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Rediscovery – The Nowell Codex and the Cottonian Library

The only evidence proving the existence of Beowulf or the Beowulf manuscript before 1563 is the physical manuscript itself. Where exactly the codex resided during the centuries between its creation and its appearance in the private collection of Laurence Nowell is entirely unknown. However, historical events suggest a reasonable theory.  It is likely that the two scribes were monks, and equally likely that the manuscript, forgotten or suppressed in a world in which strong association with Anglo-Saxon language or culture was highly undesirable, languished on some back shelf of a monastic library.  When Henry VIII declared the English church free from Roman rule, the monasteries were dissolved over a period of several years.  Their contents were given or sold to royal favorites, or simply taken by those involved in the dissolution process.  Once again, Beowulf found its life affected by a time when England was defining itself as distinct from the rest of the world.  Whether Laurence Nowell acquired the codex of Anglo-Saxon texts directly from a dissolved monastic library or whether the book passed through other private hands first is unknown, though given the date the latter is more probable.  We simply know that the Nowell Codex bears his name and the year 1563.

Laurence Nowell lived during a fascinating time in English history.  Through the unpredictability of Henry VIII’s policies to the religious whiplash caused by the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and then back to the Protestant queen Elizabeth I, the humanist movement continued to grow.  It is also a time when Old English studies came to the English universities.  In her article in The Recovery of Old English, Angelika Lutz shows that the Elizabethan regime retroactively represented “the break with the Catholic Church under Henry VIII as a return to the greater independence from Rome that the English Church had known in the Anglo-Saxon period” (Graham, p. 1). Archbishop Matthew Parker and Sir William Cecil promoted “extensive studies of Anglo-Saxon historical sources and of the Old English language” (Graham, p. 2).  Laurence Nowell worked for Cecil for a time, so it is unsurprising that he should have developed an interest in the subject.  Perhaps the Beowulf manuscript came to Nowell through Cecil. Nowell apparently made a point of collecting Anglo-Saxon documents because he created the first Old English to early modern English dictionary.  It was not published until centuries after, but the fact that the project began at all is significant. He studied Old English legal documents in particular, annotating all of the texts he examined.  The presence of Old English studies in the universities and Old English documents in private hands may mean that selected scholars were permitted to read Beowulf.  Whether it was read or not, Anglo-Saxon texts were used for the specific purpose of restoring England to a more purely English version of itself, putting Beowulf at the center of the process to define national identity.

After Nowell’s death sometime around 1570, some portion of his collection made its way into the hands of Robert Cotton.  Once Beowulf shows up in Cotton’s library, historians can trace all of its further movements.  Robert Cotton “developed a particular interest in manuscripts concerning the early history of England, manuscripts which he himself put to scholarly use and which he liberally made available to contemporaries who shared his interest. In the spirit of the national enthusiasm of the late Elizabethan period, Cotton regarded this granting of access as an important public duty” (Graham, p. 10).  Beowulf could have been read by anyone granted access to his library.  Furthermore, he repeatedly petitioned Elizabeth I and James I to create a royal academy and library specifically for antiquarian studies.  Cotton even proposed donating his personal library.  It is appropriate, therefore, that his grandson did in fact donate the by then much expanded library to the state.  The progression of events between Robert Cotton’s first petition to Elizabeth I in 1602 and the eventual donation of the Cottonian Library are of course more complicated, and undoubtedly linked to the political upheaval in England during the middle part of the seventeenth century.  In 1629 the library was closed by royal order and Cotton was actually arrested on suspicion of sedition.  The antiquarian society to which Cotton belonged had strayed too far into political arenas, and the Anglo-Saxon texts that came from a world unfamiliar with the concept of ruling by divine right might be to blame.

England survived its civil war and the restoration of an increasingly limited monarchy, and Old English studies continued to thrive in the universities.  Kiernan writes that “The Cotton collection was presented to the British people in 1700” by Cotton’s grandson, Sir John Cotton (Kiernan, p. 67).  It is thus a foundational collection of what is now the British Library – not just one of the most fabulous library collections in the world, but a source of national definition and pride for the British people.  It is significant that the collection was donated to the British people, not the British monarch.  The House of Commons trustees moved the collection from the “dilapidated” Cotton House to Essex House in 1722.  It remained there for seven years, after which it was moved from Essex house, which had been deemed a fire hazard, to the ironically-named Ashburnham House (Kiernan, p. 67).  On October 23, 1731, a fire broke out at Ashburnham House.  “The Fire prevailing, notwithstanding the Means used to extinguish it, Mr. Casley the Deputy-Librarian took Care in the first Place to remove the famous Alexandrian MS. and the Books under the Head of Augustus in the Cottonian Library, as being esteemed the most valuable amongst the Collection” (Kiernan, p. 68, quoted from a contemporary account). Other bookshelves were removed in their entirety, and others had to be broken open so that the books, already charring from the back of the shelving, could be thrown out the windows. As Kiernan relates, “The Beowulf MS was presumably saved for us by being thrown from the window, for the present condition of Cotton Vitellius A. XV shows that the Vitellius press was one of those that caught fire from the back” (Kiernan, p. 68).  Known as Cotton Vitellius A. XV in remembrance of its shelf location in the Cottonian library, the manuscript remained in the condition in which the fire left it until the British Library rebound it in the nineteenth century, charred edges flaking and crumbling, allowing precious letters and words to vanish.  It is a great pity that the first complete transcriptions were made decades after the fire.  Scholars estimate the loss of thousands of characters from the poem as it originally existed.

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