess in the poem.

The English or Saxon Chronicle
More important than any translation in is The English or Saxon Chronicle. This was probably at first a dry record, especially of important births and death in West-Saxon kingdom. Alfred enlarged this scant record, beginning the story with Caesar’s Conquest. When it touches his own reign the dry chronicle becomes an interesting and connected story, the oldest history belonging to any modern nation in its own language. The record of Alfred’s reign, probably by himself, is a splendid bit of writing and shows The Chronicle was continued after Alfred’s death, and is the best monument of early English prose that is left to us. Here and there stirring songs are included in the narrative, like “The Battle of Brumanburh” and “The Battle of Maldon”. The last, entered, 992, seventy-five years before the Norman Conquest, is the swan song of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The chronicle was continued for a century after the Norman Conquest, and is extremely valuable not only as a record of events but as literary monument showing the development of English Language.

CLOSE OF THE ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD:
After Alfred's death there is little to record, except the loss of the two supreme objects of his heroic struggle, namely, a national life and a national literature. It was at once the strength and the weakness of the Saxon that he lived apart as a free man and never joined efforts willingly with any large body of his fellows. The tribe was his largest idea of nationality, and, with all our admiration, we must confess as we first meet him that he has not enough sense of unity to make a great nation, nor enough culture to produce a great literature. A few noble political ideals repeated in a score of petty kingdoms, and a few literary ideals copied but never increased,--that is the summary of his literary history. For a full century after Alfred literature was practically at a standstill, having produced the best of which it was capable, and England waited for the national impulse and for the culture necessary for a new and greater art. Both of these came speedily, by way of the sea, in the Norman Conquest.

Our literature begins with songs and stories of a time when our Teutonic ancestors were living on the borders of the North Sea. Three tribes of these ancestors, the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, conquered Britain in the latter half of the fifth century, and laid the foundation of the English nation. The first landing was probably by a tribe of Jutes, under chiefs called by the chronicle Hengist and Horsa. The date is doubtful; but the year 449 is accepted by most historians.

These old ancestors were hardy warriors and sea rovers, yet were capable of profound and noble emotions. Their poetry reflects this double nature. Its subjects were chiefly the sea and the plunging boats, battles, adventure, brave deeds, the glory of warriors, and the love of home. Accent, alliteration, and an abrupt break in the middle of each line gave their poetry a kind of martial rhythm. In general the poetry is earnest and somber, and pervaded by fatalism and religious feeling. A careful reading of the few remaining fragments of Anglo-Saxon literature reveals five striking characteristics: the love of freedom; responsiveness to nature, especially in her sterner moods; strong religious convictions, and a belief in Wyrd, or Fate; reverence for womanhood; and a devotion to glory as the
ruling motive in every warrior's life.

In our study we have noted:
  1. the great epic or heroic poem Beowulf, and a few fragments of our first poetry, such as "Widsith," "Deor'sLament," and "The Seafarer."
  2. Characteristics of Anglo-Saxon life; the form of our first speech.
  3. The Northumbrian school of writers. Bede, ourfirst historian, belongs to this school; but all his extant works are in Latin. The two great poets are Caedmon and Cynewulf. Northumbrian literature flourished between 650 and 850. In the year 867 Northumbria was conquered by the Danes, who destroyed the monasteries and the libraries containing our earliest literature.
  4. The beginnings of English prose writing under Alfred (848-901). Our most important prose work of this age is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was revised and enlarged by Alfred, and which was continued for more than two centuries. It is the oldest historical record known to any European nation in its own tongue.
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