Origin of Old English Literature and Manuscript.

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      The Romans left England in 410. The British population was exposed to the inroads of the invaders from the North. The Angles and Saxons settled in the last quarter of the fifth century if not before.

Beowulf as a old english manuscript
Beowulf Old English Manuscript

      The beginning of English literature, that is, the literature that was composed on the soil of the island that is known as England, is shrouded in the mist of antiquity. The question- When does English literature begin? was for a long time answered variously by various scholars. Until recently the English regarded Chaucer as the first of English poets, ("the well of English undefiled" as Spenser called him) and all previous literature as un-English. This is due to the fact that the extant remains of old English literature, which were preserved in manuscripts, were unknown till the sixteenth century. The discovery of these manuscripts first drew the attention of the people to what is today called Old English or Anglo-Saxon literature. Moreover, these manuscripts were written and Compiled by the 'clerks or 'churchmen three hundred years after the composition of the poems and it is natural that they eliminated many things which clashed with Christian ideas. The authorship of most of this literature is unknown. Only Cædmon and Cynewulf are the two known names but they too remain names only. Not much is known of them and of the works that have been attributed to them on pure conjecture. Later study of this literature, written in a language with strange characters and characteristics, led to the theory that a real national literature had flourished in the island long before the Norman conquest. lt was at first characterised as "Anglo-Saxon Literature" as if it is distinct from English literature. But during the last hundred years the correctness of this name has been disputed. It was held that English literature is one and indivisible whole and cannot be cut into two parts sharply distinguished from each other. Hence the name Old English Literature is given to this earliest extant literature, which was composed on the soil.

      The earliest English poetry that grew on the soil of Great Britain was unwritten and has now become extinct. It probabiy consisted of songs and legends dealing with the deeds of the ancient heroes, Sung by the minstrels, who orally composed them, to the accompaniment of the harp and handed down from generation to generation. Children learnt these tales from their parents and thus they continued. It was when the Anglo-Saxons conquered the island in the latter part of the fifth century AD. and settled therein, that the regular history of English literature began. These forefathers of the modern English people were originally heathens, who came from Germany. By the middle of the sixth century almost the whole of England with the exception of Wales was swept away by the flood of Anglo-Saxon Paganism. These people had some native poetry of their own when they lived in their original continental home and some of these they brought to Britain. But none of their poems had anything to do with Britain, though most of them were written down here in later times. This is what is meant by the expression "the Pagan origin of old English poetry". It was much later on, after the introduction of Christianity in the island by 600 A.D. that the monks set them in writing and in this process they infused much Christian sentiment into the original heathen poems. Hence the strange blend of the apparently incongruous Pagan and Christian sentiments in these poems. Most of the extant old English poetry thus belongs to the Pagan and continental tradition (Beowulf, Widsith, Dear, Battle of Finnsburh, for instance), with a strong leavening of the Christian morality.

      The surviving Old English poetry is preserved in four Manuscripts, attributed to the eleventh century, (1) The first of these is the Junius Ms. named after the scholar who was Milton's friend and who bequeathed it to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It was first printed in 1655. It contains the so-called Cædmonian poems; (2) the Exeter Book, which was given to the Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in the eleventh century. It was almost forgotten until 1826. Its contents are two signed poems of Cynewulf, elegiac poems, riddles, etc.; (3) The Beowulf Ms. in the British Museum, unknown till the end of the eighteenth century. Its contents are Beowulf and Judith; (4) the Vercelli Book (in the Cathedral library of Vercelli in North Italy), discovered in 1832, containing two signed poems of Cynewulf, and Andreas and The Dream of the Rood. The history of Anglo-Saxon prose is more or less clear and definite. This prose literature is mainly the work of King Alfred, and two churchmen, Ælfric and Wulfstan. The King's contribution is most considerable, consisting of translations of famous Latin works and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Ælfric's Lives of the Saints and Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi are notable works.

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