The Beowulf Manuscript and Poem

Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dated on paleographical grounds to the late tenth or early eleventh century. The manuscript measures 195×130 mm.

Remounted page, British Library Cotton Vitellius A.XV


The earliest known owner of the Beowulf manuscript is the 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell, after whom the manuscript is named, though its official designation is British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV because it was one of Robert Bruce Cotton‘s holdings in the Cotton Library in the middle of the 17th century. Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it through William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere,  17th Earl of Oxford.

It suffered damage in the Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Since then, parts of the manuscript have crumbled along with many of the letters. Rebinding efforts, though saving the manuscript from much degeneration, have nonetheless covered up other letters of the poem, causing further loss. Kevin Kiernan, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, an expert in computer digitalisation and preservation of the manuscript, used fibre-optic back-lighting to show lost letters of the poem.

The poem is known only from this single manuscript, which is estimated to date from close to AD 1000. Kiernan has argued from an examination of the manuscript that it was the author’s own working copy. He dated the work to the reign of Canute the Great.[5] The poem appears in what is today called theBeowulf manuscript or Nowell Codex (British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv), along with other works. The earliest extant reference to the first foliation of the Nowell Codex was made sometime between 1628 and 1650 by Franciscus Junius (the younger).[5][page needed] The owner of the codex before Nowell remains a mystery.

Reverend Thomas Smith and Humfrey Wanley undertook the task of cataloguing the Cotton library, where the Nowell Codex was held. Smith’s catalogue appeared in 1696, and Humfrey’s in 1705. he Beowulf manuscript itself is mentioned in name for the first time in a letter in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hickes responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley “I can find nothing yet of Beowulph.” It has been theorised that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues or because either he had no idea how to describe it or because it was temporarily out of the codex.


The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Beowulf manuscript was transcribed from an original by two scribes, one of whom wrote the first 1939 lines and a second who wrote the remainder, so the poem up to line 1939 is in one handwriting, whilst the rest of the poem is in another. The script of the second scribe is archaic. Both scribes proofread their work down to even the most minute error. The second scribe slaved over the poem for many years “with great reverence and care to restoration”. The first scribe’s revisions can be broken down into three categories “the removal of ditto-graphic material; the restoration of material that was inadvertently omitted or was about to be omitted; and the conversion of legitimate, but contextually incorrect words to the contextually proper words. These three categories provide the most compelling evidence that the scribe was generally attentive to his work while he was copying, and that he later subjected his work to careful proofreading.” The work of the second scribe bears a striking resemblance to the work of the first scribe of the Blickling homilies, and so much so that it is believed they derive from the same scriptorium. From knowledge of books held in the library at Malmesbury Abbey and available as source works, and from the identification of certain words particular to the local dialect found in the text, the transcription may have been made there. However, for at least a century, some scholars have maintained that the description of Grendel’s lake in Beowulf was borrowed from St. Paul’s vision of Hell in Homily 16 of the Blickling homilies. Most intriguing in the many versions of the Beowulf FS is the transcription of alliterative verse. From the first scribe’s edits, e-menders such as Klaeber were forced to alter words for the sake of the poem. “The lack of alliteration in line 1981 forced Klaeber in his edition, for example, to change side (the scribe’s correction) to heal. The latter scribe revealed not only astute mechanical editing, but also unbridled nourishment of the physical manuscript itself.


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