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Old English - Texts

Introduction

‘Old English’ is the term used to refer to the earliest period in the history of the English language, from the first records until about A.D. 1100. The language it describes derives from the speech of the Germanic peoples who settled in Britain in the fifth century A.D. Old English is sometimes known by the more old-fashioned name ‘Anglo-Saxon’, though this latter is now ordinarily reserved by scholars for the historical period and its people; certainly, the Anglo-Saxons called their native vernacular ‘Englisc’, and its words continue to form the fundamentals of the language we speak today.

Old English literature embraces a wide range of texts and genres. Since literacy as we understand it was something that accompanied the spread of the Christian Church, it was only with their conversion at the end of the sixth century that the Anglo-Saxon peoples began to make use of written texts, but these were not at first written in English: Latin was the scholarly language of the Christian West, and Latin learning and literature were already flourishing in England by the time of the first surviving writings in English (the eighth century). In the ninth and tenth centuries, however, there was an explosion of writing in the vernacular. Translations of important Latin prose works undertaken during the reign of Alfred the Great (several by the king himself) were joined by growing ranks of homilies, saints’ lives, and scriptural translations, and this is not all: English became the medium for writing of all types and functions, including laws, charters, wills, historical chronicles, medical treatises and even a grammar of Latin. The traditional poetry of the Anglo-Saxons also continued to be composed throughout the period, producing masterpieces such as Beowulf; though descending ultimately from the techniques of oral versification, this poetry must also be understood in a written, Christian context, and many of its products treat overtly Christian stories and themes. There are many varieties of Old English, differing according to dialect area and to historical period. The most important dialect for modern scholars is however West Saxon, in which the majority of texts are written; its tenth-century form indeed became something of a standard for texts written across much of England, and the extracts from The Battle of Maldon presented here belong (for the most part) to this dialect.