Simulating the Scriptorium - Beowulf

Simulating the Scriptorium


I elected to research the Old English epic poem Beowulf in my search to better understand the chain of human work that connects ancient texts with modern canon. In my efforts, I was able to connect what I learned of the history of the poem with my experience in the class lab on 1/23/18.

Provenance and Background

Beowulf, despite being considered one of the most important, longest surviving works of English literature, in actuality began as an oral tradition, likely several hundred years before the first known physical manuscript was discovered. The Beowulf that we know today is largely considered “a tenth-/eleventh-century copy of a seventh-/eighth-century poem” (Smith), contained in its entirety in the Nowell Codex. This has, of course, resulted in a fair amount of debate over whether the transcription is in fact accurate to the original poem; for the most part however, the manuscript is believed to be accurate (or close enough at least).

Textual Provenance

The manuscript for Beowulf was almost certainly created by two English monks. According to Swanton, these two scribes had two distinct styles. The first, though meticulous in his work, would edit archaic dialogues to presumably enable his contemporaries to read the work easier. In contrast, the second monk appears to have been less invested in the work, and instead directly copied everything. Ironically, this allows us in the modern day to better identify the circumstances surrounding this original transcription of the epic. Thereafter, scholars have inferred that the manuscript was passed along various owners for nearly 700 years, with no heed paid to it at all, until it’s rediscovery in 1705. Even then, “another one hundred years would pass until a competent translation was made” (Smith).

The first known modern transcription of the manuscript however, was made in 1786, by an Icelandic scholar. According to Tinker however, this transcript, as well as the actual readability of the original document, is somewhat questionable. Today, there are a good number of different transcriptions of the poem, which carry different moods behind them. One reader online compares Heaney’s version of the story to Glencose Literature’s; the latter, in their eyes, depicts the characters as practically godly, more akin to how heroes of Greek mythology may be described, and sets a distinct tone to the epic. In contrast, Heaney’s transcription humanizes Beowulf, and seems to cast Grendel as a mere savage beast as opposed to some eldritch personification of evil (Medieval Literature).


In comparing my knowledge of Beowulf to my experience in the lab from the previous week, I felt that I was able to gain a better understanding of the process in which canon is developed, and text is warped across transcriptions. During the lab, I could not say I was truly invested in the text I was copying. Though I certainly paid much more attention than I would have if, say, typing, the lack of context or personal interest in what I was transcribing made it so I never spent too much time attempting to decipher a particularly illegible bit of writing, and would take some creative liberties in my interpretation of some words. While the letters that I copied were still fairly modern, and thus relatively understandable, it was easy to see how writing of a more archaic nature, combined with the kind of carelessness just described, and a script the size of Beowulf (3182 alliterative lines), could result in slight changes in intended tone or whatnot that eventually build up across the chain of human action, leading to cases such as the discrepancy between Heaney and Glencose Literature’s versions of the text noted above. These thoughts were, of course, spurred by the inclass discussion our group held on how transcription changed as literary ability became more widespread (previously only monks would transcribe important texts, eventually it would become more of a job that anyone could potentially do, and when people knew they were not directly transcribing the word of God, for instance, they may subconsciously lose interest to some degree). Though not an exact equivalent, such a case exemplifies how even the slightest changes can cause great differences down the line, as seen with the many versions of the Bible floating around today. In short, the canon of texts we know today is highly dependent on an array of factors unpredictable in their consistency.


Swanton, Michael (1997). Beowulf: Revised Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 2. ISBN 0719051460. Retrieved 30 January 2018.

Tinker, Chauncey Brewster (1903), The Translations of Beowulf, Gutenberg

Steven E. Smith (2000) The Provenance of the Beowulf Manuscript, ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, 13:1, 3-7, DOI: 10.1080/08957690009598081