Two historical riddles of the Old English Exeter Book
By John Hosler
Master’s Thesis, Iowa State University, 2001
Introduction: Exeter Cathedral Library MS. 3501, known as Codex Exoniensis or, more commonly, the Exeter Book, is perhaps the most important surviving literary manuscript from the Anglo-Saxon period of roughly 600–1066 AD. It completes the bulk of surviving Old English poetry along with three other Old English codices: Beowulf and Judith (British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv), Junius (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11) and the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Cathedral Library, MS CXVII). The Exeter Book contains approximately one-sixth of the surviving corpus of Old English verse. The composition and history of the Exeter Book have been areas of considerable scholarly activity.
The Exeter Book’s history can be definitively traced back to 1050, when Bishop Leofric moved the episcopal see that oversaw Devon and Cornwall from Credition to Exeter, taking charge of the lands and books already present there. The bishop inherited a region filled with strife anduncertainty. In 1003, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes, “Here Exeter was broken down through the French Churl Hugh whom the lady had set as her reeve; and the raiding-party completely did for the town and took great war-booty there”. The Danes sacked and looted the town shortly thereafter, the monasteries of Exeter were destroyed, and the town was burned.
Yet under Leofric Exeter flourished, and one improvement came in the form of a new library with a burgeoning book collection. We can trace to Exeter the provenance of 67 cathedral manuscripts from before the twelfth century; Leofric donated 32 of these. The library was then the largest collection at the time of any old foundation cathedral; these, unlike other cathedrals, were administered by secular canons instead of monks. By the eleventh century only Canterbury, Salisbury, and Worcester possessed more volumes. In 1072, the Exeter Book became one of Leofric’s donations. A scriptorium was created in Exeter as well, but librarians at the Exeter Cathedral Library hypothesize that Exeter Cathedral MS. 3501 was written at a different scriptorium in Glastonbury over a hundred years earlier.
In comparison to the three other remaining Old English codices, the Exeter Book encompasses the widest variety of verse. Within are such heroic narratives as “Guthlac” and the regretful elegies of “The Wife’s Lament” and “The Wanderer.” Alongside these poems are the enigmatic riddles that are unique to the Exeter manuscript.