Exeter Book as Cutting Board.

Anne Ewbank describes a tidbit of book trivia for the annoyingly named Atlas Obscura:

The Exeter Book, inscribed in the 10th century, is a rare treasure. Many scholars consider it one of the building blocks of English literature. But it’s suffered damage along the way that goes far beyond the usual wear and tear. For one thing, one of the book’s previous owners used it as a cutting board. And an entirely different person used the book as a coaster, which left a literal lasting impression: a ring that soaked through the pages.

To understand how horrifying that is, it helps to know what the Exeter Book contains. Though the Anglo-Saxon period in England lasted for roughly six hundred years, not many Old English (think Beowulf) manuscripts from that era survived. As the longest and oldest of four manuscripts that contain poetry, the Exeter Book is a particularly crucial remnant of a once-rich oral tradition. […]

But it seems that at several points throughout history, the book fell into the hands of someone who didn’t appreciate it that much. While the first few pages of the book are missing, the opening pages that are intact have deep knife marks—which suggests that the book may have been used as a cutting board. Several folios of the book are stained with a circular ring that bled through the pages, too.

The most popular theory to date holds that someone set a beer down on the book’s unbound pages, staining it irreparably. Alternatively, it could have been a pot of glue.

It’s unclear who the culprits were, especially given that the book has spent most of its existence in the Exeter Cathedral library. According to Anglo-Saxon scholar Patrick W. Conner, Anglo-Saxon writing would have been incomprehensible to most people by the 13th century. The book went unread for centuries, and its large size apparently made it a useful countertop.

I confess I’ve set the occasional beer down on a book in my day, but hopefully not on any irreplaceable cultural treasures. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. On the facing page in the Assisi codex containing the only extant contemporary text of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, there is a nice oval thumbprint erasing a little chunk of miniscule, a sweaty thumbprint left there by some zealous Francis scholar not wearing gloves. Sometimes it’s not the Philistines who are coming today.

  2. Cats walked on manuscripts, too.

  3. (spoiler alert) Not wearing gloves whilst poring over valuable ancient manuscripts can be fatal, of course: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Name_of_the_Rose

  4. Since gloves have come up, it seems that (despite popular wisdom), you don’t actually want to wear them while handling parchment. You do want your hands clear, and I suppose if your texts happen to be infused with poisons gloves might be useful — but otherwise keep the gloves off.

    (Old paper is quite another matter, though.)

  5. He might have been OK without gloves. The problem was the habit of licking fingers to turn pages.

  6. To quote the Tee shirt I’m wearing today:

    Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
    mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.


    (That last was me being political)

  7. And on the back, does it say:

    Ða se eorl ongan   for his ofermode
    alyfan landes to fela   laþere ðeode


  8. John Cowan,
    Unfortunately the rest of the shirt is silence.

    I’ve often thought that Byrhtnoth did the best he could under the circumstances. Whether it was ‘pride’ or not, if he hadn’t let them off the island they could have just left unfought and, even if he was outnumbered and sure to lose, by getting them to fight he at least did them some hurt.

    Of course as an East Anglian by birth I may be biased.

  9. Assisi MS 338 is parchment. It did not benefit from sweaty thumbs. I think gloves would have been better,.

  10. David Marjanović says


    In modern German, Übermut refers to being slap-happy – not just proud, but careless as if drunk.

  11. The Nowell Codex (which contains Beowulf) was badly singed in the fire that broke out in Ashburnham House (nomen omen) in 1731. The original of The Battle of Maldon was completely destroyed on that occasion. I wonder what the actual survival rate was for the Anglo-Saxon literary masterpieces, and how many of those irretrievably lost out-Beowulfed Beowulf.

    Here is my small personal tribute to the Exeter Book, with love.

  12. if [Byrhtnoth] hadn’t let them off the island they could have just left unfought and, even if he was outnumbered and sure to lose, by getting them to fight he at least did them some hurt.

    Granted. But the Danes had a huge repple-depple full of warriors a hop, skip, and jump away, as well as command of the seas. Effectively land-bound and serf-ridden England did not. It was, in my view, Byrhtnoth’s responsibility to conserve his strictly limited supply of effectives for potentially worse times to come.

    Of course as an East Anglian by birth

    Which is to say, a man of the Danelaw. There were of course Danes by blood on both sides: Ulfcytel, the ealdorman (or perhaps war-leader) of East Anglia, had a name that is purely Old Norse, but he fought Swain Forkbeard to a draw at Thetford before being killed at the battle of Ash(en)don in 1016. Indeed, he was given the byname Snillingr ‘the Bold’ by his Danish opponents, and East Anglia is called “Ulfcytel’s land” in St. Olaf’s saga.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Piotr, after reading your post about the Exeter book and riddle 54, I ended up reading about the short, arm comments. One of your commenters (“The Loser”) wrote something quite incorrect about French and I tried to answer it. That is, I wrote a reply, but was unable to “publish” it. What should I do?

  14. I think you may need to have a Google account to authenticate yourself (I have disabled anonymous commenting). There are also other optional ways of confirming that you are a real person, but I don’t know much about them.

  15. marie-lucie says

    Thanks Piotr, I will try again.

  16. On ofermod and all that, the poem itself seems to mostly blame the folks who ran away after Byrhnoth died for the English loss. It spends a lot more time castigating them than it does Byrhtnoth, and returns to that theme later on — when the extant bit of Maldon breaks off, the poet has just gotten in another dig against the cowardly Godric. The whole ‘ofermod’ bit is, by contrast, just one, almost offhand mention.

    I think we can mostly blame Tolkien and his 1954 essay for the (probable) over-obsession with ofermod as a theme in this poem — brilliant scholar in many ways, but he was probably reading a lot of his own prejudices about authority and responsibility into the poem here. I mean, maybe if we had the end of the poem he would be proven right, but it’s a bit of a stretch (to say the least) given the evidence of the poem as we have it.

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