Beowulf Epic Poem Has a Single Author Say Researchers

Posted on April 14, 2019

Beowulf Manuscript

Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. The medieval poem tells the tale of the hero Beowulf and his battles against the monster Grendl and Grendl's mother. The epic poem consists of over 3,000 lines. It has a single author despite its length according to a new study.

The study was reported in the journal, Nature Human Behavior. The study used stylometry to analyze Beowulf. The authors of the research study included English Professor Leonard Neidorf of Nanjing University, Madison Krieger, a postdoctoral fellow at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University, Joseph Dexter, Ph.D., a Neukom Fellow at Dartmouth College, Michelle Yakubek from the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science and Parmit Chaudhurri from the Department of Classics, University of Texas at Austin.

Stylometry involves the use of computers to analyze everything from the poem's meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text. The researchers say they analyzed meter, sense pauses, word choice and letter combinations.

Krieger says in the announcement, "We looked at four broad categories of items in the text. Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in Modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice. But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter-combinations. So we counted all the times the author used the combination 'ab', 'ac', 'ad', and so on."

Krieger also says, "Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous. So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn't act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity."

The researchers credit J.R.R. Tolkien for challenging the idea that Beowulf was written by multiple authors. Krieger says, "Tolkien was one of the greatest champions of single authorship. He was a very prominent Beowulf scholar, and in 1936 he wrote a landmark piece, 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,' that really revived the idea that it was the work of a single person."

The researchers expect the Beowulf debate to continue despite their stylometry findings. They hope the technique they developed can be applied to other literary traditions and other landmark works.

Krieger says, "Even works as well-studied as the Iliad and the Odyssey have yet to be analyzed using a full array of computational tools. The fine-grained features that seem to matter most have never been examined in a lot of traditions, and we're hoping to spread these techniques that we think could change the way similar problems are approached."

Image: British Library