Nowell Codex

Nowell Codex – Rosenkilde and Bagger – Cotton MS Vitellius A XV – British Library (London, United Kingdom)

England (United Kingdom) — Late 10th or early 11th century and second half of the 12th century

The only surviving manuscript of one of the most important and most translated works of Old English literature: the epic poem Beowulf in an early medieval anthology with stories about monsters and monstrous behaviors

  1. Other tales concerning monsters and monstrous behaviors are included in the manuscript

  2. It dates from the late 10th century or early 11th century and was nearly lost in a fire in 1731

  3. Named after Laurence Nowell (1530 – ca. 1570), an antiquarian and scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature

Nowell Codex

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Nowell Codex

Beowulf is one of the most important and most translated works of Old English literature and has survived in only a single manuscript: the Nowell Codex, named after the English antiquarian and scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature Laurence Nowell. The manuscript dates from the late 10th century or early 11th century and was nearly lost in a fire in 1731. Thankfully, it survived and has been extensively studied by generations of academics including J. R. R. Tolkien, famous author of the Lord of the Rings. The manuscript is the only written record of the story set in 6th century Scandinavia, and many scholars including Tolkien argue that it comes from an oral tradition that stretches back to the 8th century. Aside from Beowulf, the Nowell Codex also contains Wonders of the East, Letters of Alexander to Aristotle, a poetic translation of Judith, and a fragment of The Life of Saint Christopher. All of these works are connected by the same thematic link: monsters and monstrous behavior.

Nowell Codex

Sometimes known simply as the “Beowulf manuscript”, the Nowell Codex is the second of two manuscripts bound into a single volume stored under the shelf mark Cotton MS Vitellius A XV in the British Library. It is one of the most precious holdings of that prestigious institution because it represents the original surviving manuscript of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which is one of the oldest and most important works written in the English language. The 1,000-year-old manuscript is named after its erstwhile owner, Laurence Nowell (1530 – ca. 1570), whose name is inscribed on the first page of the manuscript. It was then acquired by fellow antiquarian Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1570/1–1631), whose grandson donated the manuscript along with the rest of his incredible library to the nation. Today it is protected and venerated as a literary and cultural treasure of tremendous importance to the history and identity of England.


Set in pagan Scandinavia during the 6th century, and follows the hero Beowulf, a Geat living in what is now southern Sweden, who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose great mead hall, Heorot, is under constant attack from the monster Grendel. Beowulf eventually kills Grendel with his bare hands and his mother using a great sword made for giants. Fifty years after returning home and becoming King of the Geats, a dragon is roused against his people after a slave steals a cup from its lair and although Beowulf slays the vengeful beast, he himself is mortally wounded. Even though this is a quintessentially English work of literature, there are no English characters. However, it is believed that the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffingas, may have been descended from the Wulfings, a powerful clan of Geats mentioned in Beowulf and in the Norse sagas.

Debating the Story’s Origins

The scholarly debate concerning Beowulf is essentially divided between whether it originated in the 10th or 11th century at the same time as the Nowell Codex or belonged to an older oral tradition dating back to the 8th century. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), whose own works imitate elements from Beowulf, is the most prominent of the scholars from the latter, larger group. He argued that the poem is too genuinely pagan Anglo-Saxon in nature to have been composed more than a generation or two after the Christianization of England was completed ca. 700 and thus probably originated sometime before the mid-8th century. Although it is certain that the manuscript originated from the Kingdom of Wessex, where the poem was first composed is also hotly debated, with some arguing for Northumbria and others West Mercia.

History of the Manuscript

The Nowell Codex appears to be the work of two hands, the second of which belongs to an older school of Insular writing than the first despite the fact that they are believed to be contemporaries. Little is known about the history of the manuscript during the first 600 years of its existence, and it was not bound with the rest of the codex until the 16th century. It was heavily damaged during a 1731 fire that partially destroyed the Cotton Library with the pages badly scorched. However, restoration work did not begin until the 19th century and the edges of many pages had crumbled during the intervening years leaving the margins of many pages illegible. However, all is not lost, and ultraviolet light has been successfully employed to glean the obscured information from the more heavily damaged pages.


Alternative Titles
Southwick Codex
Size / Format
418 pages / 24.5 × 18.5 cm
Late 10th or early 11th century and second half of the 12th century
The manuscript contains two separate collections of Old English texts, bound together for Sir Robert Cotton:
ff. 4r-93v: Southwick Codex (Old English adaptation of Augustine of Hippo's Soliloquia, Old English version of the Gospel of Nicodemus, prose Dial

Available facsimile editions:
Nowell Codex – Rosenkilde and Bagger – Cotton MS Vitellius A XV – British Library (London, United Kingdom)
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1963
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Nowell Codex

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1963

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1963
Commentary: 1 volume by Malone Kemp
Language: English
1 volume: This facsimile is not complete. Reproduction of the second part original document (ff. 94r-209v) as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €
(under 1,000€)
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