How many of us read the epic Old English poem, Beowulf (in translation, of course), when we were in high school or college? If, like me, you found it rather slow going, you now have yet another reason to wish to be transported back to the Regency. No one, except a handful of scholars, had any idea of the existence of this epic poem at that time. Even when the first transcription and translation of Beowulf was finally published, during the Regency, it was not printed in England, or in English. Perhaps fittingly, since British bombardment nearly prevented the first translation from ever being completed. Or did it?
How Beowulf first got to press . . .
Considered one of the oldest, if not the oldest, surviving long poem written in Old English, the saga of the Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, is believed to have been written sometime between the eighth and the eleventh century. Disagreement continues to this day on a more precise dating of the poem. Most scholars believe the poem was written in England, though the events it depicts took place in Denmark and Sweden in the sixth century. Some scholars who have studied Beowulf, including J. R. R. Tolkien, believe it is an oral tale from a much earlier era which was finally committed to writing centuries later. Others believe it was copied from an even older original manuscript. And, so far as is known, only one manuscript copy of this poem exists.
The poem comprises 3182 lines of text and therefore, constitutes a full ten percent of all extant Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was hand-written on parchment, probably with quill pen and ink make from oak galls, in a combination of Carolingian and Uncial script. Experts agree that it is the work of two different scribes. Sadly, it is possible that Scribe A may have suffered a serious, if not fatal, medical event which prevented him from completing the manuscript. Close examination has shown that Scribe A abruptly left off in the middle of a word. That partial word was then completed by Scribe B, who continued on to finish the poem. Due to the Christian overtones in the story, some scholars speculate that it was recorded by a Christian monk or scribe. Some believe that the Danish setting of the story suggests that the poem was transcribed in a monastery located in the Danelaw territory of England. Regardless of its origins, the manuscript’s survival into the nineteenth, let alone the twenty-first century, is nothing short of a miracle.
Though there are some Christian overtones in the poem, the story is pagan in origin. For that reason alone, it is a wondrous thing that it even survived the Middle Ages, when so much pagan literature was destroyed by Church officials. Assuming the poem was inscribed by members of a religious order, unless it had been specifically commissioned by someone outside the order, it was almost certainly kept in the library of the monastery where it was produced. During the period in which it was being transcribed, at least some of the members of that community would have known of the poem, but it is unlikely it was more widely known. Then, for more than five centuries, the poem lay quietly in obscurity, even less well known that it had been when it was transcribed. Somehow, it managed to survive the constant Viking raids of monasteries along the English coast. Perhaps it had been created in an inland monastery, or perhaps the monastery where it was created sent it to another monastery further inland, maybe along with other valuable manuscripts, for safe-keeping. It was probably still in the collection of a monastery in 1536, when Henry VIII vented his wrath on religious orders with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Hundreds, if not thousands, of precious, one-of-a-kind manuscripts were destroyed during King Henry’s five-year vendetta against the Church. Yet, somehow, this poem in manuscript survived all that devastation.
The manuscripts which were not destroyed when monasteries, priories and convents were suppressed usually became the property of one of Henry’s loyal supporters. At some point after its creation, the poem was bound into a volume with five other works. Based on a study of the other texts bound with it, scholars have concluded that this was a collection of stories about monsters. The first known owner of the bound volume which included this epic poem was Laurence Nowell. As a young man, Nowell had attended Christ Church College at Oxford, where he developed an interest in Anglo-Saxon literature and began collecting old manuscripts. By 1562, Nowell was living in the London home of his patron, Sir William Cecil. The following year, he became tutor to Cecil’s ward, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Probably in that same year, Nowell acquired a bound volume of "monster stories" in manuscript which included the epic Old English poem about the heroic Beowulf, perhaps as a gift from Cecil. It is certain that Nowell owned it, since his name is written on the first page, along with the year 1563. Nowell died about 1570, and his friend, William Lambarde, inherited all of his books and papers, probably including the book of "monster stories." No one is certain what happened to that set of manuscripts upon Lambarde’s death in 1601.
In all likelihood, William Lambarde (or his heirs, after his death), sold the volume of "monster stories," now known as the Nowell Codex, to the wealthy and prominent antiquarian, Sir Robert Cotton. Once safely ensconced in Cotton’s massive library, the Old English epic poem slipped into yet another century of quiet obscurity. An avid collector of books and manuscripts, Cotton eventually built a library larger even than that of the king, which he made available to his fellow members of Parliament. Cotton so angered King Charles I with what the latter perceived to be an anti-royalist publication that in 1630, the King confiscated Cotton’s library to prevent other members of Parliament from using the knowledge housed there against him. Fortunately, a couple of years after Cotton died, in May of 1631, the library was returned to his son and heir, Sir Thomas Cotton. Both Sir Thomas, and his son, Sir John Cotton, continued to maintain and expand this enormous collection, which, in the following century, would become one of the foundation collections of the British Library.
Like many antiquarians and book collectors with very large collections, Sir Robert Cotton devoted a full room in his large house in Westminster to his library. There were fourteen book cases, or presses, in this room, on each of which stood a bust of a figure from classical antiquity. Cotton may well have been one of the first collectors to make use of the pressmark system to organize his library so that he could easily find a book when he wanted it. A partial list of Cotton’s library, in pressmark order, shows were he kept many of his precious books. We know that his volume of manuscripts which included the epic poem about Beowulf had the pressmark of Vitellius A. xv. It was kept in the book press on which stood a bust of Vitellius, on the top shelf (A) and was the fifteenth (xv) book from the left on that shelf. When Sir Robert’s grandson, Sir John Cotton, died in 1702, he bequeathed the Cotton Library to Great Britain. Once the British government took over care and maintenance of the library, they retained Cotton’s pressmarks, simply adding the prefix "Cotton MS." to each of them to more clearly identify their origins. Even today, the British Library catalogues the Nowell Codex, which includes the Beowulf manuscript, as Cotton MS. Vitellius A. xv.
When the British government took possession of the Cotton Library, it was removed from the Cotton family home in Westminster, which stood on the site now occupied by the Houses of Parliament. First, the collection was taken to Essex House, in The Strand, but that building was considered to be in too great a risk of fire. Therefore, the library was relocated once again, to Ashburnham House, in Westminster. Unfortunately, that structure did catch fire, in October of 1731, and many of the volumes in the collection were lost, or damaged, despite the valiant efforts of the librarians to save as many as they could by throwing them out the windows. Cotton MS. Vitellius A. xv. was badly singed around the edges, but remarkably, survived yet again. In 1753, the Cotton Library was transferred by Act of Parliament to the custody of the British Museum. The surviving collection, including Cotton MS. Vitellius A. xv., was still part of the British Museum library during the Regency.
Late in the seventeenth century, the scholar, Thomas Smith, joined the household of Sir John Cotton, where he became the custodian of the library begun by Sir John’s grandfather. Over the course of twelve years, Smith cataloged the collection. There is no mention of the poem in Smith’s catalog. However, it must be noted that Smith was not an expert in Old English, the poem had no title and was bound in with other manuscripts. For those reasons, he might well have overlooked it or assumed it was part of one of the other documents. Not long after the British government took ownership of the Cotton Library, a committee of the House of Commons, chaired by the speaker, Robert Harley, who would later become the Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, was appointed trustee of the collection. In 1703, that committee selected a commission of experts to report on the state of the library. Fortunately, Harley appointed Humfrey Wanley, a librarian and expert in Old English, to the commission. Wanley did take notice of the Old English poem he found bound in with other manuscripts in the Nowell Codex. In addition to serving on the commission, Wanley was also preparing a catalog of all the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts known in Britain, and he included those in the Cotton collection in his catalog. In 1705, the catalog was published, in Latin, the scholarly language of the time. Since he could read Old English, Wanley noted that this was an excellent example of an Anglo-Saxon poem which described the story of the main character, Beowulf, who was involved with what he described as "the wars of the Danes." Wanley’s catalog entry was the first mention of this manuscript in print, but it would attract little attention from scholars in Britain for yet another century.
In 1752, the year before the Cotton Library was transferred to the British Museum, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín was born, out of wedlock, in Iceland, which at the time was a colony of Denmark. He was a good student and in 1770, he was offered the opportunity to continue his education in Copenhagen. He accepted the offer and spent the rest of his life in Denmark, doing all he could to distance himself from his Icelandic origins. Despite the fact that he had been a good student, Thorkelín was an indifferent and careless scholar. Though he completed the study of law, he saw scholarship as a path to wealth and more importantly, fame, which he craved. He was also dazzled by royalty and was determined to ingratiate himself with the aristocracy and even the Danish royal house. He became interested in ancient Norse texts and medieval manuscripts, and between 1775 and 1777, he edited and translated into Latin two sets of canonical laws from the manuscripts of two medieval Danish bishops. He also supervised the printing of other editions of early manuscripts relating to Denmark and its then colony, Norway. Thorkelín was handsomely rewarded for his efforts, becoming the secretary to the Arnamagnan Commission (responsible for a large collection of Danish and Norwegian documents), then assistant to the Royal Privy Archives, as well as being appointed Professor of Antiquities at Copenhagen University. All three positions included substantial stipends. In 1784, he was promised the position of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives, when that position became vacant. Since the incumbent was an active man in good health, Thorkelín was aware he might have to wait for sometime to achieve this goal. In the meantime, he believed he must continue his ongoing search for, and publication of, ancient Danish documents in order to ensure the government was aware of him and kept their promise to him.
Thorkelín knew that previous scholars had scoured the libraries of the countries to the east of Denmark for ancient Danish documents, so it was unlikely he would have any luck in that direction. But it was clear to him that no one had ventured to search in the libraries of Denmark’s western neighbors, including the British Isles, at least parts of which had once been held by Danish kings. A indefatigable networker, Thorkelín was able to garner the support of many important scholars and even members of the Danish court for his journey to Great Britain. He was granted a leave of absence for two years from the positions he currently held, while retaining his full salary, with the addition of a very generous travel allowance. In 1786, Thorkelín set sail for Britain. Some scholars believe he had seen Wanley’s catalog before he sailed and therefore was already aware of the poem about Beowulf and the Danes. However, other scholars are certain Thorkelín could not have known of the catalog and his trip to Britain was not motivated by the hope of finding any specific manuscript. The first mention that Thorkelín makes of Wanley’s catalog is in a letter to a friend written in 1786, at least three months after he had begun his search of the books at the British Museum.
Regardless of how he first discovered the manuscript poem, Thorkelín was the first scholar to take an interest in it in more than eighty years. Though he could not read Old English, Thorkelín became convinced that the manuscript he studied was a copy of a poem which had originally been written in Danish. Thus, it could be considered an important document relating to the history of Denmark. In 1787, Thorkelín commissioned a professional manuscript copyist working at the British Museum, James Matthews, to transcribe the complete manuscript for him. Apparently, Thorkelín was eventually able to gain permission to transcribe the manuscript himself, which he did later that year. The Nowell Codex had not been re-bound after the fire of 1731, so both Matthews and Thorkelín were working with a volume which had a badly burned binding. Not only was the cover severely charred, many of the threads which held the signatures together had been burned away. One of the leaves of the poem was found out of order near the turn of the nineteenth century, but both of the transcriptions which Thorkelín had included the text in order. It is therefore assumed that Thorkelín, who make his transcription after Matthews, must have slipped a loose leaf back into the book without taking care where he put it. Thorkelín was able to get three-year extension of his leave of absence and a commensurate increase in his travel allowance, possibly due to his reports to his superiors about the Danish manuscript he had located and transcribed. He traveled to several large libraries in England, as well as to libraries in both Scotland and Ireland, where he found a few manuscript fragments, but he did not find any additional significant "Danish" manuscripts. He finally left Britain in 1791, his two transcriptions of the epic poem his most significant prize.
In 1792, Thorkelín married a wealthy widow whose husband had owned a large brewery. Soon thereafter he was finally appointed to the position of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives. Despite gaining that coveted position, he had also taken over management of his wife’s brewery and he was regularly buying a whole host of goods at auctions which he later re-sold at a profit. Due to those activities, Thorkelín had become known in Copenhagen as the king of the rag and bone men. For the next fifteen years he spent most of his time increasing his wealth and gave very little real attention to scholarship of any kind. From 1792 through 1807, he published nothing, though he seems to have put it about that he was hard at work on his translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem he had transcribed in England. When queried about his progress by friends and colleagues, he seems to have used his need to make a living as an excuse, or cited the exorbitant costs of trying to publish an obscure manuscript which would be of interest to only a few scholars. In some cases, he even seemed to be trying to solicit financial support from his correspondents in order to publish his translation of the poem. Then, in 1807, he got a break. Britain attacked Copenhagen to prevent the combined Danish and Norwegian fleet from falling into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte. Thorkelín’s house was hit during the bombardment and burned to the ground. He claimed that the translation he had finished, on which he was just completing the final edits, was destroyed in the fire, though he had been able to save the two transcriptions which he had brought back from England.
In 2007, the Icelandic scholar, Magnus Fjalldal, published his research on Grímur Thorkelín. Fjalldal found it odd that Thorkelín was able to save the transcriptions from the fire, but not the manuscript of his translation, which would not have been many more sheets of paper than the transcriptions, all of which would almost certainly have been in proximity to one another when the shell hit his house. A translation, it should be noted, on which he had supposedly been working for more than a decade. Rather, Fjalldal believes that Thorkelín, who could not read Old English, and who had been severely criticised for egregious errors in some of his earlier translations of ancient documents, had never actually prepared a translation of the poem. Fjalldal also found it odd that Thorkelín, who had been ill for a period of time, had not made an effort to complete the translation of a poem which he told colleagues he considered to be a crucial historical document for Denmark. Instead, Fjalldal is of the opinion that Thorkelín was using his ongoing "translation" of the poem to maintain his position in scholarly circles while he actually spent most of his time managing the brewery and with his buying and selling activities.
Unfortunately, the Battle of Copenhagen turned out only to be a respite for Thorkelín. By 1808, a number of other Danish scholars had become aware of Thorkelín’s translation of the poem. Under the impression he had actually completed the translation, they assumed he could recreate it in rather less time that he had taken the first time around. One young Danish scholar of Norse mythology actually announced Thorkelín’s upcoming translation in his own book, with the hope it would be published as soon as possible. In this case, Fjalldal believes that Thorkelín was afraid to produce his translation, since it would be the very first printed edition of the poem and was bound to attract attention well beyond the borders of Denmark. If the reviews were as bad as those he had received in the past, they could seriously damage his standing in the academic community. Nevertheless, the pressure continued and finally, in the late summer or early fall of 1815, Thorkelín published his Latin translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, De Danorum rebus gestis secul. III & IV : Poëma Danicum dialecto Anglosaxonica : ex Bibliotheca Cottoniana Musaei Britannici. Partly because he could not read Old English, and partly because he wished to present this poem as an important document in the history of Denmark, his adopted homeland, Thorkelín began the title of his book with The Danes Achievements … with no mention of the hero of the tale.
Though Thorkelín was the first to publish a full translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem bound in the Nowell Codex, the poem had actually received another, more succinct title a decade before Thorkelín’s publication. In 1805, Mr. Sharon Turner, a historian and student of Anglo-Saxon literature, had published a selection of verses from the poem, translated into English, in his book, The History Of Manners, Landed Property, Government, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion, and Language of the Anglo-Saxons. Turner chose to title the poem with the name of the hero of the story, Beowulf. But the study of Anglo-Saxon history at that time was a most esoteric subject, and very few people considered the tale of Beowulf of any great importance. In 1814, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, John Josias Conybeare, published another translation of several of the verses from the poem, in both English and Latin, but, like Turner, this was not a complete translation and was not widely circulated. None of these scholars, from Turner to Conybeare to Thorkelín considered this poem as literature. They were all interested in it solely as a historical document from the Anglo-Saxon era.
Since he could not read Old English, Thorkelín’s translation of the poem was extremely inaccurate and he was widely criticized once it was published. Nevertheless, he brought this epic poem to the attention of the world and did an even greater service for all of the Beowulf scholars who would come after him. Even though Thorkelín’s transcriptions of the poem were made in late eighteenth century, more than fifty years after it had been licked by the flames in the fire at Ashburnham House, the poem is believed to have been more complete and in better condition than it would be at any time after that. The edges of the manuscript pages continued to crumble away, so that Thorkelín’s transcriptions are now considered the most complete record of the manuscript available.
Eventually, a full English translation of Beowulf would be published in England, in 1837. Gradually, people began to recognize the immense significance of this epic poem, not only as a source of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian history, but also as an early work of great literature. By the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Beowulf was studied by a host of scholars with a wide range of interests. It has been influential in the writing of a great many authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien, who made his own translation of the poem while a scholar of linguistics at Oxford. Several events and characters from the poem would find their way into his later fiction work, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Since Cotton MS. Vitellius A. xv., or the Nowell Codex, contains the only known manuscript of this poem, we must feel some sense of gratitude for Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín for bringing the poem to the attention of the world, regardless of the quality of his translation.
It is clear that Beowulf was barely known by anyone but a handful of Anglo-Saxon scholars until well into the nineteenth century. Yet perhaps the most alpha male hero in a series of Georgian romances about a family of alpha males, by a prominent romance author, was named Beowulf. The series was set in the 1770s, long before Turner, Conybeare or Thorkelín had transcribed or translated even a single verse of the poem. At that time, the only known mention of the manuscript was in Humfrey Wanley’s catalog of 1705. However, the author of this romance series did state that the patriarch of this fictional family was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history, so it is just conceivable that he was aware of the poem when he chose the name for his first-born son. That is how I choose to view the circumstance of this hero’s naming, since that name does work very well within the story and he is one of my all-time favorite romance heroes. It may even be that the Danish king in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, Hrothgar, supplied the name for the title carried by this powerful character.
Despite that particular Georgian romance, Dear Regency Authors, until a few months after the Battle of Waterloo, practically no one in England or the Continent had ever heard of this epic poem, and even fewer of them would have known of it by the name of Beowulf. Therefore, it would not be a good idea to make Beowulf assigned reading for a young gentleman under the direction of a tutor or away at university during the Regency or even in the reigns of George IV or William IV. The first full English translation was not published until 1837 and the first real interest in Beowulf in England did not develop until the 1840s. Which is not to say that some very serious scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature might not have been aware of the existence of the manuscript decades earlier. However, there would have been few during the Regency who shared their interest or appreciation for this hidden gem of poetry in Old English. However, now that you know the tortuous path by which Beowulf eventually made it into print, perhaps you might find a way to embellish an upcoming Regency novel with some of the events that lead up to that first printing.
Author’s Note: The British Library, which owns the one and only original copy of Beowulf, has digitized this treasure and made it available online to everyone. If you would like to see the manuscript of this poem which has survived millenia, visit Beowulf at the British Library web site.