11 June 2019
Very few texts survive that were written in Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries. We have works by just two named authors from that period. One was a shepherd, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became the patron saint of Ireland, none other than St Patrick. The other wrote one of the most influential rants in British history.
A page from the earliest substantial copy of Gildas's The Ruin of Britain, made possibly in Canterbury in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v
The ranter in question was Gildas, a Romano-British deacon and monk. Sometime between the late 5th century and the 6th century, he wrote The Ruin of Britain, which describes a time of dramatic change, when the Roman legions had left Britain and the Romano-British population was under attack from invaders:
‘I shall try, God willing, to say a little about the situation of Britain; about her obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion ... the destruction of cities; about those who survived’: Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, ed. and trans. by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978), p. 16.
As this quotation suggests, The Ruin of Britain is a moralising polemic that condemned the British lay and ecclesiastical leaders. The text is full of examples and quotations from the Bible. Although Gildas's account is vivid, he was not an eyewitness: most of the events he described occurred before he was born.
A fragment of The Ruin of Britain survives in a late 9th- or early 10th-century continental copy (now in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414). The oldest substantial copy was made in southern England in the mid-10th century (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Sadly, this manuscript was significantly damaged by fire in 1731.
The pages of this manuscript of The Ruin of Britain were damaged by fire in 1731, before being placed in paper mounts in the 19th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 7v
In The Ruin of Britain, Gildas depicted the defeats and natural disasters suffered by the Britons as divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that Romano-British leaders had invited three ship-loads of Saxons to protect them from Pictish invaders, but these Saxons had turned on their hosts and become an even worse enemy. Gildas described vividly how whole settlements were put to the sword, ‘fragments of bodies covered with coagulated clots of red blood, in confusion as if in some kind of horrible wine press’ (translated by Hugh Williams, Gildas (London, 1899)). Some Britons surrendered to the invaders, others fled into the mountains or deep into forests, others still migrated to the continent. Some resisted, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, who reputedly defeated the invaders at Mons Badonicus in the year that Gildas was born.
While Gildas praised leaders like Ambrosius, he did not mince his words about the Romano-British kings and churchmen of his own day: ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are unrighteous men’. Gildas singled out five kings in particular for condemnation: Constantine, king of Dumnonia (the area around modern Cornwall and Devon); Aurelius Caninus; grey-haired Vortipor of the Demetae (in what is now Pembrokeshire); Cuneglas, who probably ruled the area around the Dinarth Rhos peninsula; and Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Gildas accused all these men of murder and adultery. He saved his fiercest criticism for the most powerful British king, Maelgwn:
‘And you, island dragon … greater than almost all the kings of Britain, but worse in morality ... You are certainly not lacking in warnings, since you were taught by the finest teacher in almost all of Britain.’
It is unclear what happened to Gildas after he wrote The Ruin of Britain. Some have suggested that he migrated to Brittany, like many other Britons, since there was a Breton monastery dedicated to St Gildas. But there is no firm evidence for this. Gildas was remembered as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons, and his name is found in eight pre-Conquest calendars of saints' days.
Ironically, Gildas’s writings survive to this day in part because the Anglo-Saxons that he so despised continued to quote him. For example, Bede (d. 735) used The Ruin of Britain as one of his sources for the history of post-Roman Britain.
The most substantial surviving manuscript of The Ruin of Britain was copied in England in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r
Three centuries years later, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) used Gildas as cautionary tale, to try to galvanise English resistance to the Scandinavian invasions:
‘There was a historian in the time of the Britons, Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how they exasperated God with their sins so much that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land … Let us take warning from this: it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of among the Britons.’
The Ruin of Britain had long-lasting effects, even they were not what Gildas intended. He may not have swayed the leaders of his own day, and it is clear that the Germanic invaders became dominant in southern Britannia. The Ruin of Britain nonetheless had a major impact on some later writers. It remains the principal (near) contemporary narrative account of the momentous events of the 5th and 6th centuries.
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10 May 2019
The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?
The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.
Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.
A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r
Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.
The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r
Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').
Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.
Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.
Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.
Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.
A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.
Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r
If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.
A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century: Add MS 9046, f. 24v.
Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.
The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.
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05 April 2019
Following hot on the heels of our triumphant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript has been added to the collection of the British Library. Comprising a single leaf of a benedictional, the manuscript in question has been acquired from the estate of Stephen Keynes. It will now be available for consultation by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89378), and it can be examined online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We plan to display it in the Treasures Gallery at the Library later this year. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting the acquisition of the benedictional leaf.
Written in the middle decades of the 10th century, the benedictional leaf contains the conclusion of the benediction for Easter Day, benedictions for Monday and Tuesday, and the beginning of the benediction for Wednesday after Easter: Add MS 89378, f. 1r
The acquisition of this benedictional leaf is significant for everyone who studies the politics and liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England. Curiously, it is written in a transitional form of script, known as English square minuscule, rather than the more traditional English Caroline minuscule. This points to an early date of production for the benedictional. Along with two other leaves which survive from the same manuscript, now held in the USA, it has been described by David Dumville as constituting ‘the earliest known English benedictional (if, that is, they were not once part of a sacramentary)’ (Liturgy and the Ecclesiastical History of Late Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 1992), p. 76).
The leaf is written in English square minuscule, and at some stage seems to have been re-used as a binding fragment: Add MS 89378, f. 1v
We are very excited by the prospect of researchers having access to this manuscript in the Library. It is potentially related to other English benedictionals, including the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, also held at the British Library (Add MS 49598), together with Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms. lat. 987, and Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3548C. It is also of great importance for the study of English Benedictine reform in the 10th century, for the study of 10th-century English politics, and for the development of English square minuscule script.
The benedictional leaf is related textually to the Benedictional of St Æthelwold: Add MS 49598, f. 65r
One major research question we may mention here is whether the benedictional, when originally intact, once belonged to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (959–988), a key figure in the monastic reform movement. Dunstan’s benedictional was attested at Glastonbury Abbey in 1247–48, and again by John Bale when writing to Archbishop Matthew Parker on 30 July 1560 (Cambridge University Library Add MS 7489): ‘I had also Benedictionum archiepiscopale Dunstani, the oldest boke that ever I sawe yet, and most straungely written, but yet legyble to hym that was acquaynted with that kynde of writynge; but now all are dispersed.’ The benedictional owned by St Dunstan is now presumed lost, but we can at least assume that our new manuscript was used by monastic reformers in the 10th century.
The three surviving leaves of this Anglo-Saxon benedictional once formed part of the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (his MS 29721). They were together when auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1972, and then sold individually by Maggs Bros. between 1976 and 1980. The leaves in question are now held at Harvard, Yale and the British Library:
- Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612
- New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89
- London, British Library, Add MS 89378
One of the great successes of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms was that it demonstrated that we continue to learn more about the history and culture of this period. Among the new discoveries showcased in the exhibition was the recovery of erased slavery records in the Bodmin Gospels, revealed using multi-spectral imaging. In turn, much still remains to be discovered about the benedictional leaf, and we hope that it stimulates research for many years to come.
This is the first of two exciting acquisitions from the estate of Stephen Keynes. We will be announcing the second soon on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.
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02 March 2019
When the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition finally closed last week, over 108,000 people had visited it. We would like to thank again the 25 lenders who loaned over half of the manuscripts and other objects. We are very grateful for the generosity of all the institutions that loaned so many great treasures. They were displayed alongside 80 books and documents from the British Library, ranging from Beowulf and the St Cuthbert Gospel to the oldest surviving charter from England. Half of the Library’s own exhibits – 40 books and documents – came from the remarkable collection of Sir Robert Cotton, recently inscribed on the Memory of the World register.
Codex Amiatinus, loaned by the Biblioteca Laurenziana Medicea in Florence, returned to England for the first time in over 1,300 years (image credit Tony Antoniou)
The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV) was one of the many manuscripts on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
Spong Man was loaned to the exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service (image credit Tony Antoniou).
Thank you too to all the donors whose support enabled us to bring together so many loans, to all the members of the advisory group who guided the development of the exhibition and related programmes, and to everyone who contributed to the exhibition catalogue and our sold-out ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ conference in December. A selection of papers from the conference will be published next year. And very many thanks to all the members of the Medieval Manuscripts Section and all the other teams across the Library who supported the delivery of the exhibition, whether in visible or unseen ways.
The exhibition catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story, features every item on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
Installing Wynflaed's will (Cotton Ch VIII 38): many teams across the Library were involved in preparing and supporting the exhibition.
Although the exhibition has closed, and the exhibits have been returned to the lenders and the British Library’s shelves, our Anglo-Saxons website remains online, updated last week with new articles, collection items and videos from the exhibition. And, as regular readers of this Blog will be well aware, to support future research on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, almost all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts have been fully digitised through a programme funded in memory of Mel Seiden and by The Polonsky Foundation England and France 700–1200 Project.
The Caligula Troper was among the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitised in advance of the exhibition: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v
The Judith of Flanders Gospels, with its magnificent treasure binding, was kindly loaned to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms by the Morgan Museum and Library, New York (image credit Tony Antoniou).
And finally, to everyone who came to the sold-out programme of public talks and to the exhibition itself, thank you very much.
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22 February 2019
If you came to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, you may have seen the Guthlac Roll, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Look here and you'll notice that two figures in this roll seem to be wearing spectacles. It is very unlikely that these spectacles were part of the original design: exploring how spectacles are represented in medieval manuscripts suggests that both they and the plume rising from the seated figure's cap were added in the early modern period.
Roundel of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega: Harley Roll Y6, roundel 15
One of the first concrete references to spectacles dates from the early 14th century. On 23 February 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon that partly celebrated the ingenuity of mankind. Giordano stated, ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles (Italian: occhiali)'. Although it is doubtful that spectacles were invented in a single eureka moment, Giordano’s bold claim suggests that spectacles were certainly in use in some areas from the late 13th century.
The earliest surviving artistic depictions of spectacles date to the 14th and 15th centuries. This 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in northern Italy, includes a detail of monks singing a requiem, with one member of the group wearing spectacles.
Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead: Harley MS 2971 f. 109v
An extremely clear illustration of spectacles can be found in another 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in central France, perhaps Tours. In this image, St Mark holds spectacles to his eyes as he reads a book, while his evangelist symbol, the lion, looks on eagerly from the side.
Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 12r
Ancient and medieval texts, many of them pre-dating the surviving artistic depictions, also occasionally refer to transparent materials being used as visual aids. One of the earliest descriptions is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, completed shortly before his death in AD 79. Pliny shared an anecdote recalling how the emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights with the assistance of a mineral called a smaragdus. According to Pliny, a smaragdus could be concave to ‘concentrate the vision’ or laid flat to ‘reflect objects just as mirrors do’. It is unclear whether Pliny thought that Nero used the smaragdus as a reflective device or to enhance his vision. Pliny also described how a smaragdus was a green mineral, perhaps emerald, malachite or the green varieties of jasper. It is certainly tempting to suggest that Nero used emeralds to enhance his view of the gladiators.
Detail of a miniature in colours and gold showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, Sun and Moon: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r
In some early texts, scholars explained the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy wrote on the topic in his Optics. Two Arabic authors from the 10th and 11th centuries, Ibn Sahl and Alhazen, later expanded on Ptolemy’s explanation. The English friar Roger Bacon also addressed the topic in his Opus Majus (c. 1266), during his time in Paris.
Robert Grosseteste also described the process in his De Iride (‘On the Rainbow’), composed between 1220 and 1235. Grosseteste described how ‘we can make objects at very long distance appear at very close distance’, perhaps describing an early telescope. Grosseteste further remarked how lenses could make small things larger when observing them at close distances, so that it is ‘possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distance, or count the sand, or grain, or grass, or anything else so minute’.
Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) of Robert Grosseteste: Royal MS 6 E V, f. 6r
Perhaps the lenses described by these authors were more akin to modern magnifying glasses rather than spectacles. A 15th-century French translation of Vincent of Beauvais’s Le Miroir Historial contains a possible depiction of such a lens. This manuscript detail depicts Vincent of Beauvais, sitting at a desk and writing his book. It is possible that the glass object in the background was intended to be a kind of lens that may have been used as a reading aid. Of course, it is also possible that this shows a mirror, in reference to the title of the text, rather than a magnifying lens.
Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book: Royal MS 14 E I, f. 3r
We might not know exactly when the spectacles were added to the Guthlac Roll, but the history of medieval spectacles is certainly looking a little clearer …
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Quotations taken from D.E. Eichholz, trans., Pliny: Natural History X (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 212–15, and A.C. Sparavigna, ‘Translation and discussion of the De Iride, a treatise on optics by Robert Grossetste’, International Journal of Sciences (2013), 2:9, pp. 108–13.
19 February 2019
As our stunning Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition comes to an end, it's time to reflect on recent discoveries that illuminate this fascinating period of early medieval history, and on the new opportunities for learning more about the past. Archaeological discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard, help us to make a direct connection with 7th-century Mercia, even if we cannot be certain to whom these objects belonged or why they were buried. New advances in imaging science, such as that revealing erased manumissions of slaves in the Bodmin Gospels, as reported on this Blog, help us to uncover medieval people whose lives would otherwise be unknown to us.
The lion of St Mark in the Otho-Corpus Gospels: British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r
One manuscript that has probably not given up all its secrets is the so-called Otho-Corpus Gospels. That name is modern in origin, being derived from the two collections in which its twin halves now reside: the Otho press in the Cotton collection at the British Library, and the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. The two parts of this 8th-century Northumbrian gospel-book had been divided by the 16th century at the latest, with one coming into the hands of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), and the other being acquired a few decades later by Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631). The easiest way to compare them would be to bring them physically side-by-side, as demonstrated in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, when the Corpus portion was generously loaned for a short period to the British Library. But the usual separation of the manuscript is only one barrier to properly understanding it, since the Otho part was damaged severely by the Cotton fire in October 1731, leaving its parchment pages shrivelled and charred. Not only is the gospel-book no longer together, but it is no longer intact.
The first surviving page of the Otho portion: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 1r
As part of the preparations for Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Cotton MS Otho C V was digitised in full, thanks to funding provided by The Polonsky Foundation. This complements nicely the digitisation of Corpus Christi MS 197B by our colleagues in Cambridge. Users are now able to study both parts of this gospel-book from the comfort of their own offices or living rooms. But one further feature of this dual digitisation should be mentioned here, and it is that which perhaps offers the greatest potential for furthering our knowledge of this manuscript. The British Library manuscripts digitised for our recent project can now be viewed on a IIIF viewer, and the same is true for those at the Parker Library. This means that researchers can view the images of both portions of the gospel-book side-by-side, hopefully enabling us to make more connections between them.
Even though the Otho portion is badly damaged, we can still tell that it was finely written and decorated: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 21r
Why is this important? In the case of the Otho part of the manuscript, we have only 64 leaves remaining, representing the gospels of Matthew and Mark. In the 19th century, its pages were restored at the British Museum and inlaid in paper mounts, with pencil notes added in the margins to notify where the text had been identified. In the case of the Corpus Christi part, containing the gospels of Luke and John, the pages have been rearranged, as was Matthew Parker's frequent practice, which complicates investigation into them. Maybe in time their original organisation will be reconstructed, throwing new light on the manuscript's place of origin and its later use and ownership.
The preface to the Gospel of Mark: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 25v
Thanks to The Polonsky Foundation, Cotton MS Otho C V can be seen on the Universal Viewer or on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Thanks to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, their MS 197B can be seen on Parker on the Web, and you can read about it in this accompanying blogpost. We are delighted to be able to share this wonderful manuscript with you, and we hope that in time we will learn more of its secrets.
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18 February 2019
Would you like to find out more about the Anglo-Saxons? Have you been mesmerised by our recent blockbuster exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, or are you doing research into some aspect of early medieval culture?
If so, you may be interested in the British Library's new webspace devoted to the Anglo-Saxons. Already published are a number of articles, on subjects as diverse as music, Anglo-Saxon women, and the Battle of Hastings, together with collection items and biographies. In the near future we intend to add more material, so (literally) please watch this space ...
Many of the essays have been written by Alison Hudson, Project Curator for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and Becky Hudson, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern. Becky has written articles exploring the earliest English speakers and Learning and education in Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, she has drawn upon sources ranging from the St Augustine Gospels to the Utrecht Psalter and a gold dinar of King Offa, in order to demonstrate the close and long-standing relationship between England and its European neighbours. Alison has examined the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Science and the natural world. In her article How was the kingdom of England formed?, she traces the background to the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century.
A gold dinar of King Offa, reproduced by permission of the British Museum
Among the collection items described and illustrated on the site are manuscripts from the British Library's own collections, alongside books and artefacts loaned by other institutions to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Among the Library's manuscripts that are featured are the St Cuthbert Gospel, Bald's Leechbook and the Coronation Gospels; among the loans we might mention (to name a few) are the Binham Hoard, the Moore Bede and Codex Amiatinus.
Codex Amiatinus, reproduced by permission of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, was returned specially to England for the first time in 1,300 years to be displayed at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition
The people featured on the Anglo-Saxons webspace include kings, queens, bishops, monks and hermits, from Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, to Alfred the Great. They have been selected in part because they are most prominent in the contemporary sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Encomium Emmae Reginae, and in part because they represent several layers of early medieval society.
Emma of Normandy as depicted in the work entitled ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’
We hope that you find our new webspace useful, and that it satisfies your curiosity or inspires you to learn more. The address is https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons.
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15 February 2019
In the past twenty years, there have been some fantastic archaeological discoveries that date to the Anglo-Saxon period. Gold treasure, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant, and stone sculpture, such as the Lichfield Angel, have all been unearthed since the year 2000. At the same time, recent scientific developments have enabled new discoveries to be made on the pages of certain medieval manuscripts. One such technique, known as multispectral imaging, has revealed previously erased additions to a 9th-century gospel-book, known as the Bodmin Gospels. These additions, known as manumissions, record the freeing of medieval slaves.
The beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r
The Bodmin Gospels was made in Brittany, but by the end of the 10th century we know that it had reached the priory of St Petroc at Bodmin, in Cornwall. Between the years 950 and 1025, records of public manumissions at the high altar of the church of St Petroc were added to its pages, and these mention at least three bishops of Cornwall (Comoere, Wulfsige and Burhwold). Some of these records remain visible, as we reported in a previous blogpost, but others have been erased, making them either invisible or difficult to read.
As part of the preparations for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and in order to facilitate research being conducted by Dr David Pelteret, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, Dr Christina Duffy, photographed a page from the Bodmin Gospels using multispectral imaging. This is a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum. Christina then processed the data stack using an iterative statistical method known as Principal Component Analysis, which isolates patterns in the data. The results were hugely impressive.
The page shown below (f. 49v) was originally a list of capitula (chapter headings) of the gospel-book. Its text was later erased and five manumission records were added. These were also later erased so that only ‘h’ and a cross are just about visible with the naked eye.
The now-erased manumissions, before and after multispectral imaging and data processing: Add MS 9381, f. 49v
The results of the multispectral imaging reveal some of the text from these previously-erased Latin manumissions. The second text can be translated as follows:
+This is the name of that woman, Guenenguith, and her son whose name is Morcefres, who[m] Bishop Comoere freed on the altar of St Petroc for the redemption of his soul in the presence of these witnesses: Beorhtsige priest, Mermen priest, Athelces priest, Saithred cleric, Cenmen cleric, Heden deacon, Ryt deacon.
Canon tables with records of manumissions added in a later hand: Add MS 9381, f. 13r
Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, still visible, was copied in Latin into the arches of a canon table:
This is the name of a woman, Medguistyl, with her offspring, Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym, who were freed by the clerics of St Petroc on the altar of St Petroc for the souls of King Eadred and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc …
Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, written in Old English, describes how a man named Aelsig bought a woman named Ongynedhel and her son and then freed them straight away. He bought them specifically so that he could free them.
Fleeting references to slaves in Anglo-Saxon documents suggest that they were an integral part of Anglo-Saxon society. People could enter slavery through several different routes. For example, Bede's Ecclesiastical History (IV.22) records how an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Imma, was captured after a battle and was sold to a Frisian at a slave market in London.
A drawing illustrating Psalm 122, showing a female slave and her mistress (centre) and a master holding up a sword to two male slaves (left), in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 65r
References to slaves are also found in the law-codes of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616). These laws are preserved in a compilation made at Rochester in the 12th century, known as Textus Roffensis. They mention women who were ‘grinding slaves’, and state that the fine for ‘highway robbery of a slave is to be three shillings’.
When the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, Wynflæd, wrote her will in the 10th century, she included instructions regarding the fate of her slaves. The will specified that, 'at Faccombe, Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed'. However, Wynflæd did not free two of her seamstresses, Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu), instead bequeathing them to another woman called Eadgifu.
Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu) in the will of Wynflæd: Cotton Ch VIII 38
The new manumissions in the Bodmin Gospels, uncovered with the aid of multispectral imaging, are incredibly exciting. They are important sources of information for slavery in early medieval Britain and for daily life in early medieval Cornwall. This manuscript has been in the national collection since 1833, but only know are some of its many secrets being revealed. Hopefully, as new technologies develop, we may be able to make even more discoveries on the pages of our age-old manuscripts.
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