Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from December 2018

31 December 2018

Party like it's AD 999

You are invited to an early medieval feast. Doctor Who has kindly agreed to take you in her Tardis to Winchester, around Christmas time in the year 999. But what should you wear? What kind of food, drink and entertainment should you expect? Never fear! Here's a quick guide to Anglo-Saxon feasts.

Depiction of a feast from a Psalter
Depiction of a feast from a Psalter made in the second half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v

What to wear

Very little direct evidence survives about Anglo-Saxon clothing. Textiles tend to disintegrate in the usual archaeological conditions in north-western Europe. However, some written sources, including wills, give us an idea about the sorts of things some wealthy people may have worn. Anglo-Saxon nobles’ most glamorous outfits seem to have involved lots of colours and lots of jewellery, perhaps paired with a badger-skin or patterned dress. Both men and women could finish off the look with cloaks fastened with large brooches — and we mean large. A brooch owned by a woman called Ædwen is 14.9 cm in diameter, and is on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum.

The Fuller Brooch
The Ædwen Brooch, made in East Anglia in the early 11th century.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.


What to drink

Drinking was doubtless a major component of Anglo-Saxon feasts. It features prominently when describing fictional feasts in secular halls in Beowulf and even in an account of the feast to celebrate the rededication of the Old Minster in Winchester in 980. Two 1000-year-old calendars show people drinking from cups and drinking horns.

Depiction of a feast, from a calendar page for April
Depiction of a feast, from a calendar page for April, in an 11th-century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v

Anglo-Saxon writers discussed a wide range of beverages. Here are just a few of the drinks (potiones) listed in a vocabulary list in an 11th-century schoolbook:


Old English

Modern English








Ofetes wos

fruit juice


Niwe win

unfermented or partially fermented grape juice

Infertum vinum


Wine for church services

Crudum vinum

weala win

Crude/foreign wine

Honorarium vinum

hlaforda win

lordly wine



pear juice, perry

compositum vinum

gewyrtod win

spiced wine

defrutum vinum

gesoden win

cooked/boiled wine



Sweet wine cooked down and flavoured with mulberry



sweet wine


Monastic sign language also had gestures to indicate beer, wine from a cask and a herbal drink.

Contrary to popular belief, medieval people could and did drink water: St Wulfstan of Worcester reportedly would not drink anything else. However, water was not considered fancy enough to drink at a feast. The main drinks available at feasts were beor (a very sweet drink), ale, mead and wine

Which drink you got depended very much on where you were sitting. This was in turn a reflection of how important you were. The most important people drank mead or beor at feasts. Mead was strongly associated with power in Anglo-Saxon England and Wales, to the extent that an Old English expression about power-hungry people warned, ‘Sometimes, people are thirstiest after drinking mead.’ Less important people were given wine, and others were given ale.

Also, before you attend an Anglo-Saxon feast, you might want to practice drinking from a horn. Decorated cups were also used.

Detail of a man filling a drinking horn
Detail of a man filling a drinking horn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

How not to drink

While drinking seems to have been a key part of socialising in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, many Old English writers warned of the dangers of overindulging. A poem in the Exeter Book known as the Precepts depicts a father advising his son to ‘Guard against drunkenness and foolish words’.

What to eat

Feasts would also have included food, although literary and artistic depictions of feasts tended to focus on drinking. Foods eaten in England 1000 years ago included cheese, bacon, herring, beans and eel (all mentioned in the Ely Farming Memoranda). For earlier periods, records of food given to King Ine of the West Saxons (d. c. 726) demanded that every 10 hides of land provide the king with 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, Welsh ale, clear ale, 2 fully grown cows or 10 sheep, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a full amber of butter, 100 pounds of fodder and 100 eels.

Food for feasts may have been seasoned by very precious, imported spices. An account of Bede’s death in 735 recorded him giving away some of his most precious possessions, including spices, on his deathbed.

What to do

There will be plenty for you to do at Christmas in 999. There will be elaborate church services. Be sure to catch a sermon delivered by Ælfric or Wulfstan, if you get the chance. And don’t be alarmed if they start talking about putting a baby in a bin: ‘binn’ is the Old English word for manger.

Music for Christmas, from a troper made in the 11th century
Music for Christmas, from a troper made in the 11th century: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 2r

There will be entertainment as well. If you are seated with the workers at a 7th-century feast, be prepared for a bit of karaoke: according to Bede, people used to entertain themselves by passing around a harp and singing after feasts, to the horror of a shy cowherd called Caedmon.

If you arrive in the right year, you might be able to attend a coronation. Christmas and Easter were not times when major governmental work stopped. On the contrary, major political meetings often coincided with major holidays. For example, William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey at Christmas 1066. Nineteen years later, at Christmas 1085, he commissioned the survey of the wealth and assets of his kingdom that would become the basis for Domesday Book.

Whatever you do this New Year, in whatever country (and century) you may be, have a wonderful time, and a happy and prosperous 2019.


Alison Hudson

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28 December 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: the exhibition quiz

Have you been to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition yet? If not, you had better hurry, because eternal honour and glory are at stake in the form of this quiz.

Visitors to the exhibition will have a distinct advantage, since the answers to at least four of these questions are written on the walls of the gallery. For additional inspiration, you may wish to turn to the articles and descriptions of some of the exhibits on our fantastic new Anglo-Saxons webspace.

Good luck, brave quiz-warriors! Bear your shields forth and your gleaming thinking caps (with apologies to the epic poem Judith)!

A visitor admires the displays at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition at the British Library (image © Tony Antoniou)

1. Who was the first king of England?

2. According to Bede, how many languages were spoken in Britain in the 8th century?

3. Why is Domesday Book so-named?

4. To whom was Emma of Normandy married?

Miniature of Queen Emma from the Encomium Emmae Reginae

5. In which alphabet are the earliest surviving pieces of English writing?

6. The MRSA bacterium is thought to be combated by a remedy found in which Old English medical manuscript?

7. In which year was Codex Amiatinus last in England?

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)

8. Which king gave his name to an earthwork that can still be seen on the English-Welsh border?

9. What is the oldest item in the exhibition?

10. Locate the British Isles on this 1000-year-old world map.

An 11th-century Anglo-Saxon map of the world
An 11th-century Anglo-Saxon map of the world: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

And a bonus question: How did King Harold II die?

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets have been selling like hotcakes (not the ones reputedly burned by King Alfred), and can be purchased here.




And here are the answers. How many did you get?

1. King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939)

2. Five, namely English, British, Irish, Pictish and Latin

3. According to Richard fitz Nigel, writing in the 12th century, it was called Domesdei, the Day of Judgement, because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, could not be appealed

4. Queen Emma, who was married in turn to King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) and to King Cnut (1016–1035)

5. The runic alphabet

6. Bald's Leechbook

7. AD 716, when it was taken by Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow to Rome

8. Offa's Dyke, named after King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757–796)

9. A fragmentary manuscript of the letters of Cyprian, probably made in northern Africa in the 4th century

10. In the bottom, left-hand corner

Bonus. The experts, and the sources, are divided on this one. He was either hit in the eye by an arrow, was hacked down in battle, a combination of the two, or (less likely) he escaped and died peacefully many years after 1066. Take your pick!



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27 December 2018

Cats, get off the page!

The British Library’s current free exhibition, Cats on the Page, celebrates the role that cats have played in literature and book illustration. In the interests of fairness and balance, we thought that we should point out the shameful times when cats on the page were a very literal problem for our medieval manuscripts. Join our manuscript detectives for some crime-scene reconstruction.

Medieval manuscript with cat's pawprints on it

A 12th-century copy of Gregory the Great, Registrum epistolarum, from the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester: Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v.

Ellie: What a CATastrophe! This 12th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s letters is covered in muddy paw-prints.

Kate: Judging from the position of the four muddy paw-prints, it looks as though a crafty cat jumped onto the corner of the page. Did it step away backwards or was it lifted off carefully before it could get any further? A couple of the prints are quite distinct and not scuffed, as you’d expect if the cat had struggled or been pushed off the page.

Detail of cat's pawprints

Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v (detail).

Ellie: Perhaps the crime scene looked something like this evangelist portrait of St Mark from a Flemish Book of Hours. The picture shows St Mark as a scholar writing in a domestic setting, his books piled up by his side. He’s so absorbed in his work that he hasn’t noticed the cat prowling in the background. Let’s hope that this furry intruder keeps its paws to itself.

Evangelist portrait of St Mark writing with a cat behind him
Detail of Evangelist portrait of St Mark writing with a cat behind him

Evangelist portrait of St Mark in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 16v.

Medieval manuscript with cat's pawprints on it

An English copy of Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, from the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century: Burney MS 326, f. 104v.

Kate: Another cat may have been a little less lucky. This 12th-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies may show signs of a human/feline struggle. One muddy paw-print is very clear at the top of the page, but the others, which number perhaps ten or more and cover about half of the written page, are severely scuffed. It seems that the cat did not want to be evicted from the nice seat it had found, while the reader may not have been so pleased to see dirty marks all over a fine copy of the Middle Ages’ greatest encyclopaedia!

Ellie: Or maybe there’s another explanation. In the Etymologies, Isidore wrote that cats are called ‘mousers’ because they are troublesome to mice, or ‘cats’ because they are good at catching things. Perhaps the feline troublemaker who prowled across this page was pursuing a mouse at the time. We know that in the Middle Ages, cats were kept mostly for their rodent-catching abilities. Perhaps we are looking at the traces of a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase through the monastic library?

picture of a cat with a mouse from the margins of the Luttrell Psalter
A cat toys with a mouse in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325–1340: Add MS 42130, f. 190r.

Medieval manuscript with cat's pawprints on it

Detail of cat's pawprints

A compilation of Middle English poetry, 1457–c 1530: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 205v.

Ellie: These verses in Middle English offer guidance on how to lead a wise and virtuous life. The poet included words of wisdom such as ‘make no wronge informacion’, ‘Meddill litill’ and ‘grownde thyn entent upon charite’. But they forgot to mention one important piece of life advice — always keep your books out of reach of cats.

The two paw-prints in the middle of the page suggest that the feline felon leapt onto it from afar. It is pawsible — I mean, possible — that the guilty culprit was a pet of Henry Algernon Percy, earl of Northumberland, who ordered this part of the manuscript to be made between c. 1516 and 1527.

Kate: Although all these manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain when the cats made their mark. Manuscripts could be read and used for centuries, by monastic communities, wealthy families and later collectors. Any one of these might have found a pesky feline brushing up against their manuscript.

Ellie: Sounds like these crimes against manuscripts will have to remain unsolved.

A calendar scene for January showing a cat eyeing its owners roast dinner

A calendar scene for January in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 1v (detail). Not content with ruining its owners’ books, this cat is now contemplating their roast dinner.

If you love cats and books, we highly recommend visiting the British Library’s free exhibition, Cats on the Page, open until Sunday 17 March 2019.

Two of these manuscripts — Burney MS 326 and Royal MS 6 C X — have been digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project. To find out more about medieval cats, take a look at our previous blog post, or learn about medieval views on animals through the Polonsky Foundation project article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.


Eleanor Jackson and Kate Thomas

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

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Supported by

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26 December 2018

All I want for Christmas is ... Domesday Book

What did you do over Christmas? Peel sprouts? Wrap (and unwrap) presents? Sing carols? 

At Christmas in 1085, King William the Conqueror had other things on his mind. It was on that occasion that he chose to commission the famous survey whose results are preserved today in Domesday Book. We may revere this for its record of life in 11th-century England, but William's contemporaries sometimes thought otherwise, as this early account demonstrates.

‘William, king of the English, ordered all the possessions of all England to be described, in fields, in men, in all animals, in all manors from the greatest to the smallest, and in all payments which could be rendered from the land of all. And the land was troubled with much violence as a result.’ 

Continuation of the Chronicle of Marianus Scotus
Continuation of the Chronicle of Marianus Scotus
Continuation of the Chronicle of Marianus Scotus: Cotton MS Nero C V, f. 158v

So reads an addition to Marianus Scotus’s Chronicon, found in a manuscript made in the 1080s. It’s not clear exactly which violent incidents the chronicler had in mind, but discontent with the Domesday survey is recorded in other sources. For example, a 12th-century copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained that William the Conqueror ‘sent his men over all England into every shire … There was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed … one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out, and not put down in his record’ (translated by D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961, pp. 87–88).

Writing later in the 12th century, Richard fitz Nigel, the royal treasurer (d. 1198), reported that the English called the book Domesdei, the Day of Judgement, because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, could not be appealed.

Great Domesday Book is currently in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on loan from The National Archives. It is displayed next to a draft of the text for the South-West counties (Exon Domesday, loaned by Exeter Cathedral) and a list of questions that the commissioners should ask (loaned by Trinity College, Cambridge), as follows:

  • What is the manor/estate/place called?
  • Who owned it in the time of King Edward [the Confessor, 1042–1066]?
  • Who owns it now [1086]?
  • How many hides are there?
  • How many plough teams belong to the lord?
  • How many plough teams belong to the men of the manor?
  • How many villans [a type of peasant] are there?
  • How many cottars [a type of peasant]?
  • How many slaves [servi]?
  • How many freemen?
    How many sokemen?
  • How much woodland?
  • How much meadow?
  • How much pasture?
  • How many mills?
  • How many fish ponds?
  • How much has been added or taken away?
  • What was it worth?
  • What is it worth now?
  • How much did each freeman have then?
  • And now?
  • How much did sokeman have then?
  • And now?
  • All this is to be given three times: what it was in the time of King Edward, what it was when King William gave it, and what it is now [1086].

This process was used to gather information about 13,418 places in England and a few in what is now Wales. Domesday Book mentions over 269,000 people, from the king and his family to slaves, oxmen and swineherds. It describes 48 ‘castles’, over 60 abbeys and cathedrals, over 300 parish churches, around 6,000 mills, and about 45 vineyards, not to mention markets, mints, woods, inland and coastal fisheries, salt pans, lead working, quarries and potteries.

Great Domesday Book

Great Domesday Book (image © The National Archives)

The extent of this survey and its level of detail were quite extraordinary in northern Europe. But it did not cover absolutely everyone and everywhere in England: women are notably underrepresented. Nor was all the information collected used. The cows and pigs mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were largely left out of the final version of Domesday Book, although they appear in the earlier draft for the South-Western counties, today known as Exon Domesday. 

Domesday Book has remained in the possession of the English administration since the time it was made. If you’d like to see Great Domesday in person, hurry to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on until 19 February at the British Library.

The Chronicle of Marianus Scotus has been digitised as part of our Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project.

Alison Hudson

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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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24 December 2018

A medieval Nativity

Every Christmas, we traditionally blog about an image found in one of our fabulous manuscripts, from brightly coloured shepherds to peaceful Renaissance Marys. This year, we couldn't resist choosing an image that is on display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It comes from a gospelbook made at the monastery of Saint-Bertin, in what is now northern France, and has generously been loaned to the exhibition by the Bibliothèque municipale of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Nativity Scene in the Boulogne Gospels
Christmas in the Boulogne Gospels: Boulogne-sur-mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 11, f. 12r

This Nativity scene image has everything you might see in a modern Christmas card — from angels to shepherds to a manger — but it is arranged in a slightly different manner. At the top right is a heavenly choir. To the left, an angel proclaims peace on Earth and goodwill to all men to two shepherds, who carry rough walking sticks. (We know what each scene represents because helpful captions were included beside the images.) Next, Joseph sits attentively next to the new mother Mary, who is resting while a servant adjusts her pillow. At the very bottom is Jesus, swaddled in a manger, with a rather jolly-looking ox and donkey. The text to the side is the beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew.

St Matthew and patriarchs from the Boulogne Gospels
St Matthew writing, David, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, from the Boulogne Gospels: Boulogne-sur-mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 11, f. 10v

This Nativity picture concludes a sequence of scenes that illustrate the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel opens with the words ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ’, then lists all Jesus’ ancestors, before telling the story of his birth. In the Boulogne Gospels, the Gospel of Matthew begins with what resembles a comic-strip, conveying the whole story in pictures. First we see St Matthew eagerly writing his Gospel. Seated beside him are David, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the first of Jesus’ ancestors. The next page-and-a-half shows his other ancestors arranged in orderly rows under architectural arches.

Jesus' ancestors in the Boulogne Gospels
A page depicting some of Jesus's ancestors: Boulogne-sur-mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 11, f. 11r

This lengthy genealogy culminates with the moment when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she is going to become the Mother of Christ. In the next panel Mary relates the same news to her cousin, Elizabeth. And then we come to the Nativity: Jesus is born, the shepherds come to adore him and the angels celebrate.

Anunciation and Visitation in the Boulogne Gospels
Detail of the Annunciaton and the Visitation: Boulogne-sur-mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 11, f. 10v

The whole book is lavishly decorated. Each Gospel is prefaced by scenes pertaining to its opening passages and images of the evangelist. For example, the Gospel of Mark begins with an image of an angel announcing the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zacharias. The canon tables showing the different passages of each gospel teem with figures: evangelists' symbols, angels, musicians, hunters, animals and more. You can explore this manuscript's illuminations here

Canon table in the Boulogne Gospels
Detail of canon tables from the Boulogne Gospels: Boulogne-sur-mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 11, f. 3v

This gospel-book was made at Saint-Bertin about a thousand years ago, during the abbacy of Odbert. Abbot Odbert led a major campaign of book-production and he even helped with some illumination himself. His books show that artistry and learning flourished at Saint-Bertin at this period.

The constellation Aries, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea

The constellation Aries, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea in an astronomical and astrological compilation made in Fleury: Harley MS 2506, f. 36r

Odbert employed a team of scribes and artists, including at least two artists from England. One travelling English artist was probably responsible for the Christmas scene and other decoration in the Boulogne Gospels. The same artist's work appears in other surviving manuscripts, associated with Canterbury, Ramsey or Winchester, Fleury and the monastery of Saint-Bertin at Saint-Omer. Several examples are on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, from drawings of constellations to lively line drawings in Psalters. This demonstrates how artists — and artistic styles — could move around northern Europe at this time.

Miniature of the Crucifixion from the Ramsey Psalter
Miniature of the Crucifixion from the Ramsey Psalter, made in the early 11th century: Harley MS 2904, f. 3v

Odbert clearly assembled a talented team at Saint-Bertin. The resulting manuscripts are not just spectacular works of art: they are testaments to human creativity and cooperation. They suggest what could be possible with peace on Earth and goodwill between men.

Detail of canon tables, from the Boulogne Gospels
Detail of canon tables, from the Boulogne Gospels: Boulogne-sur-mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 11, f. 5v


Alison Hudson and Eleanor Jackson

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23 December 2018

Discovered in a stable: the Anderson Pontifical

Considering that all Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are over a thousand years old, a remarkable number have survived until the present day. They have endured Viking invasions, wars and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some manuscripts have unlikely survival stories. We know, for example, that the Lichfield Gospels was hidden by a canon of Lichfield Cathedral during the English Civil War, while the Codex Aureus was ransomed by a noble family from a ‘heathen’ war band in the 9th century.

The Anderson Pontifical is another manuscript with an extraordinary survival story. It was discovered as recently as June 1970 in the stables at Brodie Castle in North-East Scotland.

Brodie Castle, Scotland

Brodie Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

It is not clear how the Anderson Pontifical ended up in Scotland. The script of the manuscript suggests that it was made around the year 1000 in southern England, possibly at Canterbury. The Anderson Pontifical includes some Old English words which are spelled in the Kentish rather than West Saxon dialect. For instance, storcellan (a censer) is spelled in this manuscript with an 'e', not 'y' as in West Saxon.

A page of the Anderson Pontifical

The beginning of texts for various exorcisms, consecration ceremonies and absolutions in the Anderson Pontifical: Add MS 57337 f. 103r

The Anderson Pontifical contains prayers and liturgical texts for a variety of services, including for the coronation of an Anglo-Saxon king. While it is impossible to tell whether this book was actually used at a late 10th- or early 11th-century coronation ceremony, it is certainly a finely-produced volume, with decorated initials and different sections of text written in different colours.

Fragment of a 17th-century letter

Fragment of a 17th-century letter mentioning a harbour at ‘Peeterhead’: Add MS 57337/1, f. 2v

Despite its possible connection to kings and bishops, the later history of this manuscript is obscure. Some clues are perhaps found in its limp vellum binding and fragments of early modern papers that were found with the manuscript in 1970. A note on part of these wrapping papers in a 14th-century hand reads, 'benedictionale [et] po[n]tificale; s[an]c[tu]m Barth[olomaeum]’. Among these wrapping papers were fragments of early modern printed books and a letter which mentions the harbour at 'Peeterhead'. This suggests that the manuscript was at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, by the 16th century.

A page from the Anderson Pontifical with an ownership inscription

Ownership inscription written in the name of Rev. Hugh Anderson, in the right-hand margin: Add MS 57337 f.1r

By 1700, the manuscript was owned by Rev. Hugh Anderson (d. 1749), minister of the parish of Drainie, near Elgin, Morayshire. We know this because he helpfully inscribed 'Ex libriis Hugonis Anderson, anno Christogonias ducentesimo supra sesquimillesimum'  on the opening folio. Anderson evidently prized the pontifical and was very particular about who would own it next. In a note dated 5 May 1741, he bequeathed it to one William Mercer and his son Hugh Mercer (Add MS 57337/1, f. 13v). However, he later crossed out that note; on 6 October 1741 the manuscript was left instead to the local laird, Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (1696–1772), 4th baronet. What happened next is uncertain, until the Pontifical's fateful rediscovery in 1970.

Note in the Anderson Pontifical

Note explaining that the Pontifical was to be bequeathed to Willliam Mercer and his son Hugh Mercer: Add MS 57337/1, f. 13v

Note in the Anderson Pontifical

Note explaining that Anderson had bequeathed the manuscript to Sir Robert Gordonstoun on 6 October 1741: Add MS 57337 f. 144r

Given its eventful history, the Anderson Pontifical is in remarkable condition. Its coloured text is, for the most part, bright and legible. Until 19 February 2019, you can see for yourself as the manuscript is on display at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Tickets are available here.


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21 December 2018

A whiskered beast

A whiskered beast of woods, I shred each boar,

Though armed with tusks, and antlered stags that roar;

Crushing bears’ forearms doesn’t give me pause.

Lips bloody, I don’t fear wolves’ teeth or jaws

And dread no terror by high royal right;

I sleep wide-eyed, with my jewelled beams closed tight.

(A.M. Juster, Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto, 2015, pp. 22–23)


This riddle was composed over 1,300 years ago by the Anglo-Saxon author Aldhelm. Big whiskers, ferocious, regal, never closes its eyes. Have you worked it out? It refers, of course, to the lion, the king of beasts.

The lion of St Mark in the Echternach Gospels

The lion of St Mark in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 9389, f. 75v

There are some fabulous 'Anglo-Saxon' lions currently on show in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's been described (by Melanie McDonagh for the Evening Standard) as 'by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London'. The manuscripts featuring the lions are displayed alongside other artistic, historical and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Domesday Book.

Where would you have expected to see a lion in Anglo-Saxon England? The answer, most likely, was in a gospelbook. A lion, a winged man, an eagle and a calf or ox were the symbols of the four writers of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as described in Ezekiel 1.5–11 and Revelation 4.6–7:

‘And in the sight of the throne was, as it were, a sea of glass like to crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind.

And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.’

The lion was associated with St Mark, whose gospel begins with a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:3).

The image at the beginning of this blogpost is found in the spectacular Echternach Gospels. Helpfully, it is labelled ‘IMAGO LEONIS’. The lion itself leaps out of a maze of lines, which form an irregular cross. Its fur is drawn in a stylised, geometric manner and is coloured in yellow (representing gold) and a reddish-pink. It is impossible to tell precisely where this manuscript was made. Its 'Insular style' of decoration is typical of artwork produced around the year 700 in Ireland and England, as well as in monasteries in mainland Europe — such as at Echternach, now in Luxembourg — which were founded by Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

The lion of St Mark, from the Otho-Corpus Gospels

The lion of St Mark, from the Otho-Corpus Gospels: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Another lion is found in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the Otho-Corpus Gospels. Sometime during the 16th century, this gospelbook was divided into two parts: one half was acquired by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), who bequeathed it to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; the other portion entered the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) before eventually passing into the ownership of the British Library. (Cotton kept his manuscripts in book-presses named after the Roman emperors, including Julius, Nero and, in this instance, Otho.)

As in the Echternach Gospels, this lion is painted in red and yellow, and it appears to bound out of the page. But you will notice that it is no longer in pristine condition. In October 1731 it was badly damaged by fire when the Cotton library was being stored at the unfortunately-named Ashburnham House in London. The heat of the fire seems to have intensified the red and yellow pigments on the lion’s fur.

St Mark and his lion, from the Coronation Gospels

St Mark and his lion, from the Coronation Gospels: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v

The third lion in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition looks rather different. It has a clear mane and golden fur, and it flies into the scene from the right, clutching a book with a decorated cover. This manuscript was made approximately 200 years after the other two examples, possibly in Lobbes (in what is now Belgium). It probably arrived in England as a present to Æthelstan, the first king of all England (924–939), from his brother-in-law, the future emperor Otto I.

All these Anglo-Saxon lions can be viewed in the flesh at the British Library until 19 February 2019. We hope that they capture your imagination in much the same way as they did their original owners and readers. And if you need an extra fill of cats, why not also come to the Library's amazing Cats on the Page exhibition (on until 17 March 2019)?

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (19 October 2018–19 February 2019)


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