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25 December 2018

A Christmas gift for Charlemagne

Was it hard to choose gifts for your friends or loved ones this Christmas? This isn't a 21st-century problem. As long ago as the late 8th or very early 9th century, an Anglo-Saxon monk named Alcuin was pondering what to get Charlemagne for Christmas.

At some point in the 780s, Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768–814), had persuaded Alcuin to join his court in Francia. The two men regularly exchanged letters, discussing matters of kingship, governance and theological topics. One of Alcuin’s letters was sent during the Christmas season. Not wanting to be overshadowed by his rivals at court, who could offer ‘many costly presents’, Alcuin wrote: ‘I have long wondered what I might think a worthy gift to do honour to your imperial power and add to the riches of your treasury.’ The Christmas present in question was ‘a gift of the Scriptures which are written with the pen of heavenly grace’. We hope that Charlemagne was duly impressed.

The end of Alcuin's letter to Charlemagne

The end of Alcuin's letter to Charlemagne describing his Christmas gift: London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 218, f. 196v 

The account of this Christmas gift exchange is preserved in a wonderfully decorated copy of Alcuin’s letters. This manuscript has been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Lambeth Palace Library. It was copied in southern England in the early 10th century.

Decorated letters from Alcuin's letter to Charlemagne

Detail of the decorated capitals which begin each letter: London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 218, f. 191v 

The first two lines of each letter are copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, decorated with interlaced knotwork and serpentine beasts. The splendid decoration of this letter collection suggests that it was made for a wealthy, high-status patron: it is highly unusual for a letter collection to be decorated on this scale. Letter collections were normally practical manuscripts, to be consulted by students as they learned the art of letter writing.

When Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne to tell him of his Christmas gift, he confirmed that a student of his, known by the nickname Nathanael, would deliver the gift. Alcuin sent Nathanael to Charlemagne’s court with the instruction, ‘Give my Lord David my letter and my gift of the scriptures on Christmas Day with the greeting of peace’.

Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus

Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

Manuscripts were in fact a popular choice of gift during Anglo-Saxon times. Also in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is this enormous complete copy of the Bible, Codex Amiatinus, which was commissioned with the intention that it would be a gift for Pope Gregory II (d. 731). Abbot Ceolfrith left England with the great Bible in 716, intent on personally delivering it to the pope in Rome. Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died on the way in Langres, and so the monks travelling with him delivered the gift in his place. 

Portrait of King Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert

Portrait of King Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v

Manuscripts were also often presented to religious communities. These were often strategic gifts that aimed to establish or strengthen a relationship between the two parties. A 10th-century copy of Bede’s  Life of St Cuthbert is one example of this kind of gift. The manuscript was given to the Community of St Cuthbert by King Æthelstan of England (924–939). On one of its opening pages is an image of Æthelstan presenting a book to the Community of St Cuthbert. This is the earliest surviving contemporary ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king.

Portrait of the evangelist John in the Coronation Gospels

Opening of St John’s Gospel, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 164v-165

King Æthelstan is also thought to have re-gifted a splendid gospel book known as the Coronation Gospels. Æthelstan donated this gospel book to the community of Christ Church, Canterbury, but it seems originally to have been given to him by his brother-in-law, Otto I, king of Germany (d. 973). Two inscriptions perhaps commemorate the books’ previous ownership; +ODDA REX (‘king Otto’) and + MIHTHILD MATER REGIS (‘Mathilda, mother of the king’).

Ownership inscripion in the Coronation Gospels

Inscription naming Otto and Mathilda, perhaps the previous owners of the Coronation Gospels: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f.24r

Perhaps your budget didn't quite stretch to an illuminated manuscript this Christmas? If not, you can view Alcuin’s letter book and these other beautiful manuscripts in the Library's magnificent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on in London until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here, for cheaper than the price of ‘a gift of the Scriptures written with the pen of heavenly grace’.


The quotes in this blogpost are translated by S. Allot, Alcuin of York c. AD 732 to 804: His Life and Letters (York, 1974), pp. 88–89, letters 72 and 73.


Becky Lawton

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I read somewhere that Charlemagne
could not read, would he have a literate person do this for him ??

Charlemagne not taught ,to read or write as a child ( his education was more martial). His biographer describes his struggles as an adult to learn to read, which were largely successful, though he never learnt to write.

I don't think,,however, that this was unusual. Many of the upper class,,including women, were able to read; writing was a more specialised skill, involving not just a degree of specific manual,dexterity, but acces a to and training in complex practical requirements. So an aristocratic household would contain several people, not just clergy,,who could read, but probably a designated scribe for writing.

Before we feel,superior it might be worth considering that surgeons are finding it difficult to train the next generation, because of their poor manual dexterity, presumably because screen tapping does not require the manual,control of a pen or pencil.

I teach calligraphy in Portland, Oregon. Last term, as we were studying Carolingian, one of my students (Judy) who is a specialist in learning differences/disorders asked me if it could have been that Charlemagne was dyslexic. Does anyone know of any discussion of that?

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