Tag Archives: The Exeter Book

Novels of English towns and counties

From time to time I like to write a post that links books by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is English towns and counties. Place is so important in novels. Think of that imagined place: Narnia, although I should point out that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. And think of the significance of a real location, such as Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles  by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Except, of course, that it is not a version of Dartmoor that you will find on the maps.

Cities and counties have great significance in English literature. Here is my random selection, with links to reviews on Bookword where they exist.

Devon and the oldest book of all

Let us start with the oldest book of all, in Devon. 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 can be seen on monthly open days. 

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book originally had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are now lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included. It 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. But why it was compiled, and for whom remain mysteries. Read more here.

More history from Devon can be found in The Recent Past  by James Ravilious. It is a book of photographs of the recent past taken in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived. There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by his wife Robin, which add to the pleasure of the viewing. You can read more about it here.

A county that does not exist

For her massive account of local community matters in the inter-war years Winifred Holtby invented a county, the missing South Riding. When I was young there were three Ridings of Yorkshire: North East and West. I often wondered about the missing South Riding. In Winifred Holtby’s novel Alderman Mrs Beddows took her place in the series on older women in fiction. She was the focus of the post I wrote about this novel. But the 500+ pages are about many more of the people in the community she serves. The beautiful countryside which Winifred Holtby knew so well is also a feature of this novel. 

More Yorkshire can be found in God’s Own Country  by Ross Raisin. The story is set in more recent times, and is a dark tale of under-privilege and rural neglect. It sets rural against urban, middle class life against  poverty, and shows us something of the challenge of the Yorkshire Moors. You can read the whole post here.

From Essex

In 2016 The Essex Serpent  by Sarah Perry won a great many prizes. I thought the cover was brilliant, although it has been copied a great deal since. The story is set in London and Essex in the 1890s. New knowledge is battling with older traditions and myths and this made for an excellent story, much enjoyed in reading groups. It was often described as gothic. My review can be read here.

A Classic about a town on the South Coast

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is one of the most read of my posts on Bookword. It has a famous first line: 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

The novel considers the different beliefs of its protagonists. But above all it is a thriller, set on a public holiday between the wars in a town recognisable today. Here’s a link to the full post.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

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The Exeter Book

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).

Riddle 47

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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