VII AEthelred and the Genesis of the Beowulf Manuscript

By Neidorf, Leonard | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

VII AEthelred and the Genesis of the Beowulf Manuscript


Neidorf, Leonard, Philological Quarterly


DURING THE PAST THIRTY YEARS, scholars have spilled considerable ink over the date of Beowulf's composition, and cogent arguments for both early and late dates have emerged. (1) Considerably less ink has been spilled, however, concerning the date of the Beowulf manuscript's production. Neil Ker's dating of "s.x/xi" (ca. 975-1025) has for the most part held. (2) Kevin Kiernan argued that both the poem and the manuscript belong after 1016, but his claims have been rendered highly improbable by Michael Lapidge and David Dumville, among others. (3) Dumville, in fact, makes the most important advance on Ker's dating: by reinterpreting the birth and death dates of Anglo-Saxon vernacular and square minuscule respectively, he concludes that the manuscript was most likely copied out between the years 997 and 1016. (4) This is a period for which a vast written record survives and about which much is known, and yet few have asked what exactly Beowulf might be doing there. In this paper, I intend to offer a few hypotheses as to why an Anglo-Saxon audience might have had interest in a poem like Beowulf during this period. I will suggest some of the purposes for which the poem might have been intended and looking to VII/AEthelred, show how the Viking invasions could have provided an impetus for a scriptorium to produce a poem of this nature. I will then test my hypotheses through an examination of the manuscript, to see what it can tell us about the concerns of the scribes, their interest in the material, and the importance of this text to an eleventh-century audience.

While The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS C/D/E) depicts the reign of King AEthelred "Unraed" (978-1016) as a continual series of disasters leading inevitably to the ascension of King Cnut of Denmark, Simon Keynes has offered a more nuanced account of the reign. He contends that during the 990s, conditions of life in England were generally good and the Vikings would have seemed like a manageable threat. Keynes demonstrates that it is only during the first decade of the eleventh century, particularly after the devastating raids of 1006, that English affairs became increasingly turbulent and desperate. (5) The most powerful record of English desperation during these years is the law code known as VII AEthelred, promulgated at Bath in 1009. Surviving in both an English and a Latin version, the code propounds an elaborate program of public prayer and penance in order "paet we Godes miltse 7 his mildheortnesse habban moton 7 paet we purh his fultum magon feondum widstandan" [that we may have God's mercy and his compassion and through his help withstand our enemies]. (6) It then lays out a plan in which the entire population (eal folc) would contribute to the effort: on the three days before Michaelmas, there is to be fasting, almsgiving, and confession, as well as a barefoot procession with relics in hand; from every hide, a penny is to be rendered; every thegn is to give a tithe of his property and each of his dependents is to contribute a penny; every priest is to sing thirty masses and every deacon and cleric must sing thirty psalms. Furthermore, every religious foundation is to direct their attention to the present crisis: the mass contra paganos is to be sung daily; the psalm Domine, quid multiplicati sunt is to be chanted at regular hours; and both are to be performed on behalf of the King and his nation ("pro rege et omni populo suo; for urne hlaford 7 for ealle his peode"). (7)

For my purposes, the importance of VII AEthelred rests in its call for the entire English population to contribute in a variety of ways to a national effort. As Simon Keynes writes, "the directive known as VII AEthelred bears eloquent testimony to the involvement of laymen, secular clergy, and members of religious houses in an orchestrated response to the Viking invasion of 1009." (8) In this respect, VII AEthelred seems to enact a spiritual or ideological version of AEthelred's shipbuilding project of 1008. …

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