Beowulf is the oldest poem we have in the vernacular Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, the Germanic language spoken in Britain from the 5th century A.D. until the Norman Conquest in the 11th century (which brought French influences into the English language and culture, creating Middle English). Most literary historians believe the Beowulf poem was composed in the oral tradition by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon scop
(story-singer) sometime around 700 A.D., but not recorded in writing until several centuries later. The single manuscript which has survived to the present day was copied by two scribes in about 1010 A.D. It was owned in the 16th century by Laurence Nowell, who inscribed his name on its first page and gave the manuscript its name as the “Nowell Codex.” In the 17th century, it was in the library of antiquarian and bibliophile Robert Bruce Cotton -- its official designation is “Cotton Vitellius A.xv,” the 15th book on the first shelf marked by a bust of Roman emperor Vitellius. At least one modern scholar (Kevin Kiernan, editor of Electronic Beowulf
) has suggested that the poem did not come out of the oral tradition, that it was written in the 11th century, and that this manuscript may even be the author’s working copy.