Monday, April 14, 2014

The Exeter Book

"The Wanderer" in the Exeter Book
The Exeter Book was mentioned as the source of two poems about St. Guthlac. It holds much more than that, however. Of the four manuscripts we have of Anglo-Saxon literature, the Exeter Book is the largest collection in existence of Anglo-Saxon poetry, including all the Anglo-Saxon riddles we have (but one), and several poems that survive nowhere else.

The original date of composition is unknown, but it is assumed to have been produced as part of the Benedictine revival in the 10th century, when Benedictine monasteries strove to record and preserve manuscripts of all kinds.

Its existence can reliably be traced to the will of Bishop Leofric (1016 - 1072), who left it to the library of Exeter Cathedral in 1072 along with the rest of his impressive (for the time) collection. Exeter was one of the largest scriptoria in Leofric's lifetime, where manuscripts were created and copied, so it is surprising that this particular manuscript seems to have been so abused.

Several pages at the beginning are believed missing along with the cover. Several pages are scored as if the book was used as a cutting board. One reader of the book clearly set his drink down on the page, leaving a stain, and several pages at the end of the book show burn marks.

The Book contains religious texts; not just the aforementioned Guthlac A and B, but also poems on Christ, Judgment Day, Soul and Body, and The Lord's Prayer. It also has examples of Anglo-Saxon culture in poems such as "The Wanderer," "The Seafarer," "Deor," and "The Wife's Lament." As well it contains over 90 riddles whose answers are usually mundane things, but some of which engage in double entendres, such as the following, whose answer is dough:
I have heard of a something-or-other, growing in its nook, swelling and rising, pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands; with her apron a lord's daughter covered the tumescent thing.

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