I’ve been interested in Anglo Saxon culture and society for a couple years now, ever since I decided to do my senior thesis on Beowulf. There’s just something about reading literature from a different period in history and learning about how the people group formed and created their society, and the major events and battles that were recorded.
The literature itself contains tons of notable events and ideals to read and study, and there are courses you can take to learn about the people or the language. If you’re new to this kind of literature, here are a few major works that give insight as to how Anglo Saxon lived and valued.
This anonymous poem is often considered the cornerstone of Anglo Saxon poetry. Multiple forms of scholarship has existed around it for centuries, and various critical theories have been applied to it. Basically, if you want to read a work from Anglo Saxon literature that introduces major themes in Anglo Saxon society, including community, honor, loyalty, and heroism, start here.
Originally composed orally, it was eventually written down, becoming the longest surviving Old English poem at over 3000 lines. The poem is episodic in nature, the first episode being Beowulf’s defeat of the monster Grendel, the second being Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel’s mother, and the last being Beowulf’s death by a dragon. One of the most notable aspect of the poem is the combination of Anglo Saxon ideals and the influences of Christianization on the country at the time. On the one hand, the characters place great emphasis on honor and destiny, but God is also mentioned repeatedly as the One the good characters call on, with connections made between the Devil and Cain with the monsters.
To read ABOUT the poem: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beowulf/summary/
To read the poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50114/beowulf-modern-english-translation
This anonymous work tells the story of a man searching for a new place in the world to find a new community to engage in, most likely because of the death of his lord. He thinks back to the community he was once in, finding comfort in God by the time the short poem ends.
Major themes in this work involve the Anglo Saxon idea of community, which was a big deal back then. It was the lord’s job to protect the people of the community and take of them while it was the people’s job to remain loyal to the lord and follow the Anglo Saxon “codes” of the time. Another interesting theme is the poet’s reliance on God, which shows a dramatic shift from the Saxon concept of free will and honor that was once incredibly prominent before the Christianization of the country.
To read ABOUT the poem: https://poemanalysis.com/anonymous/the-wanderer/
To read the poem: http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=wdr
The Wife’s Lament
This anonymous poem is part of the Exeter Book, an Anglo Saxon anthology. Considered an elegy and also a “woman’s song,” it describes a woman’s loss of her husband from her perspective and the isolation that comes from that.
Despite the multiple interpretations of the poem (whether her husband has died or simply left to find a new community he can participate in), the prominent theme of community takes on a unique point of view in this case, despite this not being the only Anglo Saxon work to be from a woman’s perspective. The poem is also notable for its classic use of alliteration and for its meter, two hallmarks of Anglo Saxon poetry seen in several other works.
To read ABOUT the poem: https://www.gradesaver.com/exeter-book/study-guide/summary-the-wifes-lament
To read the poem: http://www.thehypertexts.com/The%20Wife’s%20Lament%20Translation%20by%20Mi hael%20R%20Burch.htm
This little old English poem is allegedly written by Caedmon (pronounced kayd-mun), an illiterate peasant, who, according to The Venerable Bede, was given the power of song by God Himself. Bede goes on to explain how Caedmon came into contact with various nuns, who later confirmed his gift was from God. His Hymn was the only poem Caedmon wrote.
Unlike the earlier works mentioned, this poem quickly earned its place in Anglo Saxon history because Caedmon was considered the earliest poet of the English language. At that time, works were either oral or written down in Latin. It served as proof that the English language wasn’t inferior to other languages like Latin and that it could stand on its own.
To read ABOUT the poem: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-story-of-caedmons-hymn
To read the poem: https://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/medieval/caedmon.html
The Battle of Maldon
The actual Battle of Maldon took place in 991, though the date of the poem is unknown. It took place between the Anglo Saxons, led by Lord Bryhtnoth, and the incoming Viking invaders. Despite it’s short length, the poem describes the swift defeat of the Anglo Saxons by the Vikings as each of the characters are picked off one at a time.
The 991 date isn’t too far off from the 1066 Norman Conquest, meaning The Battle of Maldon is one of the last true Anglo Saxon works. So what’s interesting about this poem is the mindset that there’s honor in defeat rather than honor in victory as perpetuated by previously works.
To read ABOUT the poem: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/battle-maldon
To read the poem: http://english.nsms.ox.ac.uk/oecoursepack/maldon/translations/killingsfull.htm
Want to know more? Click the LEARN MORE button at home. You’ll find some helpful links to my work in journals, which I have started posting here too. You can find me in Ariel Chart, The Cedarville Review, Nailpolish Stories, Bluepepper, 50 Word Stories, The Aurora Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Drabble, and Anti-heroin Chic, Art of Autism, Your Daily Poem, and Sledgehammer Lit. You can now also find my FREE microchap at Origami Poems Project, which I am also offering here.
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