Article

Beowulf

Paul E. Szarmach

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online June 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0062
Beowulf

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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By common estimation the corpus of Old English poetry is some 30,000 lines or, roughly, the literary output of John Milton. At 3,182 lines, Beowulf is approximately 10 percent of the corpus, which partially accounts for its significance. Almost always difficult to date and rarely attributable to a named author, this body of vernacular writing is the largest extant in the first 1,100 years of the Common Era. Although there is evidence that some post-Conquest figures worked with Old English literary remains, the awakening to Old English literary forms took place in the 16th century when, in the context of religious disputes, partisans sought to find the roots of their beliefs. Poetry was not the desired end of study. Prose records, which were more numerous in laws, chronicles, sermons, and homilies, were more accessible and more pertinent than poetry. As the 19th century began, the subject started to leave its antiquarian beginnings and to create the Age of Philology, during which there was a primary emphasis on what a text said as opposed to what it meant. At midcentury scholars also assisted the building of nation-states by tracing in history a pure national spirit, presumably unadulterated. Literary criticism, as we now know it, began to emerge toward the end of the 19th century. J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (Tolkien 1936, cited under Articles) is the traditional starting point for the literary criticism of Beowulf, but Tolkien had predecessors. The early history of Beowulf, the written text, defies any easy account. The only extant manuscript surfaces in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, where it escaped the fire of October 1731, offering burn marks to testify to its presence then, as well as to water damage. Now bearing the shelfmark “British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv,” the manuscript received notice from antiquarians in the 18th century, notably Humphrey Wanley (1705). In the early interpretation of the text, scholars saw a Scandinavian context. As the study of the poem grew in the 19th century and beyond, scholarship and criticism offered a dizzying array of approaches and opinions.

Article.  7528 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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