Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

08 January 2019

Heathens, pagans, Danes …. Vikings?

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

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


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


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


Fact and fiction

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


The early raiders


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

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

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


The treaty between Alfred and Guthrum

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

61_MS 383  f. 57r (20MB)

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

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


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


In search of treasure

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

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

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

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

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


Ancestral connections

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


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


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


Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 January 2019

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Anglo-saxons-conference (26 of 26)

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 January 2019

The Anglo-Saxon origins of the English counties

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

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

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.


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).


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.

913 in Tiba4

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.


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.  


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.


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.

Oxford Ashmolean Alfred Jewel

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.

Fuller brooch

The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

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


The Alfred Jewel: 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.


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


31 December 2018

Party like it's AD 999

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

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

What to wear

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

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

That said, it might be best to tone down your outfit. If you are travelling back to the 7th century, be aware that Abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury (later bishop of Sherborne) had very definite opinions about men and women ‘glamorizing’ themselves. In his De virginitate, he particularly objected to ‘fine linen shirts, scarlet or hyacinth-blue tunics, with collars and sleeves embroidered with silk, shoes trimmed with red leather, and hair … curled with a curling-iron. [Women’s] dark grey veils are replaced with bright, colourful head-dresses, which hang as far down as their ankles …’

What to drink

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

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

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


Old English

Modern English








Ofetes wos

fruit juice


Niwe win

unfermented or partially fermented grape juice

Infertum vinum


Wine for church services

Crudum vinum

weala win

Crude/foreign wine

Honorarium vinum

hlaforda win

lordly wine



pear juice, perry

compositum vinum

gewyrtod win

spiced wine

defrutum vinum

gesoden win

cooked/boiled wine



Sweet wine cooked down and flavoured with mulberry



sweet wine


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

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

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

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

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

How not to drink

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

What to eat

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

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

What to do

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

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

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

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

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


Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

28 December 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: the exhibition quiz

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

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

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


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

1. Who was the first king of England?

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

3. Why is Domesday Book so-named?

4. To whom was Emma of Normandy married?

Opening miniature from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, showing its writer presenting his work to Queen Emma with her sons looking on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

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

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

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

Florence  Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana  MS Amiatino 1
Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana
, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

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

9. What is the oldest item in the exhibition?

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

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

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

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




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

1. King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939)

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

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

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

5. The runic alphabet

6. Bald's Leechbook

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

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

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

10. In the bottom, left-hand corner

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



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27 December 2018

Cats, get off the page!

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


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

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

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

Royal 6 C X detail

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


Royal_ms_18_d_ii_f205v detail

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

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

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

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

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

Add_ms_35313_f001v detail

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

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

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


Eleanor Jackson and Kate Thomas

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26 December 2018

All I want for Christmas is ... Domesday Book

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

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

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

Cotton_ms_nero_c_v_f158v - Copy
Cotton_ms_nero_c_v_f158v - Copy
Continuation of the Chronicle of Marianus Scotus: Cotton MS Nero C V, f. 158v

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

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

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

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

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


Great Domesday Book (image © The National Archives)

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

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

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

Alison Hudson

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