Medieval manuscripts blog

297 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxons"

17 June 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Rewind

Did you miss the Lindisfarne Gospels and St Cuthbert Gospel on BBC Radio 3? Then fear not, as the whole programme is available to listen again (United Kingdom only, alas) on the BBC iPlayer. Presented by author David Almond, the programme explores the place of these majestic manuscripts in art, religion and literature, and features interviews with staff from the British Library.


Meanwhile, both of these great books can be viewed on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site: click here to see the Lindisfarne Gospels and the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

13 June 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels on BBC Radio 3

On Sunday, 16 June, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is to feature in a special programme on BBC Radio 3. Presented by award-winning children's author David Almond, the programme will investigate the significance of the Gospels, exploring its creation, the journeys made by the book, and the cultural and religious landscape from which the manuscript emerged.


Portrait of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Part of the programme was recorded on location at the British Library, the interviewees including Scot McKendrick (Head of History and Classics), Claire Breay (Lead Curator, Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts), and Deborah Novotny (Head of Collection Care). The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the nation's greatest medieval treasures, and can be seen in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


Detail from the canon-tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 12r).

Scholars are divided as to the precise date when this Latin gospelbook was made. According to a colophon written in the manuscript by Aldfrith, provost of Chester-le-Street (fl. 970), the scribe and artist was none other than Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698–721?). Aldfrith was also responsible for adding the interlinear gloss in Old English.

Also featured in the Radio 3 progamme is the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000). This is the oldest intact European book, and was purchased by the British Library in 2012, following a successful fundraising campaign (see our previous post, St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation).


The St Cuthbert Gospel, dating from the late-7th-century (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 28v).

The Lindisfarne Gospels is on semi-permanent display at the British Library, but both it and the St Cuthbert Gospel will soon be showcased in a major exhibition at Durham. David Almond's radio documentary is entitled "The Gospels Come Home", and explores the meaning of the Lindisfarne Gospels to himself and his fellow North-Easterners. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 19.45–20.30 on 16 June, and will subsequently be available to United Kingdom listeners via the BBC iPlayer.

06 June 2013

What Did Medieval Kings Really Look Like?

The first 10 folios of Royal MS 20 A II (the newest upload to our Digitised Manuscripts site) are a portable portrait gallery of the kings of England in chronological order.  Each king is depicted in a tinted drawing, surrounded by symbols or events from his reign. The images of later kings are followed by genealogical tables or Latin verses about the monarch in question.

Here are some examples of the ways that artists in the 14th century portrayed their rulers.  The question is - can the images tell us anything at all about how these kings really looked?

Edward the Confessor is shown in the manuscript as tall, upright, and elegantly dressed, posing with a sceptre and a book, looking pensively into the distance.

Detail of a miniature of Edward the Confessor, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 5r

In his portrait, Richard I (or Richard the Lion Heart), though seated on his throne, appears ready to leap into action and his garments seem rather ill-fitting. He is cross-eyed and looks somewhat belligerent. The heads of three Christians and three Saracens - a reference to his Crusading fame - glare at each other from either side of his throne.

Detail of a miniature of Richard the Lionheart, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8r

Compare the above to the fine figure on the 19th century statue in front of the House of Lords in London!

Statue of Richard the Lionheart, before the Palace of Westminster, via Wikipedia Commons

King John is shown in the manuscript smiling tenderly at his dogs, while stroking one of them playfully.  He has a simple, open face, and does not seem to be weighed down by the cares of state.

Detail of a miniature of King John, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Henry III, on the other hand, looks rather disgruntled in his portrait as he shows off the bells of his new cathedral, Westminster Abbey.  He does not seem very pleased with the way his project has turned out, or perhaps he is frustrated by the building costs!


Miniature of Henry III enthroned, flanked by Westminster Abbey and church bells, with a genealogical table of his descendants below, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 9r

The portrait of  Edward the Confessor (top) is one of 10 produced by the same artist, which can be found on folios 2 to 5 of the manuscript, beginning with legendary kings like Vortigern and Arthur.  They are all framed in black.  The portraits on folios 5v to 10 are by a second artist, who drew the later kings from Edward the Confessor to Edward II.  In this final portrait (below), Edward II is referred to as prince (‘princeps’), in the caption, indicating that the image might date from before or around the time of his coronation in 1307. He has a rather pretty face, and the person presenting the crown is looking at him sideways, apparently unsure of him.  Beneath the image, a poem in praise of King Edward has been erased, and replaced by a lament, allegedly written by the king after his deposition in 1327, bemoaning his fate as ‘le roys abatu’ (the beaten-down king) who is mocked by everyone.

Miniature of Edward II enthroned, being offered the crown, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 10r

This series of portraits of English kings precedes a copy of Peter of Langtoft’s French verse chronicle, tracing the history of Britain from the early legends of Albion and Brutus up to the time of Edward II.  Langtoft was a canon at an Augustinian priory called Bridlington in Yorkshire, and this manuscript of his work was copied in the North of England.  It also contains fragments of the Lancelot-Grail romances and a letter attributed to Joanna, Queen of Sicily.

Section of Langtoft's Chronicle detailing battles of King Arthur, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 34r

Royal 20 A II was one of the manuscripts displayed in last year's Royal exhibition, and can be seen in its fully digitised version here.

- Chantry Westwell


15 May 2013

Have You Used DigiPal Yet?

The online world is awash with new resources for the study of medieval manuscripts. One such is DigiPal, maintained at King's College, London. As its homepage states, DigiPal (Digital Resource and Database of Palaeography, Manuscripts and Diplomatic) focuses on the handwriting of English manuscripts, particularly those produced between AD 1000 and 1100, during the reigns of Æthelred, Cnut and William the Conqueror.

DigiPal is still in development, but it already has images available from almost 50 medieval books and charters in the British Library's collections. And here is one example:

Add Ch 19795 face
Lease by Archbishop Wulfstan to Wulfgifu of land at Perry Wood in St Martin's-without-Worcester, 1003 x 1023 (London, British Library, Additional Charter 19795, face).

DigiPal enables its users to review and compare individual letter forms, and to examine the work of individual scribes. The site includes a guide on how to use DigiPal (which demonstrates, for instance, how to find manuscripts produced in Worcester and held at the British Library).

We heartily recommend that those of you interested in vernacular, Anglo-Saxon manuscripts consult this site. For more details about the project, its outcomes and rationale, see here. DigiPal already features manuscripts from many other institutions, including Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: for an excellent feature on the project, see the Parker Library blog.

Add Ch 19795 face
Detail of Archbishop Wulfstan's lease (London, British Library, Additional Charter 19795, face).

10 May 2013

King Offa and the Ceolfrith Bible

Sometime in the 8th century, King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-796), of Offa's Dyke fame, is reputed to have given a Bible to the monks of Worcester. But where did he obtain it, and what was its subsequent fate? Some answers to these questions are found in a number of manuscripts at the British Library, and they reveal a strange state of affairs, from 7th-century Northumbria to post-medieval Nottinghamshire.


Passage from IV Kings, with a red rubric at the beginning of chapter 2 (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 3r).

Our story begins with Ceolfrith, saint and abbot of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria from 690 to 716. Ceolfrith was Bede’s early mentor, and during his rule the size and wealth of the monastery increased greatly and the number of books in the library doubled. Most famously, Ceolfrith commissioned three large Bibles from his own scriptoria: one for Jarrow, one for Wearmouth and the third for the Pope.

Realising that he was close to death, Ceolfrith resigned from the abbacy in 716 and set out for Rome, where he planned to present one of the Bibles to Pope Gregory II (715-731) and to remain to await his death. But he died en route, at Langres in Burgundy, and the Bible he was carrying instead made its way to the monastery of Monte Amiata in Florence. It is the only one of Ceolfrith's three Bibles to survive intact, and is now in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana at Florence, known as the Codex Amiatinus and the oldest surviving full copy of the Bible in Latin. The image below of Christ in Majesty with the four Evangelists is one of two full-page miniatures from this huge volume, which is over 48cm tall, weighs 35kg and has more than one thousand pages.

Image of the Codex Amitianus (courtesy of

British Library MS Additional 45025 is thought to be part of one of the two other Bibles commissioned by Ceolfrith. Only ten leaves and a fragment of an eleventh survive, from III and IV Kings, but the dimensions of the folios match those of the Codex Amiatinus, and it is written in the same Uncial style of script. Additional 45025 may still have been in Northumbria when the monasteries were sacked by the Vikings, and their libraries destroyed or dispersed. However, the Ceolfrith Bible, as it is now known, was most probably at Worcester Cathedral by the 11th century, when Bishop Wulfstan II (1062-1095) ordered that copies of important documents be added to a precious book described as the  ‘Great Bible’. Could this manuscript have somehow passed to King Offa, who then donated it to Worcester?


Ruins of St Paul’s Abbey, Jarrow, dedicated in 685 (image courtesy of BBC).

No record of the fate of this magnificent early Bible is available until the 16th century, when some leaves were sadly used as covers for deeds pertaining to lands owned by the Willoughby family, Barons Middleton of Wollaton Hall (Nottinghamshire). Three of the ten folios of Additional 45025  have labels written upside down in the margins relating to the documents they contained (see below). The Bible fragment was bought from Lord Middleton in 1937 by the Friends of the National Libraries for the British Museum.

Decorated initial P and Chi Rho monogram (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 2v).

The leaves of Additional 45025 are sparsely decorated, with initials and first lines in red, and on f. 2v (above) the beginning of IV Kings has the initial P in black with red dots and, between the columns, the Chi Rho monogram, symbol of Christ, flanked by alpha and omega. This page also has a 14th-century note in red marking the end of Book 3 (‘Explicit liber tertius’) and the beginning of Book 4 (‘Incipit quartus’).

Another two portions of the same Bible (or its companion) also survive at the British Library, Additional MS 37777 and Loan MS 81. We now know that one of Ceolfrith's three great Bibles came to reside in Italy. The British Library fragments together imply that a second Bible left Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century, passing in turn to King Offa and the monks of Worcester.

You can read more about the Ceolfrith Bible in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (eds.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900 (London, 1991), no. 87; Ivor Atkins & Neil R. Ker, eds., Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Wigorniensis made in 1622-1623 by Patrick Young, librarian to King James I (Cambridge, 1944), pp. 77-79; and Richard Marsden, ‘Manus Bedae: Bede’s contribution to Ceolfrith’s bibles’, Anglo-Saxon England, 27 (1998), 65-85.

And you can also find full digital coverage of Additional MS 45025 on our Digitised Manuscripts site!

Chantry Westwell

06 May 2013

You Say Beowulf, I Say Biowulf

Students of medieval manuscripts will know that it's always instructive to consult the originals, rather than to rely on printed editions. There are many aspects of manuscript culture that do not translate easily onto the printed page -- annotations, corrections, changes of scribe, the general layout, the decoration, ownership inscriptions.

The famous Old English epic poem Beowulf is a case in point. Only one manuscript of Beowulf has survived, which is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV). The writing of this manuscript was divided between two scribes, the first of whom terminated their stint with the first three lines of f. 175v, ending with the words "sceaden mæl scyran"; their counterpart took over at this point, implying that an earlier exemplar lay behind their text, from which both scribes copied.

The point at which the scribes of Beowulf change (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 175v, lines 3-4).

The presence of the handwriting of two different scribes in the Beowulf-manuscript has other implications. The script of the second scribe is consistent with having been trained to write in the late-10th century, whereas that of the first is more typical of the period after AD 1000. On those grounds, the most likely time for these scribes to have collaborated is the early decades of the 11th century, perhaps during the reign of Æthelred the Unready (978-1016), although modern scholars are by no means agreed on that point.

Another distinction between those two scribes, perhaps less familiar to modern students of the text, is the varying way in which they spell the name of the eponymous hero Beowulf. On 40 occasions, Beowulf's name is spelt in the conventional manner (the first is found in line 18 of the standard editions, the last in line 2510). However, in 7 separate instances, the name is instead spelt "Biowulf" ("let's call the whole thing off"), the first case coming in line 1987 of the poem.

The spelling "Biowulf" occurs twice on this page, the first in lines 9-10 (Bio-wulf) and the second in the final line, both times using the Anglo-Saxon wynn (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 176v).

What's most apparent here is that the spelling "Biowulf" is confined to the second scribe, who nonetheless alternated it with "Beowulf". While this may be simply a scribal tick -- an uncertainty how the name should be spelled, or a simple inconsistency -- it does lend to the debate over the origin of the name, a summary of which can be found here. (Various suggestions include Bee-Wolf, Beow-Wolf, Biewolf and War-Wolf -- take your pick.)

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f133r   Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f176v
The spellings of Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, ff. 133r, 176v).

If you weren't already aware, images of the entire Beowulf-manuscript can now be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site, where you can investigate for yourselves how the manuscript was written.

30 April 2013

How the Camel Got the Hump

Some of you may be familiar with the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling (1902), which include "How the Leopard Got His Spots", "How the Elephant Got His Trunk", and "How the Camel Got His Hump". We like to think that Kipling, a man of letters, might have been able to draw inspiration from the British Library's collections when concocting these tales, not least when it came to his famous story of the camel.

Two camels in the Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 101v).

Have you ever asked yourself what a camel looked like in medieval times? Marvellously, we have some idea, thanks to drawings found in three of the greatest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, all at the British Library: the Beowulf-manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV); the Old English Hexateuch (Cotton Claudius B IV); and an illustrated miscellany from 11th-century Canterbury (Cotton Tiberius B V).

Ants and camels in the Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 101v).

In the text known as the Marvels of the East is a passage describing ants the size of dogs, which live beyond the river Gorgoneus, and dig up gold from the earth. Men seeking gold are described crossing the river with their camels, leaving the young tied on their own side; the she-camels are laden with gold and return to their young, but the male camels are left behind, for the ants to devour, enabling the thieves to escape. In the Beowulf-manuscript, this scene is depicted by a large miniature (sadly damaged by fire), in which three dog-like ants attack a tethered camel on the right, while a man holds another camel bearing a saddle, and a young camel (or brontosaurus, take your pick) is tied to a tree at the bottom. In the copy of the same scene in the illustrated miscellany, a camel is attacked by ants while a man crosses the river to safety on the back of a she-camel.

The dog-sized ants and the camels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B V, part 1, f. 80v).

If this wasn't enough to give the male camel the hump, what else was? Well, in the Beowulf-manuscript, the next scene, describing a place where many elephants are born, is illustrated with two slightly grumpy-looking camels (shown at the beginning of this post). Presumably the camels are saying to each other, "Doesn't the artist know what an elephant looks like?" The illustrated miscellany represents the same passage (in Latin, "in his locis nascitur multitudo magna elephantorum") with a pig-like elephant standing on an island.

The elephant in an Anglo-Saxon illustrated miscellany (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B V, part 1, f. 81r).

Of course, it's highly likely that few Anglo-Saxons had ever seen a camel in real life, and so we should not be surprised that their pictures of them are quirky, to say the least. But is this a world-first, a chorus line of dancing camels? Riverdance, anyone?

A line of camels in the Old English Hexateuch: part of Genesis, chapter 24 (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39r).

You can read more about the manuscripts of the Marvels of the East in the facsimile of the same name by Montague Rhodes James (Oxford: The Roxburghe Club, 1929). For the Hexateuch, see Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: The Frontiers of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (London: The British Library, 2007). And don't forget to look at our Digitised Manuscripts site, to see both the Beowulf-manuscript and the Hexateuch in their entirety.

17 April 2013

What's in the Beowulf Manuscript?

We're often asked what the Beowulf manuscript contains. Here's a helpful run-down, which explains how the epic poem we know as Beowulf is part of a wider collection, and how that codex was itself bound in the 17th century with an entirely separate medieval volume.

Essentially, all the components of the "Beowulf manuscript" were put together by the Parliamentarian and antiquarian scholar Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). Cotton had at his disposal two independent medieval codices: one dating from the very end of the 10th century or beginning of the 11th, and containing the poem Beowulf and other texts; the second dating from the 12th century, and containing Old English versions of Augustine's Soliloquies and the Gospel of Nicodemus. Cotton had these bound together as part of a single volume, christened Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (once the 15th item on shelf A of a press named after the emperor Vitellius). At the front of that volume were added a leaf removed from a 14th century Psalter, a list of contents, and a medieval endleaf (presumably taken from one of the two medieval compilations).


You can see the whole Beowulf manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But, for ease of reference, here is a full list of the contents, plus images from selected pages.

Psalter leaf (f. 1: now removed to form Royal MS 13 D I*, f. 37, the remains of the Psalter to which it originally belonged)

England, c. 1350-1360


Early modern endleaf (f. 2)

England, 1st half of the 17th century

Contains a list of contents in the hand of Richard James (d. 1638)


Medieval endleaf (f. 3)

England, 1st half of the 15th century (f. 3r), 2nd half of the 16th century (f. 3v)

Medieval endleaf, containing historical memoranda


"The Southwick Codex" (ff. 4-93)

England (provenance Southwick Priory, Hampshire), 2nd half of the 12th century

Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (ff. 4r–59v: imperfect)

Gospel of Nicodemus (ff. 60r–86v: imperfect)

Debate of Saturn and Solomon (ff. 86v–93v)

Homily on St Quintin (f. 93v: imperfect)

Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 4r)

Gospel of Nicodemus (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 60r)

Debate of Saturn and Solomon (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 86v)

Homily on St Quintin (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 93v)


"The Nowell Codex" (ff. 94-209, named after its former owner, Laurence Nowell, d. c. 1570)

England, last quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century

Homily on St Christopher (ff. 94r–98r: imperfect)

Marvels of the East (ff. 98v–106v)

Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ff. 107r–131v)

Beowulf (ff. 132r–201v)

Judith (ff. 202r–209v: imperfect)

Homily on St Christopher (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 94r)

Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 98v)

Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 107r)

Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 132r)

Judith (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 202r)

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