The Manuscript

Travellin' Man(uscript)

Though scholars don’t know exactly where the Beowulf manuscript – or, as it is also known, Cotton-Vitellius A.xv – originated, it is certain that one of its owners was Sir Robert Cotton, a seventeenth-century collector who kept track of his precious manuscripts by noting their shelf position in his bookcases which were each named for the busts of the Roman emperors that topped them (ergo, Vitellius A.xv was the fifteenth book on the first shelf of the Vitellius case).  Cotton bound the manuscript in a volume with another completely unrelated manuscript:

The first recorded mention of the manuscript is in a letter from George Hickes to Humfrey Wanley on 20 August, 1700, in which Hickes states, "I can find nothing yet of Beowulph."  It’s not clear when people began to really study the poem, however, someone underlined proper names that appear in it – an action which might be attributed to Nowell, "if indeed he ever attempted to read it."  (Kiernan, "Legacy," 196)  In 1705 the poem was finally mentioned by name when Wanley, possibly due to a careless translation attempt, described it as the "story of Beowulf the Dane who fought with Swedish princes." (Kiernan, "Legacy," 196)

Regardless, the Beowulf manuscript managed to survive at least 700 years without incident until a fire in Cotton’s library in 1731 left the manuscript scorched along the edges. It is possible, though, that Wanley’s inaccurate description of Beowulf as a Dane actually helped in the preservation of the poem.

In 1815, Thorkelin produced the first edition of the Beowulf poem using his trasncripts, and subtitled A Danish Poem in Anglo-Saxon Dialect Concerning Danish Events of the Third and Fourth Centuries.  The transcripts have been used by modern editors to fill in the poem’s gaps even since.

In 1805, the first attempt to translate parts of Beowulf into English was by Sharon Turner in his Anglo-Saxon history.  Turner took issue with Wanley’s description of the Beowulf story stating his "account of the contents of the manuscript is incorrect.  It is a composition more curious and important."  However, Turner must have been reading Hamlet at the same time because he, too, misinterpreted the poem describing it as ". . . a narration of the attempt of Beowulf to wreck the fæthe or deadly feud on Hrothgar, for a homicide which he had committed."  (Kiernan, "Legacy," 196)

In 1845, the British Museum discovered that Beowulf was deteriorating rapidly.  The charred edges of the manuscript  crumbled at the slightest touch, and the 1731 fire had completely burned away Cotton’s binding, leaving the manuscript a pile of unbound vellum leaves.  It was decided that rebinding Beowulf and the other Cotton Vitellius A.xv manuscripts was the only way to save them.  Though the bookbinders did an excellent job in preserving the manuscript from further degeneration, they unfortunately covered up hundreds of letters of the text, and lost the original vellum gatherings in the process.  In 1882, Julius Zupitza attempted to record all of the covered letters by holding the manuscript up to a light-bulb, and in 1982-83 Kevin Kiernan used fiber-optic light and discovered over 300 letters Zupitza was unable to find.

The manuscript is currently undergoing a drastic metamorphosis.  Kevin Kiernan is continuing his quest to save the manuscript by preserving its content through computer digitization.  The process is complicated and time consuming, but it is the best way to prevent losing the original content, script, line-marks, erasures and emendations to the ages.  Click here for more information about the Electronic Beowulf Project.

Dating the Manuscript

When was Beowulf written?  Where did it originate?  Who was the author?  One might as well ask:  "What was the exact date that life, in any form, first appeared upon the Earth, where did it appear, and what was it’s name?"  He who poses the questions may receive an answer, such as, "August 4, 10,000,000,000 BC, in Timbuktu, and his name was Bob," however, he would have no way to verify it – even with the most state-of-the-art carbon dating equipment and a one-way ticket to Ghana.

The debate began with the first publication of the poem. Thorkelin was of the opinion that the poem could not have been composed long after the action took place because "in this work we have abundant sources from which an understanding of our people's religion and poetry can be gleaned as well as a narrative of their activities in the third and fourth centuries." (Chase, "Opinions," 3) However, Outzen was of the opinion that, because the poem was so eloquently composed, it was impossible that it could have been written at such an early date. (Chase, "Opinions," 3).

Dates of origin for the Beowulf manuscript range from the late eighth century to the early eleventh century, and, I'm sorry to say, the question of the date will not be satisfactorily answered here.  I can, however, point the reader in the direction of Kevin Kiernan ["The Legacy of Wiglaf: Saving a Wounded Beowulf," and "Beowulf" and the "Beowulf" Manuscript].  Kiernan's research of the original text – the physical examination of the pages and bindings – has lead him to believe that the story was written down sometime around 1000, and his argument is very convincing.  [Note: I stress "written down" because some scholars believe the manuscript was the result of an industrious poet who decided to write down what had previously been only part of a scop's repertoire.]

One thing that has convinced Kiernan that Beowulf was most certainly an early eleventh century poem, was a discovery he made during his examination of the original manuscript.  The original gatherings, or binding features of the document were constructed in 4-sheet gatherings, all pages ruled for 20 lines of text with only one exception.  The scribe had arranged his vellum (sheep-skin) sheets with hair sides facing hair sides and flesh sides facing flesh sides so that a reader would not notice the contrast.  Because of this manuscript layout, Kiernan believes the Beowulf manuscript is from the same scriptorium as the Blickling Homilies codex now located in the Scheide collection at Princeton.

On the other side of the dating fence we have scholars such as Dorothy Whitelock, who believed that the poem must predate Viking raids because it praises the virtues of the Danes: Or as Kiernan, in explaining the position of scholars like Whitelock, so eloquently puts it, "As long as Viking raids continued in England, no Anglo-Saxon scop in his right mind would chant the opening lines of Beowulf before a live, beer-drinking audience . . . ."  ("Legacy," 200)  However, Cnut, a Dane, was king of England in the early eleventh century.  If Kiernan's estimation is correct, then the Anglo-Saxon poet could have been employed by Cnut's court (or the court of a Danish thane living in England), and praising the Danes would be considered job security.

And so the debate continues. Every Beowulf scholar possesses an opinion about the dating of the manuscript. These opinions occasionally change when a new theory is published, but on the whole, they are unwavering and fervently debated anytime two scholars meet . . . a condition, it is safe to say, that will not change anytime soon.

Important Dates:

c. 400 Germanic peoples settle in Britain 
c. 400  The Battle of Finnsberg (Finnsburh) takes place. 
498  Froda kills Halfdene of the Danes; Froda’s son Ingeld born 
499  Heorogar, Hroðgar, and Halga (Danes) kill Froda 
503  Hæðcyn becomes king of the Geats 
503  First Swedish-Geatish feud begins. 
510  Hæðcyn king of the Geats, and Ongenþeow, the Swedish king, are killed in Battle of Ravenswood.  Hæðcyn’s brother Hygelac becomes king of the Geats, and Ohþere king of the Swedes. 
518  Freawaru, daughter of Hroðgar, marries Ingeld to forestall a renewal of the feud. 
520  Ingeld attacks and burns down Heorot, but is then defeated by Hroðgar and Hroðulf 
524  Hygelac of the Geats is killed in his ill-fated Frisian raid.  Heardred, Hygelac’s son, becomes king of the Geats. 
532  Second Swedish-Geatishfeud begins. 
533  Death of Swedish king Ohþere(Ottar Vendel-Crow, buried at Vendel in Uppland Sweden. His brother Onela seizes the throne while his sons Eanmund and Eadgils seek refuge in the Geatish court. Onela attacks the Geats and kills their young king Heardred [In Beowulf, Beowulf takes the throne at this point].   In the battle Eanmund is killed by Weohstan, Onela’s champion. [In Beowulf, Weohstan is Wiglaf's father, however, Wiglaf's existence has not been proven outside Beowulf.]
535  Eadgils is laid in a mound at Old Uppsala. 
c. 540  Gildas in De excidio Britanniae laments the effects of the Germanic settlements on the supine Britons 
597  St. Augustine arrives in Kent to convert the English 
c. 625  A cenotaph ship containing rich treasures analogous to those described in Beowulf is buried in a mound at Sutton Hoo, East Anglia (mound 1). 
600-700  The "century of conversion." Around 600, approximately 13 independent kingdoms exist in England.   By about 650 we have the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex Wessex, Sussex, and Kent. 
678-79 "The missionary activity of the English church began by accident when Wilfred, on his way to Rome to protest his deposition as Bishop of York, landed in Frisia to avoid falling into the hands of his political enemies and spent the winter of 678-79 as guest of the pagan king Aldgisl . . ." (Benson, 37)
757-96  Offa king of Mercia 
793  Vikings attack Lindisfarne 
869  Vikings defeat and kill Edmund, king of East Anglia 
871-99  Alfred the Great king of Wessex 
878  Alfred defeats the Viking army at the battle of Eddington, and the Vikings settle in East Anglia (879-80) 
924-39  Aþelstan king of Wessex and first king of all England 
971 Date of Blickling Homilies
978-1016  Æþelred "the Unready" king of England 
c. 1000 Late West Saxon was the literary dialect used throughout England.  It is agreed that the Beowulf manuscript is written in, mostly Late West Saxon dialect. (Kiernan, "Legacy," )
1013  The English submit to Swein, king of Denmark 
1016-35  Cnut king of England 
1042-66  Edward the Confessor king of England 
1066  Battle of Hastings:  William the Conqueror, leading the Norman army, defeats the English army led by Harold. 
1563  Beowulf manuscript in possession of Laurence Nowell.  He may have been the one who underlined the proper names in the manuscript. 
c. 1600’s  Manuscript owned by Sir Robert Cotton
1700  Allusion to "Beowulph" made in letter from George Hickes to Humfrey Wanley 
1705  Poem mentioned by name by Wanley as the story of Beowulf the Dane who fought with Swedish princes. 
1731  Fire in Cotton Library, manuscript escapes with singed edges and no binding. 
1786  Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin learns of Wanley’s description of Beowulf as being a Dane. 
1787  Thorkelin hires a scribe to make copy of the manuscript and later makes another copy himself thus preserving at least 2000 letters which have since crumbled away from the original document due to the fire-damage. 
1805  Sharon Turner, in his history of the Anglo-Saxons, takes issue with Wanley's description.
1815  Thorkelin uses these transcripts to produce the first edition of the poem. 
1816 "Outzen proposed that the missions [missionary activity of the English Church] in Frisia supplied the route by which the story of Beowulf reached the poet.  The more recent discovery of the possible English origin of the Liber Monstrorum with its account of Hygelac, which probably came to England by way of Frisia, has led critics to reflect anew that a good many Englishmen of the late seventh and eighth centuries must have seen or heard of Hygelac’s grave on that island in the mouth of the Frisian Rhine." (Benson, 39)
1845  The British Museum decides to rebind Beowulf and the other Cotton Vitellius A.xv manuscripts sacrificing the original vellum gatherings in the process. 
1882  Julius Zupitza attempts to record all of the covered letters by holding the manuscript to up to a light-bulb. 
1982-83 Kevin Kiernan uses fiber-optic light and discovers over 300 letters Zupitza was unable to find.  He also makes a connection between the Beowulf manuscript and the Blickling Homilies and, based upon his findings, dates the manuscript as early eleventh century. 
1993-present  Kiernan continues his work to preserve the Beowulf manuscript through computer digitization.  The Electronic Beowulf Project is a joint effort between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky.
1994 The Royal Library of Denmark allows Kevin Kiernan and David French, a conservator in the Department of Manuscripts of the British Library, to digitize the two eighteenth-century Thorkelin transcripts in Copenhagen.
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