Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.
Beowulf survives in a single medieval manuscript. The manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing 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.
The most likely time for Beowulf to have been copied is the early 11th century, which makes the manuscript approximately 1,000 years old.
Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed.
Apart from Beowulf, the manuscript contains several other medieval texts. These comprise a homily on St Christopher; The Marvels of the East (also known as The Wonders of the East), illustrated with wondrous beasts and deformed monsters; the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle; and an imperfect copy of another Old English poem, Judith.
Beowulf is the penultimate item in this collection, the whole of which was copied by two Anglo-Saxon scribes, working in collaboration.
The first-recorded owner of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell (died c. 1570), a pioneer of the study of Old English, who inscribed his name (dated 1563) at the top of the manuscript’s first page. Beowulf then entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) – who also owned the Lindisfarne Gospels and the British Library’s two copies of Magna Carta – before passing into the hands of his son Sir Thomas Cotton (died 1662), and grandson Sir John Cotton (died 1702), who bequeathed the manuscript to the nation. The Cotton library formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, before being incorporated as part of the British Library in 1973.
During the 18th century, the Cotton manuscripts were moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House at Westminster. On the night of 23 October 1731 a fire broke out and many manuscripts were damaged, and a few completely destroyed.
Beowulf escaped the fire relatively intact but it suffered greater loss by handling in the following years, with letters crumbling away from the outer portions of its pages. Placed in paper frames in 1845, the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care.