A Passion Second Only to Wolves: The Un-ravellable Mystery of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

From my previous posts, you may well have thought that I’m all about wolves, and not so much about the Anglo-Saxons. However, Anglo-Saxon literature was a passion of mine long before wolves (sorry Luna!).

I became fascinated with Anglo-Saxon poetry when I first read about its influence on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien during my A-Level years (another passion of mine is fantasy literature, particularly The Lord of the Rings). I immediately found a copy of Beowulf in the library and devoured it, and afterwards even started teaching myself Old English. By the time I got to university, I was intent on learning as much about the Anglo-Saxons as I could, and took as many modules about them as possible. I still wasn’t done though, and went on to do my MLitt in Mediaeval English. After that, I was still hungry for more, and have now spent the last 2 and a half years (has it really been that long already?!) delving into the world of the Anglo-Saxons, researching what they thought and wrote about wolves, minutely examining the poems which contain tantalising hints of them (more on why wolves in a later post!).

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Studying the entry on Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition book, with a little help from Smaug

This has certainly been a labour of love, or else I couldn’t have done it. Many people don’t really understand why I would choose to dedicate myself to studying the literature of a ‘dead language’, or why it really matters what some monk in an eighth-century monastery wrote down, or what some drunk minstrel sang about in a mead-hall a thousand years ago.

What I love is the detective work. So much of Anglo-Saxon studies is hunting in books and manuscripts, trying to decipher the beautiful language and the inky marks on thousand-year-old parchment; ultimately, trying to delve into the lives and minds of the people who shaped the course of British history.

So much is left unsolved, and even though I’m trying to present solutions to certain Anglo-Saxon texts in my PhD thesis, it’s exciting to think that you could be right, or that you could equally be completely wrong. That’s the beauty of the double-edged sword of Anglo-Saxon study – you can never truly unravel the mystery, or even know if you have. But that’s what makes it even more tantalising. It’s an entire world and worldview that is just out of reach – so close you can touch it, but still so far away.

This past Saturday, I was lucky enough to visit the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, where I could see the mysteries for myself. Many of the manuscripts in the exhibition have returned to England for the first time in hundreds of years. You wander through the rooms, wondering about who wrote these magnificent tomes, and why. Why did someone write this poem, and piece it together in a manuscript with these others? Was this manuscript produced in the same place as that one? Whose hands did they pass through? How many sets of centuries-old eyes flickered across these pages? What chance of fate allowed these ancient books to come down to us, so that they might be placed in this exhibition where we can admire them today?


This is what I really love about Anglo-Saxon study. We can bring the manuscripts together, caption them, label them with what we think we know about them, write books about them, pour over them for endless hours. But they joyfully resist interpretation, sit stolid, unyielding, and unspeaking. We can make them speak with our theories, but we might be using the wrong voice, and they defy us to try and truly understand them. I’d like to think that if the scribes who wrote these texts or the minstrels who sung the poems within them knew about our relentless attempts to unravel their mysteries, they would laugh wryly at our attempts to find meaning, and enjoy our wildest theories, watching us try to understand the meaning of their words, and by extension, themselves.

But what is also incredible is that we haven’t given up trying to do so, and probably never will. Scholars like me will dedicate their lives to unravelling the unravellable, and people will continue to visit exhibitions, as so many did at the British Library, to delve into the depths of their ancestral past. There is no one answer – like the Anglo-Saxon riddles that lie within the pages of the magnificent Exeter Book manuscript, the puzzles that our thousand-year old ancestors enjoyed continue to delight, confuse, and surprise us. An unsolved mystery lives forever.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter


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