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Large-scale quantitative profiling of the Old English verse tradition

Matters Arising to this article was published on 11 November 2021


The corpus of Old English verse is an indispensable source for scholars of the Indo-European tradition, early Germanic culture and English literary history. Although it has been the focus of sustained literary scholarship for over two centuries, Old English poetry has not been subjected to corpus-wide computational profiling, in part because of the sparseness and extreme fragmentation of the surviving material. Here we report a detailed quantitative analysis of the whole corpus that considers a broad range of features reflective of sound, metre and diction. This integrated examination of fine-grained features enabled us to identify salient stylistic patterns, despite the inherent limitations of the corpus. In particular, we provide quantitative evidence consistent with the unitary authorship of Beowulf and the Cynewulfian authorship of Andreas, shedding light on two longstanding questions in Old English philology. 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.

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Fig. 1: Corpus-wide phonetic profiling of literature.
Fig. 2: Stylistic homogeneity of Beowulf.
Fig. 3: Use of nominal compounds is similar between Cynewulf and Andreas.
Fig. 4: Andreas clusters with the signed Cynewulfian poems.

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The authors thank M. Nowak, S. Sinai and J. Gerold for helpful conversations, as well as S. Pintzuk and G. Russom for assistance in obtaining texts, dictionaries and scansions in formats amenable to computational analysis. This work was conducted under the auspices of the Quantitative Criticism Lab (, an interdisciplinary project co-directed by P.C. and J.P.D. and supported by a Neukom Institute for Computational Science CompX Grant and a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant (HD-248410-16). P.C. was supported by a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and J.P.D. was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE1144152) and a Neukom Fellowship. The Program for Evolutionary Dynamics is supported in part by a gift from B. Wu and E. Larson. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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L.N., M.S.K., P.C. and J.P.D. designed the study. M.S.K., M.Y. and J.P.D. performed the study. All authors analysed the results. L.N., M.S.K., P.C. and J.P.D. wrote the manuscript, which was read and approved by all authors.

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Correspondence to Madison S. Krieger or Joseph P. Dexter.

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Neidorf, L., Krieger, M.S., Yakubek, M. et al. Large-scale quantitative profiling of the Old English verse tradition. Nat Hum Behav 3, 560–567 (2019).

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