“Old English,” also termed “Anglo-Saxon,” was and is simply the form of the English language that predates the Norman Conquest of 1066. The first line of the earliest poem in Old English, a prayer called “Cædmon’s Hymn,” largely unfamiliar to modern English speakers, offers a taste of this forgotten language: Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard (“Now we must praise the guardian of the heaven-kingdom”).
Scattered American antiquarians and scholars, including Thomas Jefferson, investigated Anglo-Saxon in the early years of the American republic. The study of the language became more widespread in the decades following the Civil War, when many of the growing numbers of American universities and colleges added it to their curricula. As with any endeavor in nineteenth-century higher education, many more men than women took part.