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Historical Context

Beowulf, which is the largest surviving Old English poem, came down to us in a single manuscript, which is currently stored at the British Museum. The poem is believed to be composed by a Christian author in the 8th Century, but it was transcribed in the West Saxon dialect only towards the end of the 10th Century, a time at which there was a monastic revival in England and the literary culture had reached its high point. The fact that the poet of Beowulf is anonymous is not surprising as of all the Old English poetry, we know only two poets whose works survived: Caedmon and Cynewulf. It was only in the 10th Century that these manuscripts were written down in a single manuscript in the West Saxon dialect, in the MS (Cotton Vitellius A.XV) that we now have.

Scholars disagree about a definite date and place of composition for the poem, but almost all agree that the Cotton manuscript is not the first time that the poem was written down, and that a written version must have existed by the middle of the 8th Century. The date is arrived at from the following considerations. First, there are a lot of allusions to Christianity in the poem, and the poem assumes an audience to whom Christianity and the usages of the Church must have been familiar, which suggest a date no later than the 8th Century. Secondly, the poem could not have been written earlier than the Northumbrian poet Caedmon (dictated around 658 and 680 AD), which established many of the mores of Christian heroic poetry. Thirdly, most scholars believe that Beowulf was composed at West Mercia, off the coast of Offa the Great (King of Mercia from 757 to 796). One of the reasons for this supposition is that Offa's ancestor, Offa the Angle, is specifically praised by the poet in a digression, where the poet praises Queen Hygd, Hygelac's wife, by comparing her to the cruel queen of Offa the Angle.

Beowulf is an epic poem, meant to be recited orally, and though its language is English, it makes mention of Englishmen only twice or thrice. This is because the poem must have been written at a time when English and Scandinavian events were of mutual interest to an English audience. The hero of the poem, Beowulf, is a Geat, and modern scholarship holds that this tribe was probably the Guatar or the Getae, who lived in what is now southern Sweden.

The poem, is however, not a historical account of the past. It is about the common heroic past of the Germanic race seen through the nostalgic eyes of the poet. The poem, however, reveals the social, kinship, and behavioral characteristics that were common to the Germanic people. The closest account of the Germanic races is given by Tacitus (Roman historian) in his Germania, written at the end of the first century. According to Tacitus, Germans were a warrior race, fierce and cruel, setting all their store in victory, and thus valuing courage above all virtues. Wars were encouraged as a means of obtaining objects they valued such as horses, armor, and jewelry. Feuds were often concluded by paying a tribute (wergild) to re-establish honor, and even murder could be paid for in money and goods.

It must be remembered, however, that Tacitus' account was written much before Beowulf was composed, and about six hundred years before England became Christian. Beowulf thus represents that indeterminate time when pagan customs and values vied with Christian conversion, which had not entirely taken place. Primarily, however, the poem is concerned not with issues in theology, but with the inevitable fact of mortality, made tragic by the fact that in the death of the poem's hero, Beowulf, the protector of the Geats, the poem looks forward into the destruction of the entire Geatish race at the hands of the Swedes.

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Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10


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