Birthing Beowulf

Birthing Beowulf

Academics believe Beowolf could be “one of the most important works of Old English literature”.

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines.

It is possibly the oldest surviving long poem in Old English and is commonly cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature.

Old English or Anglo-Saxon is the earliest historical form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages.

It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers probably in the mid-5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Old English developed into the next historical form of English, known as Middle English.

Some of the most important surviving works of Old English literature are Beowulf, an epic poem; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of early English history; the Franks Casket, an inscribed early whalebone artefact; and Cædmon’s Hymn, a Christian religious poem.

There are also a number of extant prose works, such as sermons and saints’ lives, biblical translations, and translated Latin works of the early Church Fathers, legal documents, such as laws and wills, and practical works on grammar, medicine, and geography.

Still, poetry is considered the heart of Old English literature.

Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous, with a few exceptions, such as Bede and Cædmon.

This academic Belief in Beowolf only developed in the 19th century as academia fell under the thrall of Uniformitarianism.

The poem was not studied until the end of the 18th century, and not published in its entirety until Johan Bülow funded the 1815 Latin translation, prepared by the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin.

After a heated debate with Thorkelin, Bülow offered to support a new translation into Danish by N. F. S. Grundtvig. The result, Bjovulfs Drape (1820), was the first modern language translation of Beowulf.

Uniformitarianism, coined by William Whewell, was originally proposed in contrast to catastrophism by British naturalists in the late 18th century, starting with the work of the Scottish geologist James Hutton, which was refined by John Playfair and popularised by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830.

So why was Beowolf ignored for the best part of a thousand years?

Possibly because this “unnoticed” manuscript only became amenable to academic interpretation after it was “badly damaged” by fire in 1731.

The full poem survives in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, located in the British Library.

It has no title in the original manuscript, but has become known by the name of the story’s protagonist.

In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged by a fire that swept through Ashburnham House in London that had a collection of medieval manuscripts assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton.

G.J. Thorkelin, an Anglo-Saxonist from Iceland, and a hired scribe made two transcripts of Beowulf in 1787.

It was not until the next century that the British Museum went about systematically repairing the books damaged by the fire.

By that time, much of the text of Beowulf had crumbled away from the edges of the pages.

By 1845, Cotton Vitellius A. xv. was rebound mounted on paper frames that help slow the deterioration of the edges of the pages.

The Beowulf Manuscript

For many years after the MS. had come into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton it remained unnoticed.

It is not mentioned in an imperfect Catalogue of the Cottonian Library prepared for Dr. Hickes in 1689.

Beowulf – Thomas Arnold – 1876

Possibly because this epic tale of Old English country folk is set in Scandinavia.

The poem is set in Scandinavia.


Beowulf – Thomas Arnold – 1876

Possibly because this epic tale of Old English country folk was written somewhere between 300 and 600 years after the described events occurred in Scandinavia.

The events described in the poem take place in the late 5th century, after the Angles and Saxons had begun their migration to England, and before the beginning of the 7th century, a time when the Anglo-Saxon people were either newly arrived or still in close contact with their Germanic kinsmen in Northern Germany and Scandinavia and possibly England.

Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dated on paleographical grounds to the late 10th or early 11th century.

William M Schniedewind went even further in the abstract to his 2005 paper “Problems of Paleographic Dating of Inscriptions” and stated that

“The so-called science of paleography often relies on circular reasoning because there is insufficient data to draw precise conclusion about dating. Scholars also tend to oversimplify diachronic development, assuming models of simplicity rather than complexity”.

Possibly because these “imperfectly understood” Scandinavian stanzas could only be dated after the “historical events which are scattered through” them had been formalised into a Settled Historical Narrative.

Date of the Poem.
Of this poem, so unique in every aspect, we must now endeavour to ascertain approximately the date: which done a conjecture will be hazarded – not exactly as to its authorship – but as to the motives which may have impelled, and the circumstances which may have favoured, its composition.

The date of Beowulf can only be determined by considerations falling under two heads:
(1) the language of the poem;
(2) the notices of historical events which are scattered through it.

The MS. itself, the handwriting of which is probably of the tenth century, affords, apart from that fact, no presumption as to the date of the poem.

It is a bad transcript of a work, the language of which the scribe seems to have imperfectly understood, and hence to have in many places hopelessly misrepresented: and the interval between the transcript and the original composition may have been indefinitely great.

Beowulf – Thomas Arnold – 1876

Possibly because Beowulf was only discovered in the 16th century.

The earliest known owner of the Beowulf manuscript, the 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell, lends his name to the manuscript (Nowell Codex), though its official designation is “British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV” because it was one of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s holdings in the Cotton library in the middle of the 17th century.

A more comprehensive rationale is that Beowulf was simply viewed as Protestant Propaganda that was clumsily cobbled together during the English Reformation.

1558 Elizabeth I crowned queen – final break with the Roman Church

The “first methodical statement” in this Protestant Propaganda campaign was the Apologia ecclesiae Anglicanae written by John Jewel and published in 1562.

John Jewel (sometimes spelled Jewell) (24 May 1522 – 23 September 1571) was an English bishop of Salisbury.

Under Elizabeth’s succession he returned to England, and made earnest efforts to secure what would now be called a low-church settlement of religion; he was strongly committed to the Elizabethan reforms.

His congé d’élire as bishop of Salisbury had been made out on 27 July, but he was not consecrated until 21 January 1560.

He now constituted himself the literary apologist of the Elizabethan Settlement.

He had on 26 November 1559, in a sermon at St Paul’s Cross, challenged all comers to prove the Roman Catholic case out of the Scriptures, or the councils or Fathers for the first six hundred years after Christ.

He repeated his challenge in 1560, and Dr Henry Cole took it up.

The chief result was Jewel’s Apologia ecclesiae Anglicanae, published in 1562, which in Bishop Creighton’s words is the first methodical statement of the position of the Church of England against the Church of Rome, and forms the groundwork of all subsequent controversy.

The work was translated into English by Anne Bacon to reach a wider audience and was a significant step in the intellectual justification of Protestantism in England.

John Jewel’s 1562 Apology of the Church of England, a document more important in its political-historical significance than its theological significance, represents an attempt to provide a statement of faith for the Church of England under Elizabeth I and answer challenges and accusations of the Romanists against the Protestants.

The Protestant Propaganda campaign argued “the English Church Reformers were going back to the old Church” and John Jewel proposed to demonstrate this “by looking back to the first centuries of Christianity”.

The great interest of Jewel’s “Apology” lies in the fact that it was written in Latin to be read throughout Europe as the answer of the Reformed Church of England, at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, to those who said that the Reformation set up a new Church.

Its argument was that the English Church Reformers were going back to the old Church, not setting up a new; and this Jewel proposed to show by looking back to the first centuries of Christianity.

Project Canterbury – The Apology of the Church of England by John Jewel

Thus the stage was set by the Protestant Propaganda campaign for the discovery of some Old English literature [i.e. Beowulf] by Laurence Nowell in the following year.

In 1563, Nowell came into possession of the only extant manuscript of Beowulf.

This line of argument is clearly underlined by the observation that Laurence Nowell “was living in the London house of his patron” [Sir William Cecil] who was “chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign”.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (sometimes spelt Burleigh), KG (13 September 1520 – 4 August 1598) was an English statesman, the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign, twice Secretary of State (1550–1553 and 1558–1572) and Lord High Treasurer from 1572.

He was the founder of the Cecil dynasty which has produced many politicians including two Prime Ministers.,_1st_Baron_Burghley

Laurence (or Lawrence) Nowell (c. 1515 – c. 1571) was an English antiquarian, cartographer and pioneering scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.

By 1562, he was living in the London house of his patron, Sir William Cecil, where he collected and transcribed Anglo-Saxon documents and compiled the first Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, the Vocabularium Saxonicum. During this time he became the friend and mentor of William Lambarde, another early scholar of Anglo-Saxon.

Of the history of the MS. nothing appears to be known.

It is one of those collected by Sir Robert Cotton, the founder of the Cottonian Library, who having been born only thirty-four years after the dissolution of the Monasteries, had opportunities of obtaining rare MSS. which were denied to later antiquaries.

That the volume containing Beowulf originally belonged to some monastery may reasonably be assumed.

Beowulf – Thomas Arnold – 1876

Therefore, the academic acceptance of Beowulf can be viewed as a Crowning Act of Folly by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Academics when they held sway over the Oxbridge and Ivy League universities.

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) is an informal, sometimes disparaging term for a group of high-status and influential White Americans of English Protestant ancestry.

The term applies to a group believed to control disproportionate social, political, and financial power in the United States.

It describes a group whose family wealth, education, status, and elite connections allow them a degree of privilege held by few others.

Scholars agree that the group’s influence has waned since the end of World War II, with the growing influence of other American ethnic groups.

Seven of the Ivy League schools were founded before the American Revolution; Cornell was founded just after the American Civil War.

These seven were the primary colleges in the Northern and Middle Colonies, and their early faculties and founding boards were largely, therefore, drawn from other Ivy League institutions.

There were also some British graduates from the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the University of St. Andrews, the University of Edinburgh, and elsewhere on their boards.

Similarly, the founder of The College of William & Mary, in 1693, was a British graduate of the University of Edinburgh. Cornell provided Stanford University with its first president.

Oxbridge is a portmanteau (morphological blend) of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Although both universities were founded more than eight centuries ago, the term Oxbridge is relatively recent. In William Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, published in 1849, the main character attends the fictional Boniface College, Oxbridge.

The word Oxbridge may also be used pejoratively: as a descriptor of social class (referring to the professional classes who dominated the intake of both universities at the beginning of the twentieth century), as shorthand for an elite that “continues to dominate Britain’s political and cultural establishment” and a parental attitude that “continues to see UK higher education through an Oxbridge prism”, or to describe a “pressure-cooker” culture that attracts and then fails to support overachievers “who are vulnerable to a kind of self-inflicted stress that can all too often become unbearable” and high-flying state school students who find “coping with the workload very difficult in terms of balancing work and life” and “feel socially out of [their] depth”.

Sadly, the other jewel in the Anglo-Saxon Academic Crown fares no better.

Some of the most important surviving works of Old English literature are Beowulf, an epic poem; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of early English history; the Franks Casket, an inscribed early whalebone artefact; and Cædmon’s Hymn, a Christian religious poem.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons.

The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great.

Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated.

In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

The Chronicle incorporates material from multiple sources.

As with any historical source, the Chronicle has to be treated with some caution.

The dating of the events recorded also requires care.

The manuscripts were produced in different places, and each manuscript reflects the biases of its scribes.

It has been argued that the Chronicle should be regarded as propaganda, produced by Alfred’s court and written with the intent of glorifying Alfred and creating loyalty.

This is not universally accepted, but the origins of the manuscripts clearly colour both the description of interactions between Wessex and other kingdoms, and the descriptions of the Vikings’ depredations.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

This is because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was another part of the Protestant Propaganda campaign started during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The systematic analysis of manuscripts containing versions of the text known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle originated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, as part of an attempt to assemble and organise information about the available sources for English history.

In 1565 (or thereabouts) John Joscelyn, chaplain and Latin secretary to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, constructed a list of six manuscripts each designated ‘Chronica Saxonica’.

He arranged his list in an order determined by the point at which each chronicle ended (977, [1001], 1006, 1066, 1080, 1148), numbering them accordingly (1–6), indicating in each but one case the manuscript’s apparent or supposed place of origin, and identifying its current owner.

The fact that these manuscripts are known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle creates the impression (for the unwary) that they constitute a single continuous narrative: official in status, consistent in nature and uniform in authority.

It is an impression which might be compounded by a cursory reading of the annals themselves: laconic, impersonal, seemingly objective, driven only by the changing pace of events, with little sense of direction or deeper purpose.

Of course the truth was quite different.

Manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Volume 1: c.400–1100
The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain Volume 1: c.400–1100
Edited by: Richard Gameson – 2011

Unsurprisingly, this propaganda tract veers from the ridiculously brief during the Academic Abyss to the sublimely lyrical around the Heinsohn Horizon.

AD 807

Everyman Press 1912

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Everyman Press edition – 1912

AD 937

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – E. E. C. Gomme – 1909

Perhaps the only good thing to be said for this Protestant Propaganda is that it inspired J. R. R. Tolkien to revive the old Elizabethan tradition of originating fantasy fiction.

They passed through all perils, until they came with the dust of their long and weary road upon them to the drear dale that lay before the Gate of Angband.

Black chasms opened beside the road, whence forms as of writhing serpents issued.

On either hand the cliffs stood as embattled walls, and upon them sat carrion fowl crying with fell voices.

Before them was the impregnable Gate, an arch wide and dark at the foot of the mountain; above it reared a thousand feet of precipice.

There dismay took them, for at the gate was a guard of whom no tidings had yet gone forth.

Rumour of he knew not what designs abroad among the princes of the Elves had come to Morgoth, and ever down the aisles of the forest was heard the baying of Huan, the great hound of war, whom long ago the Valar unleashed.

Then Morgoth recalled the doom of Huan, and he chose one from among the whelps of the race of Draugluin; and he fed him with his own hand upon living flesh, and put his power upon him.

Swiftly the wolf grew, until he could creep into no den, but lay huge and hungry before the feet of Morgoth.

There the fire and anguish of hell entered into him, and he became filled with a devouring spirit, tormented, terrible, and strong. Carcharoth, the Red Maw, he is named in the tales of those days, and Anfauglir, the Jaws of Thirst.

And Morgoth set him to lie unsleeping before the doors of Angband, lest Huan come.

The Tale of Beren and Luthien – The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien – 1977


After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher published a series of works based on his father’s extensive notes and unpublished manuscripts, including The Silmarillion.

These, together with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings form a connected body of tales, poems, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about a fantasy world called Arda, and Middle-earth[b] within it.

[b] “Middle-earth” is derived via Middle English middel-erthe, middel-erd from middangeard, an Anglo-Saxon cognate of Old Norse Miðgarðr, the land inhabited by humans in Norse mythology.

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12 Responses to Birthing Beowulf

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  4. Jürgen Kieser says:

    The word beowulf in Old English means bee wulf and was the name for the bear. Wulf, because he is as dangerous as a wulf and bee, because he loves honey 😉

    That makes the whole story a bit less “monster-ous”. Beowulf was just a big grumpy old bear.

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  6. RdM says:

    “Sadly, the other jewel in the Anglo-Saxon Academic Crown fairs no better.”
    “fares”, not ‘fairs’!

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