THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

21 August 2013

King Athelstan's Books

Are you tired of the Anglo-Saxons yet? No, we're not either! Those of you who have been engrossed by Michael Wood's recent series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, may have seen the beautiful Athelstan Psalter in last night's programme. We featured this manuscript in a previous blogpost; but it's worth looking at again, and you may like to know that the entire Psalter is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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The Athelstan Psalter (London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 21r).

The Athelstan Psalter is a curious little book, just large enough to fit into an adult male's hand. The script of the original portion indicates that the manuscript was made in North-East France, in the 9th century; but by the middle of the 10th century the Psalter was in England, where it received a number of accretions, including a metrical calendar and some computistical texts.

The association of this manuscript with King Athelstan, the first king of England (reigned 924–939), is unproved. A note by a later owner, Thomas Dakcombe (d. c. 1572), describes the book as "Psaltirum Regis Ethelstani"; and this is echoed in the list of contents made for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). As Professor Simon Keynes has commented, "the claim of the so-called Athelstan Psalter once to have belonged to the king is based on the slenderest of evidence". Michael Wood himself spoke on the Athelstan Psalter at the British Library's Royal manuscripts conference in 2011, the proceedings of which are shortly to be published by the British Library.

It's amazing how such a little book has survived the ravages of time (it escaped destruction by fire in 1731) to become a modern star in the age of television! Episode 3 of Michael Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, entitled Aethelstan: The First King of England, can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

Further reading

Simon Keynes, ‘King Athelstan’s books’, in Michael Lapidge & Helmut Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 143–201, at pp. 193–96

Robert Deshman, ‘The Galba Psalter: pictures, texts and context in an early medieval prayerbook’, Anglo-Saxon England, 26 (1997), 109–38

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