Beowulf: A new translation
Scribe, $27.99 pb, 176 pp
Only one manuscript of Beowulf has survived. It was in Sir Robert Cotton’s library. Cotton had been a student of that careful genius William Camden, who, through a lifetime’s work, formulated a different view of history: not the record of victory but the recollection of lost worlds and times. He and his fellow Antiquarians searched out fragments and ruins: Roman urns in the fields, Saxon burials under St Paul’s, a giant’s thigh-bone under a London cellar. They collected ancient manuscripts.
From the age of eighteen, Cotton began to amass his library. When he heard that the astrologer and alchemist John Dee had buried a bundle of manuscripts in a field, Cotton ‘bought the field to digge after it’ (John Aubrey, Brief Lives). He found a copy of the Magna Carta in a tailor’s workshop. He bought the whole room in Fotheringay Castle where Mary Stuart was beheaded and had it rebuilt in his own house.