1,000-Year-Old Manuscript of Beowulf Digitized and Now Online


One out­come of the upcom­ing “Brex­it” vote, we’re told, might free the UK to pur­sue its own unfet­tered des­tiny, or might plunge it into iso­la­tion­ist decline. The eco­nom­ic issues are beyond my ken, but as a read­er and stu­dent of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, I’ve always been struck by the fact that the old­est poem in Eng­lish, Beowulf, shows us an already inter­na­tion­al­ized Britain absorb­ing all sorts of Euro­pean influ­ences. From the Ger­man­ic roots of the poem’s Anglo-Sax­on lan­guage to the Scan­di­na­vian roots of its nar­ra­tive, the ancient epic reflects a Britain tied to the con­ti­nent. With pagan, native tra­di­tions min­gled with lat­er Chris­t­ian echoes, and local leg­ends with those of the Danes and Swedes, Beowulf pre­serves many of the island nation’s poly­glot, mul­ti-nation­al ori­gins.

Irish poet Sea­mus Heaney—whose work engaged with the ironies and com­pli­ca­tions of trib­al­ism and nationalism—had a deep respect for Beowulf; in the intro­duc­tion to his trans­la­tion of the poem, Heaney describes it as a tale “as elab­o­rate as the beau­ti­ful con­trivances of its lan­guage. Its nar­ra­tive ele­ments may belong to a pre­vi­ous age but as a work of art it lives in its own con­tin­u­ous present, equal to our knowl­edge of real­i­ty in the present time.” Though we’ve come to think of it as an essen­tial work of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, Beowulf might have dis­ap­peared into the mists of his­to­ry had not the only man­u­script of the poem sur­vived “more or less by chance.” The “unique copy,” writes Heaney, “(now in the British Library) bare­ly sur­vived a fire in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry and was then tran­scribed and titled, retran­scribed and edit­ed, trans­lat­ed and adapt­ed, inter­pret­ed and taught, until it has become an acknowl­edged clas­sic.”

Now, the British Library’s dig­i­ti­za­tion of that sole man­u­script allows us to peel back the lay­ers of can­on­iza­tion and see how the poem first entered a lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. Orig­i­nal­ly “passed down oral­ly over many gen­er­a­tions, and mod­i­fied by each suc­ces­sive bard,” writes the British Library, Beowulf took this fixed form when “the exist­ing copy was made at an unknown loca­tion in Anglo-Sax­on Eng­land.” Not only is the loca­tion unknown, but the date as well: “its age has to be cal­cu­lat­ed by ana­lyz­ing the scribes’ hand­writ­ing. Some schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that the man­u­script was made at the end of the 10th cen­tu­ry, oth­ers in the ear­ly decades of the 11th, per­haps as late as the reign of King Cnut, who ruled Eng­land from 1016 until 1035.”

These schol­ar­ly debates may not inter­est the aver­age read­er much. The poem sur­vived long enough to be writ­ten down, then became known as great lit­er­a­ture these many cen­turies lat­er, because the rich poet­ic lan­guage and the com­pelling sto­ry it tells cap­ti­vate us still. Nonethe­less, though we may all know the gen­er­al out­lines of its hero’s con­test with the mon­ster Gren­del and his moth­er, many of the cul­tur­al con­cepts from the world of Beowulf strike mod­ern read­ers as total­ly alien. Like­wise the poem’s lan­guage, Old Eng­lish, resem­bles no form of Eng­lish we’ve encoun­tered before. Schol­ars like J.R.R. Tolkien and poets like Heaney have done much to shape our appre­ci­a­tion for the ancient work, and we might say that with­out their inter­ven­tions, it would not live, as Heaney writes, “in its own con­tin­u­ous present” but in a dis­tant, unrec­og­niz­able past.

You can hear Heaney read his trans­la­tion of the poem on Youtube. Read Tolkien’s famous essay on the poem here, and hear it read in its orig­i­nal lan­guage at our pre­vi­ous post. Learn more about the sin­gle man­u­script that pre­served the epic poem for pos­ter­i­ty at the British Library’s web­site, and see it for your­self in their dig­i­tal archive.

Find Beowulf list­ed in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sea­mus Heaney Reads His Exquis­ite Trans­la­tion of Beowulf and His Mem­o­rable 1995 Nobel Lec­ture

Hear Beowulf Read In the Orig­i­nal Old Eng­lish: How Many Words Do You Rec­og­nize?

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Illus­trat­ed in a Remark­able Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script (c. 1450)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Schröersche says:

    Thank you for shar­ing. In the Begin­ning of 2000 in Vic­to­ria, BC I heard a bard pre­sent­ing Beowulf how it might have been when it was cre­at­ed and noticed, how one can per­ceive the mean­ing with­out under­stand­ing the vocab­u­lar. It remind­ed me of child­hood mem­o­ries of Elias Canet­ti who grew up with a vocab­u­lary con­sist­ing of many lan­guages with­out dicern­ing their nation­al ori­gin.

  • Sean Bell says:

    I would also strong­ly rec­om­mend watch­ing the BBC doc­u­men­tary The Search for Beowulf by Michael Wood. It is an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to Beowulf the poem, time and place of that long ago time, there is also an excel­lent “telling” by Julian Glover in an recon­struc­tion of an old Anglo-Sax­on mead hall.

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