Abstract

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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Data availability

All datasets are freely and publicly available at https://github.com/qcrit.

Code availability

All custom code is freely and publicly available at https://github.com/qcrit.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

References

  1. 1.

    Fulk, R. & Cain, C. A History of Old English Literature 2nd edn (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

  2. 2.

    Tolkien, J. Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Proc. Br. Acad. 22, 245–295 (1936).

  3. 3.

    Clark, D. & Perkins, N. Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination (D. S. Brewer, 2010).

  4. 4.

    Biber, D. & Conrad, S. Register, Genre, and Style (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

  5. 5.

    Amos, A. C. Linguistic Means of Determining the Dates of Old English Literary Texts (Medieval Academy of America, 1980).

  6. 6.

    Jockers, M. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (Univ. Illinois Press, 2013).

  7. 7.

    Long, H. & So, R. Literary pattern recognition: modernism between close reading and machine learning. Crit. Inq. 42, 235–267 (2016).

  8. 8.

    Chaudhuri, P. & Dexter, J. P. Bioinformatics and classical literary study. Journal of Data Mining & Digital Humanities Special Issue on Computer-Aided Processing of Intertextuality in Ancient Languages https://jdmdh.episciences.org/paper/view?id=3807 (2017).

  9. 9.

    Dexter, J. et al. Quantitative criticism of literary relationships. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, E3195–E3204 (2017).

  10. 10.

    Barquist, C. Phonological patterning in Beowulf. Lit. Linguist. Comput. 2, 19–23 (1987).

  11. 11.

    Barquist, C. & Shie, D. Computer analysis of alliteration in Beowulf using distinctive feature theory. Lit. Linguist. Comput. 6, 274–280 (1991).

  12. 12.

    Drout, M. D., Kahn, M. J., LeBlanc, M. D. & Nelson, C. Of dendrogrammatology: lexomic methods for analyzing relationships among Old English poems. J. Eng. Ger. Philol. 110, 301–336 (2007).

  13. 13.

    García, A. M. & Martín, J. C. Function words in authorship attribution studies. Lit. Linguist. Comput. 22, 49–66 (2007).

  14. 14.

    Gill, P., Swartz, T. & Treschow, M. A stylometric analysis of King Alfred’s literary works. J. Appl. Stat. 34, 1251–1258 (2007).

  15. 15.

    Drout, M., Kisor, Y., Smith, L., Dennett, A. & Piirainen, N. Beowulf Unlocked: New Evidence from Lexomic Analysis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

  16. 16.

    Shippey, T. in A Beowulf Handbook (eds Bjork, R. & Niles, J.) 159–168 (Univ. Nebraska Press, 1998).

  17. 17.

    Neidorf, L. The Transmission of Beowulf (Cornell Univ. Press, 2017).

  18. 18.

    Bjork, R. Cynewulf: Basic Readings (Garland Publishing, 1996).

  19. 19.

    Orchard, A. in Anglo-Saxon Styles (eds Karkov, C. & Brown, G.) 271–305 (State Univ. New York Press, 2003).

  20. 20.

    Puskar, J. Questioning Cynewulf’s claim of authorship. Eng. Stud. 92, 1–19 (2011).

  21. 21.

    Mesoudi, A. Pursuing Darwin’s curious parallel: prospects for a science of cultural evolution. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 7853–7860 (2017).

  22. 22.

    Grieve, J. Quantitative authorship attribution: an evaluation of techniques. Lit. Linguist. Comput. 22, 251–269 (2007).

  23. 23.

    Forstall, C., Jacobson, S. & Scheirer, W. Evidence of intertextuality: investigating Paul the Deacon’s Angustae Vitae. Lit. Linguist. Comput. 26, 285–296 (2011).

  24. 24.

    Koppel, M., Schler, J. & Argamon, S. Computational methods in authorship attribution. J. Assoc. Inf. Sci. Technol. 60, 9–26 (2009).

  25. 25.

    Sapkota, U., Bethard, S., Montes, M. & Solorio, T. Not all character n-grams are created equal: a study in authorship attribution. In Proc. 2015 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies 93–102 (Association for Computational Linguistics, 2015).

  26. 26.

    Neidorf, L. The dating of Widsith and the study of Germanic antiquity. Neophilologus 97, 165–183 (2013).

  27. 27.

    Klaeber, F. The Christian Elements in Beowulf (Medieval Institute Publications, 1996).

  28. 28.

    Brodeur, A. The Art of Beowulf (Univ. California Press, 1959).

  29. 29.

    Irving, E. A Reading of Beowulf (Yale Univ. Press, 1968).

  30. 30.

    Schücking, L. L. Beowulfs Rückkehr: Eine Kritische Studie (M. Niemeyer, Halle, 1906).

  31. 31.

    Magoun, F. P. in Early English and Norse Studies Presented to Hugh Smith in Honour of his Sixtieth Birthday (eds Brown, A. & Foote, P.) 127–140 (Methuen, 1963).

  32. 32.

    Kiernan, K. S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1981).

  33. 33.

    Liuzza, R. M. in Beowulf: Basic Readings (ed. Baker, P.) 281–302 (Garland Publishing, 1995).

  34. 34.

    Fitch, J. Sense-pauses and relative dating in Seneca, Sophocles and Shakespeare. Am. J. Philol. 102, 289–307 (1981).

  35. 35.

    Kuhn, H. Zur Wortstellung und -betonung im Altgermanischen. Beitr. Gesch. Dtsch. Sprache Lit. 57, 1–109 (1933).

  36. 36.

    Momma, H. The composition of Old English poetry. Lang. Lit. 7, 175–178 (1998).

  37. 37.

    Nagy, G. Homer’s Text and Language (Univ. Illinois Press, 2004).

  38. 38.

    West, M. L. The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  39. 39.

    Sievers, E. Altgermanishe Metrik (M. Niemeyer, Halle, 1893).

  40. 40.

    Gardner, T. The Old English kenning: a characteristic feature of Germanic poetical diction? Mod. Philol. 67, 109–117 (1969).

  41. 41.

    Bosworth, J. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1989).

  42. 42.

    Cook, A. S. The Christ of Cynewulf: A Poem in Three Parts: the Advent, the Ascension and the Last Judgment (Ginn and Company, 1900).

  43. 43.

    Diamond, R. E. The diction of signed poems in Cynewulf. Philolog. Q. 38, 228–241 (1959).

  44. 44.

    Schaar, C. Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group (Haskell House, 1967).

  45. 45.

    Fulk, R. in Cynewulf: Basic Readings (ed. Bjork, R. E.) 3–22 (Garland Publishing, 1996).

  46. 46.

    Bjork, R. E. The Old English Poems of Cynewulf (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  47. 47.

    Stodnick, J. A. Cynewulf as author: medieval reality or modern myth? Bull. J. Rylands Univ. Libr. 79, 25–39 (1997).

  48. 48.

    Carr, C. T. Nominal Compounds in Germanic (St. Andrews Univ., 1939).

  49. 49.

    Terasawa, J. Nominal Compounds in Old English: A Metrical Approach (Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1994).

  50. 50.

    Jockers, M. L. & Underwood, T. in A New Companion to Digital Humanities 2nd edn (eds Schreibman, S., Siemens, R. & Unsworth, J.) 291–306 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).

  51. 51.

    Greenberg, J. H. A quantitative approach to the morphological typology of language. Int. J. Am. Ling. 26, 178–194 (1960).

  52. 52.

    O’Donoghue, H. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).

  53. 53.

    Bhrolchain, M. N. An Introduction to Early Irish Literature (Four Courts Press, 2017).

  54. 54.

    Zink, M. Medieval French Literature: An Introduction (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995).

  55. 55.

    Dimock, W. C. Low epic. Crit. Inq. 39, 614–631 (2013).

  56. 56.

    Russom, G. Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987).

Download references

Acknowledgements

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 (www.qcrit.org), 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.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Leonard Neidorf, Madison S. Krieger.

Affiliations

  1. Department of English, Nanjing University, Nanjing, China

    • Leonard Neidorf
  2. Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Madison S. Krieger
  3. Research Science Institute, Center for Excellence in Education, McLean, VA, USA

    • Michelle Yakubek
  4. Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, Denton, TX, USA

    • Michelle Yakubek
  5. Department of Classics, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

    • Pramit Chaudhuri
  6. Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

    • Joseph P. Dexter

Authors

  1. Search for Leonard Neidorf in:

  2. Search for Madison S. Krieger in:

  3. Search for Michelle Yakubek in:

  4. Search for Pramit Chaudhuri in:

  5. Search for Joseph P. Dexter in:

Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

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

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–5 and Supplementary Table 1.

  2. Reporting Summary

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0570-1