Dead Letter Beowulf

As I mentioned last time (Diving into the Beowulf Manuscript), my favorite part of looking at the Beowulf manuscript has been exploring the script used by the two early-11th Century scribes who produced the text.

(Again, I’m an amateur, am doing this for fun, and am well aware that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If you catch any mistakes or can add anything to what I’ve said, please comment!)

I found quite a bit of information all over the net, but Redwulf provided some excellent info. Per the site,

[T]he script used in the manuscript is a mixture of Carolingian and Uncial. This is not unusual; many Anglo-Saxon manuscripts have this same mixture of scripts. Although the Beowulf manuscript is a very early example of this blend of scripts being used in a vernacular manuscript. (A manuscript written in the local language rather than Latin.)


The above is an example of Uncial script. Note how round the letters tend to be. This is a style called “insular majuscule,” a variety of Uncial that originated in Ireland (various types of Uncial were used in Europe from the 3rd to the 8th Century, but traces of it remained as late as at least the 11th Century, as the Beowulf manuscript shows).

Below is a sample of 10th Century Carolingian script. Note how “scribbly” (that’s a technical term, you know) the letters are by comparison:


This script is technically called “Carolingian minuscule” and it was developed partly under the patronage of Emperor Charlemagne (742-814). The script was widely used until the 13th Century.

In addition to the Uncial and Carolingian letters, however, I also noted a few letters adapted from the Anglo-Saxon runic script (the Futhorc); these proved the most interesting to me. But more on that later.

Here’s the first few lines of the manuscript (note that it’s not broken up into the usual lines of the poem):


and here is a transcription in Old English:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum

First, note that the initial “h” is rendered in the Uncial style, even though by this time in continental Europe, Uncial was well on its way out and Carolingian was well established. This Uncial “h” has a short ascender (the upward line) and a very rounded body. The Carolingian “h” tends to have a much longer ascender and is not as round.

The next letter (it looks like a “P”) is a very interesting one. It’s actually a survivor of the Futhorc called “wynn.” It functions as a “w” here, but, I am guessing, one with a specific sound in Old English not easily represented with the available Uncial and Carolingian letters. This is, I’m guessing, the reason all the Futhorc survivors (there are more) stuck around: they represented sounds that couldn’t be rendered using the Latin letters of Uncial and Carolingian scripts.

The next letter (“æ”) is called “ash” and is also a survivor of the Futhorc. From a recording of the poem, it’s pronounced like the “a” in “what.” Both “wynn” and “ash” were eventually dropped from English scripts and are, alas, no more, so it’s nice to see them still “alive” here.

Other than another wynn, the rest of the characters on the first line are easily recognizable Carolingian letters carried over from Latin script and still familiar to us today.

Things get interesting again on the second line. The last two letters of “GARDEna” are recognizable as lower-case “n” and “a,” both, as are most of the letters from this point on, in Carolingian minuscule. However, take a look at the two letters that look like our current cursive “z” in “geardagum.” As the transcription shows, they are not z’s at all but g’s.

You’ll notice they have descenders (the part of the letter that extends below the body) that begin from a straight line. The Carolingian “g” looks a lot more like ours, and though earlier versions did not have a completely closed upper half, they had much rounder tops above the descender.

These two are in fact a different character: they are half-uncial g’s (which show up again in “gefrunon” and “æþelingas” and so on).

But wait. Half-uncial? What on earth is that? As I’ve discovered, this was a very fluid time with lots of different scripts floating around. Look at the fifth sample on this page for more info on the half-uncial “g.”

Another interesting thing in the word “geardagum” is how long the descender on the “r” is. It makes the letter look like a modern cursive “f.” The Carolingian “r” looks just like ours, without the descender (or, in earlier versions, a much shorter one). I’m not sure exactly what the type of “r” used in the manuscript is, except perhaps to guess it’s a local, “earlier” variation that the scribes are more familiar with.

For comparison between an “r” and an “f,” look at the second word on the third line, “gefrunon.” Note how the “f” looks like our capital “F” except, again, it has a long descender. The Carolingian “f” looks similar but it has a much smaller descender. I’m guessing extending these letters downward must have been a “local” practice.

There’s lots more interesting stuff going on, but I’ll cut it short and leave you with what, to me, are the remaining stars of the show:

— on the second line, the first letter of “þeodcyninga” is “thorn,” another survivor from the Futhorc (pronounced “th”);


— yet another Futhorc survivor is on the third line: “hu ða.” That third letter is “eth,” representing a slightly different “th” sound than the letter thorn. Note, btw, how the d’s in the manuscript have their ascenders slanted to the left like an “eth” rather than straight up as in the Carolingian minuscule, another example of the mixing of scripts going on.

You can find more information on the Futhorc survivors here.

And here is the entry that got me started into what turned into Beowulf week: J.R.R. Beowulf.

  1. This is fascinating!

    I took an Intro to Old English course back in 2010, but we did not get to work with the original scripts at all. At the time, I was somewhat relieved, as my low vision makes these scripts almost indecipherable. However, your descriptions here render these gorgeously indistinct letters in perfect clarity for me. As an Old English enthusiast, I thank you!

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