In the 24 lessons of Old English Literature: Language as History, you will experience the premodern world through the powerful tool of the written word. With the guidance of author and medieval scholar Professor Renée Trilling, you will look back on the early medieval history of the British Isles and discover what Old English can reveal about the peoples, traditions, beliefs, and cultures of the past.
Old English Literature: Language as History
Renée R. Trilling is an Associate Professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her MA and PhD in English from the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse, which won an award for best first monograph from the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England, and Old English Literature and Critical Theory, which is part of the Oxford Bibliographies collection. She is also the coeditor of A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies and the Old English editor of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology.
Renée’s research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study. She has published articles on Beowulf, Wulfstan the homilist, Ælfric’s hagiography, vernacular historiography, and early medieval medicine, focusing on issues of gender, materiality, nostalgia, and literary form. Additionally, she has undertaken work that draws on trends in neuroscience and related fields to explore the role of materiality in early medieval notions of subjectivity.
01: The Literary World of Early England
English is one of Europe’s oldest written vernacular languages. Begin your exploration of Old English and its important role in both literature and history with a look at the Germanic roots of the language. Also, see how it was shaped by numerous influences, from literature and religion to science, cultural exchange, and more.
02: Where Did English Come From?
Germanic peoples began migrating to the shores of the British Isles in the 4th and 5th centuries, bringing with them the language that would eventually become English. What brought these new migrants to Britain, and how did their language change with their new environment? Look back on the linguistic history of the English language and discover how scholars can trace languages back even earlier than the written word.
03: Languages in Medieval England
From its earliest recorded history, Britain has always been a place of many tongues. Look back on the cultural interactions between the Germanic settlers—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—and the Celtic, Roman, and Viking peoples that occupied Britain. See how these disparate groups and their languages intermingled to produce what would become Old English.
04: Germanic Culture and Old English
The premigration Germanic tribes of Northern Europe—grouped together as Germani by writers like Tacitus—had an oral culture rather than one that used much writing; thus, much of our historical knowledge comes from outside sources. Look at this early history and better understand how historical linguists separate fact from fiction when reconstructing the past.
05: Learning Old English: Pronouns
Begin your first of several lessons on the mechanics of Old English with a look at pronouns. First, learn how to pronounce Old English and how the structure of the language works. Then, apply what you have learned to better understand pronouns and how they are used. As you will see, Old English is very different from modern English, yet many words still used today can be traced to their earlier origins.
06: Learning Old English: Nouns and Adjectives
Continue learning the basics of Old English with nouns and adjectives. As a synthetic language, Old English relies on inflections rather than word order, so here you will learn how to uncover meaning from the words themselves rather than their order. As you look at the different forms of nouns and adjectives, you will pick up invaluable skills you can apply to help you read—and understand—Old English.
07: Learning Old English: Weak Verbs
In this first of two lessons focused on Old English verbs, you will start with what linguists call “weak” verbs. As you learn various verb forms, you will also learn more about how languages change over time, through both natural change from inside of the language and through the influence of outside contact with other languages.
08: Learning Old English: Strong Verbs
This second lesson on verbs focuses on the “strong” verbs of Old English. As you gain a better understanding of the linguistic history behind how they work, you will discover how this apparently random and complex system turns out to be surprisingly regular and predictable. Learn the four principal parts and seven classes of verbs and how to recognize them.
09: The Germanic Migrations: 300 to 600 CE
What brought the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe to the shores of Britain? Look at the different ways scholars have approached the historical moment of the adventus Saxonum. Through these records and theories, you will see how these Germanic migrants introduced the language, customs, legal systems, and traditions that would eventually dominate Britain for centuries.
10: Old English Literary Aesthetics
Explore the mechanics of Old English poetry and learn about the performers, known as “scops,” who composed, recited, and preserved it. As you examine a handful of poems to trace the medieval artistic tradition of the North Atlantic region, you will focus on four poetic techniques: meter, alliteration, appositive variation, and interlace. Along the way, you will also consider the legends that inspired these poems.
11: Warriors in Old English Poetry
Dive into a beloved Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, for a look at the noble ideals of the Old English literary canon. As you will see, Old English literature often combined real events and nostalgic, heroic fiction to create epic poems and stories that appealed to audiences through romantic ideals of premigration glory.
12: Beowulf: The Germanic Hero Par Excellence?
Beowulf holds a place of honor in the English literary canon, yet this famous epic poem was almost lost. Consider the many dimensions of this work that artfully combines history, legend, and poetic invention and discover the ways the heroic exploits of Beowulf illuminate the values and ideals of the Germanic peoples of England.
13: Heroism and Gender in Old English Poetry
Germanic warrior culture was a masculine domain, but Old English literature also gives us insight into the experiences of those who were left on the margins. Here, you will look at three poems that highlight women’s experiences in the heroic culture of the Germanic peoples: Beowulf, Judith, and The Wife’s Lament.
14: Christianity Comes to Medieval England
Many medieval historians cast the history of early England as a story of inevitable conversion to Christianity. As you get a sense of the scale of Christianity’s influence and its far-reaching effects, you will see how the religion brought literacy back to the island and made English into one of the first written vernaculars in Western Europe.
15: Latin Literacy in Medieval England
With its focus on texts and the Latin language, Christianity transformed the literary landscape of early medieval England. Discover how the religious dimension of literacy in England changed the types of texts being produced and meet several influential writers whose works were deeply rooted in Christian values and perspectives.
16: Old English Preaching and Teaching
Christianity became the dominant religion in England by the middle of the 8th century, yet few ordinary people could understand the church’s chosen language of Latin. Look at the ways this language barrier created a social division between those who could read sacred texts and those who couldn’t and how this created a need for prayers, sermons, and other works in Old English.
17: Christian Heroes in Old English Literature
It is estimated that nearly a third of surviving Old English poems are translations of biblical texts, and even more are on religious topics in general. Here, look at some of these pieces of religious storytelling in Old English and see how the hybrid literature born of Christian and Germanic traditions suited the unique world of early English Christianity.
18: English Literacy and Learning under Alfred
Meet the king who would come to be known as Alfred the Great and see how his unification of early medieval England cast him as a symbol of English national identity. Why did Alfred champion education and literacy as a common good? How did his promotion of learning help shape the English literary tradition for generations to come?
19: Old English and the Rule of Law
Despite the lawless way the medieval world is often portrayed in films and media, the premodern world had a very strong desire for laws and justice. As you will see, one of the reasons we know this is because law codes in the English vernacular were some of the earliest laws preserved in writing in Europe.
20: Old English and Scientific Learning
Look at scientific writings of the early medieval period and see how premodern people understood the natural world, time, weather, and even the human body very differently than we do today. Examine the works of scholars like the Venerable Bede and the English monk Byrhtferth to trace the progress of medieval English scientific thought and writings.
21: Old English versus the Vikings
The Norse raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 CE was the beginning of the Viking Age in England. While this traumatic event would color the ways Scandinavians were portrayed in medieval records, here you will get a more nuanced look at the impact of these Northern European peoples and their prolonged influence on Britain.
22: The Norman Conquest of Old English
Discover how everything changed with the arrival of William of Normandy and his conquest of England in 1066. The impact of the Battle of Hastings would touch every aspect of English culture and the changes it brought about would give rise to the English language as we know it today. Take a closer look at this watershed moment for English history, politics, identity, and language.
23: Old English Afterlives
By the mid-13th century, the English language had changed significantly and the ascendency of French and Latin pushed English to the literary margins. Look back at this period and see why some scribes and scholars turned their attention to the past, reviving some of the conventions of preconquest literature to create a new literary style—and preserving collections of work that may not have survived otherwise.
24: Old English Today
Bring your exploration of Old English and premodern Britain to a close with a look at the impact of Old English literature and language of the modern world. Consider the impact of Old English literature on modern writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, W. H. Auden, and Ezra Pound. Reveal how premodern concepts—both real and imagined—influenced later political ideologies.