In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cynewulf

  • Introduction
  • Complete Editions and Translations of Cynewulf’s Corpus
  • General Studies of Cynewulf’s Writings
  • Date and Language of Cynewulf’s Writings
  • Cynewulf’s Runic Signatures

Medieval Studies Cynewulf
Christina M. Heckman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0312


Cynewulf is one of only two poets, along with Cædmon, mentioned by name as composers of religious verse during the Old English period. Little is known about Cynewulf aside from the runic signatures concluding the four poems attributed to him: The Fates of the Apostles, Christ II (The Ascension), Juliana, and Elene. Cynewulf’s language suggests an association with the English midlands, and his writings have been most often dated to the ninth century, although some critics argue for a later date; see also Date and Language of Cynewulf’s Writings. In his signed poems, Cynewulf utilizes runes in acrostic passages to spell out his name; these passages also meditate on the transitory nature of earthly life, contemplate the coming Judgment, and request the reader’s prayers for the poet’s soul. Most of Cynewulf’s signed poems, written in alliterative verse, belong to the broader genre of hagiography, “the writing of the sacred” or the legends of the saints. While The Fates of the Apostles presents a brief martyrology, Juliana and Elene incorporate longer hagiographical narratives. Christ II (The Ascension) focuses not on the lives of the saints but rather on the Ascension of Christ; it has therefore frequently been associated with two other poems not currently attributed to Cynewulf, Christ I and Christ III. In composing his four signed poems, Cynewulf depends strongly on Latin sources but diverges from them frequently, expanding on his material to provide exegetical insight into scripture, examine theological problems, develop unique personae, and celebrate his Germanic cultural milieu. In recent years, his poetry has received significant attention for the fearless speech and conduct of his saintly heroines, Elene (Helen), the mother of the emperor Constantine, and Juliana, a virgin martyr, both of whom lived in the fourth century CE. Cynewulf has also received significant recent critical attention for his complex portrayal of Jews and Judaism; see Representations of Jews in Elene. For discussion of relevant historical and literary contexts, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles “Pre-Conquest England,” “English Prosody,” and “Old English Religious Poetry.”

Complete Editions and Translations of Cynewulf’s Corpus

These editions and translations incorporate all four of Cynewulf’s signed poems. For editions and translations of individual poems, including the standard Old English texts published in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records editions, see The Fates of the Apostles, Christ II (The Ascension), Juliana, and Elene. Bradley 1991 has long been used by students seeking the widest selection of surviving Old English poems, but Williamson 2017 has now provided an even more complete collection in modern English alliterative verse. Bjork 2013 incorporates a facing-page edition and translation, allowing students to compare the Old English text and Bjork’s rendering of Cynewulf’s texts into modern English.

  • Bjork, Robert E., ed. The Old English Poems of Cynewulf. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

    Incorporates all four of Cynewulf’s signed poems into one volume with facing-page translation, including notes on the translation but no glossary. It is nevertheless a useful and accessible resource for undergraduates, especially those learning Old English and/or studying Cynewulf’s full poetic corpus. Bjork also includes Guthlac B, a hagiographical poem in the Exeter Book that lacks an ending and a runic signature but is sometimes attributed to Cynewulf.

  • Bradley, S. A. J., ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: J.M. Dent, 1991.

    Long used in undergraduate courses due to its wide selection of Old English poems. Because all translations are not complete, however, and all are in prose, this volume has now been surpassed by the alliterative verse translations in Williamson 2017.

  • Williamson, Craig, trans. The Complete Old English Poems. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

    With a comprehensive introduction by Tom Shippey, this volume incorporates translations of all extant Old English poems in modern English alliterative verse, providing an introduction for each poem and a bibliography. Since this collection includes the full poetic corpus in Old English, it is an extremely valuable resource for undergraduates and anyone studying Old English language and literature.

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