Periods: Early Medieval

Here you will find Old English major authors. Other pages cover a general overview and prosody and style.

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.

Harris, Stephen. "Bede" and "Cynewulf" in David Scott Kasten, Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. vols. 1 and 2.

Amodio, Mark. Writing the Oral Tradition.


Web Sites:

Library Reference Guide

Dictionary of National Biography (via UMass only)

Labyrinth Resources for Medieval Studies
Anglo-Saxon Aloud
(all OE poetry read aloud in OE!)
Slade's Beowulf
North-way pagan myth site
Staffordshire Hoard



Literature Online (UMass only)
Poems in Old English


Old English Major Authors

Almost all Old English poetry is anonymous. The major exceptions in poetry are Bede, Caedmon, Cynewulf, and King Alfred.(Here is Harris' list of all named authors in the Old English period.)

Oral-Formulaic Theory. The anonymous poetry is thought to originate in an oral tradition reaching back into the mists of time. Old English poems are extremely conservative in their form (see prosody). And a guiding critical assumption is that the form is motivated by the oral origins of the poetry. Singers of Tales or scops recited a huge corpus of poetry as they wandered from place to place (see the poems "Widsith" and "Deor"). Old English poems also share formulas— a formula is something like "once upon a time" or "happily ever after." One such formula is weox under wolcnum (grew under the skies). Here is Benjamin Bagby reciting the opening lines of Beowulf and singing Grendel's attack. The full film is available in streaming from our library.

Whatever the oral origins of Old English poetry might be, poems are also written things. And by the time poems were written down, the habits of textual culture were firmly ingrained in the practices of working OE poets. We must be careful not to assume that orality is the same as the appearance of orality. (For example, Robert Frost's Death of a Hired Man is a decidedly textual thing that only appears oral.)

Bede (673–735). Saint Bede was a monk of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow in north-eastern England. He was famous in his lifetime as one of the most brilliant writers of Europe. Bede was made a doctor of the Chruch in the nineteenth century. Bede translated the Bible into English and wrote poems in Old English. We have a short poem called "Bede's Death Song" and a longer poem (which may not be by Bede) called "Doomsday."

Caedmon (s.vii). We hear of Caedmon through Bede. In Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Book 4, chapter 24, we learn that Caedmon was a lay brother of the monastery of Whitby, ruled by the Abbess Hild. She instructed him in doctrine, and he turned the doctrine into poetry. The only surviving, attested poem is Caedmon's Hymn of nine lines.

Cynewulf (s.ix). Cynewulf is only a name. Four poems in Old English contain a signature coded into the text in runes. They are The Fates of the Apostles, Elene, Christ II, and Juliana.

King Alfred (848–899). Alfred was King of the West Saxons, and conquerer of the Vikings. He brought scholars and writers to his court in Winchester, which became the center of a renaissance in English letters. Alfred is thought to have translated the first fifty Psalms as well as three prose works (one of which, Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, also contains poems). He or his circle translated Bede's Historia, including Caedmon's Hymn.