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The Dating of Beowulf

The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment

Edited by Leonard Neidorf
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Dating of Beowulf
    Book Description:

    "This book will be a milestone, and deserves to be widely read. The early Beowulf that overwhelmingly emerges here asks hard questions, and the same strictly defined measures of metre, spelling, onomastics, semantics, genealogy, and historicity all cry out to be tested further and applied more broadly to the whole corpus of Old English verse." Andy Orchard, Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Oxford. The dating of Beowulf has been a central question in Anglo-Saxon studies for the past two centuries, since it affects not only the interpretation of Beowulf, but also the trajectory of early English literary history. By exploring evidence for the poem's date of composition, the essays in this volume contribute to a wide range of pertinent fields, including historical linguistics, Old English metrics, onomastics, and textual criticism. Many aspects of Anglo-Saxon literary culture are likewise examined, as contributors gauge the chronological significance of the monsters, heroes, history, and theology brought together in Beowulf. Discussions of methodology and the history of the discipline also figure prominently in this collection. Overall, the dating of Beowulf here provides a productive framework for evaluating evidence and drawing informed conclusions about its chronological significance. These conclusions enhance our appreciation of Beowulf and improve our understanding of the poem's place in literary history. Leonard Neidorf is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Contributors: Frederick M. Biggs, Thomas A. Bredehoft, George Clark, Dennis Cronan, Michael D.C. Drout, Allen J. Frantzen, R.D. Fulk, Megan E. Hartman, Joseph Harris, Thomas D. Hill, Leonard Neidorf, Rafael J. Pascual, Tom Shippey

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-346-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. List of Contributors
    (pp. ix-ix)
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-x)
    Leonard Neidorf
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)
    Leonard Neidorf

    From the publication of the poem’seditio princepsin 1815 to the emergence of the present collection two centuries later, few topics in Anglo-Saxon studies have generated as much speculation and scholarship as the dating ofBeowulf.¹ Marshaling disparate forms of evidence and argumentation, scholars have assigned dates toBeowulfthat range from the seventh to the eleventh century. Various individuals have been unpersuasively identified as the author ofBeowulfand dozens of kings, clerics, and contexts have been associated with the poem’s genesis.² Scholarship on the dating ofBeowulfis markedly uneven in quality: alongside sober and thoughtful argumentation,...

  8. 1 Beowulf and Language History
    (pp. 19-36)
    R.D. Fulk

    It would appear that of the varied types of evidence that have been adduced to try to establish whenBeowulfwas composed, the linguistic evidence is accorded special status by most Anglo-Saxonists. There are countless signs that this is the case. For example, when Kevin Kiernan sets out to counter the prevailing attitude that the poem could not be a product of the eleventh century, nearly all the evidence he confronts, which he does at some length, is linguistic in nature, the only very notable exception being Dorothy Whitelock’s contention that a poem sympathetic to Danes is unlikely to have...

  9. 2 Germanic Legend, Scribal Errors, and Cultural Change
    (pp. 37-57)
    Leonard Neidorf

    The role of theBeowulfmanuscript in scholarship dating the poem’s composition has changed considerably in recent years. During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, discussions of the poem’s date rarely embraced the manuscript as a source of relevant evidence.¹ The omission is not unreasonable, since the presence of transcription errors throughout the manuscript reveals that it is a copy of a copy, written out perhaps at a vast remove from the authorial original. The text transmitted in a copy might contain indications that it had been committed to parchment at a much earlier date, but there is...

  10. 3 Names in Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon England
    (pp. 58-78)
    Tom Shippey

    Passionate disputes over proper names inBeowulfbegan almost from the moment of its rediscovery and first publication in 1815. The poem’s first editor, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín, recognised the name of Scyld in line 4, translatingScyld ScefingasScyldus Scefides. At line 26, however, perhaps thinking that verbal forms in barbarian vernaculars were too inconsistent to matter – an error of surprising longevity – he tookscyldto be the past tense ofsculan, and translatedScyld gewatasUbi discedendum erat, “When it was time to leave.” He went on to transform the boat-burial into a piratical expedition....

  11. 4 The Limits of Conservative Composition in Old English Poetry
    (pp. 79-96)
    Megan E. Hartman

    As the introduction to this collection makes clear, the various forms of linguistic and metrical evidence bearing on the dating ofBeowulfpoint to a date of composition fairly early in the Anglo-Saxon period. In his article forThe Dating of Beowulfin 1980, Thomas Cable proposed a rough guide to the metrical dating of poems using the incidence of type C, D, and E verses, which decline in frequency over the Anglo-Saxon period.¹ Cable’s criterion placesBeowulftoward the beginning of a relative chronology. Since then, much additional metrical and linguistic evidence has been gathered that placesBeowulfin...

  12. 5 The Date of Composition of Beowulf and the Evidence of Metrical Evolution
    (pp. 97-111)
    Thomas A. Bredehoft

    Since the date of theBeowulfmanuscript is widely agreed upon, the very question which prompts this volume (and the conference it derives from, and even the 1980 conference with its 1981 proceedings volume) must assume that the date of the poem may not be the same as the date of the manuscript.¹ It is certain that there must have been a moment of first inscription for the poem, and that the time and place of that moment remains a central point of interest for students of the poem. In this essay, I will bring new evidence to bear on...

  13. 6 Beowulf and the Containment of Scyld in the West Saxon Royal Genealogy
    (pp. 112-137)
    Dennis Cronan

    The correspondences between the names in the Scylding genealogy at the beginning ofBeowulfand three names in the upper reaches of the genealogy of Æthelwulf in theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle, Beaw, Sceldwa and Sceaf, frequently appear in arguments for a late dating ofBeowulf. But these arguments overlook many aspects of Æthelwulf’s genealogy that disrupt their case for a late dating. As H. Munro Chadwick pointed out over a century ago, the formsSceldwaandBeawfound in theChronicleforScyldandBeoware not West Saxon spellings, and the -wasuffix ofSceldwaandTætwasuggests that these...

  14. 7 History and Fiction in the Frisian Raid
    (pp. 138-156)
    Frederick M. Biggs

    Beowulfis a remarkable poem to have been written at any time. Around 3,200 lines of linguistically and metrically sophisticated poetry that sets “two moments in a great life,” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase,² into a distant past and conveys a profound respect for the hero’s actions while at the same time expressing a sense of the loss and futility of that world, is a remarkable achievement. A poem not of an age, but for all time. Which is not to say that it is undatable or that its date does not matter. Even without external evidence such as manuscripts and...

  15. 8 “Give the People What They Want”: Historiography and Rhetorical History of the Dating of Beowulf Controversy
    (pp. 157-177)
    Michael D.C. Drout, Emily Bowman and Phoebe Boyd

    In 1958, the movie mogul Harry Cohn died. Seeing the huge crowds that turned out for the funeral, one actor expressed his bewilderment: “But everyone in HollywoodhatedHarry!” he exclaimed. “Why are all these people here?” In 1981, after a conference in Toronto and the publication of a proceedings volume, a no-less-surprising throng began to gather, in books, journals and conferences, for the scholarly funeral of a dateableBeowulf. We have no record of anyone exclaiming in surprise: “But the evidence for an early date ofBeowulfis relatively consistent, convincing and well-established! Why would people behappyto...

  16. 9 A Note on the Other Heorot
    (pp. 178-190)
    Joseph Harris

    In a series of papers, Leonard Neidorf has argued that Germanic heroic legend circulated in Anglo-Saxon England predominantly in the seventh and eighth centuries, manifesting itself in Latin testimonia, vernacular poetry, visual art, royal genealogies, and personal names.¹ These papers, together with conversations with their author, gave new impetus and purpose to a note I had been contemplating writing off and on for two or three of decades, a note on theotherHeorot.

    In two firmly historical passages Bede speaks of a place and a structure, the name of which is built on the word or nameHeorot. And...

  17. 10 Beowulf and Conversion History
    (pp. 191-201)
    Thomas D. Hill

    One of the more dramatic stories about the conversion of the Germanic peoples in the early middle ages concerns the pagan Frisian king (or duke) Radbod:

    Praefatus autem princeps Rathbodus, cum ad percipiendum baptisma inbueretur, percunctabatur a sancto episcopo Vulframno, iuramentis eum per nomen Domini astringens, ubi maior esset numerus regum et principum seu nobilium gentis Fresionum, in illa videlicet caelesti regione, quam, si crederet et baptizaretur, percepturum se promittebat, an in ea, quam dicebat tartaream dampnationem.

    Tunc beatus Vulframnus: “Noli errare, inclite princeps, apud Deum certus est suorum numerus electorum. Nam praedecessores tui principes gentis Fresionum, qui sine baptismi...

  18. 11 Material Monsters and Semantic Shifts
    (pp. 202-218)
    Rafael J. Pascual

    InLinguistic Means of Determining the Dates of Old English Literary Texts, Ashley Crandell Amos expressed doubt about the vast majority of proposed linguistic dating criteria.² The book’s pessimistic conclusions are generally not credible, since Amos evaluated criteria in terms of absolute certainty rather than relative probability; her positivistic disregard for probability resulted in negative conclusions that were both inevitable and meaningless.³ Yet for all that she unreasonably doubted, Amos took a more sanguine view of semantic evidence, affirming that semantic change could be instrumental “in providing evidence for the date of composition of various Old English texts.”⁴ Many native...

  19. 12 Scandals in Toronto: Kaluza’s Law and Transliteration Errors
    (pp. 219-234)
    George Clark

    Roberta Frank’s presidential address (“A Scandal in Toronto”) at the 2007 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy in Toronto, Canada, sparkled with wit, and imaginatively linked the search for the true date ofBeowulfwith an entertaining fable based on Conan Doyle’s creation of a bumbling Dr Watson as straight man to the brilliant Sherlock Holmes. Turning Doyle upside down, Frank made Holmes – representing the “early daters” – the bumbler and Watson the true sleuth, carefully rebutting, almost in spite of himself, the Holmes-like conjectures of the “early daters.”² Now published inSpeculum, the address has lost none of...

  20. 13 Afterword: Beowulf and Everything Else
    (pp. 235-248)
    Allen J. Frantzen

    Arguments about the date ofBeowulfare more impassioned than the question seems to merit. Even so, the controversy has its uses.Beowulfis a great work, all agree, but it constitutes only a sliver of the poetic canon and is doubtless more important to Anglo-Saxon culture now than it was a thousand years ago. For all its glory,Beowulfprovides no better an index to Anglo-Saxon poetry thanHamletto Renaissance drama, which is to say that one can know both works well without knowing much about the corpus to which either belongs. It is to welcome and good...

  21. Index
    (pp. 249-250)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-255)