[Click on image to enlarge] From our point of view, it is appropriate to think of the language and literature of Anglo-Saxon England as "Old English," because the language is the remote ancestor of the English spoken today. Yet for the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England, the language was, of course, not old, and did not come to be referred to generally as "English" until fairly late in the period. The earliest reference given in the Oxford English Dictionary is 890. Bede's Latin Ecclesiastical History of the English People refers collectively to the people as gens Anglorum, which in the vernacular translation becomes angel-cynne (English-race). However, in Bede's time the England of today was divided into a number of petty kingdoms. Language, the Roman Church, and monastic institutions lent these kingdoms a certain cultural identity, but a political identity began to emerge only during the ninth century in response to the Danish invasions, and through King Alfred's efforts to revive learning and to make Latin religious and historical works, such as Bede's History, available in vernacular translations.

Most of the surviving vernacular poetry of Anglo-Saxon England consists of free translations or adaptations of Latin saints' lives and books of the Bible, such as Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. But with the exception of The Battle of Maldon about the defeat of Earl Byrhtnoth and his men by Viking raiders and The Battle of Brunanburh, a poem celebrating an English victory over the invaders, secular heroic poetry has little or nothing to do with England or English people. Beowulf is set in Scandinavia; its principal characters are Danes, Geats, Swedes, and there are brief references to other pagan Germanic tribes such as the Frisians, Jutes, and Franks.

[Click on image to enlarge] Certainly Beowulf is a remarkable survivor, in the Anglo-Saxon or Old English language, of a great literary tradition, but one that is by no means exclusively English. The Norman Conquest disrupted the literary culture of Anglo-Saxon England. The practice of alliterative verse continued until the fifteenth century, primarily in the north- and southwest corners of the island. But Beowulf disappeared from English literature until the manuscript, already singed by the fire that consumed so much of Sir Robert Cotton's library, was first noticed in the eighteenth century and was not transcribed and published until 1815 by an Icelander, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, at the time Royal Archivist of Denmark, under the Latin title De Danorum Rebus Gestis: Poema Danicum Dialecto Anglosaxonica (About the Deeds of the Danes: a Danish Poem in the Anglo-Saxon Dialect). Thorkelin believed that the poem was a Danish epic, its hero a Danish warrior, and its poet a contemporary witness of these events who was present at Beowulf's funeral. Subsequently, German scholars claimed that the poem had been originally composed in northern Germany in the homeland of the Angles, who invaded Britain in the fifth century.

Although we may dismiss these nationalistic attempts to appropriate the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf for other national literatures, they do point to the fact that Beowulf did not begin to play a role in the history of English literature before the nineteenth century. Beowulf along with most other Anglo-Saxon poetry was effectively lost to Chaucer and the English poets who succeeded him. They responded primarily to French, Italian, and classical literature to create an English literature rivaling these great precursors.

Therefore it is helpful for students, as it is for scholars, to see Beowulf and its place in literary history in the context of early Germanic literature that was little known before nineteenth-century philologists, editors, and translators, eager to establish their native traditions, made the poem available once more. Beowulf thus became a major text in a European revival of ancient Germanic literature, which includes, besides Anglo-Saxon, works in Old Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old Icelandic. We provide excerpts from several of these works, which illuminate the world of Beowulf and its pagan characters as well as its Christian poet and his original audience.

Widsith (far-traveler) is the modern title of a 142-line Anglo-Saxon poem, which takes its name from the speaker- persona, a fictional Anglo-Saxon oral poet or scop. Widsith is a traveling bard who presents a who's who of Germanic tribal chieftains and describes his experiences performing at their courts. Presumably, Widsith's audiences would have been able to follow his lays even if they spoke a different Germanic dialect from the bard's. Moreover, many of the characters and actions of his songs would probably have been familiar to them from poetry that is lost to us.

[Click on image to enlarge] The close relationship between the language and literature of Anglo-Saxon England and other Germanic languages and literatures on the Continent may be illustrated from our second selection, a narrative poem based on the Book of Genesis in Manuscript Junius 11 now in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. In 1875 a young German scholar, Eduard Sievers, realized that the part of this Anglo-Saxon Genesis dealing with the Fall of the Angels and the Fall of Adam and Eve must be a transcription into the West-Saxon dialect of Old English of a Genesis poem composed in Old Saxon in the ninth century. Its existence was known from allusions to it, but no copies of it were thought to have survived. Sievers entitled this section of the Junius Genesis Genesis B to distinguish it from the rest of the Anglo-Saxon poem, which became Genesis A. When the copyist of Genesis A came to the Fall of the Angels, he may have discovered a gap in his exemplar, which he then filled in with the story as it was told in another manuscript available to him. This manuscript, no longer extant, happened to be a copy of the Saxon Genesis. Although the spelling and language of that text would certainly have looked foreign to the Anglo-Saxon scribe, he seems to have experienced no great difficulty understanding and rendering it, with some cuts and adjustments, word for word and line by line, although leaving enough clues as to the original language of the poem for Sievers to formulate his theory about its origins.

That theory was sensationally confirmed by the discovery in 1894 of thirty-two leaves from another manuscript of the Saxon Genesis bound into the Vatican manuscript Palatinus Latinus 1447. Internal evidence enabled scholars to show that those leaves were first copied at a monastery in the German city of Mainz during the third quarter of the ninth century. The fragments of the Saxon poem preserved in the Junius and Vatican manuscripts overlap for only twenty-six lines, and, because each is a copy of older copies, their texts naturally do not correspond exactly. Nevertheless, those lines enable one to appreciate the relationship between Old Saxon and Old English that facilitated the work of the English adapter. Here are three lines from the Vatican and Junius manuscripts juxtaposed with a translation and a few notes. Adam is lamenting to Eve how their sin has changed atmospheric conditions:


Old Saxon: Hu sculun uuit >> note 1 nu libbian
Old English: hu sculon wit >> note 2 nu libban
  how shall we two now live
Old Saxon: efto hu sculun uuit an thesum liahta uuesan
Old English: oððe on þis lande >> note 3 wesan
  or in this land be (exist)
Old Saxon: nu hier huuilum uuind kumit
Old English: gif her                   wind comth
  now/if here [sometimes] wind comes
Old Saxon: uuestan efto ostan
Old English: westan oððe eastan,
  [from] west or east
Old Saxon: suðan efto nordan
Old English: suðan oððe norðan?
  [from] south or north

Thus, although Genesis B is preserved in Old English, it is not strictly speaking an Old English poem nor is it a translation. Rather, as the above example shows, the Anglo-Saxon scribe has recopied the Old Saxon text — here and there adding, omitting, or substituting words — into the standard written form of tenth-century Anglo-Saxon. This should not surprise us, for not only are Old English and Old Saxon related branches of the same language group but of the same culture — the Christianized Germanic culture of northern Europe. Indeed, English missionaries in the eighth century had been chiefly responsible for the conversion of the Germans on the Continent, the establishment of the Roman Church in Germany, and the reform of the Frankish Church. >> note 4 English monks, therefore, paved the way for Charlemagne's attempt in the ninth century to renew the ancient Roman Empire as the Holy Roman Empire, and the intellectual revival called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Saxon Genesis is a product of that movement to which the Anglo-Saxon Church had contributed so much.

From Genesis B we include a dramatic passage about the Creation, Rebellion, and Fall of the Angels in which Satan is cast in the role of epic anti-hero. From a fragment in the Vatican manuscript we include part of the story of Cain and Abel.

Much of our knowledge of Germanic mythology and story, which was suppressed by the Church in England and on the Continent, survived in medieval Iceland where a deliberate effort was made to preserve ancient Germanic verse forms, mythology, legend, and political and family histories. Although it dates centuries after Beowulf, the remarkable corpus of Icelandic literature from the twelfth through the thirteenth centuries provides us with analogous stories and materials that bring us into closer contact with the kinds of materials from which Beowulf was fashioned. A selection from the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) is an analogue of a tragic inset story of loss in Beowulf, which gives a keynote for the profound sadness that pervades the latter part of the poem. An episode from the fourteenth-century Grettir's Saga gives us a dark analogue of Beowulf's fight with Grendel.


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