Old English literature

The Peterborough Chronicle, in a hand of about 1150, is one of the major sources of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; the initial page
In this illustration from page 46 of the Cædmon (or Junius) manuscript, an angel is shown guarding the gates of paradise.
Remounted page from Beowulf, British Library Cotton Vitellius A.XV
First page of Beowulf, contained in the damaged Nowell Codex.

Old English literature refers to poetry and prose written in Old English in early medieval England, from the 7th century to the decades after the Norman Conquest of 1066, a period often termed Anglo-Saxon England.

- Old English literature

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Alliterative verse

Form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal ornamental device to help indicate the underlying metrical structure, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse.
The copies of the Golden Horns of Gallehus exhibited at the National Museum of Denmark
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a well-known alliterative poem in Middle English (from original manuscript, artist unknown).
The Fyrby Runestone tells in fornyrðislag that two brothers were "the most rune-skilled brothers in Middle Earth."
Drawing of the copper Sigtuna box with a dróttkvætt verse written in the runic alphabet
The Karlevi Runestone contains a dróttkvætt poem in memory of a chieftain.

The Old English epic Beowulf, as well as most other Old English poetry, the Old High German Muspilli, the Old Saxon Heliand, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, and many Middle English poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Alliterative Morte Arthur all use alliterative verse.


Figure of speech in the type of circumlocution, a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun.

A page from the Landnámabók, an early Icelandic manuscript.

Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse-Icelandic and Old English poetry.

Old English

Earliest recorded form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages.

Alfred the Great statue in Winchester, Hampshire. The 9th-century English King proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin.
The dialects of Old English c. 800 CE
Her sƿutelað seo gecƿydrædnes ðe ('Here the Word is revealed to thee'). Old English inscription over the arch of the south porticus in the 10th-century St Mary's parish church, Breamore, Hampshire
The runic alphabet used to write Old English before the introduction of the Latin alphabet
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript with its opening Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon... "Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings..."

It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the mid-5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century.

Exeter Book

Exeter Book

The Exeter Book, also known as the Codex Exoniensis or Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, is a large codex of Old English poetry, believed to have been produced in the late tenth century AD. It is one of the four major manuscripts of Old English poetry, along with the Vercelli Book in Vercelli, Italy, the Nowell Codex in the British Library, and the Junius manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.


Old English epic poem in the tradition of Germanic heroic legend consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines.

First page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A. xv. Beginning: HWÆT. WE GARDE / na in geardagum, þeodcyninga / þrym gefrunon... (Translation: What! [=Listen!] We of Spear-Da/nes, in days gone by, of kings / the glory have heard...)
Tribes mentioned in Beowulf, showing Beowulf's voyage to Heorot and the likely site of the poem's composition in Rendlesham, Suffolk, settled by Angles. See Scandza for details of Scandinavia's political fragmentation in the 6th century.
Finds from Gamla Uppsala's western mound, left, excavated in 1874, support Beowulf and the sagas.
Carrigan's model of Beowulf s design Key: (a) sections 1–2 (b) 3–7 (c) 8–12 (d) 13–18 (e) 19–23 (f) 24–26 (g) 27–31 (h) 32–33 (i) 34–38 (j) 39–43
Wiglaf is the single warrior to return and witness Beowulf's death. Illustration by J. R. Skelton, 1908
Remounted page, British Library Cotton Vitellius A.XV
The traditional view is that Beowulf was composed for performance, chanted by a scop (left) to string accompaniment, but modern scholars have suggested its origin as a piece of written literature borrowed from oral traditions. Illustration by J. R. Skelton, c. 1910

It is one of the most important and most often translated works of Old English literature.

Cædmon's Hymn

Short Old English poem attributed to Cædmon, a supposedly illiterate and unmusical cow-herder who was, according to the Northumbrian monk Bede (d.

Folio 129r of the early eleventh-century Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 43, showing a page of Bede's Latin text, with Cædmon's Hymn added in the lower margin
One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Cædmon's Hymn is found in the Moore Bede (Northumbria, ca. 737)

Correspondingly, it is one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse, constituting a prominent landmark for the study of Old English literature and for the early use of traditional poetic form for Christian themes following the conversion of early medieval England to Christianity.


Metrical pause or break in a verse where one phrase ends and another phrase begins.

An example of a caesura in modern western music notation

This makes the caesura arguably more important to the Old English verse than it was to Latin or Greek poetry.


Earliest English poet whose name is known.

Memorial to Cædmon, St Mary's Churchyard, Whitby. The inscription reads, "To the glory of God and in memory of Cædmon the father of English Sacred Song. Fell asleep hard by, 680."
Ruins of Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England— founded in 657 by St. Hilda, the original abbey fell to a Viking attack in 867 and was abandoned. It was re-established in 1078 and flourished until 1540 when it was destroyed by Henry VIII.
One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Cædmon's Hymn is found in "The Moore Bede" (ca. 737) which is held by the Cambridge University Library (Kk. 5. 16, often referred to as M). The other candidate is St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (P)

Cædmon is one of twelve Anglo-Saxon poets identified in mediaeval sources, and one of only three of these for whom both roughly contemporary biographical information and examples of literary output have survived.


Seaside town, port and civil parish in the Scarborough borough of North Yorkshire, England.

The ruins of Whitby Abbey are reflected in the abbey pond
Captain Cook's statue in front of the Royal Hotel, built by George Hudson
Whitby town from Abbey Terrace, sketched on 3 October 1861
Whitby jet mourning jewellery became popular in late Victorian England
The Bombardment of Whitby, 16 December 1914, by William Scott Hodgson
Old Town Hall, a grade II* listed building
St Mary's Church
A 'Snakestone' from near Whitby, with head carved onto a specimen of Dactylioceras commune (Sowerby, 1815), Whitby Formation, Toarcian Stage, late Lower Jurassic. Specimen in the Natural History Museum, London.
Shipbuilding in Whitby
The Marina was built to develop and diversify the local economy.
Whitby and River Esk
From 2007, Whitby railway station has been used by steam and heritage diesel locomotives from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Whitby Bus Station
Beggars' Bridge, c. 1890–1900
Whitby Lifeboat Station before it was replaced in 2007
Whitby Bridge, spanning the River Esk, opens to allow shipping access to the upper harbour.
Whitby Golf Club
Whitby seen from A171

The abbey became a centre of learning, and here Cædmon the cowherd was "miraculously" transformed into an inspired poet whose poetry is an example of Anglo-Saxon literature.

Metre (poetry)

Basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse.


The metric system of Old English poetry was different from that of modern English, and related more to the verse forms of most of the older Germanic languages such as Old Norse.