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Old English Written Records
Old English was first written using the runic alphabet. This alphabet was used in northern Europe, in Scandinavia, present-day Germany, and the British Isles, and has been preserved in about 4000 inscription and a few manuscripts. It dates from around the third century AD. No one knows exactly where the alphabet came from. It is a development of one of the alphabets of southern Europe, probably the Roman, which runes resemble closely. The modifications which Latin letters underwent in the runic alphabet are accounted for by the technique of writing used by Germanic tribes in those early times. Namely, writing at the time did not mean putting a colour or paint on some surface: it meant cutting letters into wood or engraving them on stone or bone. So the letters are angular; straight lines are preferred. Horisontal lines were not made as the knife used to cut it merely separated fibres of the wood, and eventually, when the knife was removed, the fibres of the wood joined again, and no trace of a line remained visible. So horisontal lines were tilted upwards or downwards. Curves were replaced by broken lines. And one more peculiaruty of the runic alphabet not satisfactorily explained yet: tilted lines stretching from top to bottom were avoided: they were shortened in one way or another.
Fig. 8 “The runic alphabet”
The common runic alphabet used throughout the area consisted of twenty four letters. It is written both from left to right and from right to left. Each letter had a name, and the alphabet as a whole is called the ‘futhorc’ (in Britain), from the names of its first six letters (in a similar way to our name ‘alphabet’, derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta). The version found in Britain used extra letters to cope with the range of sounds found in Old English, and at its most developed form, in ninth century Northumbria, consisted of thirty-one letters.
Neither on the mainland nor in Britain were the runes ever used for everyday writing or for putting down poetry and prose works. When runes came to used in manuscripts, they were commonly used to convey ‘secret’ information ( the very name ‘runes’ means ‘secret’). In one manuscript, a collection of riddles contains items in which runes are used to provide clues to the solution. In another, an author’s name is hidden - written in runic letters interspersed throughout a text. Over the centuries, the sympolic power of runes (perhaps arising from the way each symbol had a name, and represented a concept) has often been recognized. Runes continued to be used in Scandinavia until as late as the ninteenth century. Even in the 20th century, they can be found in tales of mystery and imagination (such as the work of J.R.R.Tolkein).
The most famous runic inscriptions in Britain appear on Ruthwell Cross, near Dumfries, a stone monument some 5 metres tall, and around the sides of a small bone box known as the Franks Casket (named after the British archeologist A.W.Franks who discovered it in th 19th c. and presented to the British Museum). The earliest evidence of Old English is a runic inscription on a gold medallion (or bracteate) found at Undley in Suffolk in 1982, which has been dated AD 450-80.
Fig. 9 “The Ruthwell Cross”
Fig. 10 “Franks Casket”
Fig. 11 “The Undley Bracteate”
The Ruthwell Cross has the part of the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood”. The poem takes the form of a monologue within a monologue - a dreamer tells of a vision in which he hears Christ’s Cross speak.
The Franks Casket consists of five carved panels one of which (the lid) is incomplete. The four complete sides bear inscriptions, three in Old English carved in runes and one in Latin in mixed runes and insular script. The longest among them, in alliterative verse, tells the story of the whale bone, of which the Casket is made.