Beowulf before Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon Anthroponymy and Heroic Legend

Beowulf before Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon Anthroponymy and Heroic Legend

By Leonard Neidorf

The Review of English Studies, Volume 64, Number 266, 2012

Abstract: The nature of the eponymous hero of Beowulf  has long been disputed. Was he drawn from the stock of traditional heroes or was he the poet’s invention? So far, answers to this question have been given on exclusively literary-critical rather than onomastic grounds.

This article argues that the usage of the name ‘Biuuulf’ (Beowulf) in the seventh century suggests that legends of Beowulf existed well before the composition of our extant poem. Considered in the immediate contextof the Liber Vitae Dunelmensis in which it appears, the name ‘Biuuulf’ can be seen to conform to a recognizable pattern: it is one of several names containing words uncommon in or foreign to the Anglo-Saxon onomasticon, which appear to have been used due to familiarity with heroic-legendary traditions.

Names like Ætla,Offa, Hama, Ingeld, Theodric, and Wyrmhere deviate from statistically demonstrable name-giving trends; so does the name Beowulf. These names were likely given in accordance with a custom, previously adumbrated by H. M. Chadwick and Patrick Wormald, in which children were named after characters from heroic legend. I conclude that the monk named Beowulf was named after the same traditional hero whom a later poet placed at the center of a heroic-elegiac masterpiece.

Click here to read this article on

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!