An inquiry into the possibility that the Beowulf poet may have used the work of the Latin poet Ovid



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In the last two decades Anglo-Saxon scholars have turned from an exclusive preoccupation with Northern materials as sources for Beowulf. The opinion now prevails that the Beowulf author, writing in eighth-century England, may well have derived inspiration also from Mediterranean writings. In this essay, we discuss the Beowulf poet's classical heritage in general and his knowledge of the works of Ovid in particular. It seems likely that the Beowulf poet was an educated man who had access to a monastery library. The better English libraries of his time were undoubtedly well-stocked and must have provided ample opportunity for reading both religious and secular Latin manuscripts. Latin, of course, was the official language of the Church and therefore of the monastic schools. It is unlikely that a man educated in one of these schools would not have been familiar with traditional Latin literature. There is ample evidence that, for example, Virgil was immensely popular in the eighth century. We lack similar evidence concerning Ovid. However, he was, like Virgil, one of the major Roman poets. For that reason alone, it seems certain that Ovid's works were, if not popular, at least available. Furthermore, because Ovid's poetry abounds in materials possibly attractive to an Anglo-Saxon poet, we conclude that the Beowulf author might well have read Ovid. [...]