Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Culture and Old English Literature

Key terms: Anglo-Saxon vs. Old English, dream vision, alliteration, kenning, paradox, Vercelli Book, heroic/pagan vs. Christian cultures

Anglo-Saxon is a culture, a people, a land, a history. "Old English" is the name we give to the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon peoples of England.

The earliest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon literature go back to 680 A.D., when a cattle herder named Cædmon wrote a divinely-inspired poem about the Creation at the monastery of Whitby where he worked. We know this because it was written down in 733 A.D. by the monk Bede, who quotes the poem in Latin (see p. 116-117); and a very very early copy of Bede's book, made in 737 (and now preserved in a library in Leningrad), has an Anglo-Saxon version of the poem written out in the margins. This in a way is a very good example of how Anglo-Saxon literature survives--in chance copies, in margins, usually in books written down by clerics or their employees. This always raises the possibility of a tension: historically and culturally, the Anglo-Saxons were a pre-Christian [sometimes called 'pagan'] society. When their lives and culture were preserved by predominantly Christian scribes, there is the possibility that those scribes add a layer of "Christianization" to those stories, sometimes comfortably, sometimes uncomfortably.

Anglo-Saxon cultural order is social--whether in mead-hall or monastery. It is led by a powerful leader, the ring-giver, the hlaf-ford [lord or 'loaf-giver'] and hlaf-dige [lady or 'loaf-sharer'], who give rewards to faithful servants [the fyrd] who in turn have their own retainers. Retainers had the right to expect Lord to take their counsel--Æthelred the Unready's name means "Æthelred the Badly-Advised." Best way to die is in the noble service of one's lord; worst is to survive him and not be taken in by his heir or successor. Monasteries often dual (male/female); women as likely to be in charge as men. Tradition of extremely learned Anglo-Saxon nuns and abbots. Even there, the religious and lay servants would sit together at night, pass harp from one to the next and sing both heroic and lay tunes [attested in Bede].

Song/poetry very important in this culture: we're told that the archibishop Ælfric used to stand on a bridge, singing secular songs at the top of his lungs, to attract a crowd for his sermons. One of the most valued members of this society is the scop (poet), who preserves cultural values and social history through his/her work. Originally this was an oral culture, but gradually, especially from about 733 onward for history and from about 900 onward for poetry, we get written copies of the scops' works.

Mixing of pagan and early Christian is important. Christianity comes to British Isles in 497 AD under St. Augustine of Canterbury and is only slowly accepted (See the "perspectives" reading on Bede). Eventually becomes organizing force for education (replacing Celtic Christianity, already established by missionaries from Ireland). Best Christian writers used the heroic motifs, just as the artists use native and Celtic animal forms in beautiful pages for the Gospel manuscripts they created. But the philosophic concepts didn't mix as easily.  We see in The Wanderer and even more clearly in Beowulf the heroic pre-Christian belief that fame ("wyrd") is all you have here, no immortality except the name you leave behind you, happiness is an earthly thing, your rank is determined by how much gold you win, in an uneasy tension with the Christian belief that earthly life is transitory, what happens here isn't as important as what happens to your soul, earthly rank is unimportant, give gold to Church/divest yourself of earthly possessions.  The Wanderer is a good demonstration of that contrast--the lost man feeling his life is over because he's lost his lord, but trying to accept Christian stoicism at the end.

The Dream of the Rood (copied about 970 C.E.)--page 125

This image is MS Vercelli Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII fol. 104v.

Clever adaptation of heroic motifs in the furtherance of Christian story. Generically the poem is a riddle--asking the question "What am I?" It employs personification--where an inanimate object takes on human attributes, in this case, the ability to speak. The poem artistically presents the cross as the retainer of Christ, "the young hero," caught between a rock and a hard place. The warrior Cross wants to fight for his lord, but must remain passive to allow his heroic hlaford to achieve his destiny. This is a very Anglo-Saxon Christ--not heroic through his passivity and suffering but heroic because of the eagerness with which he embraces his battle, leaping to the cross, fighting for our salvation. Though we don't know anything about the poet, it's defensible to imagine that s/he was a Christian proselytizer, showing the pre-Christian tribes that Christ was a heroic god worth following. Poem is full of Anglo-Saxon cultural values--the valuing of gold and treasure, the heroic burial with warriors chanting elegies, the conflict felt by the warrior who cannot avenge his fallen lord. This is a fabulous example of cultural fusion. Another good example is the Ruthwell (pronounced "Riv-ell") cross (see p. 127 of the text), which has part of the poem carved on its 18-foot expanse.

"The Dream of the Rood" is preserved in The Vercelli Book, a work that includes 23 Anglo-Saxon homilies and a total of six poems (the others are Andreas, Cynewulf's "The Fates of the Apostles" and "Elene," and two fragments, "Soul and Body" and Deceit").  These verse works share a spiritual nature.  The language of the works is generally West Saxon. From


The following commentary was written by Professor Alexander Bruce of Florida Southern University:

The Poem: Commentary

"The Dream of the Rood" (the oldest dream vision poem in English) powerfully describes Christ's Passion through the language of the Germanic heroic code, with the added dimension of the Rood itself as the central speaker of the poem.  (Having an inanimate object speak is a hallmark of the Anglo-Saxon riddles, and in fact the passages where the Rood speaks strike some as being riddle-like.)

The poem tells the story of Christ on the Cross, and with the runic text of the poem and the images on the panels, the Ruthwell Cross as a whole reinforces that story of Christ on the Cross. After a brief (lines 1-3) opening by the man, announcing the general topic of the poem (a dream of the Rood), the vision itself begins.  In lines 4-27, the man describes the Rood.  It is a paradox, in a way, for he notes that it alternates between being covered with gold and gems and attended by angels (as the Tree of Victory should be) and being covered with blood (as it was an instrument of torture and death).  The man more readily identifies with this latter image of the Rood, for he too feels covered in shame and sin.  But the blood not only flows over the cross but also out of it, for the Rood itself feels wounded.

Then the Rood speaks from 28-121, though there is a decided shift in tone after line 77.  In lines 28-77 the Rood tells the story of Christ's Passion from its perspective.  It first describes being cut out of the forest by "foes" and "warriors" and being raised up as a gallows.

As Christ approaches in line 33, the Rood realizes its purpose and the most difficult situation it could face.  The Rood considers itself, in the mode of the Germanic heroic code, the retainer of Christ, as all living things should serve God.  Yet the Rood is about to assist in the death of his liege-lord, Christ; no Germanic warrior would ever willingly help in such an act.  But the Rood recognizes that it is its duty to stand firm, to be the gallows of Christ, because only by doing so will it be obeying the wishes of its Lord.  Christ, himself very much described as a Germanic hero, wants to enter that battle, and He eagerly climbs upon the Rood.  (Please note: if you are reading this commentary as someone's class assignment, be advised that it was pulled off the web; search for "rood, commentary, manuscript" and you should find the web page.)  The Rood trembles but accepts its role in the Crucifixion, doing what is demanded of it despite its inner agony.  It speaks of the pain it felt from the nails driven into it, and of the mocking both it and Christ received.  Then Christ dies, though the Rood recognizes that He only "rested there"; the Rood knows (perhaps, though, only after the fact) Christ will conquer death.

The Rood is torn down in line 73 and buried, only to be found soon by the followers of Christ who adorned it with gold and silver, beginning the tradition of the adoration of the Cross.  It is to an explanation of that adoration that the Rood now turns in lines 78-121.  The Rood identifies the situation that must have bothered any recent converts to Christianity: it explains that it should be seen as a victory-sign not because Christ was crucified on it but rather because of what Christ accomplished through His crucifixion.  In doing so the Rood emphasizes that for Christ death did not mean defeat, a concept probably very difficult for the Anglo-Saxons, steeped in their warrior traditions, to accept.  Christ was described as a Germanic warrior so that the audience would identify with him; and now the Rood tries to explain that Christ's victory over death can likewise be theirs if they will heed the words of the Rood and of Christ.

At line 122 the man, who had been passive, the audience for the speaking Rood, now speaks as his vision fades.  He tells how, his voice nearly becoming that of the preacher exhorting the masses, he prayed to the Rood.  He recognizes now that though he may have few friends on earth--a "small company"--he has the hope of something eternal.  He now wants to be in the comitatus of Christ. Source: