English Literature I. Background to the English Language. History/ The Makings of Modern Day English.
Background to the English Language
About 449 AD, several large Germanic tribes, the Angles (from Denmark), Saxons (from Germany), and Jutes (from Jutland or Rhineland), traveled to the islands known as Britannia. At the time, England was not yet united and these Teutonic plunderers brought with them a Germanic-based language that would become Anglo-Saxon, or Old English.
In 597 AD, St. Augustine arrived from Rome to spread Christianity and convert Anglo-Saxons. Clergy were literate—priests brought writing to England (writing was a result of Christianity).
Most “literature” of the time was in the Oral Tradition, or passed down by a SCOP who could memorize and recite pages and pages of poems. The Scop praised deeds of past heroes, recorded history, and provided entertainment.
With the arrival of Christianity, more writing took place (in Latin, the language of the church). The church controlled what was written down so less religious ideas were lost.
In 827, King Egbert named Britannia Englaland, or “land of the Angles,” and the language came to be called Englisc.
In the ninth century, Norse (Norway) and Danes (Denmark) were pressured by their own populations and set out for other lands—namely, the British Isles. In 871, King Alfred (the Great) was able to resist further encroachment by these Vikings; Saxons acknowledged Danish rule in the North and Danes respected Saxon rule in the South. Alfred the Great also encouraged a rebirth in learning and education (he was a great patron of the arts). He became known as the “Father of English Prose.”
King Alfred the Great
By the close of the tenth century, Saxons were forced by the Danish to select Danish kings, and this went on until Edward the Confessor eventually was able to regain Saxon Rule. His death in 1066 brought about the end of Anglo-Saxon rule.
In 1066, Edward’s chosen Saxon predecessor battled with William of Normandy over rights to the throne. William won the Battle at Hastings or what was called the Norman Conquest. During his reign he saw that business was conducted in French or Latin. French became the official language, which then mixed with English (OE) to become what is now known as Middle English (ME).
Middle English eventually gave way to Early Modern English, then MDE or PDE (Modern or Present day English).
OE= Beowulf, Exeter Book, etc.
ME=Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
MDE or PDE= Shakespeare
This is from the epic Beowulf , and in its original form—Old English. Click here for a link to hear it read aloud: http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/Beowulf.Readings/Beowulf.Readings.html
Whan that Aprillwith his shouressooteThe droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swichlicourOf which Vertuengendred is the flour; WhanZephiruseek with his sweetebreethInspired hath in every holt and heethThe tendrecroppes, and the yongesonneHath in the ram his halve coursyronne, And smalefowelesmakenmelodye, That slepen al the nyght with open ye (so priketh hem nature in hircorages); Thannelongen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to sekenstraungestrondes, To fernehalwes, kowthe in sondrylondes; And specially from every shires endeOf Engelondto Caunterburythey wende, The hoolyblisfulmartir for to seke, That hem hath holpenwhan that they were seeke.
Most Anglo-Saxon Writing /Poetry:
Acollection of manuscripts that includes pieces from oral tradition, probably compiled by monks around the time of Alfred the Great between 871 and 899.
It was a blend of traditions mixing pagan ideas about fate with Christian ideas about faith and heaven.
Included were the stories and boasts of proud warriors with lessons in humility, and the famous Exeter Riddles; most material was in poetic form.
All prose was usually written in Latin before the reign of Alfred the Great.
Bede (673-735), a priest and a scholar, wrote The History of the English Church and People, whichgives an account of England from the Roman invasion up to his own time. He was able to generate the history of Britain, although his main concern was the spread of Christianity in England.
The Venerable Bede