The Heroic Age

Issue 4

Summer/Autumn 2001

Electronic Medievalia

The Electronic Beowulf

by L. J. Swain

HWAET! The current trend in manuscript studies appears to be the digital production of manuscripts. The Mappa Mundi project, the Canterbury Tales project, the recent Piers Plowman project, and last but not least the Electronic Beowulf have all in some way contributed to a new lease on life in textual criticism and manuscript studies.

Some years ago when employed at a library, I had the opportunity to defend the then-burgeoning Internet. Specifically, I pointed to projects such as the Electronic Beowulf, which at that time only had images of the manuscript online, as evidence that the Internet was a boon to scholarship, making available manuscripts, databases and other tools that scholars not so long ago had to travel far and wide to be able to access. Kevin Kiernan and the University of Michigan Press have now made great strides by placing this material on a CDRom and making it available to have in one's office.

The great advantage of this product is that the textual critic and student of Old English language and literature may view the manuscript and compare some of the editorial choices made by the editors for themselves. As is well known, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, the Beowulf manuscript, was damaged in the fire of 1731. While it did not suffer as much damage as many of the Cotton manuscripts, the edges of the manuscript's pages have multiple gaps, tears, and fissures which swallow parts of words, whole words, and phrases. The textual critic must then reconstruct these missing pieces.

An example of this occurs at line 588 of the poem, "þu þæs helle scealt". In the actual manuscript this line stretches from the bottom of folio 143 recto to the top of 143 verso. At the top of 143 verso, the corner is missing and all that is visible of the word "helle" is the final "e". It truly is anyone's guess what the word may have been. Mitchell and Robinson, while keeping the traditional "helle" at this point, suggest it may have also been something like "healle". The reading "helle" is based on a transcription of the manuscript by Thorkelin before this particular rent in the page appeared. Other difficulties of a similar nature also arise, such as the damaged lines at 2112-20 where the majority of the lines are unrecoverable.

More interesting for the student of Beowulf wishing to examine editorial choices are examples of scribal error. Line 15 contains the letter thorn with a line through its ascender. Many editions of the poem amend this to "þe", though the abbreviation usually stands for "þæt." Other such editorial choices are also now available to be examined by the student of the poem.

In addition to such textual criticism and editorial work, the Electronic Beowulf CD contains much more. While teaching the poem in translation I have found it useful to use the CD to illustrate some of the editorial features mentioned above. I also show some of the other texts in the manuscripts, such as images from Wonders of the East, to illustrate to students how a manuscript appears and the kind of care and work that goes into presenting them with a translation to read. Usually it is well received.

Other pedagogical applications are available as well. The CD contains transcriptions of earlier scholars. Thorkelin, Conybeare, and Madden are available for comparison. A new edition of the poem has been made as well. These tools are useful when comparing editions or discussing finer points of interpretation of the poem. The one weakness here is that previous editions may not be included, but then the project would have been much larger than two discs! In addition to these features is a searchable glossary to keywords in the text ­ though it is by no means an exhaustive glossary.

The CD is designed to work with Netscape and has a java applet that will need to be installed if the user doesn't already have it. A problem with this is that the Netscape version is already outdated. The java applet, too, may not be a necessary tool. While it looks very neat, it does cause most computers to slow significantly as it attempts to bring up manuscript images or transcriptions. Other projects have successfully used HTML to achieve similar results or style sheets. Another difficulty is that the CD contains hyperlinks to the University of Kentucky and the British Library, the sites where development took place. Some of these links are already broken ­ something the designers should have realized would happen given the nature of the web. All materials should have been included on the CD and not otherwise linked.

A final critique involves the second CD of the package. This CD contains all of the images of Cotton Vitellius A.xv in HTML format, without the java scripting. In fact, if one were merely wanting to use this product for the purposes of textual criticism, the second CD would be the most useful, and I would recommend skipping the first one altogether. Material on the second CD allows the user to view the manuscript pages as they appear in the manuscript or offers the option of reconstructing the folios and sheets. Either view method works well. The question is why it was deemed appropriate to make the first (and therefore the primary) CD so difficult and the second so easy to use. The extra material included on the first CD (transcriptions, glossary, hot spots, edition) could just as easily have been formatted as the second CD and made searching a lot simpler.

These criticisms, however, are criticisms of design and not content. The Electronic Beowulf and Kevin Kiernan and the others behind this project were indeed pioneering a process that is fortunately becoming commonplace. This CD is ­ without question ­ worth the asking price and is a wealth of information for all students of Old English literature.


 Return to Table of Contents


  Return to homepage
Copyright © L.J. Swain, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved