3. Old English: The Old English Corpus

  • Literary ‘dark ages’ – between the arrival the Anglo Saxons (5th c. AD) and the first Old English manuscripts (8th c. AD)
    • The scattered runic inscriptions  (5-6th c. AD) give very little info about the language
  • Literary age – beginning late 6th c., with the arrival of Roman missionaries (starting with Augustine, 597 in Kent)
    • Increases in monastic centers ⇒ large numbers of  Latin manuscripts being produced (especially the Bible and other religious texts)
  • Old English manuscripts  began to be written as well due to the literary climate
    • 1st texts dated around 700 = glossaries of Latin words translated to OE, inscriptions, and poems
    • Viking invasions – very few manuscripts remain to this day, most likely due to being burned during Viking invasions (8th c.)
  • The corpus of Old English
    • The number of words in the corpus is only 3.5 million (compiled by the Univ. of Toronto), which contains all texts (not the alternative manuscripts of a text)
      • “the equivalent of about 30 medium-sized modern novels.” About 5% of this is poetry (about 30,000 lines)
    • In existence:
      • Beowulf – the chief literary work of the period, likely composed around 850, but survives in a single copy created around the year 1000 (composition date is highly controversial)
      • Short poems, almost entirely late manuscripts
        • Over half concerned with Christian subjects
        • Several on Germanic tradition (topics: war, traveling, patriotism, and celebration)
      • Most extant works were produced following the reign of King Alfred (849-899). He arranged for many Latin words to be translated (e.g. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History)


  • St. Augustine did not bring Christianity to Britain
    • The Romans brought it in 4th c., given official status in the Roman Empire
    • St. Patrick, a Briton, converted Ireland to Christianity (early 5th c.)
  • Augustine’s task was to convert the Anglo-Saxons
    • Went to Kent and welcomed by King AEthelberht and wife, a (Celtic) Christian. The king was converted in a year, 3 bishops established by the end of the decade with Augustine as archbishop of Canterbury.
  • After Augustine’s death (604/605), much tension over religious practices between the Roman Christians and their Celtic counterparts (who lived in isolation from the Romans)
    • Came to a head over the date of Easter – resolved, in favor of Rome (664)
  • Linguistic differences caused difficulty in developing the faith
    • According to Bede: 50 years before Anglo-Saxon was used as a missionary language
    • King Egbert (Kent, 664) made a special plea to appoint an Anglo-Saxon speaking bishop
      • “so that with prelate of his own nation and language, the king and his subjects might be more perfectly instructed in the words and mysteries of the faith.”
      • This issue would be raised again in English language history

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