Dating Beowulf, Part I
(or, smacking an academic hornets' nest with a stick for fun and [no] profit)
A few years ago I was a last-minute replacement to teach in the summer H.E.R.O. program, which takes promising kids from inner-city high schools and gives them a chance to live on campus and have a college experience in the summer after sophomore year. The students live on campus for two weeks, taking classes, and then they have another two weeks of classes at their high schools, with the professors coming to teach them there. In another post I'll talk about how people were shocked that I would choose to teach Beowulf to kids from inner-city Brockton, how some people were sure that the kids would never enjoy the material, and how it all came together (n.b.: a poem about violence and the price of revenge is particularly relevant during a summer with an epidemic of drive-by shootings). But right now I'll just point out that the single issue that got the students most excited was, believe it or not, the dating of Beowulf. We held a hour-long debate on the topic and the class ended up divided into thirds arguing for a) "Golden Age" Beowulf; b) Reform era Beowulf, and c) Late Beowulf (the Kiernan "Age of Cnut" argument). We never settled anything, but I think they felt very much like scholars for a while.
I got to thinking about that Brockton class and their excitement about the problem of the date because I have done a few interviews lately and the reporters seems always a bit perplexed when I mention that the dating of Beowulf is such an emotionally charged problem that friendships have been lost and beer spilled over it (and see the latest issue of Speculum, which I'll talk more about later). At the end of this post I'll speculate as to why this is, but here I thought I would try (as a useful exercise for myself, if for no one else) to lay out the problem as fairly as I can. I'll disclose right up front that I still haven't made up my mind about the date or, rather, that I've made up my mind several times and changed it just as often. A tenth-century Beowulf would be ideal for my own work (which is why I accepted that date for my dissertation), but I was never particularly confident about that date and am even less so now. On even-numbered days, then, I'm an early dater, but on odd-numbered days I tend to be a late-dater, so in this summary I'll try not to grind any axes and will perhaps end up being equally unfair to everyone. (I anticipate that this will be series of four or five posts, though I may be able to cram it all into three)
The Range of Dates
We start with the manuscript, the unique copy of Beowulf that is known by its library shelfmark, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv (the "Cotton Vitelllius" part means that it comes from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and that in his library it was in the bookcase that had the bust of the Roman emperor Vitellius on it. The "A.xv" means it was on the first shelf down, the 15th manuscript over). From examining the handwriting of the manuscript and comparing it to other manuscripts that we do know the date of (some charters and writs and wills have dates on them, other manuscripts mention things happening and we know these dates), we can determine that the manuscript was copied somewhere around the year 1000 (say, between 975 and 1025). Thus the very youngest Beowulf can be is 1025, because the poem can't be written after the manuscript. A date this late would mean that the person who copied part of Beowulf (because in fact two scribes were involved) would have been the author, not just the scribe. I'll discuss this theory more below.
Most manuscripts that we have are copies, and many are copies of copies of copies of copies. And many (but not all) scholars think that Beowulf is in fact a copy (Tolkien thought that it was at least a copy of a copy) and thus could have been composed some time before the manuscript was copied. For the sake of argument, let's temporarily accept the idea that the poem itself is older than the manuscript (after all, I have a copy of The Lord of the Rings on my shelf that was printed in 2007, but we know that the book was written more than 50 years before that copy). How old, then, could Beowulf possibly be?
One of the events mentioned in the second half of Beowulf is a disastrous raid by Beowulf's uncle Hygelac, the king of the Geats, Beowulf's people. Many years ago the scholar N.F.S. Grundtvig noticed that there is a passage in a work by Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum (the History of the Franks), that describes how a king named Chlochilaichus led a disastrous raid on his he was killed. Grundtvig noted that "Hygelac" and "Chlochilaichus" are the same name in two different languages (in the same way that "John," "Jean," "Juan" and "Ivan" are all the same name). He concluded that these two raids were the same event, that they must have been historical, and that therefore Beowulf cannot have been written before that raid took place (because otherwise the poem wouldn't be able to mention the raid), around the year 515.
So we now have a range of possible dates for Beowulf: 515-1025, basically 500 years! Longer than the amount of time between Shakespeare and ourselves. No wonder scholars would like to narrow this range down.
Century by Century
If we break those 500 years up into centuries and are willing to be a little fuzzy about the boundaries and grossly overgeneralize, we get this exceedingly rough sketch of Anglo-Saxon history:
700-800: "Golden Age"
800-900: Viking Raids
1000-1025: Danish Rule
(A good, pop-culture mnemonic is: MCGiVeReD -- thanks to John Walsh)
There are arguments for seeing Beowulf as having been composed in any one of these centuries, although the two most popular time-frames are the "Golden Age" of 700-800 (this was the consensus for about 75 years) and the post-Viking Raid, Reform era of 900-1000. There are also problems with each century, and nothing is completely conclusive.
The Migration Period
Support: Hygelac's raid happened in 515, so the poem depicts at least one historical event during this time period. The "cultural world" of the poem (to mis-appropriate John Hill's term) appears to be from this period. No character in the poem is Christian, details of armour and weapons are consistent with migration-period artifacts (but also could be consistent with the conversion period). Names of tribes and peoples are consistent with what little we know about the migration period.
Problems: Although no characters in the poem are Christian, the poet / narrator seems to be (he mentions Cain and Abel, for instance, though "Cain" is mis-spelled as "Cam" both times) as well as the Flood and the destruction of the giants. It is not clear how much vernacular literacy there was during the migration period, so the problem how the poem would have come to be written down and transmitted is a difficult one. Also, although the language of Beowulf appears to be 'old' in terms of the body of Old English poetry, it doesn't seem to be that old.
Tentative Conclusion: There is something to be said for locating Beowulf in the time-frame in which at least one episode does happen, and we should ask why the poet would bother to set something in a sixth-century context if he was writing at a much later time period (it is not as if Hygelalc's raid was a major historical incident, well-known centuries later; quite the opposite, in fact). But there is not much other evidence that directly supports the idea of a very, very old Beowulf somehow preserved and transmitted from the sixth century, and I do not know any contemporary scholars who believe that the poems as we have it was written in the migration period.
[tomorrow: the Conversion and the "Golden Age" of Bede and Offa of Mercia]