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History of English Literature- Medieval period or Dark Ages

Updated: Aug 14, 2021



The first literature in any culture is oral. In English, the first signs of oral literature had three kinds of the subject- religion, war, and the trials of daily life. The literature before the Norman Conquest (1066) existed in fragments and that made quite a form of work. Literature can give comfort and consolation, can illuminate and mirror our problems; as of all through history.

The first fragment of literature is Caedmon’s Hymn (around 670). This is the first song of praise in English culture, the first hymn, and the first Christian religious poem in English. Deor’s Lament or Deor or The Seafarer reflects the ordinary human experience and is told in the 1st person. It reflects the contemporary interpretations of Psalms and this is the first poem in history about ‘unemployment’. The Seafarer and The Wanderer (these two are elegiac songs) along with the various other texts were preserved in The Exeter Book (a manuscript containing only poetry that dates from the 10th Century and is still kept in the Exeter Cathedral in Devon).

Different genres in this time period are History (Ecclesiastical History of the English People and The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle), Devotional works (Ancrene Rewle- 12th Century), Philosophical tradition in the writings of Alcuin and Saint Anselm. The Book of Genisis was translated from Saxon to Old English.

The Christian of the Old English text is The Dream of the Rood (rood- means cross). The fascinating features of this book are the usage of a large no. of words, phrases, and imagery for Christ and Rood. The Seafarer and The Dream of the Rood provide images of human life the first- the images of ships and sea and the latter- the images of suffering and redemption.

All the poetry in Anglo- Saxon literature was in the Oral tradition. Beowulf was the only long poem of that time (written in the style- the Caesura, the verse from Latin, a double line with a break in the middle). The other characteristics of the Old- English poems during the period are the use of alliteration and repeated sounds (The Ruin- written in the 8th Century, theme- lost power, it recalls the history of the Roman occupants).

The first name -the known poet is Cynewulf (belongs to 8th or 9th Century) has written four works (Vercelli Book, Stories of Saints, The Fates of the Apostles, and Christ’s Ascension). Among them, two are in the Exeter Book and the other two in other collections.

Beowulf is an Epic poem. A new translation of it by Seamus Heaney was published in 1999. This translated piece speaks about the universality of themes, the theme of transitoriness, life, and death. In old Beowulf, the hero fights against Grendel the monster of the fen. (Grendel symbolizes the elements of darkness; the fight is all humanity’s constant struggle against it.)

· Maybe written between the 6th- 10th Century.

· Setting-Baltic Kingdom

· Beowulf- a classic hero from afar.

· The hero kills the monster Grendel.

· People in the book are Germanic.

· The poem recalls a ‘heroic past’.

· Begins with “olden days”.

· The hero is mortal

· Language of the work is rich and inventive with full of imposing tones and rhythms.

· It’s a tragedy because the hero dies at the end.

· It’s also an elegy because it recalls the heroic deeds and time- past.

· Beowulf dies at the moment of his greatest triumph.

· Another evil is the dragon- “the hideous foe in the horror of flame”.

· As Beowulf dies the power passes to ‘Wiglaf’ who once fought in the side of Beowulf. “Old hero dies long live the new hero.”

· Three generations of mythical monsters (Grendel’s mother, Grendel, and Grendel’s Son).

· The structure of the plot is – main plot (animals and monsters) and subplot (human beings).

· There are two translations of this work by Seamus Haeney (Ireland) and Edward Morgan (Scotland).

The Battle of Maldon is a poem but more a documentation of the battle (Battle of the year 991). The tone of this work is more factual and less fictional. Divided lines were used to create the rhythm and sound of the battle. The authors of Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon are anonymous just like all the poets of the Old- English period except for Caedmon and Deor.

Alfred the Great, the king of West Saxons at the end of the 9th Century was known as a translator of Cura Pastoralis (it’s a guide to living and spiritual education). He has begun the major impact on the shift from Latin to English as a language of learning. He also commissioned several more translations to the West- Saxon (of history, of geography, and even of Caedmon’s Hymn). The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle began in his reign.

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