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Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript

The origins of the Beowulf manuscript are mysterious and the subject of intense scholarly debate.  The manuscript itself is now known as the Nowell Codex, after Laurence Nowell’s inscription of his own name on the front page in the sixteenth century.  Paleographic studies show that Beowulf was written by two scribes, but it is impossible to prove definitively where those scribes were, precisely when the manuscript was created, or even the extent to which the poem is based on older oral tradition. Is the manuscript a copy of an older written version, or is it the first time anyone wrote the poem down?  The basic facts of the manuscript are few.  The first scribe copied lines 1-1939, while the second scribe copied the remainder.  Beowulf covers about seventy pages of a larger codex including other prose texts, such as Judith and Homily on St. Christopher. It is the longest extant Old English poem, and currently resides in the collection of the British Library.  According to the British Library catalogue record for Cotton Manuscript Vitellius A XV, which includes the Nowell Codex, the manuscript is written on parchment and measures approximately 245 x 185mm in its 1845 binding (British Library, Catalogue record).

From a bibliographical point of view, it may be unexpected that the primary debate rages about the dating of the manuscript rather than the authorship.  Scholars refer calmly to the two scribes and to an unknown author dubbed “the Beowulf poet.”  On the other hand, arguments and conflicting theories about when the manuscript was created can be described politely as contentious. Some date the poem as early as the eighth century, explaining that it must be after Caedmon and the conversion of the English people to Christianity, but that it must be before the Viking raids in the 790s.  A poet writing in Anglo-Saxon would be unlikely to praise violent Danish invaders, and the poem is distinctly favorable towards the Danes (Encyclopedia Romana, “Beowulf). This argument seems to be an outlier, and most scholars aim towards the much later date of the late tenth or early eleventh century.  The dating theories seem to be based mostly on historical context with the added support of subtle paleographical details.  Those that date the manuscript to the earlier centuries focus on the Christian elements of the poem.  They generally argue that it points to a converted population trying to meld old pagan stories with the new Christian values.  Another option may be found in Richard North’s The Origins of Beowulf.  North proposes that “the poem was composed in order to secure the Mercian throne for its patron, Wiglaf, by performing a requiem for King Beornwulf in the aftermath of his death in battle in 826” (North, p. 4).  At the other end of the dating spectrum, historians look more at the political situation in England in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.  Kiernan argues that “there is a better argument for an 11th-century, post-Viking origin of the poem, since an 8th-century poem would still have to be transmitted by Anglo-Saxons through the Viking Age” (Kiernan, p. 4).

From the late eighth century onwards, Anglo-Saxon England was plagued by Danish Viking incursions.  By the late ninth century, Danish settlers inhabited a portion of the island and eventually acceded to English rule.  This does not mean that England was at peace with the Danes.  Danish Vikings continued to invade and pillage, and eventually started to demand annual tributes paid by the English government.  A series of vicious raids and slaughtering on both sides culminated in 1013, when the Viking king Sweyn Forkbeard conquered England and forced the hapless Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred into exile.  Unfortunately for the Vikings, Sweyn died less than a year later, at which point the Anglo-Saxon nobles began to negotiate with Aethelred for his return.  History has granted Aethelred the appellation “Unready,” a mistranslation of the Old English word meaning “ill-advised,” and it is widely accepted that the Anglo-Saxon nobles surrendered to Sweyn simply because they had lost all faith in Aethelred’s bad governance.  After Aethelred’s death in 1016, Sweyn’s son Canute worked to take over the English crown.

Clearly this is a turbulent time, and most scholars date the Beowulf manuscript to sometime between 975 and 1025, usually before 1016.  Beowulf “offers a model for the realization of the royal obligations, a second model for the obligations to be met by the followers, and a third one which presents the mechanism of social rise of an individual on the basis of the individual’s strife for renown. These three models correspond to three fundamental problems of Anglo-Saxon society under King Aethelred” (Zimmerman, p. 267).  It is not unreasonable to postulate that the back-and-forth of the crown between Wessex and the Danes might prompt comparisons between the hopeless Aethelred and the powerful, successful Danish kings. Anglo-Saxon political structures provide us today with the foundations of representative government.  Their kings were accepted by acclamation, and it was accepted that the populace (land-owning free men, that is) had a say in government.  Perhaps an Anglo-Saxon poet, adhering to long cultural tradition, might think they were better off with a Danish king, or perhaps Beowulf is simply toadying to the current overlords.

In the 1980s, Kevin Kiernan published Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, a detailed series of arguments to pinpoint both the date and the origins of the Beowulf manuscript.  He complains vigorously about the lack of attention to the physical manuscript itself in determining its date of production, saying that the manuscript deserves equal, if not more, attention than the poem.  Kiernan’s work was explosive.  He posited a date as late as 1025, during the reign of King Canute.  Furthermore, Kiernan wrote, “The chronological gulf between the poem and the MS is usually reckoned to be two or three centuries… Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript challenges the unproven premise that Beowulf is an early poem. It argues instead, ultimately on the basis of extraordinary paleographical and codicological evidence, that the poem is contemporary with the MS” (Kiernan, p. 3).  Kiernan, who edited the Electronic Beowulf, makes extensive use of digital technologies to examine the extant manuscript for tiny paleographical details, errors in foliation and pagination, and the evidence of palimpsest sections to prove that not only is the manuscript from the middle of Canute’s reign, but it is contemporary with the poem itself.

It is possible, Kiernan proposes, that the manuscript is in fact the original of Beowulf, since he sees evidence that Scribe B worked on it over a matter of years. Other scholars contest this interpretation.  “However tempting this suggestion seems to be,” Gunhild Zimmerman writes, “it rests on rather weak arguments as far as the palaeographical evidence of the manuscript is concerned. Many Critics would not be happy with a palaeographical date of the manuscript after 1016” (Zimmerman, p. 236).  He goes on to cite several scholars who argue that the scribes worked from a copy, basing their argument on the specific layout of Beowulf within the Nowell Codex. “The scribes could not have known without an exemplar, Boyle concludes, that they would need to add just four extra lines, spread out over four pages, to the normal 20-line frame in order for scribe A to be able to finish copying all the text he had to fit into his pages of text. This was necessary because scribe B had already finished his part of the text before scribe A had finished his” (Zimmerman, p. 236).

The extent to which the manuscript was read by contemporaries is unknown. It seems there are no references to it in other extant documents, and the survival of a single manuscript argues for limited production and consequently limited readership. As Canute was succeeded once again by the house of Wessex, a poem extolling Danish kingship may have been something to keep hidden.  The manuscript may have been shoved into the back of a library and forgotten as Anglo-Saxon kings gave way to Norman conquerors, and the language, politics, and social structure of England changed permanently.

** full bibliography will be posted with concluding section of paper