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113 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

20 March 2016

Lives of Cuthbert Now Online

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by Alison Hudson

20 March was an important day in the medieval English calendar: it was St Cuthbert’s Day.

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St Cuthbert meets King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and others, from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51

St Cuthbert (d. 687) was one of the most important saints in medieval England and beyond. He was an influential figure during his own lifetime, first as a hermit whose advice was sought by kings and abbesses, then as Bishop of Lindisfarne. After his death, he became the focus of a major cult. When Cuthbert’s tomb was opened 11 years after his death, his body was reported to be incorrupt. To the monks of the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s incorrupt state was proof that he was a saint.

Harley_ms_1117_f043vMusic from an office for St Cuthbert, Southern England (Canterbury), late 10th century, Harley MS 1117, f 43v

Accounts of Cuthbert’s life, death, and miracles were written soon after by an anonymous member of the Lindisfarne community and by the Northumbrian scholar Bede, who wrote both a verse and a prose account of Cuthbert’s life and miracles. Bede also wrote extensively about Cuthbert in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Cuthbert’s community eventually moved to Durham in 995, where Cuthbert’s shrine became a major pilgrimage centre.

Four manuscripts containing some of the earliest accounts of Cuthbert’s life—written by Bede—have also recently been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts website: Harley MS 526, Harley MS 1117, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX, and Cotton MS Claudius A I.

These manuscripts demonstrate how influential Cuthbert’s cult remained, even over wide geographic areas and chronological spans. The earliest of these manuscripts, a copy of Bede’s verse Life of Cuthbert in Harley MS 526, was not even written in England. It was copied in Northern France, showing how Cuthbert’s cult had become known and celebrated in different regions of Europe by the 9th century.

Harley_ms_526_f001rOpening page from Bede’s Metric Vita S. Cuthberti, Northern France, late 9th century, Harley MS 526, f. 1

Similarly, Harley MS 1117 and Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX were written in the far south of England, probably in Canterbury, in the late 10th century, well outside the heartlands of Cuthbert’s community.

Tweet harley_ms_1117_f004rDetail of an initial from Harley MS 1117, f. 4

While West Saxon sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, frequently downplayed or omitted Northerners’ influence on the south, the creation of multiple fine manuscripts containing Bede’s writings on Cuthbert and offices for celebrating Cuthbert’s feast in Canterbury show that southerners still paid great attention to certain figure-heads from the north.

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Opening page from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England (Canterbury), late 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX, f. 1v

Cotton MS Claudius A I, a late 11th- or 12th-century copy of Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert has also been digitised. It was probably copied in England, and includes accounts of many other famous saints, from Egypt to Cyprus to Arles. Incidentally, some unrelated pages bound in this manuscript contain a copy of a poem about Cuthbert’s contemporary Northumbrian churchman, Wilfrid, possibly handwritten by their 10th-century author, Frithegod, himself. Like the lavishly illustrated copy of Bede’s Vita S. Cuthberti in Yates Thompson MS 26, which has already been digitised, Cotton MS Claudius A I reflects the continuation of this cult from the 8th century, even after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

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Opening page from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England, c. 1075-1125, Cotton MS Claudius A I, f. 125v

In addition to the manuscripts listed above, the British Library has already digitised several manuscripts connected to Cuthbert and his later cult, such as the St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000), which was discovered when Cuthbert’s coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV). So please click over to our Digitised Manuscripts site and have a look at some of these manuscripts, on the 1,329th anniversary of the death of the man who inspired them all.

 

18 March 2016

The Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan

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by Becky Lawton

This week sees the arrival online of the manuscript containing the ‘Wulfstan’s Letter Book’, which has been digitised as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project. The manuscript (Cotton Vespasian A XIV) is a compilation of three sections, written in the 11th and 12th centuries.

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Page for February from a calendar, South Wales?, c. 1150-1200, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 1v

The first section of this manuscript is believed to have been written in south-eastern Wales, and contains a calendar, a Latin-Old Cornish glossary containing over 300 words and a collection of saints lives. The page above is taken from the calendar page for February, and it features the feast day for St Brigid at the top of the page. Dedicated followers of the blog may remember some interesting aspects from the Life of St Brigid from a post on her feast day, 1 February.

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An extract from the Libellus Responsionem in Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, England, c. 1130-1170,  Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 109r

The second section of the manuscript is a selection of extracts from ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People’, completed by Bede in 731. The extracts in this manuscript were copied in the mid-12th century; but a copy of Bede’s text made in the late 8th or early 9th century was uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts last month.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f114r Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, from the Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV , f. 114r

The final section in this manuscript is commonly known as the ‘Wulfstan Letter Book’. This text is a collection of letters written by Alcuin of York (c.735-804), which was compiled by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) in the early 11th century. Alcuin was raised and educated at the church of York before moving to the court of Charlemagne in Francia in the 790s. Alcuin did not forget his fellow Englishmen, and sent many letters back to Anglo-Saxon England. Chief among his correspondents were the monks at York and King Æthelred of Northumbria, who is the recipient of the letter on the page above. Alcuin wrote to Æthelred to advise him on how to combat the Viking invasions of the time and how best to rule his kingdom. Archbishop Wulfstan also had connections to York, lived during a time of Danish invasions in England, and his king was also named Æthelred. Wulfstan may have found the advice in Alcuin’s letters helpful in his own day, and perhaps had them copied for this very reason.

  Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f117r Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 117r

On some pages it is possible to see sections that have been highlighted by a pointing hand or underlining. It is commonly thought that these annotations were made by Archbishop Wulfstan himself, owing to his close associations with the manuscript.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f116v Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelhred of Northumbria, Cotton Vespasian A XIV, f. 116v.

Many of the phrases which were underlined or pointed to contain advice on good kingship and how to rule a good, Christian kingdom, in order to prevent the Viking invasions. Wulfstan’s specific interest in these passages may reflect his concerns for the behaviour of his own king and the state of the kingdom of England.

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 Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v

After compiling his collection of Alcuin’s letters, Wulfstan added a number of other items to the manuscript. On f. 148v is a poem, which includes Archbishop Wulfstan’s name six times. This poem is thought to have been written in Wulfstan’s own hand, rather than by a scribe.

 

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10 March 2016

The Coronation Gospels on Display in Edinburgh

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The exhibition Celts opens at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on 10 March 2016. The British Library has lent the Coronation Gospels (Cotton Tiberius A II) to the exhibition. This ninth-century copy of the Gospels in Latin is usually known as the ‘Coronation Gospels’ owing to the erroneous belief of its early modern owner, Robert Cotton, that early English kings took coronation oaths on the manuscript. The Coronation Gospels’ artwork and later history demonstrate the interconnectedness of secular leaders in early medieval Europe. As such, they form part of the exhibition’s exploration of how different cultures came into contact and influenced each other.

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Opening of Jerome’s letter to Pope Damasus, from the Æthelstan Gospels, Northern Europe (Lobbes?), 9th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3

The exhibition in Edinburgh focuses on diverse artistic influences exhibited by the decoration of the Gospels, particularly in their fine initials and in their portraits of the evangelists. However, the manuscript’s later history also contributes to the exhibition’s theme of diversity and intra-European contacts. 

Cotton MS Tiberius A. ii, ff. 164v-165
Opening of St John’s Gospel, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 164v-165

 

Connections and contacts can be seen in the way the Coronation Gospels travelled between various owners across Europe. The manuscript was made somewhere in northern Europe in the ninth century, possibly at the monastery of Lobbes, in modern-day Belgium. By the early tenth century, it had arrived in England, where it belonged to King Æthelstan (d. 939), according to an inscription made in the mid-tenth century at Christ Church Canterbury.

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Detail of page mentioning King Æthelstan, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 15v

The manuscript may have arrived in England thanks to Æthelstan’s close connections to Continental leaders. At the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, an English scribe wrote the names Odda (the Old English spelling of Otto) and Mihthild (Matilda) (f. 24r). Those were the names of Otto I, who was king of East Francia from 936 and who was crowned emperor in 962, and his mother (who died in 968).

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Detail of inscription mentioning Otto and Matilda, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 24

Æthelstan had extensive dealings with Otto, who married Æthelstan’s half-sister, Eadgyth or Edith, in 929 or 930. The inscription may suggest that this impressive copy of the Gospels was a present from Otto to his brother-in-law, Æthelstan, who was a great collector of books. The British Library houses some of Æthelstan’s other books, including another Continental manuscript that Æthelstan gave to St Peter’s Abbey in Bath (Cotton MS Claudius B V, which may also be viewed in full on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website) and a late ninth- or early tenth-century Breton Gospel-book which Æthelstan apparently gave to St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (Royal 1 A XVIII).

In addition to being a great collector of books, Æthelstan was also a great re-gifter of manuscripts. At some point before his death in 939, the king gave the Coronation Gospels to Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, according to further inscriptions recorded in the book (ff. 15r and 15v). The first inscription takes the form of a poem praising Æthelstan’s piety, describing the book’s ornate cover, and hinting at a grim fate for anyone who should be tempted to steal the book away from Canterbury.  

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Page containing the poem ‘Rex pius Æðelstan’ written in a continental hand, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 15

Although the poem seems to have been written at (or least for) Christ Church Canterbury, which is mentioned by name, the handwriting shows it was copied, and possibly composed, by someone trained in mainland Europe, providing evidence of continued interaction between writers and artists with backgrounds in different regions and styles.

The British Library is delighted to be supporting the National Museum of Scotland’s Celts exhibition. Catch it while it is on, between 10 March and 25 September 2016!

Alison Hudson

04 March 2016

Cnut Manuscripts Now in the Treasures Gallery

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The Vikings are back! To commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the conquest of England by King Cnut in 1016, one exhibition case in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery (free admission, Monday to Sunday) is currently devoted to a variety of different sources from his reign.

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Detail of a list of benefactors including 
‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r

The new display includes two charters, a list of benefactors from the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester, the account of Cnut’s defeat of Edmund Ironside in the ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the earliest surviving copy of Cnut’s law codes issued at Winchester in 1020 or 1021.


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Section of Cnut’s law codes, from I-II Cnut, England, second half of 11th century, Cotton Nero A I, f. 11v

Apart from the two charters, all these manuscripts are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website, but it is well worth seeing these variously sized manuscripts in person, if you are in London: for example, the law codes on display are the earliest surviving example of a ‘pocket-sized’ volume of English laws. So if you get the chance, do pop into the Treasures Gallery to learn more about what was happening 1,000 years ago!

Alison Hudson

01 March 2016

A Calendar Page for March 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for March from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 3r

March sees the beginning of springtime proper, and these folios from the Bedford Hours reflect all the contradictions of the new season.

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Detail of miniatures of a man cutting vines and the zodiac sign Aries, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3r

At the bottom of the first folio is a miniature of a man hard at work trimming vines with an unusual-looking tool; he appears to be working in the dead of night, under a starry sky.  Next to him is a rather jaunty-looking ram, for the zodiac sign Aries.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of Mars, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3r

The roundel in the middle right margin depicts an armoured warrior with a forked beard, holding a sword and a pike.  This (literally) martial gentleman is intended to represent Mars, for as the rubric explains, ‘the pagans called the month of march after their god of war’. 

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Calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3v

The beauty of spring is reflected in the decoration of the March calendar pages, adorned as they are with bluebells, roses, and less realistically, golden leaves.  The roundels illustrate the season further, depicting, as the rubrics tell us, how in March ‘everything becomes green’, and below, ‘how in March thunder and storms are born’. 

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Detail of marginal roundels of a two scenes of March weather, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3v

-  Sarah J Biggs

11 February 2016

The Earliest English Poet

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 Today is the feast day of Caedmon, the first known English poet. As well as being the first named poet in the English literary tradition, he is also a significant figure in the history of people who hate singing in public, people who develop new talents later in life, and of cowherds.

 Caedmon’s work and the story of his life are described in the Ecclesiastical History of English People written by the eighth-century monk, Bede. An eighth-century manuscript of this work-- which was possibly even copied at Bede’s own monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow-- has recently been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts website as part of our Anglo-Saxon digitisation project. Sadly, it was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, but it is still somewhat legible. In it, Bede gives us some biographical detail about Caedmon. Although we might imagine that English’s first poet would have been a highly educated individual, Caedmon was, in fact, a cowherd at the monastery of Whitby who did not take religious orders ‘until he was well advanced in years’. In this sense, Caedmon is a remarkable figure in Bede’s history, as he is one of the few non-elite figures to get a mention.


Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f025r
Detail of initials from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 25r

Little in Caedmon’s early life suggested that he might become one of the greatest poets of his age. Ever the retiring type, he was so shy about singing or speaking in public that, according to Bede, when people began singing at parties, he would leave ‘as soon as he saw the harp approaching him’ (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, iv.24).

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f144r
Page containing Bede’s account of Caedmon, from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 144r

It was only later in life that he began to write verse and compose song. Bede recounts how one night, when he was sleeping in the cowshed, Caedmon had a vision. When he woke, he remembered the song he had sung in his dream, and astounded everyone at the abbey with his beautiful poetry. Later on, he would impress the monastery’s leaders, including the abbess St Hilda, with his capacity to compose verse on complex theological topics which the monks and nuns discussed with him. (Caedmon might make a suitable patron saint for interdisciplinary work.)

Unfortunately all but one of Caedmon’s poems are lost. The sole surviving example is known as Caedmon’s Hymn and survives in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Some manuscripts provide a Latin translation, while others give a Latin translation and an Old English version. The different Old English versions use various regional dialects, including Northumbrian and West Saxon. One of the manuscripts containing the West Saxon version of this very precious literary fragment is British Library Cotton MS Otho B XI. The manuscript was unfortunately also damaged in the fire of 1731, but an early modern transcript of it survives (British Library Additional MS 43703). In Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450, Elaine Treharne translates Caedmon's hymn into modern English as:

'Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,

The might of the Creator and his conception,

The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,

Eternal Lord, established the beginning.

He first created for the sons of men [children of earth in West Saxon version]

Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;

Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,

The eternal Lord, afterwards made

The earth for men, the Lord almighty.'

The hymn is a work in praise of God. It grabs the reader from its opening word ‘Nu’, meaning ‘Now’, making the poem feel immediate.  From there it proceeds to celebrate all of creation in a mere nine lines. Like all Old English verse, it uses musical alliteration. It closes, powerfully, with the word ‘allmectig’, ‘Almighty’, in praise of God.

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Detail of an initial from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 79v

Bede’s point, in his story about Caedmon, is that poetry is transformational, mystical and god-given. For, according to Bede, ‘no other English poets could compare’ with Caedmon, the humble late-comer not trained by human teachers, whose poetry in turn transformed and inspired those who read it in the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.

~ Mary Wellesley and Alison Hudson

 

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04 February 2016

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Now Online

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We are pleased to announce that four of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts have been digitised in full as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project and are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

 

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'Always after that it grew much worse': end of the entry for 1066, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v 

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ refers to a series of annalistic chronicles, arranged by year, which were written primarily in Old English between the 9th and 12th centuries. These annals record information on a huge variety of subjects from major battles and Viking invasions to famines and agricultural issues, from ecclesiastical restructurings to notes on the death of notable people from across Britain. Some annals even include poems about kings and battles. Although all the annals share some core text—the so-called ‘common stock’, which seems to have been compiled at some point during the reign of Alfred the Great— each text of the Chronicle has its own variations, omissions, and additions. It is therefore perhaps more correct to speak of ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’, as Simon Keynes has suggested.

The manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are still known by the letters assigned to them in the 19th century. They are:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A: the earliest surviving copy, now Cambridge, Corpus Christ College, MS 173, contains entries written at different times between the 9th and early 11th centuries, with a 12th century continuation. It is sometimes known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’, after Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave large parts of his collection of manuscripts to the University of Cambridge and particularly to Corpus Christi College, whose Parker Library is named after him.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, copied in the late 10th century. This chronicle covers the period between 60 BC and 977 AD. It is sometimes called the ‘Abingdon Chronicle’ or ‘Abingdon Chronicle I’ because one of its last entries refers to Abingdon. Along with the C- and D-texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it also contains a series of annals known as the ‘Mercian Register’, which recount the activities of Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, in the early 10th century. The Mercian Register provides an important contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself, which focuses on the exploits of West Saxon kings, at the expense of other perspectives.

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Page with the start of the Mercian Register, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B-text , England, c.977-1000, Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, copied in the eleventh century and related to the B-text.

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Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 125r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, copied in the mid-late eleventh century. The added information it contains about Worcester and York has led some scholars to suggest it was written in the North or based on a ‘Northern Recension.’

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Page with the start of the entry for 1016, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 66r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E: copied and compiled in the twelfth century at Peterborough Abbey, and sometimes known as the ‘Peterborough Chronicle’. It is currently in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc 636.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle F: Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, written in the late 11th century at Christ Church, Canterbury. This is notable for being a bilingual version of the chronicle, with Latin versions of each annal following the Old English versions.

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Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle F-text, England (Canterbury), late 11th century, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 32r

Additionally, several fragments of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle survive, which are kept at the British Library. These include the G fragment (in Cotton MS Otho B IX and Cotton MS Otho B X), which seems to contain early entries but was burnt in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Additionally, H, also known as the Cottonian Fragments, is contained in Cotton MS Domitian A IX.

The British Library has also recently digitised a separate series of Easter table annals that were kept and compiled at Canterbury in the mid-and late-11th century. These annals notably did not mention the Norman Conquest, although a later hand added ‘Her co[m] Willelm’ to the annal for 1066.

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Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r

All these manuscripts have had varied and colourful histories, which are reflected in the medieval additions and early modern annotations scattered throughout, and in the modern period some of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts have been bound with other interesting texts which we have now digitised as well. These include the 11th-century copies of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos and the poems Maxims II and the Menologium (in Cotton Tiberius B I); the earliest surviving fragments of the early twelfth-century Latin legal compilation Quadripartitus and a list of Welsh cantrefi (in Cotton Domitian A VIII); cartularies from Ely and Gloucester (in Cotton Tiberius A VI and Cotton Domitian A VIII, respectively); and a variety of anonymous late medieval and Anglo-Norman chronicles, all now available online.

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Scutum Dei Triangulum, England, mid-15th century, Cotton Domitian A VIII, f. 162r

~ Alison Hudson

18 January 2016

Elves and Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

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Recently, three beautiful Mercian prayerbooks from the late 8th and early 9th century have been uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project. These manuscripts, which  were probably made somewhere in what is now western England, are notable for a variety of reasons: the distinctive initials, the earliest known copy of a Lorican prayer (a prayer of protection developed in Ireland), and the use of female pronouns in some prayers, suggesting they may have been made or owned by women.

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Initial with a biting beast from the Royal Prayerbook, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

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Initial from the Book of Nunnaminster, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

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Detail of a Latin prayer with female forms (‘ut pro me d[e]i famula oretis’), from the Harley Prayerbook, England (Kingdom of Mercia), late 8th- early 9th century, Harley MS 7653, f. 1r

One of these prayerbooks-- the Royal Prayerbook, Royal MS 2 A XX-- is also notable for containing one of the earliest known written reference to an elf (ælf or ylfe in Old English).  Unlike the heroic and otherworldly beings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga or Santa’s jolly assistants in American literature, the elf in this text seems to be rather sinister. The prayer in which the elf is mentioned seems to be an exorcism: ‘I conjure you, devil of Satan, of (an/the) elf, through the living and true God...that he is put to flight from that person’ (translated from the original Latin by Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), p. 72).

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Detail of a prayer mentioning an ‘ælf’, from the Royal Prayerbook, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

The association of Satan with an elf or someone called ‘Elf’ may reflect pre-Christian beliefs in Anglo-Saxon society. We have no direct written evidence for pre-Christian society or even later popular beliefs amongst the Anglo-Saxons; however, belief in elves features in later medieval accounts of Norse paganism, which may have shared some elements of its mythology with Anglo-Saxon paganism. The author of this prayer may have compared Satan to an elf to help his or her Anglo-Saxon audience understand who Satan was and what his powers were.

Elves also have negative connotations in Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies and diagnostic guides which has also now been digitised and put online (for more information about this manuscript, see our post Bald’s Leechbook Now Online). On the page shown below, there are charms which suggest elves could cause pain in domestic animals. Elves are also associated with diseases of the head and with mental illness in the leechbooks.

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Charms mentioning elves, Bald’s Leechbook, England (Winchester?), 1st half of 10th century, Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 106r

Likewise, in Beowulf, elves (spelt ylfe) were included amongst the races of monsters. They are mentioned in a passage which, translated from the Old English by Seamus Heaney, claims:

‘...out of his (Cain’s) exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God’

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f134r
A passage mentioning elves, from Beowulf, England, 1st quarter of 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 134r

However, elves may not always have entirely negative connotations in Anglo-Saxon lore. In the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, many members of the West Saxon nobility gave their children names that included the element ‘ælf’: perhaps the most notable example is Alfred, or Ælfræd, the Great. Charters list many Ælfstans, Ælfgifus, and Ælfrics, although it is unclear if Anglo-Saxons chose names because they sounded like the supernatural beings called 'elves' or just as part of longstanding naming traditions. (See, for example, Fran Colman’s The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)).  

Very beautiful women were sometimes also compared to elves, although these texts suggest that such elfin beauty could lead to trouble. In the Anglo-Saxon poem about Judith, the Biblical heroine is described as ælfscinu, or beautiful like an elf.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f202r
Judith described as an elfin beauty, from Judith,
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 202r

Thus, Anglo-Saxons imaginings of elves may also have been more complicated than our limited sources can reveal. Indeed, an early 10th-century glossary distinguished between different types of elves, such as mountain elves (dunelfen) and wood elves (wuduelfe), and used them to translate different types of nymphs from classical mythology.

Add_ms_32246_f021r
Detail of a glossary comparing nymphs to different types of elves, from a fragment of a schoolbook, England (Abingdon?), 1st quarter of 11th century, Additional MS 32246, f. 21r.

These are just a few of the references to elves in Old English literature. These references have sometimes been used to portray the Anglo-Saxons as superstitious and even credulous, but they appear in texts that exhibit complicated theological ideas, advanced linguistics, and even powerful medical remedies that have been verified using modern scientific techniques. And the idea of elves continues to fascinate many people to this day. So please click over to Digitised Manuscripts to explore these manuscripts and their elves.

-   Alison Hudson, Project Curator: Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts