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Beowulf: Known from a Unique Medieval Manuscript

Circa 1000
First page of the unique manuscript of Beowulf in the British Library (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV).

First page of the unique manuscript of Beowulf in the British Library (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV).

Beowulf, (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) a traditional heroic epic poem written in alliterative verse in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, and representing with its 3,182 lines 10% of all surviving Old English poetry, is known from one medieval manuscript that dates from between the 8th and the 11th century, perhaps in the first decade after 1000. The manuscript, known as the Nowell Codex or Cotton Vitellius A. xv, is preserved in the British Library.

The volume as it was bound in the 17th century contains two manuscripts: a 12th century manuscript that contains four prose works, and the Nowell codex, named after the q6th century English antiquarian, cartographer, and scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature Laurence Nowell, whose name is inscribed on its first page, and who owned the manuscript in the mid-16th century. It was then acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, who placed it in his library as the 15th manuscript on the first shelf of the bookcase that was headed by a bust of Vitellius.

"The unique copy of Beowulf is preserved in the Cottonian collection of manuscripts that suffered from a great fire in 1731. It remained in its burnt binding until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, undertook to restore these damaged manuscripts in his care. His bookbinder first traced the outline of each burnt leaf, cut out the center of the tracing except for a retaining edge of about 2mm, and pasted and taped the vellum leaf to the paper frame. Then he rebound the framed leaves in a new cover. The method well preserved the fragile bits of text along the burnt edges of the leaves, but the retaining edges of the paper mounts, and the paste and tape used to secure the leaves to them, hide from view many hundreds of letters and bits of letters. Today they are visible only if one holds a bright light directly behind them, an ineffectual solution if one lacks the manuscript, the bright light, or the permission to use them together" (The Electronic Beowulf, 1993, accessed 06-15-2009).

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