Making sense of Ker’s dates: The origins of Beowulf and the Palaeographers

Making sense of Ker’s dates: The origins of Beowulf and the Palaeographers

By Francis Leneghan

The Proceedings of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies Postgraduate Conference (2005)

Introduction: Ever since the Nowell Codex began to attract serious interest, almost two hundred years ago, scholars have debated the antiquity of its fourth text, referred to since J. M. Kemble’s edition of 1833 as Beowulf. The question continues to engage Anglo-Saxonists because, as Roy Liuzza points out, it ‘foregrounds the most important questions of Old English poetry – creation and tradition, transmission and reception, context and the limits of interpretation’. Judging by the wealth of publications in the last thirty or so years we are now further away than ever before from reaching a consensus save that the poem was composed at some time between the conversion of the Anglo- Saxons and the date of the manuscript.

Scholars are divided over the significance of the manuscript for the dating of the composition of the poem: while Michael Lapidge and Kevin Kiernan have used the manuscript to argue for eighth and eleventh century composition respectively, R. D. Fulk claims that the manuscript has nothing to tell us about the poem’s date. Considerable disagreement has surrounded the interpretation of Neil Ker’s system of dating Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, accepted as standard since the publication of his invaluable Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon in 1957.

In this paper I hope to clarify some of the issues surrounding Ker’s dating system, and in particular his dating of the Beowulf manuscript, before discussing some related questions concerning the literary, historical and political context of the poem’s copying and composition.

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