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Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III

Many manuscripts were produced in early medieval England and quite a few have gained great renown for their beautiful illumination (such as the Lindisfarne Gospels), their famous texts (e.g., the Beowulf manuscript) or their interesting history (like the Codex Aureus, once kidnapped by Vikings). By comparison, British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, a late tenth-century manuscript, is relatively obscure. With hardly any illumination, some fairly standard texts in Latin and no exciting ‘back-story’, this Anglo-Saxon manuscript does not seem to have invited much scholarly (let alone popular) interest. This lack of attention is undeserved. As this blog post will demonstrate, this manuscript is full of interesting examples of ‘word processing’ in early medieval England.

Initials: Planned, faced and bitten

In most manuscript containing multiple texts, like Royal MS 8 C III, the start of each text is signalled by an initial letter that is larger than the rest of the text. These letters could be executed fairly simple or lavishly decorated. In case of the latter, the initials could be made by a different individual from the scribe responsible for the text; the scribe would then leave space on the page for the initials to be added at a later stage.

The first two texts in British Library, Royal MS 8 C III demonstrate this practice. For instance, the first word of the text starting on fol. 6v, a Latin exposition on the Mass, reads “rimum” but should probably have read “primum” [first]. The very first text in the manuscript, pseudo-Jerome’s De diversis generibus musicorum, even misses the first few words. In other manuscripts, this text starts with “Cogor a te ut tibi dardane de aliis generibus musicorum”, but here, on fol. 2r, the words “Cogor a te ut” are left out. They had probably been intended to be added as a full line of decorated letters, since a lot of space was left open at the top of the page:

Blog.Royal8ciii - initialisplanned

Initials planned, but not executed © British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fols. 2r, 6v

These two instances of unexecuted initials notwithstanding, Royal MS 8 C III does feature several, simple initials. In two of them, the scribe (or a later reader) added a face; a third was rather beautifully decorated with a dragon biting an O so as to form a Q:

Tweet.RoyalMS8CIIIJustification: Space out your words or stretch out your N’s

If we want our text to be spread out evenly across the page, with straight left- and righthand margins, all we need to do is tell our word processor to “justify” the text. The word processor will then increase or decreates the letter- and word-spacing, creating our desired layout of the text. The Anglo-Saxon scribe of Royal MS 8 C III also appears to have liked justification; on fol. 81r, for instance, he ends his text with a heavily spaced line that reads “deo gratias” or rather “deo      gra      ti      as”:

Blog.Royal8ciii - justifycation with spaces gra ti as

© British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fol. 81r

Elsewhere, our scribe experiments with justification of his lines through the extension of the letters N and V, seen here in the words “domino” and “unitur” (last line) and “invisibli” (penultimate line).

Blog.Royal8ciii - justification

© British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fol. 41v

Dangling word-ends

What if you can’t fit the end of the last word on the last line of the page? Do you hyphenate and force your reader to turn the page in order to finish the word, or do you add a lovely flourish and add your word’s end in the bottom margin? The Anglo-Saxon scribe of Royal MS 8 C III opted for the latter:

Blog.Royal8ciii - Endwords small

Consummatis, habitation, formidine with end words hanging in the lower margins. @ British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fols. 45r, 46r, 48r

Avoid the hole!

Parchment (made of animal skin) was expensive and, so, it would generally be used, even if the parchment was slightly damaged. Upon finding a little hole in one of his pages, the scribe of Royal MS 8 CIII decided not to rip out the page (and risk jeopardizing the construction of the book!), but simply wrote around it:

Blog.Royal8ciii - Avoid the hole

© British Library, Royal MS 8 C III, fol. 53r

Here we can clearly see the scribe increased the space between “in” and “baptismo” so as to avoid the hole.

Triangular text!

In addition to experimenting with justification, juggling the ends of his words, and writing around holes in the parchment, the scribe of Royal MS 8 C III has one more spectacular word processing trick up his sleeve. Halfway through a rather standard theological text about the Mass, and for no apparent reason, he starts laying out the text of six consecutive folio sides (fols. 70v-72v) in a triangular form:


Given the value of parchment, why waste so much of it to form textual triangles? It is rather a mystery. Triangular-shaped texts are extremely rare in medieval manuscripts and I may devote a separate blog to their appearance in the future.

For now, I hope to have shown you that British Royal MS 8 C III is worth our attention. If you’re convinced, why not browse the manuscript yourself? It has been digitized and is available here.

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