This article is focused on English-language literature rather than the literature of England, so that it includes writers from Scotland, Wales, and the whole of Ireland, as well as literature in English from countries of the former British Empire, including the United States. However, until the early 19th century, it only deals with the literature of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It does not include literature written in the other languages of Britain.
The English language has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years. The earliest forms of English, a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the fifth century, are called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England. Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the introduction of the printing press to London and the King James Bible as well as the Great Vowel Shift. Through the influence of the British Empire, the English language has spread around the world since the 17th century.
Old English literature, or Anglo-Saxon literature, encompasses the surviving literature written in Old English in Anglo-Saxon England, in the period after the settlement of the Saxons and other Germanic tribes in England (Jutes and the Angles) c. 450, after the withdrawal of the Romans, and "ending soon after the Norman Conquest" in 1066. These works include genres such as epic poetry, hagiography, sermons, Bible translations, legal works, chronicles and riddles. In all there are about 400 surviving manuscripts from the period.
Widsith, which appears in the Exeter Book of the late 10th century, gives a list of kings of tribes ordered according to their popularity and impact on history, with Attila King of the Huns coming first, followed by Eormanric of the Ostrogoths.:187 It may also be the oldest extant work that tells the Battle of the Goths and Huns, which is also told in such later Scandinavian works as Hervarar's saga and Gesta Danorum.:179 Lotte Hedeager argues that the work is far older, however, and that it likely dates back to the late 6th or early 7th century, citing the author's knowledge of historical details and accuracy as proof of its authenticity.:184-186 She does note, however, that some authors, such as John Niles, have argued the work was invented in the 10th century.:181-184
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English, from the 9th century, that chronicle is the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The poem Battle of Maldon also deals with history. This is a work of uncertain date, celebrating the Battle of Maldon of 991, at which the Anglo-Saxons failed to prevent a Viking invasion.
Oral tradition was very strong in early English culture and most literary works were written to be performed. Epic poems were very popular, and some, including Beowulf, have survived to the present day. Beowulf is the most famous work in Old English, and has achieved national epic status in England, despite being set in Scandinavia. The only surviving manuscript is the Nowell Codex, the precise date of which is debated, but most estimates place it close to the year 1000. Beowulf is the conventional title, and its composition is dated between the 8th and the early 11th century.[pages needed]
Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous: twelve are known by name from medieval sources, but only four of those are known by their vernacular works with any certainty: Cædmon, Bede, Alfred the Great, and Cynewulf. Cædmon is the earliest English poet whose name is known,[pages needed] and his only known surviving work Cædmon's Hymn probably dates from the late 7th century. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry. It is also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language. The poem, The Dream of the Rood, was inscribed upon the Ruthwell Cross.[pages needed]