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Cynewulf [Cynwulf, Kynewulf]free

(fl. 9th cent.)
  • E. G. Stanley

Cynewulf [Cynwulf, Kynewulf] (fl. 9th cent.), poet, concealed his name in runes near the end of four (or perhaps only three) poems, preserved in Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 3501 ( the Exeter book), and in Vercelli, in the Biblioteca Capitolare, MS CXVII (the Vercelli book), both of c.1000. Nothing is known of him other than what he says of himself. In the nineteenth century some scholars identified the poet with other Anglo-Saxons of that (not uncommon) name, most often with Cynewulf (c.740–779), a bishop of Lindisfarne. The Northumbrian bishop's authorship would accord with the poet's probable dialect which was Northumbrian or Mercian, but has nothing else to commend it. That his verses are preserved in later West Saxon manuscripts is not relevant for localizing the originator, as the same is true of almost all Old English poetry. Dates of composition of Old English verse are not usually ascertainable; the ninth century is likely but undemonstrable. The fact that the first element of the name is Cyne- and not Cyni- makes a date of composition earlier than the beginning of the ninth century unlikely, though a date in the last quarter of the eighth century cannot be ruled out. It seems that the poet used two forms for his name, with and without e at the end of Cyn(e)-. Forms of Cyn(e)- without e are rare and early, and, though the philological evidence is not conclusive, it may indicate Mercia rather than Northumbria. (The form Kynewulf, used in the Dictionary of National Biography, derives from a different transliteration of the first rune.)

The poems (with titles as given by modern scholars) in which Cynewulf's runic ‘signature’ occurs are: certainly, 'Christ II' and 'Juliana' in the Exeter book and 'Elene' and (though not certainly) 'The fates of the apostles' in the Vercelli book. In all of his poems Cynewulf makes free use of Latin sources, patristic, biblical, and hagiographic, never confining himself strictly to a single source. 'Christ II' opens with Christ on earth and then dwells on the ascension to teach the way to salvation at the last judgment. 'Juliana' is a versified life of a virgin martyr who prefers maidenhood to marriage even when honourably intended for her, and perseveres in virginity in spite of threats and torture to make her submissive to worldly authority. 'Elene' relates St Helena's search for and miraculous finding of the true cross; it opens with a battle in which the Emperor Constantine, Helena's son, achieves victory in the sign of the cross. 'The fates of the apostles', much shorter than the other poems, is a versified martyrology of the twelve apostles. In each of these poems Cynewulf's name is hidden in a passage near the end, where at the thought of death and the last judgment the poet invites prayer. The runes were read first as CYN(E)WULF by J. M. Kemble in 1840; and, for 'The fates of the apostles', less conclusively, by A. S. Napier in 1888. The ‘signatures’ fall into two classes: first, the runes stand for letters which combine to form the name, as in 'Juliana', lines 704–8; second, the runes themselves form the name, and, furthermore, the traditional rune names (or perhaps near homonyms) are used as nouns within the sentences in which the runes spell the poet's name. The order of the runes in all but 'The fates of the apostles' corresponds to the order of letters in name.

'Juliana', lines 703b–709a, may be translated:

C, Y, N will go their way troubled: the King, the Dispenser of glories, will be severe when stained with sins E, W, U await in awe what He will adjudge them according to their deeds, in requital of life. L, F will tremble, will lie sorrowfully.

trans. E. G. Stanley, from Chambers, Förster, and Flower, fol. 76a

The self-referential passage begins with the second half of line 695, and leads up to a request that whoever recites 'Juliana' should pray for Cynewulf. Structurally, this ending seems integral with the original versified life of Juliana, and not a later addition.

The passage in 'Christ II' with the ‘signature’ (lines 789b–807a) is obscure and its interpretation involves departing from the known sense of the rune names. It may be translated (with, in brackets, the meaning of the rune name, followed, where necessary, by a contextual sense):

Truly, I expect and also fear a judgement the more severe, when the Prince of angels returns, because I did not keep well what my Saviour commanded me in the Scriptures; for that I must see the terror of requital for sin, as I know to be true, where many will be led into the assembly before the countenance of the eternal Judge, when cen [‘the torch’, perhaps for cene, ‘the bold one’] flickers [or ‘trembles’], hears the King, the Ruler of the heavens, pronounce, speak stern words to those who had obeyed him feebly in the world, while yr [‘bow’, perhaps for yrmþu, ‘misery’] and ned [‘need’] could find help most readily. There, in that place, must many a one, afraid and weary, await what harsh punishments He will adjudge him according to his deeds. Wynn [‘joy’] of earthly treasures will have gone. Ur [‘aurochs’, perhaps for ‘our(s)’] was for a long time, encompassed by the floods of lagu [‘water’], a share of the joys of life, feoh [‘riches’] in the world.

trans. E. G. Stanley, from Chambers, Förster, and Flower, fol. 19b

The self-referential passage begins at line 779 with the first word, Ne, large as for a new section. The lines immediately preceding it seem to close 'Christ II', so that Cynewulf, if not the author of 'Christ II', may have appended the section.

In 'Elene' the self-referential section, the ‘epilogue’, begins at line 1236 with the first word, Þus, large. The preceding section had been brought to a close with Finit, so that it looks as if Cynewulf appended the ‘epilogue’. In it, lines 1236–50 rhyme (not always exactly, even when translated back into Northumbrian or Mercian). Rhyming sequences are rare in Old English verse. He describes himself as old and moribund. As in the other self-referential passages he grieves at his sinful state, and, after the passage with runes, he meditates on the mutability of the world and on the last judgment. The passage with the runes, lines 1256b–1270, may be translated:

The man was always till then oppressed by surging cares, cen [‘the torch’, perhaps for cene, ‘the bold one’] becomes weak though he received treasures, embossed gold. Yr [‘the bow’], comrade in ned [‘need’], grieved, endured constringent care, a cruel mystery, where formerly the proud eoh [‘steed’] adorned with filigree work galloped, traversed the miles of track. With the passing of years, wynn [‘joy’] and sport have become weak, youth and ancient pomp have changed. Ur [‘aurochs’, perhaps for ‘ours’] was in former times the radiance of youth: now the days of old have gone forth in accord with the span of years, the joy of life has departed as lagu [‘water’] flows away, the dissipated floods. Feoh [‘possessions’] shall be mutable for everyone beneath the sky.

trans. E. G. Stanley, from C. Sisam, fols. 132v–133r

The runic passage of 'The fates of the apostles', lines 96–106, is obscure and occurs on a badly damaged page of the Vercelli book (fol. 54r). The beginning may mean, 'Here someone sagacious in wisdom, who enjoys poetical recitation can discover who composed this section'; the end may mean, 'Now you may be able to know who in these words was annunciative to men'. Not all the runes can be read, and the order of those that can be read does not spell CYN(E)WULF.

Most scholars agree that Cynewulf wrote the four poems, 'Christ II', 'Juliana', 'Elene', and 'The fates of the apostles'. All four passages with his ‘signatures’ are sufficiently similar in style and content for it to be likely that one poet composed them. The poems to which they are appended are, however, stylistically different, and differ in the treatment of their subjects: it could be argued that Cynewulf is the author of 'Juliana' and perhaps of 'The fates of the apostles', but only appended his epilogues to 'Christ II' and 'Elene'.

In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon scholarship Cynewulf was, for various reasons and with varying degrees of probability, thought to be the author of all or most of the poems in the Exeter and Vercelli books, as well as perhaps of parts of Beowulf, or it was thought that, if the ‘unsigned’ poems were not by Cynewulf himself, they were products of 'the school of Cynewulf', a school invented to accommodate that view, and since discredited.


  • R. W. Chambers, M. Förster, and R. Flower, eds., The Exeter book of Old English poetry (1933)
  • C. Sisam, ed., The Vercelli book (Copenhagen, 1976)
  • K. Sisam, ‘Cynewulf and his poetry’, Studies in the history of Old English literature (1953), 1–28
  • J. M. Kemble, ‘On Anglo-Saxon runes’, Archaeologia, 28 (1840), 327–72
  • A. S. Napier, ‘The Old English poem “The fates of the apostles”’, The Academy (8 Sept 1888), 153
  • R. I. Page, An introduction to English runes (1973), 205–12
  • R. Derolez, ‘Runica Manuscripta’, Werken Uitgegeven door de Faculteit van de Wijsbegeerte en Letteren [Rijksuniversiteit, Ghent], 118 (1954), 391–6
  • G. P. Krapp, ed., The Vercelli book (1932)
  • G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 3 (1936)
  • K. Jansen, Die Cynewulf-Forschung, Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik, 24 (1908)


  • Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli, MS CXVII
  • Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 3501