Anglo Saxon Period and Literary Works

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This paper will discuss Anglo-Saxon period and works. The period of Anglo-Saxon is also known as Old English Literature. Old English was the language of German tribes. Angles, Saxons and Jutes, which were three powerful nations of Germans, immigrated from Germany and Scandinavia since fifth and sixth centuries and they set up a lot of kingdoms which are Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland. England was under Roman influence and was actually the home of Celts till it was conquered in the fifth and sixth century by Germanic Tribes which was known as Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

People lived in England after England was conquered, started to talk own language which is now known as the language of Old English or Anglo-Saxon. The new residents, which were in advance pagans, converted Christianity in the seventeenth century. Christian missionaries taught Latin alphabet. The Anglo-Saxons were different from Romans that were sophisticated.

Men were more dominant than women during the Anglo-Saxon Period.

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According to society, men were thought as the central leaders and men were the center of society, they had main roles. Anglo-Saxons were known as their military power and they represented wisdom of their society. They were warrior. Malcolm Godden says in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature: “Anglo-Saxon society still consisted of a military nobility, like ‘feudal’ Normandy or most of the rest of eleventh-century northern Europe” (15).The men’s main role was to protect their family. Their physical appearances were lovely, honestly, strong and bravery and they enjoyed conflict horse races, singing song and storytelling.

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Women had to obey men in the Anglo-Saxon period. According to men, women were memory keepers, motivators, cupbearers and peace weavers. There were some texts which demonstrating the role of women in the Anglo-Saxon period. For example; Beowulf and The Wife’s Lament demonstrates women role in society.

In this period, works were oral until English learned to write and producing literary work was duty of monks. Not only classic Latin and Greek literature but also Anglo-Saxon literature like Beowulf was preserved by Christian monasteries. According to Ronald Carter and John McRAE says in The Routledge history of literature in English : Britain and Ireland: People did not know read and write before the fourteenth century but only Christian monks and nuns, who protected culture, could read and write (5). Monks had to write down literature and transmit them to next generations.

Latin was the language of church and religion. Literary works survived Pagan and Christian patterns as people who were new residents effected literary works too. There were elegiac poems such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer and Deor’s Lament. The Battle of Maldon and The Battle of Brunanburh are heroic poems. There were religious themes in works and Caedmon’s Hymn and The Dream of the Rood focused on Biblical themes. In the Old English poem, there was a measure but there was not almost rhyme. Works were written with alliteration and kennings. Alliteration meaning is the reputation of consonant sounds. Kennings, which are associated with Old Norse, Icelandic, and Anglo- Saxon poetry, describe things indirectly and in combination of words. Thomas Gardner says that : “…the kenning was first introduced into Germanic by OE poets” (111).

English prose developed in England and the introduction of Christianity facilities with this development. Literary prose began to develop in nineteenth century thanks to King Alfred. King Alfred, who is considered the father of English prose, translated Latin books into Old English. M. R. Godden says that: “…King Alfred translated the text first into prose and then into verse; and a verse one, saying that he composed the poems that follow” (4). Thanks to him, a considerable prose literature grew up. King Alfred who sets up unity is an important person in the history of England and in English Language and Literature. He achieves military success against the Danes and he gives importance to education and he is known his social and educational reforms.

We can say that King Alfred resembles to Ataturk as Ataturk made alphabet reform in order to increase the literacy rate in 1928. Turkish became a richer language. As the literacy rate increased, science and culture developed.  New universities were opened. King Alfred was a leader in terms of education. He is the only English Monarchy known as the great. He makes an effort to learn and to make Latin religious and historical works such as Bede’s History. He encouraged the English vernacular writing and gave commands to write chronicles which are writings which tell us about social and historical events. King Alfred became a model for the chronics. King Alfred is a defender of using vernacular. King Alfred translated various works from Latin to vernacular and inspired the literature.

King Egbert was the only king in Wessex. Public was divided into categories such as nobleman, free, farmers because of the origin of the Wessex. Roman Empire was dominant in Anglo- Saxon period. We do not know certain information about English Literature as there is not enough information. In this term there were a lot of anonymous works and these works were oral. According to Kevin S. Kiernan, Old English poem must have derived from eight century Northumbrian to late West Saxon and poems changed as written text (164). But this quotation shows that poems were not oral and were written texts. King Ethelbert of Kent was the first Christian king of Anglo- Saxon. At that time there were a lot of churchman who gave information about English culture and history.

The Dream of the Rood, which is one of the finest religious poems in the English Language, is lyric and the earliest dream poem. There were a lot of words, phrases and images in order to use for the figure of Christ and his cross in The Dream of the Rood. The Dream of the Rood’ theme is the crucifixion of the Jesus. This poem, which consists of 140 verses, is the most beautiful poem of the Christian era and was found in the Vercelli Book, where the works of that period were collected. Seeta Chaganti says that: “Dream of the Rood reveals an Anglo-Saxon poetics defined by its place at the dialectical intersection of the silent, self-referential differance of inscription and the powerfully constitutive declarations emanating from religious ritual and performance” (51).

The poet sees a cross in his work and this cross is decorated with precious jewels. He is afraid of this cross guarded by the angels for whom he sees himself as a sinner. As the poet looks at the cross, the color of the cross changes and blood drops begin to flow. This cross describes the crucifixion of Christ, how the world changed at the time, the cracking of the rocks and the rise of Jesus into the sky. Thus the poet who believes in Christianity begins to worship the cross. The Strong virile images of Christ are used and the main aim of this using spreads Anglo- Saxon culture. John V. Fleming says that: The Cross of The Dream of the Rood displays a twofold center, proposing both the profound torturous killing and day by day suffering of plainness and the military and triumphant magnificence of the effective civilian army (56).

Bede was one of the most important people who spread Christianity and the growth of the English Church. Stephen Greenblatt says in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Bede’s works main aim is the growth of the English Church and the spread of Christianity (4). He was an English monk, writer and scientist and used Latin in his works. Bede translated Caedmon Hymn from Old English to Latin and he was the first linguistics in England since he wrote grammar. R. M. Liuzza says in Old English Literature: “Bede did not restrict the benefits of literacy to those who belonged to that community and who could read” (15). His most important book was The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain say: “Bede translated Cædmon’s Hymn into Latin and did not provide an English version because he was writing for an international audience of clerics” (142).

It was written 100 years later; King Alfred translated it to English. It is not only a religious book but also historical book. It was the most beautiful story which was told by Bede. Caedmon, who is an old illiterate man, works as a shepherd in Whitby. Caedmon is embarrassed of his ignorance and therefore does not want to be found in the places where the priests sing in the evening. He escapes from where everyone is, and goes to the barn. He sees a mysterious person in his dream. This person insists him to sing but Caedmon does not know the song and that’s why he says he escaped to the barn.

Although he insists not to sing song, at the end he asks which song to sing and mysterious person told him the song of ‘How the world was created’. And Caedmon says this song. He remembers the dream when he wakes up in the morning. Therefore, the monastery understands that Caedmon is inspired by the God and they make him a priest. Nikole Guenther Discenza says: “Even if he could translate it acceptably, he would risk competing with Ccedmon’s Hymn, which stands out in the Old English text for its familiar Old English poetic form and thus celebrates native literary production” (77).

The Wanderer was written in 115 verses and it was found in Exeter Book. There is unhappiness in this poem. The master who he tells of his troubles died and he became homeless. He starts to wander on icy seas and remembers the old days when he is happy. Sometimes he sees his master in a dream and hugs him, but when he wakes up, his pain increases. The Wanderer describes the suffering of stormy cold seas. But these sufferings have been described more effectively by the Seafarer. The beginning and the end of this work is not certain, so the reason for the dominance of the religious air in poetry is unknown.   It is not known whether this poem is a monologue or dialogue. The Seafarer has been translated into Modern English by Ezra Pound. Jerome Mandel says that: “The Seafarer is a Christian poem. It is also a great poem because, and not in spite of, the Christian design and conception” (551).

The Battle of Maldon which was the last of Old English heroic poem in the tenth century took place between the Vikings and Anglo- Saxons. Michael R. Kightley says : “The Battle of Maldon names none of the Viking invaders, not even their eloquent and manipulative messenger, but deliberately identifies numerous members of the English defense force, sometimes not only by name but also by family, class or place of origin” (58). When the Vikings came to Northey Island, The Battle of Maldon started. The Battle of Maldon is a poem which could not be found its beginning and its end, but its 325 strings fragment can be found. This poem was inspired by the Anglo-Saxon struggle against the Danes in 991 and it is thought to have been written before the war.

The Danes, who come by 93 boats, are called ‘horse of Vikings’. Anglo-Saxons are weaker than the Vikings. Although the Anglo Saxons know that they will be defeated, they want to fight until they die, and they remove with the horses and animals from the battlefield. The Vikings say they will give up their war with the Anglo-Saxons for money because they are strong. But Byrhtnoth, who is the honorable hero of the Anglo-Saxons, challenges Vikings. Anglo-Saxon soldiers are killed on the battlefield because they are few and weak. Mina urgan says: “courage shall be greater as our strength grows less” (36). The commander Byrhtnoth is stuck in a poisoned spear and he thanks to God for fighting his honor. They fight until all the soldiers die, and the honorable defeat of the Anglo-Saxons goes down in history.

Beowulf, which is Anglo- Saxon epic poem, was born in the oral tradition till tenth century. Its language is rich and encouraging and we can see a lot of kennings and alliterative in Beowulf. Beowulf continues the tradition of heroism epic from the Germans as subject and measure. It is full of realistic details. Earl R. Anderson says: “The Beowulf poet has no such colourful stories to tell about Beow, probably because Anglo-Saxon oral tradition offered none” (631). It gives information about the lives, values, cultural and beliefs of Scandinavian tribes, but the expression of poetry is primitive.

When Great Britain moved to writing literature after becoming Christian, the artifacts were more than those in the period of idolatry. The texts which were found are usually prose, not poetry, as they have a purpose like missionary activities. Beowulf, which is anonymous work, is the most important work in Anglo-Saxon Literature and famous product of the Old English literature. More than 3000 verse, Beowulf is the first epic poem, was found in the tenth century. This work was written in the period before the Christianization of the old British literature.

Beowulf is considered to be the oldest epic poem as it tells the tales accepted in the culture of that age before the Germans arrived in Britain. Although it is the first epic poem of English Literature, only Denmark and Sweden are told because Beowulf is a southern Swede. In this work, Christianity and a god who is known to be a Christian god are referred to many times, but Scandinavians are idolaters. The main characters in Beowulf are Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, Dragon and King Hrothgar.

Beowulf speaks highly of Scyld Scefing who is King of Denmark. At Scyld’s funeral, his dead body and precious objects are released into the ocean by a ship, and no one can ever hear from the ship again. Hrothgar is the grandson of Scyld, and Hrothgar, who has an important place in the epic, is an old and valuable warrior. There is a palace named Hereot which is paved with gold on the sea. In this palace, Hrothgar listens to the songs of the poets who have feasts for a long time with his relatives and friends. One day a monster from the cursed lineage of the caine emerges from the swamp and attacks Hereot. This monster has killed thirty people in Hereot every night for twelve years. Beowulf is a brave person lives in the country of the Geats.

When Beowulf hears events which occur in Hrotghar, he goes there with fourteen friends in order to help. The elder Hrothgar invites Beowulf to his dinner. They listen to the songs of a bard and drink, but Unferth who is one of the friends of the king of Denmark envies Beowulf and so he defames Beowulf. He claims to have been defeated in the swim race, but Beowulf says it was a demonstration and swam five days and five nights to be protected from sea monsters and Unfert say to Beowulf if you were brave, you could protect the monsters from the monsters. Hrothgar enters into a different building to sleep with his assistants, and Beowulf’s friends stay at the Hereot to fight the monster.

The monster’s name is Grendel. They hear Grendel’s weapons are ineffective and they do not take their swords with them. The monster’s characteristic features seen in Beowulf and left to the imagination of the reader and does not explained in a few details. Grendel rejoices as he sees the sleeping warriors, and eats one of them. Then he stretched his hand to Beowulf but the Beowulf did not sleep and grabbed the Grendel’s arm. Although Grendel tries to escape, he fails because Beowulf has the power of 32 people. The warriors awoke from the sound attack Grendel and the Grendel leaves his arm to Beowulf and escapes. Beowulf hangs Grendel’s arm on the palace wall. King Hrothgar and all the people of the palace organize a feast in joy.

Beowulf is seated between the two sons of the king, and the queen offers him jewels with her hands. On the other hand Grendel’s mother attacked Hereot to revenge her son. She takes one of Hrothgar’s friends and kills him. Beowulf wants to defeat this enemy and finds the monster’s cave with his friends. The cave is a scary lake in a dreary forest. Beowulf dives alone in the lake and floats for a day under the attacks of sea creatures finally; the cave at the bottom of the lake manages to land. A war begins between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf and Beowulf’s sword is broken. Because the weapons made by mortals are ineffective against the monster. Beowulf finds a magical sword made by giants in the cave.

Beowulf cuts off Grendel’s mother head first, and then cut off the head of the Grendel who died. The cut head of Grendel comes to surface. Hrothgar and his men think that Beowulf is dead and they return to Hereot. But Beowulf’s friends wait for him. Beowulf gets out of the cave and returns to Hereot and the festival is held again. Beowulf returns to the Geat king Hygelac with his fame and gifts. Beowulf later replaced his deceased uncle and managed the country peacefully for fifty years. And then a dragon attacks the palace, but Beowulf has aged and this is a war of fear and pain. He is seriously injured during the crash and his young assistant Wiglaf does not leave him alone. Beowulf donates the spoils which he finds in the dragon’s cave and makes his last will. When he dies, he asks for his body to be burned on a high pile of firewood at the seaside.

In conclusion, we can see Germany effects in Anglo-Saxon period. Angles, Saxon and Jutes immigrated in the fifth and sixth century and set up kingdoms. So we can see that there was religious, cultural and language exchanges in society. People started to talk Old English and convert Christianity. Anglo-Saxon society was powerful and warrior. Women were in significant and they had to obey men. There were wars at that time and this affected works. Works were oral and monks produced literary works in order to transmit those next generations. Church’s and religion’s language was Latin. Prose started to develop in England and King Alfred is famous for his prose. There were a lot of anonymous works such as The Dream of the Rood, Caedmon Hymn, The Wanderer, The Seafarer and Beowulf. The Dream of the Rood consists of 140 verses and is a religious poem which tells. This poet’s aim spreads Anglo-Saxon culture. Bede who was the first linguistics spread Christianity and translated Caedmon Hymn to Latin. The Wanderer and The Seafarer are melancholic works. Beowulf is an epic poem and it consists of more than 3000 verse.

Works Cited

  1. Anderson, Earl R. “Beow the Boy-Wonder (Beowulf 12–25).” English Studies, vol. 89, no. 6, 2008, pp. 630-642.
  2. Carter, Ronald, and John McRae. The Routledge history of literature in English : Britain and Ireland. London New York Routledge, 2017.
  3. Chaganti, Seeta. “Vestigial Signs: Inscription, Performance, and ‘The Dream of the Rood’.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 1, 2010, pp. 48-72.
  4. Discenza, Nicole G. “The Old English ‘Bede’ and the construction of Anglo-Saxon Authority. ” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 31, 2002, pp. 69-80.
  5. Fleming, John V. “’ The Dream of the Rood’ and Anglo-Saxon Monasticism.” Traditio, vol. 22, 1966, pp. 43-72.
  6. Fulk, R D, Christopher M Cain, at all. A history of Old English literature. Blackwell, 2003.
  7. Gardner, Thomas. “The Old English Kenning: A Characteristic Feature of Germanic Poetical Diction?. ” Modern Philology, vol. 67, no. 2, 1969, pp. 109-117.
  8. Godden, M. R. “Did King Alfred Write Anything?.” Medium Ævum, vol. 76, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-23.
  9. Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  10. Greenblatt, Stephen, and M H Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.
  11. Kiernan, Kevin S. “Reading Cædmon’s ‘Hymn’ with Someone Else’s Glosses.” Representations, no. 32, 1990, pp. 157-174.
  12. Kightley, Michael R. “Communal Interdependence in The Battle of Maldon.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 82, no. 1, 2010, pp. 58-68.
  13. Liuzza, R. M. Old English Literature. Yale University Press, 2002.
  14. Mandel, Jerome. “The Sefarer.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 77, no, 4, 1976, pp. 538-551.
  15. Urgan, Mina. İngiliz Edebiyatı Tarihi. Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 1991.

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Anglo Saxon Period and Literary Works. (2021, Dec 13). Retrieved from

Anglo Saxon Period and Literary Works

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