In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Old English Religious Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

Medieval Studies Old English Religious Poetry
Frederick M. Biggs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 December 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0065


The surviving vernacular poetry from the Anglo-Saxon period is mostly religious, much of it overtly so. The more secular pieces usually associated with the church have survived because of their inclusion in manuscripts created or preserved in religious institutions. Even works such as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” once seen as expressing the world of the comitatus (originally, military officers who agreed to support their leader to the death), are now recognized as more consistently pious in their messages. Yet in order to provide a background to the field as a whole, this section begins with obviously religious works, emphasizing those examples that have attracted the most scholarly attention. With their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons acquired a vast and diverse collection of stories written in the Bible and other sacred texts and proclaimed orally through the liturgy and preaching. They also inherited the belief that understanding these narratives was essential to lead good lives and to ensure salvation. Although much of Christianity was still new, Old English poets adapted their own poetic language with its traditional themes to this material, often selecting subjects that would fit within existing conventions. It is not surprising, then, that much vernacular poetry is both narrative and didactic and can be grouped under the general categories Biblical Poetry, Poems about Christ, and Saints’ Lives. Finally, Other Christian Themes offers some indication of the prevalence of Christian themes in other works. These divisions, it should be noted, do not reflect an explicit, contemporary understanding of these poems; however, individual authors and compilers of manuscripts may have perceived what we would identify as the generic expectations of their vernacular and Latin sources, at times manipulating these to good effect. Authors referenced in this article have merely attempted to gather somewhat similar kinds of poems in order to call attention to their differences.

General Overviews

Lack of precise information concerning the date and place of composition of almost all Old English poems remains a problem for literary histories of the period that runs roughly from Augustine of Canterbury’s mission in 597 to the Norman Conquest in 1066; see Fulk and Cain 2003 (especially pp. 36–37), which does not develop Fulk’s earlier chronology based on meter. Instead the authors have, after a discussion of the Alfredian period, structured their overview around different kinds of writings, such as “Homilies” and “Saints’ Legends,” combining prose and poetry when relevant as well as works in Latin. Earlier, Greenfield and Calder 1986 began with a chapter on the Anglo-Latin background (written by Michael Lapidge) and then separated the prose from the poetry. Garde 1990 focuses on vernacular poems that the author arranges to follow Christian chronology from Creation to the Last Judgment; a limitation of this study is its insistence that all Old English religious poetry is similarly historical and doctrinal, concerned with teaching only basic Christian beliefs and resistant to more sophisticated exegetical or allegorical interpretation. For a demonstration of the different kinds of Christian traditions behind poems with similar names (“Christ I,” “II,” and “III”), see Hill 1986 (cited under Poems about Christ), which proposes writing literary history around the study of sources. A very different and potentially illuminating approach to understanding religious poetry is suggested in Conner 1993, which focuses on the compilation of one manuscript, the Exeter Book, linking what Conner believes are distinct booklets to three moments (before, during, and after the 10th-century Benedictine Reform) in the history of the monastery at Exeter. Some of Conner’s basic arguments, however, have been challenged; see, in particular, Gameson 1996. Theories explaining the compilations of other vernacular poetic manuscripts, which tie them to a variety of religious contexts, have been advanced and may be represented in Hall 2002 (and the reprinted version of Hall’s earlier essay, which appears in the same collection), a discussion of the unity of the Junius Manuscript; see also Orchard 1995 (cited under Beowulf). The only named poet from the period who has left behind a substantial body of poetry (“Christ II,” “Elene,” “Fates of the Apostles,” and “Juliana”) is Cynewulf, whose work is examined in Bjork 1996. Finally, for a discussion whose tone is set early by the assertion that “the days of Robertsonian patristic exegesis presenting, in the main, a programme of Christian apologetic are past” (p. 252), see Conner 2001.

  • Bjork, Robert E., ed. Cynewulf: Basic Readings. New York: Garland, 1996.

    This book includes eighteen essays, including the four Cynewulf poems, and chapters on “Poet, Canon, Date” and “Signature, Style.” Bjork calls attention at the beginning of his introduction to two previous books on Cynewulf by Daniel G. Calder (Cynewulf, Boston: Twayne, 1981) and Earl R. Anderson (Cynewulf: Structure, Style and Theme in His Poetry, Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983) not represented in his collection but which he identifies as essential reading for all interested in this poet.

  • Conner, Patrick W. Anglo-Saxon Exeter: A Tenth-Century Cultural History. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1993.

    Relying primarily on manuscript evidence, Conner argues that Exeter had a thriving monastery in the 10th century and that the Exeter Book was written there, reflecting Sidemann’s influence. He combines codicological and literary analysis to claim that the manuscript is divided into booklets written before, during, and after the reform. The evidence is impressionistic, requiring further study before it can be accepted.

  • Conner, Patrick W. “Religious Poetry.” In A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Phillip Pulsiano and Elaine M. Treharne, 251–267. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631209041.2001.00015.x

    In an effort to prevent the analysis of these poems from becoming “a religious exercise” (p. 266), Conner builds his essay around the anthropological definition of religion offered by Geertz. The result is a series of statements about individual poems that remain very general. See, however, other essays in this collection, in particular, Thomas Hall, “Biblical and Patristic Learning,” and Charles D. Wright, “The Irish Tradition.”

  • Fulk, R. D., and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    This book begins with a discussion of the chronology and varieties of Old English literature, followed by a discussion of the Alfredian material. Other topics include Saints’ legends (a chapter by Rachel S. Anderson); biblical literature; liturgical and devotional texts; legal, scientific, and scholastic works; wisdom literature and lyric poetry; and, finally, Germanic legend and heroic lay, which mentions Christian influence in Beowulf and “The Battle of Maldon.”

  • Gameson, Richard. “The Origin of the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England 25 (1996): 135–186.

    A detailed study of the inventory by Leofric, the bishop of Exeter, the 10th-century manuscripts most closely linked to the Exeter Book, and the wider corpus of 10th- and early-11th-century English manuscripts that argues strongly against Conner’s central claim, an Exeter origin for this manuscript, placing it instead in Canterbury. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Garde, Judith N. Old English Poetry in Medieval Christian Perspective: A Doctrinal Approach. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1990.

    Garde asserts that this poetry might be understood better not as “abstract theology,” but “as an extra-liturgical, vernacular celebration of a singular redemptive fact: that Almighty God chose to descend, incarnate in Christ, to deliver mankind from the bondage of Satan” (p. 6). She considers the Junius Manuscript, “Christ I,” “The Dream of the Rood,” the “Descent into Hell,” “Christ II,” “Elene,” “Christ III,” and the “Phoenix.”

  • Greenfield, Stanley B., and Daniel G. Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. With a Survey of the Anglo-Latin Background by Michael Lapidge. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

    Originally published in 1966. The final chapters of this standard survey are concerned all or in part with religious poems: “The Christian Saint as Hero,” “Christ as Poetic Hero,” “Old Testament Narrative Poetry,” “Miscellaneous Religious and Secular Poetry,” “Lore and Wisdom,” and “Elegiac Poetry.”

  • Hall, J. R. “‘The Old English Epic of Redemption’: Twenty-Five-Year Retrospective.” In The Poems of MS Junius 11: Basic Readings. Edited by R. M. Liuzza, 53–68. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Hall affirms his claim that the poems in the Junius Manuscript are organized around the tradition of salvation history found in Augustine’s De catechizandis rudibus and Wulfstan’s Sermo 6 by answering criticism that the Easter liturgy provides a more likely principle of organization and that “Christ and Satan” was not originally intended as part of the volume.

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