The Transmission of "Beowulf"

9781501705113: Hardback
Release Date: 16th May 2017

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 224

Series Myth and Poetics II

Cornell University Press

The Transmission of "Beowulf"

Language, Culture, and Scribal Behavior

Beowulf, like The Iliad and The Odyssey, is a foundational work of Western literature that originated in mysterious circumstances. In The Transmission of "Beowulf," Leonard Neidorf addresses philological questions that are fundamental to the study of the poem.

Hardback / £43.00

Beowulf, like The Iliad and The Odyssey, is a foundational work of Western literature that originated in mysterious circumstances. In The Transmission of Beowulf, Leonard Neidorf addresses philological questions that are fundamental to the study of the poem. Is Beowulf the product of unitary or composite authorship? How substantially did scribes alter the text during its transmission, and how much time elapsed between composition and preservation?

Neidorf answers these questions by distinguishing linguistic and metrical regularities, which originate with the Beowulf poet, from patterns of textual corruption, which descend from copyists involved in the poem’s transmission. He argues, on the basis of archaic features that pervade Beowulf and set it apart from other Old English poems, that the text preserved in the sole extant manuscript (ca. 1000) is essentially the work of one poet who composed it circa 700. Of course, during the poem’s written transmission, several hundred scribal errors crept into its text. These errors are interpreted in the central chapters of the book as valuable evidence for language history, cultural change, and scribal practice. Neidorf’s analysis reveals that the scribes earnestly attempted to standardize and modernize the text’s orthography, but their unfamiliarity with obsolete words and ancient heroes resulted in frequent errors. The Beowulf manuscript thus emerges from his study as an indispensible witness to processes of linguistic and cultural change that took place in England between the eighth and eleventh centuries. An appendix addresses J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, which was published in 2014. Neidorf assesses Tolkien’s general views on the transmission of Beowulf and evaluates his position on various textual issues.

Leonard Neidorf is Professor of English at Nanjing University and a former Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is the editor of The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment and coeditor of Old English Philology: Studies in Honour of R. D. Fulk.

"Written in a clear, assertive style.... this book will reorient Beowulf studies. It mounts a coherent argument for the unity and antiquity of Beowulf.... It absolves the scribes of carelessness and recovers the poem from their excessive carefulness. It illuminates the transmission of Beowulf powerfully and cogently."

Paul Cavill, University of Nottingham

"Leonard Neidorf systematically and lucidly analyzes a whole range of textual errors that came about in the history of Beowulf's transmission from one scribe to another."

Rolf Bremmer, Leiden University

"Leonard Neidorf has become an important figure in Old English studies as the leader of a movement to reestablish philology within the field. The Transmission of "Beowulf" is a major advance in the study of poems that survive in unique manuscripts and should be required reading in all Beowulf courses. A new generation of scholars who have learned from it will have much valuable and interesting work to do."

Geoffrey R. Russom, Brown University, author of "Beowulf" and Old Germanic Metre

"This is a truly paradigm-shifting book. Leonard Neidorf swims against the tide of much recent Beowulf scholarship, but his case is supported by such a compelling weight of evidence that it is difficult to see how it could be seriously challenged."

Carole Hough, University of Glasgow

"Leonard Neidorf's monograph is a thorough, detailed analysis of scribal error in the Beowulf text, an argument for the early date and Mercian origin of the poem, and a passionate defense of traditional philological research and textual emendation."


"Neidorf provides perceptive discussions... articulates a much needed theory of scribal behavior; he concisely establishes the unity of the poem.... This book is essential reading for anyone concerned with Beowulf or the study of Old English scribal practice."

Studia Neophilologica

"[The Transmission of "Beowulf": Language, Culture, and Scribal Behavior] is an essential treatment of the subject that no student of the poem can afford to ignore. The author shows himself exceptionally knowledgeable in matters of language and metre, and readers of this book have much to be grateful for."

The Review of English Studies

"A short review like this hardly does justice to the genius of this astonishing book. The Transmission of Beowulf is a coup de théâtre, a scholarly manifesto of the utmost importance in its evidentiary rigor, theoretical utility, and vigorous prose. By any measure, it ranks as one of the most pivotal books ever written on Old English literature and will be recognized as a historic achievement."


"Neidorf....obviously understands that inhibitions of this kind are profoundly unhealthy. His study is essential reading for all future editors of Old English poems and, of course, for everyone interested in Beowulf and its place in literary history."


"For close engagement with the linguistic idiosyncrasies of Beowulf, one may turn to Leonard Neidorf’s recent study The Transmission of ‘Beowulf’: Language, culture, and scribal behavior. Here formidable scholarship provides rich insights into the attitudes and methods of the scribes who made the only surviving copy of Beowulf... [t]he evidence that he puts forward in this book, based on rigorous scrutiny of several hundred errors in Beowulf, is both fascinating and highly persuasive, and the book is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the manuscript context of Beowulf, scribal culture in Anglo-Saxon England more generally, or the early history of the English language."

Times Literary Supplement