Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 October 2011

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

The British Library's exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination showcases the most precious manuscripts owned by the kings and queens of England. A large number of these books entered the Royal collection during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), when the libraries of the English monasteries were dispersed.

However, many of the manuscripts in medieval monastic libraries were not highly decorative, instead being used as part of the daily routine of study and of reading out loud at mealtimes and in chapel. We value these books for their beautiful script and decorated initials, for the texts they contain, and for what they can teach us about medieval monastic life.

Many of these lesser-known monastic manuscripts are found in the Royal collection. Here are two examples.

Royal 5 B XII

The Benedictine priory at the Cathedral of St Andrew in Rochester, founded by King Æthelberht of Kent at the beginning of the 7th century, was home to a productive scriptorium in the hundred years following the Norman Conquest. Many religious works were copied or obtained for the library, including this one containing works of St Augustine of Hippo. 

The Rochester library catalogue, 1202: London, British Library, MS. Royal 5 B XII, f. 2r

Of particular interest are the front pages which contain a catalogue of the library, originally compiled in or around 1202, with additions by later scribes. The first page of the catalogue lists works by the most important early theologians, Augustine (beati augustini) and Gregory the Great (beati gregorii) in the first column, followed by Ambrose, Jerome and Bede. These are followed by Bibles and other theological works, saints’ Lives, service books and secular works of history, grammar and philosophy.

Sometimes the size and condition of a book are recorded and how they were stored, either in cupboards or chests. Contemporary book lists from other monasteries such as Reading and Durham record similar works to the Rochester catalogue, providing an insight into the texts that the monks typically possessed during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Rochester anathema: London, British Library, MS. Royal 5 B XII, f. 4v

Close to 100 books from the Rochester library are now in the Royal collection, including 14 containing writings of St Augustine, whose works were considered fundamental to monastic study. Books from Rochester are easy to identify as they usually bear an inscription on the first page, Liber de claustro Roffensi, often followed by an anathema, threatening with excommunication anyone who borrows the book and does not return it. The inscription can be seen at the bottom of the opening page of Augustine's De doctrina christiana, a text on Christian doctrine.

Royal 1 C III

This large Bible is a rare version of part of the Old Testament in Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French spoken in England in the Middle Ages. It belonged to Reading Abbey and was probably copied there in the 14th century. The manuscript is written in a rather informal cursive handwriting, of the type often used to copy documents, as it was quicker to write than formal gothic script. Initials in red and blue are the only decoration.


The Old Testament in Anglo-Norman: London, British Library, MS. Royal 1 C III, f. 185r

At this time French was being replaced by English as the most popular language in England and so standards of French were declining, even among scholarly monks in a great Norman monastery such as Reading. In the text, English words are substituted or inserted after French words which may have been unfamiliar to the scribe. For example in the 14th line, figures et affaitementz is followed by the English translation ‘schappes’ (shapes).

The Benedictine abbey at Reading had a large, well-stocked library, which was dispersed when the monastery was dissolved during the Reformation. This Bible appears to have entered Henry VIII’s library in 1530, having probably been delivered to Hampton Court as part of a consignment of books from Reading, of which some 15 have been identified in the Royal collection.


Chantry Westwell 




The list of works of Augustine is very interesting to see! Are there more pages of the book list? These catalogues of medieval libraries are often very imperfectly published, and there is nothing like seeing the actual page!

The Rochester page in fact lists the books owned by the abbey, starting with works by Augustine; then by Gregory the Great; then by Ambrose of Milan; then Jerome / Hieronymus; then the Venerable Bede; and then miscellaneous other books, including a lectionary, a passionary, a homiliary, some saints' Lives, decretals, and others which I can't make out.

This is fascinating!

Isn't it amazing that these Bibles written in the vernacular exist. A century later, people would be burned at the stake for having a non-Latin Bible.

might anyone, monk, academis have any idea where I can find anything, commentary wise on the 12 steps of humility from within the rule of Benedict? Wm Booth author The Twelve Steps series.
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decorated initials, for the texts they contain, and for what they can teach us about medieval monastic life.

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