The Exeter Book, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, is a tenth-century book or codex which is an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices, along with the Vercelli Book, Nowell Codex and the Cædmon manuscript or MS Junius 11. The book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It is believed originally to have contained 131 leaves, of which the first 8 have been replaced with other leaves; the original first 8 pages are lost. The Exeter Book is the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence.
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. 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 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 1072, when Leofric, Bishop at Exeter, died. Among the treasures which he is recorded to have bestowed in his Will upon the then-impoverished monastery, is one famously described as "mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht" (i.e., "a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things"). This book has been widely assumed to be the Exeter Codex as it survives today.
- Christ I, II, III
- Guthlac A and B
- The Phoenix
- The Wanderer
- The Gifts of Men
- The Seafarer
- The Fortunes of Men
- Maxims I
- The Order of the World
- The Rhyming Poem
- The Panther
- The Whale
- The Partridge
- Soul and Body II
- Wulf and Eadwacer
- Riddles 1-59
- The Wife's Lament
- The Judgment Day I
- The Descent into Hell
- The Lord’s Prayer I
- Homiletic Fragment II
- Riddle 30b
- Riddle 60
- The Husband's Message
- The Ruin
- Riddles 61-95
Among the other texts in the Exeter Book, there are over ninety riddles. They are written in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry and range in topics from the religious to the mundane. Some of them are double entendres, such as Riddle 25 below.
Here are two of these Anglo-Saxon riddles, both in Old English and translated into modern English. The answers to the riddles are included below the text.
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht wifum on hyhte
I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation,
|—Riddle 25 (Marsden 2015)|
- Answer: Onion
Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede,
Some fiend robbed me from life,
|—Riddle 25 (Marsden 2015)|
- Answer: 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 the diverse definitions from different cultures and times. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary states: "In Greek and Latin literature elegiac metre was used for poetry expressing personal sentiments on a range of subjects, including epigrams, laments, sympotic poetry, and (in Rome) love poetry." In Victorian literature, an elegy is generally a poem written for the dead and although the naming of these poems as 'elegiac' was a Victorian invention, it can be a useful term. As Anne Klinck in her book 'The Old English Elegies' writes: 'genre should be conceived, we think, 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)'. In regards to the Exeter Book Elegies, this term can be widened to include "any serious meditative poem." The poems included in the Exeter book share common themes of longing, loneliness, pain, and the passage of time.
Editions and Translations
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.
Editions: Old English text only
- Krapp, George Philip; Dobbie, Elliot Van Kirk, eds. (1936). The Exeter Book. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. III. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-08767-5.
- 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. ISBN 0-85989-630-7.
Editions: Old English text and translation
- Thorpe, Benjamin (1842). Codex exoniensis. A collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, from a manuscript in the library of the dean and chapter of Exeter. London: The Society of Antiquaries of London. OCLC 562461120.
- Matto, Michael; Delanty, Greg (2011). The Word Exchange. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393342417. Anthology of Old English poetry, featuring many of the texts from the Exeter Book.
Editions: Translations only
- Crossley-Holland, Kevin (1982). The Anglo-Saxon World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-953871-3. Anthology of Old English poetry and prose, featuring poems from the Exeter Book.
- 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.
- 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.
- Flood, Alison (22 June 2016). "Unesco lists Exeter Book among 'world's principal cultural artefacts'". the Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2016.
- Förster, Max (1933). "The Donations of Leofric to Exeter". In Chambers, Forster and Flower (ed.). The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry.
- 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.
- "Elegy". OED Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
- Klinck, Anne L. (1992). The Old English Elegies. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 224.
- The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (Second ed.). Broadview Press. 2011. p. 51. ISBN 9781554810482.