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146 posts categorized "English"

14 February 2019

My ‘right well-beloved Valentine’

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In 1477, a gentlewoman named Margery Brews was soon to be married to a member of the Norfolk aristocracy, John Paston. Margaret and John were rather smitten with each other, and in the year leading up to their marriage they exchanged a series of love letters. In one particular letter, sent in February, Margery described John as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’ and signed off the letter as ‘your Valentine, Margery Brews’. This intimate letter between these two lovebirds is thought to be the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter.  

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Letter of Margery Brews to John Paston, February 1477: London, British Library, Add MS 43490, f. 24r

Despite their passion, there was trouble ahead for Margery and John. Their relatives initially opposed the marriage. Margery’s father felt that his daughter could make a more financially advantageous match and John’s elder brother was insulted that his permission had not been asked before seeking Margery’s hand in marriage. Thankfully, Margery’s mother, Elizabeth, was a skilled negotiator. Elizabeth wrote a letter to John, and took advantage of the Valentine’s season to sort out these problems. She wrote:

'On Friday it is Saint Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooses itself a mate. And if you would like to come on Thursday night ... I trust God that you will speak to my husband, and I will pray that we will bring the matter to a conclusion.'

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Margery addresses John as 'right well-beloved Valentine': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

John’s family were also unwilling to support the match on the grounds that Margery’s dowry was too low. In the letter where Margery calls John her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’, she states:

'I want you to understand clearly that my father refuses to part with any more money than a £100 and 50 marks in this business, which is very far from fulfilling your wishes.'

Margery informed John that if he was not satisfied with the £100 or felt that he could get more money, he was 'not to take the trouble to visit any more on this business'.

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Annotation on the back of the letter notes that Margery calls herself John’s “Valentine”: Add MS 43490, f. 24v

As Virgil said, “Love conquers all”. Margery and John were married a few months later. These letters are part of a large archive known as the Paston Letters, comprising 1,000 letters and documents including petitions, leases and wills. These documents provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Paston family of Norfolk over a period of 70 years.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

Margery and John’s love letters also provide valuable insight into the connection between romance and the feast of St Valentine on 14 February. The two have not always been associated. We know that St Valentine was a Christian martyr who lived and died in Rome during the 3rd century. Over 1,000 years later, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowls, in which he described a group of birds who gather together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year.

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Margery signs the letter as 'Be your Voluntyne / Mergery Brews': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

During their courtship, Margery wrote another letter to John in which she referred to him as her ‘dearly beloved valentine’. Margery ended this letter by saying, 'I beg you that you will not let anyone on Earth see this letter, except yourself'. If only Margery knew that over 500 years later, her love letters would be discussed in the news and be fully available to view online!

Quotations from the letters in this blogpost have been taken from D. Watt (ed.), The Paston Women: Selected Letters (Woodbridge, 2004).

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 February 2019

Easy as ABC?

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Do you know your ABC? How about your ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚱ ᚳ ? Or your ᚁ ᚂ ᚃ ?

The inhabitants of the British Isles in the first millennium spoke many different languages and wrote in several alphabets. Variant writing systems identified from early Anglo-Saxon England — some of which can be viewed in our stellar Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — include runes, ogham and Greek, and even attempts at replicating Hebrew and Arabic letters.

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The back of the Harford Farm Brooch includes a runic inscription which says ‘Luda repaired [or makes reparations by] this brooch’ (England, c. 610–650): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Runes were used to represent the earliest Germanic languages, including early forms of Old English and the Scandinavian languages. The earliest surviving examples of these angular letters were incised into metal, stone, wood or ceramics. We know that each of these runes had a name, taken from a noun that started with that rune: for example, (n) was called nyd (need), while (th) was called thorn (thorn), perhaps because the symbol itself looks slightly like a branch with thorn. In the 10th century, someone added the names to a runic alphabet on the back of a copy of the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

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Runes copied in the 10th century, with their names added in the 11th century: Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f. 11v

Even though the Latin alphabet was eventually adapted to write English, runes did not cease to be used in Anglo-Saxon England. Several objects from the 7th to the 11th centuries feature runic inscriptions. Some surviving blades and scabbards feature the names of their early owners in runes or cryptic, talismanic inscriptions.

The Ruthwell Cross features the ‘Dream of the Rood’ poem inscribed in runes around its sides. Even when writing in Latin letters, the Anglo-Saxons used runes to represent sounds in their language which were not present in the Roman alphabet, such as æ, th (represented by þ or the adapted Latin letters Ð, ð), and w (Ƿ). Some of these letters are still used in Icelandic and Faroese spelling to this day.

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A scribe from 10th-century England practised his alphabet in the margins of this 9th-century copy of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 117v 

Another non-Latin alphabet known in England in the first millennium was ogham. This writing system is formed of lines carved at different angles around a central line. Examples of ogham inscriptions have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and beyond. On display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a knife inscribed with ogham that was found in South-West Norfolk.

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A knife with an ogham inscription, from Norwich Castle Museum

Ogham script was certainly known to Byrhtferth of Ramsey in the late 10th or early 11th century, and by the scribes who copied his work in the 12th century. Ogham occurs in a 12th-century copy of his diagram (in Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17), although not in the version in Harley MS 3667. Perhaps the scribe of the Harley manuscript omitted the symbols because he did not understand them.

Alphabets from other parts of the world were known to certain Anglo-Saxons. Greek letters appear in some early medieval English manuscripts. Knowledge of Greek in Anglo-Saxon England may be associated with the school run by Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian in Canterbury in the late 7th and early 8th century. Theodore was from the Greek-speaking part of the Mediterranean and became archbishop of Canterbury in 668. Bede used the Greek alphabet in mathematical calculations and recommended it for creating codes. Some early medieval scribes also tried to imitate Hebrew letters, with somewhat less success. 

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Greek letters, in red, spelling the Latin phrase ‘Deo Gratias’: Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

One incredible survival featured in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a coin of King Offa (d. 796) that imitates the Arabic script on a dinar of Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (AH 136–58/ AD 754–75). The Mercian moneyer who made the coin did not copy the letters correctly and clearly could not read Arabic.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

You can see many of these alphabets for yourself in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which is open until 19 February. We recommend that you check availability before you travel as many time-slots are already full.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 January 2019

Cambridge loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms  

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What do the St Augustine Gospels, the Eadwine Psalter and the Moore Bede have in common? They have all been kindly loaned to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by institutions in Cambridge. On display in the exhibition are a host of manuscripts from Corpus Christi College, Trinity College and the University Library. Read on to find out more about some of these fantastic loans.

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The St Augustine Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v

The St Augustine Gospels is one of the great treasures on loan from Corpus Christi College. This gospel-book dates from the late-6th to the early-7th century and is thought to have been made in Italy, possibly at Rome. This manuscript likely came to England soon after its creation, perhaps with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury. The St Augustine Gospels is still used today at every inauguration of a new archbishop of Canterbury, travelling from Cambridge for the occasion. This splendid manuscript provides a tangible link to the very early days of the Anglo-Saxon Church.

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The Dean of Canterbury holds the “Canterbury Gospels”, as Archbishop Rowan Williams kisses the ancient book (by permission of James Rosenthal/Anglican World)

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The Otho-Corpus Gospels: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

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The Cotton-Otho Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 197B, p. 245

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed two portions of the Otho-Corpus Gospels. One fragment is from the British Library’s own collections, and was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire in 1731; the other part has been loaned by Corpus Christi College. This is a rare opportunity to view these two portions together and to compare the illustrations of John’s eagle and Mark’s lion.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscript A: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 173, f. 13v

Another manuscripts on loan from Corpus Christi College is the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, otherwise known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’. This is a 9th-century copy of the original compilation of the Chronicle, one of the most important narrative sources for the Anglo-Saxon period, and the earliest surviving witness of this text. Later versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are also on display in the exhibition, namely manuscript B, manuscript C and manuscript D.

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Asser’s Life of King Alfred: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 100, p. 325

Corpus Christi has also loaned a 16th-century transcript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred. This is a biography of the 9th-century King Alfred the Great of Wessex, written during the king’s lifetime by the Welsh monk Asser. The only medieval manuscript of the ‘Life of King Alfred’ that survived into modern times was destroyed in the Cotton Library fire in October 1731. Although Alfred is commonly remembered as the Anglo-Saxon king who defeated the Vikings, Asser’s work barely mentions this, instead giving a more personal account of Alfred’s life.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1, f. 24r

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition also features a selection of manuscripts on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge. Among them is the Eadwine Psalter, a mid-12th century manuscript made in England. This Psalter is the second copy made of the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter, which was revolutionary for its inclusion of drawings outside the confines of decorative initials and borders. The Eadwine Psalter is extraordinary because of its elaborate illustrations, and also its inclusion of all three of Jerome’s translations of the Psalms, an Anglo-Norman French translation and a translation into Old English.

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The Trinity Gospels: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r

The Trinity Gospels, also on loan from Trinity College, is one of the most elaborately decorated of all surviving 11th-century gospel-books. This manuscript is notable for containing all four of the full-page decorated ‘incipit’ pages at the beginning of the gospels. They are decorated with gold and painted haloed figures holding books and scrolls.

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Hrabanus Maurus, De laudibus sanctae crucis: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.16.3, f. 30v

A copy of Hrabanus Maurus’s fascinating text, ‘In Praise of the Holy Cross’, is also on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College. This is one of only two copies of this text to be made in Anglo-Saxon England. Hrabanus Maurus was a renowned Carolingian scholar whose works were popular throughout medieval Europe. This particular work contains poems where both word and metre are embedded into a grid, with concealed phrases revealed only by superimposed images and shapes, in this instance a cross.

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The ‘Moore Bede’: Cambridge University Library MS Kk.5.16, f. 22r

One of the manuscripts on loan from Cambridge University Library is known as the ‘Moore Bede’. This is perhaps the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. This well-known text is the first narrative historical account of the origins of the English. The manuscript is copied in Insular minuscule, which was faster to write than the more elaborate uncial script, allowing scribes to meet the exceptional demand for Bede’s work.

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The Book of Cerne: Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.10, f. 32r

Finally, Cambridge University Library has loaned us The Book of Cerne, a beautifully decorated 9th-century prayer-book. It contains extracts from the four Gospels, 74 prayers, a selection of Psalms and the earliest surviving liturgical drama in England, the Harrowing of Hell. The illustrations in this manuscript are very sophisticated, with each gospel proceeded by a portrait of the evangelist and his symbol.

We are incredibly grateful to our Cambridge friends for lending these manuscripts to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The exhibition runs until Tuesday, 19 February. Tickets are available here. Hurry… they’re selling fast!

Eleanor Stinson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 January 2019

The Anglo-Saxon origins of the English counties

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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.

Counties in the Tribal Hidage

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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’.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

 

12 December 2018

A useless letter?

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Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

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Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

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Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

Address

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The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

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The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

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Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Listen I have heard many ancient tales

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

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Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 November 2018

Fantastic books and where to see them

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This weekend is a special moment for Harry Potter fans in the United Kingdom. The latest instalment of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise is released in cinemas nationwide, starring Johnny Depp, Eddie Redmayne and Ezra Miller (all of whom have visited the British Library). Many of us in the Library's Medieval Manuscripts team are huge fans of the world of Harry Potter, but it has to be said that our day-to-day activities are more concerned with the care of fantastic manuscripts rather than fantastic beasts!

So where can you find some absolutely jaw-dropping manuscripts? Look no further than our sensational Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which has been drawing in the crowds (and is open until 19 February 2019).

Here is a selection of some of the outstanding books on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, in the order that you will find them in the gallery. Which are your favourites?

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The St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v): made in late 6th century Italy, this gospel-book may have been brought to Anglo-Saxon England by some of the Christian missionaries who arrived from Rome in 597.

 

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The Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk.5.16, f. 94r): Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a critical source for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity. The Moore Bede is probably the oldest surviving copy, made around the year 737.

 

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The Book of Durrow (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 57, f. 85v): the earliest of the fully decorated insular gospel books, drawing on sources and inspiration from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Pictland and the Mediterranean.

 

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The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r): the work of a single scribe and artist, and often acclaimed as one of the most spectacular manuscripts to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.

 

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library Additional MS 89000): discovered in St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, this small copy of the Gospel of St John is the earliest surviving European book with an intact binding.

 

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Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1): this colossal manuscript is one of three single-volume copies of the Bible made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century. It was taken to Rome in 716, and has returned temporarily to England (for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) for the first time in 1302 years.

 

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The Book of Nunnaminster (British Library Harley MS 2965, f. 16v): one of a group of 9th-century prayer books whose contents, script and decoration are all linked to Mercia. It may have been used by Mercian noblewomen, as two of its prayers include words written in the feminine form.

 

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King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r): this translation of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), who is known to have encouraged the translation of Latin texts into English to aid learning and education in his kingdom.

 

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Manuscript B (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30v): this version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserves an account of the campaigns of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, and his wife Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ (d. 918), against the Viking invaders.

 

68. Cambridge Corpus Christi 183  f. 1v

Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v): this famous image of King Æthelstan (924–939) presenting a book to the Community of St Cuthbert is the earliest surviving manuscript ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king.

 

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The Coronation Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v): a gospel-book presented to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, by Æthelstan, the first king of the English (924–939).

 

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Beowulf (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r): the only medieval copy of what is widely regarded as the greatest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

 

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The Old English Hexateuch (British Library Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 19r): the earliest example of an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Old Testament.

 

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The Marvels of the East (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81v): fantastic illustrations accompany these descriptions of 37 ‘marvels’. This manuscript also contains lists of popes, Anglo-Saxon kings and Roman emperors, and a map of the world.

 

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Dunstan’s Classbook (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.4.32, f. 1r): Dunstan was archbishop of Canterbury (959–988) and leader of the Benedictine reform movement, and the ‘Classbook’ contains annotations in his own hand.

 

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The Trinity Gospels (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r): one of the most sumptuous of all 11th-century gospel books, featuring extensive use of gold and beautifully painted images.

 

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels (New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover): a splendidly decorated gospel-book which is associated with Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig, earl of Northumbria (d. 1066). Many Anglo-Saxon gospel-books are known to have had treasure bindings such as this, but very few of them survive.

 

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Encomium of Queen Emma (British Library Additional MS 33241, f. 1v): a fascinating text in praise of Queen Emma, wife successively of two kings of England, Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) and Cnut (1016–1035).

 

161_E31-2-2 f304v Great Domesday Book Yorkshire

Great Domesday (The National Archives, E 31/2/2, f. 304v): one of the most significant manuscripts in English history, preserving a major portion of the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085.

 

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The Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 32, f. 8r): made in northern France during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840), this revolutionary manuscript was in Canterbury by the 11th century, when it was used as the model for another fantastic manuscript on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, the Harley Psalter (British Library Harley MS 603).

 

All of these books are testament to the creativity and skill of their Anglo-Saxon scribes, artists and makers and to the care of their subsequent owners. We are particularly grateful to all our lenders credited here (from Cambridge, Dublin, Florence, London, New York, Oxford and Utrecht), without whom our exhibition would not have been so FANTASTIC.

You can book your tickets to see the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019) here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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08 November 2018

Through many hands: the Vespasian Psalter

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The British Library's current major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, is a treasure-trove of marvellous manuscripts and astonishing artefacts. One of those many treasures is an 8th-century manuscript known as the Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). Here we piece together its fascinating history. 

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The opening of Psalm 68 (‘Salvum me fac’) from the Vespasian Psalter, ?Canterbury, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 64v 

The Vespasian Psalter is a wonderful witness to the ongoing processes of creation, addition and loss in a medieval manuscript. Its story begins in the second quarter of the 8th century, around the time Bede was completing his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731).  

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Detail of the opening of the hymn ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’ by Ambrose of Milan: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 152r 

It was designed from the outset as a song-book. The core part of the manuscript contains not just the Psalms but also a selection of canticles and hymns, including two written by Ambrose of Milan. These were all copied out in an elegant Insular uncial script, with headings in rustic capitals. 

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The opening of Basil of Caesarea’s ‘Homily on the First Psalm’, translated by Rufinus: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 2v 

In the 9th century, several leaves were added to accommodate supplementary material. The manuscript henceforth was prefaced by Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on Psalm 1, epistles between Jerome (the Psalms’ translator) and Pope Damasus I, and various texts relating to the origin, division, performance, interpretation and ordering of the Psalms. These were all designed to expand upon the core of the manuscript and facilitate its use and study. 

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Psalm 151 (‘Pusillus eram’): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 141r 

Jerome translated the Psalms not from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the Bible, but from the Septuagint (Greek) version. Itself a translation from the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint remains the preferred text in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The numbering adopted by the two versions is slightly different, primarily as a consequence of differing interpretations of how certain psalms should be divided. The Septuagint also includes an additional Psalm, numbered 151, not found in the Hebrew text. In the Vespasian Psalter, a single leaf was inserted between the end of Psalm 150 and the beginning of the first canticle to make space for its inclusion. 

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Detail of Anglo-Saxon neumes added to the end of Psalm 150 (‘Laudate dominum in sanctis eius’), with an additional noted line and explicit: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 140v 

Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148–150, to provide a guide for their chanting, with Anglo-Saxon neumes added at the end of verses and half-verses. 

It is not known who was responsible for instigating or executing each of these additions to the manuscript. However, the hands of two scribes who were intimately connected with Canterbury have been identified in the Vespasian Psalter, shedding light not only on its continued augmentation but also on a curious blip in its provenance. 

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Detail of the opening of Psalm 94 (‘Deus ultionum’) with interlinear Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 90r 

The first scribe is known as the Royal Bible Master Scribe, after his role in Royal MS 1 E VI, and his hand is known in other manuscripts from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. Around the second quarter of the 9th century — amidst the other supplementary activities in the manuscript — he added an interlinear Old English gloss to the Psalms. It has the distinction of being the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text. 

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Hymn and Athanasian Creed, copied by Eadwig Basan, with a later Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 155r 

The second scribe is known by name: Eadwig Basan. He added several texts to the manuscript two centuries later: another hymn (for matins on Sunday), the Athanasian Creed, an Oratio by Eugenius of Toledo, and a confession prayer by Alcuin. These in turn were given an Old English gloss shortly afterwards, bringing them into line with the rest of the volume. 

Arundel MS 155
Full-page miniature of St Benedict and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1012x1023: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
 

Knowledgeable readers will have spotted that Eadwig’s name is usually associated not with St Augustine’s Abbey, but its neighbour Christ Church, Cathedral. His hand has been identified in several Christ Church books: most notably his eponymous Psalter (Arundel MS 155), in which he may be the figure prostrate at the feet of St Benedict in a full-page miniature; the Harley Psalter (with two other scribes, Harley MS 603) and the Cnut Gospels (an addition on f. 44v; Royal MS 1 D IX). He is famously memorialised with a full-page portrait of him at work in another Psalter that bears his name (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1). 

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Full-page miniature of David and the musicians (described by Thomas of Elmham in his history): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v 

The circumstances in which Eadwig made his additions to the Vespasian Psalter are not known. Whether he went to St Augustine’s or the book to Christ Church, it is clear that the Vespasian Psalter was at St Augustine’s for several further centuries. Thomas of Elmham’s history of St Augustine’s, written in the mid- to late 1410s and preserved in Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 1, described a Psalter that was kept on the high altar of the abbey church — a Psalter whose description exactly matches the present manuscript. 

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Two canticles, with the off-print from a missing carpet page: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 142r 

Following the dissolution of St Augustine’s in 1538, the Psalter found its way into the hands of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The manuscript had suffered losses in the interim. The opening few leaves of the Psalms were gone; Elmham’s description indicates that they contained a depiction of Samuel, perhaps in the form of a full-page miniature at the opening of the text. A carpet-page also once adorned the manuscript: all that remains is a shadowy, cruciform off-print on f. 142r. 

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Detail of a letter written by Matthew Parker to William Cecil, 24 January 1565/66: 
Lansdowne MS 8, f. 190r (formerly item 73) 

Cecil lent the book to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Although Parker dutifully returned it in 1566, his desire to keep it is obvious: in the accompanying letter, he dropped a hint to that effect, writing to Cecil that the Psalter is ‘remitted again to your library: in the riches whereof, videlicet of such treasures, I rejoice as much as they were in my own’. Parker lamented the losses at the opening of the Psalms and described to Cecil how he would have had them made good, had the manuscript been his: moving the miniature of David (f. 30v) to the beginning and having the missing text ‘counterfeited in antiquity’ (i.e. copied to resemble the Insular uncial used for the Psalms). 

  Cotton MS Augustus II 3 recto
Charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, England, 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

It was Robert Cotton — who acquired the manuscript in 1599, a year after Cecil’s death — who addressed these deficiencies in his own unique way. He first inserted a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, and trimmed its edges so that it would fit. Cotton’s rationale (it seems) was that the charter provided a further example of Insular uncial. He may also have suspected, but cannot have known, that the charter was closely contemporary to the Vespasian Psalter’s production, being dated to 736. 

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Christ in Majesty, from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1r 

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Full-page foliate initial ‘B’ inhabited by men and animals, from Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1v

At some juncture this charter was removed (it is now Cotton MS Augustus II 3) and in its place was put a leaf from the beginning of an English Psalter of c. 1220. On one side is Christ in Majesty and on the other a large decorated initial B and the opening words of the first Psalm. This is a better fit with the content, if not the decorative style, of the rest of the manuscript. 

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Detail of a cutting containing the coat of arms of Margaret of York impaled with those of her husband Charles the Bold, with her motto (‘Bien en aviegne’) and their initials ('CM'), by the Master of Mary of Burgundy illuminator, from the Breviary of Margaret of York: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 160v 

Cotton made a further incongruous addition at the end of the manuscript: he pasted in a cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York. Other excisions from this late 15th-century devotional book are present in other Cotton manuscripts – Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 1r–1v, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 2r, and Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r – and the much-mutilated remnant survives as Cambridge, St John’s College, MS H.13

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Fragment of Psalm 2 and opening of Psalm 3 (‘Domine, quid multiplicati sunt’), and the inscription of Robert Cotton: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r 

The Vespasian Psalter escaped the Ashburnham House fire of 1731 completely unscathed — but by that time, as we have seen, it was in far from its original state. It is remarkably well-preserved for a book that is close to 1300 years old, but its life was demonstrably one of use and re-use: its developing role in the liturgy, its reading and translation, its decoration, and its mutilation and repair. It is the involvement of so many hands in the manuscript over so many centuries that has given it such a textured and fascinating history.

You can see the Vespasian Psalter with your own eyes in the once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display at the British Library in London until 19 February 2019.

James Freeman

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