Tracking the biography of Beowulf is rendered difficult due to the mysteries surrounding the first several centuries of the manuscript’s existence. To do so, one must examine wider trends of politics, warfare, culture, and use that knowledge to make educated guesses. The scholarly debates raging around the dating of the manuscript itself, let alone the poem the manuscript contains, show that the questions cannot be definitively answered until someone invents a time machine. The manuscript is from sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries. The poem may have been written in the eleventh century, or it may be oral tradition dating well back into the sixth or seventh century, or even farther, if it has been edited to exclude pagan references in favor of Christianity. Kevin Kiernan explains at great length that linguistics cannot be used to determine where in England the manuscript is from, let alone when. Scribal custom at the time incorporated elements of all of the major Anglo-Saxon dialects, and written conventions involved the usage of antiquated terminology (Kiernan, p. 38).
Furthermore, we have no idea where the manuscript actually was until it appears in the private collection of the noted “Saxonist” Laurence Nowell in the 1560s. From there the location of the manuscript can be traced at all times as it weathered the turbulence of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and slowly began to return from obscurity when Old English studies came to the English universities. In spite of all of this, the poem’s ubiquitousness today makes it hard to fathom the fact that Beowulf was never published in entirety until 1815. It is iconic today. Academic libraries hold shelves of translations from different times and different editors, in poetry and in prose. Echoes of the story can be found in fantasy literature, and the poem itself is referenced and adapted in everything from Animaniacs to opera. In spite of the fact that the poem is about Scandinavian kings and praises Danish leadership, it is the longest Old English poem in existence, and is considered a national treasure. The Beowulf manuscript helped to found the British Library, and in all periods of its existence has played a small part in defining what it is to be English.
British Library. “Beowulf.” Accessed October 6, 2012. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/englit/beowulf/index.html.
Encyclopedia Romana. “Beowulf.” Accessed October 6, 2012. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/beowulf/vitellius.html
Encyclopedia Romana. “Sir Robert Cotton and the Beowulf Manuscript” accessed November 18, 2012. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/beowulf/vitellius.html
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