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Beowulf: An Online Introduction

Each modern edition and each modern translation will always be radically different than the original manuscript. There are many reasons for this:

(1) Problems with Translation: The obvious difference is that most students read Anglo-Saxon texts translated into modern English. However, that means students never read the Anglo-Saxon itself, but rather an individual's interpretation of the text. These interpretations vary widely. It seems easy to translate a simple word like "two" into another language--say French (deux), or maybe Spanish (dos), or even Latin (duos). If you know the vocabulary, it seems no more complicated than plugging numbers into an equation, x = y.

But it's not that easy. Translating poetry is tricky. Words often involve elaborate connotations or allusions that aren't evident in another language. Sometimes poets even make up words that never appear in normal speech. In the opening of the poem, the speaker refers to the "hron-rad" or "whale-road." It is a made-up, poetic word to refer to the sea that wouldn't appear in normal conversation. That particular type of made-up word is called a kenning, and kennings appear frequently in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry.

Even a word in normal, everyday usage might not translate from one language into another. The first word in the poem (Hwaet) has no direct equivalent in Modern English. A poet or public speaker would shout out this word to get people's attention in a formal setting, much like ringing a fork against a champagne glass at a dinner party. "Hwaet" implies the listeners should be quiet and listen. Some editors translate hwaet as "Listen!" or "Hark!" or "What!" A more literal translation might be "Hey!" or "Shut-up!" I have given some students the assignment of creating a rap-version of Beowulf, and they even translated the word as "Yo!" or "Whassup!" Note that none of these translations (or, I would argue, any translation) will ever have the same flavor as the original. Here, my choice of "Listen!" sounds too imperious in modern English. It doesn't sound particularly polite. The word "hark!" has connotations of the archaic, and the archaic choice pleases many editors, but note that the original word hwaet would not sound archaic to listeners in the mead-hall. "What!" and "Hey!" and "Yo!" are all too informal. "Shut-up!" has connotations of rudeness that the original doesn't, and so on. Individual words have individual flavors. When we translate, we struggle with the terrible reality that we are always picking the second best word--the poet used the best word already in the original.

(2) The Standardized Nature of Modern Print: Modern editions are printed in standardized form, rather than handwritten like medieval manuscripts. Even the word manuscript comes from the Latin word for hand (manus) and the participle for written (scriptus). The original often has letters that vary in their size and legibility. It was common for different scribes to doodle in the margins, or add glosses (short notes in the margins for later readers) and the scribes would leave room in the margins to allow for such glossations. In some cases, scribes would even add glosses to the glosses of previous readers!

If modern readers find some writing in the margins of a textbook, they usually think of this writing as secondary to the main text. What some other student penciled in the edges isn't as important as the printed word. We privilege print because it is more expensive and time-consuming to print something than to handwrite it. Print carries a baggage of authority that a handwritten text does not in our culture. That is not the case in the medieval period. Often, corrections to mistakes appear in the margins. Medieval readers would have to pay attention to what's going on in the edges of the text as well as what's going on in the center of the page.

(3) Material Structure of Medieval Books: The early editions were written on vellum or parchment (the skins of animals that have been cured, the hairs scraped off, and then soaked in lime). Sometimes bookworms would eat holes in the pages, or there would be scars and growths on the skin that force the scribe to write around the blemishes. In the case of the Beowulf manuscript, many of the pages were damaged in the Cotton Fire of 1731, and the entire manuscript still smells strongly of smoke, even three-hundred years later.

Reading didn't take place in the dry, aesthetic perfection of typesetting and perfectly shaped pages. It was a physical, tangible experience in a way that cannot be reproduced on a computer screen. The physicality of such books, however, meant they were terribly expensive. In an age when people might starve to death without sufficient food, or freeze to death without sufficient clothing, it was a tremendous investment to kill livestock, skin them, and take months (or even years) to prepare a large book by hand. Books were luxury items, the way expensive computers and sports cars might be considered luxury items today. It's easy to forget that fact when we can easily obtain a paperback at a used bookstore for a couple of dollars.

(4) The Absence of Modern Puctuation: Punctuation is a fairly modern invention. Hyphens don't appear until the eleventh century in Europe and not until the thirteenth century in England. Colons don't appear until the fourteenth century, and then were only used to indicate a pause. Commas appear in the 1520s and semicolons appear in the late sixteenth century. Quotation marks and dashes weren't invented until the eighteenth century. The very earliest writers in Rome and Greece didn't even bother to put spaces between words, and the older versions of Hebrew had no means of indicating vowel sounds. Reading was much harder until these inventions. To illustrate this point, see how easily you can read the following sentence with the vowels removed.


What does that say? Let's add a new invention, capitalization, and try again.


Still hard to read? Try adding the invention of spacing between words.

Y cn rd ths sys Jhn

Getting better. Now try it with the invention of punctuation like commas and quotation marks.

"Y cn rd ths," sys Jhn.

Odds are pretty good that have figured out the meaning by now, even though there aren't any vowels.

"You can read this," says John.

The use of punctuation and capitalization help us figure out meaning more rapidly. It allows us to indicate subtle nuances of meaning. Much of these word-tools, however, don't exist in surviving texts from Greece, Rome, and the early Middle Ages. Any modern editor who wants to create a readable version must select his own punctuation, but doing so always involves a choice that "fixes" the meaning.


For instance, suppose you are an editor editing a manuscript, and you come across a hypothetical text that reads as below:

a woman without her man is lost

How many ways could you puncuate this sentence? Try to come up with three or four, then click here when you've written them down.

If you are interested in more information about medieval punctuation practices, check out Stephen R. Reimer's website on Manuscript Studies, section IV. vii, Paleography: Punctuation.

Otherwise, click here to return to the previous page.


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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2016. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated August 15th, 2016. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.