Painting of a scene from Beowulf.

‘Beowulf’ Was Written by a Lone Wolf, Probably

A long-running debate about Beowulf, the epic Old English poem published somewhen between 975 and 1025 A.D., may now be settled. No one has yet been able to determine the identity of Beowulf‘s author, nor whether this author was a person acting alone. The issue is similar to the debate over whether Shakespeare was responsible for writing all, if any, of the works attributed to him. Now, new research, done by the team of Leonard Neidorf, Madison S. Krieger, Michelle Yakubek, Pramit Chaudhuri, and Joseph P. Dexter has come forward that concludes that Beowulf was written by a single author.

Published in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour, the study argues that, based on quantitative profiling, Beowulf appears to be the work of one mind. Quantitative profiling is a kind of computer-based analysis, and in this case it was used to analyze the minute details of the Beowulf text. One of the newer theories coming from the multi-author camp is that the different authors can be distinguished by the break in the text that splits the narrative into the account of Beowulf in Denmark, and the account of his battle with the dragon; the quantitative analysis used in this study examines the most infinitesimal bits of the text, as explained by Nicola Davis for The Guardian:

While various aspects of the poem, including word use, themes and style, have been explored before, the latest study looks at even smaller features of the text and their patterns of use. These include the use of certain types of pause, the use of different rhythms, and the occurrence of words produced by joining others together – such as “bone-house” (written as ban-hus), which the authors say was used to mean the human body.

I put this quote here to shed light on the research done but also because I’m going to start calling my corporeal vessel my bone-house and you’d better too.


Beowulf tapestry
Image via Flickr


The profiling done by the research team found that the two sides of Beowulf are actually very similar in ways that would indicate authorship by a single person, but the Beowulf question is not the most significant conclusion reached by this research. The real impact of these results lies in the possible application of these methods to answering other questions in literary history. As put in the abstract of the article:

Our results demonstrate the usefulness of high-dimensional stylometric profiling for fragmentary literary traditions and lay the foundation for future studies of the cultural evolution of English literature.

Think of all the burning questions we could answer via this technology: perhaps one day we will able to definitively say whether or not Shakespeare was a fraud, or who or how many people wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, or whether the works of Molière are a grand literary hoax put on by Corneille. Only time will tell what mysteries may finally be resolved thanks to these research methods, but with most of these debates being centuries-old, what’s a few more decades?


Featured image via Yoann Lossel.