Codicological Consideration in the Beowulf Manuscript

Codicological Consideration in the Beowulf Manuscript

Clement, Richard W.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 1 (1984)


A recent book by Professor Kevin Kiernan, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (New Brunswick, 1981), has caused a great deal of discussion in the field of Beowulf studies. Professor Kiernan has moved the date of composition for the poem to the reign of King Canute in the early eleventh century. He believes that our unique manuscript, the Nowell Codex, or really just the Beowulf portion, is the poet’s own working copy. His startling conclusions are based on a complex codicological and paleographical analysis. We must remember that as a result of the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, the codex no longer has any trace of its binding or even of conjugation the Nowell Codex is a stack of disjunct leaves. Hence the collation of Cotton, Vitellius, A.XV, ff. 94-209 is not the simple and straightforward process normally associated with such procedures, but rather it demands the consideration of a whole range of codicological factors. The collation is exceptionally important to Professor Kiernan’s thesis, as his conclusions are ultimately based on the requirement of a separate or discrete Beowulf: that is, that Beowulf begins a new gathering or quire, and that the Judith fragment which follows Beowulf was not originally part of the codex.

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