These Four Manuscripts Contain Almost All Surviving Old English Poetry

Beowulf Manuscript

Beowulf Manuscript (Photo: anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

These days, the words “Old English” most likely conjures up images of a font used to evoke a historical feel. However, the Old English language itself—though quite different—is actually the foundation of modern English. Interestingly, for such an important language, written materials are scarce. Only four original literary manuscripts written entirely in Old English have survived, each giving us a small glimpse into a culture that has long since disappeared.

These four books of poetry, handwritten in the beautiful script we associate with Old English, are artistic jewels unto themselves, each displaying a different aspect of Medieval Anglo-Saxon society. All four are on display at the British Library as part of its Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition.

The survivors are the Vercelli Book, which contains a wealth of Old English poetry; the Beowulf Manuscript, the epic story of its titular hero; the Junius Manuscript, comprised of four long-form religious poems; and the Exeter Book, a 131-page manuscript filled with narrative poems, riddles, and elegies. All likely produced in the 10th century, they are an incredible reminder of how precious the written word can be. In an age where information is available at our fingertips, the meticulous work of each scribe is all the more impressive.

As historical artifacts, art objects, and important pieces of literature, the four codices are a unique window into Anglo-Saxon life. Though the origins of the manuscripts are mysterious—we don't know the authors or the scribes—their staying power is a triumph that continues to enrich our understanding of history.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War is on view at the British Library in London until February 19, 2019.

Four of the only surviving Old English manuscripts are on display at the British Library.

Junius Manuscript

Illustration of Noah's Arc in the Junius Manuscript (Photo via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

The Vercelli Book

The Vercelli Book. (Photo: Blusea2001 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons)

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h/t: [The New Republic]

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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