Anglo-Saxon Literature (7th-11th centuries)_
The Spread of Christianity. The culture of the early Britons changed greatly under the influence of Christianity, which penetrated into the British Isles in the 3rd century. This was the time when many Christians escaped from Roman persecution to Britain and Gaul [go:l] (France), which were colonies of Rome at that period.
In the year 306, the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, made Christianity the official religion of Rome. It was brought to all countries belonging to the Roman Empire. The Celtic Druids in Gaul and Britain disappeared. All Christian Churches were centralized in the city of Constantinople, which was made the capital of the Roman Empire. This religion was called the Catholic Church ("catholic" means "universal"). The Latin language became the language of the Church all over Europe.
When the Saxon and other pagan tribes invaded Britain, most of the British Christians were put to death or driven away to Wales and Ireland. They told stories of Christian martyrs and saints. Such stories were typical of the literature of that time.
It was not until the end of the 6th century that monks came from Rome to Britain again. The head of the Roman Church at that time was Pope Gregory. He thought he could spread his influence over England if he converted the people to Christianity. Firm in this purpose, he sent monks to the island. They landed in Kent and built the first church in the town of Canterbury. Up to this day the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the English Church.
The Centres of Learning. Now that Roman civilization poured into the country again, Latin words once more entered the language of the Anglo-Saxons, because the religious books that the Roman monks had brought to England were all written in Latin. The monasteries, where reading and writing were practised, became the centres of learning and education in the country. No wonder poets and writers imitated those Latin books about the early Christians, and also made up stories of their own about saints.
Caedmon and Cynewulf. The names of only two of those early poets have reached our days: Caedmon and Cynewulf ['kiniwulf].
Caedmon lived in the 7th century. He was a shepherd at Whitby ['witbi], a famous abbey in Yorkshire. He composed in his native language, that is in the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon. He was no longer young when the gift of song came to him. The monks took him to the abbey and he spent the rest of his life in making up religious poetry. He composed hymns and a poem, the "Paraphrase". It retells fragments from the Bible in alliterative verse. Many other monks took part in this work, but their names are unknown to us.
Cynewulf was a monk who lived at the end of the 8th century. His name was not forgotten, as he signed his name in runes in the last line of his works. Two of his poems, "Elene [i:'li:n]" and "Juliana", are notable because they are the first Anglo-Saxon works to introduce women characters.
Along with religious poetry, folk-tales about worldly affairs were written down at the monasteries and put into verse by poets. These were wedding-songs, songs to be sung at feasts, war-songs, death-songs, arid also ploughing-songs, and even riddles. In the 11th century these wefe prohibited by the Church.
The Venerable Bede (673-735). The greatest writer of the time was the Venerable Bede [bi:d]. He was brought up in the monasteries of Northumbria where he received the best education of the time. He wrote mostly in Latin. His books on natural history and astronomy were a collection of all the learning known in the Middle Ages. His famous book, "The History of the English Church", was well known in France and Italy. His works are still valued today: they show what the country was like thirteen hundred years ago and how men acted and thought at that time.
Alfred the Great (849-901). The beginning of the 9th century was a troubled time for England. Danish pirates, called Norsemen, kept coming from overseas for plunder. Each year their number increased. When Alfred, the grandson of Egbert, was made king in the year 871, England's danger was the greatest. Nevertheless, in a great battle fought by Alfred at Maldon in 891, the Norsemen were defeated, and Alfred decided to make peace with them. The greater portion of England was given up to the newcomers. The only part of the kingdom left in possession of Alfred was Wessex.
Alfred was a Latin scholar; he had travelled on the continent and visited France. He is famous not only for having built the first navy, but for trying to enlighten his people. He drew up a code of laws. He translated the Church history of Bede from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, the native language of his people, and a portion of the Bible as well. To him the English owe the famous "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" which may be called the first history of England, the first prose in English literature. It was continued for 250 years after the death of Alfred.
The literature of the early Middle Ages and the Church taught that man was an evil being and his life on earth was a sinful life. As man was subordinated to God, he had to prepare himself for the after-life by subduing his passions and disregarding all earthly cares.
From: English Literature, Moscow "Prosveshcheniye", 1974.
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