Old English: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Old English literature started with the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century. Old English literature provides the foundation for all English Literature. Learn more about the history of Old English literature and test your knowledge with a quiz.

We also recommend watching Beowulf: Story, Characters, and Old English and Introduction to Medieval Literature: Old English, Middle English, and Historical Context


The Anglo-Saxons form the basis of English culture, religion, and language and ruled England for 600 years. The term Anglo-Saxon refers to a group of settlers from the German regions of Angeln and Saxony who took over England after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxons first introduced Old English literature in the fifth century, and from about 450-1066 is called the Old English or Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, language is the foundation of Modern English, although if untrained Modern English speakers could hear someone speaking Old English, they would not be able to understand it.

One of the first examples of literature written during the Old English period was a poem written by a man named Caedmon, who was a cattle herder around 680 A.D. Caedmon's poem survived because it was written down by a monk named Bede in 733 A.D. Many writings from Anglo-Saxon literature were preserved after being written down by clerics or others with knowledge of a story through the years.

The 'Exeter Book' is the most popular book in Old English Literature; it contains a total of 131 stories. It is the only surviving source for many popular pieces of literature written in Old English times, including 'The Wanderer,' 'The Seafarer,' and 'The Wife's Lament.'

Old English literature


The Anglo-Saxons were a pagan society, but information about their lives and culture has been told by Christian writers. Some wonder if Christian writers haven't added their own Christian twist to the stories written by Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons maintained order in their society through social means. Society was led by powerful leaders (a ring-giver, lord or lady) who rewarded their servants for various activities. Anglo-Saxons enjoyed serving their lords and found it hard to survive if they were not supported by their lords.

Women had just as much power as men did during the Anglo-Saxon period. In fact, understanding the lifestyle of the Anglo-Saxons depended on one's ability to understand the connection between men and women in society.

Songs and poetry were very important components of Anglo-Saxon society. Poetry was first told orally but was written starting in 733. Archbishops were known to sing songs to attract crowds for their sermons. One of the most valued members of Anglo-Saxon society was the scop (poet), who discussed social and cultural values in his work. Scops were responsible for maintaining a person's reputation through song after his or her death.

Christianity became important but was not easily accepted in 497 A.D. Christianity was a central part of education, but Christian concepts differed from traditional Germanic culture, which caused conflict in Germanic society. Germanic culture emphasized materialism, honor and accomplishment in life, and other things that happen while a person is living. Christianity placed an emphasis on peace rather than war, and life after death was the most important part of living. To Christians, materialism was not important. Christians believed in praising God rather than praising themselves.

Old English Literature

Anglo-Saxon poetry emphasizes the negative aspects of life including the sorrows and senseless actions of human beings. 'The Wanderer' and 'The Seafarer' are two of the most popular poems about the difficulties of life. Anglo-Saxon poetry did not rhyme but contained alliteration, the use of similar beginning sounds in a line of writing.

Beowulf is a good example of a poetry piece from Old English literature. Beowulf is the story of a brave man, Beowulf, who tried to save the people of Denmark from a monster, Grendel, who terrorized them. Beowulf defeated Grendel and Grendel's mother to become a hero to the people of Denmark.

The Wanderer

'The Wanderer' and Beowulf both emphasize the heroic pre-Christian belief that fate is all you have in life and only your name will remain death. Both stories also focus on rank and the attainment of honor in life. Christianity, on the other hand, holds the belief that life on Earth is temporary and not as important as what happens to your soul while you are living. 'The Wanderer' is a story that represents the ideas of Christianity as well as traditional Germanic beliefs. It is an elegy, a lament for something or someone lost, usually to death. It also represents the concept of Christian stoicism, the ability to endure things patiently while believing God will provide your needs. It is a story about a man who feels his life is over after losing his lord and not having anyone to protect him but eventually learns the true purpose of life outside of Earthly values.

Prose in Old English was primarily composed of religious writings. Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731) by Bede was one popular prose piece. De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) by Boethius went along with Christian thought and had a big impact on English literature as well.

Lesson Summary

Old English literature became popular in the fifth century. The Anglo-Saxons emphasized social order and stories were first told orally before being written down by clerics or others with knowledge of the story. Anglo-Saxon stories emphasized the sorrows of life and were often told by Christians. The Exeter Book is one of the most complete books of Anglo-Saxon literature; it contains hundreds of stories, including some of the most popular stories in English literature, such as 'The Wanderer,' 'The Seafarer,' and 'The Wife's Lament.'

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