Medieval manuscripts blog

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13 posts from May 2013

10 May 2013

King Offa and the Ceolfrith Bible

Sometime in the 8th century, King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-796), of Offa's Dyke fame, is reputed to have given a Bible to the monks of Worcester. But where did he obtain it, and what was its subsequent fate? Some answers to these questions are found in a number of manuscripts at the British Library, and they reveal a strange state of affairs, from 7th-century Northumbria to post-medieval Nottinghamshire.


Passage from IV Kings, with a red rubric at the beginning of chapter 2 (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 3r).

Our story begins with Ceolfrith, saint and abbot of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria from 690 to 716. Ceolfrith was Bede’s early mentor, and during his rule the size and wealth of the monastery increased greatly and the number of books in the library doubled. Most famously, Ceolfrith commissioned three large Bibles from his own scriptoria: one for Jarrow, one for Wearmouth and the third for the Pope.

Realising that he was close to death, Ceolfrith resigned from the abbacy in 716 and set out for Rome, where he planned to present one of the Bibles to Pope Gregory II (715-731) and to remain to await his death. But he died en route, at Langres in Burgundy, and the Bible he was carrying instead made its way to the monastery of Monte Amiata in Florence. It is the only one of Ceolfrith's three Bibles to survive intact, and is now in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana at Florence, known as the Codex Amiatinus and the oldest surviving full copy of the Bible in Latin. The image below of Christ in Majesty with the four Evangelists is one of two full-page miniatures from this huge volume, which is over 48cm tall, weighs 35kg and has more than one thousand pages.

Image of the Codex Amitianus (courtesy of

British Library MS Additional 45025 is thought to be part of one of the two other Bibles commissioned by Ceolfrith. Only ten leaves and a fragment of an eleventh survive, from III and IV Kings, but the dimensions of the folios match those of the Codex Amiatinus, and it is written in the same Uncial style of script. Additional 45025 may still have been in Northumbria when the monasteries were sacked by the Vikings, and their libraries destroyed or dispersed. However, the Ceolfrith Bible, as it is now known, was most probably at Worcester Cathedral by the 11th century, when Bishop Wulfstan II (1062-1095) ordered that copies of important documents be added to a precious book described as the  ‘Great Bible’. Could this manuscript have somehow passed to King Offa, who then donated it to Worcester?


Ruins of St Paul’s Abbey, Jarrow, dedicated in 685 (image courtesy of BBC).

No record of the fate of this magnificent early Bible is available until the 16th century, when some leaves were sadly used as covers for deeds pertaining to lands owned by the Willoughby family, Barons Middleton of Wollaton Hall (Nottinghamshire). Three of the ten folios of Additional 45025  have labels written upside down in the margins relating to the documents they contained (see below). The Bible fragment was bought from Lord Middleton in 1937 by the Friends of the National Libraries for the British Museum.

Decorated initial P and Chi Rho monogram (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 2v).

The leaves of Additional 45025 are sparsely decorated, with initials and first lines in red, and on f. 2v (above) the beginning of IV Kings has the initial P in black with red dots and, between the columns, the Chi Rho monogram, symbol of Christ, flanked by alpha and omega. This page also has a 14th-century note in red marking the end of Book 3 (‘Explicit liber tertius’) and the beginning of Book 4 (‘Incipit quartus’).

Another two portions of the same Bible (or its companion) also survive at the British Library, Additional MS 37777 and Loan MS 81. We now know that one of Ceolfrith's three great Bibles came to reside in Italy. The British Library fragments together imply that a second Bible left Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century, passing in turn to King Offa and the monks of Worcester.

You can read more about the Ceolfrith Bible in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (eds.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900 (London, 1991), no. 87; Ivor Atkins & Neil R. Ker, eds., Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Wigorniensis made in 1622-1623 by Patrick Young, librarian to King James I (Cambridge, 1944), pp. 77-79; and Richard Marsden, ‘Manus Bedae: Bede’s contribution to Ceolfrith’s bibles’, Anglo-Saxon England, 27 (1998), 65-85.

And you can also find full digital coverage of Additional MS 45025 on our Digitised Manuscripts site!

Chantry Westwell

08 May 2013

The Elephant at the Tower

The art of giving diplomatic gifts is an age-old tradition, practised by kings and queens, popes and emperors, presidents and prime ministers. But what to give?


The elephant at the Tower of London (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D I. f. 169v).

That very question must have dawned on King Louis IX of France (reigned 1226-1270), when he was seeking a gift for Henry III of England (reigned 1216-1272) in 1255. How to impress the English king, and in the process give him something that he did not already have? The exchange was recorded by Matthew Paris, the chronicler of St Albans: "About this time, an elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of the English. We believe that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries this side of the Alps; thus people flocked together to see the novel sight."

Paris wrote a short tract on the elephant, found in the Chronica maiora (Cambridge, Corpus Christi, MS 16). He had evidently seen the elephant for himself, and described its principal features, based on observation and deduction. The elephant was 10 years old (how to tell?), 10 feet high, grey-ish black with a tough hide, and used its trunk to obtain food and drink. It lived in a specially-constructed house at the Tower of London, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and its keeper was named Henry de Flor.

The image above is one of two of Henry III's elephant drawn by Matthew Paris, and is found in his Liber Additamentorum or Book of Additional Things (British Library MS Cotton Nero D I). Suzanne Lewis, author of The Art of Matthew Paris, suggests that this is Matthew's first attempt to draw the elephant, in part since it includes a second rendering of the trunk in a different position. As Lewis observes, the elephant is here "drawn horizonatally on the page in heavy brown line and tinted with similar dark grey and ochre washes ... the details of the skin folds on the trunk and rear flanks, as well as the flap covering the upper part of the tusk, are more freshly observed and convincing that those in MS 16." The assumption would seem to be that the elephant in the Liber Additamentorum was drawn from life, with the illustration in the Chronica maiora being based on the earlier drawing, perhaps with other sketches which have not survived.

Lewis also points out that both drawings of the elephant show that it had knee joints, contrary to the widespread medieval belief that the elephants' knees were joint-less! You can read more about this phenomenon in our post Elephants on Parade.

For more about Matthew Paris and Henry III's elephant, see Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora (Aldershot: Scolar, 1987), pp. 212-16. There is a great blogpost by our friends at Corpus Christi College, Matthew Paris and the Elephant at the Tower, and you can access images from the famous Parker library here (subscription only).

06 May 2013

You Say Beowulf, I Say Biowulf

Students of medieval manuscripts will know that it's always instructive to consult the originals, rather than to rely on printed editions. There are many aspects of manuscript culture that do not translate easily onto the printed page -- annotations, corrections, changes of scribe, the general layout, the decoration, ownership inscriptions.

The famous Old English epic poem Beowulf is a case in point. Only one manuscript of Beowulf has survived, which is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV). The writing of this manuscript was divided between two scribes, the first of whom terminated their stint with the first three lines of f. 175v, ending with the words "sceaden mæl scyran"; their counterpart took over at this point, implying that an earlier exemplar lay behind their text, from which both scribes copied.

The point at which the scribes of Beowulf change (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 175v, lines 3-4).

The presence of the handwriting of two different scribes in the Beowulf-manuscript has other implications. The script of the second scribe is consistent with having been trained to write in the late-10th century, whereas that of the first is more typical of the period after AD 1000. On those grounds, the most likely time for these scribes to have collaborated is the early decades of the 11th century, perhaps during the reign of Æthelred the Unready (978-1016), although modern scholars are by no means agreed on that point.

Another distinction between those two scribes, perhaps less familiar to modern students of the text, is the varying way in which they spell the name of the eponymous hero Beowulf. On 40 occasions, Beowulf's name is spelt in the conventional manner (the first is found in line 18 of the standard editions, the last in line 2510). However, in 7 separate instances, the name is instead spelt "Biowulf" ("let's call the whole thing off"), the first case coming in line 1987 of the poem.

The spelling "Biowulf" occurs twice on this page, the first in lines 9-10 (Bio-wulf) and the second in the final line, both times using the Anglo-Saxon wynn (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 176v).

What's most apparent here is that the spelling "Biowulf" is confined to the second scribe, who nonetheless alternated it with "Beowulf". While this may be simply a scribal tick -- an uncertainty how the name should be spelled, or a simple inconsistency -- it does lend to the debate over the origin of the name, a summary of which can be found here. (Various suggestions include Bee-Wolf, Beow-Wolf, Biewolf and War-Wolf -- take your pick.)

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f133r   Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f176v
The spellings of Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, ff. 133r, 176v).

If you weren't already aware, images of the entire Beowulf-manuscript can now be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site, where you can investigate for yourselves how the manuscript was written.

03 May 2013

Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter

Add_ms_62925_f083vMiniature of Jacob's Ladder, before Psalm 80, with a bas-de-page scene of cannibal hybrids, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 83v


'Such a book! my eyes! and I am beating my brains to see if I can find any thread of an intrigue to begin upon, so as to creep and crawl towards possession of it.'

           -  William Morris

Thus spoke William Morris, we are told, when he first laid eyes on the Rutland Psalter in 1896.  Morris was said to be so enamoured of the Psalter that when he was suffering his final illness a friend brought it to his bed-side in order to lift his spirits. We are very pleased that it is no longer necessary to go to such extremes to see this spectacular manuscript; a fully digitized version can be found online here.

The Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925) is a relatively recent addition to our collections; the manuscript was purchased by the British Library in 1983 from the estate of the ninth Duke of Rutland, whose family had owned the manuscript since at least 1825.  The Psalter was produced c. 1260 in England, possibly in London, although it is unclear who the original patron was.  In the centuries after it was produced, the manuscript passed through quite a few hands before ending up with the Dukes of Rutland.  Many of these people seem to have shared Morris's desire to possess the Psalter, even if only virtually; a vast gallery of signatures and inscriptions can be found on the manuscript's calendar pages and flyleaves (see, for example, f. i, ii and v).


Add_ms_62925_f008vFull-page historiated initial 'B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, of King David harping, and the Judgement of Solomon, amidst men in combat astride lions and dragons, with roundels containing scenes from Creation and men in combat, with a curtain above, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 8v


It is not hard to see why the Rutland Psalter was an object of such fascination.  It contains a number of spectacular full- and partial-page miniatures (see above), as well as other historiated and illuminated initials.  But the Psalter's true claim to fame is its marginalia. A staggering variety of creatures populate the margins and borders of virtually every folio; amongst the men and women, animals, hybrids, dragons, and vignettes of daily life are scenes influenced by the traditions of the bestiary and the Marvels of the East, and some from sources that still have yet to be traced.  A few of our favourites are below; be sure to check out the entire manuscript here.


Add_ms_62925_f049v_detailBas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid and a goat musician, f. 49v

Add_ms_62925_f051r_detailBas-de-page scene of a man hitting a bear (?) that is eating a human head, f. 51r

Add_ms_62925_f054r_detailBas-de-page scene of a rabbit musician, f. 54r

Add_ms_62925_f056v_detailBas-de-page scene of a hybrid musician and a semi-nude man dancing, f. 56v

Add_ms_62925_f057r_detailBas-de-page scene of a blemmya with a crossbow, f. 57r

Add_ms_62925_f058v_detailBas-de-page scene of a female centaur suckling her child, f. 58v

Add_ms_62925_f061r_detailBas-de-page scene of mice hanging a cat, f. 61r

Add_ms_62925_f070v_detailBas-de-page scene of a men 'pick-a-back' wrestling, f. 70v

Add_ms_62925_f072r_detailBas-de-page scene of a conjoined man fighting a dragon, f. 72r

Add_ms_62925_f072v_detailBas-de-page scene of a man butting his foot against a ram, f. 72v

Add_ms_62925_f083r_detailBas-de-page scene of a nude man with a stick riding on a many-legged dragon, f. 83r

Add_ms_62925_f086r_detailBas-de-page scene of a man with an axe and a scold on a ducking stool, f. 86r

Add_ms_62925_f088v_detailBas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), f. 88v

- Sarah J Biggs

01 May 2013

A Calendar Page for May 2013

For more details on calendar pages or the Golf Book, please see the post for January 2013.



Calendar page for May with a boating scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 22v


The full-page miniature for May continues the theme of aristocratic courting, which may well be among the most pleasant of the 'labours' depicted in medieval calendars.  In this scene, two boatmen are rowing a nobleman and two well-dressed ladies along a river; the three are playing musical instruments and are surrounded by flowering branches.  On the bridge above them another aristocratic couple are riding on horseback, carrying branches and followed by their retainers. In the bas-de-page scene a group of men are practicing archery by shooting at a raised target (a popinjay?).  On the following folio two couples are riding on horseback through a lush landscape, below the saints' days for May and a roundel with a nude man and woman for the zodiac sign Gemini.



Calendar page for May with a riding scene, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 23r