The Middle Ages is like no other period in terms of the time span it covers. Caedmon's Hymn, the earliest English poem to survive as a text, belongs to the latter part of the VII century. The morality play, Everyman, is dated "after 1485" and probably belongs to the early-XVI century. In addition, for the Middle Ages, there is no one central movement or event to organize a historical approach to the period. When did "English Literature" begin? Any answer to that question must be problematic, for the very concept of English literature is a construction of literary history, a concept that changed over time. There are no "English" characters in Beowulf, and English scholars and authors had no knowledge of the poem before it was discovered and edited in the XIX century. Although written in the language called "Anglo-Saxon," the poem was claimed by Danish and German scholars as their earliest national epic before it came to be thought of as an "Old English" poem. One of the results of the Norman Conquest was that the structure and vocabulary of the English language changed to such an extent that Chaucer, even if he had come across a manuscript of Old English poetry, would have experienced far more difficulty construing the language than with medieval Latin, French, or Italian. If a King Arthur had actually lived, he would have spoken a Celtic language possibly still intelligible to native speakers of Middle Welsh but not to Middle English speakers. Old English literature encompasses literature written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), from the mid-5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. These works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles, riddles, and others. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period in both Latin and the vernacular, a significant corpus of both popular interest and specialist research. Among the most important works of this period is the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle otherwise proves significant to study of the era, preserving a chronology of early English history, while the poem Cædmon's Hymn from the 7th century survives as the oldest extant work of literature in English. Old English literature is among the oldest vernacular languages to be written down. Old English began, in written form, as a practical necessity in the aftermath of the Danish invasions—church officials were concerned that because of the drop in Latin literacy no one could read their work. Likewise King Alfred the Great (849–899), wanting to restore English culture, lamented the poor state of Latin education: King Alfred proposed that students be educated in Old English, and those who excelled would go on to learn Latin. In this way many of the texts that have survived are typical teaching and student-oriented texts. Manuscripts have been highly prized by collectors since the 16th century, both for their historic value and for their aesthetic beauty of uniformly spaced letters and decorative elements. Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous, with some exceptions.
Early National Poems the work of Minstrels.
THE poetry of the Old English period is generally grouped in two main divisions, national and Christian. To the former are assigned those poems of which the subjects are drawn from English, or rather Teutonic, tradition and history or from the customs and conditions of English life; to the latter those which deal with Biblical matter, ecclesiastical traditions and religious subjects of definitely Christian origin. The line of demarcation is not, of course, absolutely fixed. Most of the national poems in their present form contain Christian elements, while English influence often makes itself felt in the presentation of Biblical or ecclesiastical subjects. But, on the whole, the division is a satisfactory one, in spite of the...
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