Exeter Book

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Exeter Book

The Exeter Book, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, is a (late) 10th-century[1] book or codex 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 (ms. Junius 11). The book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Leofric,[2] the first bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It is believed originally to have contained 130[3]/131 leaves, of which the first 7[3]/8 have been replaced with other leaves; the original first 8 pages are lost.[citation needed] The Exeter Book is the largest (and perhaps oldest[3][4]) known collection of Old English poetry/literature still in existence,[2][5][6][7] containing about a sixth of the Old English poetry that has come down to us.[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 1072, when Leofric, Bishop at Exeter, died.[15] 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.[16]

This, however, is at least three generations after the book was written, and it has generally been assumed that it originated else where.[8] According to Patrick Conner, the original scribe who wrote the text probably did not write it as a single volume, but rather 3 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 Laurence Nowell in the sixteenth century and George Hickes in the seventeenth.[17]


Aside from eight leaves added to the codex after it was written, the book is composed entirely of poetry. However, unlike the Cædmon manuscript which is dedicated to biblically inspired items, the Exeter Book is noted for the unmatched diversity of genres among its contents as well as the high level of poetic quality exhibited by many of the codex’s poems.[12]

The poems give a sense of the intellectual sophistication of Anglo-Saxon literary culture. There are almost 100 riddles, several saints’ lives, and a body of elegiac verse. It is the moving elegies and enigmatic riddles, however, that are the most famous of the Exeter Book texts.[11] The elegies explore timeless universal themes, including desolation, death, loss, loneliness, and social exile, in their descriptions of the separation of lovers, the sorrows of exile, or the terrors and attractions of the sea. Through them we encounter lonely seafarers, banished wanderers and separated lovers.[6][11] The riddles, by contrast, explore the fabric of the world through the prism of the everyday. The manuscript is also important because it contains two poems signed by the poet Cynewulf – one of only 12 poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose names we know.[11]

According to Encyclopedia 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 consciously crafted anthology of related poems or an arbitrary miscellany of unrelated poems is a matter of debate, due to there being elements of both order and arbitrariness to the collection.[3] According to Patrick Conner, the original scribe who wrote the text probably did not write it as a single volume, but rather 3 separate manuscript booklets which were later compiled into the Exeter Book codex.[5]

None of the poems in the manuscript are given a title in the manuscript, and even the first few words of the work is not always treated by the scribe in a special way to indicate a new text, other than providing a plain initial to mark a beginning. 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][18]


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
neahbuendum nyt; nægum sceþþe
burgsittendra nymthe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah stonde ic on bedde
neoðan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor
modwlonc meowle þæt heo on mec gripe
ræseð mec on reodne reafath min heafod
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes seo þe mec nearwað
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.

I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation,
a service for neighbours. I harm none of the citizens
except my slayer alone.
My stem is erect, I stand up in bed,
hairy somewhere down below. A very comely
peasant's daughter, dares sometimes,
proud maiden, that she grips at me,
attacks me in my redness, plunders my head,
confines me in a stronghold, feels my
encounter directly,
woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye.

—Riddle 25 (Marsden 2015)
Answer: an onion

Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede,
woruldstrenga binom, wætte siþþan,
dyfde on wætre, dyde eft þonan,
sette on sunnan þær ic swiþe beleas
herum þam þe ic hæfde. Heard mec siþþan
snað seaxses ecg, sindrum begrunden;
fingras feoldan, ond mec fugles wyn
geond speddropum spyrede geneahhe,
ofer brunne brerd, beamtelge swealg,
streames dæle, stop eft on mec,
siþade sweartlast. Mec siþþan wrah
hæleð hleobordum, hyde beþenede,
gierede mec mid golde; forþon me gliwedon
wrætlic weorc smiþa, wire bifongen.
Nu þa gereno ond se reada telg
ond þa wuldorgesteald wide mære
dryhtfolca helm— nales dol wite.
Gif min bearn wera brucan willað,
hy beoð þy gesundran ond þy sigefæstran,
heortum þy hwætran ond þy hygebliþran,
ferþe þy frodran, habbaþ freonda þy ma,
swæsra ond gesibbra, soþra ond godra,
tilra ond getreowra, þa hyra tyr ond ead
estum ycað ond hy arstafum
lissum bilecgað ond hi lufan fæþmum
fæste clyppað. Frige hwæt ic hatte,
niþum to nytte. Nama min is mære,
hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.

Some fiend robbed me from life,
deprived me of worldly strengths, wetted next,
dipped in water, took out again,
set in the sun, deprived violently
of the hair that I had, after, the hard
knife's edge cut me, ground from impurities,
fingers folded and a bird's
delight spread useful drops over me,
swallowed tree-ink over the ruddy rim,
portion of liquid, stepped on me again,
travelled with black track. After, a man clad
me with protective boards, covered with hide,
adorned me with gold. Forthwith adorned me
in ornamental works of smiths, encased with wire
Now the trappings and the red dye
and the wondrous setting widely make known
the helm of the lord's folk, never again guard fools.
If children of men want to use me
they will be by that the safer and the more sure of victory
the bolder in heart and the happier in mind,
in spirit the wiser. They will have friends the more
dearer and closer, righteous and more virtuous,
more good and more loyal, those whose glory and happiness
will gladly increase, and them with benefits and kindnesses,
and they of love will clasp tightly with embraces.
Ask what I am called as a service to people.
My name is famous,
bountiful to men and my self holy.

—Riddle 26 (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."[19] 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)".[20]

In regards to the Exeter Book Elegies, this term can be widened to include "any serious meditative poem."[21] The poems included in the Exeter book share common themes of longing, loneliness, pain, and the passage of time.

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 d 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. Cambridge University Press. 25: 135–185. doi:10.1017/S0263675100001988. ISSN 1474-0532.
  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.
  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. ^ [2][3][8][11][12]
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ a b c d e Based on Muir’s (1994) counting:
  19. ^ "Elegy". OED Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
  20. ^ Klinck, Anne L. (1992). The Old English Elegies. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 224.
  21. ^ The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (Second ed.). Broadview Press. 2011. p. 51. ISBN 9781554810482.
  22. ^ 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]