British Library Beowulf manuscript is star of BBC documentary

By Culture24 Staff | 27 May 2009
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a photo of a manuscript

(Above) Beowulf by kind permission of the British Library.

One of the British Library's most treasured manuscripts is set to become a star of the small screen after it was filmed for the first time as part of a BBC4 documentary.

Revealing the origins of our literary heritage, the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the British Library’s most treasured items and the story of the only known surviving copy of the epic hits television screens on Thursday May 28 2009 at 9pm.

Written around the year 1000, Beowulf tells an epic adventure in verse about a legendary hero battling terrifying monsters and is laced with themes of loyalty, bravery and a ruminative fatalism that marks it as the first great work of English literature. Each verse gives us a unique insight into the civilisation that created it.

In the programme historian Michael Wood enters the British Library’s cutting edge conservation studios to examine the original Beowulf manuscript, normally found on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

He discovers how the manuscript was repeatedly snatched from the jaws of destruction. In the 18th century it was almost destroyed in a devastating fire but survived with minor damage, thus providing us with vital clues to the origins of the poem.

“The Beowulf manuscript survived the destruction of pagan poetry during the rise of Christianity in Britain in the Early Middle Ages and the Cotton Fire in 1731, and to this day it remains a vital part of our literary heritage,” said Julian Harrison, Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library. “This national treasure is now looked after the by British Library’s expert conservators to ensure its perpetuity.”

The British Library is hosting a four-day celebration (October 25-28 2009) of the Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf in performance, with readings, discussion, family events and workshops featuring Benjamin Bagby, Seamus Heaney, Michael Morpurgo and Michael Wood, together with a new display of the world’s only surviving Beowulf manuscript.

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