The Vercelli Book Background

The Vercelli Book Background

The Vercelli Book is an Old English codex, or book, compiled in the late 10th century and written in Anglo-Saxon square minuscule. Individual texts within the codex were originally written earlier--some possibly over two centuries before the the date of compilation.

The Vercelli Book consists of 23 prose entries regarding various religious themes, known as the Vercelli Homilies; one prose vita, or brief biography, of Saint Guthlac of Crowland (an English saint who lived from the 7th to early 8th century); and six poems.

Two of the six poems in the Vercelli Book are attributed to Cynewulf, one of the very few Old English poets today known by name. One of the poems is fragmentary, but it is clear that, like the other poems in the codex, it was written regarding religious themes. Another poem, titled “Soul and Body”, has a counterpart of the same title in the Exeter Book, another of the four Old English codexes.

Although little is known about the author and compiler of the Vercelli Book, historians have come to many conclusions about the codex’s authorship and manner of compilation. The religious nature of the texts included suggests that the author was probably a monk. The text is not arranged in an organized manner, and many texts seem to have been placed randomly within the codex. Furthermore, although there is no sense of chronological arrangement, it is generally agreed that the texts were compiled over an extended period of time.

The codex was discovered in the early 19th century in Vercelli, Italy, and is now housed in the city’s Capitulary Library. Although it was originally thought that the text arrived in Vercelli via a hospice founded by the bishop of Vercelli which accommodated English pilgrims, this theory was disproved. Historians remain unsure how the text came to be in Vercelli.

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