The Germanic dialects spoken by the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes are generally referred to as Anglo-Saxon, a language which differs from modern English even more than Latin from Italian. Though sometimes called Old English, Anglo-Saxon is a language in its own right; Anglo-Saxon literature can therefore be considered as quite distinct from English literature.
The Anglo-Saxons invaders were heathen barbarians but when their writings appeared they were already Christian and partly civilised. This fact accounts for the Christian character of most of their literary works, which have been preserved and handed down to us by the learned churchmen of those times. These works were mostly written in the West-Saxon dialect, the language of King Alfred the Great.
King Alfred himself translated religious, historical and philosophical works from Latin into Anglo-Saxon and ordered the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to be recorded and kept in the monasteries.
Anglo-Saxon poetry, however, is far more important than the prose writing of that period. It is of two kinds: epic poetry and religious poetry. The story of Beowulf, which tells of the life and heroic death of a daring warrior, king of the Danish isle of Seeland, is the oldest epic in Germanic literature. A strong pagan feeling of the working of fate and a deep melancholy run through the whole poem, but the Christian element is present in the idea of the vanity of earthly things and in the spirit of self-sacrifice of a king who dies to save his people.
The fierce note of pagan a primitive times is more evident in two more war poems, the battle of Brunaburh, which celebrates King Athelstan's victory over the Scots and Danes, and the Battle of Maldon, in which an Anglo-Saxon chief was defeated by the Vikings who had landed in Essex.
However, the greater part of the Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious in character. There are two groups of Biblical poems. One is attribuited to Caedmon, a poor shepherd, and contains: Exodus, on the flight of Moses to Egypt, Judit, the story of the Bible heroine, and Guthlac, the only narrative in verse about a native saint; the other group consist of : Christ, on the life of the Saviour, The Fates of the Apostles, and the lives of the saints Juliana and Helen: all these are attributed to the poet Cynewulf.
These poems are mere paraphrases of the Holy Scriptures; their main fault is a lackof originality, which is very much in evidence in spite of the sincerity and fire of the religious feeling which inspires them.
The most original poetical works of the Anglo-Saxon period are probably a few elegies, or short melancholic poems, Christian only in their conclusion, such as The Ruin, on the lost glory of a ruined town, probably Bath, The Wanderer and The Seafarer.