With Christmas almost upon us, before we break for the holidays we present one final feature in our series of blog posts celebrating our manuscripts appearing in the British Library’s triumphant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (but never fear; look forward to more in the New Year!). Our first post focused on Parker’s magnificent fragment of an early eighth-century Northumbrian Gospel Book (CCCC MS 197B), and our second explored the wonderful word-horde of the Corpus Glossary (CCCC MS 144). In this third post we turn from Gospels and Glossaries to tales of Kings, Saints and the foundation of early English history as we know it today as we offer a closer look at two truly remarkable manuscripts: CCCC MS 183, which, for want of a neater title (and you’ll soon see why), I will simply call the Æthelstan Bede manuscript, and CCCC MS 41, better known as the Old English Bede.
CCCC MS 183 is the celebrated copy of Bede’s two Lives of Saint Cuthbert commissioned by King Æthelstan (r. 924-39), for presentation to the monks of the Community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street in the mid-930s, while CCCC MS 41 is the finest surviving copy of the Old English translation of Bede’s authoritative Ecclesiastical History of the English People, copied about a century later, and given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric (1050-72).
Beyond their evident shared Anglo-Saxon origins and historical significance, these manuscripts share much in common. The books’ most obvious connection is that both contain works written by the Venerable Bede (d.735), long venerated as ‘The Father of English History’. Both volumes possess illustrious provenances, and both were given as gifts by distinguished donors as celebrated acts of benefaction. Finally, each is, in its own way, a biography; MS 183 contains Bede’s biographies of his esteemed contemporary Cuthbert, while MS 41 contains the historian’s epic biography of Britain itself.
Let us begin with the Æthelstan Bede, CCCC MS 183. This is one of several manuscripts associated with King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) and the first king of all England (“Rex Anglorum”). It is therefore one of the oldest English royal manuscripts. This fact alone would of course make this volume tremendously important, but this book is distinguished still further, for while Æthelstan’s record as a giver of books is exceptional, this is the only one of these written in England during Æthelstan’s reign.
Another outstanding reason for this manuscript’s particular historical significance today is its famous frontispiece, which shows Æthelstan crowned, with bowed head, presenting the book itself to its subject, St. Cuthbert (a genuine instance of This Is Your Life). This is enormously significant, not only as a magnificent depiction of this famous act of royal benefaction, but because it represents the earliest surviving contemporary ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king in a manuscript.
This manuscript’s production attests to Æthelstan’s political activities in the North, for he commissioned the volume for the express purpose of its presentation to the community of St Cuthbert, which at this point was at Chester-le-Street in County Durham, having fled Lindisfarne to escape Viking attacks but not yet settled in its eventual home at Durham (est. 955). In addition to containing Bede’s two Lives of St Cuthbert, the first in prose (fols. 1-58) and the second the metrical version with glossary (fols. 70r-92v), as well as copies of the Mass Office for Cuthbert’s feast day (fols. 92v-96v), and a record of Æthelstan’s other gifts to the community, the book also includes a set of episcopal lists (fols. 59r-64v), regnal lists (fols. 65r-67r) and royal genealogies (fols. 65r-v), evidently intended to make such information available in the far north.
Let us now turn to Corpus’ copy of the Old English Bede, CCCC MS 41. Completed in 731, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum quickly gained both authority and wide currency. If the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, also displayed in this exhibition) is considered the foundational volume of English Literature, CCCC MS 41 is the foundational volume of English History. It was translated from its original Latin into Old English under the programme initiated by King Alfred, who, bewailing the contemporary decline in Latin literacy, vigorously campaigned to translate into English “those books most necessary for men to know”. Bede’s History was a primary candidate for translation. In turning Bede’s Latin into more accessible Old English, the translator shortened the text, focusing on conversion, miracles, sanctity and leadership. Today almost two hundred Latin manuscripts of Bede’s masterwork exist, but only a handful of copies of this text in Old English survive, and the Corpus manuscript is widely acknowledged as the finest.
The manuscript was copied in the first half of the eleventh century, probably somewhere in the south of England. It is large in format, written in grand round script, and was obviously intended to be a high-grade book. The opening displayed in the exhibition, beginning with this elaborate – and enchanting – decorative initial, is drawn from Book IV, Chapter 29 of Bede’s History, and recounts Bede describing how Cuthbert foresaw his own death, and foretold it to his fellow-hermit Hereberht (speeled ‘Herebriht’ on the left-hand page in this opening, 18th ruled line). It is a moving passage, telling the tale of this emotional parting of friends, marked by prayers, prophecies, and fond farewells.
The passage is surrounded by a neat framework of marginal text added at a later date, part of a rich tapestry of such additions ranging from the Old English poem Solomon and Saturn (at pp. 196-198) to liturgical texts and Old English charms supplied during the eleventh century. That seen here is part of a metrical charm invoking biblical characters and other forces (including all four evangelists) to provide its speaker with protection against human and supernatural enemies, in this life and the next. This charm’s addition in the margins of these pages offers a fitting complementary text to the account of Cuthbert’s imminent journey from life to death, offering a touching, and very human, insight into one reader-annotator’s moving response to this narrative.
The volume was one of those given by Leofric to Exeter, and still contains the bilingual donation inscription in good round minuscule, in Latin and Old English, cursing anyone who removed it thence, written as follows:
“Hunc librum dat leofricus episcopus ecclesie sancti petri apostoli in exonia ubi sedes episcopalis est ad utilitatem successorum suorum. Si quis illum abstulerit inde, subiaceat maledictioni. FIAT. FIAT. FIAT.
Ðas boc gef Leofric. b. into sce petres mynstre on exancestre þær se bisceopstol is for (his) saþle alisednysse 7 gif hig hþa ut æt brede god hine fordo on þaere e…”
So there: let that be a lesson to you!
When choosing the manuscript subjects for this first trio of blog features, my idea was to mirror the three themes of this superb exhibition; art, word and war. We would start with ‘Art’ and the glorious frontispiece pages to the Northumbrian Gospels (MS 197B), and proceed to ‘Word’, as explored through the Corpus Glossary (MS 144), before concluding with ‘War’ and
Æthelstan and Alfred as kingdom-builders through battles won and books gifted and translated (MS 183 and MS 41). However as the old saying goes, “Books have their own fate” (‘Habent sua fata libelli’), and so it seems do blog posts, for with the benefit of hindsight (and the clarity and focus that come when staring down a deadline), these manuscripts of course defy such easy categorization. For example, MSS 183 and 41 would have been equally suitable choices for ‘Art’, while MS 197B is a beautiful record of the sacred ‘Word’, and, in its own way, has unquestionably experienced more than its fair share of destruction and dismemberment. This simply serves to remind us of medieval manuscripts’ never-ending ability to surprise us as well as their ageless power to amaze, to fascinate and to delight us all.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2019. For further details see here.