Jim Carter meets Bede
The second series of the Sky Arts documentary Treasures of the British Library concludes tonight with an episode following Jim Carter, the actor, as he explores items in the British Library’s collections. Since childhood, Jim has been fascinated by the early history of the British Isles, and particularly the history of Roman Britain. Jim was eager to discover what Julius Caesar found when he landed in Britain, and how this period of Roman rule left its mark on the British landscape.
Jim Carter of Downton Abbey fame at the British Library
A fascinating resource for the history of Roman Britain is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede in 731. Although Bede was a scholar with many strings to his bow, the Ecclesiastical History is undoubtedly his most famous work, earning him the unofficial title the ‘Father of English History’. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is written in five books, beginning with an account of Roman Britain and ending with a summary of events in Bede’s own day.
Late 12th-century image of a scribe, possibly representing Bede himself, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r
During his visit to the British Library, Jim was able to view one of the earliest surviving copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. This manuscript was copied in the first half of the 9th century in a southern English scriptorium, most likely Canterbury. The manuscript features a distinct style of insular interlace decoration, cleverly interwoven with the heads of small beasts, which is used to write the first letter of each of the five books in Bede’s narrative. This wonderfully decorated letter ‘B’ begins the opening passage of the whole text, Brittania Oceani insula ('Britain, an island of the Ocean').
The beginning of Book I of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v
The first book of the Ecclesiastical History begins with the arrival of Julius Caesar, and charts the successes and failures of the Roman campaigns in Britain. Bede vividly described the advancement of Caesar’s cavalry as they marched north. Upon reaching the River Thames, they encountered the sharp, wooden defensive stakes which the native Britons had laid into the riverbank. According to Bede, traces of these stakes were still visible in his own day, and he compared them to the thickness of a man’s thigh.
Bede also described the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Bede stated that the Wall was 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, and marvelled that it, too, was still standing in his own day. Bede’s knowledge may have been drawn from first-hand observation, since he was writing from his monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow, located a few miles from the Wall itself. The two Roman walls in the north of Britain would later be depicted in the map of Britain produced by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.
Matthew Paris’ map of Britain: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v
When speaking of his visit to the British Library, Jim was amazed by what he had learned from the venerable Bede. This lavishly decorated copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will be on display in the Library's forthcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Visitors may be able to discover, just as Jim did, what Bede and this splendid manuscript can reveal about the early history of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.
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