Äðåâíÿÿ aíãëèéñêàÿ ïðîçà (Ancient English Prose)
Ancient English prose
The earliest English prose work is the law code of King Aethelberht I
of Kent. It was written in the very end of 6th century. The 7th and 8th
century prose was practical in its character so a lot of laws and wills
date back to this period.
The history of literature of this period is closely connected with Bede
(673-735). This famous monk was probably the greatest teacher and the best-
known man of letters and scholar in all contemporary Europe. He is to have
translated the Gospel of St.John into Saxon, but the translation is lost.
He wrote in Latin on a vast range of subjects from natural science to
grammar and history. His most important work is the Ecclesiastical History
of the English People, which is really a history of England from Julius
Caesar’s invasion to 731. According to it we find out that Bede could
relate things simply and well. But during much of this period conditions
were unfavorable to writing and literacy in England declined sharply
between 800 and the reign of King Alfred and then again after about 990.
The deeds and thoughts of Alfred (849-901), king of the West Saxons,
remain a strong moral influence on the world. Posterity rightly gave him
the surname of “the Great”, as he is one of the comparatively few great men
of all time. He led a vigorous program to translate into English “certain
books that are necessary for all men to know”. His ill health and the wars
with the Danes did not keep him from trying to educate his people or from
earning the title, “father of English prose”. Although most of his works
are translations from the Latin, yet he has left the stamp of his
originality. For example he re-casted a Latin work on history and geography
written in the 5th century by Orosius. Alfred the Great omitted some parts,
changed others, added some interviews so this book is known as Alfred’s
Alfred also translated Pastoral Rule in order to show the clergy how to
teach and care for their flocks. Alfred was fond of people and tried to
examine their souls on his works. For example, he wrote: “Let us love the
man but hate his sins“. His revision of the legal code, known as Alfred’s
Laws, shows his moral aim. Alfred also produced a work on moral philosophy,
by altering and amending the De Consolatione Philosophie of Boethius. In
simplicity and moral power, some of Alfred’s original matter in this volume
was not surpassed by any English writer for several hundred years.
Alfred's interest in the history of his people is evidenced, in the
stimulus he apparently gave to the recording of it in systematic fashion.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably originated in Alfred’s reign. This
is the first history of any branch of the Teutonic people in their own
tongue. From annals already existing and known Latin sources, a compiler
put together (about 891) an account of previous English history from the
age of Julius Caesar. Outstanding events falling in Alfred's reign were
told "with breadth and detail. This original version of the so-called Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle was sent to a number of centres of learning and there
carried forward as official supplements were circulated for addition to it.
Local materials were also used. The oldest surviving version, closest to
Alfred's original project, is the Parker manuscript (thus named because it
was once in the possession of Archbishop Parker). The Chronicle has come
down to us in several different texts. According as it was compiled or
copied at different monasteries. The entries, relating to earlier events
were copied from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and from other Latin
authorities. The Chronicle contains chiefly those events which each year
impressed the clerical compilers as the most important in the history of
the nation. This work is a fountainhead to which writers of the history of
those times must turn. Sometimes the narrative is extremely vivid. For
example the excellence of the portraiture of William the Conqueror is
The Benedictine reform of the mid-10th century brought about a period
of lively literary activity. Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester and one of
the leaders of the reform, translated the rule of St.Benedict. But the
greatest and most prolific writer of this period was his pupil Aelfric.
This abbot followed Alfred’s example in writing native English prose. His
chief works are his Homilies, a series of sermons, and The Lives of Saints.
Although much of his writing is a compilation or a translation from the
Latin Fathers, it is often remarkably vigorous in expression. To modern
readers the most interesting of Aelfric’s writings is his Colloquium,
designed to teach Latin in the monastery of Winchester. The pupils were
required to learn the Latin transformation of his dialogues in the Anglo-
Saxon vernacular. Some of this dialogues are today valuable illustrations
of the social and industrial life of the time.
Wolfsan (died 1023) was a contemporary and friend of Aelfric. Among
(the homilies ascribed to him, the most famous and most eloquent is an
address to the people of England on the evils and calamities of his times.
Wolfsan of course regarded these quite simply as punishments (for moral
transgressions. Wulfstan's intense feeling and his mastery of oratorical
style raise his Sermon to the English above the more conventional ones of
the time warning about an imminent end of the world.
So by the end of ancient period English had been established as a
literary language with a polish and versatility unequalled among European