TRACING THE GROWTH OF INTEREST IN THE BEOWULF MANUSCRIPT

From the outset we need to make a distinction between the text of Beowulf and the unique (fire-damaged) manuscript of the poem contained in Cotton Vitellius A xv now kept in the British Library. The text of Beowulf has been hypothesised to have existed from an earlier century, sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries, by virtue of being copied over a period of time from the postulated genesis of the poem till the eleventh century. The extant manuscript contained in Cotton Vitellius A xv was dated by Ker (1957) to lie somewhere between 975 to 1025. Just how many copies there may have been and what the linguistic provenance of the “original” manuscript was remains a mystery for the simple reason that there is only one extant manuscript. This, in itself, is a strong argument for rejecting the postulated textual history of Beowulf. The arguments that I put forward are based on Kiernan’s well-researched and trenchant critique of the textual history of Beowulf in Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript ([1981] 1996), but I wish to add a set of arguments to modify his conclusions. The major aim of the chapter is, of course, to deconstruct the use of Beowulf as a major argument in support of the ancient language myth by showing that the myth itself is an integral part of a larger hegemonic discourse archive that came under strong pressure from alternative academic archives in the last twenty years of the twentieth century.

Cotton Vitellius A xv is a composite codex that was assembled for the Cottonian library in the first half of the seventeenth century, probably under the orders of Sir Robert Cotton’s librarian, Richard James, from two Anglo- Saxon codices, the Southwick Codex (some items of which were in the possession of the Augustinian priory of St. Mary in Southwick, Hampshire) and the Nowell Codex, which, in or around 1563, came into the possession of the antiquarian and Anglo-Saxonist Laurence Nowell (ca. 1515-1571). Unfortunately, there is no evidence of where Nowell had acquired the codex in the first place,[1]

which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the provenance of the manuscript.[2]

Kiernan (1996) argues convincingly that both codices were also composite, but we have no information on when they may have been assembled. The Beowulf manuscript is the fourth item in the Nowell codex, and all five items (the first three being prose texts, whereas Beowulf and the Judith fragment [item 5] are poetic texts) were copied by the same two scribes.

Apart from the Judith fragment, the items deal with different kinds of monster (cf. Orchard 2003), which may have been the reason to have the two scribes copy the manuscripts in the first place. There are two arguments against this thesis, however. First, if that were the case, what is the Judith fragment doing in the same codex? Second, there is convincing evidence (presented in Kiernan 1996: 133-140) that the Beowulf manuscript was a codex in its own right and that the Judith fragment was added to the Nowell codex during the sixteenth century. It is much more likely that all five texts were gathered together to form a composite codex at that time.

As we shall see in a later section of this chapter, the presence of the Judith fragment in the codex offers interesting interpretative perspectives supporting the hypothesis of overlapping and disjunctive discourse archives. Judith was certainly copied by scribe B and was thus part of the output of the scriptorium in which the first four texts (including Beowulf) were copied. As we shall also see later, there is strong evidence that Beowulf was practically scribe B’s own “private possession”. If he had added the Judith fragment to the end of Beowulf, then anyone deciding to put the texts together later as a collection of stories about monsters could not easily have omitted Judith. In point of fact the way in which the Nowell codex was put together is more complex and infinitely more revealing from a sociohistorical and discursive point of view.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s librarian, Richard James, had difficulty in categorising Beowulf when he catalogued the contents of Cotton Vitellius A xv. He listed the first three items of the original Nowell codex as 4. Dialogi de Christo et christianitate vbi interloquuntur Pilatus et alij. sicut melius visum est Legendario. Sax. 5. Dialogus inter Saturnum et Salomonem. Saxon. cum Legendis Sancti Cristoferi. 6. Defloratio siue translatio Epistolarum AlexandriadAristotelem cumpicturisprodigiosorum. Saxonice

8. Fragmentum Saxon: de Iuditha et Holoferne.11 But he left a gap between numbers 6 and 8, indicating that Beowulf was an anomaly to him.1 2 One reason may have been that the other four items had a clear Christian or pre-Christian but classical connection, whereas the first five lines of Beowulf almost declare it to be a story from a heathen background:

Hwst we gardena in geardagum

Lo! We of the spear Danes in the days of yore

fieodcyninga firym gefrumon

of the people of the kings the glory heard tell

hu fia sfielingas eller fremedon.

of how the princes brave deeds accomplished.

Oft Scyld Scefing sceafiena fireatum

Often Scyld Scefing with bands of warriors

monegum msgfium meodosetla ofteah...

from many peoples mead benches seized...

(“Lo! we have heard tell of the glory of the warlike Danes, the people of the kings, in bygone days, of how the princes accomplished brave deeds. Often Scyld, son of Scef, seized mead-benches with bands of warriors from many peoples . . .”)

Whatever the reason for the unusual gap in the catalogue, we could argue that it is hardly surprising that enthusiasm for this apparently heathen poetic text was lukewarm in the early part of the seventeenth century, to say the least.

When Thomas Smith, the unofficial guardian of the library in Sir John Cotton’s days, published a catalogue of the contents of the library in 1696, he listed the contents of Cotton Vitellius A xv as having only six items, thus missing one of the items in the Southwick codex and, significantly, also missing Beowulf i After Sir John’s death in 1702, one of the commissioners appointed by Parliament to catalogue the Cottonian library was the palaeographer Humfrey Wanley, who had previously been employed as assistant in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and had made several unsuccessful attempts to gain access to the manuscripts in Sir John Cotton’s library. Wanley undertook to compile a composite catalogue of all the significant libraries in [3] [4]

England, which was finally published in 1705 with the title Librorum Vett. Septentrionalium, qui in Anglia Biblioth. extant, Catalogus Historico-Criticus (Antiqua Literatura Septentrionalis Libri Duo). In his Catalogus Historico- Criticus, Wanley corrected the oversights made by the previous cataloguers of Cotton Vitellius A xv by writing “In hoc libro, qui Poeseos Anglo-Saxonics egregium est exemplum, descripta videntur bella qus Beowulfus, quidam Danus, ex Regio Scyldingorum stirpe Ortus, gessit contra Suecis Regulos.” [“In this book, which is an excellent example of poetry in Anglo-Saxon, can be seen fine descriptions in which Beowulf, a certain Dane, originally from the royal line of the Scyldings, performs against the princes of Sweden” (p. 219)], which is a grossly misleading summary of what Beowulf is all about.

Notwithstanding and perhaps precisely because of his erroneous summary of the contents, Wanley’s description came to the notice of two antiquarians from Denmark, the Dane Jakob Langebek and the Icelander Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin, Regius Professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1766 to 1808. On a trip to England in the 1780s with the express purpose of hunting down texts with any reference to Danish history, Thorkelin hired James Matthews, an employee of the British Museum, to transcribe Beowulf for him, this first transcription being referred to as Thorkelin A. However, Matthews’s transcription was so unsatisfactory that Thorkelin, who apparently knew no Anglo-Saxon, took it upon himself to carry out a second transcription (Thorkelin B) in 1787. Thorkelin then published the first edition and translation of the poem in 1815. Oddly, however, the translation was into Latin.

The poet Sharon Turner translated some of the lines of Beowulf in 1805, but the first full English translation of and commentary on the poem was published by John Kemble from 1835 to 1837, a time frame that corresponds to the first beginnings of the Chartist movement in England. Although Kemble does not openly suggest a date for the original composition of the poem, his derogatory comments on the work of the two scribes who copied the extant manuscript leaves no doubt about the fact that he considered the poem to have had a long history of transmission:

All persons who have had much experience of Anglo-Saxon MSS. know how hopelessly incorrect they are in every way . . . which can perhaps be accounted for by the supposition that professional copyists brought to their task (in itself confusing enough) both lack of knowledge and lack of care. (1837: xxiii-xxiv)

In addition, Kemble had nothing but scorn for Thorkelin’s translation into Latin, considering it “only a copy, and a careless copy too” (xxi).

Interest in Beowulf developed rapidly throughout the nineteenth century, and figure 2.1 shows the number of translations and editions of the poem decade by decade after Kemble’s translation. During the course of the nineteenth century the belief that Beowulf had a long manuscript history going back into at least the eighth century became accepted as fact, a “fact” that was first seriously challenged by Kiernan’s publication in 1981 of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. However, before reviewing some of Kiernan’s arguments, the following questions need to be put:

1. How does the Nowell codex come to be made up of three prose texts,

Beowulf and the Judith fragment? (see section 7)

  • 2. Why is the Judith text only a fragment, and how and when did it come to be bound together with the other texts? (see section 7)
  • 3. Why was Beowulf of no apparent interest to antiquarians in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries? (see section 7)
  • 4. What caused the initial interest in the manuscript?
  • 5. Why was there a sudden surge of interest in the “text” of Beowulf in the latter half of the nineteenth century rather than in the manuscript itself?
  • 6. Why, in the face of increasingly incontrovertible palaeographical and codicological evidence to the contrary—evidence that can be at least partially backed up by sociohistorical arguments—does the academic community still find it so difficult to let go of the belief in a long textual history of Beowulf ?

Plausible answers to these questions bring us straight back to the issue of discourse archives and the myths that are used to construct them. Neither the supporters of the long textual history of Beowulf nor the supporters of the theory that it is an eleventh-century text can ever be proved right or wrong. We may forever be locked in the prison of conjecture, but it is precisely that prison, the prison of our own human limitations, that we need to investigate in more detail.

Publications on and translations of Beowulf from 1840 to 1900

figure 2.1. Publications on and translations of Beowulf from 1840 to 1900

  • [1] Some commentators suggest that Nowell acquired the manuscript after the dissolution of a Catholicmonastery during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which began on a small scale in 1538 followingthe Act of Suppression (1536) and increased in intensity until 1541.
  • [2] There were, unfortunately, two Laurence Nowells known to us during the second half of the sixteenthcentury. One of these was the owner of the codex, which we know for the simple reason that he wrote his nameon the first folio of the Nowell codex, and the other was the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, at which there was ascriptorium at the time when the extant manuscript of Beowulf was prepared. For the sake of Kiernan’sargument it would of course be ideal to be able trace the manuscript back to that scriptorium and to hypothesise that it finally ended up in Dean Nowell’s possession. The convenience of such an argument would be thatit would provide a simple solution to the relatively large number of Anglian features in the poem. But the factsof history are sometimes a little unkind, and the provenance of the manuscript may remain forever a mysteryto us. At one point in his book, however, Kiernan does allow himself the bold step of suggesting that either thescriptorium at Lichfield or that at Tamworth, both on the edge of Danelaw territory, could have been where themanuscript was copied.
  • [3] “4. Dialogue on Christ and Christianity in which Pilate and others speak. As is better seen in a collection of legends. Saxon 5. A dialogue between Saturn and Salomon, Saxon with legends of St. Christopher6. The interpretation or translation of the letters of Alexander to Aristotle with pictures of monsters. Saxon 8.A fragment. Saxon. On Judith and Holofernes.”
  • [4] Kiernan (1996) speculates that there are two possible reasons for this omission. Either James did notknow how to categorise this part of the codex and left it blank with the intention of attempting some form ofcategorisation at a later date (note that he was aware that there was a seventh text as he makes a jump in hisnumbering from 6 to 8) or the manuscript was out on loan (a not unusual occurrence in Sir Robert Cotton’sdays, considering his generosity in allowing privileged individuals to take manuscripts out of the library on atemporary basis). Kiernan uses this conjecture to support his conviction that the Beowulf manuscript was infact originally a separate (and thus separable) ms. I shall have more to say on this matter later in this chapter.
 
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