For several years, a pair of mallard ducks have nested in the New Court of Corpus, probably based on its academic credentials and excellent foliage. The annual sight of the Corpus ducklings and their subsequent herding to the Cam occurred yesterday to great fanfare, as the entire College stopped what they were doing to watch.

Ducks real

Corpus ducklings


The medieval theory of the duck was that it was named ans in Latin after its constancy (assiduitate) in swimming (natandi). If you look closely, this is described in the first sentence of the section on ducks in the Peterborough bestiary (MS 53, 14th c.), starting with the historiated letter ‘A’:


CCCC MS 53, f. 203v


However, the name likely came from an Indo-European root word which was also visible in the Old English word for duck : enid. The Corpus Glossary (MS 144, early 9th c.) shows the translation of Latin aneta for Old English enid:


CCCC MS 144, f. 8v

The modern English word for duck came from the original Anglo-Saxon verb, dúcan, meaning to dive or duck in the modern sense. The word was already in use for the bird by the late Anglo-Saxon era, but continued in tandem with enid or ende through the 15th c.

May Image (MS 183, f. 2r)In May 934, King Æthelstan, first king of all England 927-39, took an army from southern England up to fight the Scots. On the journey northwards he stayed with the exiled community from Lindisfarne, then at Chester-le-Street between Durham and Newcastle. He presented them with this manuscript, the life of their patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, written by Bede (672-735). MS 183, folio 2r.

For the portion of the world to whom April is tax season, it may seem abundantly clear that taxation requires, at the very least, some type of codified system of obligations. At the Parker Library, home to some of the earliest written English laws, we can dig up illustrative examples of early medieval styles of taxation.

The famous Parker Chronicle contains not only the earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but also important early texts of the laws of the kings Ine and Alfred of Wessex, and beginning in the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon laws mention some of the responsibilities that a landowner would owe to his lord or could expect to collect from his tenants.

In these cases, the oft-overlapping relationship between ‘rent’ and ‘tax’ in a feudal society is evident in the way the Old English term gafol is used variably to describe legal requirements that would fall into either camp in modern usage. The term gafolgelden, used in these texts to describe one who is part of the exchange system, is best translated as ‘taxpayer’. There were several types of gafol, including blanket-rent (a tax of cloth), barley-rent (a tax of grain) and food-rent (feorm). For example, in Ine’s (688-726) laws for Wessex, it is written that: ‘For every labourer a man has he shall always pay six weys [of barley] as barley-rent [gafol],’ and ‘The blanket held as rent [gafol] from each household shall be worth sixpence’.

MS 53, f. 6r

Man beating an oak tree for acorns to fatten up his pig- from the November calendar page of the Peterborough Psalter. MS 53, p. 6

A hide was a measurement of land in Anglo-Saxon England that was first used to indicate the amount of a land to support one household- not necessarily any specific acreage. In the laws of Ine, the food-rent (feorm) for 10 hides was  ’10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers of Welsh ale, 30 ambers of clear ale, 2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a full amber of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder, and 100 eels’. Due to the agrarian nature of the exchange, it made sense for it to be made after the harvest, not, as in many countries today, the lean early spring. Typically, Martinmas (November 11) was the expected deadline.

Ine also created a ‘tax’ on wergeld, the fees which would be paid to a man’s family by his slayer, or to the man himself if he were to be maimed (on a sliding scale commensurate with the wounds). Manslaughter was a crime that could generally be rectified with a fee. However, a lord would also be part of any casualty-based transaction, as the law stated that ‘When a wergeld of 200 shillings has to be paid, a compensation of 30 shillings shall be paid to the man’s lord; when a wergeld of 600 shillings has to be paid, the compensation shall be 80 shillings; when a wergeld of 1200 shillings has the be paid, the compensation shall be 120 shillings’.

MS 173, f. 52r

Ine’s laws discussing both the ‘tax’ on wergeld and the food-rent for a property of 10 hides. MS 173, f. 52r

MS 419, p.95

The beginning of ‘Sermo Lupi ad Anglos’ in MS 419, p. 95

Later in the Anglo-Saxon period, taxes were raised to pay off Scandinavian invaders, sent in huge payments which eventually became known as Danegeld. Wulfstan, archbishop of York (d. 1023), railed against this practice and its attendant excessive taxes (ungylda) in his Sermo lupi ad Anglos, which is witnessed in CCCC MSS 419 and 201, both from the 11th century.

Another requirement of the medieval landholder, both pre and post-Norman conquest, was to pay tithes to the church. Tithes would be incurred if he resided on church property, held cultivated land on church property, or was otherwise at all associated with a particular diocese. This relationship was codified in Canon Law.

MS 10, f. 181r

Paying tithes to two dioceses. MS 10, f. 181r

CCCC MS 10 is an illuminated 12th century manuscript which contains various causae or legal cases, and how they were ruled based on canon law. In the miniature shown here, The two men in the centre, holding a lamb and a sheaf, have been driven from their old diocese and moved to another, but still cultivate their old lands. They are now required to pay tithes to both dioceses, as depicted by the two groups of monks. By the inclusion of this causae in the manuscript, it’s clear that this was an important detail which warranted further explanation.

So, while it may have only become necessary to register your charitable donations for tax purposes in the modern era, it comes from a long and storied tradition of being confused about the finer points of taxation.



All translations of Anglo-Saxon laws are from The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, edited and Translated by F.L. Attenborough (Cambridge, 1922).

All images are reproduced with permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

April image

©The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Turgotus and Francio, refugees from Troy, are the mythological founders of the kingdom of France. This is an illustrated genealogy of the ancient kings of France from the foundation to the fourteenth century, attributed to the Dominican Bernard Gui (d.1331). The manuscript is dated 8 April 1330 (folio 48r). MS 45, folio 33v.

March image

MS 171, f. 225v

Manuscripts from medieval Scotland are rare. This is the unique copy of a chronicle of Scottish history assembled c.1447-49 for Walter Bower (1385-1449), abbot of Inchcolm Abbey, on the island in the Firth of Forth, north of Edinburgh. The illustration here shows the funeral of Alexander III, king of Scotland 1249-86, who died following a riding accident near Edinburgh on 19 March 1286. He was buried at Dunfermline Abbey.

MS 422, p. 53 (detail)

Christ on a living cross in the Red Book of Darley

The Red Book of Darley is an unusual manuscript- once reputed to perform miracles, it contains both the Old English dialogues of Solomon and Saturn and a liturgical book for what may have been a parish church in Darley Dale in Derbyshire (although was probably at least partially made in Winchester in the 1060s). The text changes between Latin and Old English, with an occasional scattering of runic inscriptions, which are very rare in a manuscript context. A calendar of saints’ days is given in the missal section; the page below is for the month of February, and, a few lines from the bottom, a note is given in Old English regarding the leap year.

MS 422, p. 30

The leap year was a long-established event in Anglo-Saxon England, but in a slightly different form than we currently experience with the Gregorian method of reckoning the year. The Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC (and used until 1752 in England!) removed what was once an entire leap month in the Roman Republican calendar and replaced it with several additional days throughout the year, including one ‘doubled-day’ on the 23rd of February, in which two days were given a single date- VI KL Mar.

The medieval reckoning of days greatly differed from the modern process. Instead of counting forward, simply numbering the days of each month as we do today, a medieval calendar required counting back from the next named day- the kalends, or first of the month; the nones, or nine days before ides, which was the approximate middle of the month (possibly once based on the full moon, then the 13th day for short and the 15th day for long months); and then back to counting back from the next month’s kalends. Thus, calendar tables were required to help sort out what could be an extremely confusing system, as all the subunits of the year needed to fit together in order for the days to even begin to be counted. In the excerpt above from the Red Book, the date is the Roman numeral followed by KL, meaning this portion of the month counts back from the 1st of March.Therefore, calendar creation needed to take the extra day into account in a different way then we do now- instead of having a ‘new date’, there were just two ‘VI KL. Mar.’… in other words, two sixth days before March. The term used for this extra day was ‘bissextum’, or twice-sixth, and a leap year was a ‘bissextile’ year.

The note on the leap year is found starting at v kl, but pertains to the saint’s day on vi kl. It reads, Fif nihton ær februarius beo agan oftúne byð bissextus on Sancte mathias mæssedæg. æfre embe þæt fifte ger.  ðonne freolsa ðu þonne æftran dæg and nim syððan oðerne stæf to sunandæge. It correlates to the problem of the Saint’s day of Matthias, which should occur on VI Kal. Mart, but as that is the bissextum, the confusion lies in whether it falls on the first or second ‘half’ of that doubled-day. The note clears this up by saying that in case of a leap-year, then the feast of St. Matthias would fall on the second half (the 24th in modern parlance). The note also references moving the ‘stæf‘, or letter. This correlates to the column of letters (in black ink in MS 422) that indicates a cycle of weekdays. Each year was assigned a ‘Domenical Letter’ which was the letter on which Sundays would fall, and each date was assigned a letter running A-G, continuously through the year. However, as this note says, in the case of a leap year the Domenical Letter for the year would move back one, in order to maintain the necessary pattern for Easter to fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of after the Vernal Equinox. Confused yet?

This sort of note in a calendar manuscript is not uncommon, but the one in the Red Book is particularly interesting because it is in the vernacular. It demonstrates the creation and use of the manuscript by and for someone who may have been much more comfortable with Old English than Latin. There are numerous instances of this in the manuscript, including an erased note at the top of the February page which translates the Latin text above it. Look for the spidery white letters beneath the red ones:

Calendar erasure

Just to make things slightly more complicated, a lunar month is about 29.5 days long, which runs parallel to the official calendar dating. Because fractions of a day are difficult to keep track o, a medieval calendar split the difference and gave the months ‘full’ or ‘hollow’ labels as they alternated between 29 and 30 lunar days- which did not correspond to solar days. As an example, St. Wulfstan’s Portiforium (MS 391), another 1060s manuscript, also contains a calendar table, but only contains a Latin note on the leap year and the lunar month, which is, in fact, exactly the same wording as the Latin note under the English annotation in the Red Book of Darley (as well as the same as in the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, MS 9, also from the 1060s): Memento quod anno bissextile lune februari xxx dies computes. ut tamen luna martii xxx dies habeat sicut semper. habeat ne paschalis lune ratio vacillet. This reminds the reader that in a leap year, February has an extra lunar day, but March has the same as always (30), so it doesn’t change Easter or April’s lunar positioning.

MS 391, p. 4

Leap year note in St. Wulfstan’s Portiforium

As computational ‘tools,’ manuscript calendars may not always be visually stunning, but, when parsed, often provide valuable information about the location and date of their production, from which we can infer what was important to the people using them and their local community. Keeping track of the years and the variable nature of their constituent parts was a task which kept the procession of holidays and saints’ days in an orderly fashion, in tune with the seasons, and one which required skill and education.

So, this leap day, take a minute to ponder the hundreds of years of complex computations which were required to get to the point in which we can just blithely check our phones for the date without so much as a second thought.





Just as we are getting over the excesses of Pancake Day- or it’s related Shrove Tuesday counterparts- seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the manuscript evidence of the early practices of Lent, the Christian season of penance and self-reflection, which begins with Ash Wednesday.

Ashes have a number of symbolic applications in Biblical accounts, both in the Old and New Testaments. It is likely that the use of ashes became a major part of the English penitential mass at the beginning of Lent around the 8th century. The great Anglo-Saxon homilists Ælfric and Wulfstan both describe the practice of putting ashes on the heads of penitents, which reminds them of God’s words to Adam: that they were created from ashes, and would return to ashes.

While there are prayers and homilies for Ash Wednesday in several earlier manuscripts, the first datable liturgy (or ordo) for the application of ashes is found in the Parker Library’s MS 163, which contains a Pontifical of the Romano-Germanic type. Although likely descended from a Cologne manuscript, CCCC MS 163 was written after 1050, probably at Worcester, although the Old Minster and the Nunnaminster at Winchester have both been suggested. It gives instructions for the entire liturgy, with the relevant responses.

MS 163, p. 82

MS 163

However, the medieval process of penance on Ash Wednesday included certain elaborate and public aspects. Everyone was expected to absolve themselves and receive the ashes, but those who were guilty of ‘high sins’ were publicly driven out of the church, in a symbolic re-enactment of Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden for their sins. Wulfstan (d. 1023) describes this in his homilies.

CCCC MS 190 contains a collection of writing that is known as ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s handbook’, a selection of texts that were likely compiled by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, for use in his own writing. The handbook itself is in Latin, and contains a Latin version of an Ash Wednesday homily. However, later in the manuscript a translation of the same homily appears in Anglo-Saxon. This homily is one of three extant vernacular sermons which explicitly describe public penance.

MS 190, p. 351

A homily for Ash Wednesday. MS 190, p. 351.


The sinners could only return to church on Maundy Thursday, having atoned for their sins for the past 40 days. The public practice continued for hundreds of years. CCCC MS 79, which dates from the first decades of the 15th century and was made in London, is an elaborate decorated Pontifical. The text of a Pontifical contains the church services particular to bishops, and MS 79 contains a specifically English version. Shown here is a miniature depicting the casting out of the sinners, which is included in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday.

MS 79, f. 98r

Casting out the penitents on Ash Wednesday. MS 79, f. 98r

The rhythm of the liturgical year was vitally important in medieval life, as the faithful symbolically acted out the Biblical text. This rhythm was coupled with the natural world- Ælfric says in his Lives of Saints that just as the sinners are cast away during Lent but welcomed back at Easter, so too do ‘ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan’ or ‘all trees always quicken in Lenten time’ (Skeat’s translation) The people can look forward to spring and celebration after duly accepting their penance.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 114 other followers