When did English literature begin? Where, how did it begin? A contender for the honour can be found in a city in the South West of England: Exeter, in its Cathedral Library and Archive. It’s called the Exeter Book.
The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and you can visit it on its monthly open days.
What is the Exeter Book?
Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book – or The Codex Exoniensis to use its Latin name – is first heard of in the library of the first Bishop of Exeter, Leofric, in 1072. It is not known how it came into Leofric’s possession.
Originally the Book had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included.
The Book contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral.
Another mystery is the reason for its original compilation. The anthology may have been a random collection of riddles and poems, or the favoured pieces of its first owner, surely a wealthy man. The preparation of the 130 parchment leaves, from animal skins, and of the ink from oak galls would have required many hours of labour.
Leofric’s described the Book in this way:
mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht (ie: a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things).
Leofric was a collector of books. He gave 66 to his cathedral between 1050 and 1072 when he died. The first page of his Anglo-Saxon Missal, now in the Bodleian, contains his ‘curse’, first in Latin and then in Anglo-Saxon.
Bishop Leofric gives this missal to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle in Exeter for the use of his successors. If anyone shall take it away from thence, let him lie under eternal malediction.
Why has it survived?
The survival of the Book is a good story in itself. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. It is more than a thousand years old, but for 700 years few people, if any, could read Old English and the great tome was neglected. There is evidence that it was used as a stand for a pot of glue and to hold gold leaf. It bears the marks of significant neglect, such a scorch mark on the last few leaves, perhaps from a poker. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. Despite his curse, in the 17th century many of the books from Leofric’s library, along with others from the Cathedral’s collection, were given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Exeter Book was left behind, perhaps unnoticed.
Why is it important?
Books were treasured articles in the 11th century. They required much labour to produce and sacred texts with their illuminations required skill and artistic sensibility. The Book has a very pleasing regular script, even if it contains no illuminations.
The Exeter Book is one of only four Old English books to have survived to the present. You probably know of Beowulf. In recent times, interest in the text has been reawakened. In particular, both WH Auden and JR Tolkien are known to have been influenced by the poems. The riddles have been translated into Modern English by Kevin Crossley-Holland and published by Enitharmon Press (2008). One of the riddles inspired Nicola Lefanu to compose a song (Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 27th April 2017).
A moth ate words. That seemed to me
when I heard of that strange happening, a curious event,
that the insect, a thief in darkness, devoured
what was written by some man, this excellent language
and its strong foundations. The thievish stranger was not
at all the wiser for swallowing these words.
For the answer change the last letter of this blog’s name.
An Artist’s Treat
The book is kept in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives. I visited it in April 2017. There are monthly open days to view the book and talk to Archive staff. They are proud and enthusiastic about this precious volume: no lying ‘under eternal malediction’ for them. And, yes, visiting books is the kind of thing I do for fun, or as a Writer’s Treat.
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