The History of the Manners, Landed Property, Government, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion, and Language of the Anglo-Saxons

Turner, S. | 1805 | English | Translations
Texts: Hathi Trust

Tinker's Review

Sharon Turner’s Extracts

The History of the Manners, Landed Property, Government, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion, and Language of the Anglo-Saxons. By Sharon Turner, F.A.S. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, 1805.

Being Volume IV of the History of the Anglo-Saxons from their earliest appearance above the Elbe, etc. London, 1799–1805. 8o, pp. 398–408.

Second Edition, corrected and enlarged. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, 1807. 2 vols., 4o. Beowulf described, Vol. II, pp. 294–303.

Third Edition. London, 1820.

Fourth Edition. London, 1823.

Fifth Edition. (1827?)

Sixth Edition. London, 1836.

Seventh Edition. London, 1852.

Reprints: Paris, 1840; Philadelphia, 1841.

Translation of Extracts from the first two Parts.
Points of Difference between the Various Editions.

A part of this may be stated in the words of the author:—

‘The poem had remained untouched and unnoticed both here and abroad until I observed its curious contents, and in 1805 announced it to the public. I could then give it only a hasty perusal, and from the MS. having a leaf interposed near its commencement, which belonged to a subsequent part, and from the peculiar obscurity which sometimes attends the Saxon poetry, I did not at that time sufficiently comprehend it, and had not leisure to apply a closer attention. But in the year 1818 I took it up again, as I was preparing my third edition, and then made that more correct analysis which was inserted in that and the subsequent editions, and which is also exhibited in the present.’ —Sixth edition, p. 293, footnote.

The statement that the poem had remained untouched and unnoticed is not strictly true. The public had not yet received any detailed information regarding it; but Wanley1 had mentioned the Beowulf in his catalog, and Thorkelin had already made two transcripts of the poem, and was at work upon an edition. Turner, however, deserves full credit for first calling the attention of the English people to the importance of the poem.

In the third edition, of which the author speaks, many improvements were introduced into the digest of the story and some improvements into the text of the translations. Many of these were gleaned from the editio princeps of Thorkelin2. The story is now told with a fair degree of accuracy, although many serious errors remain: e.g. the author did not distinguish the correct interpretation of the swimming-match, an extract of which is given below. The translations are about as faulty as ever, as may be seen by comparing the two extracts. In the first edition only the first part of the poem is treated; in the third, selections from the second part are added.

No further changes were made in later editions of the History.

Detailed information regarding differences between the first three editions may be found below.

Turner, and his Knowledge of Old English.

Sharon Turner (1768–1847) was from early youth devoted to the study of Anglo-Saxon history, literature, and antiquities. His knowledge was largely derived from the examination of original documents in the British Museum3. But the very wealth of the new material which he found for the study of the literature kept him from making a thorough study of it. It is to be remembered that at this time but little was known of the peculiar nature of the Old English poetry. Turner gives fair discussions of the works of Bede and Ælfric, but he knows practically nothing of the poetry. With the so-called Paraphrase of Cædmon he is, of course, familiar; but his knowledge of Beowulf and Judith is derived from the unique, and at that time (1805) unpublished, MS., Cotton Vitellius A. xv. Of the contents of the Exeter Book he knew nothing. The Vercelli Book had not yet been discovered. The materials at hand for his study were a faulty edition of Cædmon and an insufficient dictionary. The author, whose interest was of course primarily in history, was not familiar with the linguistic work of the day. It is, therefore, not surprising that his work was not of the best quality.

Lines in the Poem Translated by Turner.

First edition: 18–40; 47–83a; 199b-279; 320–324; 333–336; 499–517a. In the second edition are added: 1–17; 41–46; 83b-114; 189–199a; 387–497; 522–528. In the third edition are added: 529–531; 535–558; 607–646; 671–674; 720–738; 991–996; 1013–1042; 1060b-1068a; 1159b-1165a; 1168b-1180a; 1215b-1226a; 1240b-1246a; and a few other detached lines.

Turner’s Account of Beowulf in the First Edition of his History.
‘The most interesting remains of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which time has suffered to reach us, are contained in the Anglo-Saxon poem in the Cotton Library, Vitellius A. 15. Wanley mentions it as a poem in which “seem to be described the wars which one Beowulf, a Dane of the royal race of the Scyldingi, waged against the reguli of Sweden4.” But this account of the contents of the MS. is incorrect. It is a composition more curious and important. It is a narration of the attempt of Beowulf to wreck the fæthe or deadly feud on Hrothgar, for a homicide which he had committed. It may be called an Anglo-Saxon epic poem. It abounds with speeches which Beowulf and Hrothgar and their partisans make to each other, with much occasional description and sentiment.’ —Book vi, chap. iv, pp. 398 ff.
The Story of the Poem as Interpreted by Turner.

‘It begins with a proemium, which introduces its hero Beowulf to our notice. . . . The poet then states the embarkation of Beowulf and his partisans. . . .’ Turner interprets the prolog as the description of the embarkation of Beowulf on a piratical expedition. The accession of Hrothgar to the throne of the Danes is then described, and the account of his ‘homicide’ is given. This remarkable mistake was caused by the transposition of a sheet from a later part of the poem—the fight with Grendel—to the first section of the poem. The sailing of Beowulf and the arrival in the Danish land are then given. Turner continues: ‘The sixth section exhibits Hrothgar’s conversation with his nobles, and Beowulf’s introduction and address to him. The seventh section opens with Hrothgar’s answer to him, who endeavours to explain the circumstance of the provocation. In the eighth section a new speaker appears, who is introduced, as almost all the personages in the poem are mentioned, with some account of his parentage and character.’ Then follows the extract given below.

Hunferth spoke

The son of Ecglafe;

Who had sat at the foot

Of the lord of the Scyldingi

Among the band of the battle mystery.

To go in the path of Beowulf

Was to him a great pride;

He was zealous

That to him it should be granted

That no other man

Was esteemed greater in the world

Under the heavens than himself.

‘Art thou Beowulf

He that with such profit

Dwells in the expansive sea,

Amid the contests of the ocean?

There yet5 for riches go!

You try for deceitful glory

In deep waters6.—

Nor can any man,

Whether dear or odious,

Restrain you from the sorrowful path—

There yet7 with eye-streams

To the miserable you8 flourish:

You meet in the sea-street;

You oppress with your hands;

9You glide over the ocean’s waves;

The fury of winter rages,

Yet on the watery domain

Seven nights have ye toiled.’

After this extract, Turner continues:— ‘It would occupy too much room in the present volume to give a further account of this interesting poem, which well deserves to be submitted to the public, with a translation and with ample notes. There are forty-two sections of it in the Cotton MS., and it ends there imperfectly. It is perhaps the oldest poem of an epic form in the vernacular language of Europe which now exists.’

In the second edition the following lines were added:—

‘After Hunferthe, another character is introduced:

Dear to his people,

of the land of the Brondingi;

the Lord of fair cities,

where he had people,

barks, and bracelets,

Ealwith, the son of Beandane,

the faithful companion


“Then I think

worse things will be to thee,

thou noble one!

Every where the rush

of grim battle will be made.

If thou darest the grendles,

the time of a long night

will be near to thee.”’

Third Edition.

‘Hunferth, “the son of Ecglaf, who sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldingi.” He is described as jealous of Beowulf’s reputation, and as refusing to any man more celebrity than himself. He is represented as taunting Beowulf on his exploits as a sea-king or vikingr.

“Art thou Beowulf,

he that with such profit

labours on the wide sea,

amid the contests of the ocean?

There you for riches,

and for deceitful glory,

explore its bays

in the deep waters,

till you sleep with your elders.

Nor can any man restrain you,

whether dear or odious to you,

from this sorrowful path.

There you rush on the wave;

there on the water streams:

from the miserable you flourish.

You place yourselves in the sea-street;

you oppress with your hands;

you glide over the ocean

through the waves of its seas.

The fury of the winter rages,

yet on the watery domain

seven nights have ye toiled.”’

Detailed criticism of the extracts is unnecessary. They are, of course, utterly useless to-day. Sufficient general criticism of the work is found in the preceding sections devoted to a discussion of the author and his knowledge of Old English and of the Beowulf.

In the third edition the author presents some criticisms of Thorkelin’s text; but his own work is quite as faulty as the Icelander’s, and his ‘corrections’ are often misleading.

Turner is to be censured for allowing an account of Beowulf so full of inaccuracy to be reprinted year after year with no attempt at its improvement or even a warning to the public that it had been superseded by later and more scholarly studies.

1. See supra, p. 7.

2. See infra, p. 15.

3. See the Life of Turner by Thomas Seccombe, Dict. Nat. Biog.

4. Wanley, Catal. Saxon MS., p. 218.

5. Second edition—

Ever acquired under heaven

more of the world’s glory

than himself.

6. Second edition—ye.

7. Second edition adds—

Ye sleep not with your ancestors.

8. Second edition omits.

9. Second edition reads—

You glide over the ocean

on the waves of the sea.