Periods: Early Medieval

Here you will find a general overview of the Old English Period. Other Old English pages cover Major Authors and style and prosody.

Reference Works:

Lapidge, Michael et al. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. (Brief articles on everything relevant.)

Greenfield, Stanley and Daniel Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature.

Godden, Malcolm and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature.


Web Sites:

Library Reference Guide

Old English library (Labyrinth)
Oxford University Old English coursepack
Select Bibliography of OE Studies (Carol Biggam)
Old English Newsletter
Anglo-Saxon Aloud (all OE poetry read aloud in OE!)
Battle of Maldon (British Government site)
Dream of the Rood (ed. Mary Rambaran-Olm)



Literature Online (UMass only)
Poems in Old English


Old English (c. 450 – c.1066)

The early Middle Ages in England are dominated by the Anglo-Saxon tribes. The Anglo-Saxons conquered south-eastern Britain around the year 450, and expanded their domains over the next 600 years. England did not exist as such: Anglo-Saxon England was a heptarchy, a land of seven kingdoms. In the ninth century, England was divided between Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes, and in parts of England, Old Norse was spoken. By the early eleventh century, England had become part of the Danish crown. Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Danish, and Danish dominance lasted until the Norman invasion of 1066. The period is known both as the Anglo-Saxon period and the Old English period.

Anglo-Saxon literary culture was multi-lingual. The inhabitants of Britain spoke Celtic, Saxon, Old English, and Latin, among other languages. Some of those languages, such as Cornish, died out. Almost all surviving texts were written by monks or nuns, and the majority of them are in Latin. Our concentration on Old English texts misrepresents the complex literary culture of the time.

There are almost 1000 surviving manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England. Manuscript is a term that means "written by hand." Texts were copied out by hand onto vellum (animal skin) by scribes (literate men and women who were taught to reproduce books) and bound into codicies (singular, codex, Latin for "book"). Books were rare and precious things. They were sometimes covered in gold and jewels. (Search Google for medieval manuscripts.) Most were destroyed by time, fire, or war. Old English poetry—that is, poetry written in Old English—survives in four single books.

1) The Exeter Book is kept in Exeter Cathedral library in the south-west of England. It contains most of the shorter poems you will read (The Seafarer, The Wanderer, riddles, and so forth). 2) The Vercelli Book is kept in the cathedral library of Vercelli in northern Italy. It contains The Dream of the Rood as well as a number of sermons. 3) The Beowulf manuscript is kept in the British Library. It is also known by its shelf mark, BL Cotton Vitellius A xv. It contains Beowulf and Judith, as well as the life of a dog-headed saint and a guide to the magical and strange creatures of the world. Here it is in full. 4) The Junius manuscript, or Junius 11, is kept in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. It is illustrated, and contains Old English versions of Genesis and Exodus, as well as other poems. Here it is.

Old English poems are beautifully wrought, and stunningly complex. They are also informed by a number of ancient traditions, namely Celtic, Germanic, and Latin. These traditions are bound up with one another, and cannot be unwound to produce "pure" threads of one or another ethnic culture. Understanding Old English poetry means in part understanding the myths, rituals, and habits of these ancient peoples.