An African Abbot in Anglo-Saxon England
To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we remember one of the Africans to live in Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of church structures in what is now England.
Bede’s description of Hadrian, beginning column 2 line 18, from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Canterbury?), c. 825: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 94r.
According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731), Hadrian was ‘vir natione Afir’ (translated as 'a man of African race' by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors), who spoke both Greek and Latin. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian was Amazigh, and that he came from the area that is now Libya. There are a series of Biblical commentaries (surviving in a manuscript in Milan) that were derived from notes on Hadrian’s teaching at his school at Canterbury, and these include references and vocabulary that were specific to north Africa. For example, there are notes on a beautiful bird called a porphyrio, 'said to be found in Libya' ('in Libia sit').
Detail of North Africa, from a world map in a scientific collection, England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v.
Hadrian may have been forced to flee the Arab invasions of North Africa. At any rate he arrived in Italy as young man. In Europe, he had a remarkable career as the emperor’s translator, diplomat and abbot of a monastery near Naples. He was then sent by Pope Vitalian to accompany Theodore of Tarsus, the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury, to Kent. They arrived in 668. The two men immediately set about touring the archdiocese, restructuring the Church in what is now England by dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, and legislating through regular synods. They also created an internationally renowned school at Canterbury where they may have introduced the study of Greek to Anglo-Saxons.
Among the students of that school was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne, who was considered a pre-eminent scholar by many of his contemporaries. Aldhelm praised the school in his letters, including one to Hadrian himself, in which he described Hadrian as his 'revered father and respected teacher' and himself as a 'humble pupil of your holiness'. In another letter, Aldhelm scolded his young correspondent for going to study in Ireland when Hadrian and Theodore offered better educational opportunities in Kent. Manuscripts of Aldhelm’s letters have recently been digitised by the British Library and are now available online (Royal MS 6 A VI and Cotton MS Domitian A IX).
Passage from Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith where he praises Hadrian as 'endowed with ineffably pure urbanity', the moon to Archbishop Theodore's sun, England (Canterbury?), 1st half of the 11th century: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 8v.
Judging from commentaries from his school and his students' writings, Hadrian can be credited with introducing Anglo-Saxons to a whole range of ideas, from astronomical thought inherited from Plato and Aristotle to the commemoration of Neapolitan saints venerated at his old monastery in Italy. He may even have influenced Anglo-Saxon literature through types of riddles: Aldhelm also wrote a book of riddles explicitly inspired by the North African writer Symphosius, whose enigmas may have been brought by Hadrian to England.
Aldhelm's prologue invoking Symphosius, from Aldhelm's Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v.
One of the earliest books known to have been owned in post-Roman Britain also came from Africa, perhaps from Carthage. This book contains a 4th-century copy of letters by another North African, Cyprian. Although this manuscript is now fragmentary, it was once an impressive codex, in fine uncial script and with the Biblical passages picked out in red. This book had come to England by the 8th century, because someone writing in early English script annotated, expanded and added to some of the words. These letters undoubtedly influenced 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writers, including Bede, who quoted from them. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian himself may have brought this African manuscript to the British Isles.
Detail of one of the earliest books known to have been owned in Anglo-Saxon England, containing the letters of Cyprian, North Africa, 4th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2r.
Details of the letters ‘vr’ added to the manuscript in England by the 8th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2v.
According to Bede, Hadrian had been reluctant to come to Kent, so much so that he turned down an offer to be made archbishop of Canterbury and instead nominated several others for that office, including his eventual companion, Theodore. Nevertheless, Hadrian stayed in England for 41 years, and his influence has lasted much longer. He was remembered in saints' Lives at Canterbury later in the Middle Ages, and he helped to shape religious structures and literary traditions which remain in England today.
Beginning of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, England (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 233r.