Many people â even some historians of more recent periods â 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.
Image of St Peter with a monk at his feet, from Ălfwineâs Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v
For example, we know a relatively large amount of information about Ălfwine, 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 Ă 90 mm, Ălfwineâs 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.
Encoded inscription mentioning Ălfwine and Ălfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v
We know that this book belonged to Ălfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ălfsige (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, âThe most humble brother and monk Ălfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ălfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.â ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ălfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ălfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ălfwine before he became abbot.
Image of the Crucifixion with Ălfwineâs name in a prayer, from Ălfwineâs Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v
Although Ălfsige (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 Ălfwineâs 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 Ălfwineâs relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.
Although Ălfwineâs 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 â with a few alterations. In the late 11th or early 12th century, a female scribe â who may have been a nun of the Nunnaminster â 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.
The masculine peccator changed to feminine peccatrix, from Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r
Ălfwine and Ălfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ălfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ălfsige (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 Minsterâs history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ălfwineâs personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ălfwine 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 Ălfwine: a Wulfwynn, presumably his mother, appears in the list of queens and abbesses. It seems she was a queen in his eyes.
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 Ălfwine and Ălfsige (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 caractĂšre disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent Ă tort, quâil est impossible dâĂ©tudier le quotidien, les mentalitĂ©s ou les reprĂ©sentations de communautĂ©s ou dâindividus. Sâil demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une rĂ©alitĂ© exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumiĂšre un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, dâavoir une idĂ©e plus prĂ©cise et dĂ©taillĂ©e de leur vie.Câest le cas du livre de priĂšres dâĂlfwine aujourdâhui conservĂ© en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), rĂ©cemment numĂ©risĂ©s et accessibles en ligne.
Ce volume de petit module qui appartint Ă celui qui fut abbĂ© de New Minster de c. 1031 Ă sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de prĂ©cieuses informations. Les noms de sa mĂšre et dâautres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de mĂȘme que la date de leurs dĂ©cĂšs. Ce petit livre atteste Ă©videmment des priĂšres quâavait coutume de prononcer Ălfwine, mais Ă©galement de sa pratique de lâastromĂ©tĂ©orologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes mĂ©dicales pour soigner les ulcĂšres.
Ce manuscrit est issu dâune collaboration entre lâabbĂ© de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ălfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la mĂȘme abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci sâinscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes Ă©tant directement associĂ©s au gouvernement du monastĂšre de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est Ă©troitement liĂ© aux intĂ©rĂȘts et Ă la personnalitĂ© dâĂlfwine.
Ce nâest donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuĂšrent leur association dans lâintĂ©rĂȘt de leur monastĂšre. Ălfwine commanda ainsi Ă Ălfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle dâimages et des listes de saints cĂ©lĂ©brant lâhistoire de lâabbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte Ă©galement plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement Ă Ălfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbĂ© se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultĂ©rieurs.
Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo
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