Description

The Exeter Book, which belongs to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, is one of the four most significant verse manuscripts to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. These four books contain the vast majority of all surviving Old English poetry. Almost all of the texts in these manuscripts are unique, and so without them we would have a much poorer understanding of the earliest period in English literature.

The Exeter Book was made in c. 960–80. It was copied by one scribe from a variety of exemplars (textual sources). In the 11th century it seems to have been acquired for Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric (died 1072). A list of donations left by Leofric to the Cathedral, dated to 1069–72, mentions ‘mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisum geworht’ ['a large English book about many things written in verse']. In all likelihood, this refers to the Exeter Book.

The poems in the manuscript are as intriguing as they are diverse, and they give us a powerful sense of the intellectual sophistication of Anglo-Saxon literary culture. There are almost 100 riddles and several saints’ lives (including two poems about the Anglo-Saxon saint, Guthlac) and a body of elegiac verse. It is the moving elegies and enigmatic riddles, however, that are the most famous of the Exeter Book texts. The elegies explore timeless universal themes, including death, loss and social exile. Through them we encounter lonely seafarers, banished wanderers and separated lovers. The riddles, by contrast, explore the fabric of the world through the prism of the everyday. The manuscript is also important because it contains two poems signed by the poet Cynewulf – one of only 12 poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose names we know.

In 2016 the Exeter Book was inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register, as testament to its global significance. 

The digitisation of the manuscript was undertaken by the University of Exeter Digital Humanities team, funded by the University Provosts Fund, developed through a partnership between the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral and the University of Exeter.

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