Junius Manuscript


The Junius Manuscript is one of the four most significant manuscripts of Old English verse, which contain the vast majority of vernacular English poetry from the early medieval period. Almost all of the texts in these manuscripts exist in no other known copy, meaning that without them our knowledge of the earliest period of English literature would be much poorer.

What does the Junius Manuscript contain?

The Junius Manuscript contains the sole surviving copies of four long poems on biblical themes, which are called Genesis, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan by modern editors. Like most Old English poetry, the poems are untitled in the Manuscript.

The manuscript was made in two segments – one part was made c.1000 and the other in the first half of the 11th century. It was probably written at Malmesbury or at Christ Church, Canterbury. Early scholars believed it was work of the poet Cædmon, because in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People, Bede describes Cædmon as a cowherd who sang about ‘the creation of the world, the origin of the human race and the whole history of Genesis, and the departure of Israel from Egypt’. It is now recognised, however, that the manuscript contains works by several authors.

The illustrations

The Junius Manuscript stands out among the four major poetic manuscripts in that it is the only example to have been illustrated. Unfortunately the plan of illustration was not completed and the images only appear in two-thirds of Genesis. In the remainder of the Manuscript the verse is peppered with blank spaces, set aside for the illustrations.

The scholar Catherine Karkov has argued that there is unity between text and image in the manuscript’s design. She notes that the images do not simply illustrate the text, but draw attention ‘to images and events typologically related to, but not contained in, the text of the poem’.

The poems

Genesis – the first poem in the Junius Manuscript – is actually two distinct poems, one embedded within the other, editorially titled Genesis A and Genesis B. Genesis A is essentially a verse paraphrase of chapters 1–22 of the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, which tells of the Creation of the world, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The shorter poem, Genesis B, which nestles within the longer poem, is an altogether more exciting retelling of the Fall. Scholars have drawn similarities between Genesis B and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton may have known about this poem through his close friend – the manuscript’s eponymous owner, Franciscus Junius. 

Exodus is the shortest of the poems in the manuscript and tells the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. Daniel is the story of the first six chapters of the biblical Book of Daniel, including the description of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. Christ and Satan, the final poem in the manuscript, is unusual in that it is the only text which deals with New Testament material. This poem was copied by three scribes using a later style of handwriting.

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