10 October 2009

Anglo-Saxon Reading List

Today, a young Orthodox convert friend asked me what reading material I would recommend for exploring his Anglo-Saxon roots. It’s an exploration that has greatly interested me ever since I was a kid, and I’ve discovered a few things along the way that I think are important, especially for Christians. Since I don’t have much time to work on anything in more depth today, I thought I’d post an annotated version of the short list that I came up with.

1) A good secondary source to start with is Paul Cavill’s very good study, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (London: Fount, 1999). Cavill approaches the history of Anglo-Saxon Christianity through the personalities of her Saints and particularly through the great writings the Anglo-Saxon Church produced, including a helpful literary analysis of works such as Beowulf, The Wanderer, and The Dream of the Rood, as well as the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

2) Perhaps the most important product of Anglo-Saxon Christianity is the Venerable Bede’s magnum opus, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford: Oxford U, 1994), which covers the history of the English Church up to the 8th century, when the EH was written. Not merely a dry secular-style ‘history’, St Bede’s work is more like a series of Saints’ Lives, giving us a first-hand glimpse at the spiritual depth of the Anglo-Saxon people. I have used St Bede’s text frequently on this blog.

3) For a good anthology of a wide variety of Anglo-Saxon literary works—sacred and secular—in translation, I recommend The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford U, 1984). It includes all of the great Old English epic, Beowulf, and, if memory serves me, everything else discussed in Paul Cavill’s book above. But it also has legal texts, selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, other heroic poems like The Battle of Maldon, letters from ecclesiastical figures, riddles, charters, hagiography, like The Passion of St Edmund, and moral exhortations like The Sermon of the Wolf to the English. I’ve also excerpted from Crossley-Holland’s work on this blog a number of times.

4) Although The Anglo-Saxon World contains the complete text of Crossley-Holland’s translation of the literary monument of the Christian Anglo-Saxons, Beowulf, the translation I personally prefer is the critically acclaimed one by Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, available in a bilingual edition featuring the original Anglo-Saxon text—Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, 2000). The poem is rendered into modern English verse as only a great poet can, and it also features a wonderful and very personal introduction by Heaney.

5) For a close-up view of one of the greatest kings the Anglo-Saxons produced, King Alfred the Great, I recommend, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (London: Penguin, 1983). Apart from the invaluable introduction and the primary source of King Alfred’s life, it also includes relevant extracts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, extracts from King Alfred’s writings, including his translations of St Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and Augustine’s Soliloquies, and various other historical sources.

I shall close with the words of St Ælfric in his Passion of St Edmund:

The English people is not lacking in the Lord’s saints when there lie in England such holy men as this holy king, and the blessed Cuthbert, and Saint Æthelthryth in Ely, and also her sister, sound in body as an encouragement to the faith. There are also many other saints in the Englishs nation who perform many miracles, as is widely known, to the praise of the Almighty in whom they believed. (Crossley-Holland, p. 233)


Matthew said...

Thanks for this helpful list! Are you familiar at all with Benedicta Ward’s work on the subject? I recently picked up her book titled ?High King of Heaven: Aspects of Early English Spirituality, but I have yet to read it.

aaronandbrighid said...

I haven't read that one, but I'm sure it's good. I've always admired Ward's introduction to her translation of the Apophthegmata Patrum.

Mat. Donna Farley said...

I have a lovely book called The Illustrated Bede, by John Marsden, with translation of various of Bede's works by John Gregory and Photography by Geoff Green. Great introduction to Bede for young people.

Marsden's Fury of the Northmen: Saints, Shrines and Sea-Raiders in the Viking Age is also excellent.

Also, I just acquired The Painted Labyrinth by Michelle Brown-- a very accessible introduction to the Lindesfarne Gospels.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Matushka! Those look quite good. I'd really like to get that Illustrated Bede for my kids.

Mat. Donna Farley said...

You're welcome.

I typed the wrong URL to my own blog for my name....it should be


sorry for any confusion.

Tikhon said...

Thanks Aaron!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful list. I would love to read more about Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Christianity (my husband and I named our son, Declan). These are great resources!


rsafley said...

Aaron, this is a little unrelated, but in the spirit of book recommendations - what do you receommend by the "infallible Adalbert de Vogue"? I came upon his "Reading Saint Benedict and was curious about it.

aaronandbrighid said...

I think Reading St Benedict is great, but it's definitely a blow-by-blow commentary. It's best if one is reading the Rule for spiritual insight and needs something to open up the text a bit. Its value in this regard is best illustrated in the passages dealing with the structure of the offices and the apportioning of the Psalter.

The Rule of St Benedict: A Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary is more of a stand-alone book and is much more in-depth and scholarly. I recommend it for understanding the place of the Rule in the broader monastic and spiritual tradition.

The only other book of de Vogue's that I've read is his commentary on St Gregory the Great's Life of St Benedict. Again, this is the sort of thing that presupposes one is interested in carefully making one's way through the ancient text. It's not 'armchair reading', but more like a particularly fascinating study guide!

I recommend all three of these, but be prepared! They are quite foreign to the fluffy, feel-good spirituality of a lot of modern writing on St Benedict and his Rule. Adalbert is quite serious.