By Daniel Paul O’Donnell
PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 2006
Introduction: Twenty-six poems and fragments of poems are known to have survived the Anglo-Saxon period in more than one witness. These include poems from a variety of genres and material contexts: biblical narrative, religious poetry, riddles, charms, liturgical translations, proverbs, a preface and an epilogue, occasional pieces like “Durham,” and historical poems like the Battle of Brunanburh. Their witnesses survive in three of the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry, in the margins and blank spaces of manuscripts devoted to Latin texts, as constituents of vernacular prose histories and translations, and even in one case carved onto the face of a stone cross.
The importance of these texts to students of Old English poetry lies in the evidence they offer us of how Anglo-Saxon scribes approached the task of copying verse. The majority of Old English poems are found as single copies preserved in one or another of four principal codices: the Beowulf Manuscript, the Junius Manuscript, the Exeter Book, and the Vercelli Book. As a result, editors and critics of Old English poetry have been forced to rely to an extraordinary degree on the relatively few scribes responsible for copying these manuscripts for their knowledge both of the texts themselves and of more general aspects of Old English poetic art. By allowing us to compare the work of two or more Anglo-Saxon scribes as they copy the same piece of poetry, the multiply attested poems provide us with what seems to be an ideal opportunity for determining how these scribes worked – the extent to which they preserved the text of their exemplars, or, if they were more willing to intervene, the nature and extent of the variants they introduced.