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 Ã†lfwineâ€™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 Ã†lfwine, 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 Ã— 90 mm, Ã†lfwineâ€™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.
Encoded inscription mentioning Ã†lfwine and Ã†lfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v
We know that this book belonged to Ã†lfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ã†lfsige (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, â€˜The most humble brother and monk Ã†lfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ã†lfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.â€™ ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ã†lfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ã†lfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ã†lfwine before he became abbot.
Image of the Crucifixion with Ã†lfwineâ€™s name in a prayer, from Ã†lfwineâ€™s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v
Although Ã†lfsige (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 Ã†lfwineâ€™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 Ã†lfwineâ€™s relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.
Although Ã†lfwineâ€™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 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
Ã†lfwine and Ã†lfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ã†lfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ã†lfsige (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 Minsterâ€™s history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ã†lfwineâ€™s personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ã†lfwine 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 Ã†lfwine: 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 Ã†lfwine and Ã†lfsige (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 caractÃ¨re disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent Ã tort, quâ€™il est impossible dâ€™Ã©tudier le quotidien, les mentalitÃ©s ou les reprÃ©sentations de communautÃ©s ou dâ€™individus. Sâ€™il demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une rÃ©alitÃ© exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumiÃ¨re un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, dâ€™avoir une idÃ©e plus prÃ©cise et dÃ©taillÃ©e de leur vie.Câ€™est le cas du livre de priÃ¨res dâ€™Ã†lfwine aujourdâ€™hui conservÃ© en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), rÃ©cemment numÃ©risÃ©s et accessibles en ligne.
Ce volume de petit module qui appartint Ã celui qui fut abbÃ© de New Minster de c. 1031 Ã sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de prÃ©cieuses informations. Les noms de sa mÃ¨re et dâ€™autres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de mÃªme que la date de leurs dÃ©cÃ¨s. Ce petit livre atteste Ã©videmment des priÃ¨res quâ€™avait coutume de prononcer Ã†lfwine, mais Ã©galement de sa pratique de lâ€™astromÃ©tÃ©orologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes mÃ©dicales pour soigner les ulcÃ¨res.
Ce manuscrit est issu dâ€™une collaboration entre lâ€™abbÃ© de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ã†lfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la mÃªme abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci sâ€™inscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes Ã©tant directement associÃ©s au gouvernement du monastÃ¨re de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est Ã©troitement liÃ© aux intÃ©rÃªts et Ã la personnalitÃ© dâ€™Ã†lfwine.
Ce nâ€™est donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuÃ¨rent leur association dans lâ€™intÃ©rÃªt de leur monastÃ¨re. Ã†lfwine commanda ainsi Ã Ã†lfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle dâ€™images et des listes de saints cÃ©lÃ©brant lâ€™histoire de lâ€™abbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte Ã©galement plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement Ã Ã†lfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbÃ© se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultÃ©rieurs.
Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo
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