THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

09 May 2017

Save a prayer for Ælfwine

Many people — even some historians of more recent periods — think that it is impossible to study small communities or individuals from early medieval history due to a lack of evidence. Certainly, the surviving sources limit what medieval historians can study; nevertheless, there are some manuscripts which illuminate the lives of particular individuals in surprising detail.

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvi_f019v
Image of St Peter with a monk at his feet, from
Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v

For example, we know a relatively large amount of information about Ælfwine, an Anglo-Saxon monk who became abbot of the New Minster, Winchester around 1031 and died in 1057. We know the names of his mother and other relatives and the dates they died. We know which prayers he may have said. We know how he envisioned what God looked like. We know the code he and his friends used (about which more later). We know how he predicted the weather and treated ulcers by eating a dish made from 9 egg yolks, wine and fennel. All of this information is preserved in his tiny prayer book, which survives in two volumes (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII) and has recently been uploaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.  

Measuring a handy 130 × 90 mm, Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains prayers, calendars, extracts from texts on natural phenomena, diagrams, images of religious scenes, medical recipes, a charm for catching a thief, and the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon prognostics (telling the future, or divination), in Latin and Old English.

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvii_f013v
Encoded inscription mentioning
Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

We know that this book belonged to Ælfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) because they are commemorated in a note written in code, between the calendar and the Easter tables. This code approximately involved replacing some vowels with the letter that follows them in the alphabet. Decrypted, it reads, ‘The most humble brother and monk Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ælfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.’ ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ælfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ælfwine before he became abbot.

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvii_f065v
Image of the Crucifixion with
Ælfwine’s name in a prayer, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

Although Ælfsige (Aelsinus) is the only scribe mentioned in the inscription, there was at least one other scribe, and possibly an additional illustrator, involved in the creation of Ælfwine’s prayerbook. Once the prayerbook was made, additions were made in further hands to the calendar and the Easter tables, noting the deaths of kings, other monks and Ælfwine’s relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.

Although Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains many personal touches, such as the notices of the death of his biological and spiritual relatives, the book was also able to be reused by later readers — with a few alterations. In the late 11th or early 12th century, a female scribe — who may have been a nun of the Nunnaminster — added female pronouns to some of the prayers. We can be sure she was a she, because she left a note in another manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 451) asking that the scriptrix remain safe and sound forever.

Cotton_ms_titus_d_xxvi_f068r
The masculine peccator changed to feminine peccatrix, from Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ælfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ælfsige (Aelsinus) and the illustrator of his prayerbook to create the New Minster Liber Vitae, a collection of narrative texts, lists and images celebrating the New Minster’s history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ælfwine’s personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ælfwine as an individual. It suggests how he began his abbacy and the sorts of texts he was interested in preserving and the sorts of connections he and the illustrator wanted to emphasize that his house had. For example, the Liber Vitae begins with an image of King Cnut and Queen Emma making a gift of a cross to the altar of the New Minster. The New Minster Liber Vitae also includes some personal touches related to Ælfwine: a Wulfwynn, presumably his mother, appears in the list of queens and abbesses. It seems she was a queen in his eyes.

Stowe 944   f. 6v
Image of a saintly monk-bishop and a saintly abbot, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6v

Although Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) were by no means the most prominent churchmen in mid-11th-century England, the manuscripts they left behind give us a valuable window into the lives and interests of this pair of friends and colleagues.  Granted, these manuscripts are not as revealing as diaries or other genres more associated with later periods. Nevertheless, today's readers can still glimpse on Digitised Manuscripts select individuals who lived 1000 years ago.

 _______________

Le caractère disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent à tort, qu’il est impossible d’étudier le quotidien, les mentalités ou les représentations de communautés ou d’individus. S’il demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une réalité exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumière un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, d’avoir une idée plus précise et détaillée de leur vie.C’est le cas du livre de prières d’Ælfwine aujourd’hui conservé en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), récemment numérisés et accessibles en ligne.

Ce volume de petit module qui appartint à celui qui fut abbé de New Minster de c. 1031 à sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de précieuses informations. Les noms de sa mère et d’autres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de même que la date de leurs décès. Ce petit livre atteste évidemment des prières qu’avait coutume de prononcer Ælfwine, mais également de sa pratique de l’astrométéorologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes médicales pour soigner les ulcères.

Ce manuscrit est issu d’une collaboration entre l’abbé de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ælfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la même abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci s’inscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes étant directement associés au gouvernement du monastère de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est étroitement lié aux intérêts et à la personnalité d’Ælfwine.

Ce n’est donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuèrent leur association dans l’intérêt de leur monastère. Ælfwine commanda ainsi à Ælfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle d’images et des listes de saints célébrant l’histoire de l’abbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte également plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement à Ælfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbé se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultérieurs.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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Comments

This is a fascinating manuscript. It is also interesting to see that people in the 11th century - and of course women in particular - were wrestling with the problem of 'default male' pronouns.

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