Lab #3

#Lab 3 Beowulf

The text I chose to write about is one I have studied in a previous class: Beowulf. This poem is particularly interesting to me because it is the longest surviving epic poem in Old English and because of how much attention and speculation its origin has attracted. Only one handwritten manuscript of Beowulf has survived the passage of time, and no other version of the poem is known. So little is known about it that there are even speculation on when it is from. Some scholars, including Tolkien, believe the poem dates from the 8th century. Others believe that it dates from as late as the 11th century. “Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed.” ( We do not know when the poem was first composed, who composed it, and how faithful the version we have is to the original version.

We do know however, that this particularly long poem was transcribed by hand, a task that must have taken an incredible amount of time and labour, and must have brought change to whatever version of the text came before, if not by conscious decision, by human mistake. After spending twenty minutes transcribing someone else’s text by hand and by candlelight, I cannot imagine someone transcribing something as long as Beowulf without a single mistake.

And although we do not know how much this version differs from whatever came before, we do know that the manuscript we now have was transcribed with quite a few errors. We also know that the version we have was transcribed from an earlier work by two scribes. There are differences in handwriting, as well as the spelling both scribes used. It also seems that the first scribe attempted to standardize the spelling of what he was copying, while the second scribe merely copied what he was seeing (or hearing.) Funnily enough, it is the lack of care in standardized spelling shown by the second scribe that allows us to give cultural context to the poem.

After doing copying work in class, I absolutely understand the impulse of the second scribe to do the minimum work possible and not make the effort of standardizing spelling. Scribe work is exhausting, eye straining work, and I only did twenty minutes of it. I can say for sure that I am glad for computers!