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The earliest English writing

Q: You often quote examples of writing from Anglo-Saxon times to illustrate the history of a usage. What is the earliest example of English writing that you know of?

A: You’ve asked what seems to be a simple question, but the answer is complicated. It depends on what you consider writing and how you determine the date.

The earliest version of the language, Old English, developed in England in the fifth century from the dialects spoken by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—migrants from what is now Germany and Scandinavia.

Old English was originally written with runes, characters in futhark, an ancient Germanic alphabet. Latin letters introduced by Christian missionaries began replacing the runes in the eighth century, but some runes were still being used well into Middle English, the language spoken from around 1100 to 1500.

The earliest surviving examples of Old English are very short runic inscriptions on metal, wood, bone, or stone. A runic inscription runs down the right side of this fifth-century gold pendant found by a farmer in 1984 at Undley Common near Lakenheath in Suffolk:

The pendant, now in the British Museum, shows a helmeted head above a wolf. The runic letters ᚷ‍ᚫᚷ‍ᚩᚷ‍ᚫ ᛗᚫᚷᚫ ᛗᛖᛞᚢ (gaegogae mægæ medu) run along the right edge. As the museum explains, the message may be read as “howling she-wolf” (a reference to the wolf image) and “reward to a relative” (a translation of the runic letters).

The pendant—technically a bracteate, or thin coin of precious metal—is believed to have been produced in the late fifth century, but it’s uncertain whether it originated in England or was brought there by the settlers.

The dating of the pendant is somewhat uncertain, according to Daphne Nash Briggs, an authority on ancient coins at the University of Oxford:

“It is thought, on stylistic grounds, to have been made around AD 475, and I accept this dating whilst bearing in mind that bracteates are stubbornly difficult to date precisely, and it could in principle have been made a generation earlier.” (From “An Emphatic Statement: The Undley-A Gold Bracteate and Its Message in Fifth-Century East Anglia,” a paper by Nash Briggs in Wonders Lost and Found, 2020, edited by Nicholas Sekunda.)

The earliest surviving examples of Old English writing on parchment are from Latin-English glossaries, according to a history of Old English in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED cites several examples from the Glossaire d’Épinal, written in England around 700 and now at the Bibliothèque Municipale in Épinal, France: “anser goos (i.e. ‘goose’)” … “lepus, leporis hara (i.e. ‘hare’)” … “nimbus storm (i.e. ‘storm’)” … “olor suan (i.e. ‘swan’).”

The British Library notes that “the earliest substantial example of English is the lawcode of King Æthelberht of Kent (reigned c. 589–616), but that work survives in just one manuscript (the Textus Roffensis), made in the 1120s.”

Here’s how the manuscript begins: “Þis syndon þa domas þe æðelbirht cyning asette on aGVSTinus dæge” (“These are the laws that King Æthelberht established in the days of Augustine”).

“Cædmon’s Hymn,” which is considered the earliest documented poem in Old English, is said to have been composed in the seventh century by an illiterate cow herder, according to the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.

It first appeared in writing in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a church history written in Latin around 731.

In the next few years, scribes inserted Old English versions of the poem in two copies of the Latin manuscript, now known as the Moore Bede (734–737) and the St. Petersburg Bede (732-746).

Here’s a lightly edited version of the hymn in the Moore Bede (MS Kk.5.16 at the Cambridge University Library):

“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard / metudæs maecti end his modgidanc / uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes / eci dryctin or astelidæ” (“Now we must praise the heavenly kingdom’s guardian, / the creator’s might and his conception, / the creation of the glorious father, thus each of the wonders / that he ordained at the beginning”).

The epic poem Beowulf, the first great work of English literature, is believed to have been written around 725, but the oldest surviving manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV at the British Library) dates from around the year 1000.

We’ll end with the last few lines of the poem, a farewell to Beowulf by his subjects after their king is mortally wounded in battle, his body burned on a pyre, the ashes buried in a barrow:

“cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyning, / manna mildust ⁊ monðwærust / eodum liðost, ⁊ lofgeornost” (“Of all the world’s kings, they said, / he was the kindest and the gentlest of men, / the most gracious to his people and the most worthy of fame”).

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