Religion during the Anglo-Saxon period was more than church life; it was the cultural beat of Society. Needless to say, “literature” grew from the foundations of religion. Most of the literature of the time was written in Latin by the monks.
Essex was the center of one of the two schools of Christianity that developed during the Anglo-Saxon period. This push by the Church produced no literature which survived into more modern times. It sprang from Augustine in Rome.
The second surge came from Bishop Aidan and Ireland. The monks of Northumbria, including Bede, Caedmon, and Cynewulf, spread the Christian word. The literature, which survives from this period, comes to us from the Jarrow and Whitby monasteries.
Lindisfarne.org tells us something of Saint Aidan. “The first person whose name we know who lived here on the island was St.Aidan. He was not the first human being to live here or hereabouts: Middle Stone Age Man was here from about 8000BC and New Stone Age Man from 3000BC and they left some of their unwanted rubbish behind. During the Roman Empire Britons probably had a village here. They had a name for the Island: Medcaut – a Celtic word of unknown meaning. But in 635AD, when Aidan chose the Island for the site of his monastery, we moved from prehistory into history.
“Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery St. Columba had founded on the island of Iona. The Britons had been Christian before the Irish, since Britain, though not Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British: St.Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) was the most famous but not the only one. But when the power of Rome declined the English (from North Germany) began to infiltrate into Britain and gradually turned it into England. These incoming English were pagans. Up here in the north the kingdom of Northumbria was largely created by the English warrior-leader Aethelfrith but when he was killed in battle (616AD) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now South-West Scotland. Here they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of Aethelfrith, grew up determined to re-gain the throne of Northumbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Christianity. In 633 he fought a successful battle and established himself as king, choosing Bamburgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a mission and eventually Aidan arrived with 12 other monks and chose to settle on the island the English had renamed Lindisfarne.”
Bede, the Venerable (673-735) – Bede was England’s first professional scholar. He served in the most learned spot in Western Europe at that time, the monastery of St. Paul in Jarrow in Northumbria. Bede was known to write extensively on many subjects. Two of his works remain.
“Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation” covers the time from Caesar’s invasion to 671. Other monks continued the piece after Bede’s death. It serves as the source of information on the British Isles during ancient times. The Archives of the Roman Church served as the source for Bede’s work. Book 1 describes the topography and climate of England. The history covers the reign of Julius Caesar, the struggles against the Scots and Picts, the hardships suffered after the Roman withdrawal, and the Angles conquest. The book continues with the story of the Bishop of St. Germans and the miracles which brought him sainthood. “The Bishop of St Germans is an episcopal title which was formerly used by Anglo Saxon Bishops of Cornwall. It is one of the titles available for suffragan bishops in the Church of England, currently used by a suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Truro, in the Province of Canterbury, and is a Titular See of the Catholic Church.” (Wikipedia) The first book ends with the life of Hilda, Abbess of the monastery at Whitby, where Caedmon resided.
(The Story of) Caedmon (690) was a laborer at the Whitby monastery. The legend has it that an angel bestowed the gift of verse writing upon him. He interpreted the scriptures. The Abbess Hilda instructed Caedmon to abandon his secular ways and join the monks at the monastery.
In 625, Paulinus converted King Edwin and Northumbria. Paulinus was a bishop who was charged with furthering Augustine’s work. King Edwin of Northumbria married the Christian queen, Ethelberga. Although Paulinus plied Edwin for many years with the Christian doctrine, at length, Edwin accepted the teachings of Catholicism.
Caedmon’s works were the Paraphrase, a retelling of Genesis, Exodus, and part of Daniel. Judith is a poetic retelling of a Biblical book, which is attributed to Caedmon. Caedmon’s Hymn is an erratic, short poem of praise for God. It is a nine-line alliterative poem. Exodus paraphrases Exodus 13-15, the tale of Moses and the Israelites. The confusing part of this piece is the insertion of Noah and Abraham’s sacrificing of Isaac at the parting of the Red Sea.
Cynewulf is also a writer of religious poetry in a Northumbrian dialect. Ironically, Cynewulf inserts his name into his poems in both Runie and Roman cryptograms. Helena chooses as its theme the finding of the true cross and “Krist.” The Ascension tells of the disciples meeting Christ at Bethany. The poet speaks of the freewill of man to choose Heaven or Hell. Doomsday is the longest and most powerful section of The Christ. It deals with the destruction of the last judgment. The horror of the end of time is countered by God’s gift of eternal life to mankind.