The beautiful Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf may be called the foundation-stone of all British poetry. It tells of times long before the Angles and Saxons came to Britain. There is no mention of England in it. The poem was composed by unknown author. Many parts were added later. The whole poem was written down in the 10th century by an unknown scribe. The manuscript is in the British Museum, in London.
The scene is set among the Geats, or Jutes, and the Danes, their neighbors across the strait. The people were divided into two classes: free peasants and warriors. The safety of the people depended on the warriors. The poem shows us these warriors in battle and at peace; it shows their feasts and amusements, their love for the sea and for adventure.
Beowulf is a young knight of the Geats. His adventures form the two parts of— this heroic epic. Beowulf fights not for his own glory, but for the benefit of his
people. He is ready to sacrifice his life for them. His unselfish way in protecting people makes him worthy to be folk-king.
The language of the poem. The Anglo-Saxon verse had no rhyme and no regular number of syllables in its lines, but it was necessary that each line should have three stressed syllables usually beginning with the same consonant.
2. The culture of the early Britons changed greatly under the influence of Christianity, which penetrated into the British Isles in the 3rd century. 4. The Pre-renaissance period in England
Anglo-Saxon Literature (7th - 11th centuries)
The Spread of Christianity. The culture of the early Britons changed greatly under the influence of Christianity, which penetrated into the British Isles in the 3rd century. When the Saxon and other pagan tribes invaded Britain, most of the British Christians were put to death or driven away to Whales and Ireland. It was not until the end of the 6 century that monks came from Rome to Britain again.
The Centers of Learning.
The monasteries, where reading and writing were practiced, became the centers of learning and education in country. No wonder poets and writers imitated those Latin books about the early Christians, and also made up stories of their own about saints.
Caedmon and Cynewulf.
The names of only two of those early poets have reached our days: Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon lived in the 7 century. He was a shepherd at his native language, that is in the Yorkshire. He composed in his native language, that is in the Northumbrian dialect of came Anglo-Saxon.
The monks took him to the abbey and he spent the rest of his life in making up religious poetry. He composed hymns and a poem, the "Pharaphrase". It retells fragments from the Bible in alternative verse.
Cynewulf was a monk who lived at the end of the 8th century. His name was not forgotten, as he signed his name in runes in the last line of his works. Two of his poems, "Elene" and "Juliana", are notable because they are the first Anglo-Saxon works to introduce women characters.
The Venerable Bede (673-735).
The greatest writer of the time was the Venerable Bede. He was brought up in the monasteries of North Umbria where he received the best education of the time. He wrote mostly in Latin. His books on natural history and astronomy were a collection of all the learning known in the Middle Ages. His famous book, "the history of the English Church", was well known in France and Italy. His works are still valued today: they show what the country was like thirteen hundred years ago and bowmen acted and thought at that time.
Alfred The Great (849-901),
Alfred was made king in the year 871. He was a Latin scholar; he had travelled on the continent and visited France. He is famous not only for having built the first navy, but for trying to enlighten his people. He drew up a code of laws. He translated the Church history of Bede from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, the native language of his people, and a portion of the Bible as well.
The literature of the early Middle Ages and the Church taught that man was an evil being and his life on earth was a sinful life. As man was subordinated to God, he had to prepare himself for the after-life by subduing his passions and disregarding all earthly cares.