Old English: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Introduction to Old English
  • 1:30 History of Old English
  • 3:26 Old English Literature
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Old English literature started with the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, and it provides the foundation for all English literature. Learn more about the history of Old English literature in this lesson.

Introduction to Old English

The Anglo-Saxons formed the basis of English culture, religion, and language and ruled England for 600 years. The term Anglo-Saxon refers to a group of settlers from the German regions of Angeln and Saxony who took over England after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxons first introduced Old English literature in the fifth century. We refer to the years between 450 and 1066 as the the Old English or Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English language, or Anglo-Saxon, is the foundation of Modern English, although if untrained Modern English speakers could hear someone speaking Old English, they would not be able to understand it.

One of the first examples of literature written during the Old English period was a poem written by a man named Caedmon, who was a cattle herder around 680 A.D. Caedmon's poem survived because it was written down by a monk named Bede in 733 A.D. Many writings from Anglo-Saxon literature were preserved after being written down by clerics or others with knowledge of a story through the years.

The Exeter Book is the most popular book in Old English Literature. It contains a total of 131 stories. It is the only surviving source for many popular pieces of literature written in Old English times, including 'The Wanderer,' 'The Seafarer,' and 'The Wife's Lament.'

History of Old English

The Anglo-Saxons were a pagan society, but information about their lives and culture has been told by Christian writers. Some wonder if Christian writers haven't added their own Christian twist to the stories written by Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons maintained order in their society through social means. Society was led by powerful leaders (a ring-giver, lord or lady) who rewarded their servants for various activities. Anglo-Saxons enjoyed serving their lords and found it hard to survive if they were not supported by their lords.

Women had just as much power as men did during the Anglo-Saxon period. In fact, understanding the lifestyle of the Anglo-Saxons depended on one's ability to understand the connection between men and women in society.

Songs and poetry were very important components of Anglo-Saxon society. Poems were conveyed orally but started appearing in written form in 733. Archbishops were known to sing songs to attract crowds for their sermons. One of the most valued members of Anglo-Saxon society was the scop, or poet, who discussed social and cultural values in his work. Scops were responsible for maintaining a person's reputation through song after his or her death.

In 313, Constantine legalized Christianity, and it became a central part of education in the Anglo-Saxon period. But Christian concepts differed from traditional Germanic culture, which caused conflict in Germanic society. Germanic culture emphasized materialism, honor and accomplishment in life, and other things that happen while a person is living. Christianity placed an emphasis on peace rather than war, and life after death was the most important part of living. To Christians, materialism was not important. Christians believed in praising God rather than praising themselves.

Old English Literature

Anglo-Saxon poetry emphasizes the negative aspects of life including the sorrows and senseless actions of human beings. 'The Wanderer' and 'The Seafarer' are two of the most popular poems about the difficulties of life. Anglo-Saxon poetry did not rhyme but contained alliteration, the use of similar beginning sounds in a line of writing.

Beowulf is a good example of a poetry piece from Old English literature. Beowulf is the story of a brave man, Beowulf, who tried to save the people of Denmark from a monster, Grendel, who terrorized them. Beowulf defeated Grendel and Grendel's mother to become a hero to the people of Denmark.

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