Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #4


It is time for another part in this series!

This time, I will talk some more about Old English poetry and manuscripts.

As always, I thank my tutors for most of the information. Whenever I use another source I will mention it in the text, and if I find a useful website I will add the link.


Old English poetry

  • What do we know now?
  • Characteristics
  • Genres

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts

Anglo-Saxon poetry

What do we know now?
To be honest, what we know is actually more about what we don’t know about Old English poetry. In most cases we don’t know the author, original title or the composition date. Some authors are known (like Bede, Caedmon or Cynewulf), but most authors are anonymous. Furthermore, the titles were created in the 18th/19th century. So, it’s not even sure if the titles we now know Old English poems by, was the title given to them when they were first composed. However, it is known when the most manuscripts were written, so at least there is something.

Poetry was oral, meaning that it wasn’t written down at first, and performed from memory in front of an audience. The characteristics that belong to Old English poetry were there to make life a little bit easier for the performer of a poem. Do keep in mind that these poems also include riddles!

  • Fomulas: these were stock phrases and were used to describe certain things. These fomulas are similar to those that were used by Homer (Iliad & Odyssey). An OE example is: Rough under the heavens (hreoh under heofonum).
  • Type-scenes: these were reoccurring scenes in multiple poems, such as beasts of battle or the warrior putting on his armour.
  • Alliteration: helps the memory. Each line is divided into two half lines, separated by a gap (caesura). Each half line has two stress syllable and these half lines are linked by alliteration (falls only on the stressed syllables). The first stressed syllable of the 2nd half line determines the alliteration.
  • Variation: repetition of a sentence element, but in different words. This was to give more information about the repeated element and variation allows a catch-up when the listener was distracted.
  • Grammar: the word order is freer in verse, unlike with prose. However, verse requires specific forms of pronouns. There can also be omission of the subject, object and prepositions.
  • Verse specific vocabulary: verse uses a lot of idioms and synonyms. These synonyms especially are important for the previously mentioned alliteration, and avoid constant repetition of one word (there were 80 words to describe warrior, probably more).
  • Kennings: one word riddle, often in compound form. These kennings were mostly metaphorical and were not only used in OE but in all old Germanic languages.


Old English poetry has 4 major genres:

  1. Heroic: (i.e. Beowulf) are about heroes, battles and glory. In these poems it is more about the hero making a name for himself, than fighting for the survival of mankind.
  2. Religious: (i.e. Exodus and Genesis). This is pretty obvious, but these poems are poetic adaptions of biblical material. These poems often have inculturation (elements of the indigenous people are included in the adaptation).
  3. Elegiac: (i.e. The Wanderer, Deor, etc). Deals with loss, lament and the idea that nothing is eternal.
  4. Wisdom: (i.e. Fortunes of Men). These poems are about the central concerns of human life.

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts

In part two of my previous short series I already discuss medieval writing, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on medieval writing now.
If you clicked the link and read the part about medieval writing, you now know that manuscripts usually have illuminations. These illuminations were not there just for the sake of fun, they were there to explain the text and it added prestige to the manuscript.


There are only four (big) poetic manuscripts left, and these are the Beowulf manuscript, Veralli book, Exeter book and Junius manuscript. These manuscripts have certain themes (or so it would seem) because the Beowulf manuscript does not only contain the poem of Beowulf, but contains several works that are all about monsters. The Veralli book contains homilies and saints lives. The Exeter book is about many things, but all are written in verse (there are over 100 poems in this book). The Junius manuscript contains the Caedmon manuscript (biblical event adapted, becoming poetry), biblical texts and the like.

Most Anglo-Saxon manuscripts can now be found in these three libraries: Cambridge (Corpus Christi College), London (British Library) and Oxford (Bodleian Library). This is because Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536-1541. It is because of this that manuscripts became collectors’ items.
People started to collect the manuscripts and one of these is Matthew Parker, who is a part of the reformation in England at the time. He used the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (which were written in the vernacular) as authority for the English language in the church. When he died he donated his collection to Corpus Christi College.
Robert Cotton (1571-1631) was a collector as well and he was in possession of the Beowulf manuscripts, the Lindisfarne gospels, Bede’s ecclesiastical history and the like. He left his collection at Ashburnham house… which burned down in 1731. The manuscripts that survived the flames (these were thrown out of the window) are now at the British Library.
Thomas Bodly founded the Bodleian Library in 1602, he has some works of Cotton’s collection.

Of course, there were also dangers to manuscripts (one of which was fire, like at Ashburnham). Water, bookworms, rat, mice, vermin, cats and kidnapping were all serious dangers.


Try to find the answer to this riddle. (and please don’t google the answer, that would suck). If you think you know the answer: post the answer in a comment. (This website has a couple of Old English riddles, including the translation and commentary on the riddle so that you know what it’s about).

A moth ate songs–wolfed words!
That seemed a weird dish–that a worm
Should swallow, dumb thief in the dark,
The songs of a man, his chants of glory,
Their place of strength. That thief-guest
Was no wiser for having swallowed words

Next time:

The Old English Language (part 1)


One thought on “Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #4

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s