The earliest world history in English

The earliest history of the world in the English language was written between 870 and 930 CE by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author. Victoria Walker considers what we can learn from the Old English Orosius about the Anglo-Saxons and their relationship to the wider world.

The earliest history of the world in the English language was written between 870 and 930 CE by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author. It covers almost two-and-a-half-thousand years of Jewish, pagan and early Christian history, from the beginning of the Babylonian Empire to the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century: the plagues, earthquakes, wars and struggles for power between men (and some women) that occurred during this time, and the birth of Christ and spread of Christianity. This world history, which was copied down and shared in manuscript books over the course of a couple of centuries, is usually referred to by scholars as the Old English Orosius.

At least four copies of the history have survived.[1] Although the Old English Orosius is a modern title, a rubric (a few lines of introductory text) in the Cotton manuscript introduces the world history as ‘seo boc þe man Orosius nemneð’ [‘the book called Orosius’] (p.1, l. 1).[2] Paulus Orosius is the name of the author of a Latin work written for a Roman audience in the early 5th-century, the Historiarum adversum Paganos Libri Septem [Seven Books of History against the Pagans]. This was the principal source for the Anglo-Saxon world history. Yet the Old English Orosius is a translation of the History against the Pagans in only the broadest sense – it’s more aptly described as a ‘transformation,’ in the words of one editor, Janet Bately.[3] There are many differences between the History against the Pagans and the Old English Orosius. Exploring these differences can help us to understand how the late Anglo-Saxons might have viewed both themselves and their island in relation to the geography, history and people of the wider world.

Old English Orosius

A text page from the Tollemache Orosius.

This version, known as the Tollemache manuscript, was most likely produced in the reign of King Alfred by a West Saxon translator, probably between 870 and 930.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

A model history: the History against the Pagans

Paulus Orosius’ History against the Pagans was a hugely popular and influential Christian text across Europe in the Middle Ages. Over 200 manuscripts containing the text have survived. Although not one of these is from Anglo-Saxon England, we know the Latin history must have been available in the British Isles before 1100 for it to have been translated into Old English. The popularity of Paulus Orosius’ text can be attributed to its educational value – it offered information on the geography of the known world and its human history – and the model it provided for history-writing. Indeed, many classical and medieval historians would draw on Paulus Orosius’ work, including the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, who wrote an 8th-century Latin history of the conversion of the English people prefaced by a description of Britain, which was translated into Old English in the 9th century. The geographical description contained in the history was also a source for world maps, including the Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi and the 13th-century Hereford Mappa Mundi. Yet, despite its wide reach and scope, the History against the Pagans was originally written with a particular purpose and in a specific set of circumstances.

Tiberius Bede

A page from the Tiberius Bede, featuring an elaborate decorated initial in red, green, and yellow, with interlace and beasts' heads.

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi

A map of the world from an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon miscellany, containing the earliest known, relatively realistic depiction of the British Isles, seen in the bottom left hand corner

This map of the world was probably made in Canterbury between 1025 and 1050.

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The Latin history is set up as a rhetorical response to Romans who blame the attack on Rome by the Visigoths in 410 CE (known as the sack of Rome) on the Empire’s adoption of Christianity. Paulus Orosius uses examples from history to demonstrate that before the birth of Christ and the Christianisation of the Empire, the world was afflicted with constant war, disease and natural disaster. He suggests that, viewed in the grand scheme of history, the sack of Rome should be of little significance to the Romans. But when he wrote his history Orosius didn’t know that, by the end of the century, the Empire would fall.

Orosius and authorship

When we travel in time and space to the late 9th or early 10th century in England, we get an entirely different perspective. The Roman Empire had fallen hundreds of years ago. The Anglo-Saxons, who had a Germanic background and migrated from Northern Europe in the 5th century, had never been part of this Empire. These Germanic peoples – who would become the English – were converted to Christianity across the 7th century by both Roman and Irish missionaries, at least a couple of centuries before the Old English Orosius was written. The author of the Old English Orosius translated the History against the Pagans from one culture to another, therefore, not just from one language to another.

In this process of translation, Paulus Orosius and his rhetorical Roman audience become characters in the historical record. Orosius makes many appearances throughout the Anglo-Saxon world history, commenting on events that have just been described, such as the successive wars between the Gauls (a western European tribe) and the Romans:

Swa oft swa Galli wið Romanum wunnan, swa wurdon Romane gecnysede. For þon ge Romane, cwӕð Orosius, þonne ge ymb þӕt an gefeoht alneg ceoriað, þe eow Gotan gedydon, hwy nyllað ge geþencan þa monegan ӕrran þe eow Gallie oft rӕdlice bismerlice þurhtugon? (Book 3.10, p. 77, l. 3–7)

As often as the Gauls waged war against the Romans, the Romans were overcome. Given that you Romans, said Orosius, murmur continually about that one attack which the Goths made on you, why don’t you want to think about the many previous attacks, which the Gauls often carried through with you shamelessly?

Here Orosius points out that the Romans were constantly at war before the Empire was Christian, putting the sack of Rome in context in keeping with the overarching rhetorical message in the History against the Pagans. And yet, each time he speaks into the Old English Orosius, the phrase ‘cwӕð Orosius’ [‘Orosius said’] signals his place in the past, several hundred years ago. Naming Orosius directly has a few purposes. It acknowledges the influence of the History against the Pagans on the Old English Orosius and gives the latter much more authority. It was common for Anglo-Saxon translators to refer to the authors of their sources for these reasons.[4] Orosius’ appearances also seem to differentiate between his authorship and that of the Old English author, implying that he is no longer the direct author of history but a historical source from the past. The distinction between authors isn’t clear cut, however. Although the Anglo-Saxon author based the interjection above on a section in the Latin history, this isn’t always the case – Orosius says things in Old English that he never said in Latin. In other words, the Old English author carves out a specific persona for Orosius in his or her history. In the process, their authorship becomes entangled.

Reimagining the sack of Rome

When the historical figure, Orosius refers to the sack of Rome in the Anglo-Saxon world history, his words are steeped in irony: not only had the Empire fallen a long time ago, but the sack of Rome was considered to be the trigger for its collapse. The final chapter of the Old English Orosius opens as follows:

Æfter þæm þe Romeburg getimbred wæs m wintra 7 c 7 iiii 7 siextegum, God gedyde his miltsunge on Romanum, þa þa he hiora misdæda wrecan let, þæt hit þeh dyde Alrica se cristena cyning 7 se mildesta, 7 he mid swa lytle niþe abræc Romeburg þæt he bebead þæt mon nænne mon ne sloge, 7 eac þæt man nanuht ne wanade ne ne yfelade þæs þe on þæm ciricum wære, 7 sona þæs on þæm þriddan dæge hie aforan ut of þære byrig hiora agnum willan, swa þær ne wearð nan hus hiora willum forbærned. (Book 6.38, p. 156, ll. 11–18; my emphasis)

One thousand, one hundred and sixty-four years after Rome was built, God showed his mercy to the Romans, when he let their wrongdoings be punished, albeit by the Christian and the most merciful king Alaric, and he broke into Rome with such little hostility that he ordered the Goths not to kill anyone, and also they should not taint or harm anything in the churches, and soon on the third day they travelled out of the city of their own accord, so no house burned there at their will.

The key word here is abræc, which can mean ‘stormed,’ ‘destroyed’ or, more literally, ‘broke.’ This verb appears in relation to the sack of Rome in a number of other early medieval texts, such as the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which I’ve mentioned above. As Malcolm Godden has pointed out, these texts narrativize the sack of Rome as bringing about the end of the Empire and – as Bede’s English history records – the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain.[5] It was after this withdrawal that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated. Although Rome was no longer the centre of a ruling Empire by the time the Old English Orosius was written, it was still the centre of western Christianity and so an important city for the Christian Anglo-Saxons. It makes sense, then, that in the account above the city survives (the houses are intact) and Roman Christianity prevails (the churches and their contents are unharmed), even as the Empire itself is ‘broken.’

The description is rather far-fetched, so we might think of this as a symbolic rather than realistic telling of events. Alaric is not portrayed as the fearsome warrior you might expect for the leader of a critical attack on Rome: a ‘cristena cyning 7 se mildesta’ [‘most Christian king and the most merciful’], who invades with ‘lytle niþe’ [‘little hostility’]. His paradoxical characterisation as an enemy of Rome and a Christian hero derives from the History against the Pagans, in which Paulus Orosius suggests that the Empire was punished but not destroyed by God; its Christianity saved it, and so did divine providence. But there is more than Alaric’s Christianity at stake in the Old English Orosius. Alaric’s mercifulness is emphasised even further by the Anglo-Saxon author, despite his updated identity as the man who ‘broke’ the Empire, because he is a Goth. The Goths were a Germanic people and so had ethnic connections to the Anglo-Saxons.[6]

Remapping the world

The Germanic heritage of the Anglo-Saxons, their location in Northern Europe and their position in time changed not just the representation of world history, but also geography. Following the template of the History against the Pagans, the Old English historical record is preceded by a detailed geographical description of the three known continents: Asia, Europe and Affrica (Book 1.1, pp. 8–21). But the Old English author redraws the verbal map first sketched out by Paulus Orosius, synthesising classical source material and Anglo-Saxon knowledge and perspectives.

As you might expect, most revisions are to be found in the section of the verbal map that outlines Northern Europe. There is much more detail in the Old English Orosius on England’s neighbours, including the ‘Norþmenn’ [‘Norwegians’], (p. 13, ll. 27–28), ‘Dene’ [‘Danish’], (p. 12, l. 31) and the ‘Ealdseaxan’ [‘Old Saxons’], (p. 12, l. 28) – peoples of relevance to the late Anglo-Saxons in terms of trade, travel and ethnic background. Moreover, the Mediterranean Sea is renamed in Old English as the ‘Wendelsæ’ [‘the sea of the Vandals’ – a Germanic tribe] (p. 12, l. 21) from the Latin ‘Mare Nostrum’ [‘Our Sea’], to reflect changes to territories after the fall of the Roman Empire.[7] The Roman name for Britain, ‘Brittannia’ (p. 19, l. 11) is kept in, however, probably as the most convenient term for the landform of the ‘igland’ [‘island’], (p. 19, l. 11), which was home to the Welsh, Scots and Picts as well as the Anglo-Saxons.

Anglo-Saxon England is put on the world map in two famous Old English compositions, which are unique to the Orosius. The reports of Ohthere and Wulfstan – personal accounts of travels in the Arctic and Baltic regions – are merged with the description of Northern Europe. Wulfstan’s name suggests that he may have been English, perhaps in the Baltics for trade, although this is speculative. Ohthere, on the other hand, identifies himself as a Norwegian but we’re told that he delivered his report to ‘his hlaforde Ælfrede cyninge’ [‘his lord, King Alfred’], (p. 13, l. 29) – the king who ruled in the West Saxon kingdom in England between 871 and 899.

During the description of his journey by sea and the places he went past, Ohthere adds an aside to Alfred: ‘on þæm landum eardodon Engle, ær hi hider on land coman’ [‘the Angles lived in those lands, before they came to this land here’] (p. 16, l.18–19). ‘This land here,’ England, is not just the land of King Alfred, who died before the production of the earliest surviving manuscript of the Old English Orosius and possibly some 30 years before the history was first written. It’s also the land of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author and readers. The Old English Orosius was indebted to Paulus Orosius’ History against the Pagans, but it belonged to those Anglo-Saxons.


[1] Two copies of the history are preserved only in fragments but the 10th-century Tollemache manuscript (British Library Additional MS 47967) and the early 11th-century Cotton manuscript (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius BI) both ‘witness’ complete versions of the text.

[2] The page and line references in this article come from Janet Bately’s edition, The Old English Orosius, Early English Text Society s.s. 6 (London: Oxford University Press, 1980). A more accessible and recent edition, with a facing translation, can be found in Old English History of the World: An Anglo-Saxon Rewriting of Orosius, ed. and trans. by Malcolm R Godden, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 44 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[3] Janet M Bately, ‘The Old English Orosius’ in A Companion to Alfred the Great, ed. by Nicole Guenther Discenza and Paul E Szarmach (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 313–43 (p. 323).

[4] Susan Irvine, ‘English literature in the ninth century,’ in The New Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature, ed. by Clare A Lees (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 209–31 (pp. 226–27).

[5] Malcolm Godden, ‘The Anglo-Saxons and the Goths: rewriting the sack of Rome,’ Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002), pp. 47–68.

[6] For more on the Germanic rewriting of the sack of Rome and Alaric in the Old English Orosius, see Stephen J Harris, Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), ‘Chapter 3: King Alfred’s Christendom’, pp. 83–105, esp. pp. 88–105.

[7] For more on the Anglo-Saxon perspectives that redraw the world map in the Old English Orosius, see Daniel Anlezark ‘The Anglo-Saxon world view’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, 2nd edn., ed. by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 66–81 (pp. 71–72).

  • Victoria Walker
  • Dr Victoria Walker has taught at King’s College London and Queen’s University Belfast, where she is currently based as Lecturer in the Earliest English Writings. Her research focuses broadly on the vernacular texts produced in England in the ninth and tenth centuries, especially the translations associated with King Alfred. Her recent research focuses on the gendering of power in the Old English Orosius; this will form the basis of an essay for a collection celebrating the life of Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.