Medieval manuscripts blog

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13 posts from January 2019

11 January 2019

Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

On 17 January, the British Library is hosting an audio description tour of our landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This tour is designed specifically for blind and partially sighted visitors, and it will be delivered and audio-described by a member of the Medieval Manuscripts team who contributed to the preparation of the exhibition. 

A detail of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition poster, showing King Edgar from the Newminster Charter

Among the items we will be introducing to our visitors are Spong Man, Codex Amiatinus, the Stockholm Codex Aureus, the Judith of Flanders Gospels and Domesday Book. The exhibition has received rave reviews and is already one of the most successful shows ever mounted by the British Library.

Spong Man, a clay figure seated with its elbows resting on its knees and its hands on either side of its face

Spong Man, on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms from Norfolk Museums Service


One free ticket for a companion is available per visitor. Guide and assistance dogs are welcome. If you require any other support, or have other access requirements for this tour, please contact [email protected] or phone +44 (0)20 7412 7797. The tour is free with an exhibition ticket.


Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

17 January



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08 January 2019

Heathens, pagans, Danes …. Vikings?

‘Your tragic suffering brings me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.’

Alcuin, writing to the brothers of Lindisfarne, 793 (preserved in an 11th-century letter collection)


This vivid description is perhaps our earliest written record of the activities of the 'Vikings' in England. But who were the 'Vikings', and what do we really know about them? In this blogpost we describe some of the evidence for the 'Vikings' in Anglo-Saxon England, taken from manuscripts on display in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on show at the British Library in London until 19 February.

The opening page of the Gospel of Mark with text written in gold and an elaborate gold foliate frame

The Cnut Gospels: Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r


Fact and fiction

Modern historians and archaeologists continue to debate the origins, customs and name of the people popularly known as the 'Vikings', but who were often described in the contemporary sources as heathens, Danes or pagans. Many 'popular' facts about the 'Vikings' are themselves highly dubious. For example, the myth that the 'Vikings' wore horned helmets possibly has its origins in the 19th century, as popularised by Richard Wagner's The Ring Cycle. Another myth, that the 'Vikings' were unclean and unkempt, was debunked by John of Wallingford in the 13th century (but working from earlier sources). John commented that Anglo-Saxon women often preferred heathen 'Vikings' rather than Christian Englishmen, because the 'Vikings' were known to bathe every Saturday, comb their hair and dress well. Indeed, the original meaning of the Scandinavian word for Saturday, ‘laurdag/lørdag/lördag’, means ‘washing day’.


The early raiders

A text page in a medieval manuscript

The entry for 793, describing the raid on Lindisfarne, in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 26v

In the letter quoted above, the Anglo-Saxon author Alcuin, writing from mainland Europe, consoled the community of Lindisfarne after a recent attack. The same event is recorded in the entry for 793 in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which described how ‘the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne’.

In the decades that followed, these same ‘heathen men’ targeted the coastlines of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, other areas of Britain and Carolingian Francia. Many of these raiders are thought to have come from Scandinavia, namely Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The initial raids were seasonal, concentrated in spring and summer, but from the middle of 9th century 'Viking' armies began to over-winter in England. By the late 870s, the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia had all experienced regime change, as the Scandinavian raiders in turn became rulers and landowners.


The treaty between Alfred and Guthrum

The kingdom of Wessex held out against these invaders. Following a series of battles with the 'Vikings', in around 880 King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) signed a treaty with Guthrum, leader of the Danes settled in East Anglia. This treaty set out the lands held by both rulers, divided by a boundary that bisected the kingdom of Mercia. Lands north and east of this line became known as the Danelaw, and lands to the south and west came under Alfred's authority.

A text page in a medieval manuscript

The treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 383, f. 57r

Towards the end of the 10th century, Anglo-Saxon England became subject to further attacks by the Danes. The English rulers were repeatedly defeated by the Danish leader Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut, until Cnut became king of all England in 1016. He ruled England for nineteen years until his death in 1035, as well as being king of Denmark and Norway.

Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a large gold cross on an altar, with Christ in a mandorla above flanked by the Virgin Mary and St Peter

Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r


In search of treasure

Anglo-Saxon churches and monasteries were attractive for pagan raiders. They may have been relatively unguarded, and they possessed books and liturgical equipment which were sometimes richly decorated.

This luxurious Anglo-Saxon gospel book bears an inscription which describes the book’s close encounter with a ‘heathen’ army. The inscription, written in an English hand, records how this mid 8th-century manuscript was ransomed from a ‘heathen’ army by an Anglo-Saxon, Ealdorman Alfred. The gospel book was then donated to Christ Church, Canterbury, in exchange for prayers for the souls of Alfred, his wife, Werburgh, and his daughter, Alhthryth (whose names are entered in the right-hand margin).

A page of text written in gold capital letters, beginning with the Chi-rho, the monogram of the Greek name of Christ. In the lower margin is a later inscription.

The Stockholm Codex Aureus: Stockholm, Kungliga Biblioteket, MS A. 135, f. 11r

Some precious Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were originally bound in what are known as treasure bindings. One famous example, on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, is the Judith of Flanders Gospels. Its script suggests that it was written partly in 11th-century Northumbria, while Judith was married to Earl Tostig. It is rare for medieval manuscripts to retain such treasure bindings, and we often imagine that they were torn off by 'Viking' raiders.

An ornate gold book cover, showing the crucifixion in the lower half and Christ in Majesty above

Treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover


Ancestral connections

The first Anglo-Saxons to arrive in Britain came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. They retained close cultural connections with their ancestral homelands, using the runic alphabet and (before their conversion to Christianity) worshipping similar pagan gods. The Old English epic poem Beowulf is set in this context, following the exploits of a warrior named Beowulf as he came to the aid of the king of the Danes. The surviving manuscript was copied around 1000 but the poem was likely transmitted orally long before that.

A text page from the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r


Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.


Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 January 2019

Round up of our Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms conference

On 13 and 14 December 2018, twenty-two world-leading experts on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts gathered at the British Library to present their research to an international audience of over 250 academics, postgraduate students, library professionals and members of the public. This major conference on Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms was held in conjunction with the British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.


A full house on the first morning of the conference. Photo taken by Dr Alixe Bovey

Professor Lawrence Nees opened the conference with a keynote lecture on ‘The European Context of Manuscript Illumination in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, 600-900’. Nees explored how certain styles of early medieval manuscript illumination demonstrate frequent connections between scriptoria on both sides of the Channel. The close connections between Anglo-Saxon England, parts of Ireland and Britain, and the European Continent were a recurring theme throughout the two days.


Attendees enjoyed a wine reception at the end of the first day of the conference.

Professor Julia Crick gave the second keynote lecture of the conference on ‘English Scribal Culture in an Age of Conquest, 900–1100’. Professor Crick marvelled that visitors to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition could see a once-in-a-generation collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and then turn the pages of many of those manuscripts on their smart phones and laptops.

Many other speakers praised the benefits of recent digitisation projects and new digital technologies. Dr Tessa Webber commented that this was the first time she had been able to browse digital versions of all manuscripts in her paper from her office. Many speakers used images of medieval manuscripts made available through digitisation projects at the British Library, most notably the recently digitised collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and charters, and 800 manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Anglo-saxons-conference (26 of 26)

Dr Alan Thacker chairs the questions after Dr Tessa Webber’s paper.

In recent years, scholars have begun to use the latest imaging technologies to make new discoveries on the pages of medieval manuscripts. Many papers at the conference drew on the multispectral imaging work of imaging scientist at the British Library, Dr Christina Duffy. Gasps of surprise and delight rippled through the audience as speakers revealed the ‘before and after’ shots generated by Dr Duffy’s imaging.

Other speakers used traditional technologies to support innovative arguments. For example, Professor Susan Rankin was joined on stage by two of her doctoral students who performed different types of singing known at Winchester in this period. Additionally, in a paper on the diffusion of insular art and script in Carolingian Francia, Professor Joanna Story used tidal patterns to argue that it would have been relatively easy to travel between Canterbury and north-western France. Story noted that tidal patterns are often consulted by archaeologists and military historians, but not by scholars of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.


Chloe Allison and Adam Mathias demonstrate two styles of singing during Professor Susan Rankin’s paper

The conference concluded with speakers and attendees musing on the future of palaeography and codicology. The final keynote lecture and the questions that followed acknowledged the challenges faced by the next generation of scholars, but also highlighted the hope and excitement for future research made possible by recent advances in technology and through the application of scientific techniques.


Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín joked that he likes to refer to this Durham Gospel book as a ‘3 D’ manuscript: Durham, Cathedral Library, MS A.II.10 f.3

On the next day, Saturday 15th December, over 100 attendees of the conference returned for an Early Career Researchers’ symposium. The cross-cutting themes of this symposium mirrored those of the main conference by highlighting cross-Channel connections, the complexities of scribal culture, and utilising digital or scientific technologies. Speakers presented interdisciplinary research, combining history with chemistry and bioarchaeology. Louise Garner explained the use of chemical analysis to identify the composition of pigments in the York Gospels. Jiří Vnouček drew upon his background as a conservator and recent bioarchaeological research to identify the type of animal used to prepare the parchment of the Codex Amiatinus. Vnouček commented that, in his opinion, the future of manuscript studies lies in the use of interdisciplinary approaches to utilise advances in scientific technology.

The final paper of the symposium was given by Dr Simon Thomson, who discussed manuscripts that were community projects, built from complex layers of scribal interaction over time. When we study the digital facsimiles of these manuscripts for research, share images on social media, or turn their pages in a reading room, we too become part of that community and are woven into the story of these manuscripts.


In the Durham Liber Vitae, the original list of names was copied in the 9th century, but more names were added for centuries after: British Library, Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

We would like to thank all the speakers, chairs and attendees for an educational and enjoyable conference. Tweets relating to the conference can be found by searching the conference hashtag #MSSinASK. Dr Colleen Curran has made a useful Wakelet thread of all tweets that used this hashtag and she recently wrote a summary of 10 things we learned at the conference for BBC History Magazine.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display in London until 19 February 2019. You can buy your tickets here.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 January 2019

The Anglo-Saxon origins of the English counties

At Christmas 1085, William the Conqueror commissioned a great survey of the land and property in England. The information gathered during that survey is recorded in three manuscripts, Great Domesday, Exon Domesday and Little Domesday, which together list the information county by county. This was possible because many English counties have their roots in the very early days of Anglo-Saxon history.

Some English counties owe their names to the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th and 6th centuries. These settlers formed small socio-political units that slowly grew into powerful kingdoms able to claim dominance over smaller kingdoms.

A page from a medieval manuscript with the names of counties in the Tribal Hidage circled

East engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena, and west sexena in the Tribal Hidage: British Library Harley MS 3271 f. 6v

The Tribal Hidage provides an insight into the kingdoms south of the River Humber between the 7th and 9th centuries. This document lists 35 tribes and the number of ‘hides’ assigned to each territory. A ‘hide’ may have been a unit of tribute that each territory was required to pay to an overlord. The final five groups in the Tribal Hidage may sound rather familiar; east engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena and west sexena. In their modern form, these places are East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The names of Essex, Kent and Sussex are preserved as modern counties. East Anglia and Wessex may no longer be English counties, but they were important Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and retain strong regional identities to this day.

Gold belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, a gold buckle decorated with interlaced animal forms

The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1

East Anglia was a powerful kingdom in the 7th century. An East Anglian king was perhaps buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Norfolk and Suffolk now occupy most of the land that was once the kingdom of East Anglia, and their names have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English root of Norfolk is Nordfolc, which can be broken down into two elements, north and folc. These translate to ‘the (territory of) the northern people (of the East Angles)’. Similarly, the old English root of Suffolk translates as ‘the (territory of) the southern people (of the East Angles).

An assortment of gold metalwork objects from the Staffordshire hoard

Items from the Staffordshire Hoard: Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Many English counties now feature the suffix –shire, which derives from the old English scir. A shire refers to a division of land governed by a government official who became known as a ‘shire reeve’ or ‘sheriff’. Shires were often based around a prominent town or city.

The county of Staffordshire is located in what was once the heartlands of the kingdom of Mercia. Key centres of Mercian power include the ‘burgh’ at Tamworth and the bishopric of Lichfield. It was near to these centres of power, in the village of Hammerwich, that the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in 2009.

A page from a medieval manuscript

Entry for 913 in the Mercian Register: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 46r

In the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the entry for 913 states that Æthelflæd ‘went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built a ‘burgh’ at Stafford.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

Entry for 1016 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius IV, f. 66v

In 1016, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded King Cnut’s conquest of England. When the chronicler described Cnut’s progression northward, the army moved through ‘Staffordshire, Shropshire and into Chester’. By the 11th century, the land surrounding the burgh at Stafford had become known as Staffordshire.  

A text page from a medieval manuscript

The first mention of Eboracum (York) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 8v

The city of York gave its name to England’s largest county, Yorkshire. York is first referred to in the written sources as Eboracum, which was the Latinised version of a British name meaning ‘yew-tree estate’. When Bede recounted the history of York in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he referred to the city as Eboracum. This Latin name gradually became the Old English Eoforwic, combining the Eofor- from the old name with the suffix –wic. When the Danes conquered the city in the 9th century, the Old English Eoferwic became Jórvík, which has gradually evolved to York.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

Bede’s account of the Battle of Chester. Legacæstir is written at the end of the second line: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 39v

The city of Chester, from which Cheshire derives its name, was once known as Legacæstir. In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede described a great battle in 606 between Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, and an army from the Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Rhôs. Bede explained that the battle happened near ‘the city of the legions which is called Legacæstir by the English and more correctly Cærlegion (Chester) by the Britons’.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

Entry for 980 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 143v

Chester’s association with its Roman history persisted into the 10th century. The entry for 980 in the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that ‘Legeceasterscir (Cheshire) was ravaged by a northern naval force’.

The scope and scale of English local government has incurred many changes since the Anglo-Saxon period. Although the boundaries of counties and boroughs may warp and shift, in many cases their names persist. These names have deep roots in local history, and many are first recorded on the pages of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

Many of these manuscripts can be viewed in person in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's open until 19 February 2019 and we recommend that you book online before you visit.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


01 January 2019

Alfred ordered me to be made

King Alfred of Wessex (d. 899) has quite the reputation. He is often referred to as Alfred ‘the Great’, perhaps on account of the victories of his kingdom of Wessex against the Vikings invasions in the late-9th century. Legend has also crafted Alfred as an incompetent kitchen assistant, on account of the myth that he failed to prevent a lady’s cakes from burning when seeking refuge in the marshes of South-West England.

Some of our readers may be surprised to learn that Alfred also has a reputation as a scholar and intellectual, who was keen to promote learning at his court and throughout his kingdom.

19th-century statue of King Alfred holding a sword up

Statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester

A stunning object, which may stand as a testament to Alfred’s patronage of education and learning, is the Alfred Jewel. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has very kindly loaned the Alfred Jewel to the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This is one of the most celebrated objects surviving from Anglo-Saxon England.

The Alfred Jewel, a tear-drop shaped enamel plaque showing a picture of a man holding two flowering rods, framed in gold

The Alfred Jewel: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1836 p.135.371

It came to be known as the Alfred Jewel thanks to the inscription +ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred ordered me to be made’), which surrounds the central figure. It was discovered in 1693, a few miles away from King Alfred’s fortress and monastery at Athelney, Somerset. Athelney Abbey is the site where Alfred found shelter and then launched his retaliation against King Guthrum’s ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 878. The combination of its history and the inscription has led scholars to suggest that it was King Alfred himself who ordered this jewel to be made.

the Fuller brooch, a disc-shaped silver brooch with pictures of plants, animals and people

The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The figure’s prominent staring eyes and the two floral stems held in each hand are rather similar to the central figure in the Fuller Brooch, which has also been loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, this time by the British Museum.

The Alfred Jewel, a tear-drop shaped enamel plaque showing a picture of a man holding two flowering rods, framed in gold

The Alfred Jewel: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1836 p.135.371

At the lower end of the jewel is a small socket that may have once held a small rod, perhaps of wood or ivory. Similar, though significantly less splendid, objects with the same small socket also survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. These objects were perhaps intended to act as the decorative end of a small pointer, used for following the line when reading. 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing a text with a decorated initial made up of entwined beasts

The Old English Bede: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41, p. 352.

Alfred is known to have encouraged the translation of a number of Latin texts into Old English. Some of these were the core texts of the Anglo-Saxon schoolroom, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r 

The writings of Pope Gregory the Great were widely studied in Anglo-Saxon England and also featured in the programme of translation initiated by Alfred’s court. An Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’) has even been attributed to King Alfred himself. This translation of the ‘Pastoral Care’ is preceded by a letter from King Alfred to Bishop Werferth of Worcester. In the letter, Alfred encourages his bishops to lead a programme of translation of texts from Latin to English, therefore making these texts more widely accessible. The letter also states that translations of the Pastoral Care should all be accompanied by an æstel, an object used to point to words when reading. Some people have proposed that the Alfred Jewel may be an example of such an æstel. If the remarkable Alfred Jewel was indeed ‘ordered to be made’ by King Alfred, it certainly reflects the regal splendour and the intellectual pursuits of a scholar-king. 

Thaks to the generosity of the Ashmolean Museum and our other lenders, you can view the Alfred Jewel and other items discussed in this blogpost in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (until 19 February 2019). Tickets are available here.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval