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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

15 December 2018

Name that rune!

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Some readers of this Blog may remember a sword with a mysterious inscription that was displayed in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015. Thousands of people across the world tried to solve that particular puzzle, so we thought we'd test your brains again with another undeciphered inscription.

This time round, it's found in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display in London until 19 February 2019. On show alongside some of the greatest manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon times, and treasures from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, is this silver-gilt fitting, kindly loaned by the British Museum. It's dramatically decorated with a beast’s head: blue-glass eyes, scrolled ears, fangs and a looped tongue define its features.

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A silver gilt fitting with a runic inscription: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The ‘body’ attached to the head is decorated with a line of runes. Transliterated into the Latin alphabet, they read as follows:

‘sbe/rædhtȝbcai/e/rh/ad/æbs’

But what does this mean? To date, no one has been able to translate this runic inscription into modern English. Maybe you can try?

The fitting probably dates to the late 8th century. It resembles artwork made in Mercia around that time: compare, for example, its beast head with some manuscripts from that period. The fitting’s function is uncertain, but since it is only decorated on one side, it might have been part of a scabbard for a long knife or seax. It was found in the River Thames near Westminster Bridge in the 19th century.

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Compare and contrast: (1) the beast's head from the silver gilt fitting: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved. (2) detail of an initial with a beast’s head, from a manuscript made in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century: Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

Some people have suggested that cryptic collections such as this may have acted as talismans, offering protection to the owner. You may be aware that the word ‘rún’ (rune) is related to the Germanic words for ‘secret’ and ‘whisper’.

So what do these mysterious runes mean? We'd love you to send us your thoughts, either by tweeting @BLMedieval or by using the comments button below.

 

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12 December 2018

A useless letter?

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Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

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Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

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Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

Address

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The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

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The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

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Harley pater noster

Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Listen I have heard many ancient tales

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

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Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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09 December 2018

Women and books in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Whenever I talk to members of the public who have visited the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, one of the most common reactions is, ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much about women!’ As Claire Breay recently discussed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, more evidence survives about early medieval women than many people realise. Our exhibition includes a prayerbook connected to the wife of Alfred the Great; chronicle accounts of the victories of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the oldest substantial woman’s will that survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the first surviving political tract written for (and about) a woman in England; and one of the fabulously jewelled gospel-books of Judith of Flanders.   

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The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books, made in Northern Europe in the 2nd half of the 11th century: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

The majority of the population in Anglo-Saxon England — including the majority of women — probably couldn’t read or write. That said, women made up a sizeable proportion of the part of the population that was literate. In Anglo-Saxon times, literacy was highest among monks, nuns, priests and other clergy, who had committed to a religious life. Religious women, such as abbesses, were at the forefront of several literary developments. Additionally, we have evidence that some lay noblewomen owned books.

Literacy among nuns and women religious

Female religious in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were probably able to read. Regardless of which rule of life they followed, reading scriptures and saints’ Lives was essential at most monasteries. There is also direct evidence of book ownership among female religious. For example, four out of the six  surviving early English prayerbooks use female forms and may have been written by or for women. Of the two originally made for men, one (Ælfwine’s prayerbook) was subsequently used and modified at the Nunnaminster, Winchester. 

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Aldhelm addresses Abbess Hildelith and others, from a copy of his De Virginitate made in southern England c. 1000: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 13r

In the early part of the period, religious houses led by women, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Ely and Barking were major intellectual centres. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, was the patron of the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon. Meanwhile, Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, one of the most advanced works ever produced in Anglo-Latin, was dedicated to a group of women: Hildelith, abbess of Barking, Justina, Cuthburh, Osburh, Aldegethe, Scholastica, Eadburh, Byrngithe, Eulalia and Thecla.

Literacy among lay noblewomen

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also includes evidence of noblewomen owning or commissioning books. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, before it was given to the Nunnaminster. According to Asser, Alfred’s mother owned a finely illuminated book of English poetry, while Queens Emma and Edith both commissioned texts in the 11th century.

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Opening of ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, depicting the author presenting his work to Emma while her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut look on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

It wasn’t just queens who had access to books and writing. The exhibition also displays Wynflaed’s will, the earliest substantial will of an Englishwoman. One third of all surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are in the name of women. This will shows Wynflaed using writing to conduct her affairs and it also reveals that she owned books. Wynflaed herself was a widow associated with a religious house, but she gave her books to her (apparently) lay daughter rather than to the nuns.

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Will of Wynflæd, copied out in England in the late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Perhaps the most spectacular example of female book-ownership is one of the Judith Gospels, generously on loan from the Morgan Library in New York, with its fabulous silver-gilt cover with jewels. Four of these de luxe books owned by Judith of Flanders survive. Judith’s Gospels are incredibly unusual for having survived with their jewelled covers intact. However, Judith was not unusual in 11th-century Britain in being a noblewoman with an interest in books. Books also survive that belonged to Margaret of Scotland and Edward the Confessor’s sister, Godgifu.

Female scribes and artists

Just as there were women readers, there were also female scribes. We know the name of at least one female scribe from the Anglo-Saxon period: Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Around 735, St Boniface wrote to her, noting that she had sent him books and asking her to copy the epistles of Paul in golden letters for him. Another correspondent, Lull, sent her a silver stylus ('graphium argenteum').  

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End of excerpts from Matthew’s Gospel and beginning of excerpts from John’s Gospel, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

At least one manuscript in the exhibition has traditionally been attributed to female scribes: the Book of Nunnaminster, a 9th-century Mercian prayerbook possibly owned by Ealhswith. Some of its text uses certain female forms. Later, someone added a record of the lands which Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, gave to the Nunnaminster, as well as a prayer that uses female forms.

You can learn more in our article Women in Anglo-Saxon England. All these manuscripts can be seen in our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Alison Hudson

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