Early medieval Britain


Early medieval Britain

Early medieval Britain was home to a vibrant culture of Latin writing. The earliest writer whose works are covered by the DMLBS is Gildas (fl. 540). He is the author of the invective De excidio Britanniae, in which he describes the downfall of Britain (including the invasion by Anglo-Saxons) as a result of its sinfulness and lack in faith. Although nothing is known about Gildas, his work reveals that he was widely read and had a good training in Latin and rhetoric, most likely sometime in the 5th century, when the Roman system of education and government in Britain was still functioning. 

After the collapse of the Roman empire and its government in Britain Pope Gregory the Great (c540–640) sent missionaries to Britain to christianize the Anglo-Saxons. In 597 Augustine, a former Roman monk, arrived in Kent. He became the first archbishop of Canterbury. By the time of his death (between 604 and 609) not only had King Æthelbert of Kent become Christian but Augustine had, according to Pope Gregory, also baptized 10,000 converts and put the first ecclesiastical structures in place. The first missionaries had brought books in Latin and ecclesiastical furniture from Rome, but they soon established schools to train the first native English clergy. In 668, Theodore of Tarsus (602–90), an exceptionally learned biblical scholar of Greek origin, was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. He and his students at Canterbury wrote a number of biblical commentaries in Latin.

In 704 or 705, Wealdhere, the bishop of London, sent a letter to his colleague Archbishop Brihtwold of Canterbury. This letter survives still in the original and is the earliest 'letter close' extant in the West.

Aldhelm (ob. 709 or 710), abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne, was the first native Anglo-Saxon to have left a corpus of Latin writing. He had been a student of Archbishop Theodore in Canterbury. His works include about 100 riddles, two works on writing poetry, and two works on virginity. He was one of the most influential Anglo-Latin authors.

Perhaps the most famous Anglo-Saxon author, however, is the Venerable Bede (673–735). He lived from boyhood onward as a monk in the twin monastery Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. He had a fine eduction in grammar, biblical exegesis and science and made extensive use of the excellent library in his monastery. He was well read in Christian Latin and Classical literature. He most popular work is his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, an account of the history of England from the Roman occupation down to 731. Apart from the Historia ecclesiastica Bede wrote over 50 homilies, numerous commentaries on the Bible, and three works on the reckoning of time.

By the 8th century, Christianity and Latin learning were so well established in Britain that missionaries left the British Isles to bring Christianity and learning to what is now Germany. One of the best known of these missionaries was Wynfrith (675–754) who later changed his name to Boniface. Supported by Pope Gregory II he set up his own archbishopric at Mainz and the bishoprics of Salzburg, Eichstätt, Regensburg, and Passau. In the tradition of Aldhelm he wrote a number of riddles and treatises on metre and grammar, but he is best known for his letters, most of them addressed to popes, archbishops, and kings, but some also to his male and female followers in Britain.

Another famous collection of letters survives from the Anglo-Saxon deacon, scholar, and teacher Alcuin of York (c735–804). He was a powerful figure at the court of Charlemagne before he became abbot of Tours. His contemporaries praised him for his learning and scholarship. He wrote texts on a great variety of subjects, including orthography, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, astronomy, biblical exegesis, theology, and liturgy, and became so influential on European literary and ecclesiastical culture that he is now regarded as the architect of the Carolingian Renaissance.

Hugeburg (late 8th century) lived as a nun in Heidenheim and is one of the few female British authors of Medieval Latin known by name. She wrote biographies of the missionaries Willibald, bishop of Eichstätt, and Wynnebald. 

Asser (ob. 908/9) was born and brought up in Wales and monk at St David's in the kingdom of Dyfeld. He met King Alfred in about 885 gained the king's favour and agreed to spend about six months every year at the Alfreds court in Wessex. He was involved in teaching the king to read Latin and in the revival of learing in England. He helped translating Pope Gregory the Great's Regula pastoralis into English and wrote a biography of King Alfred in Latin.

Abbo of Fleury (?c940–1004) was one of the greatest sholars of tenth-century Europe. He was born and trained on the continent, but spent two years (985–7) in exile at the abbey of Ramsey. Among his writings are works on computus, grammar, logic and canon law. He became an influential teacher in Ramsey. One of his students was Byrhtferth of Ramsey (c970–c1020). He was one of the most prolific authors of his time. His Computus consisted of tables, formulas, and rules for calculating the movable feasts of the Christian year and his glosses on Bede's works De temporum ratione and De natura rerum show the wide extent of his learning.

One of the most learned scholars in late Anglo-Saxon England was Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham (c950–c1010). He was educated in Winchester and widely read. In his collections of sermons he cites from works by Augustine, Greagory the Great, Jerome, and Bede. He was not only an authority on church practice and canon law but also an adviser and counsellor to the king. Ælfric wrote not only in Latin but also in English. He is the author of a Latin grammar and a series of translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament.

In addition to works by authors whose names we know, numerous texts by unkown authors have survived from this period, including glossaries, hymns, saints' lives, and law codes. Particularly important among the documentary sources in this period are the many charters recording grants of land or other property.