Keefer, Sarah Larratt
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 6 (1989)
Little interest to date has been paid to a special branch of Old English religious verse, which stems from the liturgy as it was used in the tenth century. These are poems which re-create into the vernacular the psalms, hymns, and prayers that formed the nucleus of Benedictine worship then being reestablished by Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald. Consequently, they are assumed to date from the period of the tenth-century monastic Reform, which began with the accession of Edgar in 959. Yet this period in pre-Conquest cultural history is essential to an understanding of Anglo-Saxon literary self-awareness, for the following reason: the Benedictine Reform re-founded monasteries, which were centers of literacy and education, and from the pens of these once-more literate monastics came the four great codices which collected and preserved a substantial body of major Old English poetry composed prior to that period. Both the Vercelli and Exeter books can be dated to the Reform period itself, while the Junius and Beowulf manuscripts are from less than a generation later. All of the four major collections, not to mention a number of miscellanies containing shorter poems, were therefore shaped in the renewal of literacy born in the tenth-century Reform.