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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

II. Runes and Manuscripts

§ 5. The Roman Alphabet

Runes went out of use during the ninth and tenth centuries. Their place had, however, been usurped long before that period by the Roman alphabet, which the English received from the early Irish missionaries. The advent of Christianity and the beginnings of English literature are intimately connected, for the missionary and the Roman alphabet travelled together, and it was owing to the Christian scribe that the songs and sagas, the laws and customs, the faith and the proverbial wisdom of our forefathers, were first recorded and preserved. It is, indeed, difficult to realise that, before the conversion of the English to Christianity, during the sixth and seventh centuries, the whole, or, at all events, by far the greater part, of the intellectual wealth of the nation was to be sought on the lips of the people, or in the retentive memory of the individual, and was handed down from generation to generation by means of song and recitation. Caesar relates how this was the case in Gaul, where the accumulated wisdom of the Druids, their religion and their laws, were transmitted by oral tradition alone, since they were forbidden to put any of their lore into writing, although, for other purposes, the Greek alphabet was used. What wonder if the young Gauls who served their apprenticeship to the Druids had, as Caesar says, to learn “a great number of verses,” and often to stay as long as twenty years before they had exhausted their instructors’ store of learning.

Before entering, however, on the history of the Irish alphabet in England, it may be of interest to note that an even earlier attempt had been made to introduce Roman characters among the English. This was due to the efforts of Augustine and his missionaries, who established a school of handwriting in the south of England, with Canterbury as a probable centre. A Psalter of about A.D. 700, now in the Cottonian collection of the British Museum, and a few early copies of charters constitute, however, the only evidence of its existence that survives. From these we learn that the type of alphabet taught was the Roman rustic capital though of a somewhat modified local character. This paucity of records makes it seem likely that the school of the Roman missionaries had but a brief period of existence, and wholly failed to influence the native hand.