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Beowulf: sole surviving manuscript
British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV, f.132
Copyright © The British Library Board
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This is the only known medieval manuscript of the epic saga of 'Beowulf', the most important surviving work of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The manuscript dates from the early 11th century, two generations before the Norman Conquest - though the poem itself is probably even older. Written in Old English, it tells of a thrilling struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel.

What's Beowulf about?

Part history and part mythology, the saga is set during the sixth century. Beowulf is a royal son of a Scandinavian clan, whose fame 'far flew the boast of him', according to the poem.

For many winters, the court of the Danish king, Hrothgar has been terrorised by a fearsome monster called Grendel, who comes at nightfall to devour men in their sleep. Beowulf slays the monster and is fêted as a hero - but joy turns to horror when Grendel's mother arrives to avenge the killing of her son.

Some see this story as a reflection of the constant cycle of warfare during turbulent times, when alliances were as quickly broken as forged, and peace was never more than fragile. Beowulf also slays Grendel's mother, but is himself condemned to a bloody end. Fifty years later, he is mortally wounded in a last conflict with a dragon.

Who wrote 'Beowulf' and when?

We'll never know who, and we can't be sure about when. Though some scholars still believe 'Beowulf' was composed during the eighth century, some have suggested it may be later, perhaps even contemporary with this manuscript. It's most likely that the poem had no single author, but was handed down by word of mouth, constantly evolving in its retelling.

How did the manuscript come to the British Library?

Like the poem's author, where the manuscript was made and the name of its original owner are both lost to history. By the 16th century, we do know the manuscript belonged to Laurence Nowell, a prime mover in the rediscovery of Britain's Anglo-Saxon heritage.

It was acquired in the 17th century by Sir Robert Cotton, a keen collector of old manuscripts whose library was presented to the nation by his grandson in 1700. However, the dilapidated state of Cotton's house gave cause for concern over the collection's safety. The library was moved first to Essex House in the Strand , then to Ashburnham House in Westminster. In 1753, the Cotton collection found a home in the newly founded British Museum.

What happened to the pages?

Well they are 1,000 years old! And the fire didn't help either. On 23 October 1731, Ashburnham House was ravaged by a fire that destroyed or damaged a quarter of Cotton's library. 'Beowulf' was saved with other priceless manuscripts, but not before its edges were badly scorched.

The heat made the manuscript's pages very brittle. In 1845, they were mounted in paper frames to save them from further damage. Although they protected the pages, the frames also covered some letters around the edges. These were later revealed by special infrared and ultraviolet lighting techniques when electronic images of the manuscript were made in 1993. Computer imaging was then used to enhance damaged and obscured letters and restore them to their place in the manuscript.

Why is 'Beowulf' an important poem?

Apart from its historical value, Beowulf is a moving epic of great literary quality. It has served as an inspiration for many later writers, among them J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. In 1895, William Morris, the designer and poet, published and helped translate an edition of 'Beowulf', one of the poems which had a major influence on his own writing. Most recently, in 1999, the distinguished Irish poet, Seamus Heaney wrote a very successful modern translation of the poem with an emphasis on the spoken nature of its verses.


Beowulf in Greek


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