Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader/Notes

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Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader by James W. Bright


There is only one known Anglo-Saxon translation of the four Gospels (the remaining books of the New Testament were not translated into Anglo-Saxon). The dialect is Late West-Saxon. It is not known by whom or at what place this translation was made; its exact date is also undetermined, but it is agreed that this must be close to the year 1000. The translator's original was one of the Vulgate manuscripts. The translation is for the most part clear and idiomatic in style and vocabulary, but a restraining regard for the original has to some degree unduly influenced constructions, and occasional errors point to misapprehension of the Latin. A critical edition of this version of the Gospels bas been published in four volumes of the Belles-Lettres Series of D. C. Heath & Co., Boston and London, 19O4 f. The Intoduction to the Gospel of St. John contains a discussion of the relation of the MSS. to each other and of special problems connected with the version.

1, 2. — , as prepositional adverb, governs the preciding him and by its position gains the accent of an verb; see also in line 5.
1, 6. — tō sawenne. The gerund (the dat. of the inf. with the prep expresses the purpose of motion.


This narrative (also chapters ix., x., and xi. , below) is taken from the so-called Alfredian version of the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Boethius, born at Rome about the year 475 A.D., was a man of senatorial rank and of high favor at the court of Theoderic. Among his notable acts in public life was his courageous defence of the senator Albinus against a charge of treason. This furnished his enemies an occasion to turn the accusation against himself. Their malignant purpose prevailed, and Boethius was unjustly condemned, and cast into prison at Titeinum (Pavia). It was during this imprisonment that he wrote the celebrated work on the Consolation of Philosophy. His goods were confiscated, and he was tortured and executed in the year 525.

Boethius was a renowned scholar and a skilful writer. He studied Plato and Aristotle with special ardor, and wrote and translated important works on philosophy, logic, mathematics, and music, by which he not only transmitted Greek learning to his contemporaries, but more especially exerted a marked influence upon medieval scholasticism. The De Consolatione Philosophiae is undoubtedly his most famous work. In form (prose intermingled with verse) it is in the tradition of the Menippean satire, and bears some resemblance to the De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii of Martianus Capella. The following summary of the work is taken from the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica:

"The first book opens with a few verses, in which Boethius describes how hís sorrows had turned his hair gray, and had brought him to a premature old age. As be is thus lamenting, a woman appears to him of dignified lien, whom for a time he cannot distinguish in consequence of his tears, but at last recognizes her as his guardian, Philosophy. She, resolving to apply tbe remedy for his grief, puts some questions to him for that purpose. She finds that he believes that God rules the world, but does not know what he himself is; and this absence of self-knowledge is the cause of his weakness. In the second book Philosophy presents to Boethius Fortune, who is made to state to him tbe blessings he has enjoyed, and after that proceeds to discuss with bim the kind of blessings tbat fortune can bestow, which are shown to be unsatisfactory and uncertain. In the third book Philosophy promises to lead him to true happiness, which is to be found in God alone; for since God is the highest good, and the highest good ís true happiness, God is true happiness. Nor can real evil exist, for since God is all-powerful, and since he does not wish evil, evil must be non-existent. In the fourth book Boethius raises the question, Why, if the governor of the universe is good, do evils exist, and why is virtue often punished and vice rewarded? Philosophy proceeds to show that this takes place only in appearance; that vice is never unpunished nor virtue unrewarded. From this Philosophy passes, into a discussíon in reward to the nature of providence and fate, and shows that every fortune is good. The fifth and laet book takes up the question of man's free will and God's foreknowledge, and by an exposition of tbe nature of God, attempts to show that these doctrines are not subversive of eacb other; and the conclusion is drawn that God remains a foreknowing spectator of all events, and the ever-present eternity of his vision agrees with the future quality of our actions, dispensing rewards to the good and punishments to the wicked."

Translations of this work by King Alfred, Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth testify to the esteem in which England has held it. Of the Alfredian translation only two complete manuscripts have become known; these are, however, later than Alfred's day, and represent the late West-Saxon dialect with more or less of an admixture of non-West-Saxon forms. The better copy (MS. Cotton, Otho A. 6), which was seriously damaged in the fire of 1731, is unique in containing a metrical version of most of the poems of the original; it apparently belongs to the first half of the tenth century. The second copy (MS. Bodl. 180) is entirely in prose, and as much as three-quarters of a century later than the first. The only available edition of this Anglo-Saxon is that of Samuel Fox (Bohn's Antiquarian Library, London, 1864); the Latin original is edited by Peiper (Teubner, Leipsic, 1871). Consult further: Teuffel, History of Roman Literatur (5th. ed.); Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters im Abendlande (Leipsic, 1874—1887); Simcox, A History of Latin Literature from Ennius to Beothius.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, in the form of a poem, closes the third book of the original. In the Anglo-Saxon version only the introductory lines, which precede the tale itself, are in metre (Grein, Vol. II., p. 326, no. xxiii). Notice the characteristic pointing of the moral at the end, On the life and works of Alfred the Great, see Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography, Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest of England, Vol. I., Green's Conquest of England, ten Brink's Early English Literature, and Earle's Anglo-Saxon Literature.


This extract (also 'The Conversion of Edwin,' below) is taken from the so-called Alfredian version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Bede (Bæda or Beda) was born in the neighborhood of Wearmouth about the year 673, and died in tbe year 735. At the age of seven he was placed under the charge of Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth, and while yet a child was transferred to the neighboring monastery at Jarrow, where, ordained a deacon at nineteen and a priest at thirty, he spent the remainder of his life. He was a man of gentle and devout spirit, zealous in religion, and assiduous in study, of wide and varied learning, and a voluminous writer. He wrote in Latin. See Ebert, Teuffel, Stephen, ten Brink, and Earle. Bede's greatest work, the Church History of the English People, was completed in the last years of his life, and is therefore "the ripest fruit of his pen." It is thus summarized by Ebert:

"This work is divided into five books. The first twenty-two chapters of the first book form only an introduction, wherein after a short decription of Britain and its ancient inhahitants we have the history of the country reaching from Julius Cæsar (with particular reference to its earlier conversion to Christianity, on the basis of Orosius, whom Beda often follows word for word, and especially Gildas, whose history here supplies the clue throughout) to the introduction of Christianity among the Angles by Gregory's missionaries. Only from this point (chap. 23) begins the wor proper and independent research of Beda. The church history of the Angles is then carried down in this book to the death of Gregory the Great, A.D. 604. The second book begins with a long obituary of this pope so important for England's church, and ends with the death of Edwin, king of Northumberland, A.D. 633. The third book reaches to 665, when Wighart went to Rome to be consecrated archbishop of Canterbury; but as he dies in Rome, Theodore, the monk of Tarsus, is consecrated by the pope in his room. Here begins the fourth book, extending to the death of Cuthbert (687), the famous saint already twice celebrated by Beda himself. The last book (to the year 731) concludes with a survey of the several sees and of the general state of Britain in that year, when profound peace led many nobles to exchange arms for cloister life" (Mayor and Lumby's edition of the third and fourth books of Bede's Hist., Cambridge, 1881).

The complete Latin text is accessible in a convenient edition by G. H. Moberly, Oxford, 1881, and in another by A. Holder, Freiburg and Tübingen, 1882. A valuable historìcal study based on Bede is embraced in Chapters on Early English Church History, by William Bright, Oxford, 1888.

The Anglo-Saxon version of this work has recently been published by the Early English Text Society; the editor, Dr. Thomas Miller, argues that "the evidence of the dialect favours production on Mercian soil" (see his Introduction).

Bede's account of the earliest named English poet possesses genuine interest; though clothed in a legend which, with variations, is found recurring in literature since the Dream of Hesiod, in other respects tlle details are to be accepted as trustworthy (see ten Brink's Appendix A). Cædmon is supposed to have died in the year 680.


This chapter introduces the student to the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

" As a body of history [these annals] extend from A.D. 449 to 1154 — that is, exclusive of the book-made annals that form a long avenue at the beginning, and start from Julius Cæsar. The period covered by the age of the extant manuscripts is hardly less than three hundred years, from about A.D. 900 to about A.D. 1200. A large number of hands must have wrought from time to time at their production, and, as the work is wholly anonymous and void of all external marks of authorship, the various and several contributions can only be determined by internal evidence" (Earle, Anglo-Saxon Lit.). Earle himself has examined and set forth this evidence (Two of the Saxon Chronicles, Oxfrod, 1865; see also ten Brink, Early English Lit.).

The annal of 765 (written at least as late as the year 784, and apparently entered later than the annal of that year) is a remarkable example of early vernacular prose. "We do not meet wìth so vivid and circumstantial a piece of history till more than a hundred years later" (Sweet). "The syntaxis not more rugged than that of Thucydides. It corresponds well to the time which produced it, in which brief efforts of diction had been long familiar, but a sustained narrative not often attempted in writing" (Earle, English Prose, London, 1890).

The Parker MS., from which the text is taken, represents the Early West-Saxon dialect, the language of Alfred the Great (see Sievers' Grammar, Appendix).


The reign of Alfred the Great (871-901) was begun on the battlefield against the incursions of the Danes. The following annals belong to the warmest and most detailed narratives of some of the king's military campaigns. "The style assumes a different aspect; without losing the force and simplicity of the earlier pieces, it becomes refined and polished to a high degree" (Sweet). Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest of England, Vol. I., and Green's Conquest of England are important for the history of these times.


In learning and literature Alfred the Great was both patron and author; "he writes, just as he fights and legislates, with a single eye to the good of his people" (Freeman). The Danes had wrought an "intellectual ruin", which, after the treaty at Wedmore in 878, he labored to repair. The literary leadership which once belonged to Northumbria was now set up in Wessex. Poetry had flourished in the Northumbrian period; in Wessex the first great period of prose was now ushered in.

In this preface from the king's own hand we have a comment on the state of learning in his kingdom, an expression of his theory for the education of youth, and an account of his aim and method in supplying, by the help of scholars whom he had gathered around him, vernacular versions of celebrated books.


Pope Gregory the Great was born about 540 and died in 604. Many details of his life are set forth in Ælfric's homily given below (XV.). His work on the duties and responsibilities of the episcopal office was for centuries held in high esteem, and was often at Church Councils "authoritatively recognized as the standard of life and doctrine for bishops" (Bramley). A convenient summary of the work is given by J. Barmby, Gregory the Great [The Fathers for English Readers], London, 1879. The text of the original is edited by R. H. Bramley, Oxford and London, 1874. The Anglo-Saxon version is edited by Sweet for the Early English Text Society (1871); being preserved in two manuscripts (Hatton, 20, Bodl. Lib., and Cotton Tiberius, B. XI., Brit. Mus.) which are regarded as contemporary with Alfred, "it affords data of the highest value for fixing the grammatical peculiarities of the West-Saxon dialect of the ninth century [Early West-Saxon]" (Sweet).


The Alfredian version of Orosius's Compendious History of the World, like all the Alfredian translations, abounds in variations from the original, in contractions, in expansions, and in original insertions. Specially important passages have been inserted in the first chapter of the first book.

"They consist of a complete description of all the countries in which the Teutonic tongue prevailed at Alfred's time, and a full narrative of the travels of two voyagers, which the king wrote down from their own lips. One of these, a Norwegian named Ohthere, had quite circumnavigated the coast of Scandinavia in his travels, and had even penetrated to the White Sea; the other, named Wulfstan, had sailed from Schleswig to Frische Haff. The geographical and ethnographical details of both accounts are exceedingly interesting, and their style is attractive, clear, and concrete" (ten Brink).

Bosworth's edition of these voyages (1855) is valuable for its annotations, a map, and R. T. Hampson's "Essay on the Geography of King Alfred the Great". The entire Anglo-Saxon version, with the Latin original, has been edited by Sweet for the Early English Text Society (1883). The Lauderdale MS. (ninth century) belongs to the Early West-Saxon period; the Cotton MS. (Tiberius B. i. Brit. Mus.), which is used to supply a gap in the text, belongs to the tenth century.

OHTHERE'S FIRST VOYAGE. - Ohthere set out from his home on the western coast of Norway in the northern part of 'Hālgoland' (which corresponds in part to modern Helgeland, the southern district of Nordland). He sailed northward along the coast, and on the sixth day doubled the North Cape; for the next four days his course was eastward, along 'Terfinna land', after which he turned south into the White Sea (Cwēn Sǣ), and in five days more reached the mouth of the river Dwina (ān micel ēa).

OHTHERE'S SECOND VOYAGE. - Ohthere afterwards sailed from 'Hālgoland' on a southern voyage; he followed the west and south coast of Norway; entering the Skager Rack, he first landed at 'Sciringeshēal', a 'port' on the Bay of Christiania. Thence he sailed southward, through the Cattegat, along the southern coast of Sweden (Denemearc, i.e. the provinces of Halland, Scania or Schonen, in the south of Sweden), through The Sound. At first he had on his right Skager Rack (wīdsǣ), then Jutland (Gotland), then Zealand (Sillende) and many islands (īglanda fela) to the south and south-west of Zealand. In five days he arrived at the Danish port Haddeby (æt Hǣþum, at or near the present site of Schleswig).

WULFSTAN'S VOYAGE - Wulfstan (perhaps a Dane) sailed in the Baltic Sea. Setting out from Schleswig (Hǣþum), he coasted to the south of the islands Langeland (Langaland), Laaland (Lǣland), Falster, and Sconey (Scōnēg); proceeding in the main arm of the Baltic he passed south of Bornholm (Burgenda land), leaving also on his left the more remote Blekingen and Möre (Blēcinga-ēg, Mēore, provinces in the south of Sweden), and the islands Oeland (Eowland) and Gothland (Gotland). On his right he had Mecklenburg, Pomerania, etc. (Weonodland, the country of the Wends), until he reached the Frische Haff (Estmere). His voyage of seven days ended at the Drausensea (mere), on the shore of which stood 'Trūsō'.


This extract is from the fourth book of the Boethius; see Notes to 'Orpheus and Eurydice'.


This extract is also from the fourth book of the Boethius. It is a very free paraphrase of the original.


The translator has here constructed a brief chapter of clear and simple statements on the basis of the much fuller and somewhat involved discussion at the close of the original.


Edwin (585 ?-633), son of Ælla, king of Deira, was the first Christian king of Northumbria (uniting Bernicia with his hereditary Deira), with York as the centre of his government. His eventful life as narrated by Bede embraces legendary incidents. Soon after his father's death in 588, Deira was conquered and governed by Æthelric, king of Bernicia; Edwin, in consequence, was compelled to live in exile from the third year of his age until the East-Anglian king, Rædwald, overcame Æthelfrith, son and successor of Æthelric, on the banks of the Idle (617), and regained for him his father's kingdom. After subduing Bernicia, Edwin extended his dominions to the north (Edinburgh, i.e. Eadwinesburh, is supposed to preserve his name), to the west and to the south, and within nine years became "overlord of every English kingdom, save Kent; and Kent was knit to him by his marriage with Æthelburh" (Green). He was ranked as the fifth Bretwalda.

Edwin's conversion to Christianity, after his political successes, is made to turn upon a promise which a mysterious visitor had exacted from him while in exile at the court of Rædwald. This visitor came upon him while sitting at night meditating upon his troubles. Edwin was brought to promise, upon condition of overcoming his enemies and securing his father's throne, to obey in all things the injunctions of his deliverer; whereupon the stranger laid his right hand on the head of Edwin, and said, 'When this sign shall come to thee, remember this hour and these words', and then vanished as a spirit.

Edwin's Christian queen, Æthelburh, sister of Eadbald, king of Kent, came to her northern residence accompanied by Bishop Paulinus. How the king was finally persuaded to accept the doctrine observed by the queen and taught by Paulinus, is described in the following vivid and dramatic selection (Bede. Lib. II., cap. xii., xiii.). See further, Green's Making of England; Freeman's Old English History; and Bright's Early English Church History.


A collection of homilies contained in a unique manuscript at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, has come to be generally known as the Blickling Homilies, the title under which it was published by Morris for the Early English Text Society (1874-1880). A passage in the text (Vol. I., p. 119) incidentally fixes the date of the manuscript at 971. This date may, however, be due to the transcriber, at least it is not safe to infer that all the homilies belong to that year, though they were probably composed within a period not extending far back from that time; "they were beyond question a product of thought created by Dunstan, Æthelwold, and their adherents" ( ten Brink).

One of the homilist's favorite themes is the near approach of the end of the world, a subject that so filled the mind of the people at the close of the tenth century.

The student is now introduced to the prose writings of the late West-Saxon period, - a direct continuation of the literary activity begun by Alfred the Great.


Ælfric is altogether the most important writer of the late West-Saxon period. He was born, probably in Wessex, about the year 955. At the age of sixteen he was already an inmate of Bishop Æthelwold's monastery at Winchester, where, as pupil, deacon, and priest, he continued to the year 987. He was then sent to Cernel in Dorsetshire to instruct in the Benedictine Code the monks of the monastery lately founded by the royal thane Æthelmær. During this mission of two years, Ælfric formed the resolution to make translations from the Latin into the vernacular, with the view to correct and improve popular Christian teaching. Returning to Winchester (989 or 990), he wrote his first series of forty homilies, to be used by the clergy in the course of a year's administration; a second series of equal scope followed in 993-994. As an aid to the study of Latin, he wrote an Anglo-Saxon Latin Grammar (995), a topically classified glossary, and an interlinear Colloquium; he also compiled physico-astronomical treatises. The "Lives of Saints" was written about the year 996, and then (997-998) followed translations of portions of the Old Testament. The "Canons of Ælfric", a pastoral and liturgical tract, was also written about this time. A translation of Alcuin's "Handbook upon Genesis" may be assigned to the year 1000.

Æthelmær afterwards founded a Benedictine monastery at Ensham (Oxfordshire), and it was here that Ælfric, in 1005, was installed as abbot, - the highest office attained by him; he held the abbacy on a life tenure. Henceforth his writings were of an occasional nature, but they were all directed to the same end of strengthening the discipline of the Church and of elevating the religious culture of the people. He translated the De Consuetudine Monachorumof his old master Æthelwold, and the Hexameron of St. Basil. A homily on Judith and a translation of the book of Esther are followed by a treatise on the Old and New Testaments (before 1012). The entire list of Ælfric's writings, in Anglo-Saxon and in Latin, has not yet been accurately determined. Treatises on the celibacy of the clergy, pastoral letters, separate homilies, a Latin Life of Æthelwold, etc., augment the products of his industrious pen. Two pastoral letters, written for Wulfstan of York, about the year 1014, are the last of his works that can be approximately dated. It is probable that he was still alive and abbot at Ensham in 1020. His death is placed between 1020 and 1025.

Ælfric's career is conspicuous in its relation to the reform of Dunstan and Æthelwold, and his writings mark a culmination in prose style. His language is always clear, and when not forced into an artificial alliterative mould, it is flexible and forcible.

The double cycle of Ælfric's Homilies is published in an edition of two volumes by Thorpe (London, 1843-1846). The homily for St. John's Day, Dec. 27th, is the fourth of the first series.


This homily for St. Gregory's Day, March 12th, has, since its first publication by Miss Elizabeth Elstob in 1709, been regarded with special interest. It is the ninth homily of Ælfric's second series.


Oswald (c. 604-642) was the second son of Edwin's sister and of King Æthelfrith. His father having fallen in the battle of the Idle (617), he took refuge among the northern Celts. After Edwin's death, Osric, a son of Ælla's brother, Ælfric, ruled Deira, and Eanfrith, Oswald's older brother, was placed on the throne of Bernicia. Both kings threw off Christianity. "The reigns of these two kings lasted one miserable year, a year whose shame was never forgotten among the Englishmen of the north" (Green). These kings fell before Ceadwalla, and Oswald came from his retreat to assume the leadership of his people. He at once collected a small force, with which he met and defeated Ceadwalla at Heavenfield (635). Ceadwalla was himself slain in this battle, "and the fall of this great hero of the British race left the Englishmen of Bernicia supreme in the north" (Green). Oswald became one of the greatest of Northumbrian kings, ruling over both Bernicia and Deira, and in large measure restoring the political work of Edwin. Having been converted to Christianity while in exile at Hii, off the western coast of Scotland, where the Irish Columba had set up a mission, the king at once began to labor for the conversion of his people. He called upon the mission at Hii for preachers, and Aidan came and "fixed his bishop's stool or see in 635 on the coast of Northumbria, in the island peninsula of Lindisfarne. Thence, from a monastery which gave to the spot its after name of Holy Island, preachers poured forth over the heathen realm" (Green). It was thus that Christianity, first introduced into Northumbria by Paulinus of Augustine's mission in the south, was now reintroduced by way of the Irish-Scotch mission of the north. The beneficient reign of Oswald is in many of its features a striking parallel to that of Edwin. Both kings became the nucleus of popular legend. Oswald reigned as Bretwalda, and finally fell in battle against Penda at Maserfield, on the 5th of August, 642.

Ælfric's chief source for the Life of King Oswald was Bede's Ecclesiastical History (Lib. III.). The text is obtained from Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, where it was published for the first time; it has since been published, with readings from other MSS., by Skeat in Ælfric's Lives of Saints, Part III. (Early English Text Society, 1890).


In this preface we catch an interesting view of Ælfric as the earnest single-minded teacher of the people. He was with difficulty persuaded to translate the Genesis, fearing that a popular knowledge of the polygamy under the old law might have a disturbing influence.

Ælfric's Old-Testament translations are edited by Grein: Bibliothek der Angelsächsischen Prosa, Cassel and Göttingen, 1872.


The only complete copy of this prose legend is preserved in MS. 198 of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; the introductory portion is also found in the Blickling Homily MS. It was first published by C. W. Goodwin, The Anglo-Saxon Legends of St. Andrew and St. Veronica, Cambridge, 1851, and afterwards by Morris, The Blickling Homilies, Part II., London, 1876. There is also an Anglo-Saxon poetic version of this legend (Grein, Vol. II., p. 9 f.; Grein-Wülker, Vol. II., p. 1 f.; Baskervill, Andreas: A Legend of St. Andrew, Boston, 1885). A common source establishes a relation between these two versions; this source is a Latin original, in prose, of which only a few fragments have been found (Zupitza, Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum, Vol. XXX., p. 175 f., and Lipsius, Ergänzungsheft, p. 29). The Greek version of the legend (from which, however, the Anglo-Saxon versions vary in many details) is published in Tischendorf's Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, Leipsic, 1851, p. 104 f. The legends of the apostles are exhaustively treated by Lipsius, Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden, Braunschweig, 1883-1890. The Anglo-Saxon prose version is assigned to the tenth century, although MS. C probably belongs to the latter part of the eleventh.


Among once popular literary sources the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus holds an important place. Christ's Descent into Hell was a favorite theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and afterwards in the Mystery Plays of the early drama. A sketch of the relations of this Gospel to the literature of western Europe is given by Wülker: Das Evangelium Nicodemi in der abendländischen Literatur, Paderborn, 1872. The Apocryphal Gospels (Latin and Greek) are edited by Tischendorf, Leipsic, 1853; recent English translations are by B. Harris Cowper, London, 1867, and Alex. Walker [Ante-Nicene Christian Lib.], Edinburgh, 1870.

The Anglo-Saxon prose version of this apocryphal book belongs, probably, to the eleventh century. The orthography of the best MS. (Camb. Univ. Lib. Ii. 2. 11) is characteristic of the Late West-Saxon dialect at least half a century after Ælfric's time. The entire version is printed in Heptateuchus, Liber Job, et Evangelium Nicodemi; Anglo-Saxonice, etc., edited by Thwaites, Oxford, 1698.

The substance of the narrative introductory to the extract here given is as follows: Joseph assures the high priests Annas and Caiaphas that Jesus did not only rise from the dead, but that he also raised many others with himself, among whom are the two sons of Simeon, named Karinus and Leucius; these can now be seen at Arimathea. "Then the chief priests, Annas and Caiaphas, arose, and Joseph, and Nicodemus, and Gamaliel, and others with them, and went to Arimathea, and found those whom Joseph had said." Karinus and Leucius are brought to Jerusalem and led into the temple, where they are adjured to reveal the mysteries they have seen and heard; in compliance they sit down and write.


Anglo-Saxon literature first flourished in the Anglian territory (north of the Thames). In this first period, which culminated about the middle of the eighth century, the greater part of Anglo-Saxon poetry was produced. However, these Anglian productions (except in the case of a few fragments, like the Hymn of Cædmon, see p. 201) are preserved only in copies made in the south during the tenth and eleventh centuries. By repeated transcription these poems were brought into more or less exact conformity with the later language of the south, and therefore now represent no dialect in its purity, but a combination of chiefly Early and Late West-Saxon with a residuum of Anglian forms. The case resembles that of the Homeric poems, which are in the Ionic dialect with an admixture of Aeolic forms surviving, as is conjectured, from the dialect in which the poems were originally composed. An almost complete collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry is contained in Grein's Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie, Göttingen and Cassel, 1857 f., re-edited by Wülker, Cassel, 1881 f.

Although the poems preserved in MS. Junius, XI., Bodl. Lib. correspond in character to Bede's description (see p. 11) of Cædmon's compositions and were therefore once all attributed to Cædmon, criticism has shown that these biblical poems are the work of different authors. The "Genesis" alone (after eliminating a long interpolation, ll. 235-851) is still claimed for Cædmon (see ten Brink, Appendix A).

The Episode of the Offering of Isaac has the additional interest of being one of the most pathetic and best-handled themes in the Mystery Plays of the early drama.


Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, reigned from 925 to 940. He was king not only of the West-Saxons and of Mercia, but by a brilliant execution of the policy of his father, Eadweard, he added Northumbria to his realm, and "thus became immediate king of all the Teutonic races in Britain, and superior lord of all the Celtic principalities" (Freeman). The poem on the Battle of Brunanburh commemorates the most famous battle of his reign. In the year 937, Anlaf (or Olaf), a son of the former Northumbrian Danish king Sihtric, came again from Ireland and stirred up the Northumbrian Danes to another rebellion against their West-Saxon king. "The men of the northern Danelaw found themselves backed not only by their brethren from Ireland, but by the mass of states around them, by the English of Bernicia, by the Scots under Constantine, by the Welshmen of Cumbria or Strath-Clyde" (Green). Æthelstan and his brother Eadmund marched with their forces to the north, and in a victorious battle ended the rebellion. The site of Brunanburh has not been certainly determined; Bosworth locates it "about five miles southwest of Durham, or on the plain between the river Tyne and the Browney" (Bosworth-Toller, Dictionary; for other opinions, see Green, The Conquest of England, p. 254, note 1).

"The poem does not seem to have been written by one who saw the battle. At least we learn from it no more in substance than might have been put down in a short entry of the Chronicle. The poem lacks the epic perception and direct power of the folk-song, as well as invention. The patriotic enthusiasm, however, upon which it is borne, the lyrical strain which pervades it, yield their true effect. The rich resources derived from the national epos are here happily utilised, and the pure versification and brilliant style of the whole stir our admiration" (ten Brink).

This battle-piece is the most important of the poetic insertions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The manuscripts furnish many variant readings; the text here given represents the poem in its generally accepted form.


The supremacy of the West-Saxon kings was broken in the disastrous reign of Æthelred. The Northmen invaded England anew, and ultimately placed a Danish king upon the English throne. The invaders met the bravest resistance at the Battle of Maldon. In 991 they attacked the eastern coasts of England "seemingly with the intention of making a settlement. This seems to have been a Norwegian expedition; the leaders were Justin and Guthmund, sons of Steitan, and there seems every reason to believe that Olaf Tryggvesson himself was present also" (Freeman). They first plundered Ipswich, and then proceeded into Essex; the East-Saxon ealdorman Brihtnoth promptly collected his forces, and gave the invaders battle on the banks of the Blackwater (then called Panta) near Maldon. "The town lies on a hill; immediately at its base flows one branch of the river, while another, still crossed by a mediæval bridge, flows at a little distance to the north. The Danish ships seem to have lain in the branch nearest to the town, and their crews must have occupied the space between the two streams, while Brihtnoth came to the rescue from the north. He seems to have halted on the spot now occupied by the church of Heybridge, having both streams between him and the town" (Freeman).

The poet has described this battle with the fidelity of an eye-witness. From the minuteness of details it is to be inferred that the poem was composed soon after the event; these details relate exclusively to the English side, even the names of those in command of the enemy being, apparently, unknown to the poet. In dramatic incident and in patriotic fervor this poem is unsurpassed in Anglo-Saxon literature; it also furnishes a graphic and effective picture of a lord and his followers united by the spirit of the comitatus.

The brave ealdorman Brihtnoth was also distinguished as a liberal patron of monastic foundations, especially of Ely and Ramsey. After his fall at Maldon, the enemy having carried off his head as a trophy, his body was taken to Ely and there buried, with a ball of wax to supply the loss of the head. His widow Æthelflæd is said to have wrought his deeds in tapestry.

The only manuscript copy of this poem (Cotton Otho, A. xii.) was destroyed by fire in 1731, but Hearne had transcribed and published it in 1726 (Johannis Glastoniensis Chronica, Oxford). The text is incomplete both at the beginning and at the end, but it is probable that not more than a few lines have thus been lost.


The poem entitled the "Wanderer" is representative of the lyrics produced in the first (Anglian) period of Anglo-Saxon literature. The dominant note is that of sadness. The poet is full of the sorrows of bereavement and of exile; he laments the death of protectors and of friends, the passing away of the joys of comradeship; his delusive dreams of past happiness deepen by contrast the gloom of the desolate reality wrought by death, change and devastation. But although a man cannot withstand fate, he can in distress practise the restraint and resignation of the true hero. In the "Battle of Maldon" the relation between a lord and his men is seen under the severest test; the "Wanderer", by the indirect touches of longing recollection, draws a picture of the comitatus in the joyous hall of the gift-dispensing lord.

The authorship of the poem is undetermined; there is no reason for assigning it to Cynewulf.


The first part of the Anglo-Saxon "Phœnix" (ll. 1-380) is an adaptation or paraphrase of a Latin poem attributed to Lactantius Firmianus (4th century). In Teuffel's History of Latin Literature (5th ed., 1890), the much disputed question as to the authorship of the Latin poem is confidently decided in favor of Lactantius. The Anglo-Saxon poet has added a second part (ll. 381 to the end) in which the myth of the phœnix (in a twofold application, to the righteous and then to Christ himself) is made to symbolize the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. This allegorical portion is apparently not based on any literary source, though there is some resemblance to passages in the writings of Ambrosius, and in one instance perhaps a direct influence of Bede's Commentary on Job. The entire poem therefore affords the material for a twofold study of the author's workmanship: his method of translation and adaptation can be compared with the character of his original composition. See Gaebler, Anglia, Vol. III., p. 488 f., and Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters im Abendlande, Vol. III., p. 73 f.

The "Phœnix" belongs to the Anglian period of poetry, but it is almost certainly not to be attributed to Cynewulf. In grace and simplicity of style, in the elaboration and clearness of figure, in lyric beauty and in richness of description, this poem must be classed with the best poetic productions of Anglo-Saxon times. The originality and the feeling of the poet are particularly manifest in his transformation of a cold and artificial prototype into a poem of warmth and beauty.