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This Companion has been thoroughly revised to take account of recent scholarship and to provide a clear and accessible introduction for those encountering Old English literature for the first time. Including seventeen essays by distinguished scholars, this new edition provides a discussion of the literature of the period 600 to 1066 in the context of how Anglo-Saxon society functioned. New chapters cover topics including preaching and teaching, Beowulf and literacy, and a further five chapters have been revised and updated, including those on the Old English language, perceptions of eternity and Anglo-Saxon learning. An additional concluding chapter on Old English after 1066 offers an overview of the study and cultural influences of Old English literature to the present day. Finally, the further reading list has been overhauled to incorporate the most up-to-date scholarship in the field and the latest electronic resources for students.
Three key Alfredian texts were issued in or around the year 893: Asser's Life of King Alfred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the prose preface to the Old English Pastoral Care. Together the three texts provide extensive testimony about King Alfred as ruler, warleader, saint, scholar and educator, and from at least the twelfth century historians were combining those three texts and reconciling their differences in order to develop a comprehensive account of the king. But how much of this testimony is fact and how much myth or spin has always been difficult to tell. The Alfredian myth had begun already in the king's own lifetime, as Simon Keynes has pointed out, and it developed quickly in the succeeding century. In the attempt to reconcile the stories and establish a core of possible historical truth, it is easy to distort what the accounts actually say and to miss their particular narrative logic, their often highly creative and individual constructions of the king's life and achievements and their imaginative re-use of literary traditions. Asser's Life and Alfred's preface to the Pastoral Care both have much to say on the subject of education and scholarship, and there is a fair amount of common ground. Both have things to say about the king's own abilities and scholarship, about his concerns for the education of others, about his recruitment of foreign teachers, about the provision of schools, and about the availability of vernacular books.
The Old English Life of St Neot has been generally dated to the twelfth century and dismissed as a late and derivative work. The article argues that it was written much earlier, in the first few decades of the eleventh century, and is both a significant example of late Old English hagiographic literature and an important witness to early legends about King Alfred and his posthumous reputation.
The term literary language can be used in various senses, reflecting the different meanings of the word literature, and the area of discourse usefully designated by it will vary from one period to another. For the period up to 1100 there is little value in applying the broad and etymological sense of the word ‘literary’ or ‘literature’, meaning ‘all that is written down’ in contradistinction to oral discourse: to do so risks, on the one hand, excluding poetry, since the special language of verse was largely developed without benefit of writing and a number of the surviving poems probably originated in oral conditions; and on the other hand, including too much to be useful, since virtually all our evidence for the language of the time, at all levels, comes from written documents. At the other extreme, a more restricted definition of literature as imaginative composition would be in danger of excluding much that is worth attention and including some texts of little linguistic or literary interest because they happen to deal with imaginary fictions. I use the term ‘literary language’ here to cover the language of all verse and of the more sustained and ambitious writing in prose, especially those texts which reveal a concern with the selection and use of language.