Distinctive Features of Anglo-Saxon Prose


Distinctive features of Anglo-Saxon prose go way back into history. Many believe that the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain brought with them their old poetry; however, there is no evidence of them having possessed any literary prose tradition. 

Therefore, the development of Old English prose does not go back to the earlier Germanic origin, as poetry does. It takes place wholly in England and primarily as a result of the Christianization of England. It is not surprising that prose developed tales than poetry; that is the usual thing in the history of any literature. 

The primal urge of men for artistic expression is bound to be poetic. At the same time, the proper maturing of the prose medium of communication usually comes after the emergence of the political and cultural needs of the Anglo-Saxon people. 

The Development of Anglo-Saxon Prose in England

The development of prose was delayed. It was because of the Anglo-Saxon people’s contact with the old and mature Graeco-Roman civilization. They needed native poetry for the celebration of their legends. However, later, they felt the need for prose when they came into contact with other civilizations as conquerors. They had to make commercial, legal, and other transactions with the natives, who gave rise to a form of prose. 

Latin happened to be the language of the Christian Church and an essential tool in clerical education. Perhaps, if English had been geographically close to Rome, Latin might have hindered the development of a native English prose. 

However, Rome was far away, and Latin was only a distant influence. One of the most meticulous historians of early English prose has stated – 

“When Gregory the Great sent his missionaries to England, Latin civilization reached a land so remote from Rome that Latin could influence the Native language without depressing it.” 

Annonymous, A Critical History of English Literature, David Daiches, 2005.

So, gradually, English started taking the place of Latin. When the laws of Kent were amended to introduce new Christian nations, the new classes were written not in Latin but English.

King Alfred’s Massive Contribution to Anglo-Saxon Prose in English

A more celebrated name in the history of Anglo-Saxon prose is that of King Alfred of Wessex. He gave the Anglo-Saxon people an awareness of their political unity as English men. He had a remarkable combination of the statesman, the military strategist, and the patriot. 

Nevertheless, Alfred is even more important in the history of English education and English literature. Throughout a reign, troubled by military problems of desperate urgency, he found the time and the energy to medicate to “all the free-born young men of England.” 

King Alfred translated a member of Latin texts into English. In his preface to his translation of the Cure Pastorals of Pope Gregory the Great, he shares a concern at the dearth of scholars in England at the time of his occasion to the throne (in 871). 

Alfred’s Translation of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Works into English

King Alfred realized that Christian culture had its roots in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin sources. If these were made available to the people, an ambitious translation program into the vernacular would have to be on the way. 

In his own words – 

“When I remembered how Latin learning has already decayed throughout England, though many can read English writing, I began, among many other varied and manifold cares of this kingdom, to translate into English which is called Latin ‘Pastoralis’ and in English ‘Hierde – Boc.’”

King Alfred, Wessex (871-899).
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Alfred translated the ‘CuraPastoralis’ with the assistance of scholars who explained its meaning to him. It is a literal rendering in its completeness. However, it moves quickly, and it hardly forces one language into an idiom of the other language. It is something we might expect in a pioneer translation. 

Alfred’s subsequent work was a translation of the Historia Advarsum Paganos of the 5th century Latin writer Paulus Orasiu, a work written under the influence of St. Augustine. Orosires Chronicles the calamities of Mankind from the fall of man to the fall of Rome with an equal disregard for historical accuracy and literary grace. 

Fortunately, Alfred added two entirely new narratives, one told by Other. A Norwegian who had explored from his home within the Arctic Circle told him by a voyager named Wulfstan who had sailed the Baltic from Schleswig to the Vistula’s mouth. 

These lively accounts of foreign lands and people give this translation its present value. The voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan are justly celebrated as among the high-spots of Anglo-Saxon prose, and the prose is undoubtedly Alfred’s own.

Alfred’s Credible Translation of Historia Ecclesiastica

Alfred was also credited for translating Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical history of the English people). Alfred’s two final ‘conclusions’ were more philosophical works than that of the De Consolation Philosophise (The Consolation of Philosophy) of Boethius, a Roman philosopher and statesman of the late 5th and early 6th centuries.

There is little doubt that English prose began in the reign of King Alfred.

As Janet M. Bately said,

“Our English prose… was called into being by a decision of Alfred, king of Wessex from 871 to 899.”

Our English Prose before and during The Reign of Alfred, Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 17 (1988), Janet M. Bately, Cambridge University Press.

Alfred’s last work was a book of Blossoms derived for the most part from the Solloquoiesof St. Augustine.

Another man who contributed to the Anglo-Saxon English prose is Bishop Bede (who died in 735). He was said to have translated the Gospel of St. John from Latin into English, but the work has not survived.

Conclusion

The Anglo-Saxons had to develop and establish their prose tradition in England by means of various local transactions and communication. The urge to celebrate their legends made them realize the importance of prose development based on the local tradition.

We can also pose King Alfred as a great contributor to the Anglo-Saxon prose establishment during his reign in England, including his monumental tasks of translating Hebrew, Greek, and Latin works into English. It confirms how significant and distinct Anglo-Saxon prose was during the sixth century and afterward.

A H M Ohidujjaman

I'm the Founder of Hamandista Academy. I live in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I studied English Literature and ELT. Now, I'm working as a Lecturer of English at a Dhaka-based Private University.

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