Archive for the ‘Manuscripts in Focus’ Category

The last six months have borne witness to a period of considerable change here at the Parker Library. Not only has Christopher de Hamel, our former Donnelley Fellow Librarian, retired, but our two Sub-Librarians, Steven Archer and Beth Dumas, have departed in pursuit of new opportunities at Christ Church, Oxford and St. Andrews respectively. Leaving two vacancies in their stead, I arrived in January and was closely followed in March by the other new Sub-Librarian, Alex Devine, to take over what, I believe, is one of the most amazing collections of medieval manuscripts and rare books in England. We also now have twitter (@ParkerLibCCCC).

In light of that last development, we thought it might be interesting to start off by providing a digital snapshot of our current exhibition. Curated by myself, Alex Devine, and Charlie Barranu, the exhibition, entitled ‘Learning in Cambridge’, was installed in celebration of graduation here at the college and seeks to examine how our rare books and manuscripts can support each of the major academic disciplines studied here at Corpus. Over the coming weeks, each one of us will be providing a brief insight into our aims and though processes in putting together each of the eight cases in the current exhibition. Images of each manuscript currently on display will be published daily on our twitter feed, and the captions which we wrote to accompany the items in the physical exhibition will be found at the bottom of each blog post. Thus, without further ado, let’s address the first case on the left as you enter the exhibition space, one which is currently devoted to the study of Theology.

Case 1

Figure 1: The first case, dedicated to the study of Theology 

Seeing as the largest single donation to the Parker library was given by an Archbishop of Canterbury, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking items to represent the study of Theology in the first case. Given the breadth of items available, I chose to focus on the way in which the Bible was read and studied throughout the medieval period. The canon tables of the massive Dover Bible provided a clear direction as the concordances so beautifully displayed within them have been carried through the rest of the gospel text, being carefully added into the margin of the relevant episodes. The second item in the case, the Biblia Pauperum, illustrates the way in which connections were forged not only within the New Testament, but between the Old Testament and the New, while the final item, a 15th-century Psalter, was chosen to show how the practice of visualising the implements of the crucifixion during prayer, a central tenant of those who followed devotino moderna movement, came to be reflected in the pages of the Psalters they would have prayed from.

Anne McLaughlin

Sub-Librarian, The Parker Library



Twelfth century, Christ Church Canterbury

Dover Priory was a dependency of Christ Church Canterbury during the twelfth century, and it is probable that this bible was produced at the larger foundation but intended for use in Dover. Though the Bible has been beautifully illuminated with large decorated initials throughout, the canon tables displayed here have been framed by Romanesque arches with thin and highly decorated columns – reminiscent of Norman architecture. Designed in the third century AD, canon tables are used to allow the reader to identify where in each of the four gospels a single episode occurs; for instance, the first line in the canon tables dictates that the fulfilment of one of Isiah’s prophecies by John the Baptist is found in section VIII in the Gospel of Matthew, II in Marc, VII in Luke, and X in John.



c.1460, possibly from the Netherlands

Notoriously difficult to date, copies of the Biblia Pauperum were produced from woodcut blocks beginning in the 1430s and continually throughout the fifteenth century. Unlike printing with moveable type, in which letters and numbers can be freely rearranged, block books like the Biblia Pauperum were produced by carving the negative image of an entire page, both the text and the images, into a single wood-block, which was then inked and pressed against the paper. Though called the ‘Bible of the Poor’, and considerably cheaper to produce than a manuscript or even printed book, these ‘Bibles’ were intended for an educated and pious readership, such as a poor clergyman, or as a focus for personal meditation. Each of the central scenes is taken from the New Testament (on this opening the ‘Kiss of Judas’ and ‘Pilate washes his hands’) while the flaking images depict the typological precedents for the central image pulled from the Old Testament (on the left: ‘Abner treacherously killed by Joab’ and ‘Tryphon treacherously takes Jonathan captive’; and on the right: ‘Jezebel seeks to kill Elijah’ and ‘Daniel accused by the Babylonians’).


PSALTER (formerly Ferrell MS 3)

Fifteenth century, Syon Abbey, Middlesex

Likely made for a female member of the Brigantine community at Syon Abbey, this small psalter would likely have been used as a personal devotional text. The illuminations found at the beginning of each of the major psalms depict scenes from the life of Christ and are intended to be used as a focus for meditation while reading. The illumination in the initial D of Psalm 110 seen here shows a priest and two altar boys kneeling before an altar while the images of the instruments of the Passion and Christ himself seem to float in the air in front of them. Such an image suggests that the psalter’s illuminator was a follower of the devotio moderna, a religious movement within the Catholic faith popular from the fourteenth – sixteenth centuries which placed a high value on meditation and personal prayer, rather than on ritual and good works.







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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.

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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.





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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.


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January imageThe enormous two-volume Dover Bible was made in Canterbury, c.1160, for use at Dover Priory, where it was recorded in 1389. The initial here shows the prophet Isaiah, declaiming ‘Ve genti peccatritri’ (‘Woe to the sinful nation’, Isaiah 1:4). It is marked ‘lectio i’ in the margin. According to the preface at the beginning of the Dover Bible, this was the reading begun each year on 6 January. MS 3, folio 173v (detail).

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MS 178, p. 173 (detail)

The homily for VIII kalendas Ianuarii, now known as 25 December

Ælfric of Eynsham (~955 – ~1010) was an abbot, scholar and translator, who composed two series of English homilies, which explained and expounded upon Biblical events in the Anglo-Saxon language. In a fitting example for the upcoming holiday, the homily for Christmas day describes the story of the birth of Jesus, and his subsequent laying in a manger, (or, a ‘binne’ as it is in Old English, which adds a layer of grunge for the modern reader). Ælfric then continues to discuss how Jesus could be both human and divine, and the implications for Christian believers.

The Parker Library holds a number of manuscripts that contain the homilies in whole or in part: MSS 367, 419, 421, 178, 162, 302, 188, 198, and 303. In the illustration above is the beginning of the Christmas homily from CCCC MS 178, which dates from the 11th century but was later annotated in the 13th c. by the famous ‘Worcester Tremulous Hand’. This characteristically shaky handwriting is found in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that are known to have been at Worcester, where the monk with the increasingly trembling hand studied these older texts and added small glosses and translations into Latin or Middle English. Here, we can see him provide a translation for ‘acennednysse‘ as ‘nativitate‘, both meaning birth.

Matthew Parker’s interests in Biblical translation, the vernacular church, and Anglo-Saxon theological teachings are all present in Ælfric’s Homilies, which no doubt spurred Parker’s collection of the manuscripts. From the original scribe, through the monk of the Tremulous Hand, Parker himself, and on to our modern-day researchers, this interpretation of the Christmas story has been inspiring scholars for 1,000 years.

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MS 16, f. 42r detail

MS 16, f. 42r

Finally, after what seems like years of barely restrained anticipation, Magna Carta has officially turned 800. Like most 800th birthday parties, we’re celebrating it by looking at pictures from the subject’s wild youth, and exclaiming over how young it looks.

Corpus Christi College MS 16 is an autograph copy of Matthew Paris’ Chronica Maiora, which contains a depiction of the charter, with hanging seal, on f. 42r. Although the manuscript was created 30-40 years after the 1215 signing of Magna Carta, it works with Roger of Wendover’s contemporary account of the events surrounding the signing that forms the first part of the chronicle. The text of Magna Carta in MS 16 is not entirely accurate to any extant official version, as Wendover never worked with an original, and Paris never chose to carefully edit the text, but it is based on the earliest 1215 and 1217 versions.

This manuscript is currently on display at the British Library’s temporary Magna Carta exhibition, and will remain there until September 2015.

MS 59, f. 182r

MS 59, f. 182r

A later version of Magna Carta is to be found in CCCC MS 59, f. 182r. This early 14th century manuscript contains a variety of historical documents and short chronicles, and the version of the charter is the confirmation of 1225, which was substantially the same was the 1217 version but was confirmed by King Henry III and announced to be sealed from his own free will, which underscored its legitimacy in tempering the power of the king.

Finally, a late 14th century collection of English statutes which forms part of MS 377 contains the version of Magna Carta that was reissued in 1297, by Edward I. This is the final version of the core text, and the one that is still in statute today, albeit with most articles now repealed.

MS 377, f. 9r

MS 377, f. 9r

The manucripts at the Parker Library that contain editions of Magna Carta attest to the profound importance it had on medieval English scholars. It was copied and recopied, updated and provided with commentary, in a way that grounded its legitimacy and created the basis of its importance in later eras.

While the original text has long been outdated, the importance of a government based on clearly defined relationships between all parties has not. Honestly, for 800 years old, Magna Carta is looking pretty good.

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