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Treasury of Anglo-Saxon England

Treasury of Anglo-Saxon England

by Paul Cavill

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A selection of new and original readings from the rich spiritual heritage of the Anglo-Saxons. This moving selection of original texts, newly translated into modern English, brings alive the era of the Anglo-Saxons, revealing their beliefs, creativity, and traditions.


A selection of new and original readings from the rich spiritual heritage of the Anglo-Saxons. This moving selection of original texts, newly translated into modern English, brings alive the era of the Anglo-Saxons, revealing their beliefs, creativity, and traditions.

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Copyright © 2001 Paul Cavill
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0007104049

Chapter One


For most ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon England, life was hard and often dreary, if not miserable. Things we take for granted which make life pleasant were unknown: warmth in winter, fresh foods all year round, cures for many simple diseases, protection from the elements, clean clothes and sweet-smelling rooms. The Anglo-Saxons were constantly beset by nature in its less agreeable forms. Cold, wet and windy weather is part of the exile's lot, as we shall see in chapter 3, but even for ordinary people it oppresses the mind. Danger from animal savagery is frequently mentioned in the literature, wolves and bears still populated the land. And the hunger and disease that follow each other after bad harvests, are companions that no one wants. The natural world for many Anglo-Saxons was not the world of leisure and enjoyment, of country walks and panoramic views, but rather a place at least potentially dangerous.


For all this, one of the most common themes in Old English poetry is the glory of God's creation, the wonder and delight of sun and moon and the seasons, the bounty and variety of the natural world. The eyes of many were drawn away from thesqualor immediately surrounding them to the sublime and stately heavenly bodies. They celebrated in song the wonders they saw. And, as we shall see, their minds were intrigued and stimulated by the infinite questions that the world raises.

One of the poems of the Exeter Book, the biggest collection of Old English poetry that we have left to us, poses this riddle:

I am bigger than this world, smaller than a hand-worm, brighter than the moon, quicker than the sun. All the seas lie in my embrace, and the green expanse of the bosom of this earth. I touch the depths, I go down under hell, and climb up over the heavens, the home of glory; I stretch far over the land of the angels; with myself I fill up the earth, the old world and the ocean far and wide. Say what I am called.

What is bigger than the world and smaller than the smallest creature in it? What encompasses everything and fills everything and touches every part of everything? The answer is creation. The alternative given by scholars is `Nature', but while the Anglo-Saxons would not see any difference between the two, for us the latter is perhaps misleading. It is worth noticing that the observable world of nature in the poem is middangeard, literally `the middle enclosure'. It lies between heaven and hell. The world is created by God, but so are the mystical landscapes of heaven and hell, the depths and the land of the angels. The idea of a three-tier universe is very ancient, but here it is clearly Christian. That view of the world has to be set in a context.


The Anglo-Saxons had a particular view of the creation. This was shaped by the biblical story of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve in Genesis, but also the logically preceding, but not explicitly biblical, story of the fall of the angels. People knew that Satan and his angels fell from heaven because of their pride, because it was Satan in the form of a snake who tempted Adam and Eve to get his own back on God. Their theological understanding of the natural world hinges on these two stories of the fall of the angels and the creation. The Old English poem on Genesis starts like this:

It is a great privilege for us that we praise in words and love in our hearts the Guardian of the heavens, the glorious King of hosts. He is the strength of all powers, the head of all the high-created angels, the Lord almighty. He has no source and no beginning has ever existed for him; and no end will come now for the eternal Lord, but he will forever remain powerful over the thrones of heaven with his mighty armies.

God deserves our praise, but before the Old English Genesis story progresses through the biblical days of creation, it deals with the separate creation, the pride and the fall of the angels under Lucifer, now Satan, and their quest for vengeance against God.

Ælfric, most prolific of the Old English sermon-writers, deals with the `Beginning of the Creation' in the same way, and makes explicit the reason for it. He wants us to know that God created all things good, but that there is an enemy at work in the created order, who twists and deforms and traps and defiles things, and people with their collusion, for his own purpose.

God created as a great angel him who is now the devil: but God did not create him as the devil: but when he was wholly fordone and guilty towards God, through his great haughtiness and enmity, then became he changed to the devil, who before was created a great angel. Then would God supply and make good the loss that had been suffered in the heavenly host, and said that he would make man of earth, so that the earthly man should prosper, and merit with meekness those dwellings in the kingdom of heaven which the devil through his pride had forfeited ...

Now the heretics say that the devil created some creatures, but they lie; he can create no creatures, for he is not a creator, but is a loathsome fiend, and with leasing [lying] he will deceive and fordo the unwary; but he may not compel any man to any crime, unless the man voluntarily incline to his teaching. Whatsoever among things created seems pernicious and is injurious to men, is all for our sins and evil deserts.

When the devil understood that Adam and Eve were created, that they might with meekness and obedience merit the dwelling in the kingdom of heaven from which he had fallen for his haughtiness, then he felt great anger and envy towards those persons, and meditated how he might fordo them.

Here Ælfric explains why human beings were created: God, like a great Anglo-Saxon lord, feels the loss of the best part of his retinue, so he determines to replace those lost, albeit by lesser creatures. But those creatures will be constantly under the devil's attack and subject to his wiles. All creation points us to God's glory, then, and all evil reminds us of the devil's pride and human sin. This is hardly flattering to human beings, but it goes some way towards explaining to the Anglo-Saxons why there is evil in the world.

The story of Beowulf beautifully echoes this pattern of creation. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, has built a splendid hall and lives in stately joy and order in it. His court poet sings of the creation:

there was the sound of the harp, the clear song of the poet. The one who knew how to tell the story from far back related the creation of men, said that the Almighty made the earth, the land shining in beauty, as far as the water surrounds it, established the victorious sun and moon as lanterns to lighten the land-dwellers, and adorned the corners of the earth with branches and leaves. He also created life for every kind of creature that moves about alive. Thus the noble warriors lived happily in joys, until a certain one, an enemy from hell, began to carry out crimes. The fearsome spirit was called Grendel ...

Here in miniature is the story of creation played out again. Grendel, the fiendish enemy, is stirred to hateful action from his dark hideout by the song of the poet. The beauty and order of Hrothgar's hall is like the beauty and order of God's new world, and it is devastated by the hellish envy of the enemy. Fortunately for the Danes, a warrior called Beowulf hears of their plight and determines to help them, And so a distant echo of the coming of Christ into the world to save those who suffered the oppression of the devil is heard.


Much as the Anglo-Saxons loved the earth and its variety and teeming creatures, some of the most delightful verse is about the sun and moon. The heavenly bodies were not just convenient or a matter for occasional remark at this time: they governed life, determining time, work, rest, meals, harvests, health. Several medicinal recipes prescribe exposing the ill person to the sun, and others specify collecting herbs for medicinal use at dawn, so that the power of the waxing sun is imparted to the herbs. Darkness, in both the scholar Bede and in the folklore of the Old English Maxims, is the place for robbers, thieves and those who do not want to have their shame exposed.

But it is not only the light for which the Anglo-Saxons loved the sun and moon, it is also for the way they represent the sublime orderliness of the created universe. The sun and moon follow their courses irrespective of the chances and changes of the world, and so image for humanity the sedate splendour of the heavenly realm. They also reveal the glory of God at whose command they shine. A poem called The Order of the World reflects on the creation, land and sea, but especially on the sun, in a sustained hymn of praise and wonder:

Listen! In the beginning the high treasure-keeper, the Father almighty, created heaven and earth, and the wide expanse of the sea - those visible creations made by the hand of the Lord, which now in their three parts exalt and raise high the glory of the holy One. For just as he (who well knew how to do it) united each thing with the others, and all are subject to fixed principles of organization; so the Guide established various boundaries for them throughout the great natural order. So they shine with his splendour and keep glowing with his praise for ever. They show the glory of the Lord and the magnificence of his deeds to eternity. Without wavering, they carry out the eternal word of the Lord in the original place the Lord, the pure Guardian of heaven, established for them, accurately keep their sublime boundaries. His power draws out the lights of the heaven, and with them the sea-tides. The Lord of life summons and leads all created things into the embrace of his unity; so for him, the gentlest of all judges, who created this life for us, praise shines eternally. And this bright light comes every morning over the misty hills, to journey, gloriously adorned, over the waves. And at dawn, beautiful and pleasant, it comes from the east to generations of humankind, to every living being. The light, brightest of flames, shines forth, and everyone on earth, to whom the true King of victories has chosen to grant eyesight, can enjoy it. Then in its glory the magnificent heavenly body departs in company to the western sky, until in the evening it crosses over the expanse of the ocean, and summons forth another twilight. Night follows, and keeps the command of the holy Lord. The brilliant sun, the wandering star bright as heaven, hurries according to God's decree under the expanse of the earth. Wherefore, there is no one living so wise as to be able by his own-intellect to understand its origin, or how the bright gold sun passes through the depths in black darkness under the tumult of the waters, or who among earth-dwellers may enjoy the light of it after it passes over the sea.

In this poem, the poet delights in the balance of order, variety, and unity in creation. The first part of the extract borrows from Proverbs 8:27-9, where Wisdom speaks of her presence at the moment of creation:

I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the foundations of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so that the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

God has established limits for the heavens, the earth, and the seas by his wisdom. The poet knows his science, too. He knows, for example, that the tides are determined by the moon. But the `laws of nature' are not in the least abstract: they are the commands of God. And although the principles of order are fixed by God's immutable command, the poet makes clear that the rhythms of the natural world respond to the heavenly Guide, who draws and leads and summons all things into his loving embrace. The 19th-century hymn-writer, John Ellerton, expresses similar thoughts:

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended, The darkness falls at Thy behest; To Thee our morning hymns ascended, Thy praise shall hallow now our rest ...

The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren `neath the wester sky, And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

The difference between the older and the newer of these is that the Old English poet sees creation, and the sun itself, as praising God by doing his will. It is not only human beings that praise God. In the words of the Benedicite,

O all ye works of the Lord bless ye the Lord: Praise him, and magnify him for ever. O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord ... O ye Sun and Moon, bless ye the Lord ... O ye Nights and Days, bless ye the Lord ... O ye Light and Darkness, bless ye the Lord: Praise him, and magnify him for ever.

And so they do in the Old English poem.


The English climate can sometimes be dreary. This Anglo-Saxon poet heartily agreed with the writer of Ecclesiastes that `Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun' (11:7). Here, the light of the sun merges with the glory of God's praise, and its beauty and brightness are almost tangible. It is a privilege given to many to see it:

everyone on earth, to whom the true King of victories has chosen to grant eyesight, can enjoy it.

But he has not granted that to all. The poet of the Maxims feels the misery of blindness.

Happy is the innocent in heart. The blind man is deprived of his eyes, -clear vision is taken from him - they cannot see the stars bright in the sky, or the sun and moon. That is painful to him in his mind, a source of anxiety because he alone knows what it is like, and he expects no change. The Lord ordained that suffering for him, and he can grant him relief, healing for the eye, the jewel of the head, if he knows him to be pure in heart.

God gives and God takes away. Those beautiful things that lift the mind, the brightness and splendour of sun, moon and stars, are denied to some. The richness of the gift of sight is skilfully captured by the poet's use of a metaphor here, when he talks of healing for `the jewel of the head', meaning the eye. But the first sentence puts this brief passage into a context where that healing is certain: it refers to Matthew 5:8, 'Blessed are the pure in heart; for they will see God'. The consolation of the passage is that the pure in heart will not have to be satisfied merely with the creation, but will see God, the Creator himself.


In Anglo-Saxon hymns as in more recent, Christ is identified with light. Christ is the light of the world, the one whose light shines in the darkness. There are variations on this pleasing theme, from hymns, sermons and the liturgy. Many of the Latin hymns in the 11th-century Durham Hymnal have Old English glosses, translations written between the lines of the Latin, presumably so that monks whose Latin was a bit rusty could still enjoy the hymns. The full glosses to an anonymous hymn in the collection run like this:

Night and darkness and clouds disturbances and tumults of the earth - light is entering, heaven becoming white, Christ is coming - all of you, away!

The murk of the earth is torn apart, struck with a beam of the sun; and the colour of all things returns with the appearing of the shining orb.

O Christ! You alone we recognize. With pure and resolute hearts, weeping and singing, to you we pray: heed the thoughts of our minds.

Many things are stained with dyes that will be cleansed by your light. O Light of the eastern orb, lighten with your gracious appearing!


Excerpted from A TREASURY OF ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND by PAUL CAVILL Copyright © 2001 by Paul Cavill
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Paul Cavill is a lecturer in English and research fellow for the English Place-Name Society for School of English Studies at the University of Nottingham. He is also the author of Anglo-Saxon Christianity and Vikings. He resides in Leicester, England, with his wife and their two children.

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