Sunday, December 7, 2008

historical anecdotes are my calling, it seems

This is what our friend Clare's cat, Shark, thinks of Beowulf. Perhaps it is because he is a monster of the deep, and Beowulf dispatched a few of those.

This is certainly a testament to my hunger for anecdotes, but the story of the Beowulf manuscript! So no-one really knows where it came from or who wrote it, but they know it was part of the collection of one Robert Cotton upon his death in 1631.

(The best thing about this collection is the organization. Cotton kept a different bust on each bookshelf, and that was how he catalogued his books. So Beowulf was "Vitellius.A.xv," indicating its position on the first shelf on the bookcase decorated with a bust of Vitellius. When I am Librarian of Congress, I will be adopting this system.)

Anyway, the manuscript was living in Ashburnham House in Westminster in 1731 when there was a fire. Some manuscripts burned, and Beowulf's edges were scorched. Its snug leather covers saved it, and the trustees who broke into a burning library in order to throw books out of the windows and keep them safe.

Enough of this heroic firefighter fantasy. Give me a Beowulf-saving librarian any day.

So this stout little manuscript survives for at least 700 years before anyone even thinks to make a copy. Finally a man makes two transcripts and takes them to Copenhagen, where he prepares Beowulf for publication. Except, whoops, in 1807 the British bomb the city and burn his house down. Eventually Beowulf gets published in 1815.

Admittedly it's not as poetic as if a monster came out of the sea and ate the manuscript.

1 comment:

Kate said...

You people are the biggest nerds I have ever known.

This blog is like the pofiterole to Lauren's and my cotton candy of a blog. Us: cheap, unsophisticated, and available at circuses and carnivals. You: classy, intellectual, and worldly.

I feel... so inadequate.