Diving into the Beowulf Manuscript

Recently, the British Library put the Beowulf manuscript on line (there are actually several texts in the manuscript; Beowulf is towards the end). Fanboy that I am, I have been poking around it since. Both grateful to live in the Age of the Internet and aware that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, I’ve used this opportunity to learn more about Beowulf, the manuscript itself, and Old English in general.

You can find the first page of the section of the manuscript in which Beowulf appears here.

Beowulf itself begins on “page” 132 of this section, or as the British Library nomenclature has it “f.132r.” There’s a page finder on the top right that lets you select any page by number, so you can go directly to “f.132r” without having to scroll forward one page at a time.

Here’s what the first page of the Beowulf text looks like:


The first thing I noticed was that the text is not broken up into lines as I expected the poem to be from the print versions I’ve read. Instead, it is written out like prose. What are the first three lines of the poem take up the first four lines of the manuscript version and end on the period after the second word on the fourth line.

The second thing I noticed was how familiar and yet “alien” the script was. The capitals T, E, G, A, R, and D of the first line were immediately recognizable. With a little squinting, I was able to recognize lower-case n, a, i, e, what looked like d, u, m, and so forth, on the second line. But quite a few of the letters were beautifully exotic and unknown to me.

The most fun I’ve had so far (with the help of Google) is trying to identify these letters, and I want to share a little bit of that, but first, a few interesting facts about the manuscript itself:

The British Library’s official name for the manuscript is “Cotton MS Vitellius A XV,” after Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), who was an expert collector of manuscripts. This particular one apparently was the 15th manuscript (abbreviated “MS”) on the first shelf of a bookcase in Cotton’s library topped by a bust of Vitellius, the eighth Roman emperor, hence the “Vitellius A XV” part of the name (XV, of course, being the Roman numeral 15). I still don’t know for sure what the “A” stands for, but I suspect it means “first shelf,” i.e. the location of the manuscript in the bookcase. Had the manuscript been the 12th manuscript on the second shelf of the Vitellius bookcase, it would have been designated as “Cotton MS Vitellius B XII,” if I understand the system correctly.

Some sources refer to the manuscript as the Nowell Codex, after Laurence Nowell (1515–1571), who wrote his name on the first page of the manuscript, along with the date 1563. When how Nowell obtained the manuscript or how it passed into Cotton’s hands is not clear to me (yet), but it was not a direct transaction: Nowell died the year Cotton was born.

The manuscript itself was written sometime in the late 10th or early 11th Century, with the early 11th Century being the general consensus. The British library has concluded that two scribes collaborated in its production.

Its language is the West Saxon dialect of Old English, but it also contains words from the Anglian dialects, Mercian and Northumbrian — the fourth major Old English dialect, Kentish, does not appear to have made it into the text.

That it contains the only copy of Beowulf to survive from medieval times gives me pause: just imagine, we would know nothing of Beowulf had this manuscript never been created, or not survived into modern times, or perished in a 1731 fire which destroyed or damaged a number of other Cotton manuscripts.

In fact, Beawulf is an anomaly, a lucky survivor. Most Old English manuscripts have been lost to us. As James Hubert wrote, “[W]ith few and relatively unimportant exceptions, all extant Anglo-Saxon poetry is preserved in four manuscripts.” The Beowulf manuscript is one of them.

Next time, I will dive into the script used by the two scribes who left us our only copy of Beowulf.

And here’s more on the Beowulf-J.R.R. Tolkien connection.

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