Exeter Book

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The Exeter Book, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, is a tenth-century[1] book or codex which is an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices, along with the Vercelli Book, Nowell Codex and the Cædmon manuscript or MS Junius 11. The book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It is believed originally to have contained 131 leaves, of which the first 8 have been replaced with other leaves; the original first 8 pages are lost. The Exeter Book is the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence.


The precise date when the Exeter Book was compiled and written down is unknown, but it is rightly acknowledged to be one of the great works of the English Benedictine revival of the tenth century, and proposed dates for it range from 960 to 990. This period saw a rise in monastic activity and productivity under the renewed influence of Benedictine principles and standards. At the opening of the period, Dunstan's importance to the Church and to the English kingdom was established, culminating in his appointment to the Archbishopric at Canterbury under Edgar and leading to the monastic reformation by which this era was characterised. Dunstan died in 998, and by the period's close, England under Æthelred faced an increasingly determined Scandinavian incursion, to which it would eventually succumb.

The Exeter Book's heritage becomes traceable from 1072, when Leofric, Bishop at Exeter, died.[2] Among the treasures which he is recorded to have bestowed in his Will upon the then-impoverished monastery, is one famously described as "mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht" (i.e., "a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things"). This book has been widely assumed to be the Exeter Codex as it survives today.

Some marginalia were added to the manuscript by Laurence Nowell in the sixteenth century and George Hickes in the seventeenth.[3]


The Riddles

Among the other texts in the Exeter Book, there are over ninety riddles. They are written in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry and range in topics from the religious to the mundane. Some of them are double entendres, such as Riddle 25 below.

Here are two of these Anglo-Saxon riddles, both in Old English and translated into modern English.[4] The answers to the riddles are included below the text.

Riddle 25

Old English

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht   wifum on hyhte
neahbuendum nyt;   nægum sceþþe
burgsittendra nymthe   bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah   stonde ic on bedde
neoðan ruh nathwær.   Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu   ceorles dohtor
modwlonc meowle   þæt heo on mec gripe
ræseð mec on reodne   reafath min heafod
fegeð mec on fæsten.   Feleþ sona
mines gemotes   seo þe mec nearwað
wif wundenlocc.   Wæt bið þæt eage.

Modern English

I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant's daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye.

Answer: Onion

Riddle 26

Old English

Mec feonda sum   feore besnyþede,
woruldstrenga binom,   wætte siþþan,
dyfde on wætre,   dyde eft þonan,
sette on sunnan   þær ic swiþe beleas
herum þam þe ic hæfde.   Heard mec siþþan
snað seaxses ecg,   sindrum begrunden;
fingras feoldan,   ond mec fugles wyn
geond speddropum   spyrede geneahhe,
ofer brunne brerd,   beamtelge swealg,
streames dæle,   stop eft on mec,
siþade sweartlast.   Mec siþþan wrah
hæleð hleobordum,   hyde beþenede,
gierede mec mid golde;   forþon me gliwedon
wrætlic weorc smiþa,   wire bifongen.
Nu þa gereno   ond se reada telg
ond þa wuldorgesteald   wide mære
dryhtfolca helm—   nales dol wite.
Gif min bearn wera   brucan willað,
hy beoð þy gesundran   ond þy sigefæstran,
heortum þy hwætran   ond þy hygebliþran,
ferþe þy frodran,   habbaþ freonda þy ma,
swæsra ond gesibbra,   soþra ond godra,
tilra ond getreowra,   þa hyra tyr ond ead
estum ycað   ond hy arstafum
lissum bilecgað   ond hi lufan fæþmum
fæste clyppað.   Frige hwæt ic hatte,
niþum to nytte.   Nama min is mære,
hæleþum gifre   ond halig sylf.

Modern English

Some fiend robbed me from life, deprived me of wordly strengths, wetted next, dipped in water, took out again, set in the sun, deprived violently of the hair that I had after, the hard knife's edge cut me, ground from impurities, fingers folded and a bird's delight spread useful drops over me, swallowed tree-ink over the ruddy rim, portion of liquid, stepped on me again, traveled with black track. After, a man clad me with protective boards, covered with hide, adorned me with gold. Forthwith adorned me in ornamental works of smiths, encased with wire Now the trappings and the red dye and the wondrous setting widely make known the helm of the lord's folk, never again guard fools. If children of men want to use me they will be by that the safer and the more sure of victory the bolder in heart and the happier in mind, in spirit the wiser. They will have friends the more dearer and closer, righteous and more virtuous, more good and more loyal, those whose glory and happiness will gladly increase, and them with benefits and kindnesses, and they of love will clasp tightly with embraces. Ask what I am called as a service to people. My name is famous, bountiful to men and my self holy.

Answer: Bible

The Elegies

The Exeter Book contains the Old English poems known as the 'Elegies': The Wanderer (fol. 76b - fol. 78a); The Seafarer (fol. 81b - fol. 83a); The Riming Poem fol. 94a - fol. 95b); Deor (fol. 100a - fol. 100b), Wulf and Eadwacer (fol. 100b - fol. 101a); The Wife's Lament (fol. 115a - fol. 115b); The Husband's Message (fol. 123a - 123b); and The Ruin (fol. 123b - fol. 124b). The term “elegy” can be confusing due to the diverse definitions from different cultures and times. For example the Oxford English Dictionary states: “In Greek and Latin literature elegiac metre was used for poetry expressing personal sentiments on a range of subjects, including epigrams, laments, sympotic poetry, and (in Rome) love poetry.”[5] In Victorian literature, an elegy is generally a poem written for the dead and although the naming of these poems as 'elegiac' was a Victorian invention, it can be a useful term. As Anne Klinck in her book 'The Old English Elegies' writes: 'genre should be conceived, we think, as a grouping of literary works based, theoretically, upon both outer form (specific meter or structure) and also upon inner form (attitude, tone, purpose — more crudely, subject and audience)'.[6] In regards to the Exeter Book Elegies, this term can be widened to include “any serious meditative poem.”[7] The poems included in the Exeter book share common themes of longing, loneliness, pain, and the passage of time.

Editions: Old English text and translation

  • Thorpe, Benjamin (1842). Codex Exoniensis: A Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry... with An English Translation, Notes and Indexes. London: The Society of Antiquaries of London, by William Pickering, 177 Picadilly.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Matto, Michael and Delanty, Greg (2011). The Word Exchange. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393342417.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Editions: Old English text only

  • Krapp, George Philip; Dobbie, Elliot Van Kirk (1936). The Exeter Book. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. III. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-08767-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Muir, Bernard J. (ed.) (2000). The Exeter anthology of Old English poetry: an edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, 2nd edn. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. ISBN 0-85989-630-7.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Editions: Translations only

(Contains Riddles only)

(Contains Riddles only)

See also


  1. Fell, Christine (2007). "Perceptions of Transience". In Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. pp. 172–89. ISBN 978-0-521-37794-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 'The Donations of Leofric to Exeter', by Max Forster, in The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry, ed Chambers, Forster and Flower, 1933.
  3. Muir, Bernard J. (ed.), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2000), pp. 15--16.
  4. The numbering system for the riddles vary. 25 and 26 are taken from Richard Marsden's book, The Cambridge Old English Reader
  5. OED Online. "elegy, n.". Oxford University Press. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Anne L. Klinck, 'The Old English Elegies', McGill-Queen's Press, 1992, p. 224
  7. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (Second ed.). Broadview Press. 2011. p. 51. ISBN 9781554810482.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Williamson, Craig (1977), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, pp. 3–28, ISBN 0-8078-1272-2<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links