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   Writings in the Old English period

Writings in West Saxon

The documents which have survived from the Old English period are clearly only a fraction of what was originally composed or translated. For instance for the large central area of Mercia (between the Humber and the Thames) there is relatively little available, probably because of the havoc wreaked in the monasteries by the Viking invaders as of the late 8th century. What documents there are reflect the political dominance of the regions throughout the Old English period. Very roughly one can maintain that there was a general displacement of political power from north to south with Northumbria dominant in the 7th, Mercia in the 8th and West Saxony (south of the Thames) after the 9th century.

Runic inscriptions

The Runic alphabet was a development of an alphabet — probably from south-central Europe — in the early centuries AD and which was used for inscriptional and perhaps secretive purposes.

Franks Casket A box of whalebone from ca. 650 discovered in Auzon, France by the archaeologist Sir Augustus Franks. The text it contains consists of fragments from the Bible and some Germanic and Roman material.

Ruthwell Cross This is a stone artefact from ca. 750 located in a church in Dumfries, Scotland. It also shows fragments of a text which correspond to the West-Saxon poem Dream of the Rood.


There are early non-Runic texts for Old English which can be termed collectively Mercian glossaries and consist of the following individual texts.

Épinal Glossary Manuscript from Épinal in France. Dates from about 695.

Corpus Glossary Manuscript in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Dates from about 700.

Erfurt Glossary A collection of glosses, transcribed by a German scribe in eastern Germany, from about 800.

Rushworth Gospel Glosses on the gospel according to Matthew. There are later glosses on the gospels according to Mark, Luke and John, known collectively as Rushworth 2 (as opposed to the earlier Rushworth 1).

Vespasian Psalter Glosses from around 800. Somewhat later one has the glosses in the Durham Ritual and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Other early texts come from about the mid 8th century, e.g the two poems Bede's Death Song and Cædmon's Hymn (about the first Christian poet in England in the late 7th century, a lay brother from a rural background — the hymn is also available in a later West-Saxon rendering). For the Old English dialect of Kent (deriving from early Jute settlers) there are some religious texts along with documents such as charters and wills.

Writings in West-Saxon


The main dialect of Old English, West-Saxon, is best atttested given the politically dominant position of this region in later times, particularly during the Viking period (roughly from the 9th century onwards) when it remained outside the sphere of Norse influence.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a record of contemporary military and political events which was started by King Alfred and continued — with more or less serious interruptions — until the 12th century. There are seven surviving manuscripts. Two of the best known are the Parker Chronicle (once in the possession of the 16th century Archbishop Matthew Parker) and the Peterborough Chronicle which was copied by monks at Peterborough.

King Alfred is known not just for his military leadership against the Viking intruders in England but also for his reformatory zeal. In connection with the revival of monastic life which he initiated should be seen the many translations which he made — or rather had made. Among these are the following works written originally in Latin of course.

Cura Pastoralis, ca. 893 by Pope Gregory (540-604) which has a preface by Alfred himself and which offers insight into the cultural situation of his time.

Historia mundi adversus paganos by Orosius (ca. 380-420) is a history of the world including a report of travel abroad by the Englishman Wulfstan to Estmere (the Baltic Sea).

De consolatione philosophiae ‘The consolation of philosophy’ This is the major work by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius (480-524) written while he was (wrongly) imprisoned.

Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum This is the major historical work of the Old English period, written by the Northumbrian monk Bede (Beda Venerabilis. ca. 672-735) from whom stems the account of the original invasion of England by Hengest and Horsa, two Jute leaders in the mid 5th century.


The main literary piece from the Old English period is the epic poem Beowulf. There is much debate about date and source of the poem. Many authors assume that it was written in Mercian or Northumbrian in the 8th century; others assume that it was purely oral before being committed to writing later. The surviving manuscript is from ca. 1000 and is written in West Saxon. Certain facts do however allow a relative chronology for the poem: it was definitely composed after the 7th century as it contains many Christian elements.

Apart from this epic there are many shorter poems such as The Battle of Maldon (after an actual battle fought in 991 in Essex), The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood and The Rune Poem. Cynewulf (8th - 9th century) is a Northumbrian whose name appears after some poems in two Old English collections, The Exeter Book (ca. 975) and The Vercelli Book (10th century).

The major author of the Old English period is an abbot at Winchester named Ælfric (ca. 955-1020) who composed both religious and secular texts such as his Sermons, his Lives of the Saints and a Latin Grammar. He also wrote a number of conversational exchanges for educational purposes in Latin and English, his Colloquy.

Another named author of the Old English period is Bishop Wulfstan (died 1023) who worked at York and is the author of Sermo lupi ad Anglos ‘Sermon to the English’ (1014).