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Writings in early English

Both poetry and prose have survived in manuscript form since Old English times, though hardly huge amount of either. One must bear in mind that at that time literacy was a scarce facility, confined mostly to clerics. The copying of books was carried out by hand, and producing and owning any manuscript was a costly business reserved for the privileged few. Moreover, it was not self-evident that works should be written in English at all, since Latin was the language of learning.

English was the first of the European languages of the time to develop a respectable written prose tradition. Much of the Old English prose that survives is translated from Latin, such as King Alfred’s translations of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed around 731 AD), Pope Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and Orosius’ history. Parts of the Old Testament, some of the Psalms and the Gospels were translated into Old English. Thus, most of the prose we have from this period is religious in nature. However, a few fragments of prose fiction do survive, including Apollonius of Tyre, Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle and Wonders of the East.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was also most likely instigated by King Alfred. It survives in seven manuscript versions and is a continuous record of annual events, starting with the first landing of Julius Caesar (55 BC) and ending with the coronation of Henry II in 1154. But no one knows exactly when, or by whom, it was started, though the oldest chronicle, the Parker Chronicle, indicates that it may have been started in 891.

There is also a considerable body of religious prose writing from Abbot Ælfric and Bishop Wulfstan.

There also survive a number of genealogies, glossaries to Latin works, laws, charters, letters, leech books and herbal catalogues.

The 30,000 lines of Old English poetry that survive today come down to us from the tenth and eleventh centuries, and are for the most part contained in four manuscripts:

1) The British Museum manuscript of Beowulf and Judith which is part of the 17th-century (Robert) Cotton manuscript collection, and which is referred to as MS Vitellius A 15. It also contains several prose texts.

2) The Bodleian manuscript, called Junius XI after Franz Junius, who gave the manuscript to Oxford University in the 17th c. This manuscript includes Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan.

3) The Exeter Book or Codex Exoniensis at Exeter Cathedral, which contains a large collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry dating approximately from 970 to 990; there are also two later editions. The main text contains 123 pages with the originals of Phoenix, Julian, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Widsith, Deor, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament and The Husband’s Message. It also contains a number of maxims, Maxim I, and The Cotton Gnomes (Maxims II).

4) The Vercelli Book, Codex Vercellis, from the cathedral library of Vercelli, Italy. This manuscript contains The Dream of the Rood, Elene, The Fates of the Apostles, and Address of the Soul to the Body. In it are also found a number of prose homilies and the Life of Guthlac.

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