Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Other Three Books

The Vercelli Book, opened to "The Dream of the Rood"
The post on The Exeter Book mentioned that it was one of four sources of Anglo-Saxon literature. So what about the other three? One of them, the Nowell Codex, has been mentioned before—but you won't find it in this blog under that name.

The Nowell Codex is named for Laurence Nowell (c.1515 - 1571), who was an antiquarian and early scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. Where he found the Codex is unknown, but he wrote his name on it. Later it passed into the hands of Sir Robert Cotton (c.1570 - 1631) and became part of the Cotton Library. There it was catalogued on a shelf under a bust of the Emperor Vitellius, which is why we know it as Cotton Vitellius A.xv. It contains the only copy in existence of the epic poem Beowulf.

Another important source of Anglo-Saxon literature is the Vercelli Book. The Vercelli is the oldest manuscript, dating to the late tenth century. Written with very precise penmanship (no doubt by a monk), it contains a collection of religious texts. It sits in the library of Vercelli in northern Italy; Vercelli was a likely stop for pilgrims traveling to Rome and beyond, and its presence there is presumed to have been intended for the use of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims.

Finally, the Cædmon Manuscript is called that because it is presumed (hoped? fantasized?) to have been produced by Cædmon, a man whom legend says went from illiterate monk to brilliant poet after praying for inspiration. (It is more seriously referred to—by scholars who prefer accuracy over legend—as the Junius Manuscript, after Franciscus Junius who first published it in 1655.) It contains religious works which have been named—based on their contents; none of the writings mentioned here have titles—Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan.

Each of these deserves its own time in the spotlight, but they will have to wait for another day.

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