Miriam Youngerman Miller

title.none: Kiernan, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (Miller)

identifier.other: baj9928.9801.008 98.01.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miriam Youngerman Miller, University of New Orleans,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Kiernan, Kevin. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. xxx, 328. $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-08412-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.01.08

Kiernan, Kevin. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. xxx, 328. $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-08412-7.

Reviewed by:

Miriam Youngerman Miller
University of New Orleans

Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript first appeared in 1981. This current revised edition reprints the 1981 text and includes a new foreward by Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, a prefatory segment "Re-Visions" in which Kiernan considers relevant developments in Anglo-Saxon studies since the original publication of his book, and an appendix, "The State of the Beowulf Manuscript, 1882-1983," originally published in Anglo-Saxon England [[1]] in 1983. Thus the only new material contained therein is O'Keeffe's foreward and Kiernan's "Re-Visions." One might wonder why the publisher decided to put out this revised edition when it is so little changed from the original (and when even the appended material is readily available in Anglo-Saxon England). One assumes this new edition is intended as a companion to Kiernan's forthcoming electronic edition of Beowulf to be published in the near future also by the University of Michigan Press. Eagerly awaited by Anglo-Saxonists, this edition is expected to contain images of the manuscript, the edition proper, notes, glossary, and other apparatus and appendixes with built-in search and concording functions and is likely to revolutionize Beowulf studies.

In its own way, when it appeared in 1981, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript revolutionized Beowulf studies and indeed studies in Anglo-Saxon codicology and paleography in general, particularly by its employment of newly available technology, an area in which Kiernan continues to pioneer. This book was widely reviewed on first publication and has been a must-read-and-consider ever since, so it is not, I think, necessary to critique the argument now de novo. To refresh memories, the argument of the book is that, based on codicological evidence, the codex in which Beowulf appears is a composite, the prose texts (The Life of St. Christopher, Wonders of the East, and Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) and Beowulf being produced as separate booklets dated to the late Old English period and combined not long thereafter and Judith being added during the Early Modern period. Further Kiernan, using paleographical evidence, interprets the palimpsest on fol. 179 (Zupitza's numbering) which contains the beginning of the dragon episode as a conscious revision by the second Beowulf scribe, and not as merely a freshening of worn lettering. And finally Kiernan's argument culminates in assigning a date for the composition of Beowulf after 1016 during the reign of Cnut the Great. To say that this complicated and multi-faceted argument based on minute examination of the manuscript as well as on historical considerations flew in the face of received opinion when it appeared is to put the matter mildly.

I think it is also safe to say that Anglo-Saxonists have not trooped en masse to stand under the banner of an eleventh- century date for the poem since Kiernan first proposed it. Indeed in his comments under the rubric of "Re-Visions," Kiernan himself says, "since the first edition of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, the dating of Beowulf has remained a highly charged, controversial topic, and the study of Old English manuscripts has flourished" (xv). I would certainly agree with both of these assertions.

Since the only new material of substance in this edition is in the "Re-Visions" section, I will concentrate the rest of my comments there, the main text itself having been chewed and thoroughly digested by Anglo-Saxonists for more than fifteen years. In his thoughts on developments in Anglo-Saxon studies in the years since 1981 and their bearing on his argument, Kiernan first takes exception to a response made by David Dumville in his article, "Beowulf Come Lately: Some Notes on the Paleography of the Nowell Codex," [[2]] in which he takes Kiernan to task on his interpretation of the paleographical evidence, primarily focussing on the appearance of Late English Square minuscule forms of the letter "a" in Hand B of the manuscript. According to Dumville, such a form confines the hand of Scribe B to a period prior to the beginning of Cnut's reign in 1016. Kiernan does not find Dumville's argument compelling and adduces similar use of a late Square minuscule hand found in a chirograph of Bishop Byrteh of Worcester, dated to late in Cnut's reign or to the reign of his son and successor, Harold Harefoot, to support his own dating post- 1016.

Outlining the evidence for the late use of insular Square minuscule brings Kiernan to a consideration of the relationship of the manuscript of the Blickling Homilies to the Beowulf manuscript. Citing "textual, paleographical, and codicological coincidences" (xxi), Kiernan suggests that these two manuscripts may be products of the same scriptorium, the Blickling manuscript being the earlier. Since the Blickling manuscript has been associated with Lincoln, if Kiernan is right that the same scriptorium was the source for the Beowulf manuscript, then that would bolster his claim for an Anglo-Danish context for the poem.

Finally Kiernan takes on R.D. Fulk's metrical argument [[3]] for an early date. Kiernan suggests that Fulk is supporting the nineteenth-century view that early linguistic forms as reconstructed by philologists fit the meter better than the late forms which are actually attested in the manuscript. Kiernan, citing the careful proofreading of the scribes, gives the manuscript great authority in all of his arguments, and so rejects Fulk's view. Kiernan offers an alternative interpretation of the evidence that there may be a discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation (as determined by metrical requirements) -- that is, that the poem may have been written in an Anglo-Danish dialect rather than in Late West Saxon as is usually claimed. He suggests that the spelling "Biowulf" as found in the second scribe's portion may reflect a Scandinavian pronunciation with a palatal glide.

At the very end of his re-vision, Kiernan looks forward to the forthcoming electronic edition which he is preparing and speculates on what the technology of the new millennium will be able to tell us about the text of this product of the old millennium -- or even of the even older millennium -- depending on whose dating one accepts.

In sum, those who found Kiernan's arguments compelling in 1981 will likely continue to find them so. And those who found them flawed will also likely continue in that opinion. But I think all Anglo-Saxonists would agree with Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe that "the controversies generated by the arguments in this book have been enormously productive both for Beowulf scholarship and for the discipline in general" (ix).


(1) Kevin Kiernan, "The State of the Beowulf Manuscript 1882-1983," Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1983): 23-42.

(2) David Dumville, "Beowulf Come Lately: Some Notes on the Paleography of the Nowell Codex, Archiv fuer das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 225 (1988): 49-63.

(3) R.D. Fulk, A History of Old English Meter, Phildelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.