- Cynewulf - Christian poet of the eighth century [Biography]
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Genres Glossary

Selected Works
Suggested Reading
Related Materials


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics


CYNEWULF, the only Old-English vernacular poet, known by name, of whom any undisputed writings are extant. He is, the author of four poems preserved in two. MSS., the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book, both of the early 11th century. An epilogue to each poem contains the runic characters answering to the letters c, y, n (e),w, u, 1, f. The runes are to be read as the words that served as their names; these words enter into the metre of the verse, and (except in one poem) are significant in their context. The poems thus signed are the following. (1) A meditation on The Ascension, which stands in the Exeter Book between two similar poems on the Incarnation and the Last Judgment. The three are commonly known as Cynewulf’s Christ, but the runic signature attests only the second. (2) A version of the legend of the martyr St Juliana, also in the Exeter Book. (3) Elene, in the Vercelli Book, on the story of the empress Helena and the "Invention of the Cross"” (4) A short poem on The Fates of the Apostles, in the same MS. The page containing the signature to this poem was first discovered by Professor A. S. Napier in 1888, so that the piece is not included in earlier enumerations of the poet’s signed works.

In Juliana and Elene the name is spelt Cynewulf; in The Ascension the form, is Cynwulf. In The Fates of the Apostles the page is defaced, but the spelling Cynwulf is almost certain. The, absence of the E in The Ascension can hardly be due to a scribal omission, for the name of this letter (meaning "horse") would not suit the context; this was perhaps the motive for the choice of the shorter form. The orthography (authenticated as the poet’s own by the nature of his device) has chronological significance. If the poems had been written before 740, the spelling would almost certainly have been Cyniwulf. If it were safe to judge from the scanty extant evidence, we, should conclude that the form Cynwulf came in about 8oo; and presumably the poet would not vary his accustomed signature until the new form had become common. In Elene Cynewulf speaks of himself as an old man; and the presence of the runic signature in the four works suggests that they are not far apart in date. They may therefore be referred provisionally to the beginning of the 9th century, any lower date being for linguistic and metrical reasons improbable.

The MSS. of the poems are in the West-Saxon dialect, with occasional peculiarities that indicate transcription from Northumbrian or Mercian. Professor E. Sievers’s arguments for a Northumbrian original have considerable weight; for the Mercian theory no linguistic arguments have been adduced, but it has been advocated on grounds of historical probability which seem to be of little value.

Cynewulf’s unquestioned poems show that he was a scholar, familiar with Latin and with religious literature, and they display much metrical skill and felicity in the use of traditional poetic language; but of the higher qualities of poetry they give little evidence. There are pleasing passages in Elene, but the clumsy and tasteless narration of the Latin original is faithfully reproduced, and the added descriptions of battles and voyages are strings of conventional phrases, with no real imagination. In The Ascension the genuine religious fervour imparts a higher tone to the poetry; the piece has real but not extraordinary merit. Of the other two poems no critic has much to say in praise. If Cynewulf is to be allowed high poetic rank, it must be on the ground of his authorship of other works than those which he has signed. At one time or other nearly the whole body of extant Old English poetry (including Beowulf) has been conjecturally assigned to him. Some of the attributed works show many striking resemblances in style and diction to his authentic writings. But it is impossible to determine with certainty how far the similarities may be due to imitation or to the following of a common tradition.

Until recently, it was commonly thought that Cynewulf’s authorship of the Riddles (q.v.) in the Exeter Book was beyond dispute. The monodramatic lyric Wulf and Eadwacer, imagined to be the first of these Riddles, was in 1857 interpreted by Heinrich Leo as a charade on the name Cynewulf. This absurd fancy was for about thirty years generally accepted as a fact, but is now abandoned. Some of the Riddles have been shown by Professor E. Sievers to be older than Cynewulf’s time; that he may have written some of the rest remains a bare possibility.

The similarity of tone in the three poems known as the Christ affords some presumption of common authorship, which the counter arguments that have been urged seem insufficient to set aside. Both The Incarnation and The Last Judgment contain many passages of remarkable power and beauty. It is unlikely that the author regarded the three as forming one work. The Christ is followed in the MS. by two poems on Saint Guthlac, the second of which is generally, and with much probability, assigned to Cynewulf. The first Guthlac poem is almost universally believed to be by another hand. Cynewulf’s celebration of a midland saint is the strongest of the aruments that have been urged against his Northumbrian origin; but this consideration is insufficient to outweigh the probability derived from the linguistic evidence.

Cynewulf’s reputation can gain little by the attribution to him of Guthlac, which is far inferior even to Juliana. Very different would be the effect of the establishment of his much disputed claim to Andreas, a picturesque version of the legend of the Apostle Andrew. The poem abounds to an astonishing extent in "Cynewulfian" phrases, but it is contended that these are due to imitation. If the author of Andreas imitated Elene and Juliana, he bettered his model. The question whether Cynewulf may not have been the imitator has apparently never been discussed. The poem (so far agreeing with The Fates of the Apostles) copies the style of the old heroic poetry.

Cynewulf’s authorship has been asserted by some scholars for The Dream of the Rood, the noblest example of Old English religious poetry. But an extract from this poem is carved on the Ruthwell Cross; and, notwithstanding the arguments of Prof. S. Cook, the language of the inscription seems too early for Cynewulf’s date. The similarities between the Dream and Elene are therefore probably due to Cynewulf’s acquaintance with the older poem.

The only remaining attribution that deserves notice is that of the Phoenix. The author of this fine poem was, like Cynewulf, a scholar, and uses many of his turns of expression, but he was a man of greater genius than is shown in Cynewulf’s signed compositions.

Professor M. Trautmann, following J. Grimm and F. Dietrich, would identify the poet with Cynewulf, bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in 783. This speculation conflicts with the chronology suggested in this article, and is destitute of evidence. Cynewulf was indeed probably a Northumbrian churchman, but it is unlikely that there were not many Northumbrian churchmen bearing this common name; and as the bishop is not recorded to have written anything, the identification is at best an unsupported possibility. Professor A. S. Cook has suggested that our Cynewulf may have been the "Cynulf," priest of Dunwich, whose name is among those appended to a decree of the council of Clofesho in 803, and of whom nothing else is known. This conjecture suits the probable date of Cynewulf, but otherwise there is nothing in its favour.

For the older literature relating to Cynewulf, see R. Wulker, Grundriss der angelsachsischen Litteratur (1885). References to the most important later discussions will be found in M. Trautmann, Kynewuif, der Bischof und Dichter (1898), and the introductions and notes to the editions of Cynewulf’s Christ, by I. Gollancz (1892) and A S. Cook (1900). For the arguments for Cynewulf’s authorship of Andreas, see F. Ramhorst, Andreas und Cynewulf (I885).

(H. BR.)

contributed by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911

21 June 2006

Terms Defined

Referenced Works