Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe
Literary culture in Anglo-Saxon England flourished in two languages—Anglo-Latin and Old English—although the written record of that flourishing is uneven. The literature in these languages of culture did not develop in isolation from each other: vernacular literary works often show a keen awareness of Latin texts and textual practices. Vernacular literature in Old English was precocious in its early expansion from secular and religious poetry to homiletic and documentary prose, as well as translations of the Bible, saints’ lives (in prose and in verse), histories, and philosophical works. The best known of all Old English works is Beowulf, and close behind are the short lyric poems generally, though misleadingly, known as elegies. Not always clear from even the best Modern English translations is the way that these intense poems share techniques of composition and echoes of shared formulas with other long and short poems. The saint-heroes of Elene, Juliana, and Judith share heroic values and poetic language with Beowulf and The Wanderer. This kind of appropriation—where the language of secular poetry was repurposed for religious subjects—was the miracle Bede saw in Cædmon’s Hymn.
Old English literary prose developed in the late 9th century in conjunction with a program of translation from Latin associated with King Alfred. Within a relatively short time, Anglo-Saxon scholars translated into Old English Gregory’s Dialogues, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the first fifty psalms, and, further, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and Orosius’s World History. The late 10th and early 11th centuries saw an efflorescence of Old English prose, particularly in the works of Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Spanning the 9th century to the 12th, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports and reflects on the events of its time, in verse and in prose.