Beowulf Questions and Answers
by Richard Wilbur

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Why is "Beowulf" the first sample of Old English?

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The simple reason is that it is the oldest existing manuscript written in that language.  Old English is a language of the post-Celtic invaders of Britain, the Angles, Saxons, Danes and Jutes.  There are only a few words different from Old Norse, which is the same language as modern Icelandic.  The manuscript of Beowulf was written about the year 1000, although the poem dates from somewhere between 700 and 950.  It was probably written by either a monk or poet in northern or central Britain, based on stories far older and set in Denmark or Sweden.

The manuscript was in the collection of a Sir Robert Cotton, a collector in the 17th century.  First mention of the manuscript was in 1700.  In 1731 a fire in Cotton's library scorched the edge of the manuscript, the first damage to a document at least 700 years old at the time.

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