Exeter Book

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Exeter Book

The Exeter Book, also known as the Codex Exoniensis or Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, is a large codex of Old English poetry, believed to have been produced in the late tenth century AD.[1] It is one of the four major manuscripts of Old English poetry, along with the Vercelli Book in Vercelli, Italy, the Nowell Codex in the British Library, and the Junius manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The book was donated to what is now the Exeter Cathedral library by Leofric,[2] the first bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It is believed originally to have contained 130[3] or 131 leaves, of which the first 7[3] or 8 have been replaced with other leaves; the original first 8 leaves are lost.[citation needed] The Exeter Book is the largest and perhaps oldest[3][4] known manuscript of Old English literature,[2][5][6][7] containing about a sixth of the Old English poetry that has survived.[2][8]

In 2016, UNESCO recognized the book as "the foundation volume of English literature, one of the world's principal cultural artefacts".[9][10][11]


The Exeter Book is generally acknowledged to be one of the great works of the English Benedictine revival of the tenth century; the precise dates that it was written and compiled are unknown, although proposed dates range from 960 to 990.[14] This period saw a rise in monastic activity and productivity under the renewed influence of Benedictine principles and standards. At the opening of the period, Dunstan's importance to the Church and to the English kingdom was established, culminating in his appointment to the Archbishopric at Canterbury under Edgar of England and leading to the monastic reformation by which this era was characterised. Dunstan died in 998, and by the period's close, England under Æthelred faced an increasingly determined Scandinavian incursion, to which it would eventually succumb.

The Exeter Book's heritage becomes traceable from the death of Leofric, bishop of Exeter, in 1072.[15] Among the possessions which he bequeathed in his will to the then-impoverished monastery at Exeter (the precursor to the later cathedral) is one famously described as i mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht: "one large English book on various subjects, composed in verse form".[16] This book has been widely identified by scholars as the Exeter Codex.[16][17]

Leofric's bequest, however, took place at least three generations after the book was written, and it has generally been assumed that it had originated elsewhere.[8] According to Patrick Conner, the original scribe who wrote the text probably did not write it as a single volume, but rather three separate manuscript booklets which were later compiled into the Exeter Book codex.[5] There are a number of missing gatherings and pages.[3] Some marginalia were added to the manuscript by the antiquarians Laurence Nowell in the sixteenth century and George Hickes in the seventeenth.[18]


Aside from eight leaves added to the codex after it was written, the Exeter Book consists entirely of poetry. However, unlike the Junius manuscript, which is dedicated to biblically inspired works, the Exeter Book is noted for the unmatched diversity of genres among its contents, as well as their generally high level of poetic quality.[12]

The poems give a sense of the intellectual sophistication of Anglo-Saxon literary culture. They include numerous saints’ lives, gnomic verses, and wisdom poems, in addition to almost a hundred riddles, numerous smaller heroic poems, and a quantity of elegiac verse. The moving elegies and enigmatic riddles are the most famous of the Exeter Book texts.[11] The elegies primarily explore the themes of alienation, loss, the passage of time, desolation, and death, and deal with subjects including the sorrows of exile, the ruination of the past, and the long separation of lovers. Through them we encounter lonely seafarers, banished wanderers, and mournful lovers.[6][11] The riddles, by contrast, explore the fabric of the world through the prism of the everyday. (See the sections on 'Riddles' and 'Elegies' below.) The Exeter manuscript is also important because it contains two poems signed by the poet Cynewulf, who is one of only twelve Old English poets known to us by name.[11]

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "the arrangement of the poems appears to be haphazard, and the book is believed to be copied from an earlier collection".[6] However, whether (or the extent to which) the Exeter Book is a deliberately crafted anthology of related poems or a miscellany of unrelated poems is a matter of debate, as some degree of order has been found in the organisation of its contents.[3]

None of the poems is given a title in the manuscript, and there is often no obvious indicator of where one text ends and the next begins, other than a plain initial. Consequently, the titles given to the poems in the Exeter Book are those that editors have established over the years, and very often a given poem will be known by several titles.[12] The following is one listing of poems found in the book (titles may vary depending on source):[3][13][19]


Among the other texts in the Exeter Book, there are over ninety riddles, written in the conventional alliterative style of Old English poetry. Their topics, which range from the religious to the mundane, are represented in an oblique and elliptical manner, challenging the reader to deduce what they are about. Some of the riddles are double entendres, setting out entirely innocent subject matter in language filled with bawdy connotations, such as Riddle 25 below.

Two Exeter Book riddles are presented below, with Modern English translations alongside the Old English originals. Proposed answers to the riddles are included below the text.

Riddle 25[edit]

Answer: an onion

Riddle 26[edit]

Answer: a Bible


The Exeter Book contains the Old English poems known as the "elegies": "The Wanderer" (fol. 76b - fol. 78a); "The Seafarer" (fol. 81b - fol. 83a); "The Riming Poem" fol. 94a - fol. 95b); "Deor" (fol. 100a - fol. 100b), "Wulf and Eadwacer" (fol. 100b - fol. 101a); "The Wife's Lament" (fol. 115a - fol. 115b); "The Husband's Message" (fol. 123a - 123b); and "The Ruin" (fol. 123b - fol. 124b).

The term "elegy" can be confusing due to its application to a diverse range of poems and poetic genres from different cultures and time periods. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines elegy (in the poetic sense) as a poem either composed in the elegiac metre of Greek and Roman lyric poets, expressing "personal sentiments on a range of subjects, including epigrams, laments, [and] love", or "a poem in another language based on or influenced by this"[20] – hence, from this latter definition, the application of the term "elegy" to the Old English poems, which are not elegiac in their metre. More broadly, the term "elegy" has also been widened by some to include "any serious meditative poem",[21] a definition which would include the Exeter Book elegies. Providing a synthesis of the strictly metrical definition and the broader definition based on subject matter, Anne Klinck argues in The Old English Elegies that "genre should be conceived [...] as a grouping of literary works based, theoretically, upon both outer form (specific meter or structure) and also upon inner form (attitude, tone, purpose – more crudely, subject and audience)".[22]

Editions and translations[edit]

Included here are facsimiles, editions, and translations that include a significant proportion of texts from the Exeter Book.


  • Chambers, R W; Förster, Max; Flower, Robin (1933). The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry. London: P. Lund, Humphries. OCLC 154109449.
  • Online facsimile

Editions: Old English text only[edit]

Editions: Old English text and translation[edit]

Editions: Translations only[edit]

  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin (2008). The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon Press. ISBN 978-1-904634-46-1. Contains riddles only.
  • Williamson, Craig, (2017) The Complete Old English Poems. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812248470.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fell, Christine (2007). "Perceptions of Transience". In Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. pp. 172–89. ISBN 978-0-521-37794-2.
  2. ^ a b c d e Johnson, Keith (2016). "7.1 Manuscript collections". The History of Early English. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781317636069.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Shippey, Tom (2017). The Complete Old English Poems. Translated by Williamson, Craig. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. x-xi, 299-302. ISBN 978-0-8122-9321-0.
  4. ^ a b "The Exeter Book". Exeter Cathedral.
  5. ^ a b c Conner, Patrick W. (2015). "The Structure of the Exeter Book Codex". In Richards, Mary P. (ed.). Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: Basic Readings. Routledge. pp. 301–302. ISBN 978-1-317-75890-7.
  6. ^ a b c d Exeter Book at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  7. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Exeter Book". Encyclopædia Britannica. 10. (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 67.
  8. ^ a b c Gameson, Richard (December 1996). "The origin of the Exeter Book of Old English poetry". Anglo-Saxon England. 25. Cambridge University Press: 135–185. doi:10.1017/S0263675100001988. ISSN 1474-0532. S2CID 162992373.
  9. ^ Flood, Alison (22 June 2016). "Unesco lists Exeter Book among 'world's principal cultural artefacts'". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2016.
  10. ^ "'Outstanding' Old English poetry book granted Unesco status". BBC News. 21 June 2016.
  11. ^ a b c d e f "Exeter Book". The British Library. Archived from the original on 19 June 2023. Retrieved 7 August 2021.
  12. ^ a b c d Conner, Patrick W. (2019). "The Exeter Book". Oxford Bibliographies Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/OBO/9780195396584-0094.
  13. ^ a b Treharne, Elaine; Pulsiano, Phillip (2017). "An Introduction to the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Vernacular Literature". A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature (PDF). Wiley Blackwell. pp. 1–10. doi:10.1002/9781405165303.ch1. ISBN 9781405165303.
  14. ^ [2][3][4][5][6][11][12][13]
  15. ^ Förster, Max (1933). "The Donations of Leofric to Exeter". In Chambers, Forster and Flower (ed.). The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry.
  16. ^ a b Alexander, Michael (2008). "Introduction". The First Poems in English. London: Penguin Books. p. xvii. ISBN 9780140433784.
  17. ^ [2][3][8][11][12]
  18. ^ Muir, Bernard J., ed. (2000). The Exeter anthology of Old English poetry: an edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501 (2nd ed.). Exeter: University of Exeter Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-85989-630-7.
  19. ^ a b c d e Based on Muir’s (1994) counting:
  20. ^ "elegy, n.", OED Online, Oxford University Press, retrieved 20 March 2022
  21. ^ The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (Second ed.). Broadview Press. 2011. p. 51. ISBN 9781554810482.
  22. ^ Klinck, Anne L. (1992). The Old English Elegies. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 224.
  23. ^ Mackie, W. S. (William Souter)., Gollancz, I., Mackie, W. S. (William Souter)., Gollancz, I. (18951934). The Exeter book: an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry presented to Exeter Cathedral by Loefric, first bishop of Exeter (1050-1071), and still in possession of the dean and chapter. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society, by K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

External links[edit]