Old English Literature – Anglo Saxon Period Characteristics


  • Anglo-Saxons came from three powerful nations of Germans (Saxones, Angli and Iutae) to England in 600 A.D.
  • Heroic poetry of surviving Anglo-Saxon literature tells about the Germanic origins of invaders.
  • About 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry have survived in four manuscripts-
  • Junius Manuscript(Caedmon manuscript): an illustrated poetic anthology.
    1. Exeter Book: also a poetic anthology
    2. Vercelli Book: a mix of poetry and prose
    3. Nowell Codex: also a mix of poetry and prose


Heroic Poems

  1. Widsith: One of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems. It is an autobiography of a scop. It tells about the Germanic world.
  2. Beowulf: Longest and most important poem of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It appears in Nowell Codex and comprises of 3182 lines.
  3. The Flight at Finnsburh: Deals with the other events in the story of Beowulf.
  4. Deor: A poem of 42 lines tells about the complaint of a minstrel who has been supplanted by a rival from his services.
  5. Waldhere: It tells the stories of continental Germanic heroes among Anglo-Saxons.
  6. The Battle of Brunanburh: Towards the end of Anglo-Saxon old heroic poetry re-emerged. The Battle of Brunanburh appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It shows strong patriotic sentiments.
  7. Battle of Maldon: It is the story of a disastrous English defeat.

Religious Poems

  • Ecclesiastical History of English People: Written by Bede. It marks the beginning of Anglo-Saxon religious poetry (680 A.D.)
  • Junius Manuscript: It contains the following religious poems:
    1. Genesis: Longest poem, comprising of 3000 lines. It tells the story of Satan’s fall and Adam in two parts. (Genesis I and Genesis II).
    2. Exodus: It tells the same story more vividly.
    3. Daniel: It is prosaic in nature and is a re-wording of Biblical passages.
    4. Christ and Satan: It is an untitled religious poem. It is influenced by the school of Cynewulf (first Anglo-Saxon poet to sign his work). He wrote four poems- Christ, Juliana, Elene and The Fates of the Apostles.
  • Exeter Book
    1. It contains series of Poems Christ I, Christ II and Christ III that tell the story of Jesus Christ.
    2. It also contains poems like Guthaic and Juliana that tell about the lives of Saints.
  • Vercelli Book: It contains following religious poems:
    1. The Dream of the Rood: the oldest surviving English poem in the form of a vision or a dream.
    2. Andeas: A 1722 lined poem. It is the closest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poems to Beowulf in style and tone. It tells the story of St. Andrew.
    3. Elene: It tells the story of St. Helena and her discovery of True Cross.
  • Norwell Codex:
    • Judith: It is the retelling of the story of Judith. Only concluding section has survived.

Personal Poems

  • The Wanderer: It is the story of a solitary man who is wandering along the sea after his lord’s death and lamenting over the loss. The line uni sunt? or wheres the snow of yesteryear? became theme of many contemporary poems.
  • The Seafarer: It is the lament of an old sailor who recalls his hardships in the sea life.
  • The Ruin: It tells the decay of a once glorious city of Roman Britain when Romans departed in early 5th c.

Love Poems

  • The Wife’s Lament: It tells the story of a wife separated from her husband who is forced to live in a cave in the forest by the plotting of his kinsmen. The poem represents her love and longing for the husband and her curse against her enemies.
  • The Husband’s Message: It is the story of a husband who has carved a message on wood to tell his wife how he has been separated from her by a feud.
  • Wulf and Eadwacer: It is a dramatic monologue that tells the story of a woman separated from her lover (Wulf) and forced to marry and live with a cruel man (Eadwacer).

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

An outline of English History from Julius Caesar’s invasion to the middle of the 5th century and continues to 1154. It was started during the time of King Alfred. It demonstrates the continuity of English prose from the Anglo-Saxon English to Middle English.

Anglo-Saxon Sermons

Aelfric was the most notable writer of Anglo-Saxon sermons. His most important work the Colloquy tells about the triumph of Christianity in England.


The Exeter book contains about a 100 Anglo-Saxon riddles translated from Latin.