Old Engli.sh

The Portal to the Language of the Anglo-Saxons

Did you enjoy this article? Read another piece of Old-Engli.sh Trivia!

Apollonius of Tyre - The first Novel written in English

Apollonius of Tyre is the first fictional prose text of the English language. Why this fictional text was translated from Latin into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular remains a mystery.

Read More

The Good Luck of the Beowulf Manuscript

Beowulf is probably the most famous Anglo-Saxon text. Its manuscript was written around 1000 A.D., but it tells of an even earlier, Germanic culture and ethos. It could not have been composed much later than the 8th century as the beginning Viking raids make it unlikely that a Danish hero would still have enjoyed much popularity among the Anglo-Saxons. The preservation of the manuscript across the ages borders a miracle.
Beowulf fights Grendels mother Gareth Hinds
Beowulf fights Grendel's mother
Artist's conception from a Gareth Hinds comic

King Henry VIII (1491-1547) dissolved a large number of monasteries in order to replenish his chronically empty treasury. The related destruction of the monastic libraries was an unspeakable catastrophe for the conservation of Old English manuscripts. Thousands were irretrievably lost – the library of Augustine Friars Abbey at York contained 646 volumes, all but three of which were destroyed; Worcester Priory had 600 books at the time of the dissolution, only six of which survived to the present day. It is not known whether the Beowulf manuscript was in fact held by a monastery, though it seems quite likely, and how it may have survived the dissolution.

The manuscript came into the possession of Laurence Nowell, Dean of Lichfield (c. 1515 – c. 1571), an early Anglo-Saxon scholar, and author of the very first Old English dictionary, Vocabularium Saxonicum. Even today, the manuscript bears his signature on its first page and is bound in the so-called Nowell Codex.

Antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) acquired the manuscript for his Cottonian library, the richest private collection of manuscripts ever amassed. The manuscripts were bound in leather and placed in fourteen bookcases, each watched over by the bust of a Roman emperor or empress. The Beowulf manuscript was the fifteenth volume on shelf A of the bookcase under the bust of emperor Vitellius. To this day, this is the official designation of the manuscript – Cotton Vitellius A. xv.

Layout of the Cottonian Library

The Cottonian library was bequeathed to the British nation and eventually moved to Ashburnham House at Westminster, where, on October 23, 1731, a devastating fire broke out, damaging hundreds of invaluable manuscripts; completely destroying thirteen. The Beowulf manuscript, closely bound between its leather covers, survived but was scorched along its exposed edges.

Layout of the Cottonian Library

Click here for an excerpt from a report on the fire from 1732

Hide report

From the "Committee Appointed to View the Cottonian Library Report", 1732:

On Saturday Morning October 23, 1731, about two o' Clock, a great Smoak was perceived by Dr. Bentley, and the rest of the Family at Ashburnham-House, which soon after broke out into a Flame: It began from a wooden Mantle-Tree's taking Fire, which lay across a Stove-Chimney, that was under the Room, where the MSS. of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries were lodged, and was communicated to that Room by the Wainscot, and by Pieces of Timber, that stood perpendicularly upon each end of the Mantle-Tree. They were in hopes at first to have put a Stop to the Fire by throwing Water upon the Pieces of Timber and Wainscot, where it first broke out, and therefore did not begin to remove the Books so soon as they otherwise would have done. But 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. Several entire Presses with the Books in them were also removed; but the Fire increasing still, and the Engines sent for not coming so soon as could be wished, and several of the Backs of the Presses being already on Fire, they were obliged to be broke open, and the Books, as many as could be, were thrown out of the Windows.

The first page of Beowulf
(Cotton Vitellius A. xv., f. 132)

Note the charred edges, scorched during the Cottonian fire 1731.

Manuscript Description

Beowulf manuscript

In 1753, the Beowulf manuscript was transferred to its new home, the British Museum, where it has been kept safe ever since. However, the priceless treasure did not always receive the caring attention it deserved. In fact, it suffered greater damage by careless handling in the following years than by the Ashburnham House fire. The outer portions of its pages and some of the text itself gradually crumbled away. G.J. Thorkelin, an Icelandic scholar, made two copies of the manuscript and published the first printed edition of Beowulf. His copies remain an important source for certain passages that have deteriorated so much that they are now illegible. In 1845, the British Museum mounted each leaf on a paper frame and rebound the manuscript, but it remains extremely fragile and can be handled only with the utmost care. Black-and-white facsimiles were produced in 1882 and 1969. Finally, the manuscript was digitalized as part of the Electronic Beowulf Project, which will ensure its conservation for perpetuity.

The survival of the Beowulf manuscript is little short of a miracle. It resisted the destruction of pagan poetry after the rise of Christianity in the Middle Ages. It survived the dissolution of English monasteries. It withstood the Cottonian Fire in 1731. And it weathered continuous deterioration and neglect over the centuries. By a stroke of good luck, this vital piece of Old English literature has been passed on to the present day, to be enjoyed by us and many future generations to come.