The Exeter Book, circa 970

"The Wanderer," The Exeter Book (facsimile), Exeter Cathedral Library

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Exeter Book is the rarest of treasures:  only four codices of Anglo-Saxon poetry have survived, and the Exeter Book is reckoned to be “at once the largest and most varied” of the four (Lloyd & Arskine 5).  Transcribed somewhere “around 965-975 A.D. perhaps at Crediton or Exeter” (Lloyd & Arskine 4)  by a single scribe writing in dark brown ink on vellum, the book is visually unremarkable if compared to such brilliantly illuminated manuscripts as the Book of Kells.  Indeed, except for a few initial letters which are slightly ornamented, its only decoration is lightly inscribed dry point drawings that appear in the margins of several leaves. 

 

What makes the Exeter Book extraordinary is the literature it contains in its 131 pages: narrative poems, elegies, “wisdom poems,” prayers and riddles that, taken collectively, include over one-sixth of all known Anglo-Saxon poetry and that comprise the only known sources for many of these texts.  Inside its covers we find “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Wife’s Lament” and over ninety riddles which offer a delightful glimpse into the domestic objects (and sexual double entendres) of early Anglo Saxon life.  Translations of “The Seafarer” reveal a moving dramatic monologue in which a weary sailor recounts the hardship of life at sea, including vivid details of night watch on a ship perilously close to sea cliffs or, in another section, of the cries of gannets, curlews, and swans.  As the old man speaks, the poem becomes a meditation on human mortality and mutability—a theme powerful and contemporary enough to inspire Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s 2006 play, The Seafarer.

 

What is equally remarkable is that the Exeter Book has survived for more than a thousand years.  Someone used one page as a drink coaster; someone else scored through a number of early pages—perhaps employing the book as a cutting board.  Several leaves at the end bear scorch marks, and the book has lost its original cover and several leaves.  Exeter’s first bishop, the great scholar and bibliophile Leofric (d. 1072), bequeathed it and his collection of sixty-six volumes to Exeter Cathedral which has owned it ever since.  Ironically, The Exeter Book was left behind in 1602 when the Dean and Chapter presented a number of their most precious texts to the newly-founded Bodleian Library, apparently because no one then considered it valuable or distinctive enough to bother to house in the great Oxford institution.

 

Today the Exeter Book has been published in facsimile copies and is even available on DVD in a digital form that reveals burn marks and stains and that can be browsed!  But how much better it is to see the original for yourself in the Library of the Exeter Cathedral (www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/Admin/Library.html).  There, in the Bishop’s Palace to the right and behind the main Cathedral entrance, through a locked door and up the stairs, volunteer docents are eager to show you their treasures:  the Exon Domesday book, a 1086 compilation of data from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire that was, in turn, summarized in the great Domesday book; a number of texts from early presses including a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle; an intriguing collection of early medical and scientific treatises; a Shakespeare Second Folio; and of course, in its secure case, the extraordinary Exeter Book itself. 

Lloyd, L.J. and Audrey M. Erskine.  The Library and Archives of Exeter Cathedral.  Exeter:  The Library and   Archives of Exeter Cathedral, 2004.

 

© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007

 

 

Exeter Cathedral
Gothic arches, Exeter Cathedral
Bishop's Palace, Exeter
Exeter Cathedral