Old English Popularity

Many people have said that Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” was solely responsible for the introduction of Beowulf into the scholastic curriculum. So I decided to use ngram (again!) to look up Beowulf and see how often it came up.

The third entry is from 1876 and shows Thomas Arnold’s book Beowulf: A Heroic Poem of the Eighth Century, with translation, notes, and appendix. The pages of the text are divided into three parts (though not equal thirds) and contain the original poem, then Arnold’s translation, and then Arnold’s notes. The size of the text gets smaller as the reader moves from original (not transliterated), to translation, to notes.

In 1882 a book entitled Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Poem; And the Fight at Finnsburg was published which showed a drawing of the original manuscript (a single page), published the work in Old English, and then translated it into modern English. I will say, that having only looked at a few lines, this translation seems much more readable than the ones that came later and which I have given my sophomores to read. Perhaps I should go back and transcribe this version into a text so that I can offer a more readable version to my students.

1882 also saw the Harvard Classic Library publication of the story transliterated and with notes by Julius Zupitza. So, in this case, the book is in modern English letters, but with the Old English words. (That’s the definition of transliterate, if you didn’t know.) This book appears to have photographs of multiple pages from the original manuscript. In fact, the transliteration is interspersed with the pages from the original.

Harvard Classic Library published an 1892 version of the text translated into modern prose by Earle, The Deeds of Beowulf: An English Epic of the Eighth Century Done into Modern Prose. This book included an introduction and notes. It was published by Oxford. Earle included his own theory of the origination of the poem. It is based on his reading of the gnomic sceal passages in lines 20, 24, 1172, 1534, 2166, and 2708. He argues that lines 1952-1962 are a eulogy for a living Offa and his house.

Interestingly enough, Earle argues that Leo said, back in 1839, that Hygelac was inserted into the “traditional story.” I wonder where they found the traditional story that is not this poem or what the author meant by that. He argues (along with Leo) that Hygelac was inserted into the poem and “not entwined with the action in any such manner as to make it at all difficult to disengage and detach it” (lxxviii). There are some interesting additional arguments. One thing that is odd is that he refers to Geatland as Gothland and to Beowulf as a Goth, rather than a Geat.
–Something to check out with ngram.–

AJWyatt’s 1894 edition was obviously used by a student of the Old English language, and his (or less likely her) notes are extensive. It was recovered by the Bunbury Company (Which made me think of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) and has Princeton and Cambridge listed as publishers.

When I looked at the ngram viewer, it appeared that 1876 was when the first usages of Beowulf appeared. So I un-compressed the graph and had from 1876 to 2000. However, having read Earle (see the 1892 Harvard Classic Library notes above), I knew that at least Leo and Ronning had written about the text and not from a philological point of view.

So I re-expanded the graph. Looking at the choice of books from 1800 to 1894 (which is Google’s first grouping–and I wonder how they decide on those), I am looking for books prior to 1850.

The first in the list to appear is Kemble’s 1837 work Beowulf: A Translation of the Anglo-Saxon Poem of Beowulf. On the title page of that work, it says “with a copious glossary, preface, and philological notes.” In his introduction he says he wanted to discuss a history of the princes in the poem and to argue that it is an Angle poem, founded upon legends much older than the manuscript.

He says that Sceaf and Scyld are both ancestors of the Saxon Woden, which I believe he earlier said was a Turk. Odd. (iii)

The Saxon Chronicle of AD 854 says that Sceaf was the son of Noah and born on the ark. Then he says that this argument was repeated in AD 973-975 in another Cotton manuscript.

He then says that the Langobards list Sceafa as the head of their mythic kings. This, he says, is confirmed by the Traveler’s Song which in line 64 lists Sceafa as the founder of the Langobards. (Note: The Langobards are the Lombardi, the Germanic tribe who ruled in Italy from 568 to 774. Their historian wrote their history between 787 and 796, after they were no longer ruling. He was a Langobard and a Benedictine monk.) He then says that the stories which the Beowulf author identifies as belonging to Scyld actually were part of Sceafa’s story (v). The Danish accounts of Skjold (Odin’s son)–whom Earle believes is the Scyld of the poem–indicate that they knew nothing of Sceafa. He then says that is proof that Scyld and Sceafa are the same person.

If he were in my class he would lose points for the logic of that idea. Somewhere he either leaped a huge crevasse or he just made stuff up. He then says that Athelweard (and where does he come from?) and the poem speak of the treasures but not the sheaf which was essential to the naming of the child (vi).

Apparently Cambridge has a set of historical documents regarding the kings of England that name Sceaf Sceldus as being of the line of Noah through Japhet. This guy, he argues (viii) is the Beowulf Scylding of the poem. He is the one who gave his name to all the great Northern tribes, which is why the story is included, but the poet doesn’t number that canto. (I did in my version.)

Beowulf is not listed in any Angle or Danish list of kings. Then he gets into the Neibelungen lying. (Should we read that?) (xi)

Beo or Beow is the real form of the name (xiii) and the Old Saxons called their harvest month (August/September) by this name, so Beo must have been the god of agriculture or fertility.

“In Beowulf we find the hron-fixas or whales represented as fiendish and hostile monsters…” (xvii).

(Note: The Traveller’s Song = Widsith)

He has 55 pages of introduction and then he gives a prose translation of Beowulf.

Kemble has an earlier book from 1835 in which he says that the date of the events are the middle of the fifth century, as Hrothgar and Halda reigned at that time. He uses texts from the 1700s to prove this. That seems to me strange and I wonder if these are the same texts everyone else uses to date the happening-time of the poem. He says that Saxo Grammaticus is wrong–even though it was written 600 years earlier.

He also has an 1833 version of the book.

Thorpe, in 1855, has Beowulf, The Scop or Gleeman’s Tale, and the Fight at Finnesburg with a literal translation, notes, glossary, etc. He says that in 1830 he went to England to collate Thorkelin’s edition with the Cotton mss. He says that the copyist made many blunders. He says the poem “is not an original production of the Anglo-Saxon muse, but a metrical paraphrase of an heroic Saga in the southwest of Sweden” (viii).

The following extracts from Petersen’s Danmark i Hedenold, description of an old Northern guest-hall, are singularly corroborative of what we find in Beowulf:
“The hall was an oblong parallelogram, having its two longer sides facing the north and the south, with a door at each end standing exactly opposite each the one to the other; the door was hung on hinges and provided with a sort of lock. A row of benches was on each side, the higher of which was the most honourable, and in the middle of which was the high seat of the master or chief, having his face towards the north. On the opposite on the lower bench was a somewhat lower high seat, exactly opposite the chief’s, for the noblest guest. The high seats were separated from the lower benches by side-pieces, but were more particularly distinguished by two high pillars…, on which were carved the deeds of famous men and the like, and which were also adorned with the image of some god. On each side of the master or chief set his men according to their rank, the higher on his right, the inferior on his left hand, each in his appropriate seat, behind which his weapons were suspended. If it was a royal hall, the queen sat in a high seat on the king’s left side. Before the long benches, which were covered with carpeting, and, for distinguished guests, provided with cushions, stood small tables, which after refection [food, meal] could be removed. A large vessel on the middle of the floor contained the drink, which was baled out in cups or horns, and (like the presents made to the chief), was given across the fire… Along the walls, at least for the master and his family, beds were arranged which could be shut in as in an alcove, and were sometimes ornamented with carved work. The walls were usually hung with painted and gilded shields, helmets and coats of mail, and with tapestry of some costly stuff; sometimes of many colours, at others, as in mourning, of black or blue; and, when intended to be particularly (x) splendid, wrought or embroidered [like the Bayeux Tapestry] with all kinds of historic imagery. This could be taken down at pleasure, and between it and the wall there was so much space, that armed men could conceal themselves in it” (xi).

Thorkelin made two translations of Beowulf: the first, with all his literary labours of more than thirty years, was destroyed in the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807. (xiv)

In the year 1826 appeared “The Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” containing copious extracts from Beowulf, with a spirited paraphrase in English blank verse, and a literal Latin translation (xv).

The mere English reader, who wishes to become acquainted with Beowulf, cannot use a better medium than Mr. Wackerbarth’s translation. From much contained in the Introduction I totally dissent. (xvi)

Dr. Leo’s work, “Ueber Beowulf,” contains a good analysis of the poem and much that is interesting; though at the same time much with which I do not agree.

Healfdene and his successors I take to be petty kings reigning in the north of Jutland, where traces of their residence (Heort) still exist in local names, as Hirtshals, and Hithrring.

Beowulf: An Old English Poem Translated Into Modern Rhymes… 1881. But the text isn’t available.

1884: An Introduction to Early English Literature: From the Lay of Beowulf to Spenser.

While I was looking for something else:
The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels in Parallel Columns by Ufflias (Bishop of the Goths), John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Joseph Bosworth…
“A gradual preparation for the public reception of the Christian faith had been made by the marriage of Ethelbert, king of Kent, with Bertha, a Frankish princess. Bertha and her attendants continued their Christian worship in England, under the direction of the bishop who accompanied her from France. The exemplary conduct of the Queen [sic] impressed the mind of Ethelbert and his court with a favourable [sic] opinion of (ix) Christianity. The way being opened by Bertha, Ethelbert in A.D. 597 gave a friendly reception to Augustine, the leader of the Christian messengers of peace, and assigned them a residence in Canterbury.

Continues with a discussion of the Bible as present in Anglo-Saxon England. Including the fact that Gregory the Great sent the Vetus Italica, not the Vulgate, Latin version. I didn’t know that.

“[W]e have an indisputable evidence in the Rubrics, printed in our notes from the MS. that they were constantly read in Anglo-Saxon churches, as the rubrical directions declare what part of the Scriptures were appointed for successive seasons. We have no more knowledge of the exact date when the Gospels were first translated into Anglo-Saxon, than we have of the translators. We are, however, assured by Cuthbert, a pupil of the learned Venerable Bede, the glory of the Anglo-Saxon Church, that he was finishing his translation of St. John’s Gospel immediately before his death on the 27th of May, 735. As St. John’s is the last of the Gospels, the three preceding had most likely been previously translated” (xii).

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