THE BRITISH LIBRARY 

Medieval manuscripts blog

320 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

20 March 2016

Lives of Cuthbert Now Online

Add comment Comments (0)

by Alison Hudson

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

Yates Thompson 51r g70028-48
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.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xix_f001v
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.

Cotton_ms_claudius_a_i_f125v

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f001bv 

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.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f109r 

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.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f148v

 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.

 

Related Content:

Discover a beautifully illuminated single volume Latin Vulgate Bible produced at Alcuin's monastery of Tours in the 9th century.

A Carolingian Masterpiece: the Moutier-Grandval Bible

Untitled

 

16 March 2016

Justifying Women Writers: A Medieval Poet Speaks Out

Add comment Comments (0)

Today we are beginning a series of posts about medieval women. Our first post shines a spotlight on a highly educated, shadowy female poet. Contrary to popular belief, there were quite a number of famous medieval women writers and readers, and the British Library is lucky enough to look after a range of texts made for, written by, and even copied by women writers, from ninth-century Mercian prayer books (such as Harley MS 7653) to the Book of Margery Kempe (Add MS 61823, perhaps the earliest surviving autobiography of an English person) to the works of Christine de Pizan in the lavishly illustrated Book of the Queen  (Harley MS 4431) to a collection of Latin, French, and Italian prayers translated and copied by the twelve-year-old future Elizabeth I as a New Year’s present for her father, Henry VIII (Royal MS 7 D X). Elizabeth really went the extra mile when it came to presents: not only did she translate and copy the text herself, she even embroidered the manuscript’s cover with Tudor roses and her father’s and stepmother’s initials.

Royal_ms_7_d_x_fblefr
Embroidered front cover from the ‘Prayerbook of Princess Elizabeth’, England, 1545, Royal MS 7 D X

However, medieval women writers did not always have an easy time, according to a poem written by a medieval woman about women writers in the newly digitised manuscript Add MS 21499, ff. 77v-78r.

Add_ms_24199_f078r

Detail of a line with a female pronoun from the poem ‘Laudis honor’, England (Bury St Edmunds?), 12th century, Add MS 24199, f. 78r

The author of the poem appears to be female, because she uses the female pronoun ‘grata’ in the penultimate line. In her learned poem, which is full of classical allusions, she claims that she has been exiled by ignorant rulers who disapprove of her writing, and asks the muse Clio to leave her as she won’t need her help any more. ‘Art is my crime, and my genius’, she laments. (The poem is edited and translated in The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, by Constant J. Mews, translated by Mews and Neville Chiavaroli (2nd edn, 2008), pp. 164-66).

  Add_ms_24199_f078r

Detail of the poem ‘Laudis honor’,  Add MS 24199, f. 78r 

 The poet also suggests that the (male) leaders who have banned her writing might just be jealous of her talent, since she could see no theological reason for banning women from writing:

‘Now if only I knew what wickedness our writing might be....

Much writing will not stop me from being good,

Writing allows me, not forbids me to know God.

We believe and know rationally that God exists

And also that what we do God does not forbid...

Your mind desired to condemn what it could not do...

Compose verses, you slanderer of verse, so that I may think

That you of course can create but do not want to.

I would be acceptable to you if my writing were acceptable:

Equal genius usually reconciles two people!’

The identity of this brave and outspoken poet is unknown, although it has been suggested that the writer might be Heloise, the noted female writer from early 12th-century France.

Royal 16 F II, f 137
Detail of a later medieval miniature depicting Heloise teaching, from the poems of Pseudo-Heloise, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1450-1483, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 137

In 1129, Suger, the powerful abbot of Saint-Denis, sanctioned the expulsion of Heloise and her nuns from their convent in Argenteuil on charges of misconduct, which might have inspired a poem about exile such as the one in Add MS 24199. The classical allusions echo the language of some of Heloise’s letters to her former lover, Abelard; but the writer may equally have been an anonymous female scholar who refused to be silenced.         

This woman's poetry did find more appreciative audiences. The copy of this poem which has been digitised has been associated with Bury St Edmunds, an all-male house in East Anglia. The poem is an enigmatic testament to an extraordinary woman whose identity remains uncertain and a reminder of how often women’s voices have been muted through history.

Alison Hudson

Related content:

6a00d8341c464853ef01a3fccdc423970b-800wi
The Books of Remarkable Women

6a00d8341c464853ef0192aba26c93970d-800wi
Christine de Pizan and the Book of the Queen

01 March 2016

A Calendar Page for March 2016

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

Add_ms_18850_f003r
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.

Add_ms_18850_f003r_detail1
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.

Add_ms_18850_f003r_detail2
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’. 

Add_ms_18850_f003v
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’. 

Add_ms_18850_f003v_detail1
Add_ms_18850_f003v_detail2
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

26 February 2016

Caption Competition Number 4

Add comment Comments (9)

Sometimes we come across images that are just perfect for creative captions.  Here is one from an Apocalypse manuscript which has recently been fully digitised, Harley MS 4972.  It is filled with great images, including some weird hybrid concoctions.  So, over to you, dear, witty readers: how would you caption this image? The winner will be announced on the blog early next week.

Harley_ms_4972_f014r
Detail from Apocalypse in Prose, South-east France (Lorraine), 4th quarter of 13th century- 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4972, f. 14r

 

Update 26 February 2016

Thank you for all of your entries. We are delighted to announce our Caption Competition Winner! 

That winner (of eternal fame in the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts section) is M. Mitchell Marmel: "H'm. Wonder if St. Brigid can turn this into bacon?" Honorary mentions also go to those who sent us unconventional styles of captions, such as sound files.

Didn't get the joke? Read our previous post about St. Brigid's magical, alchemical abilities

Brigid

Brigid’s fire, from a manuscript of Gerald of Wales’ 'Topographia Hiberniae', Royal MS 13 B VIII, f.23v

 

23 February 2016

Shakespeare: British Library Manuscripts in Washington D.C.

Add comment Comments (0)

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the William Shakespeare, arguably the world’s greatest playwright. Special events, performances and exhibitions will be held around Britain and across the world to celebrate Shakespeare and his literary legacy, and the British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of significant manuscripts to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon

This fascinating exhibition brings together some of the most important original documents relating to Shakespeare’s life and career. One of the exhibition highlights, loaned to the United States for the first time ever by the British Library, is a page from ‘The Booke of Thomas Moore’, which is believed to contain Shakespeare’s own handwriting (Harley MS 7368, folio 9).

Harley_ms_7368_f009r_unmounted
Page containing Thomas More’s speech to the rebels, thought to be written in the hand of William Shakespeare, Harley MS 7368, f. 9r

‘The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore’ traces the rise, career and downfall of Henry VIII’s staunchly Catholic Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, who was executed for treason on 6 July 1535 for refusing to acknowledge the Royal Supremacy over the Church in England. British Library Harley MS 7368 is the sole surviving copy of the play and its great importance lies in the fact that it is thought to be the only literary manuscript to survive from the pen of England’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. 

The original text of the play was written sometime between 1596 and 1601 by Anthony Munday in a draft that is now lost to us. However, Munday also made a fair copy of the play for use as a theatre company’s official playbook. The copy was therefore submitted for a licence to Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels, who noted the cuts and revisions that he required to be made to politically sensitive scenes before public performance. It was most likely in response to Tilney’s censorship notes and deletions that the play was extensively revised c. 1603-4 by the dramatists Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare, as well as a copyist whose task it was to pull together the original text and the later revisions to create a performable play. As a result, Harley MS 7368 is a complex patchwork of collaborative writing, revision and censorship. 

Harley_ms_7368_f003r
Detail showing Edmund Tilney’s marginal instruction calling for major changes to be made to the script, Harley MS 7368, f. 3r

The first section of ‘The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore’ centres on the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Thomas More, as under-sheriff of the City of London, is portrayed as taking a leading part when he makes an eloquent speech to quell the riots led by angry native Londoners against French and Lombard immigrants living in London. Edmund Tilney strongly objected to the insurrection scenes and ordered them to be cut from the play. No doubt his censorship was influenced by the fact that the play coincided with a period of economic instability and citizen unrest against ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’. On the basis of stylistic, linguistic, palaeographic and orthographic evidence, the replacement insurrection scene and More’s powerfully persuasive and conciliatory speech to the rebels are now widely accepted as being the autograph composition of William Shakespeare. 

More begins his speech by expressing his horror at the inhumane behaviour of the rebels and tells them that their actions are an affront to the majesty and dignity of England and royal authority. Using logic and clear reason, More appeals to the rebels to change their view of the strangers and to see them as fellow humans and victims of prejudice. He also warns the insurgents that they risk encouraging other discontented groups to resort to violence in order to settle their grievances, which will lead to the disintegration of society into a state of unruliness and chaos. Lastly, on folio 9, currently on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library, More tells the rebels that by breaking the King’s law they have sinned against God himself because ‘to the king god hath his offyce lent  / of dread of Iustyce, power and Comaund / hath bid him rule, and willd you to obay’. More therefore urges the angry mob to turn themselves in peacefully and await the mercy of the King. In this respect, the play presents a distorted account of history and Thomas More’s rise to power for it was troops acting under the command of the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Duke of Norfolk that restored order and not in fact More’s eloquent speech. 

The British Library is happy to be supporting Shakespeare, Life of an Icon which is open in Washington D.C. until 27 March 2016. Pages from ‘The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore’ will be on display in the British Library’s exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (15 April – 6 September 2016).

                                                                                                                                                                Andrea Clarke

 

Related Content

Little Ado About Something Rather Significant: William Shakespeare and Magna Carta 

King john

20 February 2016

Fashion Goes Medieval

Add comment Comments (2)

Are you sure

King Priam of Troy sends his son, Paris, to Greece. Grand Chroniques de France, Paris, c. 1320-30, Royal MS 16 G VI, vol. 1, f. 4v

 

London Fashion Week has begun and to celebrate we at the British Library have decided to offer some historically informed opinions on what we’d like to see for A/W ’16.

Fashion is not immune to the charms of the medieval world. Fashionistas will recall the Byzantine-inspired textures and tinctures of Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall ’13 Ready to Wear show. We feel there is great potential in the marriage of fashion and medieval culture. 

Here’s a run-down of some looks we want to see next season.

  1. The Wimple

It hasn’t been on-trend since c.1550, but we think it’s time it made a come-back. Team with killer heels for maximum impact.

Wimple 2

Detail from La Somme le roy, France, late 13th century, Add MS 28162, f. 9v

A scalloped hem will give your wimple a more relaxed feel. Perfect for a first date.

  Scallop

Detail from a historiated initial, Israelites consulting the Lord, from a Bible, England, ?London, c. 1400-25, Royal 1 E IX, f. 56v  

 

  1. Statement Headpieces

The fascinator has had its day. Millinery needs to get theatrical.

   Statement head

Detail of the queen of Macedon and her ladies from ‘Histoire d’Alexandre le Grande', Paris, late 1420s, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r

Experiment with diaphanous fabrics for an improbable, wind-defying look.

Hats

Jean de Courcy is led form the Forest of Temptation by the Seven Virtues from 'Chemin de vaillance', Bruges, Master of the White Inscriptions, late 1470s, Royal MS 14 E II, f. 194r

Offset a linear silhouette with head-wear more suited to bee-keeping. 

  Beekeeping

Lady out hunting, Alphonso Psalter, England, c. 1281-4, Add MS 24686, f. 13v

Even a monochrome outfit can be made to stand out with some serious underpinning.   

Christine louis

Detail of Christine de Pizan presenting her work to Louis of Orléans from 'The Collected Works of Christine de Pizan', Paris c. 1415, Harley MS 4431, f.95r

    3. Upsized Outfits

Outfits? The attire of one person? It’s starting to look at bit dated. We want to see clothing put together with an eye for a person’s surroundings. For example, stockings should be matched to the robes of nearby bishops.

Outfits

The Coronation Book of Charles V of France, Master of the Coronation Book of Charles V, Paris, 1365, Cotton Tiberius B VIII f. 48r

Or your horse.

Luttrell

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, mounted, being assisted by his wife and daughter-in-law, The Luttrell Psalter, Northern England (Diocese of Lincoln), c. 1325-50, Add MS 42130, f. 202v


   
 4. The Bocking

We’re calling it the Bocking. It’s the stocking-boot. The shoe-boot (shoot) was big on the high street last year, but this year we want it to be all about the continuous sharp-toed stocking-boot.

The longer the toe, the better. Preferably so long, your shoe extends into the personal space of people nearby or over the lip of an image frame. 

     Bocking
    

                                 Bocking 3   

(Left) Le Songe du vergier, Paris , Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, c. 1378, Royal MS 19C IV, f 1v

(Right) Detail, Philippe de Mézières presenting his treatise to Richard II of England. Philippe de Mézières, 'Epistre au roi Richart', France, 1395-6, Royal MS 20 B VI, f.2

 

5. Beards: Bigstyle.

The hipster beard is big right now, but it can be bigger. Think beard meets onesie.

 

Woodwose

A Wildman (Wodewose) from the Genealogy of the Infante Dom Fernando of Portugal, Lisbon and Bruges, Antonio de Holanda and Simon Bening, 1530-4, Add MS 12531 f. 1

~ Mary Wellesley

 

Related Content

The Fashion-Show in 1547

Sixteenth-century Costume Books

Costume book shrink

 

 

11 February 2016

The Earliest English Poet

Add comment Comments (0)

 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.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f079v


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

 

 You May Also Like:

Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript

Read about one of the library's treasures, the Beowulf Manuscript, which contains the earliest epic poem in English literature as well as some monsters and marvels. 

Beo shrink

 

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Read about important fragments of Old English which have been digitised by the library. 

Orosius shrink