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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.

V. Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred

§ 9. Lives of Saints; Visions; Minor writings

With Alcuin we close the list of the considerable authors who fall within our period. But there still remain some few writings of the eighth and ninth centuries which demand a word of notice. These consist mainly of lives of saints, visions, poems and devotional literature.

The anonymous lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and the life of Cuthbert by a Lindisfarne monk—both so extensively used by Bede—have been mentioned already. The earliest life of Gregory the Great, to which an English origin is attributed, should not be forgotten here. It is discussed by Plummer in an appendix to the edition of Bede’s History.

More important than this, from the literary point of view, are the lives of Wilfrid of York by Eddius Stephanus, and of Guthlac by Felix. Both of these belong to the eighth century. The former begins in a way which may indicate either indo lence or modesty on the part of its author, who transcribes, with few alterations and without acknowledgment, the preface of the anonymous life of Cuthbert. The reading of the life will probably conduce to the most favourable interpretation being placed upon this proceeding; for, unflinching partisan as he is, Eddius makes us think of him kindly. Many a man would have spoken much more bitterly of the opponents of his hero; and, though Eddius persistently and gallantly disguises that hero’s faults, we do not feel so much that he is a bad historian as that he is a wrongly faithful friend.

Felix, the biographer of Guthlac, is far more picturesque in style than Eddius. Unlike the latter, he has fallen under the spell of Aldhelm. He has been fascinated, too, by the tales of the demon hordes who haunted the lonely hermit of the fens, and has portrayed them in language which, whether directly or not, was reproduced in vernacular poetry not many generations later.

Closely connected with these biographies of saints are the visions of the next world. Several of them are reported by Bede, notably the vision of Fursey, the Irish hermit, and of Drythelm. Two more (one of them in a fragmentary condition) are preserved among the correspondence of Boniface. Like the life of Guthlac these apocalypses had firm hold upon popular imagination, and some of them appear in the homilies of Aelfric in an English dress. They owed their origin, it may be remarked, in a great measure to the Dialogues of Gregory and the apocryphal Revelation of Paul—which latter, as we have seen, was known to Aldhelm. It is possible that the far older Revelation of Peter may have survived in some form accessible to the English church of the seventh and eighth centuries. Evidence is not wanting to show that an Italian apocalypse of the seventh century, that of St. Barontus of Pistoja, was studied in England not long after our period.

In the department of poetry the only considerable work which remains to be mentioned is the poem of one Ethelwulf upon the history of a monastery the identity of which is not yet certainly established. The house in question was clearly connected with Lindisfarne, and is thought to have been at Crayke near York. The poem is dedicated to Egbert, who was bishop of Lindisfarne in the first quarter of the ninth century, and is constructed on the model of Alcuin’s versified history of the saints of the church of York. It contains among other things an account of a vision of the next world, similar to those mentioned in the last paragraph.

Of devotional literature, by which we mean more particularly collections of prayers and hymns for private use, there is a fairly large quantity preserved in manuscripts which belong to the period under consideration. The most remarkable of these is perhaps the volume called the Book of Cerne, now in the University Library at Cambridge. Both Celtic and Spanish influences have been traced in many of the compositions in this and other like works. Much light may eventually be thrown by this class of literature upon the intellectual as well as the religious surroundings of the clergy and monks of the eighth and ninth centuries.

A not inconsiderable portion of the Latin writings of these same centuries consists of documents connected with church law. Books called Penitentials exist under the names of Theodore Bede and Egbert of York; and there are, besides, canons of church councils and the like. But these have really no claim to the name of literature and a mere mention of them must suffice.

These, then, are the chief remains of the Latin literature which was produced in England before the time of Alfred. The period of greatest activity lasted, we have seen, for about a hundred years, from A.D. 690 to 790. It is marked by the rise of two great schools, those of Canterbury and York, and by the work of one great scholar. The south of England produced works characterised by a rather perverted and fanciful erudition. It was the north which gave birth to Bede, the one writer of that age whose works are of first-rate value, and to Alcuin, whose influence was supreme in the schools of the continent.