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181 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

28 December 2017

A poem for literally all seasons

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As followers of the @BLMedieval Twitter account know, some of us are fond of the hashtag #OTD. Short for ‘On this day’, it is used to recall which historical events took place on a given date. It’s a great excuse to highlight items from the British Library’s collections. In a way, it’s also rather medieval. When Benedictine monks assembled for their daily chapter meetings, they would have read an excerpt from a martyrology about which saints were commemorated that day and the next. Some medieval calendars included entries for every single day, and one of those is known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.

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The entries for December, from the oldest copy of the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Winchester?, 1st quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

The metrical calendar of Hampson survives in four manuscripts, all made in England in the 10th or 11th century (and three of which are held at the British Library). It takes its name from R.T. Hampson, its 19th-century editor. The calendar comprises 365 verses, one for each day of the year. To take account of leap years, medieval calendars added a second 24 February, instead of adding an extra day at the end of the month, known as 29 February.

The oldest surviving copy was made in England in the first decades of the 10th century. It was added to a 9th-century Psalter from the region that is now France (Cotton Galba A XVIII). The poem mostly lists saints commemorated on each day, but it also includes information about the movement of the moon and planets and some versions note the deaths of King Alfred and his queen, Ealhswith. The poet(s) sometimes had to stretch to fill some days. For example, the entry for 28 February roughly translates as, ‘This is the last day of February.’ In other instances, however, the poet(s) used vivid, memorable imagery. The feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August was described as the day the Virgin Mary ‘crossed over to the stars.’ Meanwhile, 29 August was listed as the day John the Baptist’s ‘neck was truncated with a sharp sword’.

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The entries for September, from a calendar, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7r

There are two more versions from the first half of the 11th century, both associated with Canterbury or another major scriptorium: Cotton MS Julius A VI and Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Cotton MS Julius A VI contains a series of scientific diagrams and tables, now bound with a hymnal made a decade or two later. Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 includes a range of texts on astronomy, geography and chronology, and includes an early world map. The fourth, abbreviated copy of the metrical calendar is found in an early 10th-century Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 27).

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The entries for August, including the feasts of the Assumption and the Decollation of John the Baptist, from a calendar, Canterbury?, 11th century, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

The origin of this poem is debated. It includes many Irish and northern French or Flemish saints, leading some to claim that it was composed by an Irish or continental scholar working in England. There were certainly plenty of candidates: the inhabitants of several northern French churches fled to England following viking raids in the late 9th and early 10th century, while many Irish and continental scholars stayed at the West Saxon court. Alternatively, the surviving poem may have been based on calendars composed elsewhere but modified by someone working in England.

The date when the earliest surviving version of the poem was compiled is slightly easier to narrow down. The oldest copy was made after Alfred's wife, Ealhswith, died in 902, since it mentions her death in the verse for 5 December: ‘The fifth [day] has dear Ealhswith, true lady of the English’. 

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Ealhswith’s death mentioned in Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

However, there could have been earlier versions of the poem. The references to Ealhswith and Alfred could have been added later and, indeed, one of the later calendars (Cotton MS Julius A VI) omits them. Instead of Ealhswith, the entry for 5 December in that calendar commemorates ‘dear Candida, true lady of the Franks’.

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Verse about Candida, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The precise origins of the poem remains a mystery. However, the surviving copies show that the calendar continued to be read and copied for well over a century. It’s easy to see the appeal of a calendar with a verse for literally every occasion. Even to this day, we are fascinated by events which happened #OTD. At least we don’t have to write our tweets in verse!

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

16 December 2017

Internship on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project

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Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in history, art history or other relevant subject to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. As part of this project, 800 illuminated manuscripts made in England and France before 1200 are being digitised and interpreted for both scholars and the general public. The internship is based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department at the Library.

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The Annunciation scene from a 12th-century manuscript: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 3r

The focus of the internship will be to assist the curatorial team in all aspects of the project, such as creating and enhancing our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue records, and publicising them in blogposts and other interpretative material. This may involve writing or researching short descriptions of manuscripts and groups of manuscripts and providing talks for students and visitors. During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the intern to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £10.20 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start in March 2018 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of this internship (reference 01677) can be found here.

Closing Date: 14 January 2018

Interviews will be held on 2 February 2018. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

 

Tuija Ainonen

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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07 December 2017

How to harvest a mandrake

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As a general rule, we don't normally give gardening advice on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. It's just possible, however, that you may have been contemplating the best way to harvest a mandrake. And so here we provide you with some handy tips on cultivating this most notorious of plants, based on manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

A cure for insanity

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes (mandragora) could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was particularly hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness.

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The root of a mandrake, carved to resemble a tiny human, on loan from the Science Museum to the British Library's exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Identify your mandrake

You would think this was simple, but it was long believed that there were two different sexes of mandrake (which we have always been tempted to call the 'mandrake' and 'womandrake'). This beautiful 14th-century manuscript is currently on show in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. It contains an Arabic version of De materia medica, originally written in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, who worked as a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first authors to distinguish (mistakenly) between the male and female mandrake, as depicted here. In fact, there is more than one species of mandrake native to the Mediterranean, rather than two sexes of the same plant.

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This mandrake, on the other hand, is quite clearly (ahem) the male of the species ...

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Below are two mandrakes, one male, one female, drawn in the lower margin of the Queen Mary Psalter — hanging upside down, their blood is clearly rushing to their heads.

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It's also advisable not to confuse your mandrake with a gonk, with an elephant (yes, they are elephants), or with a dragon.

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Bring a dog

Medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. This medieval mandrake looks resigned to its fate.

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While this mandrake is blushing with shame at the prospect of being pulled out of the ground ...

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This Anglo-Saxon hound has yet to be tied to the mandrake (is that a ball that has distracted it attention?).

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Stuff your ears with earth

Another trick was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground. The gentleman in the red cap below has done exactly this, and is blowing resoundingly upon his horn: perfect technique!

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You can see some of these mandrakes in the British Library's current major exhibition, devoted to the history of magic across the ages. Tickets can be purchased online, but are selling extremely fast: the show has to end on 28 February, try not to miss it!

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

The manuscripts featured in this post

Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century

Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century

Royal MS 2 B VII: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 14th century

Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century

Harley MS 1585: Herbal, Southern Netherlands, 12th century

Sloane MS 1975: Medical and herbal miscellany, England or Northern France, 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius C III: Herbal, England, 11th century

Harley MS 3736: Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, Southern Germany(?), 15th century

 

30 November 2017

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to open in 2018

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On 19 October 2018, our major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will open. Ranging from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the exhibition will explore this long, dynamic period when the English language was used and written down for the first time and a kingdom of England was first created. Drawing on the British Library’s own outstanding collections and a large number of very significant loans, the exhibition will examine the surviving evidence for the history, art, literature and culture of the period, as preserved in books, documents and a number of related objects.

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Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin Bible, will be returning to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years ago for display in the exhibition. This giant illuminated Bible was made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century. Abbot Ceolfrith took it with him on his final voyage to Italy, as a gift to the Pope in 716. It is now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence which is generously loaning the manuscript next year. It will be shown with the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest intact European book, which was also made at Wearmouth-Jarrow and was acquired by the British Library in 2012. The two books are very different: while the St Cuthbert Gospel, which contains only the Gospel of John, can be held in one hand, the spine of Codex Amiatinus, containing the whole Bible, is nearly a foot thick. These two books will be exhibited alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain’s greatest artistic treasures, and other illuminated manuscripts of international significance made in the late 7th and 8th centuries.

Cuthbert binding

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The tiny St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library Add MS 89000 and the gargantuan Codex Amiatinus (image courtesy of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

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Two other complete Bibles were made at the same time as Codex Amiatinus. Only a few leaves of one of the other Bibles survive; the third has been completely lost: British Library Add MS 45025, f. 2v.

The exhibition will include a number of outstanding objects, including key pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard discovered near Lichfield in 2009, and kindly loaned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils. Objects drawn from the unique array of military equipment which makes up the bulk of the hoard will be on display, as well as the pectoral cross and the gilded strip inscribed with text drawn from the biblical book of Numbers.

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The pectoral cross and an inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard, to be loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils (images courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust)

A key theme in the exhibition will be the development of the English language and the emergence of English literature. We will explore the use of writing on inscribed objects and in documents as well as in books, and will present highlights of the bilingual literary culture. The major works of Old English poetry survive in only four manuscripts, and all four will be brought together at the British Library next autumn for the first time. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, held in the British Library, will be displayed with the Vercelli Book on loan from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library, and the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This will be the first time that the Vercelli Book has been in England in at least 900 years.

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Beowulf spoke … (‘Beoƿulf maþelode …’): British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

All the items in the exhibition are remarkable survivals. Over the centuries they have lasted through wars, the Norman Conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and their libraries), natural disasters and fires. A significant number of the exhibits have never been seen together before, and some have not been reunited for centuries.

Far from being the ‘Dark Ages’ of popular culture, the kingdoms in this period included centres of immense learning and artistic sophistication, extensively connected to the wider world. The movement of artists, scribes, books and ideas between England, Ireland, continental Europe and the Mediterranean world was fundamental to the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and will be a key theme of the exhibition.

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The opening of St Mark’s Gospel, from the Cnut Gospels, southern England, before 1018: British Library Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be open at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

Claire Breay and Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

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As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental, but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2-9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.

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Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.

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Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.

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The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

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The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.

25 October 2017

Purple pages at the Ashmolean

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How have humans depicted and talked about gods? Some answers to this question are presented at the exhibition Imagining the Divine, which is on at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 18 February 2018. This exhibition focuses on the 1st millennium AD — a time which witnessed the development and expansion of several major world religions — and it shows how different religious traditions influenced and interacted with one another. The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of manuscripts to the exhibition which exemplify that theme.

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A purple page with gold and oxidized silver letters, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, early 9th century: Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 1v

One of the manuscripts that can currently be seen at the Ashmolean is the Royal Bible (Royal MS 1 E VI), which was probably made at Canterbury in the early 9th century. Its ninth-century scribes created at least three pages covered in a deep purple colour, with text written in silver and gold. Pages dyed or painted purple had been created in the Mediterranean earlier in the first millennium. Purple was a colour reserved for the clothes of Roman emperors and it had connotations of power and luxury.

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Purple pages from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 4v

In a Christian context, purple pages and text in gold silver represented the glory of heaven. As the text in a late 8th-century gospel lectionary (Paris, BnF nouv acq lat 1203, f. 126v) put it:

Golden words are painted on purple pages

The Thunderer's shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,

Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven ...

(translated by Paul E. Dutton)

Striking ‘purple pages’ were used in sacred texts throughout and beyond Europe. The Ashmolean’s exhibition also features a Qu’ran from Baghdad with deep blue pages. Like the Royal Bible, it was made in the 9th century.

Blue Quran from Sarikhani Collection
The ‘blue Qu’ran’ on display at the Ashmolean Museum, from the Sarikhani Collection

The exhibition also shows how much work went into the showpieces that the scribes produced. On display is an end page of a British Library manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XVI) where different scribes have copied words or fragments of prayers and hymns. At the top of the page, someone has practised drawing interlace decoration. This type of decoration is found in manuscripts throughout northern Europe and also in metalwork and sculpture. Other examples are on display in the exhibition. Underneath the interlace is a very rough sketch of a man with a shield.

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Practice makes perfect! End page with additions by late 10th- or early 11th-century scribes: Royal MS 15 A XVI, f. 84v 

The rest of the manuscript contains riddles, a poem on the Gospels, a glossary of Greek words and a copy of Bede’s textbook, On the Art of Poetry. These texts were written by Northumbrian, West Saxon and Iberian authors. However, judging by this manuscript’s ink and script, it was mostly copied in what is now France, before coming to England, which is probably where the scribes added the pen trials.

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Detail of pen trials of interlace from Royal MS 15 A XVI, f. 84v

Other items loaned by the British Library to the exhibition come from the Asian and African collections. These include a copy of the Book of Exodus in Arabic script (Or 2450); a copy of the Heart Sutra from China, where the text is written in the shape of a stupa, or shrine (Or 8210/S4289); and an 8th-century Qu’ran (Or 2165). If you get a chance, you can visit the Ashmolean and see them all!

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22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

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As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.

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The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast — this Potter thing might just catch on one day — but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.

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Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)

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A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)

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How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)

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You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018

 

 

28 September 2017

Feats in well-fashioned lines: Heaneywulf

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Today, to celebrate National Poetry Day, we have a post about one of the oldest poems in the English language and its translation by the Nobel prize-winner, Seamus Heaney.

In 1999, the Ulster poet Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) published a translation of the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to critical acclaim. ‘Heaney-wulf’, as the translation is sometimes affectionately known, is regarded as a masterpiece in its own right. Heaney had been at work on the text for some time — the British Library possesses nine pages of his early manuscript draft dating from 1980 (he subsequently put the work aside before returning to it in 1995). In it, we see the poet feeling his way through his rendering of Beowulf.

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A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, Additional MS 78917).

Beowulf is a complex work. The only surviving manuscript of the poem was copied c. 1000, but parts of the work seem to be much older, having been composed orally years before. The text describes a mythic, pagan past in 6th-century Scandinavia, yet the events were recorded by Christian scribes, probably in a monastic context. So, what we have in the manuscript is layers of text — a work which was probably added to and adapted over time, by different figures, in different contexts. Reading Beowulf is a bit like being a textual archaeologist — we encounter layers of composition, like layers of soil. I like to think that Heaney might have thought about the poem in the same way, too. His other verse shows an abiding interest in archaeology, in the secrets beneath the earth (as in poems like ‘The Grauballe Man’ from the collection North).  

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The opening part of the description of the scop recounting the tale of Sigemund from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 151v

Within the original poem of Beowulf itself there are two poems-within-the-poem at lines 883–914 and at lines 1070–1158. The first of these is the tale of Sigemund the dragon-slayer. This story is told by a minstrel (Old English: ‘scop’) to a group of men on horse-back. The description of the episode gives us an insight into how Anglo-Saxon poetry was composed. Today we value novelty in works of art, but in Anglo-Saxon society a poet’s skill lay in his ability to use well-known formulas and to refashion them in a new context:

Hwilum cyninges þegn, 

guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig, 

se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena 

worn gemunde, word oþer fand 

soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan 

sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian 

ond on sped wrecan spel gerade, 

wordum wrixlan. 

Heaney translates this episode as:

Meanwhile, a thane

Of the king’s household, a carrier of tales,

A traditional singer deeply schooled

In the lore of the past, linked a new theme

To a strict metre. The man started

To recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s

Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,

Entwining his words. (ll. 866–73)

Heaney’s poem here gets at the very magic of his own work, his ability to link ‘a new theme/To a strict metre’, to rehearse ‘Beowulf’s/ Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines’. This is almost like a verse version of a Russian doll — this is a poem within a poem, translated by a modern poet and made into a new poem.

In the introduction to his translation, Heaney writes about how, despite the centuries separating his work from the Old English original, he was able to find a personal connection to the language of the poem. He describes coming across the Old English word ‘þolian’, transliterating the unfamiliar ‘þ’ into the modern ‘th’ and realising its similarity to an Ulster dialect word ‘thole’ which he had heard his aunt use in his youth. He says that the word was ‘a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage’. This was an historical heritage into which Heaney breathed new life.

You'll be able to read more about Beowulf  and Heaney's translation of it on the medieval section of the British Library's Discovering Literature site, which will go live early next year. Happy National Poetry Day.

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval