The Dating of Beowulf

Deepa Chordiya

Copyright 2000

Beowulf is considered to be the oldest surviving example of a heroic epic written in Old English. Depicting the Germanic ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, specifically the Danes and the Geats, it deals with the time period that followed the invasion of England by Germanic tribes in 449. However, while it is generally acknowledged that the epic was written long after the events it describes, scholarly consensus regarding where and when Beowulf was written remains elusive with proposed dates ranging from the early eighth century to the late tenth century. The only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, generally dated to around 1000, was severely damaged in a 1731 fire at the Cottonian Library in London which destroyed much of the physical evidence (i.e. the binding, sewing, folds, threads etc.). Scholars attempting to establish Beowulf’s date of composition have applied various methods of analysis, including historiographical, linguistic, metrical and stylistic, to the remaining text. Although each of these methods has particular strengths, none of them has succeeded in establishing a definitive date. It is beyond the scope of this article to give a summary of the evidence that has been used to date Beowulf. However, it will discuss some of the approaches towards dating Beowulf as well as some of the implications of the prolonged scholarly debate on this subject.

Two of the most important methods for dating the epic are through linguistic and historiographical (both paleological and historical) analysis. The linguistic method involves looking at the internal evidence of the text, specifically its language (spelling, grammar, sound changes, etc.) and meter, to determine at what point during the evolution of the English language Beowulf was written. Opinions regarding the effectiveness of this method have varied from Eugen Einenkel’s opinion that linguistic analysis had allowed him to establish conclusively that 725 was the date of composition, to the more recent opinion of Nicolas Jacobs that linguistic evidence is unreliable and should be disregarded in discussions concerned with the dating of the epic. When considering the effectiveness of this form of analysis, it is important to remember that linguistic analysis is largely based on a reconstruction of the rules governing Old English metre and the chronology of Old English sound changes, both of which are theoretical and debatable.

The second method involves attempts to place Beowulf into a specific historical context, an approach which analyses references to historical events, implicit societal attitudes, and paleological artifacts (like the relics found at the Sutton Hoo burial) mentioned in the epic. While this method ostensibly considers evidence that is more "objective" than linguistic evidence, historiographical analysis also involves a degree of scholarly interpretation which undermines its reliability. In order to effectively apply this method to literary analysis, scholars must have indisputable knowledge of the context within which a particular work was written. However, scholars do not have a clear picture of early Anglo-Saxon history and culture, and often use literary works to augment their knowledge of this time period, leading to a circularity that problematizes this method of analysis.

When discussing Beowulf, very little can be said with any certainty. In spite of the long history of scholarly debate on this topic, only two facts can be stated with any certainty: N. F. S. Grundtvig’s identification of the character Chilochilaichus with Hygelac, king of the Geats, who carried out a raid against the Franks in 520 (and which thus allows scholars to date the time period of the events described in the poem, as well as establish a definite lower limit to its time of authorship), and that the only extant manuscript was written around the year 1000 (which establishes the upper limit for the date of composition). In 1815, Grimur J. Thorkelin proposed a composition date of shortly after the fourth century, thus beginning a debate that has remained unresolved to this day. That initial estimate was repeatedly revised over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and until the 1980s, it was widely accepted that the epic could be dated to the "Age of Bede" (an Anglo-Saxon historian who lived ca. 672-735), or to roughly the 8th century. Since then, however, a number of articles have provided compelling evidence that the epic may have been composed at a later date than normally accepted, and even as late as the date of the extant manuscript, thus reopening and further problematizing the debate.

Many theories have been suggested to explain the different possible dates of Beowulf’s composition. While the opinion that Beowulf was composed in Northumbria during the time of Bede has been one of the most popular, other theories, based on historical and political evidence, have also been advanced. In 1892, John Earle, citing similarities between the names of characters in Beowulf and those of Mercian kings and queens, suggested Mercer during the reign of Offa as a possibility. This was largely overlooked until 1951, when Dorothy Whitelock urged scholars not to discount, in their enthusiasm for Bede’s Northumbria, the possibility of the court of Offa in the late eighth century. More recently, however, Kiernan’s examination of the extant manuscript suggests that much of the evidence supporting an earlier date of composition (i.e. Wrenn’s identification of wun[d]ini) were based on irregularities in the photostat copies of the original and, based on the political history of the time, instead proposes a date of composition synchronous with the remaining manuscript, or the early 11th century. Indeed, scholars have sought in vain to definitively establish the date and place of composition of Beowulf, and after almost two centuries of debate, the discussion remains unsettled.

For Further Reading

The Dating of Beowulf, a collection of essays edited by Colin Chase, which presents compelling arguments (using a variety of methods) for a later composition date.

Liuzza, Roy Michael. "On the Dating of Beowulf." Beowulf: Basic Readings.

Ed. Peter S. Baker. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995

-- a good overview of the problem of dating the epic as well as pertinent scholarship.

Hasenfratz, Robert J.. Beowulf Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography, 1979-

    1. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.

-- useful summaries of Beowulf scholarship