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23 December 2018

Discovered in a stable: the Anderson Pontifical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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

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01 December 2018

A calendar page for December 2018

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It’s December! Hard to believe that 2018 is almost over. But before the year comes to an end, we’ve got a few things to thresh out, literally …

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Calendar page for December, made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

This is the page for December in a 1000-year-old calendar made in southern England. You can currently see the calendar on display in the British Library’s once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The page for December is accompanied by an image of men threshing and winnowing grain. Grain was harvested in ears. To separate the kernels out from the husks, the ears of grain were beaten with flails, as seen on the left of the image.

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Detail of threshers: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

There was then a second process, winnowing, to ensure the edible parts of grain were separated out. Traditionally, winnowers toss the kernels in a basket or winnowing-fan. The heavy, edible kernels fall back down, while the undesirable chaff blows away.

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Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

In the middle of the image, there is a man with stick which is not a flail. It has a serrated edge near the top, and horizontal lines all the way down. Another depiction of it can be found in a related calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, shown below). This might be another farm implement, but Debby Banham and Ros Faith have suggested that this man might be an overseer with a tally stick, counting how much grain had been prepared.

This gives a precious insight into the organisation of farming and landscape in 11th-century England. Very few notes on day-to-day farm work survive: the only exception seems to be the Ely Farming Memoranda (also on display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). The organisation and records of English farming were part of the reason England became such a wealthy kingdom, and this organisation underpinned the impressive administrative achievement of Domesday Book. (At the risk of sounding like broken record, you can even see Domesday Book in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.)

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Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

In the Julius Work Calendar, two men carry off an enormous basket, presumably filled with useable grain. In the Tiberius Work Calendar, the two men with a basket seem to be approaching the threshers, perhaps bringing the ears of grain to be threshed.

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Detail of men winnowing and threshing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

As with earlier tasks featured in this calendar, threshing might not have been the most seasonal activity for December. However, it might have been linked to December because threshing was a major Biblical metaphor. Since threshing is the process that separates useful, edible grain from inedible husks, it was used in both the Old and New Testaments as a metaphor for judgement, for separating the good from the bad. This metaphor might have been particularly appropriate for Advent, which starts in December. Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. Today it is associated with chocolate calendars, but in Anglo-Saxon England it was a time of fasting and penance, like Lent, as people prepared themselves for the holy feasts.

There are a number of feasts highlighted with a gold cross in this calendar, all grouped towards the end of the month. The first of these falls on 21 December, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle which was also, the calendar notes, the Winter Solstice. Thomas was a popular saint in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English accounts were made of his life. Even the writer Ælfric was obliged to write an account of St Thomas’s life: he initially refused because other versions existed and because he and St Augustine had some doubts about some of the miracles attributed to Thomas. Their objection was not to the idea a miracle would happen, but because these stories portrayed Thomas as vengeful, taking delivery of a severed hand after its owner had slapped him.

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Christmas and the following feast days marked out with a gold crosses: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The next major holiday marked in the calendar is one we still celebrate today: Christmas. Learn more about how Christmas was celebrated in 11th-century English monasteries here. Then as now, Christmas kicked off a whole series of festivities: the next three days in the calendar are also marked out in gold. On 26 December is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Rather luridly, the verse in the calendar describes him ‘swimming in blood’. This is followed by the feast of St John the Evangelist and then the feast of the Holy Innocents, the massacre of children in Bethlehem.

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Detail of Sagittarius: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

At the top of the page, there is information about astrological changes in December, including a roundel depicting the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius is here depicted as a centaur, with his cape billowing out elegantly behind him.

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Detail of Sagittarius, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea in a collection of astronomical texts made in Fleury in the 990s, with drawings added a few years later by an English artist: Harley MS 2506, f. 39v

Whatever is on your own calendar for December, we hope you have a great month. And if you are looking for something to do over the winter holidays, the British Library has an interesting exhibition on at the moment …

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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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.

 

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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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 November 2018

The real Lake of Grendel

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What if we told you that Grendel’s lake — the scene of the epic underwater battle in the epic poem Beowulf was a real place? Well, it was, according to a charter written in 931.

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Charter of Æthelstan for Wulfgar, England (Lifton, Devon), 931, with Wulfgar's will attached: Cotton Ch VIII 16

This charter is a grant of land in Ham from Æthelstan (d. 939), the first king of England, to his ‘faithful official’ Wulfgar. The amount of land involved is considerable: 9 hides, or roughly the size of 9 Hyde Parks. In order to be clear about exactly which pieces of land were being transferred, this charter, like many other Anglo-Saxon documents, included a boundary clause in Old English, describing the path you would walk around the edges of the gift.  

'First, [go] to the east ... Then westward to the mossy bank. Then down to the hedge/boundary of Beow’s home, eastward to the blackberry thicket. Then to the black pit/cave. Then north by the head to where the short dyke [is]. [Take] out of this one acre, then [go] to the bird’s pond (mere) to the path ... After that to the long meadow. Then to Grendel’s lake (mere). Then to the hidden gate, then back east ... '

Since the landscape includes Beow’s home and Grendel’s lake, it is tempting to think that these names were inspired by the poem Beowulf (although Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, not Wiltshire). At least three other Anglo-Saxon documents mention ‘Grendel’: there is another instance of ‘Grendel’s lake’, there’s a reference to ‘Grendel’s gate’, and on charter has an added boundary clause referring to ‘Grendeles pytte.’

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‘Grendeles gatan’ (line 2), from a record of Archbishop Dunstan purchasing land to give to St Peter’s Westminster, England, second half of the 10th century: Stowe Ch 32

Of course, some people have suggested that these Grendels aren’t ‘Grendels at all, but rather a ‘green delf’ (green quarry) or even Greendales. However, the association with pits and swamps does link these names to some sinister places from Old English literature. Alternatively, a ‘grendel’ could have been a generic term for 'monster', and these 'grendels' could have inspired the poem, and not the other way around. Whichever way, this charter provides a vivid account of one corner of the landscape of early 10th-century Wiltshire, as well as offering some intriguing possibilities about the mental associations and myths that overlaid that landscape in the minds of its early medieval inhabitants.

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A road near Ham today, courtesy of Google Street View

Beyond the shades of Beowulf, this document is interesting for a number of reasons. It is a work of literature in and of itself. It begins with a dramatic preface, lamenting the costly sins of the ‘tottering’ world and ‘filthy and dreadful mortality’. It urges the audience to flee the ‘wearisome nausea of melancholy’ and instead hold to the Gospels’ promise: ‘Give and it will be given to you.’ This purple prose was drafted by the same scholar who composed many of King Æthelstan’s early charters. Æthelstan’s court was a cosmopolitan centre of learning that attracted scholars from all over the British Isles and Europe. The drafter of this charter was clearly highly educated, with a particularly intricate knowledge of Latin and frequently using Latin words so obscure that they only appear in one or two other sources.  

This charter also touches on major political developments in the British Isles, even though it is ostensibly concerned with land in Wiltshire. In the text of the charter, Æthelstan is described not only as ‘king of the English’ (rex Anglorum), but as ‘king with sole rule of flowering Britain’. This language reflects Æthelstan’s military and political ambitions. Six years later, Æthelstan would win a major battle at Brunanburh against the massed forces of the king of the Scots, the king in Dublin, the king of Strathclyde, and others.

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Detail of the names of the Welsh sub-kings, Hywel (Howael) and Idwal (Iudwal): Cotton Ch VIII 16

The charter suggests that, in 931, Æthelstan already had control over a fairly substantial portion of the British Isles. The charter was witnessed by, among others, two Welsh ‘sub-kings’: Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (d. 949/950) and Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. Hywel was later credited with codifying Welsh law and he may be the only early medieval Welsh ruler who issued surviving coins. He also frequently visited England and even called one of his sons Edwin, an English name (whether out of taste or political expediency). Idwal allegedly died fighting the English in 942. However, he witnessed several of Æthelstan’s charters and there is no evidence he fought against Æthelstan at Brunanburh.

From Beowulf to bramble thickets to British kings, this charter is a good example of the wealth of material that single-sheet documents can contain. Today, the charter is even attached to the will of the recipient, Wulfgar, which reveals how he bequeathed his land and offers further insight into his social networks.

You can come and see this remarkable document in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February 2018). Additionally, all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters are now on Digitised Manuscripts, where you can explore them for monsters, meres and more!

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 October 2018

Pumpkins and pagans

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A few years ago, an American historian was contacted by the creators of a quiz show who were doing some fact-checking for their Halloween episode. Were pumpkins used in pagan rituals in the British Isles, they asked, and did early medieval paganism inspire pumpkins' role in modern-day Halloween celebrations? The historian had to break it to them pumpkins are native to North America and were not introduced to Europe for another thousand years, so that Anglo-Saxons could not have invented pumpkin carving.

There are few reliable sources about early Anglo-Saxon pagan practices. We cannot be sure which holidays they celebrated or how they celebrated them. But Anglo-Saxon pagans did influence some aspects of modern culture, from the days of the week to ideas about supernatural sprites.  

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The Loveden Hill Urn, a 6th-century pagan funerary urn with a runic inscription found in a cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire, on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The earliest English speakers — the Germanic-speaking migrants who settled in southern and eastern Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries — were pagans. Very little written evidence survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in that period, apart from runic inscriptions that are only a few words long. You can see some examples in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (open until 19 February 2019).

Evidence of pagan practices has to be pieced together from place names (such as Wednesbury, Woden's burg and Tyesmere, Tiw's lake) and burials. For example, tombs that contain objects such as weapons, pots, combs, jewellery and other ‘grave goods’ are often believed to be associated with pagans. The most famous burial of this kind was excavated at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, although it also included items associated with Christianity. There, archaeologists discovered the tomb of a rich warrior buried in a 27-metre-long ship along with weapons, a helmet, jewellery, objects used in feasts, and silver from Byzantium. Cremation cemeteries are also associated with pagans, since Christians did not tend to be cremated at this time. 

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Portrait of a pagan? Lid of a 6th-century pagan funerary urn from Norfolk, known as Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.192.1, image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum

Archaeological evidence suggests that there was no one, monolithic ‘Anglo-Saxon paganism’: practices could vary widely across regions, time periods, and even within individual communities. 

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Image of Woden and five early kings allegedly descended from him, from a 12th-century historical text: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

Indirect evidence about early Anglo-Saxons’ beliefs may also be derived from the impact of pagan traditions on sources made after they converted to Christianity. Some pagan gods, such as Woden, continued to appear in the genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings, sometimes alongside figures like Adam and Eve.

The names of certain modern English days of the week may also preserve the names of gods worshipped by pagan Anglo-Saxons, as well as a Roman god (Saturn), the Sun and the Moon.

Old English

Modern English

Meaning

sunnandæg

Sunday

Sun day

monandæg

Monday

Moon day

tiwesdæg

Tuesday

Tiw’s day

wodnesdæg

Wednesday

Woden’s day

þunresdæg

Thursday

Thunder’s day

frigedæg

Friday

Frig’s Day

sæterndæg

Saturday

Saturn’s day

Belief in pagan gods gave way to belief in a single, Christian god in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Nevertheless, later Anglo-Saxons may have retained beliefs from pagan lore. For example, elves appear in the writings of Anglo-Saxons long after the conversion to Christianity. Indeed, the earliest written reference to an elf appears in a 9th-century, Christian prayerbook, in a prayer that compared Satan to an elf. 

Royal MS 2 A XX  f. 45v
Earliest written reference to an elf: from the Royal Prayerbook, Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

Later writers were not always reliable when describing the pagan past. These writers were churchmen and churchwomen who had never met a pagan and whose primary knowledge of paganism came from sources that described Roman religions. This is true even in the case of someone like Bede, who lived only a few decades after the last major Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede appears to offer a detailed account of a pagan priest called Coifi, right down to very specific rules about pagan priestly attire: ‘it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any animal but a mare’ (translated here). Bede claimed that, in his day, you could still visit the place where Coifi’s temple had stood before Coifi converted to Christianity. However, scholars have pointed out that Bede seemingly copied his descriptions from the Roman and ancient Near Eastern religions he had read about, rather than from any knowledge of 7th-century religious practices. Similarly, there are doubts about Bede's claims that 'Easter' was the name of a pagan goddess. 

Later writers, including Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, explicitly set out to prove that the Roman, 'Danish' and Germanic gods were the same. Ælfric claimed that the days of the week were essentially named after the same pagan gods in Latin and Old English. He argued that gods with similar characteristics gave their names to the same days in the Latin and English weeks, like the fertility goddesses Venus and Frigg. However, Ælfric deliberately conflated these different religions in order to condemn them all. 

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Ælfric explains the names of the days of the week in Latin and English in his 'Sermon on False Gods': Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 240v

Ælfric mentioned 'Danish' as well as Roman gods because many Viking raiders were pagan, especially in the 9th century. Some who came to and settled in England were pagan. Small amulets in the shape of Thor's hammer have been found in parts of England. That said, the surviving texts from this period were all written by Christians, who did not offer any details about these pagans' practices; Alfred the Great's biographer, Asser, used 'paganus' as a derogatory term for all Scandinavians, even a Christian Scandinavian who had become a monk. 

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Cotton_ms_caligula_a_xv_f124r

Charm invoking Thor to prevent gangrene: Cotton MS Caligula A XV, ff. 123v–124r

Nevertheless, knowledge of Scandinavian paganism existed in some circles. Shortly after 1073, at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, a manuscript was made which included information about timekeeping, prognostics and some medical texts. At the bottom of one of its tables, someone added a medical charm which invoked the pagan god Thor. The charm is written in Old Norse runes, translated as:

‘Gyril, wound-stirrer, go now! You are found! May Thor ‘hallow’ you, lord of ogres, (G)yril wound-stirrer. Against rushing (infection?) in the veins.’ (translated here).

There remains a mystery about who added the runes, and why someone who knew pagan charms and Old Norse runes was present at Canterbury in the late 11th or early 12th century.

So what do we know about paganism in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms? We know the names of certain gods; we can see different burial practices; and we know that traces of Anglo-Saxon paganism remain in modern English culture. But we can be sure of one thing: they did not have pumpkins.

Alison Hudson

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23 October 2018

Fire in the library

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Our new exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, has been receiving rave reviews. Don't just take our word for it, read here why The Guardian and the Evening Standard have both given it a coveted 5 stars. The show features outstanding archaeological finds alongside incredible illuminated manuscripts and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus.

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The Old English epic poem Beowulf survives uniquely in a manuscript from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

Approximately a quarter of the manuscripts on display come from one collection alone, namely that of the 17th-century politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton. They include books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Vespasian Psalter, and documents such as the oldest surviving charter written in England. We are incredibly lucky to have them in our show, but even more so because they escaped near-total destruction in one of the most devastating events in modern library history: the Cotton fire, which broke out on the night of 23 October 1731.

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The manuscript of Gildas' The Ruin of Britain was almost ruined by fire in 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

A quick look at the pages of the unique surviving manuscripts of Beowulf and Gildas' The Ruin of Britain gives some idea of the damage they sustained in that fire. Their parchment pages started to warp in the heat of the flames, and the edges began to crumble. In some sad cases, the manuscripts were blackened and rendered almost useless, and in a handful of instances — such as that of the only medieval copy of Asser's Life of King Alfred — the volume was destroyed for ever.

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A page from the London portion of the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing the severe damage this manuscript sustained in the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

The story of the Cotton library fire has been told elsewhere. Essentially, the Cotton collection was  presented to the British nation in 1702, upon the death of Sir John Cotton, Sir Robert's grandson. It had ultimately been taken for safekeeping to the (inappropriately named) Ashburnham House, located near Westminster School in London. When the fire took hold, desperate efforts were made to save the books from the flames. The next morning, the Westminster schoolboys were reported to have collected scraps of burnt parchment, which were blowing in the breeze.

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The Marvels of the East: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

A miraculous and pioneering programme of restoration, carried out at the British Museum in the 19th century, managed to preserve the burnt Cotton volumes for posterity. The manuscripts seem to have been soaked in a 'solution of wine', enabling their pages to be separated, and then they were often inlaid (like Beowulf and Gildas) in paper mounts. This whole process has been documented meticulously in Andrew Prescott's seminal article, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454.

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The Æthelstan Psalter was singed in the Cotton fire: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 21r

Below is a full list of the Cotton manuscripts and charters on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. To their number, we could also add the magnificent Utrecht Psalter, which was alienated from Cotton's collection in the 1620s, and which ultimately made its way to the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht in the 18th century.

The Cotton collection was recently added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. We feel sure that you would agree that, without the enterprise of Sir Robert Cotton himself, and without the endeavours of those who salvaged the damaged manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries, our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period — as well as our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — would be much the poorer.

Cotton Charter VIII 16 (grant of King Æthelstan and the will of Wulfgar)
Cotton Charter VIII 38 (will of Wynflæd)
Cotton MS Augustus II 2 (grant of King Hlothhere of Kent, AD 679)
Cotton MS Augustus II 3 (grant of King Æthelbald of the Mercians)
Cotton MS Augustus II 18 (letter of Bishop Wealdhere of London)
Cotton MS Augustus II 20 (Council of Kingston)
Cotton MS Augustus II 61 (decree of a synod of Clofesho, 803)
Cotton MS Caligula A VIII (Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu)
Cotton MS Caligula A XIV (Caligula Troper)
Cotton MS Claudius B IV (Old English Hexateuch)
Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII (Old English coronation oath)
Cotton MS Domitian A I (Isidore, De natura rerum)
Cotton MS Domitian A VII (Durham Liber Vitae)
Cotton MS Faustina A X (Ælfric's Grammar)
Cotton MS Galba A XVIII (Æthelstan Psalter)
Cotton MS Julius A VI (Julius Work Calendar)
Cotton MS Julius E VII (Ælfric's Lives of Saints)
Cotton MS Nero A I (law-code of King Cnut)
Cotton MS Nero D IV (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Cotton MS Otho A VI (Boethius)
Cotton MS Otho C I/1 (Old English gospel-book)
Cotton MS Otho C V (Otho-Corpus Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A II (Æthelstan or Coronation Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A III (Regularis concordia)
Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B)
Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII (Liber Wigorniensis)
Cotton MS Tiberius B I (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C)
Cotton MS Tiberius B IV (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D)
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 (Marvels of the East)
Cotton MS Tiberius C II (Tiberius Bede)
Cotton MS Tiberius C VI (Tiberius Psalter)
Cotton MS Titus D XXVII (Ælfwine’s Prayer Book)
Cotton MS Vespasian A I (Vespasian Psalter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII (New Minster Charter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV (letter-book of Archbishop Wulfstan)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIX (Libellus Æthelwoldi)
Cotton MS Vitellius A VI (Gildas)
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (Beowulf)
Cotton MS Vitellius C III (Old English herbal)
Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1 (St Augustine's martyrology)

Our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

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Julian Harrison

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20 October 2018

Golden oldies

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When we say the early medieval period was a golden age of art, we mean that literally. Skilled craftsmen made intricate golden jewellery, belt buckles and sword fittings. Kings such as Offa and Coenwulf of Mercia issued gold coins. Books, too, were covered with gold, inside and out: some of the most precious books were given jewelled treasure bindings. You can find examples of all of this at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (on until 19 February 2019), including two manuscripts written entirely in gold, as well as objects from the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII  f. 2v shiny
Detail of King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

Gold was used in highly illuminated manuscripts relatively early in the Anglo-Saxon period, as in Ezra's golden halo in the Codex Amiatinus, and the names written in gold and silver in a Northumbrian monastery's book of benefactors. Indeed, one 8th-century gospel-book is known as the 'Codex Aureus' because of the lavish gold writing and gold backgrounds on some of its pages. Its pages alternate purple-plain-purple-plain. According to an inscription on one of the gilded pages, this book was seized by a viking army in the 9th century, but the nobleman Ælfred and his wife Werburg 'acquired these books from the heathen army with our pure gold'. 

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Page with inscription about Ælfred and his wife Werburg: National Library of Sweden, MS, A 135, f. 11r

Gold was very heavily used in illuminations from the 10th and 11th centuries, as artists and their patrons demonstrated their devotion to God. 

  Cambridge  Trinity College  MS B.10.4  f. 60r
Opening of the Gospel of St Mark, Cambridge: Trinity College, MS B.10.4, f. 60r; image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge 

One surviving manuscript from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was written entirely in gold. This is an unusual charter for the New Minster, Winchester, issued in 966. It begins with an image of King Edgar, flanked by St Peter and the Virgin Mary, offering a golden book to Christ. You may recognise this manuscript from the exhibition poster. This is followed by 60 pages of text, all in gold.

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Beginning of the list of witnesses: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 30r 

This dramatic document was made in the aftermath of a dramatic event. When the reformer Æthelwold became bishop of Winchester in 963, he expelled those clerics who refused to become monks from the two biggest churches in Winchester: the Old Minster (now Winchester Cathedral) and the New Minster, which later became Hyde Abbey. The expulsion was controversial, and some disgruntled clerics even tried to poison Æthelwold. The situation in Winchester may have still been unstable in 966, when King Edgar — Æthelwold’s former pupil — issued this charter. Æthelwold himself probably composed the text. The lavish use of gold underlined the monks’ sophistication and their connections to powerful supporters such as the king.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII Lea
Detail of 
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 12r (Photo credit Lea Havelock) 

Gold could be applied to parchment in two main ways. The first involved writing/drawing in gesso (a type of glue or light cement) and then applying gold leaf to the gesso. The second way involved using powdered gold mixed with liquids to create a sort of gold ink. In the case of the New Minster Charter, the way the letters and golden details are slightly raised off the page might suggest a layer of gesso underneath (or very globby gold 'ink'). Gesso was certainly used in the lavish artwork and illuminations in other manuscripts from this period. 

The other manuscript in the exhibition that is written entirely in gold — known as the Harley Golden Gospels — used powdered gold mixed with glair or gum. The decoration and text on its pages therefore appears flat. The Harley Golden Gospels were made in the Carolingian Empire in the first quarter of the 9th century. Elements of the decoration and layout of some initials in this book show connections to the art from Ireland and England. In turn, the lavish use of gold in Carolingian manuscripts may have inspired artists working in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

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Beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, from the Harley Golden Gospels, E Francia (Aachen), first quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2788, f. 14r

Some precious books were covered with gold on the outside as well as within. These jewelled 'treasure bindings' are recorded in inscriptions, but very few survive intact to this day. Thanks to a generous loan from the Morgan Library in New York, there is a rare example of an early medieval treasure-binding in the exhibition. This covers one of the gospel-books owned by a noblewoman called Judith. Judith was born in Flanders, and she married Tostig, the brother of King Harold II (who was killed at Hastings). Her book  is covered in silver-gilt and jewels, with cast, 3-D figures depicting Christ in glory and the Crucifixion. 

Morgan Library  MS M 708
Treasure binding from a gospel-book owned by Judith of Flanders, New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

In addition to books, the exhibition contains golden objects, including the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found: the Staffordshire Hoard. This was found in 2009 and it seems to have been deposited before 675. Most of the pieces are associated with military equipment, including pommels from at least 74 swords. Some of these were made from gold and some were encrusted with garnets, like the cross pendant that was also found in the hoard.  The exhibition also includes golden sword hilts and two snake-or eel-like decorations, also crafted from gold.

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Golden sword hilt from the Staffordshire Hoard; Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust

The exhibition also features gold and jewellery found at other sites. The Alfred Jewel, found near Alfred's fortress at Athelney, has a golden beast's head and the inscription 'Alfred had me made' in wrought gold around the side.

Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel
; © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford  

Perhaps the most amazing example of goldsmithing from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is the belt buckle found at the Sutton Hoo ship burial of a 7th-century warrior. The buckle doubles as a hinged box with a triple-lock mechanism. It is decorated with 13 biting beasts that twist around each other. Each creature is stamped with a different pattern to give it a different texture. How practical it would have been to wear is another matter: it weighs just under half a kilogram! 

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
; © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a literal treasure-trove of amazing art, as well as unique historical documents and literary masterpieces. It's on until 19 February 2019, and you can book your tickets here.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval