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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Critical Studies
  • Dictionaries and Grammars
  • Anglo-Latin, Old Norse, and Insular French
  • Material Culture
  • Style and Meter

British and Irish Literature Old English Literature
Elaine Treharne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0046


Old English literature covers the period from c. 600 to 1220, when the latest living versions of Old English texts are found side by side with new texts written in what is generally labeled “Middle English.” During these centuries and particularly from the end of the 9th century, Old English flourished in substantial quantity and in a multitude of genres and forms, representing the most significant body of vernacular literature of any European country at the time. Its officially authorized status—its use by government and church—meant that as a language of expression, it could be employed for all kinds of writing, much of it of exceptionally high quality. Manuscripts and documents containing prose from the 7th to the 13th centuries include Gospels and Old Testament translations, legal texts, chronicles, romance, paraliturgical writings, letters, writs and diplomas, religious and educational works, and scientific and medical literature; as well as the prose, there is a considerable corpus of poetry inviting the lauding and applauding of heroic deeds, urging the audience’s spiritual contemplation and Christian action, demanding an empathetic response to loss, and beseeching the solution of witty and multilayered verse puzzles.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

There are a significant number of overviews of Old English literature principally published as companions, handbooks, and histories in the last twenty years. Some of the earliest are still among the best, including Greenfield and Calder 1986, which is a valuable survey of both English and Latin literature up to 1100, and Godden and Lapidge 1991, a genre-based collection of essays by leading scholars at that time. These volumes are restricted to a rather narrow view of what constitutes Old English, focusing on prose from the Alfredian and Benedictine Reform periods and on the poetic corpus and barely including works produced after c. 1020, but they can be supplemented with encyclopedic volumes such as Godden, et al. 1999. More recent collections have sought to address the somewhat narrow focus of earlier volumes and have treated Old and Middle English literature together (as “Medieval” properly should do) or have extended the treatment of Old English into the 12th century. Recent volumes have also been mindful of the multilingual nature of Anglo-Saxon England. The contributions in Pulsiano and Treharne 2001 are arranged by genre but include analyses of the history of Old English literature up to the present day, while Fulk and Cain 2003 treats Old English in its broader literary and historical context, paying close attention to critical debate. Johnson and Treharne 2005 provides case studies of close textual reading. Treharne and Walker 2010 includes themed essays that range across the period, bringing together Old and Middle English in some cases. Magennis 2011 investigates canonical texts from the period but also includes a chapter on how Old English has fared from the 12th to the 21st centuries.

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

    Useful study that considers Old English alongside Anglo-Latin and seeks to historically contextualize literary production. Includes an interesting essay, “Saints’ Lives” (pp. 87–105), by Rachel Andersen.

  • Godden, Malcolm, Simon Keynes, Michael Lapidge, and Donald Scragg, eds. Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

    Extensive volume of encyclopedia entries of varying length but equally good quality. Essential reading for all students of Old English.

  • Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521374383

    Groundbreaking in its day for consciously setting out to cover major genres in Old English, collection of focused, thoughtful and important essays on the field, including a useful study of meter and a significant study of “transience” in early literature.

  • Greenfield, Stanley, and Daniel Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

    An innovative and authoritative collection that intelligently discusses all major categories of Old English literature and provides a valuable introduction to Anglo-Latin works.

  • Johnson, David F., and Elaine M. Treharne, eds. Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Includes specially commissioned essays, each of which provides a varied set of introductions to methods of textual interpretation by focusing on individual case studies and the broader application of critical approaches. Aimed at undergraduates and their teachers.

  • Magennis, Hugh. The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Consciously setting out to contextualize literature produced during the Anglo-Saxon period, this volume provides user-friendly framing chapters to orient the newcomer to the historical and intellectual background of literary production. Also includes dedicated discussion of the major Anglo-Latin writers and of the reception of early literature in the centuries since its creation.

  • Old English Newsletter. 1967–.

    Important newsletter that contains short publications, many useful for teaching, news about publications and forthcoming research, and an annual evaluative bibliography. Should be one of the first stopping-off points for scholars.

  • Pulsiano, Phillip, and Elaine M. Treharne, eds. A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631209041.2001.x

    Extensive collection of contributions focusing on historical context and literary genres and offering detailed readings of canonical and noncanonical texts from scientific prose to sapiential literature. Important chapters on manuscript culture, the Old English elegies, and Old English in modern academia.

  • Treharne, Elaine M., and Greg Walker, eds. Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Large volume with three dozen essays, many of which fold Old and Middle English literature into cogent, themed discussions. Includes significant essays on heroic literature, wisdom texts, and manuscript production.

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