Old book illustration depicting return of Old English warrior Beowulf with head of Grendel. Knights wear round helmets and sweeping mustaches, carrying poles from which monster's head is suspended.

Beowulf and company return victorious with the head of Grendel the monster.

Old English Literature Written During Anglo-Saxon Rule

Significant Historical Dates:

43-410: Roman Period
43-420: Roman invasion and occupation of Britain
410: Last Romans leave Britain, recalled to Rome by barbarian invasions
450-1066: Old English Period
Ca. 450: Anglo Saxons invade and conquer the Britons
597: St. Augustine arrives in Kent, beginning conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity
871-899: Reign of King Alfred “the Great,” who quelled Viking invaders, established power over other kings in England, and promoted books and learning.

Old English Literature

Caedmon’s Hymn, in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, created between 775-825.

Originally an oral hymn composed by a cowherd named Caedmon, this is the earliest example of a poem written in English. It was recorded much later in writing by the learned monk Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. The poem is written in Latin in some extant copies and in Anglo-Saxon in a few others. In this poem’s 18 lines readers can find, even in translations, an example of the 4-beat line typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry, in which Beowulf is also written.

Beowulf, ca. 750

This much beloved long poem tells of how the young warrior Beowulf comes to Hrothgar’s Danish kingdom to rid him and his people of the murderous monster Grendel. In the course of the tale, Beowulf fights both Grendel himself AND Grendel’s mother, eventually growing from a warrior practicing the codes of heroism to a leader capable of assuming kingship of his own land.

Multiple translations are available free online. See for instance Beowulf in Project Gutenberg here ) but many say that poet Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is the best.

Read the poem for the adventure, but also for its bold, Anglo-Saxony four-beat lines of poetry, meant to be spoken aloud, studded with wonderful figures of speech known as “kennings.” Kennings are poetic two-word phrases that bring plain words to life, such as “Bone-locks,” meaning muscles, or “slaughter-storm,” meaning a bloody battle.

Some folk out there have devoted some time to learning “Klingon,” a wholly imaginary language. If that imaginary language is to your taste, you may enjoy learning some Old English.  Old English as written in Beowulf sounds grand and bold, appropriate for chanting before, during, and after a battle, or in many other moods.

Author unknown, Dream of the Rood, age unknown—possibly 7th century

One of the oldest surviving poems in Old English, this devotional poem’s speaker is a dreamer who experiences the crucifixion of Christ from the point of view of the cross.

Index of Literary Timelines

Middle Ages English Literature