History of the Text

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Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Medieval Scandinavia: The events of Beowulf—both those in the story and those referred to—take place in Scandinavia in the 6th century CE. During that period, Scandinavia was comprised of several tribes, whose shifting relationships were marked by both clashes and cooperations. The most important tribes in the region were the Angles, Danes, Frisians, Geats, Jutes, Swedes, and Wulfings. 

  • The action in Beowulf largely takes places between Danes and Geats. Beowulf and his troops are Geats, and Hrothgar and his people are Danes. For the first two-thirds of the poem, the events take place in Denmark near Heorot, the seat of the Scylding family. The final third takes place across the sea of Kattegat in Geatland, the region which Beowulf reigns in his later years. 
  • The Germanic tribe of the Angles, although seldom mentioned in Beowulf, are of great historical significance to the poem. The Angles—specifically the Anglo-Saxons— began migrating to Britain during the 6th century and gave England—Angle-land— its name. Beowulf was composed in England by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet in the 7th century, though the events of the poem take place across the North Sea in Scandinavia. Thus, Beowulf is best understood as both a Scandinavian and English poem. 

Paganism and Early Christianity: Just as the parallel histories of Scandinavia and England are critical in understanding Beowulf, so is the historical shift from paganism to Christianity in those regions. Christianity arrived in England during the 7th century, and thus Beowulf reflects the beliefs of Anglo-Saxons who were new to the Christian faith. It may be the case that the recorded text of Beowulf in the Nowell Codex was penned around the 10th century by English scribes with more developed Christian roots. However, all of the characters in Beowulf are pagans. The events of the poem take place in Scandinavia during the 6th century, two centuries before Christianity first arrived in the region. The resulting divergence of beliefs between the characters of Beowulf and the poet who composed it makes the poem a kind of palimpsest, or layered text. At the deepest layer lies a trove of Scandinavian stories—some fictional, some historical. Overlaid onto those stories are the Christian beliefs and ideas of the narrator, all of which emerge from the Christian Anglo- Saxon poet who composed the work. The result is a cultural and spiritual tension. To Christians, pagans such as Beowulf and Hrothgar are damned. However, the poem records and applauds the heroic deeds of pagans. Often the characters speak of “Heaven” and the “Almighty Father,” though it is unclear whether these terms point to corresponding pagan phenomena or whether the Christian poet imbues them with certain Christian ideas. The line between paganism and Christianity in Beowulf remains mysterious. 

The Nowell Codex: Beowulf is known to the modern world because of a single copy of the poem in a volume of Old English prose and poetry. The volume is now known as the Nowell Codex and is named for Lawrence Nowell, the mid 16th-century scholar and book-collector who compiled it. The Nowell Codex was later purchased by Thomas Cotton, who shelved the volume in his private London library. When a great fire broke out in 1731, much of Cotton’s library was destroyed. However, the Nowell Codex survived with only minor damage. It is thus a result of chance—or perhaps luck—that Beowulf is available to modern readers. Today, the Nowell Codex is housed in the British Library. 

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