Old English

1. When was it?

c. 5th century – Pre-14th century

The first known ‘Old English’ texts date from around the 7th century.

2. Who was writing?

Few of the written examples of Old English denote the author. However, some are known:

(*the earliest known Old English writer)
AldhelmCynewulf .

3. History

Prior to the 5th century, languages in the British Isles were very localised. An early language labelled ‘Common Brittonic’ had splintered into a variety of regional variations, and people generally spoke Celtic and Pictish languages depending on their geography. The Roman occupation of what is now England and southern Scotland (AD 49 – 409) introduced both Latin and a British variant of Latin, but this did not replace local languages in many places.
When Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived into what is now England and southern Scotland during the 5th to 7th centuries, they brought with them a version of Germanic languages. This language would come to dominate the south of Britain – the north continued to use older languages, mixed with Norse influences, for some time – and created what is now called ‘Old English’. Yet Old English was not the same in all areas, as it was again open to regional variation (primarily four main variants).
The demise of Old English began with the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the armies of Normandy king William the Conqueror took most of England. This brought French language and influences to the country, and by the middle of the 13th century most Old English had been replaced by what is now commonly referred to as ‘Middle English’.

4. Traits

For modern readers, the most noticeable aspect of Old English is the unfamiliarity of the words. Some vocabulary still exists (perhaps 15% of the original language), but spellings have altered and evolved massively over time. It is therefore very difficult for modern readers to understand Old English without translation.
Furthermore, the amount of Old English texts available for study is small, meaning a limited knowledge of the ideas about which people were writing. The most common themes are religion and people’s personal journeys (especially spiritual pilgrimage). However, the greatest known work of the time, Beowulf, is a hero’s adventure in a style similar to those that appear in Greek and Roman mythology, depicting kings, travel, mythical beasts, fighting and death.

5. Timeline

6. Examples

The Dream of the Rood 
Author unknown

Know Your Book

Title: The Dream of the Rood
Author: Unknown
Published: Est. 8th century
Language: Old English
Genre: Poetry; dream poetry; Christian
Plot: A person dreams they are talking to the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. After a description of the cross – beautiful, yet stained with blood – the cross retells the story of the crucifixion from its point of view. It recounts how it was cut down, and then learnt it was destined to carry the son of God. It becomes one with Jesus, with both having nails driven into them. Finally, like Jesus, it is resurrected and celebrated.

Excerpt, Lines 1-12:

Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst         secgan wylle,
h[w]æt me gemætte         to midre nihte,
syðþan reordberend         reste wunedon!
þuhte me þæt ic gesawe         syllicre treow
on lyft lædan,         leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost.         Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde.         Gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum,         swylce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.         Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,
fægere þurh forðgesceaft. Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,
ac hine þær beheoldon halige gastas,
men ofer moldan,  ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell
which came as a dream in middle-night
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light
brightness of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span. All there beheld the Angel of God,
fair through predestiny. Indeed, that was no wicked one’s gallows,
but holy souls beheld it there,
men over earth, and all this great creation.

Author unknown

Know Your Book

Title: Beowulf
Author: Unknown
Published: Est. 8th century – 10th century
Language: Old English
Genre: Poetry; epic poetry
Plot: The kingdom of Hrothgar, the king of Danes, is plagued by Grendel, a monster. Beowulf comes to help and kills Grendel. When Beowulf becomes a king, his kingdom is attacked by a dragon. He and a young relative, Wiglaf, go the dragon’s lair and kill it. However, in doing so Beowulf is fatally injured. His kingdom gives him a hero’s funeral.
Setting: 6th century
Characters: Beowulf; Grendel; Wiglaf; Hrothgar; The Dragon

Excerpt from Prologue ‘The Rise of the Danish Nation’, Lines 1-11:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he