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22.03.04 Breay/Story (eds.), Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

22.03.04 Breay/Story (eds.), Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

As the editors Claire Breay and Joanna Story explain in their Preface, this large-format, well-produced volume grew from a conference, held in December 2018, that accompanied the 2018-19 British Library exhibition “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” ( (hereafter ASK) (xv). The fourteen essays, which are generously illustrated with well over one hundred high-quality images, derive from papers given at this conference. As Breay and Story state, “The essays collected here reflect the broad chronological, subject and geographical range of the exhibition itself, and report results of new research across a wide range of the manuscript evidence” (xv). Accordingly, the volume moves from the earliest relations and influences on England in the northwest archipelago, to intellectual activities in England in the central period, and finally outward and across continental Europe and to later periods. A cumulative bibliography, index of manuscripts, and index of people and places add to the volume’s utility, which is further enhanced by external apparatuses: the exhibition catalog [1] and digitized facsimiles of manuscripts available on the British Library website and other platforms. In preparation of the exhibition, “the British Library digitized and put online almost all of its books and documents written in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms” (xvi), so readers can take a deeper dive into many of the manuscripts discussed as they peruse the volume’s essays. [2]

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín argues that Durham Cathedral Library, MS A II 10, twelve surviving folios of what was once an insular decorated gospel book and one of the earliest known examples of such a book, was produced in the 630s and at Iona. E. A. Lowe had previously dated it to the mid-seventh century and designated it a Northumbrian production. Ó Cróinín bases his argument on four main factors: textual affiliation of the biblical text via Old Latin readings; script affiliation with early stone inscription and manuscripts; decoration comparable to other early decorated insular manuscripts; and orthography with Irish-influenced Latin spellings.

Bernard Meehanexamines BL, Cotton MS Otho C V; CCCC, MS 197B; and BL, Royal MS 7 C XII, folios 2-3, which contain related fragments of the gospels and canon tables nine and ten. After describing the contents, physical state, and disputed place of production, Meehan discusses their visual elements, now heavily obscured. Happily, modern imaging technology makes some aspects visible again (e.g., dotted details on St. Mark’s lion in the Otho gospel) (17; figure 2.2), facilitating further comparison. Neither the differences nor the similarities between the manuscripts, though, allow indisputable attribution to a single manuscript to which all three sections may originally have belonged. Nonetheless, the Royal-Ortho-Corpus Gospels may have been assembled from miscellaneous parts to make a unitary manuscript.

Richard Gameson’s clearly argued essayexplores the change, between the early and late eighth century, from uncial to insular minuscule as the principal script type in manuscripts produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Anchoring Gameson’s analysis is Bodl., MS Bodley 819, the oldest surviving copy of Bede’s In Proverbia Salomonis. Completed in “the second quarter or the middle of the eighth century,” it shows both insular and continental features, juxtaposing capitular uncial for lemmata and insular minuscule for Bede’s commentary (32; figure 3.4). Gameson gives five reasons for the mixing: early adoption of uncial as standard book-hand; selective maintenance of continental practices and adoption of insular practices; desire to fulfill orders quickly; “the status of the words that were being copied” (39); and effective visual distinction between insular minuscule and capitular uncial. In the end, a particular book’s appearance is “an amalgam of available sources, institutional ideologies, scriptorial evolution, and of particular circumstances and responses to them” (43).

Moving from script to illumination, Lawrence Neesdiscusses “a few instances of the complex entanglement of the insular and Frankish worlds” to “focus on the individuals who made the books and their possible interactions” (45). Related artistic ideas existed on both sides of the Channel around the same time, developing independently from a direct copying of sources. Based on knowledge about specific scribes and on stylistic similarities between English and continental productions, Nees argues that there are “migrating ideas” (60) and that manuscript production was linked to networks among monastic houses with “special teams assembled for a single demanding, splendid or urgent commission, bringing together scribes with different backgrounds” (62), leading to an exchange of ideas among artist-scribes. The comparative details presented here are impressive but at times accumulate to a point of confusion for the non-specialist, who may not have a mental library of the decorative programs in the many manuscripts mentioned.

Joanna Story presentsa quantitative analysis of “books containing text written before c. 850, that were made or annotated on the islands of Ireland or Britain, or in scriptoria associated with monasteries that had been founded by Anglo-Saxon or Irish missionaries in Francia” (69). Basing her analysis on 622 individual insular manuscripts, Story finds “a sudden and steep rise in extant insular manuscripts thought to have been made in Francia in the last quarter of the eighth century” (78) and a collapse in the ninth century when caroline minuscule began to be favored over insular scripts. The data also show the “number of extant books of probable Northumbrian origin remain[ing] stable through the eighth century,” declining after that (82), and a relatively high amount of production in Ireland before 850, with manuscripts often already on the continent before 900. Collectively, these manuscripts show that “the history of insular script and book production is thoroughly European in scope” (85).

Focusing on a single document attesting to the connections between England and the continent, Rosamond McKitterick examines Bodl., MS Laud misc. 126, folio 260r, which contains a book-list (“from the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries”) of thirty-five works that were apparently owned by the bishops of Würzburg by c. 800 (88). McKitterick explains which works the titles refer to and to which manuscripts of Würzburg provenance they can be matched, also commenting on possible Roman, Frankish, or English connections. McKitterick singles out lectionari duo from the list, which, she argues, refers to the Würzburg comes, a collection of liturgical texts of Roman origin. Overall, the book-list attests to “a process of assimilation and the involvement of W[ü]rzburg’s bishops in Frankish and Roman ecclesiastical, intellectual and political affairs” (96).

David F. Johnson presents a focused study related to “the reception of Alfredian texts in the post-Alfredian middle ages” (100). Assisted by a digital tool he developed (with Ian D. Johnson), he characterizes one specific medieval reader of the late eleventh / early twelfth century, whose interventions appear in the Old English Orosius in BL, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, dated to the first quarter of the eleventh century. The interventions primarily consist of changes in pronoun spellings, corrections, the addition of hundreds of accent marks, punctuation interventions, and glosses (103; figure 7.3). Studying the types and frequency of interventions “can potentially tell us something about the reader’s interest in the texts” (106) and, in this case, about the lasting interest in Alfrediana.

Teresa Webber’s essay also concerns reading practices, in this case those of the lector, responsible for delivering the lectio publica (public readings to a group) throughout the monastic day. Webber begins by explaining the biblical origins and early Christian development of the lector’s position. Already by the time of the Augustinian mission to England, reading duties became diffused among several ranks, with the deacon delivering the gospel at mass and the subdeacon the epistle reading. Lectors nonetheless were required for reading in the night office and on other occasions. Child oblates were regularly used for this, though longer readings (especially at mealtimes) were done by more experienced lectors. Both knowledge of Latin grammar and accentuation were needed for accurate delivery, a point commented on by medieval scholars and supported by surviving texts marked up to indicate proper accentuation of words.

Simon Keynes discusses the “Canterbury letter-book,” a compilation of letters by Alcuin, in BL, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, probably produced at Christ Church, Canterbury, around the turn of the tenth century. While three manuscripts with Alcuinian letters were in the ASK exhibition, the Tiberius manuscript was not (though Keynes makes comparison to a letter-book in BL, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, which was exhibited, 133-36). The letter-book falls into four parts: three contain letters by Alcuin to a wide range of recipients. Keynes gives special attention to the fourth, “a collection of letters and other short texts, of diverse origin, which would appear to have accumulated at Canterbury during the tenth century” (122), in which “the ‘archiepiscopal’ dimension of this material” comes across most clearly (128). The letter-book shows that Alcuin’s writings remained of interest to successive generations of archbishops and other leaders. The essay ends with a descriptive list of the twenty-eight items in the letter-book’s fourth part.

Jonathan Wilcoxexamines archbishop Wulfstan’s process of composition, reuse, and revision. Interventions in his own writings signal that Wulfstan “read his works, or ones that he was going to adopt, with pen in hand to improve them for subsequent delivery” (144). Wilcox’s most intriguing evidence comes from two damaged leaves in BL, Add. MS 38651, a collection of fragments and binding leaves. Ker already identified the remaining legible text as a Wulfstan sermon in his own hand. Imaging technology reveals several short pieces that all appear to be written by Wulfstan himself, thus expanding his surviving autograph corpus while also showing more of his compositional process. This is an interesting discussion, though its link to the ASK exhibition is also somewhat tenuous.

Winfried Rudolfrevisits the long-standing conundrum of the Italian provenance of the tenth-century Vercelli Book. After reviewing various manuscript details, Rudolf asserts that it “could have served a user both for private meditative reading and for encouraging addresses of congregations, such as, for example, a group of travellers” (160). Rudolf suggests that the traditional terminus ante quem for the manuscript’s arrival in Italy in the late eleventh century be moved “slightly further back” owing to a newly legible quotation from Matthew 22:42, which was written “possibly in a continental hand of the second half of the eleventh century” (160). Rudolf pinpoints bishop Leo of Vercelli, appointed in 999, as a possible reason for the book’s initial presence and long-term preservation in Italy; a polyglot booklover with diverse intellectual interests and powerful connections across the continent, Leo would have been an appropriate and appreciative recipient of the Vercelli Book.

Francesca Tinti is interested in “books that would have been instrumental to the purposes of the journeys on which they were taken” (169). People carried books for educational purposes and pastoral care in local contexts, while bishops needed pontificals when traveling to perform church dedications and other rites. Other evidence attests to writing activity during cross-regional travel (a colophon in the Durham Collectar, unfortunately without image here, 172-73) and to the link between literacy and long-distance travel (a record of placenames representing overnight stays on a journey back from Rome; in a satisfying connection to Rudolf’s essay, the list includes Vercelli, 174-75). Perhaps the volume’s only gesture toward the persistent need for more rigorously inclusive scholarship is Tinti’s reminder that the surviving evidence is skewed in favor of male and ecclesiastical travelers, although we know that women also traveled and, presumably, had books with them. There is still work to be done.

Susan Rankinconsiders musical evidence for connections between the continent and England during the Benedictine Reform. She analyzes two similar organal (that is, second voice) settings for Commouisti domine, a chant sung on the feast of Septuagesima, one in a Fleury manuscript and one in the Winchester Troper. The organa speak to significant and early musical connections between the two houses through the Reform, although “the first evidence of the singing of polyphony in England comes in later, but extraordinarily abundant, form: there are second voices for 174 chants” in the Winchester Troper, copied in the 1020s (182). Rankin presents selected transcriptions of the organa to show the correspondences and differences between them, concluding that “the degree of similarity underlines the real possibility that the polyphonic practice of Fleury may have been passed on to the cantors of Winchester” (187).

Turning further north, Michael Gullickdiscusses manuscript fragments in Scandinavian collections that can be called “Anglo-Saxon” (made in England or made in Scandinavia under English influence). Gullick analyzes the fragments of six books. Three English-made books, all dated to the eleventh century, are missals, whose scribes are also known from other English-made works. Two Scandinavian-made manuscripts are “fragments from two missals with musical notation dating from the second half of the eleventh century” (194). Gullick concludes that the scribe of one missal was not trained in England, despite “some features of English caroline minuscule” (197). The second missal is “the only manuscript witness to part of a mass for Swithun” (194); additions by continental scribes point to a non-English origin. For two leaves of a secular breviary “with Anglo-Saxon features” of uncertain origin (197), Gullick suggests a likely Scandinavian origin and a date in the second half of the eleventh century. He usefully adds eight items to the handlist in Gneuss and Lapidge’s Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (200).

Weaknesses of this essay collection relate mostly to the apparatus and copyediting. Opportunities for cross-referencing within the volume were missed: the Echternach lion mentioned but not depicted in Meehan’s essay (17) is reproduced in Nees’s piece (figure 4.6), and the verses in praise of Wulfstan mentioned by Keynes (133) are depicted in Wilcox (figure 10.1). Cross-references to the ASK catalog (where relevant) in the manuscript index would have added a further level of utility. Unfortunately, numerous errors appear throughout; I list a few that may lead to confusion: 68: Fulda is in Hesse not Thuringia; 74, n24 and 229: Hersfeld, Stiftskirke should read Bad Hersfeld, Stiftskirche; 137: the publication date of Stubbs is 1874 not 1864; 151: in the caption to figure 10.7, II.12 should read I.12; 194, n33: Göteberg should read Göteborg; 197, line 28: figure 14.5 upper should read figure 14.5 lower left and lower right.

The essays dynamically contextualize many of the artifacts of the British Library exhibition, providing further ways of engaging with them. This makes the volume a rewarding and worthy companion to both the extraordinary exhibition and the beautifully produced catalog. Of course, anyone with an interest in the textual and material culture of early medieval England (and with at least some pre-existing knowledge to draw on, one should add) will gain from the volume. For example, it illustrates how the field is evolving due to new technologies. Several contributors (most notably, Meehan, Keynes, Wilcox, and Rudolf) benefited from multispectral imaging, which can enhance even highly damaged, fragmentary, and otherwise difficult manuscripts. A central lesson of this volume to me is the impressive effects of these technologies, the renewed (sometimes unprecedented) analysis that they afford, and the subsequent advancement of concrete knowledge about the period. While some of the essays have a rather loose connection to the ASK exhibition, they successfully evince the many important and lively intellectual contributions of early medieval England to the larger world of northwest Europe and the continent. In a fortuitous reversal, the “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” exhibition was an occasion that allowed early medieval books to return to England, some traveling over distances that would have been unimaginable to those who made them in the first place.



1. Claire Breay and Joanna Story, eds., Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (London: British Library, 2018).

2. The preface includes a note that the term “Anglo-Saxon” is used rather than eschewed in the volume, acknowledging that it “is also used in some contexts with connotations that are harmful” (to say the least).