Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

11 February 2013

Hwæt! Beowulf Online

The manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest poem in the Old English language, can now be viewed online for the first time. Made around the year 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016), this manuscript committed to parchment a tale that (in some modern scholars' opinions) had been passed down for centuries, between generations of storytellers.

A detail from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing the opening words of the Old English poem.

The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.

In its present state, the poem, named after its hero Beowulf, contains more than 3,000 lines, and divides conventionally into three comparatively equal sections: Beowulf's struggle with the monster, Grendel; the revenge of Grendel's mother; and Beowulf's final contest with a dragon, which was guarding a hoard of treasure. What marks out Beowulf is the gripping and highly developed story, and the richness of its language.

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing the passage in the Old English poem where Beowulf prepares for battle with Grendel.
The Beowulf-manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731, but much of its text remains readable. Here the poem recounts Beowulf's preparations for battle with Grendel: London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 147r.

Known sometimes as the "Nowell Codex", after its erstwhile owner Laurence Nowell (d. c. 1570), the Beowulf-manuscript entered the library of Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), and still retains his pressmark of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (the 15th item on the 1st shelf of a bookpress named after the Roman emperor Vitellius). Cotton's collection was bequeathed to the nation in 1702, and formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753. Beowulf is now in the safe-keeping of the British Library; and we are hugely proud to be able to bring it to new audiences through our Digitised Manuscripts site.

More posts about the contents and history of the Beowulf-manuscript will be featured on this blog in the coming weeks.

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Bless the keepers of old manuscripts.

Hurrah - at least available to all - in its present state. Obscured letters?

Readers should be aware that this handsome, valuable resource does not include among other things the more than 1300 letters and parts of letters hidden by the paper binding frames nor access to the nearly 2000 readings preserved by the eighteenth-century Thorkelin transcripts. The exclusive use of the BL foliation of 1884, without the first MS foliation, will make it difficult for readers to understand many references in the 200 years of Beowulf scholarship. For details please check out for the Guide to the third edition of Electronic Beowulf (British Library Publishing, 2011).

This is awesome!

My mothers cousin on Gotland studied this story very much, and he think´s that Beowulf could be from the island of Gotland.

My son gave me a book of Beowolf with the translation for Christmas one year! It is one of the treasures in my library.

The ELECTONIC BEOWULF with photos of the original manuscript plus a translation has been on-line for over 10 years at:

So what is the big deal here?!

J. Ferstel
Louisiana USA

How thrilling! Thank you. Amazing how some words just jump out at you and others are "huh!?".

The images on are based on new photography of the Beowulf-manuscript, made in October 2012. Readers should also be aware that the official British Library foliation is that in pencil -- this should always be cited in preference to the earlier (and now obsolete) ink foliation.

Does anyone know what the scribes' ink was made of? I mean exactly - as a result of analysis.

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