Kiernan’s arguments are based on a painstaking forensic study of the extant manuscript and on piecing together the conclusions he has come to with respect to the original writing of the manuscript and its possible authorship, on the one hand, and the sociopolitical events in England at the time of its preparation, on the other. He begins with a meticulous examination of the constituent parts of Vitellius A xv. For the moment, we can leave the discussion of the Southwick codex on one side, since it is only associated with Beowulf by virtue of its inclusion in Cotton Vitellius A xv.

In copying the Nowell codex, scribe A used an Anglo-Insular script with clear influences from Carolingian script, and scribe B used an early form of Anglo-Insular script (Boyle 1997: 25). Part of the reasons for Ker’s dating of the manuscript between 975 and 1025 is the use of these two scripts. Dumville (1987) argues that the script used by scribe B is not to be found beyond 1011/1012, which vitiates Kiernan’s argument that the Beowulf codex was copied in the reign of King Cnut. However, since the Anglo-Carolingian script is not to be found in any of the manuscripts dated before 1000, the palaeographical argument for dating the Beowulf codex to the beginning of Cnut’s reign rests entirely on similarities between scribe B’s hand and examples of the later form of Anglo-Insular script. The latter, however, shows Carolingian influences, is more compact than the older form of Anglo-Insular and is not present till well into Cnut’s reign. In the second edition of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, Kiernan presents, as comparative evidence, a Worcester vernacular, chirographic lease datable to between 1033 and 1038. Unfortunately, he restricts himself to the discussion of the letter . The evidence is dismantled by Rose (1997) , who shows that the later form of Anglo-Insular script, which has Carolingian influences, is closer to scribe A’s hand than to scribe B’s. Rose concludes that Dumville’s statement about the nonoccurrence of the older form of Anglo-Insular beyond 1011/1012 is a palaeographical fact that precludes Kiernan’s theory of a manuscript date for Beowulf after this time. Hence, the statement that Beowulf was commissioned by the court of Cnut the Great sometime after 1016 is pure conjecture on Kiernan’s part.[1]

On the other hand, Kiernan presents four strong arguments to support his theory that the Beowulf manuscript, although it was copied by the same scribes who copied the first three texts in the Nowell codex (scribe A) and the final text, the Judith fragment (scribe B), was prepared at a different time and as a codex in its own right. The first argument concerns the different styles of the capital letters in the first three prose items in the Nowell codex and in Beowulf. He states (1996: 141) that “significantly, the style of the capitals does remain constant through the prose texts, but it changes notably at the beginning of Beowulf", and he adds that “the letters in the Beowulf line are drawn with more care, more evenness, more technical draftsmanship, than those in the line from Alexander’s Letter”.

Kiernan’s second argument concerns the quantity and quality of the corrections made by both scribes, but particularly by scribe B, in each other’s manuscript sections. Roughly 180 corrections were made, and Kiernan describes them as “intelligent”. From this we can conclude that both scribes understood exactly what they were copying. As a comparison, the prose texts display what he calls a “marked lack of interest, amounting at times to outright negligence” on the part of scribe A in copying them. Kiernan then extends this argument by giving a number of concrete examples to demonstrate this carelessness in the prose texts.

The third argument concerns the meticulous proofreading carried out by scribe B at different times of both his own work and that of scribe A. As Kiernan points out, “Surely the second scribe would have proofread the prose texts as well if Beowulf at the time were merely the fourth item in an English Liber Monstrorum” (1996: 145). The evidence shows that both scribes had a very high opinion of the Beowulf text and made every effort to ensure that it was faithfully and accurately copied. Carrying this argument further, Kiernan concludes that folio 145 must have been a replacement since it breaks the pattern of hair and flesh sides of the vellum[2] in that, whereas its conjugate folio 142 shows the flesh side up and the hair side down, fol. 145 has the hair side up and the flesh side down. In addition, in line 6 of the recto of folio 145 there are more words than in any other line on the page. Line 6 even spills over onto line 7, in which a new fitt[3] begins. A major blunder, probably an omission, must have been noticed on this folio leading to the replacement of the whole leaf.

The final argument is that the gatherings[4] in the Beowulf codex are fundamentally different from those in the prose texts. Kiernan’s argument is complex, so I shall restrict myself to a statement of what he says about the arrangement of the quires[5] and to the evidence that scribe B went to a lot of trouble to squeeze the Beowulf text into the space available to him:

The last two gatherings of the Beowulf codex are uncharacteristic in several respects: they are five-sheet gatherings from the start, their sheets are all arranged so that hair side faces outward, and they are ruled for twenty-two lines to the page instead of the normal twenty. (1996: 148)

Evidence that scribe B needed to squeeze the text onto the last quire of vellum available to him is provided by the unprecedented number of abbreviations towards the end of the text and the fact that the last word of Beowulf— geornost—spills onto the twenty-second line.

The information we have gathered so far from Kiernan’s controversial book and articles critically reviewing some of his assumptions consists of the following points:

  • 1. The manuscript itself was unlikely to have been copied any later than 1011/1012.
  • 2. It is thus highly unlikely to have been copied during the reign of Cnut the Great.
  • 3. Scribe A used a script that was typical of the earlier third of the eleventh century, whereas scribe B used a script that was typical of the latter part of the tenth century (and from this we may be able to conclude that scribe B was older than scribe A).
  • 4. While they were both working on Beowulf, both scribes were meticulous in their correction of each other’s work, and must therefore have understood

the text.

  • 5. Scribe B must have continued correcting the Beowulf manuscript after scribe A’s mysterious disappearance in folio 175v, lines 3 to 4 (I shall return to this point below).
  • 6. The Beowulf manuscript was originally a codex in its own right.
  • 7. The three prose texts in the Nowell codex, Beowulf and the Judith fragment all came from the same scriptorium (since they were copied by scribes A and B). They were not originally part of the same codex but must have been gathered together in the Nowell codex at a much later date.

On the verso of folio 175 in the eleventh quire, scribe A suddenly stopped copying. The first four letters of moste are in scribe A’s hand, but the and the rest of the text of Beowulf are by scribe B. This has given rise to the speculation that scribe A suddenly fell ill and, since he did not return to complete his part of the overall manuscript, that he may have died. When scribe B took over in the eleventh quire, he must have already finished copying his part of Beowulf, which starts at quire 12. Hence he realised that he only had the remainder of quire 11 to use. To get the rest of the text into quire 11, however, he had to subtly squeeze in an extra line on folio 177 verso, folio 178 recto, folio 178 verso and folio 179 recto. But how did he know this was going to be necessary? In discussing the degree of compression in scribe A’s and scribe B’s hands when compared to the scribe of the Worcester chirographic lease, Rose (1997: 138) unwittingly provides the answer. The degree of compression in scribe A’s hand was almost 1mm. per letter greater than scribe B’s, which allowed scribe B to calculate how many words he would not get in on the remaining folios[6] of quire 11 if he stuck to the 20-line ruling. We can thus add the following point to the seven listed above:

8. The Beowulf poem is composed of two stories, Beowulf’s adventures at the court of Hrothgar in Denmark (which scribe A must have undertaken to copy) and his final fight with the dragon as king of the Geats (which scribe B must have already copied).

From this we can conclude point 9:

9. Scribe B was already familiar with the story of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon before they decided to copy the text, and possibly also knew of the story of his youthful exploits.

The weakest part of Kiernan’s argument is his insistence on placing Beowulf within the reign of Cnut the Great. But the strongest part is the evidence, first suggested by Tilman Westphalen (1967), that folio 179 is a palimpsest.[7] When Zupitza made his facsimile of the manuscript in 1882, he assumed, according to Westphalen, that folio 179 was a damaged text that had been freshened up by a later hand. However, Zupitza made no statements on whether the “freshened up” text was in scribe B’s hand or in a different hand. Kiernan argues, from a palaeographical point of view, that the “freshened up” text was in scribe B’s hand and that the slight differences between the two hands are the result of aging: that scribe B made the palimpsest 10 to 20 years after first copying the text. The palimpsest theory has been roundly rejected by scholars who insist on a genesis of the Beowulf text prior to the tenth century (cf. many of the contributions in Chase 1997) and who offer somewhat unlikely explanations of how the folio became damaged. However, Westphalen’s and Kiernan’s arguments that it is a palimpsest cannot simply be ignored. In fact, they offer by far the most convincing explanation for the physical condition of folio 179. Why, then, should this theory meet with a storm of protest?

The reason is obvious. The idea that scribe B, long after having taken over in scribe A’s absence and having completed the copying of scribe A’s part of the manuscript in quire 11, should have returned to the text, erased what he had already copied and substituted it with what is effectively a shorter text is anathema to the belief that scribes simply copied texts and did not change them. If folio 179 is a palimpsest—and all the evidence points to that being the case—then scribe B partially revised the text and was therefore, on that folio at least, the author. The essence of the ancient language myth is the mystery surrounding the authorship of Beowulf and the vagueness of the evidence that supports the theory that the manuscript is the end product of a line of texts copied since the eighth (or even the seventh) century. Arguments based on the form of language used in the poem, on the metrics of Anglo- Saxon poetry, on textual references to burials such as that at Sutton Hoo and to King Offa of Mercia are ineffectual when compared with the palimpsest argument.

There are three further pieces of evidence to support the hypothesis that scribe B erased his own text. First, folio 179 could have been taken from some other codex and the text on it erased to provide an empty folio on which to copy the new text. But if this was the case and scribe B was the person who wrote the new text on the palimpsest, it was still his text on the original folio that was now replaced. Surely the easiest thing to do was to erase the text on the original folio and simply write the new text over it. In effect, scribe B either misjudged the adhesive quality of the ink or did not leave the folio enough time to dry, since many of the letters have not adhered well to the folio and have run.

Second, if the whole folio was replaced, scribe B needed to erase the first four lines at the top of folio 180 recto. Damage to folio 179 and its consequent replacement does not explain the need to continue erasing text at the top of the next folio. The third piece of evidence to support the argument that scribe B made a palimpsest of one of the folios that he himself had copied is one of textual coherence. The point at which scribe B took over from scribe A is immediately prior to the homecoming episode linking the story of the younger Beowulf at Hrothgar’s court and the older Beowulf in the dragon episode. As such, it was conceptualised as a thematic link between the two parts of the epic and was originally part of scribe A’s responsibility to copy.

As Kiernan points out, “The homecoming episode was written after the dragon episode, as a transitional link between two formerly unrelated Beowulf narratives” (1996: 259), and it contains a number of inconsistencies with respect to the story of the younger Beowulf. It is at least conceivable that the original homecoming episode did not link the two narratives as well as scribe B wished and that, long after finishing the manuscript, he decided to try and improve on it. At least in this respect scribe B was part author of Beowulf, and the manuscript was probably in his personal possession. In addition, it appears to have been a draft on which scribe B was still working years after copying it. Kiernan makes clear that “these arguments are systematically rejected by other scholars almost as soon as they are made, and it is safe to say that the theory is generally repudiated by Beowulfians as a group” (1996: 250). He puts this down to the belief held by most readers of the poem that this represents “an impotent assault on the artistic integrity of the poem” (250). I put it down to the inability of believers in the ancient language myth to give up using Beowulf as the central element in projecting that myth.

  • [1] Rose (1997: 140) argues that those texts that definitely were produced for Cnut’s court were “lavish,sumptuous, skilfully-illuminated deluxe productions”, and he suggests that “the Beowulf manuscript is pallidand pedestrian, utterly unlike the known examples of book-production in Cnut’s reign”.
  • [2] Vellum was made from calfskin and parchment from the split skin of a sheep. The hair side of a sheetof vellum is the outer side of the skin, that side on which the animal’s hair grew.
  • [3] A fitt is a canto or portion of a ballad or an epic poem.
  • [4] See footnote 17.
  • [5] A quire is composed of four folded sheets of parchment or vellum to form 8 leaves, or 16 pages in all.A “gathering” is also used in the same sense.
  • [6] A folio is a sheet of vellum/parchment folded so as to give four leaves or pages, 1 verso (i.e. the outerpart of the sheet folded inwards to give the first page), 2 recto (the inner or upper-facing part of the sheet),3 recto and 4 verso.
  • [7] A palimpsest is a leaf in a manuscript whose text has been scraped or washed off so that the leaf canbe used for a new text.
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