Establishing a linguistic pedigree

To this time belongs the Beowulf, which is to us English (may I not say, to all Teutons?) what the Iliad was to the Greeks. The old Epic, written on the mainland, sets before us the doughty deeds of an Englishman, before his tribe had come to Britain.

—Thomas Kington-Oliphant, The Old and Middle English, 1878


In the October 1731 edition of The Gentlemans Magazine: Or, Trader’s Monthly Intelligencer (Vol. 1), under “Casualties”, appeared the following brief report of a fire that had occurred on October 23:

A Fire broke out in the House of Mr Bently [sic], adjoining to the King’s School near Westminster Abbey, which burnt down that part of the House that contained the King’s and Cottonian Libraries: almost all the printed Books were consumed and part of the Manuscripts. Amongst the latter, those which Dr Bentley had been collecting for his Greek Testament, for these last ten Years, valued at 2000?.

While the loss of Dr. Bentley’s manuscripts, “valued at ?2000”, must have been a severe blow to his efforts to compile a Greek Testament, the Gentlemans Magazine says nothing about the loss to the British people of 114 valuable manuscript codices and the severe damage to 98 more out of a total of 958 in the Cottonian Library (Prescott 1997).

The library was originally compiled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (15711631) and bequeathed to the British people by his grandson Sir John Cotton in 1700.1 It was kept in Cotton House in Westminster till 1722, when the dilapidated state of the building necessitated the removal of the library to Essex House in the Strand. At the end of a seven-year lease in 1729, Essex House was considered to be a firetrap, and the Cottonian Library was removed to another firetrap in Little Dean’s Yard, Westminster, namely Ashburnham House.[1] [2]

The fire at Ashburnham House, which, contrary to the brief notice in the Gentlemans Magazine, gutted the building, plays a central role in the present chapter. Had Dr. Bentley, the former keeper of the Royal Library, and his son, the keeper at the time of the fire, not acted as swiftly as they did, one of the most curious but also most precious manuscript codices[3] of the whole collection would have become a victim of the fire. As it was, Cotton Vitellius A xv was thrown out onto the lawn, badly singed around the edges but essentially intact. Cotton Vitellius A xv contains the only extant manuscript—quite probably the unique manuscript—of the Beowulf epic.

The loss of Beowulf would have meant the loss of the greatest literary work and one of the most puzzling and enigmatic texts produced during the Anglo-Saxon period.[4] But it would also have made one of the most powerful linguistic myths focusing on the English language, the myth of the longevity of English, immeasurably more difficult to construct. This is not because other Anglo-Saxon texts have not come down to us; it is, rather, because of the perceived literary and linguistic value of Beowulf. To construct the longevity myth one needs to locate such texts, and the further back in time they can be located, the “older” the language becomes and the greater is the “cultural” significance that can be associated with that language.[5] The first task in this chapter will thus be to define the myth of the longevity of English within the framework set out in chapter 1. What are the archives that frame the discourse in such a way as to give evidence of the construction of the myth, and what was the sociohistorical background against which this occurred? Once we have answered those questions, we will be in a better position to discuss how the Beowulf manuscript—particularly in its present badly singed state—is at the heart of an alternative discourse from within which another archive may eventually emerge. The challenge from that discourse has not only engendered a fierce debate over the dating of the poem, but it has also put the myth itself into serious question.

  • [1] Sir John Cotton died in 1702.
  • [2] A very good account of the fire and the ensuing restoration of the Cottonian Library is given inPrescott 1997.
  • [3] A codex (pl. codices) is a collection of manuscripts bound together to form one “book”.
  • [4] In this chapter I deliberately choose to use the term “Anglo-Saxon” rather than “Old English” to document the fact that what is usually referred to as Old English was a radically different language from that whichlater emerged.
  • [5] I have placed the lexeme “cultural” in quotation marks here to indicate that the conceptualisation ofculture as the elite goods, activities and artefacts of a civilisation are meant here rather than “the way of life foran entire society” (Jary & Jary 1991). That is, the reference is to “high” culture rather than to the social anthropological understanding of the term.
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