Beowulf, the hero of the epic, appears. He is a great chieftain, the heorth-geneat hearth-companion, or vassal of a king named Higelac. He assembles his companions, goes over the road of the swans the sea to Denmark, or Norway, states his purpose to Hrothgar, and advances to meet Grendel. Upon the death of Hrothgar he receives his reward in being made King of the Danes.
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At a later day, new cantos were added, which, following the fortunes of the hero, record at length that he was killed by a dragon. The primitive manners, modes of life, forms of expression, are all historically delineated.
In it the intimate relations between the king and his people are portrayed. We may also notice the childish wonder of a rude, primitive, but brave people, who magnified a neighboring monarch of great skill and strength, or perhaps a malarious fen, into a giant, and who were pleased with a poem which caters to that heroic mythus which no civilization can root out of the human breast, and which gives at once charm and popularity to every epic.
The period in which he lived is especially marked by the spread of Christianity in Britain, and by a religious zeal mingled with the popular superstitions. The belief was universal that holy men had the power to work miracles. It would naturally be expected, then, that among the earliest literary efforts would be found translations and paraphrases of the most interesting portions of the Scripture narrative.
English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook
It was in accordance with the spirit of the age that these productions should be attended with something of the marvellous, to give greater effect to the doctrine, and be couched in poetic language, the especial delight of people in the earlier ages of their history. In a dream, in a stall of oxen of which he was the appointed night-guard, an angelic stranger asked him to sing.
Feeling himself thus miraculously aided, Caedmon paraphrased in his dream the Bible story of the creation, and not only remembered the verses when he awoke, but found himself possessed of the gift of song for all his days. Another remarkable Anglo-Saxon fragment is called Judith , and gives the story of Judith and Holofernes, rendered from the Apocrypha, but with circumstances, descriptions, and speeches invented by the unknown author.
It should be observed, as of historical importance, that the manners and characters of that Anglo-Saxon period are applied to the time of Judith, and so we have really an Anglo-Saxon romance, marking the progress and improvement in their poetic art. It should here be noticed that Saxon literature was greatly influenced by the conversion of the realm at the close of the sixth century from the pagan religion of Woden to Christianity.
At this time, also, there was a large adoption of Latin words into the Saxon, especially in theology and ecclesiastical matters. He was born at Yarrow, in the year ; and died, after a retired but active, pious, and useful life, in He wrote an Ecclesiastical history of the English, and dedicated it to the most glorious King Ceowulph of Northumberland, one of the monarchs of the Saxon Heptarchy.
It is worthy of remark, that after the decline of the Saxon literature, Bede remained for centuries, both in the original Latin and in the Saxon translations, a sealed and buried book; but in the later days, students of English literature and history began to look back with eager pleasure to that formative period prior to the Norman conquest, when English polity and institutions were simple and few, and when their Saxon progenitors were masters in the land.
Ecclesiastical History. The Recorded Miracles. Other Writers. Alfred the Great. Effect of the Danish Invasions. Bede was a precocious youth, whose excellent parts commended him to Bishop Benedict. He made rapid progress in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; was a deacon at the unusual age of nineteen, and a priest at thirty.
Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing my holy place where I was wont to pray, that I may also sitting, call upon my Father. With a short preface concerning the Church in the earliest times, he dwells particularly upon the period, from the arrival of St. Augustine, in , to the year , a space of one hundred and thirty-four years, during nearly one-half of which the author lived. The principal written works from which he drew were the natural history of Pliny, the Hormesta of the Spanish priest Paulus Orosius , and the history of Gildas.
For the materials of the principal portions of his history, Bede was indebted to correspondence with those parts of England which he did not visit, and to the lives of saints and contemporary documents, which recorded the numerous miracles and wonders with which his pages are filled. It is sufficient for us that both were eagerly believed in his day, and thus complete a picture of the age which such a view would only serve to impair, if not destroy.
The theology of the age is set forth with wonderful clearness, in the numerous questions propounded by Augustine to Gregory I. We have also the statement of the establishment of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, the bishopric of London, and others. Bede produced, besides his history, translations of many books in the Bible, several histories of abbots and saints, books of hymns and epigrams, a treatise on orthography, and one on poetry.
A careful study of his Latin History, as the great literary monument of the Anglo-Saxon period, will disclose many important truths which lie beneath the surface, and thus escape the cursory reader. Wars and politics, of which the Anglo-Saxon chronicle is full, find comparatively little place in his pages.
The Church was then peaceful, and not polemic; the monasteries were sanctuaries in which quiet, devotion, and order reigned. Another phase of the literature shows us how the Gentiles raged and the people were imagining a vain thing; but Bede, from his undisturbed cell, scarcely heard the howlings of the storm, as he wrote of that kingdom which promised peace and good-will. Bede was in the main more correct than his age, and his vocabulary has few words of barbarian origin. He arose like a luminary, and when the light of his learning disappeared, but one other star appeared to irradiate the gloom which followed his setting; and that was in the person and the reign of Alfred.
Alcuin died in The works of Alcuin are chiefly theological treatises, but he wrote a life of Charlemagne, which has unfortunately been lost, and which would have been invaluable to history in the dearth of memorials of that emperor and his age. Alfric , surnamed Grammaticus, died , was an Archbishop of Canterbury, in the tenth century, who wrote eighty homilies, and was, in his opposition to Romish doctrine, one of the earliest English reformers.
John Scotus Erigena , who flourished at the beginning of the ninth century, in the brightest age of Irish learning, settled in France, and is known as a subtle and learned scholastic philosopher. Dunstan , , commonly called Saint Dunstan, was a powerful and dictatorial Archbishop of Canterbury, who used the superstitions of monarch and people to enable him to exercise a marvellous supremacy in the realm. He wrote commentaries on the Benedictine rule.
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These writers had but a remote and indirect bearing upon the progress of literature in England, and are mentioned rather as contemporary, than as distinct subjects of our study. It is the most valuable epitome of English history during that long period. It is written in Anglo-Saxon, and was begun soon after the time of Alfred, at least as a distinct work. In it we may trace the changes in the language from year to year, and from century to century, as it passed from unmixed Saxon until, as the last records are by contemporary hands, it almost melted into modern English, which would hardly trouble an Englishman of the present day to read.
The first part of the Chronicle is a table of events, many of them fabulous, which had been originally jotted down by Saxon monks, abbots, and bishops. To these partial records, King Alfred furnished additional information, as did also, in all probability, Alfric and Dunstan. These were collected into permanent form by Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought the annals up to the year ; from that date they were continued in the monasteries.
Of the Saxon Chronicle there are no less than seven accredited ancient copies, of which the shortest extends to the year , and the longest to ; the others extend to intermediate dates. Giles, have been issued together by Bohn in one volume of his Antiquarian library. To the student of English history and of English literature, the careful perusal of both, in conjunction, is an imperative necessity.
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The kingdoms of the heptarchy, or octarchy, had been united under the dominion of Egbert, the King of Wessex, in the year , and thus formed the kingdom of England. But this union of the kingdoms was in many respects nominal rather than really complete; as Alfred frequently subscribes himself King of the West Saxons. It was a confederation to gain strength against their enemies. On the one hand, the inhabitants of North, South, and West Wales were constantly rising against Wessex and Mercia; and on the other, until the accession of Alfred upon the death of his brother Ethelred, in , every year of the Chronicle is marked by fierce battles with the troops and fleets of the Danes on the eastern and southern coasts.
It redounds greatly to the fame of Alfred that he could find time and inclination in his troubled and busy reign, so harassed with wars by land and sea, for the establishment of wise laws, the building or rebuilding of large cities, the pursuit of letters, and the interest of education. To give his subjects, grown-up nobles as well as children, the benefits of historical examples, he translated the work of Orosius, a compendious history of the world, a work of great repute; and to enlighten the ecclesiastics, he made versions of parts of Bede; of the Pastorale of Gregory the First; of the Soliloquies of St.
Augustine, and of the work of Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae. Beside these principal works are other minor efforts.
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Troubles were to accumulate steadily and irresistibly upon the soil of England, and the sword took the place of the pen. The Danegelt or tribute, displaying at once the power of the invaders and the cowardice and effeminacy of the Saxon monarchs, rose to a large sum, and two millions of Saxons were powerless to drive the invaders away. In the year , after the weak and wicked reign of the besotted Ethelred , justly surnamed the Unready , who to his cowardice in paying tribute added the cruelty of a wholesale massacre on St.
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Literary efforts were at an end. For twenty-two years the Danish kings sat upon the throne of all England; and when the Saxon line was restored in the person of Edward the Confessor, a monarch not calculated to restore order and impart strength, in addition to the internal sources of disaster, a new element of evil had sprung up in the power and cupidity of the Normans.
Upon the death of Edward the Confessor, the claimants to the throne were Harold , the son of Godwin, and William of Normandy , both ignoring the claims of the Saxon heir apparent, Edgar Atheling. Harold, as has been already said, fell a victim to the dissensions in his own ranks, as well as to the courage and strength of William, and thus Saxon England fell under Norman rule.
Saxon literature was expiring by limitation. During the twelfth century, the Saxon language was completely transformed into English. The intercourse of many previous years had introduced a host of Norman French words; inflections had been lost; new ideas, facts, and objects had sprung up, requiring new names. The dying Saxon literature was overshadowed by the strength and growth of the Norman, and it had no royal patron and protector since Alfred. The superior art-culture and literary attainments of the South, had long been silently making their impression in England; and it had been the custom to send many of the English youth of noble families to France to be educated.
Saxon chivalry was rude and unattractive in comparison with the splendid armor, the gay tournaments, and the witching minstrelsy which signalized French chivalry; and thus the peaceful elements of conquest were as seductive as the force of arms was potent.