At a rough reckoning, a version of what we describe as Old English was spoken in England for at least five centuries. For at least four of those, some of the English were literate.
From that four hundred years only four manuscript “books’ of Old English poetry have survived, one of which is known as the “Exeter Book” ; the micel englisc boc given to the cathedral library by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, who died in 1072.
The book’s survival is an accident and it’s not reassuring to dwell on how small its chances must have been. It has been damaged (the poem the ruin is ruined by fire) and traditionally it has been claimed that the book has been used as a chopping board and a beer mat. From the twelfth century onwards, until the book was studied in the early modern period, it is unlikely that anyone could have known what it contained, since the reading of Old English was a lost skill.
So the fact that you can see the thing in the Exeter Cathedral library meant a visit was compulsory. Last time I was there the Library was shut. This time we were luckier: two days after we saw it, the library was closing for twelve months.
We were welcomed by a volunteer assistant who clearly enjoyed the opportunity we provided for her enthusiasm and the librarian who, though trying to work while we prattled, gave up his time to our questions.
Until it moves to its new home, this irreplaceable national treasure is kept locked in a thing that looks remarkably like a portable spit roast, kept company by a unique document from the Domesday survey.
Think medieval manuscript and one tends to think of illumination and elaborate art. The Exeter book is unadorned apart from the large letter that signals each new poem. This is simply a large book, with large lettering, ideally suited to be read while placed on a lectern. A functional book.
But affecting as an object. You’d have to be unimaginative to fail to wonder about the hand that wrote it out. (Krapp and Dobie argued that the “poetical parts’ of the MS are the work of one scribe.)
Cold hands in winter, carefully copying by candle light, watching the letters marching evenly to fill each page. Sore eyes, a sore back and the damp smell of scratchy woollen clothes. Writing as a form of devotion or meditation, an act in the service of a God who to judge by some of the riddles, had a ribald sense of humour. I used to envy Pete his archaeology, his ability to touch things that had been owned and used by people; words seemed evasive. But here was something tangible.
And I hoped the man who wrote it wasn’t in a monastery where there were vows of silence; I could imagine him hurrying to some communal space eager to pass on the latest riddle he’d copied out: and his satisfaction of knowing that when the book was used, it was his hands that had made it possible.
Most old English poems survive in only one version. And the “Exeter Book” contains most of the poems a student of Old English Poetry or anyone browsing a book of translations is most likely to encounter other than Beowulf . No Exeter Book and no “Elegies”: no Seafarer, Wanderer, Wife’s lament, no Deor, Widsith, fewer riddles and the disappearance of my favourite Old English poem: Wulf and Eadwacer.
So here’s to him, the nameless scribe who copied the anonymous poems. Literature is the work of people: not theoretical abstractions.
And my thanks to librarian and his assistant for making us welcome, not only for allowing us to see the book but for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with two strangers.