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Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England

before the Norman Conquest. More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its
eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s
revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.

How old is the manuscript?

Beowulf survives in a single medieval manuscript, housed at the British Library in London. The
manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting.
Some scholars have suggested that the manuscript was made at the end of the 10th century, others
in the early decades of the 11th, perhaps as late as the reign of King Cnut, who ruled England from
1016 until 1035.

The most likely time for Beowulf to have been copied is the early 11th century, which makes the
manuscript approximately 1,000 years old.

Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed.

The contents of the manuscript

Apart from Beowulf, the manuscript contains several other medieval texts. These comprise a homily
on St Christopher; The Marvels of the East, illustrated with wondrous beasts and deformed
monsters; the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle; and an imperfect copy of another Old English
poem, Judith.

Beowulf is the penultimate item in this collection, the whole of which was copied by two Anglo-Saxon
scribes, working in collaboration.

Who owned the Beowulf manuscript?

The first-recorded owner of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell (died c. 1570), a pioneer of the study of Old
English, who inscribed his name (dated 1563) at the top of the manuscript’s first page. Beowulf then
entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) – who also owned the Lindisfarne
Gospels and the British Library’s two copies of Magna Carta – before passing into the hands of his
son Sir Thomas Cotton (died 1662), and grandson Sir John Cotton (died 1702), who bequeathed the
manuscript to the nation. The Cotton library formed one of the foundation collections of the British
Museum in 1753, before being incorporated as part of the British Library in 1973.

Why is the manuscript damaged?

During the 18th century, the Cotton manuscripts were moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House
at Westminster. On the night of 23 October 1731 a fire broke out and many manuscripts were
damaged, and a few completely destroyed.

Beowulf escaped the fire relatively intact but it suffered greater loss by handling in the following
years, with letters crumbling away from the outer portions of its pages. Placed in paper frames in
1845, the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care.

See a full set of images of the Beowulf Digitised Manuscript or view the Electronic Beowulf, a
collaboration between British Library and Kentucky University.