Article

Old English Religious Poetry

Frederick M. Biggs

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online June 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0065
Old English Religious Poetry

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
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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.

Article.  17580 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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