More Old English

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How do we know about Old English? What are the sources for our knowledge of the language? Remember first of all that there were no printed books in England (or anywhere else in Europe) during the early Middle Ages. So all the evidence for Old English comes down to us in the form of manuscripts. Texts were handwritten--sometimes in the form of glorious art objects, sometimes in far more pedestrian form. Manuscripts like The Exeter Book for example, are relatively unglamorous, but still very fine examples of the art of book making.

Anglo-Saxon books were mainly in Latin, for the excellent reason that Latin was the language of the international church and of international scholarship. But there is also a substantial amount of Old English in surviving medieval manuscripts. Often these were legal documents(wills, deeds, letters); often they were church documents like homilies and translations of scripture. The rarest books are those of more or less "secular" poetry. The Exeter book (see above) survives in only one copy, in the cathedral library at Exeter in England, but it contains many of the most impressive short poems in Old English. The Vercelli book, even stranger, is a single manuscript housed in the cathedral library in Vercelli in Italy. No-one knows how or when it got there.

The most famous Old English manuscript is the Beowulf manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A.xv. Like the Vercelli and Exeter books, the Beowulf ms. is unique, surviving in one copy now in the British Library. The Junius Manuscript, another unique manuscript of Old English poetry, includes the sacred poems Genesis and Exodus and others. The Junius ms. is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Here's a nice manuscript: a Preface to a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough Abbey, c.1121 (Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 636, fol. 1r). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one of the most widely distributed Old English texts; versions of it were housed at different points around England. Therefore the Chronicle is one of the most common of OE texts, just as the unique poetic manuscripts are the rarest.

Perhaps because of the attraction of unique and rare things, the surviving poetic texts in Old English are among the most heavily studied. In fact we probably draw a disproportionate amount of our knowledge of the language from these texts, which would not have been as familiar to most English people a thousand years ago as they are to students of Old English today.

Old English poetry is based on principles quite unlike that of modern English poetry. Old English poets did not use rhyme; they did not count the number of syllables in a line. But they did not write "free verse" either.

Old English poems are based on alliteration. Each line of poetry is divided into two halves or "hemistichs." Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. The first stress in the second hemistich must alliterate with one or both of the stresses in the first hemistich. (The second stress in the second hemistich does not alliterate.) It doesn't matter how many unstressed syllables there are.

The effect is a bit like hip-hop, except that hip-hop rhymes and carries its rhyme across more than one line.

The oldest attested Old English poem is traditionally Caedmon's Hymn. Here's an Old English story by the historian Bede, about how Caedmon came to compose his hymn:

Wæs he se mon in weoruldhade geseted oð þa tide þe he wæs gelyfdre ylde, ond he næfre nænig leoð geleornade. Ond he for þon oft in gebeorscipe, þonne þær wæs blisse intinga gedemed, þæt heo ealle sceoldon þurh endbyrdnesse be hearpan singan, þonne he geseah þa hearpan him nealecan, þonne aras he for scome from þæm symble ond ham eode to his huse. Þa he þæt þa sumre time dyde, þæt he forlet þæt hus þæs gebeorscipes, ond ut wæs gongende to neata scipene, þara heord him wæs þære neahte beboden, þa he ða þær in gelimplice tide his leomu on reste gesette ond onslepte, þa stod him sum mon æt þurh swefn ond hine halette ond grette ond hine be his noman nemnde: 'Cedmon, sing me hwæthwugu.' Þa ondswarede he ond cwæð: 'Ne con ic noht singan; ond ic for þon of þeossum gebeorscipe ut eode, ond hider gewat, for þon ic naht singan ne cuðe.' Eft he cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: 'Hwæþre þu me aht singan.' Þa cwæþ he: 'Hwæt sceal ic singan?' Cwæð he: 'Sing me frumsceaft.' Þa he ða þas andsware onfeng, þa ongon he sona singan in herenesse Godes Scyppendes þa fers ond þa word þe he næfre gehyrde, þære endebyrdnesse þis is:

--and to see what Caedmon sung, click here.