Medieval Studies The Vercelli Book
Paul E. Szarmach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0097


According to the traditional view, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII (Vercelli Book), is one of the four major manuscripts of Old English literature, the other three being the Exeter Book, the Junius Manuscript, and the Beowulf manuscript. The 135 parchment folios of Vercelli contain six poems and twenty-three prose pieces. The origin and provenance of the manuscript have their uncertainties and mysteries. Worcester, Winchester, and Canterbury have variously been proposed as the cultural center that produced the manuscript with the last now considered to be the most likely. The date of composition for the whole manuscript has something of a consensus, as most scholars consider the late 10th century as probable, even though individual pieces are certainly earlier. How and why an Old English manuscript found its way into the cupboard of a northern Italian cathedral library is the mystery of the Vercelli Book. Since Vercelli is on the pilgrim route to Rome, the reigning speculation has been that an Anglo-Saxon pilgrim on the road left the manuscript behind inadvertently. The manuscript was unnoticed until the 18th century. In 1824 the existence of the Vercelli Book became public, and in 1832 news of the discovery came to England and its Record Commission, which directed Benjamin Thorpe to publish the poems. The literary priority of poetry over prose meant that the contents of the manuscript received an unequal treatment. The venerable series Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records brought together the six poems in its second volume. Sixty years later D. G. Scragg edited the complement to ASPR 2 with his The Vercelli Homilies, where all twenty-three prose pieces have a uniform treatment. The conference volume edited by Samantha Zacher and Andy Orchard brings Vercelli prose and poetry together in a literary collection not previously attempted before and thus suggests the way for future study. The second mystery of the manuscript is the question of its unity or, less specifically, its principle of organization. The mixed nature of the contents, even within a generic boundary such as “homily” or “sermon,” defies easy analysis and conclusion. “A miscellany” is a rather unsatisfactory description and a major claim for works “penitential in nature” seems to leave out of consideration at least as much as it leaves in. As the earliest extant collection of religious prose in Old English and as a collection of texts without parallel in the early medieval period, the Vercelli Book merits a unique place in literary history.


Remley 2009 has compiled the authoritative bibliography for the Vercelli Book. The Old English Newsletter has published an annual bibliography virtually since its inception in 1967 and now offers the bibliography as a searchable database. The OEN Year’s Work in Old English Studies reviews the annual bibliography. OEN also records “Research in Progress.” The annual Anglo-Saxon England began in 1972, when Greenfield and Robinson 1980 ends their historical sweep. Quinn and Quinn 1990 is still useful despite its publication date.

  • Anglo-Saxon England. 1972–.

    Offers an annual bibliography compiled by many hands and covers all branches of Anglo-Saxon Studies. Picks up where Greenfield and Robinson 1980 end.

  • Greenfield, Stanley B., and Fred C. Robinson. A Bibliography of Publications on Old English Literature to the End of 1972. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

    The standard for the subject through its terminal date.

  • Old English Newsletter Bibliography Database.

    Contains the OEN annual bibliographies from 1973 to 2006—over 21,000 entries that can be browsed, scanned, or searched. New items are added annually.

  • Quinn, Karen Jane, and Kenneth P. Quinn. A Manual of Old English Prose. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 453. New York: Garland, 1990.

    The scope is all literary prose, but not Ælfric and not Wulfstan. The Vercelli Homilies are treated as twenty-three individual texts under item A502. There are 1,030 items listed under “Criticism” in alphabetical order, which makes for a useful finding device. Other useful sections include an abstract listing of 419 manuscripts (e.g., Ker’s Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon) and a Table of Alfredian translations.

  • Remley, Paul. “The Vercelli Book and its Texts: A Guide to Scholarship.” In New Readings in the Vercelli Book. Edited by Samantha Zacher and Andy Orchard, 318–415. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

    Remley organizes 1,056 entries in eight sections (the six poems, a general section on the manuscript, and the eighth on the homilies). He is particularly good with brief cross-references. This guide will eventually become part of the revision of Greenfield and Robinson 1980.

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