Medieval Studies The Exeter Book
Patrick W. Conner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0094


“The Exeter Book” is the current vernacular designation for Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, sometimes known as the Codex Exoniensis or variants thereof. Its script suggests that the manuscript must have been written in its present form before 1000 CE and possibly as early as a point near the middle of the 10th century. The details of dating its script are covered in Palaeography. The Exeter Book is comprised solely of poetry excepting the contents of eight leaves added to the codex after it was written and, unlike the other Anglo-Saxon manuscript containing poetry alone—Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, “The Junius Manuscript”—which is dedicated to biblically inspired items, the Exeter Book is noted for the unmatched diversity of genres among its contents as well as the high level of poetic quality exhibited by many of the codex’s poems. If the Exeter Book had not survived, the only elegies extant in the literary corpus of Old English would be two passages in Beowulf known as “The Old Man’s Lament” and “The Lay of the Last Survivor.” Moreover, because these are contained within Beowulf, it is entirely possible that they would not even now be recognized as exhibiting their own genre. Had the Exeter Book not survived, we should have but one extant Old English riddle (which is repeated in the Exeter Book), and had the Exeter Book not survived, we would have only two of a current complement of five versified lives of saints preceding Ælfric’s compositions and only two out of four works known to be by the poet Cynewulf. More such losses might be enumerated. There are too many critical and scholarly commentaries on the individual poems of the Exeter Book to list them all here although the means of finding these are laid out in Bibliographies; however, less attention has been paid to locating a thematic center for the book’s contents, and the collection is very often assumed to have been an unstructured miscellany. One argument against this unstructured form is described in Codicology. At some point before his death in 1072, Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, described the book as “a large English book with everything written in the manner of poetry” in a list of books, treasures, and lands that he had brought into Exeter’s library; copies of this list or inventory datable to the second half of the eleventh century survive, having been written into two Gospel books which are known to have been at Exeter. (See Conner 1993, pp. 226–235, esp. 232 in Manuscript History) At that time, the Exeter Book was perceived as a single collection. Nevertheless, the reading of any poem in it is likely to profit from looking at the other poems adjacent to it and from understanding the logic that editors have employed to isolate and identify the untitled poetic units in the manuscript.


To master the scholarship relevant to the Exeter Book, it is important to understand that none of the poems in the manuscript are given a title in the manuscript, and even the incipit or first few words of the work is not always treated by the scribe in a special way to indicate a new text, other than providing a plain initial to mark a beginning. Consequently, the titles given to the poems in the Exeter Book are those that editors have established over the years, and very often a given poem will be known by several titles. The titles used here are those found in Krapp and Dobbie 1936, but reference will also be made to the poems’ titles in Muir 2000, where they differ substantially. Anglo-Saxon history, literature, and culture are supported by some of the most thorough enumerative bibliographies available to any similar subject matter. In addition to the grand bibliographies that are found in the databases of scholarly libraries such as the International Medieval Bibliography and MLA International Bibliography, which include published literary criticism of the works in the Exeter Book, there are some more specific sources to be checked. A good overview of the major bibliographic resources for literature in Old English is available in Harner 2008. Both the Old English Newsletter and the annual journal in the field, Anglo-Saxon England, publish annual bibliographies of all aspects of the field, and work on the poems of the Exeter Book can be found there, usually listed under the titles established for them in Krapp and Dobbie 1936. Anglo-Saxon England and Old English Newsletter began publishing bibliographies of the field, including the scholarship relevant to the Exeter Book, in 1972 and 1973, respectively; the OEN Bibliography Database is now conveniently available online for the period 1973 to 2006. Scholarship on the contents of the Exeter Book published before 1972 may be found in Greenfield and Robinson 2008, conveniently listed under each poem’s title as given in Krapp and Dobbie 1936. The bibliography of the riddles in the Exeter Book is complicated, drawing on articles in many languages over a long period of time and based in numerous methodologies as varied as archaeology, folklore, and linguistics, most of which is tracked in Lendinara 1976. Muir 1992 is the only bibliography devoted solely to the Exeter Book; most of its contents and updates to the subject are incorporated into the author’s later editions of the Exeter Book.

  • Anglo-Saxon England. 1972–.

    A peer-reviewed annual journal covering language, literature, history, archaeology, and any research relevant to England from the late 5th to the 12th century. See Harner 2008 for a comparison between Anglo-Saxon England’s annual bibliography and Old English Newsletter’s; both should usually be checked on a topic within their scope.

  • Greenfield, Stanley B, and Fred C. Robinson, eds. A Bibliography of Publications on Old English Literature to the End of 1972. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008.

    The fundamental bibliographical tool in Old English literary studies. The scope of the work is literary, however, so that items considered to be primarily of another discipline may not have been entered unless the compilers saw a clear literary connection. Originally published in 1980. See also Critical Editions of Selected Poems and Translations.

  • Harner, James L. Literary Research Guide: An Annotated Listing of Reference Sources in English Literary Studies. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

    The student of the Exeter Book will not only find an excellent section on Old English literature including, of course, information relevant to the content of the Exeter Book, but there are sections on how to research manuscripts, libraries, dissertations, and so on.

  • International Medieval Bibliography.

    The International Medieval Bibliography attempts exhaustive coverage of all medieval studies from any discipline, and it is particularly valuable in locating relevant studies by scholars who are not based in the United States or the United Kingdom. Access to specialized topics is much helped by a very good search engine. Available online by subscription.

  • Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. Anglo Saxon Poetic Records 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

    One of two standard Critical Editions of the Full Manuscript of the Exeter Book, it includes in its front matter a full bibliography of studies the editors consulted in establishing their text. It amounts to an immense body of linguistic, textual, literary and philological scholarship. Also see Critical Editions of the Full Manuscript.

  • Lendinara, Patrizia. “Gli enigmi del Codice Exoniense: una ricerca bibliografica.” AION: Filologia germanica 19 (1976): 231–329.

    An annotated bibliography of research on the riddles of the Exeter Book, which is particularly rich in German and Italian studies as well as English ones. This bibliography is particularly important for the riddles, because the riddling tradition and even specific analogues are in Latin collections with Continental connections.

  • MLA International Bibliography.

    The MLA International Bibliography’s scope is so large that its bibliographers sometimes miss smaller items that have not been directly submitted to them. Even so, basic research published by the best sources are listed here, and it is often those works with which one needs to establish a first familiarity. Electronic format of content from 1926 to the present is available online by subscription.

  • Muir, Bernard J. The Exeter Book: A Bibliography. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1992.

    The only bibliographic monograph of the Exeter Book. It contains listings for over 1,500 essays and monographs. The same author includes this material and more in his DVD version of his edition of the text, but the printed volume offers its own convenience.

  • Muir, Bernard J., ed. Exeter Anthology Of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501. 2 vols. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2000.

    The most recent edition of the Exeter Book. It supersedes earlier editions by providing a more extensive apparatus of observations newly made from the manuscript. Volume 1 contains the texts, and Volume 2 contains extensive commentary. Originally published in 1994. See also Codicology and Textual Relationships.

  • Old English Newsletter. 1967–.

    Old English Newsletter is the major bibliographic source in the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, compiling an annual print bibliography of the field and a commentary on it in a separate issue annually titled “Year’s Work in Old English Studies.”

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