Medieval Studies Beowulf
by
Paul E. Szarmach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0062

Introduction

By common estimation the corpus of Old English poetry is some 30,000 lines or, roughly, the literary output of John Milton. At 3,182 lines, Beowulf is approximately 10 percent of the corpus, which partially accounts for its significance. Almost always difficult to date and rarely attributable to a named author, this body of vernacular writing is the largest extant in the first 1,100 years of the Common Era. Although there is evidence that some post-Conquest figures worked with Old English literary remains, the awakening to Old English literary forms took place in the 16th century when, in the context of religious disputes, partisans sought to find the roots of their beliefs. Poetry was not the desired end of study. Prose records, which were more numerous in laws, chronicles, sermons, and homilies, were more accessible and more pertinent than poetry. As the 19th century began, the subject started to leave its antiquarian beginnings and to create the Age of Philology, during which there was a primary emphasis on what a text said as opposed to what it meant. At midcentury scholars also assisted the building of nation-states by tracing in history a pure national spirit, presumably unadulterated. Literary criticism, as we now know it, began to emerge toward the end of the 19th century. J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (Tolkien 1936, cited under Articles) is the traditional starting point for the literary criticism of Beowulf, but Tolkien had predecessors. The early history of Beowulf, the written text, defies any easy account. The only extant manuscript surfaces in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, where it escaped the fire of October 1731, offering burn marks to testify to its presence then, as well as to water damage. Now bearing the shelfmark “British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv,” the manuscript received notice from antiquarians in the 18th century, notably Humphrey Wanley (1705). In the early interpretation of the text, scholars saw a Scandinavian context. As the study of the poem grew in the 19th century and beyond, scholarship and criticism offered a dizzying array of approaches and opinions.

Facsimile Editions

Grímur Jonsson Thorkelin, who was researching early Danish history, made two transcripts of the poem, which he used in his 1815 edition. Kemp Malone offered the first opportunity (Malone 1951) for scholars at large to see the Thorkelin transcriptions and to judge the 1731 fire and its continuing effect on deterioration, especially the margins. Originally photographed in 1877 and then reissued in a second edition in 1959, Davis 1967 is still arguably the most convenient visual record of the poem, given its portability. Malone 1963 contains a substantial textual introduction, essentially superseding previous discussions while offering high-quality photographic reproduction. Kiernan 2011 presents improved color facsimiles of the entire manuscript with special attention to Beowulf and, through digital technology, restores hundreds of readings. Most significantly, Kiernan’s close attention to the textual and manuscript evidence leads him to argue for a late date for the poem.

  • Davis, Norman, ed. Beowulf Reproduced in Facsimile. 2d ed. Transcription and notes by Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society Original Series 245. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

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    Readings of the text should be checked against Kiernan 2011 or at least Malone Malone 1963.

  • Kiernan, Kevin S., ed. Electronic Beowulf. 3d ed. DVD. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

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    Supersedes all previous versions no longer supported. The edition is truly “full service” in offering facsimile, edition, translation, and various aids for the general reader, the student, and the scholar. User guide included. Available for purchase online.

  • Malone, Kemp, ed. The Thorkelin Transcripts of Beowulf in Facsimile. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 1. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1951.

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    Though not without errors, Thorkelin provides the first considered study of the damaged manuscripts.

  • Malone, Kemp, ed. The Nowell Codex. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 12. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1963.

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    Offers high-quality photographs of the part of Cotton Vitellius A.xv containing Beowulf and four other Old English works.

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