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Hwæt!
February 11, 2013 9:00 AM   Subscribe

In 1731, a fire broke out in Ashburnham House, where the greatest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, the Cottonian Library, was then being stored. Frantically, the trustees raced into the burning library and hurled priceless and unique manuscripts out the windows in order to save them. One of these was the sole manuscript of Beowulf. Today, bearing the charred edges of its brush with extinction, it's been digitized by the British Library, along with a group of other treasures including Leonardo Da Vinci's Codex Arundel and the Harley Golden Gospels.
posted by Horace Rumpole (25 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank you for this!

I've studied Beowulf and had no idea that it had come so close to vanishing. Makes me wonder how much great work went up in flames or worse over the centuries.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:09 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, these have some fantastic resolution.
posted by Think_Long at 9:11 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Cotton Classification scheme is my favorite call number system.
posted by zamboni at 9:16 AM on February 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


Today, bearing the charred edges of its brush with extinction, it's been digitized by the British Library

Not only that, but it's been knitted into a pair of socks.
posted by orange swan at 9:16 AM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


zamboni
The Cotton Classification scheme is my favorite call number system.

That's… that's beautiful…
posted by bouvin at 9:22 AM on February 11, 2013


People like Cotton ultimately benefited greatly from the dissolution of the monasteries a century before--that's where all of these manuscripts came from. But there was a century or so between dissolution and antiquarians gobbling up these precious works from the new nobility created out of monastic holdings. Imagine what was lost, first in the dissolution itself, and in that 100 years until the Cottons of the world came along?

Also, reading about Cotton's method of organizing his books (I think it was Roman imperial busts atop each shelf or something, then letter of shelf, then number of work) makes me so happy. (Preview fail here.)
posted by resurrexit at 9:23 AM on February 11, 2013


Upon seeing Hwæt! all I could think of was Lil' Jon.
posted by flippant at 9:42 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


These guys are heroes for saving what they could. I guess I have always been affected by the thought of losing all sorts of old knowledge; the burning library scene in The Name of the Rose gave me nightmares as a kid, but not in the normal fear of being trapped in a fire, but the loss of all those one of a kind tomes of ancient writings lost for stupid reasons. I was a weird kid.

I still am, I guess. A a few months back I woke up furiously angry; seconds later I was laughing. Angry that a series of damned fools burned the Library of Alexandria down at different times and set back progress at least 1000 years, and then laughing that I was probably the only person in the world that has woken up being angry at 2 Roman Emperors, an Coptic Pope, and a Caliph all at once over things that happened over 1600 years ago. I have no idea what the last dream I had before I woke up was, but it must have been damned interesting.
posted by chambers at 9:59 AM on February 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Upon seeing Hwæt! all I could think of was Lil' Jon.

Gea!
posted by curious nu at 10:01 AM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Best post title ever.
posted by Sara C. at 10:19 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whoa, worlds colliding again. I'm listening to an audio course on the "Western Canon" and the guy has mentioned this fire like a dozen times already. Also almost lost was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Not only that, if they HAD been lost in the fire, we wouldn't even know we were missing them since they aren't mentioned elsewhere. Now that's a scary thought. Through the ages, we've probably lost 90-99% of history's classics and don't even know they are gone.
posted by DU at 11:07 AM on February 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


People like Cotton ultimately benefited greatly from the dissolution of the monasteries a century before--that's where all of these manuscripts came from.

Not Beowulf. That one had been eradicated from England and was only found as a copy somehow left behind in Florence. (My audiobook said this morning.)
posted by DU at 11:08 AM on February 11, 2013


DU, are you sure you're not thinking of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura? I don't know of a Florence connection to the Beowulf manuscript.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:20 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, so far as I know, nothing is known about the Nowell codex's history prior to the Elizabethan era. It is assumed to have come from a monastic collection, but there's no documentation to tell us anything. A Florentine connection would be very interesting and exciting if true, but unless this is scholarship hot off the press I think it's an error.
posted by yoink at 11:31 AM on February 11, 2013


The lecturer definitely tends to ramble and I may have missed a step. Maybe it was a Green Knight/Florence connection.
posted by DU at 12:09 PM on February 11, 2013


This story reminds me of a very similar and much more recent experience that ended fatally for the scholar involved: the death of Mitzi Myers after she attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to save her historic collection of children's literature from a house fire.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:33 PM on February 11, 2013


kinnakeet: "Thank you for this!

I've studied Beowulf and had no idea that it had come so close to vanishing. Makes me wonder how much great work went up in flames or worse over the centuries
"

While it would be very bad if it had burnt, Beowulf would hardly have been lost in this case. It was probably transcribed into thousands of copies by 1731.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:03 PM on February 11, 2013


Nope. See the second link.

In 1786, some fifty years after the disastrous fire, G. J. Thorkelin, an Icelandic scholar, came to the Museum, looking for documents relating to Denmark, where the first part of Beowulf takes place. He made two complete copies of the manuscript, the first time this had been done, one by a professional copyist and the other, himself, and returned to Copenhagen to study them.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:32 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sadly, that reminds me of this. (Pictures)
Ironically it could have been the digitisation/conservation effort that enabled the vanadalism by gathering the manuscripts together in one publicly-accessible place. Hitherto these manuscripts were collected and treasured in secret by private families. Which makes me think people have been conscious of the risk to these volumes from nomadic desert peoples for quite some centuries.
posted by glasseyes at 2:52 PM on February 11, 2013


Anyone who missed it needs to read this (happy) thread about saving the books of Timbuktu's great library.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:57 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thank goodness Beowulf survived to torment generations of high school students.
posted by Leezie at 3:33 PM on February 11, 2013


glasseyes, apparently a lot of the manuscripts are still held in family libraries -- there are apparently 32 family libraries in Timbuktu that hold half of all the manuscripts, and the families are indeed quite attuned to dispersing and hiding their literary treasures in times of crisis. And while the main repository lost thousands of manuscripts, they were able to smuggle out or hide the bulk of the collection.

Unfortunately, the ones they did lose were likely some of the greatest treasures, as they were unable to hide anything from the display rooms due to the Islamists taking over the library for their own uses. But they were also the most likely to have been scanned.
posted by tavella at 5:25 PM on February 11, 2013


For anyone curious to know more about the Cotton fire, I recommend Simon Keynes's article, 'The Reconstruction of a Burnt Cotton Manuscript', which gives a harrowing account of what was destroyed. The cause of the fire is unclear, but the finger of suspicion points at the classical scholar Richard Bentley, who was staying in the house at the time and later admitted that he might just have forgotten to turn off the stove before going to bed:
As Bentley fled from the inferno of Ashburnham House, a significant portion of the nation's cultural heritage was abandoned to its fate. In one part of the room, the flames caused extensive damage to books shelved under the brass busts of Tiberius and Caligula; in another, they devoured the books under Vitellius and Otho, sweeping up the backs of both presses and then licking their way across the top shelf of Galba, as if in search of the Aethelstan Psalter (Galba A.XVIII).

Had Bentley taken it upon himself to return to the house in order to save some of the volumes smouldering on the shelves of the Cottonian library, he would doubtless have made his way through the smoke to the Otho press, and taken the sixth book along on the second shelf down; for even the most rabid medievalist would have to concede that a fifth-century manuscript of the Book of Genesis, in Greek, with an accompanying cycle of over 250 illustrations, was infused with greater symbolic importance than almost anything else in the collection as a whole. Yet Bentley did not come back; and while the Cotton Genesis (Otho B.VI) burned, several other volumes of particular interest to an Anglo-Saxonist began spontaneously to combust, on the shelf above, on the same shelf, and on the shelves below.

Otho A.X contained the text of Ealdorman Aethelweard's Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and also a copy of a law-code of King Aethelred the Unready. Otho A.XII contained the text of Asser's Vita Alfredi regis Angul-Saxonum, as well as the fragment of the Old English poem on the Battle of Maldon. Otho B.IX was a gospel-book of continental origin which came into the hands of King Aethelstan, and which was given by him to the community of St Cuthbert, at Chester-le-Street, complete with a picture of the King himself doing the deed. A leaf in Otho B.IX contained the unique text of the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem. Otho B.XI contained a most interesting collection of texts, including a copy of the Old English translation of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, the 'G' manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, law-codes of King Aethelstan and King Alfred the Great, and the document known as the 'Burghal Hidage'. And Otho C.V contained the more substantial part of an early eighth-century Insular gospel-book, of which another part survives in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

In the case of each of these manuscripts, it is possible to gain some sense of what has been lost by combining the evidence of early transcripts, printed editions, catalogues, other notes and descriptions made before 1731, and surviving fragments; and in each case, the exercise of trying to reconstruct the manuscript as a physical entity contributes much to the understanding of the texts which it contained. It is always salutary for an Anglo-Saxonist to reflect in this way on the fate of books which had survived conquest, neglect, reformation and civil war, only to be incinerated in the Cotton fire; and we have to give thanks that the Augustus portfolio, containing the best of Sir Robert Cotton's charters, was saved, and that someone had the presence of mind to rescue so many (though sadly not all) of the volumes ranged along the top three shelves of the Tiberius press. One can but think. however, what troubles might have been avoided had the unique manuscript of Beowulf (in Vitellius A.XV) not been singed at the edges, or had the unique manuscript of Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' (in Otho A.XII) not been burnt to the proverbial crust.
(That last remark refers to the fierce scholarly debates over the dating of Beowulf and the authenticity of Asser's Life of Alfred, which might have been resolved if only we had the manuscripts in their original condition.)
posted by verstegan at 9:27 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Excellent. Thanks, Horace.
posted by homunculus at 11:13 AM on February 16, 2013


Another recent Beowulf post.
posted by homunculus at 11:15 AM on February 16, 2013


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