Except for a few scattered poems, most of the Old English poetic material we possess comes to us in four manuscripts. The first manuscript is called the Junius manuscript (also known as the Caedmon manuscript), which is an illustrated poetic anthology. The second manuscript is called the Exeter Book, also an anthology, located in the Exeter Cathedral since it was donated there in the eleventh century. It is a mixture of religious and more secular verse as well as the famous Old English riddles. The third manuscript, the Vercelli Book, contains a mixture of poetry and prose; how it came to be in Vercelli, Italy, no one knows, and is a matter of debate. Finally, the fourth manuscript is called the Nowell Codex, also a mixture of poetry and prose; it is fire-damaged and contains the famous Beowulf manuscript, in addition to a substantial fragment from a poem on the Old Testament character Judith as well as a few bits of other material.

. ‘Junius’ in Junius Manuscript refers to Franciscus Junius, who published the first edition of its contents in 1655. The popular name of the codex is the Caedmon manuscript, after an early theory that the poems it contains might be the work of Caedmon; the name has stuck even though the theory is no longer considered credible. Although the poems are untitled in the manuscript, modern editors have provided the names Genesis A, Genesis B, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan. The manuscript is partly illustrated with a series of line drawings depicting the events in the text. From spaces left by the scribes, it appears that it was intended to be fully illustrated but the work was left unfinished after only about a third of the artwork had been drawn.

The Exeter Book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It is believed originally to have contained 131 leaves, of which the first 8 have been replaced with other leaves; the original first 8 pages are lost. The Exeter Book is the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence. The precise date when the Exeter Book was compiled and written down is unknown, but it is rightly acknowledged to be one of the great works of the English Benedictine revival of the tenth century, and proposed dates for it ranges from 960 to 990. It begins with some long religious poems: the Christ, in three parts; two poems on St. Guthlac; the fragmentary “Azarius”; and the allegorical Phoenix. Following these are a number of shorter religious verses intermingled with poems of types that have survived only in this codex. All the extant Anglo-Saxon lyrics, or elegies, as they are usually called—The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, and The Ruin—are found here. In addition, the Exeter Book preserves 95 riddles, a genre that would otherwise have been represented by a solitary example. The remaining part of the Exeter Book includes The Rhyming Poem, which is the only example of its kind; the gnomic verses; Widsith, the heroic narrative of a fictitious bard; and the two refrain poems, Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer. The arrangement of the poems appears to be haphazard, and the book is believed to be copied from an earlier collection.

The Vercelli Book was written in the late 10th century. It contains texts of the poem Andreas, two poems by Cynewulf, The Dream of the Rood, an “Address of the Saved Soul to the Body,” and a fragment of a homiletic poem, as well as 23 prose homilies and a prose life of St. Guthlac, referred as the Vercelli Guthlac. The book is so named because it was found in the cathedral library at Vercelli, northwestern Italy, in 1822. Marginalia in the manuscript indicate that the manuscript was in English use in the 11th century. It was probably taken to Italy by one of the numerous Anglo-Saxon pilgrims on the way to Rome.

The Nowell Codex, also known as the Beowulf Manuscript, contains prose and poetry, typically dealing with monstrous themes, including Beowulf. The current codex is a composite of at least two manuscripts. The first of these dates from the 12th century and contains four works of prose. It is the second, older manuscript that is famous and popularly known as the Nowell codex, after Laurence Nowell, whose name is inscribed on its first page; he was apparently its owner in the mid-16th century. The Nowell codex is generally dated around the turn of the first millennium. Recent editions have specified a probable date in the decade after 1000.

The first codex contains four works of Old English prose: a copy of Alfred's translation of Augustine's Soliloquies, a translation of the Gospel of Nicodemus, the prose Solomon and Saturn, and a fragment of a life of Saint Quentin. T he second codex begins with three prose works: a life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East (a description of various far-off lands and their fantastic inhabitants), and a translation of a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. These are followed by Beowulf, which takes up the bulk of the volume, and Judith, a poetic retelling of part of the book of Judith.

Besides these four manuscripts we have few other substantial examples of Old English poetry, most important among which are the fragmentary Battle of Maldon (which we have only in an early eighteenth-century transcript from an original which was lost to fire soon thereafter), a scattering of poems inserted into the manuscripts of the collectively named Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (beginning with the annal for 937, The Battle of Brunanburh), and an Old English versions of a seventh-century Hymn of Creation attributed by Bede to the Northumbrian cowherd Caedmon.

Last modified: Sunday, 18 July 2021, 1:15 PM