For having given birth to the modern English language, you would think that Old English – the now defunct language spoken in medieval Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers – would have a lot of surviving written records.
But in case of original manuscripts of poetry in Old English, there are only four surviving books. Four. That’s it.
Josephine Livingstone wrote this interesting article over at The New Republic about them:
They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed.
… the main attraction lay in a quiet little vitrine: all four Old English poetic codices, side by side. They don’t look that impressive to the casual eye. The exhibition room is dark and cold, to keep the books safe from damage. The manuscripts are brown, small, almost self-effacing. There’s no outward sign of how important they are, how unprecedented their meeting.
What makes these four books so special? Read the full article to find out.
Image: British Library Board