9

LITERATURE, LEARNING, LANGUAGE AND LAW IN ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND

Bede wrote in Latin, Europe’s language of learning, and pre-Conquest England produced many other fine Latinists whose work will be mentioned. But the chief theme of this chapter is English and its pioneering achievement as Europe’s first vernacular to evolve from the oral tradition into a fully articulate vehicle for all the categories of high civilization – literature, learning, law, administration and historical writing. Thus a language that begins to emerge as a distinct branch of the Germanic group about the fifth century would outmatch even Old Irish and Welsh in the range of its applications, as well as proving their equal in the glories of its literature. The tradition was on an upswing even as it was blotted out. To judge from the surviving manuscripts, the decades before Hastings saw a surge in the number of books produced in the vernacular.1 Many were older titles but the quantity indicates an increase in the reading population.

In addition to the Beowulf manuscript itself, as many as 300 manuscripts and texts survive, despite a tragic fire in the year 1731 that consumed much of the great collection of medieval manuscripts assembled by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), a founder member with William Camden of the original Society of Antiquaries. One of the manuscripts destroyed was the epic fragment known as the Battle of Maldon, an account of a heroic defeat at the hands of Danish raiders during the reign of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (see chapter 11). Shortly before the great fire David Casley, deputy keeper of the collection, had made a careful line by line copy of the manuscript fragment. Thanks to him we have what scholars consider a sound version of this masterpiece of alliterative Old English verse, the last in the Germanic heroic tradition and, in short, the culmination of the spirit of Beowulf itself. Other superb poetry includes the old heroic poem Widsith and one commemorating the great victory at Brunanburh found in the Chronicle. Of the prose there is, of course, the Chronicle itself, the English language law ‘codes’ of most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, translations of scholarly texts and books of the Latin Bible texts, such as the interlining of the Latin text of the Lindisfarne Gospels with an English translation, the issue of government writs in the language of the people, and even word games or ‘riddles’ written in English. We start with the poetry.

Old English poetry

The characteristic verse idiom in Old English poetry comprises the measured line divided into two balanced half-lines, each with a minimum of four syllables, in which syllable length and stress are swung together by alliterative patterns. Such alliteration, which seems ideally adapted to declamation in an oral tradition, is to be found in other early Germanic languages. The Anglo-Saxon poet attempting Latin verse met with problems of metrical versification that did not confront his Continental counterparts for whom the Latin language was still a living tradition. Aldhelm, England’s earliest poet in Latin, produced some fine work in the language, but equally from time to time deployed his native alliterative idiom in the language of the church.

According to a story that was still going the rounds four hundred years later, Aldhelm, a Wessex nobleman and first bishop of Sherborne (705–9), was wont to take his stand on a bridge at a river crossing near his church, harp in hand, and sing to his congregation hurrying homewards after mass, hoping to hold their interest in things spiritual with words from scripture tagged into popular songs. Aldhelm in his minstrel mode reveals a world where the vernacular tradition of the gleomen or scops (minstrels) was shared as part of a common culture by noble, churchman and commoner.

The scop (pronounced ‘shop’, with a short vowel sound), a bardic minstrel who might be in regular service with one lord or travel from one mead-hall court to another, was the guardian of the ancient Germanic oral tradition. Writing about AD 100, the Roman historian Tacitus knew of the Germans’ ‘old songs’ (carmina antiqua). According to the Beowulf poet, the din of carousing and banqueting daily shook the walls of King Hrothgar’s Heorot Hall. We may have a hint of the effect from the writings of Adelard of Bath, a twelfth-century English scholar and musician at the court of Henry I’s Queen Matilda, who was descended from the old English royal line. According to Louise Cochrane, Adelard recalled how once, when he was playing the stringed cithara before the queen, a little boy among the courtiers became so carried away by the rhythm of the music that he enthusiastically waved his arms about, making the company laugh out loud. Anyone who has heard performances of medieval minstrel music will know the pulsating and rowdy rhythmic effects possible on early stringed instruments.

Presumably the hubbub subsided when the scop swept his lyre, which since the time of Homer down to the histrions (epic ballad singers) of the Balkans has been the instrument of the bard, to begin his ‘clear song’. Among the treasures revealed at the Prittlewell excavation were the shadow remnants of such an instrument imprinted in the earth. Instrument-builder Zachary Taylor lovingly and meticulously recreated the ancient lyre. The original must have been highly valued for Taylor discovered it had been fractured at some time and painstakingly repaired with gold and silver rivets. Its musical quality was surely much diminished but, like Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, cracked beyond restoration, its aura was irreplaceable. The ‘clear song’ might be the bard’s version of a traditional lay, a section of an epic featuring the deeds of ancestors of those present, or an ode improvised to celebrate the occasion.

We know something about the life of the scop from a poem that survives as part of a tenth-century collection called the Exeter Book. Named after its fictional author, Widsith (literally ‘wide [or far] traveller’) tells of visits to the mead halls of heroes and kings of the pagan past (from the fourth to the sixth centuries), and of the rich gifts the poet was given. It refers to Offa of Angeln, claimed as an ancestor by the great eighth-century king of Mercia, and Widsith was also at the court of Eormanric, king of the Ostrogoths (Ermanaric, who ruled vast tracts of modern Ukraine in the 370s), who gave him a precious arm-ring. Widsith presented it to his own lord, who in turn conferred lands upon him.

The tone of the Widsith poem is distinctly upbeat. By contrast, the forty-two lines of Deor, also about a scop, are a lament for the loss of a lord’s favour, the poet’s dismissal from court and the loss of his lands. He recalls the misfortunes of legendary figures from the Germanic past and reflects in a stoical refrain that, just as their troubles passed, so will his. Like Widsith, Deor’s lament is a glimpse of the aristocratic Anglo-Saxon lifestyle; both remind us that the bardic verse central to the cultural life of the warrior nobility belonged to a largely oral tradition, of which only a fragment survives in the literary record. And central to the imaginative life of such traditions is the performance in the present, which relies on the memory, the skill and the inventive genius of an unlettered artist with words.

Noble (whether literate or non-literate) and peasant shared common cultural conventions (as we shall note, there is good evidence that many nobles were literate, from the late eighth century onwards at least). The villager, too, had his feastings, though not perhaps to match the mead hall. As the evening advanced the harp (perhaps that of some more prosperous farmer) began to circulate and any member of the party who could not provide a song, accompanied or not, was poor company indeed. One of the best-known stories in Bede tells how a farm-hand called Caedmon became a poet. Because he was no singer he would get up and leave the table as he saw the harp on its way. One night, having quit the feast as usual and tidied out the animal byre, he curled up on the straw and went to sleep. He dreamed that a man stood beside him and called him by name: ‘Caedmon, you shall sing a song for me about the Creation of all things.’ Inspired, the illiterate labourer improvised a poem that told how ‘the Lord of Glory . . . [made] . . . Middle Earth for men, to be their mansion.’2

Bede quotes a snatch of the song in a Latin version, and then explains that he can only give the gist of it because poetry ‘cannot be translated literally from one language into another without losing much of its beauty and dignity’. The remark is a measure of the standing of the English language in Bede’s world, but more so of Bede himself. Outside the British Isles, it would have been unheard of for a Latin-literate cleric to accord equivalence of status to a work in the vernacular. But then Bede was not only in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, he also, we are told, wrote English devotional poetry. Caedmon’s original Anglo-Saxon is to be found added on to Latin manuscripts of Bede’s great History, copied shortly after his death. Impressed by the peasant poet, St Hild of Whitby, that great lady, invited Caedmon to join her community and he became, in effect, the house specialist hymn-writer. Once a passage of the Latin scriptures was explained to him, he could produce a moving and delightful English song. Many lay people were converted to ‘heavenly things’ as a result.

Conversely, many Anglo-Saxon churchmen hankered after the Old English, and therefore pagan, secular tradition. The church synod of 747 fulminated against monasteries that encouraged ‘versifiers and harpists’ to visit, as well as priests who delivered their sermons in the manner of a scop delivering an epic. Perhaps such priests were only doing their best to make Christianity ‘relevant to contemporary concerns’. Presumably St Aldhelm at least would have approved.

For even bishops were not immune to the charms of the vernacular tradition. The Exeter Book, copied about 975 and the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry to have survived, is so called because it was donated to Exeter’s cathedral library in the eleventh century by Bishop Leofric. Of Cornish extraction, despite his English name, Leofric was educated in Lotharingia and became chaplain to Edward the Confessor in exile in France. He returned with the king in 1041 and was appointed bishop of Cornwall, where his family had an estate at Tregear, and Devon. He reconstituted the region’s two sees, at St Germans and Crediton, as one at the Benedictine monastery within the burh of Exeter. Under him the Exeter cathedral library was noted for its scriptorium and ranked fourth in size in England after Canterbury, Salisbury and Worcester.

The Exeter Book opens with three poems concerning the life of Christ, including the Ascension by a poet whose name, Cynewulf, appears in runic characters in three other Old English poems. One of these, Elene, in the collection known as the Codex Vercellensis, is an account of the finding of the True Cross by St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great and traditionally associated with Britain.

Most of the Exeter Book poems are religious but, in addition to Widsith, there are a few outstanding pieces, lyrical or elegiac in mood, that can reach across the centuries to stir the reader today, when family breakdown and exile affect so many lives. In The Wife’s Lament a woman tells of her misery and grief at being separated from her husband to satisfy the honour of his kin, while in The Husband’s Message a man begs his wife to remember her former vows of love and join him overseas where he has found a new home.

Two other poems are more ambitious in theme and so more profound in their effect. Later hauntingly adapted as a radio play, Seafarer almost anticipates elements of the story of the Flying Dutchman, as it tells of a seemingly endless trek across dark and hostile wastes of sea, through wind-blown ice sprays and the cries of seabirds. It laments ‘the mead hall and the laughter of men’ that symbolize the good life of the soul in this world – the world that the poet has lost. Wanderer, explicitly the lament of an exile, regretting the happiness of the life that is gone and bemoaning the cold and friendless present, is a reflection on the state of the Christian soul resistant to the mercy of God in this transient world. Both poems interweave the realities of the quotidian and the spiritual life; in both the world of the poet is the world of lordship and loyalty. In Wanderer, indeed, the real plight of a friendless but above all lord-less man seems almost to outweigh the allegorical spiritual plight of a soul without God. These two works offer us a glimpse of that wanderlust that brought the Anglo-Saxons to England in the first place, and led many to venture overseas to the Continent. As in the minstrel life of Widsith, the setting is the aristocratic world of the Beowulf poet. It is a world where the queen presides over the feasting of the warriors and even serves them at table. Judith, the text of which survives in the Beowulf manuscript, is a verse adaptation of the apocryphal Book of Judith, which tells how a beautiful Jewish widow slew Holofernes, commander of an Assyrian army, and so ensured the defeat of the invaders. As the Old English poem develops the story, whereas the original was a widow who disarmed her enemy with her beauty and cut off his head as he lay asleep, the patriot heroine of this poem is a warrior virgin triumphant in battle. Pauline Stafford suggests it may have been a tribute to the warlike Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, a star of the next chapter.

Finally there is a collection of ‘riddles’ – poems, mostly short, designed for social entertainment in mead hall or refectory. Perhaps Aldhelm’s Latin short puzzle poems or enigmata hold the key. Somewhat bookish and intended as exercise texts for the teaching of poetic forms, they were, he said, modelled on joke verses extemporized in late classical times as entertainments at drinking parties. Other churchmen, including an archbishop of Canterbury and St Boniface, were inspired by Aldhelm’s example to pass an idle hour composing such word games, though they rarely produced results to divert a party of serious drinkers – even if Boniface did send the cathedral monks at York two tuns of wine for ‘a merry day with the brethren’ (see chapter 5). The Exeter Book vernacular riddles describe everyday objects in allusive, sometimes opaque, lines demanding to be deciphered. In Anglo-Saxon England, what had pleased the ancient Romans became – in that jewelled world of swords, shields and goblets – a crafted form of entertainment where those objects and many others asked a festive audience to guess their names. As well as mundane, the object of a riddle could be serious: as likely a book of the Gospels as a weathervane, a shield, animals or birds. Number 55 muses on the paradox that the Cross, once the punishment of thieves, is fit to be adorned in gold and jewels. Sometimes they remind us of Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry begins in delight but can end in wisdom. And sometimes they don’t! Number 54 concerns the churning of butter – in which the serving man is ‘one moment forceful . . . the next . . . knocked quite up, blown by his exertion’.3 Some 700 years later Henry Purcell was setting drinking ‘catches’ that might have caught the occasional mood ‘down Exeter way’. One thinks in particular of the footman and scullery maid assembling a kitchen broom: he, called John, with ‘a thing that is long’; she, called Mary, with ‘a thing that is hairy’.

The Vercelli Book, despite its scholarly Latin title of Codex Vercellensis, is another Old English manuscript held in another cathedral library, this time that of Vercelli in Piedmont, where it was discovered in the 1820s. Apparently in English use in the eleventh century, although written in the tenth, it could have been in the baggage of one of the party that accompanied Bishop Ulf of Dorchester, one of Edward the Confessor’s Norman appointees, when he attended the church council in that city in 1050. The anthology comprises prose (a life of St Guthlac and twenty-three homilies) and poetry, including the complete text of The Dream of the Rood, fragments of which are found carved on the Ruthwell Cross (see chapter 3).

The fragments of a poem inscribed on a cross in the seventh century written down in a tenth-century manuscript encapsulate the basic problems of dating most Anglo-Saxon verse. The age of a manuscript in which a work survives is not, evidently, a guaranteed indicator of even the approximate date of composition. Things are further complicated by the fact that the poems we have survive as the result of chance events and are isolated copies made in transmission stretching over generations, probably across dialect boundaries and in any case exploiting archaisms of language for poetic effect. It may well be that the oldest of the long poems are those on biblical themes, notably the Genesis, Exodus and Daniel in the so-called Junius Manuscript, now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library (MS. Junius 11). Bede noted these very biblical themes as ones that Caedmon sang about, so Junius 11 was once known as the ‘Caedmon manuscript’. It is in any case a remarkable production, evidently designed from the start as an illustrated book, the text written first and blanks left for illustrations. The project was never completed but more than fifty line drawings by two artists depict such scenes as God the Creator enthroned above Chaos before the Beginning of the World.

Old English Prose

Anglo-Saxon England [provides] the leading example of a vernacular culture worthy of the name in the whole of western Europe. French and German did not achieve a like status of literary quality and use till the twelfth century, whereas Old English had [before that time] reigned for hundreds of years.4

And nowhere in western Europe does another national tradition, not even the rich vein of Old Irish and Middle Irish literature, with its annals such as the Annals of Ulster, have a documentary source to equal the Anglo-Saxon Chonicle for extent and detail. From the opening sentence of the Genealogical Preface to the (Ā) manuscript commonly known as the Parker Chronicle (‘In the year of Christ’s Nativity 494, Cerdic and Cynric his son landed at Cerdicsora with five ships’), to its last, the election in 1154 of William of Waterville to be abbot of Peterborough Abbey, as recorded in the (E) manuscript commonly called the Laud Chronicle, the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provide an almost unbroken sequence of annals over a span of 660 years. From the 890s the writers are sometimes contemporaries of the events they describe: we are told, for example, that Abbot William ‘has made a good beginning’ and, with the writer, hope that ‘Christ [may] grant that he end as well’.

But the Chronicle (perhaps ‘Chronicles’ is better, as there are a number of different copies and independent variants) tends to favour the house of Wessex, not surprisingly, if indeed the so-called ‘common stock’ of the various texts originated in the late ninth century at the instigation of King Alfred (see chapter 8). Between 892 and 975 copies were made and continued at various centres – Winchester up to the year 1001, Canterbury, Abingdon, Worcester and Peterborough – which vary in local emphasis and material. For example, at some time in the eleventh century the Winchester copy (sometimes known as the Parker Chronicle after Archbishop Matthew Parker of Canterbury) was moved to Canterbury, and its new continuators inserted various items relating to Kentish history for earlier years. There are various fragments of other versions and some passages are in Latin. But these are a small percentage of the whole. It has been described as

a diary whose entries were made year by year instead of day by day . . . There are many years for which no entries were made at all . . . and [many] . . . which record the barest details of battles and of the succession of kings and bishops. But at other times . . . the Chronicle expands into a full and detailed narrative of enthralling interest and of the highest historical value.5

As an ordered presentation of a sequence of events it compares poorly with some of the Continental Latin annals and there are times when it breaks away from the strict historical narrative in digressions that, if published together, could make a varied and fascinating anthology. For the year 755 [757] a dramatic account of a murderous attack by elements hostile to King Cynewulf of Wessex on his royal love nest has been called the first short story in English. There are incisive pen-portraits, including one of William the Conqueror, and snaps of reportage like the slaughter of monks at Glastonbury in 1083. The Chronicle even includes one of the pinnacles of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a majestic fragment commemorating the military epic of the victory at Brunanburh (937). But it is, before all, an evolving work of English prose. A recent analysis has proposed that its many scribes aimed at a style with a hidden numerological element patterned on contemporary theories of structures seen to lie behind the Biblical writings.6 To the Anglo-Saxons themselves, one imagines, more important than the Chronicle were the various Biblical texts available to them in their own language for centuries. The first of these biblical translators was the Venerable Bede himself. At his death he was working on an English version of St John’s Gospel and we know from one of his letters that he had provided English translations of basic texts such as the Lord’s Prayer to priests who had no Latin, so that they could teach them to their congregations.

Ælfric, a distinguished scholar born about 950 and as prolific as Bede, wrote mainly in the vernacular. In him Anglo-Saxon prose achieved its zenith of stylistic beauty and clarity of expression. Sometimes he adapts rhetorical devices from classical Latin authors to great effect; at others his flowing prose rhythms follow the alliterative verse patterns of Anglo-Saxon verse. He influenced writers of Old English well into the twelfth century.

Ælfric was educated at the monastic school in Winchester, under Bishop Æthelwold. When he was about twenty he was sent as an instructor to the monastery at Cerne Abbas in Dorset and then, in 1005, appointed as abbot of the newly founded minster at Eynsham, Oxfordshire, where he spent the rest of his life. The foundation was new, but its buildings were on a site settled since the Bronze Age – possibly a place of traditional sacred associations. He wrote a Latin grammar in English, which aimed in part to explain Old English and was also a handbook to the speaking of Latin. This Colloquy takes the form of conversations between the teacher and his pupil, a monastic novice, and various lay people such as farm-workers, hunters and merchants. One suggestion is that it might have been intended as a sort of play, to be acted by the children of the cloister. Ælfric’s very lively dialogues tell us a good deal about the life in early eleventh-century England and also about the man himself – obviously an alert observer, fascinated by the world about him. He also wrote many books in English and sermons based on the writings of the Church Fathers, among them Bede. He wrote in English, he tells us, because other writers in that language often contained errors that could mislead ‘unlearned men’ who could not check the Latin. One of his ‘Catholic Homilies’ is an Easter sermon about the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the communion service. The debate had been running in Latin theological texts for more than a century and continued well after Ælfric’s time. A formulation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’ (a term first used in the twelfth century) was given in the documents of the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545–63). According to John Godfrey, in his book The Church in Anglo-Saxon England, ‘it is impossible to square Ælfric’s teaching with that later defined by the Roman Catholic Church’ and just three years after the final session of Trent a ‘modern English’ version of the Easter sermon was published with the approval of Anglican bishops, though it is equally difficult to make it ‘square’ with the Anglican Article concerned with the doctrine. Be that as it may, it is hardly surprising that the Post-Reformation Protestant church in England cherished what they called ‘A Testimonie of Antiquitie’, written by an Englishman in English. Perhaps of more interest to us is the fact that Ælfric tackled such abstract and elusive concepts in his native tongue at all. No doubt he felt, in his awkward Anglo-Saxon way, that a central article of Faith enjoined on all Christians should be explicable in the language of the believer.

Another matter of great importance to him was the question of the plight of the Christian soul in the afterlife, awaiting the Day of Judgement or Doomsday. Debate on the matter went back at least as far as St Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century. Related questions were the meaning of ‘Paradise’: was it to be identified [typologically] with the Garden of Eden as an equivalent of heaven, as St Augustine had held, or was it a location distinct from both Eden and heaven. In touching on such matters, Ælfric was working in a tradition of Anglo-Saxon theology stretching back to Bede’s Latin ‘Vision of Drythelm’ and other ideas of an ‘interim paradise’, which fed into the formulation of the doctrine of Purgatory in the twelfth century.7 Ælfric produced at least forty lives of saints and planned an English version of the Old Testament (part translation/part commentary), of which the first seven books were completed.

Although prompted by a request from a West Saxon aristocrat for an English translation of the book, it was turned out as a sermonwriter’s reference crib, written in the end, like all but one of Ælfric’s works, as a text to aid his fellow clerics, above all the ill-educated parish clergy. This tradition stretched back to Alfred and his conviction that a well-grounded clergy was the life-blood of a vigorous church and that, in turn, was the guarantee of a vigorous and healthy nation. Such a view of the role of the church seems bizarre in today’s secular Britain, but in the tenth century it was received wisdom throughout Europe. The difference was that in England the church establishment respected its front-line troops, the parish priests, and that, while many bewailed their lack of Latin (as no doubt Peter Cook’s E. L. Wistey would have done), others in typically English fashion not only offered them a helping hand through the difficulties of the alien language used by the church, as Ælfric did in his Colloquy, but also took immediate practical steps to instruct the priests in a language they could understand – their own.

The exception among Ælfric’s programme of texts for priests was a biblical treatise designed as a layman’s guide to the Old and New Testaments. A long preface addresses the thegn (with estates near Eynsham) who had prompted the book and who apparently had been pestering him for yet more English books. One glimpses an educated reading public among the higher ranks of Anglo-Saxon society and indeed Ealdorman Æthelweard (d. c. 998), the man who had commissioned Ælfric’s Bible version, and was the author of the Latin Chronicon, based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (see chapter 5). Claiming descent from King Alfred’s brother Æthelred I, he wrote the book for his German cousin, abbess Matilda of Essen, about the year 980. He praised their ancestors’ skill in turning books from the ornate Latin tongue into English, so that not just scholars but any lay person who may read it could, in a measure, hear the ‘tearful passion’ of the book of Boethius brought to life in their own language.

After 1066 the writing of English continued for some time. As we have noted, the Peterborough version of the Chronicle was kept up until 1154: for the best part of ninety years this great Benedictine house on the edge of the Fens, last shrine of the arm of St Oswald, continued its record of national events in the language of the subject people. Of the other five versions extant not one runs later than 1070. The Peterborough continuation, kept up with annual entries to 1136, and intermittently thereafter, seems almost like a gesture of defiance to the alien regime.

The English allegiance was evidently very strong at the abbey. In 1066 Abbot Leofric (nephew, by the way, of Earl Leofric and his wife Godiva of Coventry), went with Harold’s army to Hastings, dying a week after the battle. The monks immediately elected an Englishman named Brand as his successor – and intrepidly paid homage to Edgar the Ætheling of the royal house of Wessex as the next king. Eventually William angrily agreed to Abbot Brand’s installation but imposed on Peterborough the highest rate of military levy on its income of any abbey in the kingdom. With the death of Brand in 1069, the Norman king imposed a Norman abbot, Thuroldus of Fécamp – ‘more a man of war than a man of god’. And yet as late as 1098 the monks of Peterborough were still petitioning to be allowed to appoint an Englishman. Then on the night of 4 August 1116, the Eve of the Feast of St Oswald, a fire destroyed most of the abbey buildings, including the library, and consumed the old Chronicle manuscript. Some five years later the work of restoring the text began. The decision to undertake this work is surely significant. The story of Old England was by now an antiquarian’s memory, but the abbot of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, was approached for the loan of a Kentish Chronicle (now lost). Thus Peterborough could be brought up to date for the eleventh century and then the Chronicle was continued by various scribes for the next half century. Admittedly there may have been motives other than pure antiquarianism and patriotism at work. The updating scribe for the earlier periods took the opportunity of inserting various entries that (we have seen) notably favoured the abbey!

The language of Old English

While King Alfred’s charters called him King of the Anglo-Saxons in the later part of his reign, he called the language that he spoke and wrote Englisc; the Latin scholars of the realm called it lingua Anglica or lingua Saxonica; we, today, call it Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Along with Old High German, Old Saxon and Old Frisian it forms a sub-group of the Indo-European family of languages (the ties with Old Frisian were so close that some scholars talk of an Anglo-Frisian language). The differences between the language spoken by the original invaders and that of the English subjects of William the Conqueror were considerable and there were also important differences between three broad dialect areas: Kent, East Anglian and Saxon. The most notable was West Saxon, which, having some features and loan words from Anglian and other dialects, became the principal literary language of the surviving collections of Anglo-Saxon writings, both prose and verse. We do not know when Beowulf was first declaimed in some noble mead hall, nor how long an oral tradition preceded the Beowulf manuscript through which it came down to us, but that manuscript is in the West Saxon literary language. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shows the evolution of that language from Early up to Late West Saxon, the form used by Ælfric.

Compared with the West Saxon legacy, the literary survivals from other dialect areas are meagre indeed. Among them is the mid-tenth century Late Northumbrian version of the text interlined between the stately lines of the Latin of the Lindisfarne Gospels, ‘the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into the English language’. Maybe so, but was there not perhaps some antiquarian aesthete among the community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street who fumed, necessarily in silence, at the insult offered to the majestic calligraphy by the somewhat spidery hand of Brother Aldred? We know the translator’s name because he himself records it, eager, it would seem, to associate himself with the genius of the illuminator, Bishop Eadfrith, now dead more than two centuries. Aldred was hardly a model of the monastic virtue of humility (after all, the bishop had not seen fit to record his own name in the holy book), yet but for him one genius of the western artistic tradition would still be anonymous.

It seems the Anglo-Saxons introduced runes to Britain (their alphabet of some thirty plus characters is larger than that of Old Norse, which appears about 800). Even so it survives in only a few inscriptions, such as the poetic fragment of the Dream of the Roodon the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire. The Latin alphabet in the elegant script brought to England by the Irish missionaries of the early seventh century was more usually employed both for English and Latin works. Was the art of writing in Old English invented by an Italian cleric in the early seventh century? A few runic characters were taken over for sounds for which the Romans had no letter. Thorn (þ) and eth (ð) were used for the th sound in think and then, and a third letter called wynn, confusingly similar to the Latin p, for the ‘w’ sound. There were a few other characters including ‘7’, an equivalent of the ampersand for the Old English ‘and’.

The study of the evolution of both literary style and fashions in handwriting is an academic specialization all of its own. For example, if we look at the ‘Parker’ manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we find that the long first section, which starts with the year 494 and ends in the year 891, is written in a single hand. The records for the next 180 years down to the last entry in 1070 are made in a succession of hands, more or less contemporary with the events they describe, which makes it possible to trace the changes in official script and the introduction of new vocabulary. As to pronunciation, refined comparative studies of variant patterns of spellings and mis-spellings led one scholar to the conclusion that they were probably the result of dictation and, moreover, the result of a ‘Welshman dictating to an English scribe’.8

Runic characters, it is believed, were originally devised for engraving on wood. If so they take us back to what one might call the prehistory of book production. As is well known, both the English word ‘book’ and the German word Buch share a common root with the word for the beech tree (Buche in German). What is perhaps not so generally remembered is that the Latin word liber, ‘a book’ (French livre), has as its primary meaning ‘the inner bark of a tree; from the use of this in writing’.9 Thus the ancestors of Caesar appear to have used the same basic writing support as did the ancestors of Bede. However, their Mediterranean alphabet was utterly different from the Norse script, even though this in fact originated in the south. The decision, taken presumably about the year 600 in Kent, to render the language of the newly converted Germanic peoples of Britain into written form, for recording in Roman style the Laws of King Æthelberht, meant devising a written alphabetic equivalent of Anglo-Saxon. This in turn ‘involved the transformation of sound into writing and required informed decisions on spelling and grammar’.10 Some clerics may of course have taken the trouble to master runes and there is some evidence for familiarity with the runic script among the lay educated classes of society. Runic inscriptions are found on a few Anglo-Saxon coin issues and there are runic signs scribbled in the margins next to some of the Exeter Book riddles, as if intended as clues to the solutions. But at a time when, as Robert Runcie observed, ‘everyone wanted to be Roman’, the Latin alphabet was bound to prevail.

Latin: learning and literature

Anglo-Saxon men and women of letters produced a wide range of works in Latin, the language of the Church and Continental officialdom. In fact, it was one specialized item in this category, namely ‘the Latin land charter (technically, diploma) and the associated vernacular documents dealing with land and property’, that, in the words of Susan Kelly, provided ‘the primary and most accessible record of the interaction between early Anglo-Saxon society and the written word’.11

Compared with the veil of printed matter – books, newspapers, public notices, advertisements, DIY instructions, football programmes, legal documentation, etc. – through which we tend to see our world, in Anglo-Saxon England even an educated layman or woman could pass from one year’s end to the next with barely sight of a page of script. And when one did confront the written word it was more likely to be a land deed, or perhaps a relative’s last will and testament, than a book of verse or a page of history. Few if any outside the church read for business or pleasure. There were (worldly) churchmen too, one suspects, for whom documents of law might hold greater treasures even than Holy Writ. For ‘unlike its Italian models which originated in lay society . . . the early Anglo-Saxon diploma is essentially an ecclesiastical document’ drafted in a bishop’s or monastery’s scriptorium.

We know from original documents attested in Kent, Surrey, the kingdoms of the Wicce and the West Saxons that by the early 600s churchmen were looking to this form of (written) instrument as a guarantee of ownership of land or other property made over to them or their organizations by pious donors. The first charters are dated in the 670s; before that such grants might be written at the back of Gospel books. In addition to 300 single-sheet parchment sheets, original charters in contemporary script, we have some 1,200 later copies for attesting to such transactions in the Anglo-Saxon period. Typically drafted on behalf of the beneficiary rather than the donor, such a charter would record a grant from the king or other lord to an individual cleric or layman wishing to found or endow a monastery. Grants of land to an existing foundation could be similarly confirmed. The recipient organization certainly treasured such evidences of property to Christ or their tutelary saint as the lord of their community. The document was sometimes stored upon the high altar of the church or even bound into a Gospel book. It seems that some Gospels were bound with blank endpapers ready to receive anticipated charter texts. Since the vast majority of the lay population can be considered as living in a preliterate society, the question as to what weight such documents actually carried inevitably presents itself. What legal force could they have in the secular world?

The property hand-over was accompanied by ceremonies and rituals that might involve, for example, an actual sod cut from the land in question. Such rituals themselves conferred recognized traditional authentication on the deed of transfer. Where a diploma or charter had been drawn up it featured as part of the ceremonies and itself remained a potent symbol of the event and thus of the ownership of the property in question by the owner of the diploma. As late as the 1970s the present writer can remember collaborating in a similar kind of ritual, in the somewhat embarrassed privacy of a country solicitor’s office. Following instructions, he placed his forefinger upon a little red disc attached to a document and uttered the words, ‘I deliver this deed as my word and bond.’

When we come to look at literary works written in Latin, Aldhelm of Sherborne, a somewhat older contemporary of Bede’s and whose poetry and enigmata we have mentioned, was the first and remained one of the most prolific authors. Born apparently in the 640s, some five years after Birinus had first preached Christianity to Wessex, by the time he was fifteen the building of the first church at Winchester had begun and Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, had driven out the Christian king of Wessex and had himself been killed in battle. Before the boy was twenty, Theodore had taken over as archbishop of Canterbury in Kent and established the cathedral school. Here Aldhelm spent several years as a student before moving back into Wessex to become abbot of Malmesbury. The early Christian years were surely rollercoaster times for the new faithful.

Aldhelm was no Bede. In place of the limpid clarity of the historian’s Latin his prose tended to extravagant (an unfriendly critic has said ‘pompous’) conceits, recherché coinages and elaborate grammatical constructions, though at its best it was highly influential on later writers. The anonymous Liber monstrorum, a diverting and instructive book of monstrous creatures, both human and animal, from legends about the natural world and, above all, classical literature, owes much to his style. Its authorship cannot be confidently attributed but the work is probably of English origin and by the ninth century was widely diffused throughout Europe.12 His output was voluminous and varied: a long treatise on virginity (De virginitate), in verse and prose versions; a verse travelogue through Cornwall and Devon (the British realm of Dumnonia), a lengthy letter-cum-treatise to its king, Geraint, on the Roman manner of calculating Easter; a letter to the Northumbrian king, Aldfrith; numerous dedicatory verses or tituli for new churches and altars, which he called Carmina ecclesiastica; and technical treatises on poetics and numerology. He was widely read in the Anglo-Saxon world, both in Britain and on the Continent, but he never matched the universal appeal of Bede. Accessible in style and clear in exposition, Bede’s writings including the History, despite its English theme, were studied throughout most of continental Europe almost from the moment they left his writing table.

The laws of England in English and the uses of literacy

The laws of England’s kingdoms were expressed in the language of England’s kings. There were varying writing styles. ‘West Saxon minuscule’ (830s–870s) differs from the minuscule practised at Alfred’s court in the 890s – and the late ninth-century charters can be said to stand for a growing tradition of lay literacy in ninth-century Wessex.

Even in government business, documents never threatened to displace word of mouth, but the written word was nevertheless widely used for utilitarian or practical purposes in the ninth century, and often in the vernacular. King Alfred refers to a lord’s ‘written message and his seal’, as though it were commonplace to make one’s will known to the thegns by this means, but we also know that he commonly communicated with his ‘judges’ through his ‘trusted men’, who would report by word of mouth. A written message was, of course, also more discreet – one bishop tells a correspondent that he has taken the trouble to convey his meaning by letter (per letteras) ‘so that it may not be[come] . . . known to many’.

The king’s trusted men themselves also used sealed documents, as we know from surviving seal matrixes – a typical example, inscribed with the words ‘Sigillum Ælfrici’ (‘Ælfric’s seal’), shows a man brandishing a sword (probably as much an emblem of lineage as of power). It certainly seemed quite natural to King Alfred, who believed that a healthy kingdom rested on Christian subjects ready and prepared to follow the sometimes unexpected, even unfamiliar, message contained in holy scripture, to illustrate his point by using an analogy involving the readiness of a local reeve or ealdorman to follow the unknown intention represented by a lord’s writ (æarendgewrit) and his seal. According to James Campbell, Alfred’s law code, including as it does the laws of Ine, amounts to 120 items; and that number, being the number of years in the life of Moses, the great biblical lawgiver, was considered sacred. Indeed this target number was so important that we find two or three seemingly unrelated provisions grouped in single numbered clauses: one, for example, deals with the law on killing a pregnant woman, the ratio between fine and restitution, and the fines for theft of gold, horses and bees.

English was used for sermons by prelates as well as by village priests. Wulfstan, later archbishop of York and who Latinized his name as Lupus (Latin for ‘wolf’), made his name when bishop of London (996–1002) with apocalyptic sermons on the Coming Days. They would have been in tune with the times as the year 1000 approached. A French tract ‘Concerning Antichrist’, written in Latin, was well known and nowhere so more so than in an England beset by recurrent Danish invasions. Cannier than many another millenarian, Wulfstan was not insistent as to the exact year. Recalling an ancient prophesy that after a thousand years Satan would be ‘unbound’, he went on: ‘A thousand years and more is now gone since Christ was among men in a human family and Satan’s bonds are loosed and the time of Antichrist is at hand . . .’13

In the early 1000s English law-making was largely in the hands of Bishop Wulfstan. Only the End of the World could explain why God had allowed the kingdom that the kings of Wessex had so painfully laboured to build in His name to fall into its present parlous state. Not for the first time, but perhaps with a special sense of urgency, he proposed Sunday trading laws, that people ‘eagerly’ desist from markets on that day and treat the Sunday Feast as befits it. For Wulfstan (d. 1023), who wrote laws for King Æthelred as well as Cnut, the overarching imperative was to apply the mandates of heaven to human society. People should honour God, hold to one Christian Faith, and abandon all heathen rites. For him the law of King Edgar was the model. In the ‘Winchester’ code he drew up at the behest of Cnut it was cited almost in full, as were salient points from the laws of Alfred, Æthelstan and Æthelred.

Wulfstan was one of the most influential stylists in Old English, idiosyncratic, florid and elaborate, but also one of the most thoughtful, as may be seen, for example, in the work known as the Institutes of Polity. He was a ‘social idealist’ whose aim was to engineer a reformed social order: in a preamble to a law code he spoke of the English as one people under one law. But he stirred his contemporaries above all as a preacher and moralist of passion and power. His famous ‘Words of the Wolf to the English’ (Sermo Lupi ad Anglos) was a declamation against sin, but also a passionate plea to his countrymen for repentance. One senses, from the law preamble just quoted, that under the pressure of the Danish threat people, perhaps especially in the Danelaw territories, were defecting back to pagan practices to placate the old gods of their invading kinsmen. In his famous sermon, Wulfstan reminded his listeners that a ‘councillor’ called Gildas had written that the Britons of those days had so angered God by their sins that He finally let the army of the English (Wulfstan used the word here, the common term in his day for the Danish raiding army) conquer the land from them. He warned his own contemporaries that they should seek to come to terms with God. The English had acquired their land even when pagans through the sins of the Britons and they could as easily lose it to another pagan people. Indeed, for Wulfstan his fellow Englishmen were more at fault than had been the Britons because, he said, they, like the ancient people of Israel, had been favoured by a special covenant with God.14

Whereas on the Continent late Roman bureaucracy and the use of Latin continued under the new regimes of invading barbarian lords, in England spoken Latin seems to have disappeared and the imperial bureaucracy to have collapsed; as a result, in the words of Susan Kelly, ‘Latin was remote from the secular side of society.’ This presumably is one reason, among others, for the adoption of the vernacular as a vehicle for legal documentation. Another may be that the process of law-making or, better, the business of law promulgation was different from the way we understand the process. Patrick Wormald distinguished in technical terms between lex scripta and verbum regis, between ‘written law’ and the ‘word of the king’. It has been argued that it was the word (verbum) rather than the actual written text that gave it the force of law.15

The first English laws, those of Æthelberht I of Kent, were promulgated at very nearly the same time as Italian churchmen were introducing Latin literacy into England (see chapter 2). Kent had close ties with the Merovingian court at Paris; surviving Merovingian written law is in Latin. But if it was the word of the king that gave force to the law and if the laws that he spoke were the traditional rulings of the people, then, if they were to be written down, ways had to be found of writing the English language.

Indeed the relationship of the English language to royal law does not seem to have been a straightforward business of promulgation and application. Following the concept of lex scripta and verbum regis, even King Alfred’s great code may have ‘represented more of an attempt to express the king’s ideological aspirations than to provide the judges with a practical work of reference’. Even in the tenth and eleventh centuries it may be that what counted was not the written ‘code’ but the king’s oral pronouncement. (In a celebrated case, as we have noted, judgement was given by the king by word of mouth while washing his hands in his private apartment.) Thus ‘legislation was not formally promulgated by the king in written form and those who produced the texts were doing so on their own initiative.’ Often, it seems, ‘the actual recording in writing was left in a surprisingly casual way to ecclesastics and individual or [even] local enterprise.’16

The language of administration: officialese

The fact that the English clerical bureaucrat came to use his own language, in preference to the idiom of imperial or papal curia, did not make his practice any less effective than elsewhere in Europe. Across the Continent, the ninth and tenth centuries witnessed the development of legal formulations and documents relating to land tenure and land grants. In England, too, the Latin diploma or charter, pioneered by church proprietors to protect their rights, was increasingly adapted to secular requirements. Unlike folcland(land held by traditional rights), which was liable to the render of various rents and dues and was subject to the normal claims of succession by the kindred, bocland, which was held by charter or ‘book’, could be disposed of at will by the landowner and book holder. The charter, generally drawn up in Latin, identified the territory and guaranteed its owners right to alienate it while the document itself ‘could be transferred together with the land to a new owner’. This being England, by the early 800s ‘charter scribes [were regularly including] a detailed boundary clause in English’, so that the charter, or boc, was on the way to becoming a true written record standing independent of any physical ceremony or token as a conveyance of right and definition of territory. The encroachment of the vernacular into the domain of the law may have been a measure of declining standards of Latinity, but it would surely have been a welcome development for the English landowner. As the ninth century advanced English legal documents multiplied – agreements of all kinds, leases and wills. Of the fifty-eight wills to survive from this period, fifty-three are in English. An example dated between 832 and 840 has a Kentish reeve named Abba making elaborate disposal of his lands and bequeathing a sword – a reeve had military as well as civil duties.

In addition to the wills we have records of more than a hundred leases, no doubt only a small fraction of those drawn up. These documents were mostly in Latin but with key passages, and almost always the date, rendered in English and mostly in the form of a chirograph. An ingenious solution to the problem of making reliable copies before carbon paper or photocopier, such a document carried the text of the agreement in duplicate or triplicate on a single sheet, with the word CYROGRAPHUM printed in large letters in the space(s) between the copy texts. The parchment was then cut through the word CYROGRAPHUM and each party to the agreement given one of the parts. In case of dispute the copies could be compared and matched along the join to validate their authenticity. It seems that chirographs were regularly appealed to: sophisticated English secular society was quite comfortable with the use of documents – and English language documents at that. The language was used as a teaching medium as well as by the royal government for its writs and laws, and of course by the religious establishment. Often religious texts have English equivalents jotted down for difficult Latin words. The approach is the typical English way, pragmatic. No doubt church people should know their Latin, but the priority was for them to know the meaning of what they were doing and saying.

A pioneer vernacular

It was not just that the English habitually used their own language in literature of all kinds; it seems they introduced the notion to others. It would certainly catch the imagination of the country’s invaders – at least in the second generation. The first effect of Hastings and its aftermath was the destruction of the English clerks’ tradition. Apart from Coleman’s Life of Wulfstan, the revered bishop of Worcester who remained in office until his death in 1095, and the Peterborough continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘Old English book production came to an end . . . [the] finest manuscripts, high-status books, were treated as plunder and sent abroad.’17

But there were those among the Continental incomers impressed by England’s literary culture. The Flemish monk Goscelin of St Bertin, who had settled in England in 1058 in the household of the bishop of Ramsbury and Sherborne and ended his days some time after 1107 in the community of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, made his own notable contribution with a number of Latin hagiographies of English saints, such as King Edgar’s daughter Eadgyth of Wilton (d. 984), singing the praises of the abbey where she spent her life. During his years as an itinerant writer he lodged as a guest at other great English houses, including Ely and Winchester. For him, it was the Normans who were the barbarians.

A sign that change was in the air came with the bilingual Latin/English version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle compiled at Canterbury (possibly by Goscelin) about the year 1100, presumably for the Norman churchmen of all ranks who were flooding into English institutions, at the expense of native clerics. Then, some time in the 1140s, Geoffrey Gaimar, possibly a native of Normandy, produced a ‘History of the English’ for Constance, the French wife of a Lincolnshire landowner, Ralph Fitzgilbert. The settler population, though mostly retaining family and family lands in the home country, was developing a taste for the history of the conquered people and cultivating an interest in the days of Good King Edward and his ancestors. Gaimar’s ambitious project was in fact a verse translation of the story of their past – in short, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was, of course, not written in the language of its subject, which, after all, was a conquered people, but nor was it written in Latin, the natural choice for a Continental writer on a serious theme. No, with his verse L’Estorie des Engleis Geoffrey produced the earliest historical work in the French language. Paradoxically his work, so innovative in the history of French literature, appeared in the decade that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, kept up in English since the 890s, was coming to an end.

Anglo-Norman writers achieved a number of other literary ‘firsts’ in French. Philippe de Thaon, through his Cumpoz/Comput (a calendar/chronology of the church year) and his allegorical works on animals and precious stones (lapidary), pioneered the use of the language in science-related topics. Benedit, a talented poet, produced one of the first saints’ lives in French with his Vie de Saint Brendan. The French vernacular drama called the Jeu d’Adam (‘The Play of Adam’), the first mystery play with French dialogue throughout, though with stage direction in Latin, survives in just one copy found in an Anglo-Norman manuscript. The play itself may actually have originated in England. Even in defeat, England seemed to encourage the spirit of innovation in others.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!