MS. Cotton Vitellius A. xv

0975 | Old English | Manuscript

Tinker's Review

Preliminary Remarks on the Beowulf Manuscript

MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv, British Library, London


The unique manuscript of the Beowulf is preserved in the Cottonian Library of the British Museum. It is contained in the folio designated Cotton Vitellius A. xv, where it occurs ninth in order, filling the folios numbered 129a to 198b, inclusive.

The first recorded notice of the MS. is to be found in Wanley’s Catalog of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (Oxford, 1705), Volume III of Hickes’s Thesaurus. The poem is thus described:—

‘Tractatus nobilissimus Poeticè scriptus. Præfationis hoc est initium.’

The first nineteen lines follow, transcribed with a few errors.

‘Initium autem primi Capitis sic se habet.’

Lines 53–73, transcribed with a few errors.

‘In hoc libro, qui Poeseos Anglo-Saxonicæ egregium est exemplum, descripta videntur bella quæ Beowulfus quidam Danus, ex Regio Scyldingorum stirpe Ortus, gessit contra Sueciæ Regulos.’ Page 218, col. b, and 219, col. a.

No further notice was taken of the MS. until 1786, when Thorkelin1 made two transcripts of it.

In 1731 there occurred a disastrous fire which destroyed a number of the Cottonian MSS. The Beowulf MS. suffered at this time, its edges being scorched and its pages shriveled. As a result, the edges have chipped away, and some of the readings have been lost. It does not appear, however, that these losses are of so great importance as the remarks of some prominent Old English scholars might lead us to suspect. Their remarks give the impression that the injury which the MS. received in the fire accounts for practically all of the illegible lines. That this is not so may be seen by comparing the Wanley transcript with the Zupitza Autotypes. Writing in 1705, before the Cotton fire, Wanley found two illegible words at line 15—illegible because of fading and rubbing. Of exactly the same nature appear to be the injuries at lines 2220 ff., the celebrated passage which is nearly, if not quite, unintelligible. It would therefore be a safe assumption that such injuries as these happened to the MS. before it became a part of the volume, Vitellius A. xv. The injuries due to scorching and burning are seldom of the first importance.

This point is worth noting. Each succeeding scholar who transcribed the MS., eager to recommend his work, dwelt upon the rapid deterioration of the parchment, and the reliability of his own readings as exact reproductions of what he himself had seen in the MS. before it reached its present ruinous state. The result of this was that the emendations of the editor were sometimes accepted by scholars and translators as the authoritative readings of the MS., when in reality they were nothing but gratuitous additions. This is especially true of Thorpe2, and the false readings which he introduced were never got rid of until the Zupitza Autotypes brought to light the sins of the various editors of the poem. These statements regarding text and MS. will be developed in the following sections of the paper3.

1. See infra, p. 16.

2. See infra, p. 49.

3. See infra on Thorkelin, p. 19; Conybeare, p. 29; Kemble, p. 34; Thorpe, p. 51; Arnold, p. 72.