Old English History and Writers

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

“Wess haal! Hoo e-art thoo?”

You wonder what language that is? English! That is, it means “Hello, how are you?” but in Old English. Like all languages, English has changed greatly over time.

English is a strange language, as it is a combination of a number of different languages. Old English is, in fact, a Germanic language. In the 5th century, a group of Germanic tribes who became known as the Anglo-Saxons came to settle in Britain. They brought with them their language, and these tribes eventually formed a number of powerful kingdoms across the British Isles that were eventually united under Alfred the Great. During and after Alfred’s reign, the language of court and culture in England became Old English.

One of the most important writers of the Old English period was Bede. Bede was a Benedictine monk who lived in a monastery in the Kingdom of Northumbria. During his lifetime, he became well known for his translations of religious works as well as his poetry. At that time, all religious works were written in Latin, and Bede continued this tradition. He was, however, very interested in translating religious works into Old English, so as to make them more accessible to people living in England. At the time of his death, in fact, he was working on a translation of the Biblical book of John. Bede is also known for a poem he reportedly composed on his death bed. It is a short, five-line poem, but it is entirely in Old English and it is one of the most iconic poems we still have from that period.

Another famous Old English writer was Caedmon. Legend has it that Caedmon was in charge of caring for the animals at a monastery in Whitby, and, like most people of the time, he was illiterate, but he learned how to read and write poetry through a dream. The oldest example we have of Anglo-Saxon literature in Old English is Caedmon’s Hymn, a religious poem. It is unique as, unlike other poetry or other works written at this time, it is written in the vernacular, or the language used by regular people at the time—Old English.

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