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Medievalism and Beowulf

As far as we know, the poem Beowulf went mostly unread for centuries. Even after it was re-discovered, edited, translated, and printed, it remained an object of curiosity for historians. It wasn’t until J.R.R. Tolkien gave a famous lecture in 1936, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” that the poem began to be recognized as a literary masterpiece as well as an historical milestone.

Well before that, however, there was a movement that celebrated many aspects of medieval culture. In England, the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century was fascinated by and inspired by the medieval. “Medievalism,” as it is called, is both an idea about what the Middle Ages were, and a process by which the Middle Ages are understood. William Morris (d. 1896), an artist, printer, typographer, poet, and radical thinker, founded the Kelmscott Press, famous for its stunning editions. The Kelmscott version of Beowulf, printed in 1895, features Morris’s own verse translation of the poem (adapted from an earlier prose translation), set amidst the woodcuts for which the Kelmscott Press editions are best known.

What does Morris’s “medieval” look like? How similar are the pages of the Kelmscott edition to MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv or to the late medieval manuscript shown at the bottom of this page? What happens to the language of the poem? How do the images and the text interact? If you wish to see a more three-dimensional view of the Kelmscott Beowulf, watch the video of Clark Library staff turning its pages here.

Proceed to “Beowulf in Context” (3/3)


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