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Class Old English and Middle English Literature

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Class 1. Old English and Middle English Literature

Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum
þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hû þâ äðelingas ellen fremedon.


Complete the right-hand side of the chart with information.

British history Literature

55 ВС

Invasion by Julius Caesar.

Britain becomes a trading outpost of the

Roman Empire.

AD 43

Under Emperor Claudius, Britain comes

under full Roman political and military



Roman forces withdrawn.


Angles, Saxons and Jutes descend on Britain.


St Augustine brings Roman Christianity to Britain.


Norwegian sea-raiders sack the monastery at Lindisfarne


Danish raids.


Reign of King Alfred the Great.


Britain conquered by the Normans.

^ Norman monarchs


William I.


William II.


Henry I.




(Anjou) monarchs


Henry II. Efficient ruler who carried out

much legal reform. Conquest of Ireland.

Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury,

assassinated by king's knights (1170).


Richard I.


John. Forced to sign the Magna Carta (1215)

guaranteeing such rights as freedom from

arbitrary imprisonment.


Henry III. Rebellion by Simon de Montfort

led to establishment of Great Council, from

which Parliament later developed.


Edward I. Conquest of Wales.


Edward II. Defeated by Scots (1314).


Edward III. Hundred Years War with France

began (1338). Black Death struck England

(1348-1349), reducing the population by

between one-third and a half.


Richard II. Neglect of war with France.

Period of disorder. Peasants' revolt, led by

Wat Tyler (1381).

^ The House

of Lancaster


Henry IV.


Henry V. After great victory over French at

Agincourt (1415), recognised as heir to the

throne of France. Great national hero.


Henry VI. Defeat in France to end Hundred

Years War (1453). Wars of Roses began (1455).

Theoretical part

Define the following terms:

  • minstrel;

  • epic poem;

  • alliteration;

  • caesura;

  • kenning;

  • romance;

State the difference between epic poem and novel.

Read Mikhail Bakhtin's work and find out features of epic poem (Бахтин М. Эпос и роман (О методологии исследования романа) //

How does “Beowulf” fit the definition of an epic? Be sure to define an epic, and mention Beowulf’s context in Anglo-Saxon society, the Anglo-Saxon earthly virtues and the characteristics of an epic hero.

^ Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Battle of Maldon has been called the greatest battle poem in English. It is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poem by an unknown poet. It describes a battle between the English and Viking warriors from Denmark in ad 991 at Maldon in Essex on the River Blackwater, then called the River Pantan.

The Danish invaders are on the island of Northey at the mouth of the river waiting for the tide to go out. Byrhtnoth, the earl of Essex, is at the head of the English warriors on the mainland. A messenger from the Danes offers peace if they pay a sum of money. Byrhtnoth, however, rejects the offer. Then the tide begins to go out and Byrhtnoth, far too confident, is tricked into letting the enemy cross to the mainland.

Read a modern English verse translation. Then look at the first part again in the original Anglo-Saxon. Find features of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Choose 2-3 lines; define caesura and divide each line to half-lines, then find in each line 2 accented syllables. Use translation and find examples of kenning.

It may be useful to listen to Old English text. Try the following link:

(Reading of the given extract starts at 0.23 min)

Wōdon þā wælwulfas     (for wætere ne murnon),
  wīċinga werod     west ofer Pantan,
  ofer scīr wæter     scyldas wēgon,
  lidmen tō lande     linde bǣron.
100 Þǣr onġēan gramum     ġearowe stōdon
  Byrhtnōð mid beornum;     hē mid bordum hēt
  wyrċan þone wīhagan     and þæt werod healdan
  fæste wið fēondum.     Þā wæs feohte nēh
  tīr æt ġetohte.     Wæs sēo tīd cumen
105 þæt þǣr fǣġe men     feallan sceoldon.
  Þǣr wearð hrēam āhafen.     Hremmas wundon,
  earn ǣses ġeorn.     Wæs on eorþan ċyrm.
  Hī lēton þā of folman     fēolhearde speru,
  ġegrundene     gāras flēogan.

The wolves of war advanced, the viking troop,

Unmoved by water, westward over Pante,

Over the gleaming water bore their shields.

The seamen brought their linden-shields to land.

There Byrhtnoth and his warriors stood ready

to meet their enemies. He told his troops

To make a shield wall and to hold it fast

Against their foes. So battle with it's glory

Drew near. The time had come for fated men

To perish in that place. A cry went up.

The ravens wheeled above, the fateful eagle

Keen for his carrion. On earth was uproar.

They let the file-hard spears fly from their fists,

Grimly-ground darts; and bows were busy too.


Characters and plot

  • Describe how you see the relationships between the warriors and their lord in Beowulf.

  • What qualities should a king possess?

  • Who is Scyld? Where does he come from? Where does he go? What does he do? Why does the poem begin here, rather than with Hrothgar and Grendel?

  • Who is Beowulf? Describe Beowulf's character. How do you compare him with Hrothgar as the king?  How do you contrast the young and old Beowulf? Prepare quotes from the text.

  • Evaluate whether Beowulf is an Epic Hero.

  • Discuss whether Beowulf fulfills the Anglo-Saxon Earthly Virtues. They are: Bravery, Loyalty, Generosity, Friendship.

  • Discuss whether Wiglaf / Hrothgar is an Epic Hero and fulfills the Anglo-Saxon Earthly Virtues.

  • Who is Unferth, and why is he so hostile to Beowulf? Why is he allowed to speak that way?

  • What significance does "treasure" have to kings and warriors?  In Beowulf's last speeches, he will again touch on the importance of treasure. Why is treasure important?

  • What is the status of gold and gift-giving in the poem? Who gives gifts, who receives them, and why? Are the modern concepts of wealth, payment, monetary worth and greed appropriate for the world of Beowulf?

  • Wealhtheow, Hygd, Hildeburh, Grendel’s mother – what do the female characters in Beowulf do? Do they offer alternatives perspectives on the heroic world (so seemingly centered around male action) of the poem? Discuss Wealthow’s position in society.

Christian and Pagan elements

  • Give some examples of the Christian elements in Beowulf. Find passages in which it is clear that the monks who transcribed the tale added their own Christian viewpoint to the story. What biblical events are mentioned, and who mentions them? How do the characters see their relationship to God (or the gods)?

  • Give some examples of the pagan (non-Christian) elements in Beowulf. What specifically pagan practices (sacrifice, burial, augury, etc.) are described?

  • Which influence is stronger in Beowulf, the pagan or the Christian?

  • Look at the religious references in the poem: what are the names for God? Why would a Christian author write a poem about a pagan hero?

  • Does the heroic code expressed in Beowulf conflict with a Christian sensibility?

Two worlds in Beowulf:

  • Building of Heoroth – centre of heroic world; its things – weapons (named), pieces of furniture, decorations; Trace the history of the hall Heorot – why was it built, what happened within its walls, how and by whom was it destroyed?

  • Grendel’s home and way to it.

Heroic feasts as a ritual action:

  • Feast of Hrothgar;

  • Feast in the Geats’ place (1975);

  • Feast of the Frisians;

  • Following a feast or a happy event, the poet always foretells a disaster or a war and vice versa.   What do you think about the purpose of this arrangement?

Models of behavior:

  • guests sit according to their position;

  • king gives gifts (1192—1201);

  • queen appears (614—630, 1980—1983);

  • songs and what songs were about (89—98, 497, 867—880, 1063—1070), (150—160);

  • притча Хродгара о губительной силе власти (1724);

  • oral battle: словесный поединок (from 500).

Battles of Beowulf. Rituals. Narration.

  • Battle with Grendel, feast of Grendel in Heoroth – destroying the world;

  • Battle with Grehndel’s mother;

  • Last battle of Beowulf. Where does the dragon come from? Why does he attack the Geats? Is the dragon a greater or lesser threat than Grendel? Why does Beowulf go to fight him?

  • Does Beowulf's funeral remind you of anything at the beginning of the poem?

  • When Beowulf dies, does he go to Heaven?

  • Choose a dichotomy that is present throughout the poem and explain its significance to each of the three battles.

Example: good/evil – clearly, Beowulf fights for good and Grendel, his mother and the dragon for evil. Are you sure that the dragon really fights for evil? What symbols, allusions and images connect Beowulf with good and his opponents with evil?

Other ideas are: light/dark, heaven/hell, powerful/weak, brave/fearful.

  • What are some of the differences between the poet’s world and that of the characters in the poem? What are the continuities between these worlds? Is there irony in our vision of this past age? How does the poet create a distance between the characters and himself – and how does he express their own sense of a distant past?

  • Why are there so many stories-within-the-story in the poem? What is the relation between these so-called “digressions” and the main narrative in Beowulf?


Think why «Beowulf» is close / not close to:

  • a fairy-tale;

  • chronicle

  • Mixture of different historical epochs showing stability of heroic world;

  • Time perspective.

  • Is Beowulf an epic? What sort of social order produces “epic” poetry? What values does the poem promote, and how does it promote them? What sorts of conflicts with or resistances to the ideology of epic can be expressed? What sorts are found within the poem itself?

Poetic features

  • Alliterative poem

Bore it bitterly he who bided in darkness [b]

Twelve-winters' time torture suffered [t]

Soul-crushing sorrow not seldom in private [s]

Sat the king in his council, conference held they [k]

Heard in his home: of heroes then living, [h]

^ Give your own examples of alliteration.

  • Give at least two example of each synecdoche, metonymy, and litotes from the text of the poem. Point out at least three kennings in the text.

Charming sounds of Old English: Prologue to “Beowulf” with video and subtitles

Enjoy the song dedicated to “Beowulf” and Old English Poetry:

Have some fun and watch “Beowulf in 2 1/2 minutes” project:

After “Beowulf” and before Chaucer

Although the metrical style of Old English was later replaced by the rhyming poetic forms brought in by the Normans, alliterative verse, in a modified style, continued to be written until the fifteenth century.

Name two greatest works of the so-called alliterative revival.

^ I. In his “Visions of Piers Plowman” William Langland presented a broad vision of the society of the 14th century.

Read the prologue (

Enumerate what professions and occupations are presented in hero's strange dream?

When the author describes characters what is his special attention drawn to?

How do you think, why do scholars say that we can study the Medieval epoch with the help of this book (as well as with the help of “The Canterbury Tales”)?

^ II. Read the legend “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Speak about codex of honour in chivalric romance. Base your arguments on the plot of the legend.

III. Study the book “Death of Arthur” by Thomas Malory.

a) What is courtly love and how is this cult presented in the book of Malory?

In Morte d'Arthur love vs. duty is an important theme. What is Malory's idea of the importance of these two? Which does he value more? Explain.

Point out what the chivalric and Christian code respectively is. Explain how Lancelot is loyal to the chivalric code, but not to the Christian code, and how it leads to his demise.

Think about the following thesis: Sir Lancelot is a hero or a betrayer? Give arguments. Base them on the text.

b) Do you agree with the statement that heroic epos is addressed to a warrior and the romance is addressed to a lady?

c) Read the story of Tristram and Isolde in Malory's book. Compare the plot with other versions of this legend. What did Malory change?

d) Religion plays a significant role in Malory's epic, often as allegory. Discuss some of the images of Christianity that are present and explore their influences on Arthur's court and Round Table.

^ Be ready to have a short quiz!

What were the Celts like?

Why was Alfred the Great considered a national hero?

Who was Thomas Becket? How did he die? In which Medieval book can did you find his name?

How did the plague help end feudalism?

What ideas appear in “Beowulf” because of the 300+ year gap between when it was composed and when it was written down?

What were most plays about during the Medieval Period?

Whom is one of the most popular series of ballads about?

What was the name of King Arthur's sword?

What is a 'foot' in a line of poetry?

What year was the Norman Conquest of England?

What are the first names of Chaucer and Malory?

Name English poets before Norman invasion.


1. Беовульф. Старшая Эдда. Песнь о Нибелунгах/Ст. и коммент. О.А. Смирницкой. — С. 631—659; Ст. и коммент. А.Я. Гуревича. — С. 707-749. - М., 1975.

2. Зарубежная литература средних веков: Нем., исп., ит., англ..: Хрестоматия/Сост. Пуришев Б.И. — М., 1975. — С. 261—273.

  1. Мельникова Е.А. Меч и лира. Гл. 7.— Героический мир англосаксонского эпоса.— М., 1987.— С. 167—181.

  2. Критический обзор Серебрякова С.Б. «Европейские теории генезиса куртуазной любви»//Вопр. древнегрузинской лит. и руставелологии. - 1974. - № 4. - С. 153-174.

  3. Древнеанглийская поэзия / О.А. Смирницкая, В.Г. Тихомиров. — М., 1982

  4. Мэлори Т. Смерть Артура/Б.И. Пуришев. — М., 1974. — (Лит. па­мятники).

  5. Легенда о Тристане и Изольде/Ст. Михайлова А.Д. История ле­генды о Тристане и Изольде. — М., 1976.

  6. История зарубежной литературы: Раннее средневековье и Воз­рождение. — Раздел III. — Гл. 12. — Рыцарский роман. — М., 1961. — С. 125-141.

  7. Михайлов А.Д. «Смерть Артура» сэра Томаса Мэлори//Мэлори Т. Смерть Артура: Роман-эпопея. — В 8 кн. — М., 1991. — Т. 1. — Кн. 1—5. — С. 5—21/Предисл. А. Скогорева.

  8. Попова М.К. Английский рыцарский роман в стихах. — XII—XIV //филол. науки. - 1983. - № 5. - С. 23-29.
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