Anglo-Saxon Prose | Old English Prose

Anglo-Saxon Prose | Old English Prose

Anglo-Saxon Prose Writers


Poetry is said to be as old as man, but prose necessarily involves a certain degree of civilization. Old English poetry is modelled on that of an earlier age whose remoteness cannot now be determined. But the object of prose is not to move but to instruct and inform, and since it educates the understanding, it necessarily turns to the future. Naturally the prose writings of the Anglo-Saxons are also much nearer to the later English prose. As a critic puts it,

“No revolution seems to separate Alfred’s pages from those of Caxton, Aelfric’s from Wycliff’s.”

Change there definitely is, but no real break-the notional and linguistic continuity is there.

9th Century Prose Writers

Till the end of the ninth century the grammatical habits of the prose writers were highly empirical – there was a jerkiness and roughness in the narrative, and it was continually necessary to complete the ellipses. This formless prose was succeeded at the end of the 9th century by a regular prose possessed of all its essential components.

The main Old English prose writers were (1) Aldhelm, (ii) Bede and (iii) Alfred.

(i) Aldhelm

One of the first English prose writers was Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne. He did much of his work in Latin, but his English verse was esteemed highly by no less an authority than Alfred himself.

(ii) Bede

The Venerable Bede was the greatest Latinist of Northumbria. Most of his work is in Latin though there is a reference to a poem by him in English. He wrote a treatise on metre, a natural history, a chronology of the Christian era, a martyrology, lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and of Saint Cuthbert and The Ecclesiastical History of the Angles. He was an artist with whom manner has precedence over matter and his works are characterized by an honest love of truth and diligent documentary research. The excellence of his work has given him a European reputation which lasted long after his death.

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(iii) Alfred the Great

Alfred, the glorious king of Wessex, was the pioneer of English prose writers. In the century after Bede, successive Danish invasions broke up the nascent civilization of England. In this hour of trial, the nation produced Alfred who was a soldier, strategist, scholar and administrator. When Alfred set to writing, the state of learning in England was extremely disheartening and the knowledge of Latin had steadily declined. Alfred stemmed the tide of Danish invasions and ensured for his nation a prolonged interlude of peace by the treaty of Wedmore (878 P.D.) He then applied himself to the task of nurturing the intellectual life of his people.

Alfred wanted his kingdom to be not insular but to have open windows on Mediterranean civilization. He therefore undertook to superintend the translations of classics and representative works. The five important translations by him are (i) Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory (ii) The History of the World by Orosius, (ii). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (iv) Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Soliloquies of St. Augustine

Pastoral care was a manual for the instruction of clergy Bede’s History was translated so that the English might know their country better. Alfred touched up Orosius History of the World with the accounts given him by two travellers – Ohthere and Wulfstan and it became very popular. To the Soliloquies, he added a preface called ‘blossome’ Alfred tells us that he translated ‘sometimes word for word and sometimes sense for sense.’ But the passages most valuable both for understanding the king’s character and for literary qualities are his originals freely introduced by way of explanation and expansion.

Alfred’s greatest achievement was The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was inspired and sponsored by him, and probably he himself dictated some of the passages dealing with his own campaigns. The work is by a number of hands, and of varying skill but its merit lies in being the first continuous history of the English people in their own language. The book has several versions differing from one another in the minor details. The records continue till after Alfred’s death, and the Peterborough version has records till the death of King Stephen in 1154 Both because of his translations and because of the timely impetus de gave to the development of Old English prose Alfred towers as one of the great figures of the history of English literature.

10th Century Prose Writers

In the century after Alfred’s death, much of the work that he had begun was lost. But they were gradually recovered during the 10th century by a reform of the monasteries led by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury and his friend Æthelwold. Two monks of the order of St. Benedict connected with this reform wrote prose which has been preserved. Outstanding among them were (i) Ælfric and (ii) Wulfstan

(i) Aelfric

He became the abbot of Eynsham in 1005. His aim was to make Christian documents available to those unlettered in Latin. Elfric’s principal works were the Catholic Homilies – two series of sermons suitable for delivery by priests. His language is easy and not bookish. Later Elfric translated the Saints’ Lives where the style 15 more mannered than in the Homilies. He was indeed a master of the simple and elegant style which is at the same time lucid and often alliterative. Among his other noteworthy works is his Grammar which reveals his zeal as a teacher. His Colloquy is between a teacher and pupil on one side, and representatives of the various walks of life on the other. He also translated the Heptateuch or first seven books of the Bible.

(ii) Wulfstan

He is the other memorable name in the field of Old English prose. Wulfstan was Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York, of his extant homilies the most famous is Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. This is addressed to the English when they were being persecuted by the Danes. Wulfstan makes an impassioned indictment of Athelred holding him responsible for moral and national disintegration. It is a vigorous and powerful piece of pulpit oratory – alliterative in nature and fluent in style, and throws considerable light on Wulfstan’s brilliant personality.

The prose of Alfred and of the Chronicle is simple, halting and rather obscure with a loose sentence structure and lacking the finer touches of rhythm and cadence. The later prose of Ælfric and Wulfstan is much more fluent and confident. There is found in it a remarkable use of rhetoric and alliteration. The personality of the author also becomes truly apparent.

With the death of Wulfstan the Danes became masters of the country and after a short interlude of independence, England was brought under Norman yoke. However, the extant Old English prose proves that even without the fresh, virile influence of the Norman Conquest, it would have become much the same as what it was in the nineteenth century.

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