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Over the last two years, parchment has proven to be a contentious issue in the UK Parliament. This blog post reconstructs a debate about parchment in the UK House of Commons in April 2016.
June 2017: The Queen and the Goatskin
Last week (June 12-18, 2017), various newspapers ran the story about a possible delay of the Queen’s Speech for the State Opening of Parliament (marking the formal start of the parliamentary year). The delay, it was said, would be caused by the fact that the speech had to be printed on goatskin and that the ink would take days to dry. While goatskin may remind some of medieval parchment (often made of the skin of goats), reporters were quick to point out that, while the monarch’s speech was indeed traditionally printed on parchment, no goats are harmed to produce present-day goatskin paper. Instead, it is high-quality paper that lasts for 500 years, bearing a watermark in the form of a goat. Be that as it may, the whole affair reminded me of April 2016, when parliamentary dealings with actual parchment were making headlines.
April 2016: Veni, vidi, vellum
On 20 April, 2016, the UK House of Commons held a debate to repeal a decision to stop printing the Acts of Parliament on parchment – a suggestion made made by the House of Lords in February of that year. The rationale behind the initial decision was to cut down the annual printing costs (£103,000 per year) by replacing the pricy parchment for high quality paper. James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire and instigator of the debate on 20 April 2016, pointed out that, despite the fact that Parliament could save perhaps £10,000 or £20,000 a year, parchment has some advantages over paper. His two main arguments for not abandoning vellum were 1) the longstanding tradition of using vellum for important documents and 2) the fact that parchment is more durable than paper.
The records of the proceedings are published here in the House of Commons Hansard and make an intriguing read – especially for a medievalist: the various MPs refer to precious medieval documents to praise the value of parchment. Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, for instance, makes the point that, without parchment, we would not have had copies of Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Lindisfarne Gospels:
“Our most important documents have been printed or written on vellum, from the Magna Carta to the Domesday Book and a piece of important north-east English history, the Lindisfarne gospels. All these historical manuscripts have been preserved for posterity because they were printed on vellum. They have lasted through the ages due to vellum’s durable qualities, which have ensured that future generations can appreciate and respect our shared history. Surely the legislation that we make here is worthy of this small additional cost.”
Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, also raises the importance of the Lindisfarne Gospels (luckily without noting that it had been printed on vellum!):
“The issue is close to my heart because of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Everyone here will know their relevance to the north-east and to my Durham constituency. Produced in around 700, the gospels were written and painted on vellum, without which the gospels simply would not be with us today. Not just old relics, they are important living texts for our understanding of the culture and heritage of the north-east and elsewhere.”
Reading how present-day politicians refer to medieval documents as being relevant cultural products is, of course, a joy for any medievalist. And who could deny the stunning cultural impact the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels still have today? (check them out digitally here)
Not everyone agreed with upholding this medieval tradition of using parchment, even if one MP in favour of abandoning parchment (Paul Flynn for Newport West) still cited the medieval Welsh poem Y Goddodin:
I cherish the history of this country; I cherish the Book of Aneirin, Y Gododdin, presumably written on vellum:
“Gwyr a aeth i Gatreath
Godidog oedd eu gwedd”.
That goes back to the early centuries, before English existed as a language. Of course we treasure the past, and our heritage, but it has nothing to do with this century. We have other ways of maintaining a record.
The 13th-century Book or Aneirin was indeed written on vellum and, while the poem Y Gododdin is older than its manuscript (composed between c. 700 and 1100), it should be pointed out that English was already around back then!
Nevertheless, while the long-standing tradition of reporting important matters on parchment may not have swayed everyone, there was another argument, one that strikes surprisingly close to home for myself.
Porck and parchment in Parliament
In order to make the point about the durability of parchment over the durability of paper, Tory MP Chris Skidmore (for Kingswood) cited one Henk Porck (the tweet by parliamentary journalist Richard Wheeler above suggests that the name caused Sidmore some difficulties!):
Europe’s leading expert on the subject, Dr Henk Porck of the Netherlands national library, has gone on record as saying that current ageing tests for paper
“cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests.”
When it comes to printing our country’s laws, arguably our most important documents, we need to ensure that we have a clear assurance that the materials they are printed on will last the test of centuries, as vellum has. Paper-printed Acts of Parliament may last a long time—I do agree that they last a significant amount of time—but it is not long enough, and we need all the details of what is being proposed.
This Henk Porck is, in fact, my dad, a bio-chemist who worked at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands) as conservation scientist and curator of the Paper History Collection. His full quote on current, artificial ageing tests for paper reads “The rate of paper deterioration and other quantitative aspects of the natural ageing of paper, such as durability and permanence, cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests” and his report ‘Rate of paper degradation: The predictive value of artificial aging tests’ (2000) can be found here. In short, Henk Porck’s statement that the ageing of paper cannot be reliably tested was interpreted as a strong recommendation to use vellum instead of paper.
The statement (even though it did not advocate vellum per sé) proved convincing enough for Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who concluded the debate by noting that he was now in favour of retaining the tradition of printing the Acts of parchment:
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) brought his great and deep expertise to the debate, and told us why Dr Porck thinks we should print on goatskin. For that insight, I thank him. … On the basis of symbolism, cost and practicality, therefore, we should continue this great and long tradition.
So did my dad play a vital role in Parliament’s decision to hold on to using parchment? Unfortunately, that is not the full story.
Parchment wrapped around paper
Even though the House of Commons voted on 20 April, 2016, to keep using parchment ( 117 Ayes vs. 28 Noes), the House of Lords still decided to switch to using high-quality paper. In the end, a compromise was reached, which means that the Acts will now be printed on high-quality paper, but will have parchments covers, with the name of the legislation in caligraphy. Parchment wrappers! Understandably, some MPs responded with disgust, including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger who was cited in the Daily Mail as follows:
We never learn. You try to save pennies and you lose pounds. The history of parliament is the history of our nation. Remember history because you will need to learn those lessons.
[About the Article 50 Act (triggering Brexit)] It should be written on vellum. Because in a thousand years’ time people will ask, ‘what did they do in March 2017?
They will not read it on paper. Ancient man had it right.
Now that the UK Parliament has switched to paper (with parchment wrappers), it is to be hoped that they treat and store the paper with care. Should they be interested, ‘Europe’s leading expert on the subject’ and myself co-wrote an article about a late medieval text from 1527 on book preservation, which appeared with an English translation of the medieval text as T. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of PaperConservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25. The article is available on Academia.edu. A summary was featured on this blog as “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books
Imagine having to copy a lengthy medieval manuscript by hand – day in day out, crouched over your writing desk, dabbling away with your quill, for weeks, nay, months on end. No wonder some medieval scribes were relieved when the job was done. This blog post features a number of evocative colophons from early medieval English manuscripts which shed some light on the state of mind of these weary scribes.
‘Pray for me’ – Colophons in medieval manuscripts
Qui istum librum legat precat pro anima Sistan me scripsit. Amen
Whoever may read this book, pray for the soul of Sigestan who wrote me. Amen
This Sigestan’s plea to ‘say a little prayer for him’, added at the end of a tenth-century manuscript of Paschasius Radbertus’s De corpore et sanguine Domini is a typical early medieval colophon. Colophons were added at the end of a text or manuscript and usually ask the reader to pray for the scribe’s soul or give thanks to God. In addition, the colophon may identify the scribe responsible for the manuscript and reveal something of the scribe’s circumstances. The examples provided below suggest that those circumstances may not always have been very pleasant.
‘Three fingers write, but the whole body labours’
Writing with a quill was a full-body workout, if we are to trust the testimony of the following three medieval English scribes. The first wrote the following at the end of an eighth-century copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:
Qui nescit scribere laborem esse non putat. Tribus digitis scribitur totum corpus laborat. Orate pro me qui istum librum legerit.
[He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.]
The scribe responsible for a tenth-century copy of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate wrote eerily similar lines:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat. Scribere qui nescit nullum putat esse laborem.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work.]
A third attestation of similar lines in a scribal colophon of a twelfth-century manuscript (another manuscript of Aldhelm’s De virginitate) reveals that we are dealing with a popular maxim among scribes:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat
Scribere qui nescit nullum putet esse laborem.
Dum digiti scribunt uix cetera membra quiescunt.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work. While the fingers write, the other members hardly rest.]
Anyone with a desk-job today can relate to this medieval sentiment!
The last chapter as a long-awaited harbour: Scribes getting metaphorical
Though his whole body may have quivered from the labour of his three fingers, the eighth-century scribe Æthelberht still had enough inspiration to come up with a beautiful metaphor. In his colophon to a copy of a commentary on the Psalm he likens the copying of a manuscript to an arduous sea journey:
Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro … lege in pace — Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [for uersus?] nouissimus scribentibus. Edilberict filius berictfridi scripsit hanc glosam quicumque hoc legat oret pro scriptore. Et ipse similiter omnibus populis et tribubus et linguis et universo genem humano aeternam salutem optat —— in Christo, Amen, Amen, Amen ——
The Psalter is finished. In Christ our lord, read in peace. Like a timely harbour to sailors is the last line to scribes. Æthelberht, son of Berhtfrith, wrote this gloss. Whoever may read it, may he pray for the scribe. And he himself similarly desires eternal health for all people, tribes and tongue and for the entire human race. In Christ, Amen, Amen, Amen.
Interestingly, Æthelberht was not the only Anglo-Saxon scribe to compare a scribe finishing his copy to a sailor reaching port. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Aldhelm manuscript (now Cambridge,Corpus Christ College, MS 326), a scribe added the following lines in Latin:
Nauta rudis pelagi ut seuis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora leta tenet
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub colle laboris
Deponens habeat pectore laeta quidem (source)
[A sailor, rescued from savage waves of the rough sea, coming into the harbour, holds a happy heart; So may a scribe, tired under the mountain of labour, laying down the quill, have a happy heart, indeed.
‘God help my hands’
The last example is a colophon in Old English that follows an eleventh-century version of Ælfric’s Old English De temporibus anni. This scribe shows some signs of fatigue. He duly notes his job is done, but seems to have had no spirit or energy left to come up with a proper maxim or a nice metaphor:
Sy þeos gesetnys þus her geendod. God helpe minum handum.
[Thus, let this composition be ended here. God help my hands]
This scribe was so tired, he did not even ask the reader to pray for his soul!
With that, this ship has reached its port. Though I have typed this with ten fingers, my body aches and so do my hands. Say a prayer for me.
If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:
- Scribal abuse in the Middle Ages
- Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England
- “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books
In this day and age of cyber espionage, encryption of information is becoming increasingly more important. But even in the early Middle Ages, scribes developed techniques to encode their messages, as this blog post reveals.
At the very end of an eleventh-century manuscript copy of St Augustine’s Confessions, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote “Fknktp Lkbrp χρp prfcpnkB rfddp”. Rather than garbled gobbledegook, these words were written in a simple but popular code: the vowels have been replaced by their neighbouring consonants in the alphabet: a=b; e=f; i=k; o=p; x=u. The scribe’s words actually read: “Finito libero Christo [the Greek letters χρ is a well-known abbreviation for Christ] preconio reddo”, which is Latin for something along the lines of: “The book is finished, I give a laudation to Christ in return”. Apparently, this scribe was happy that his job was done and rendered thanks to Christ in an encoded message.
The same motivation seems to underlie another encrypted colophon at the end of an eleventh-century Gospel-book made in England: “DFPGRBTKBS AMΗN”:
The first two words of this colophon read “DEO GRATIAS” [thanks be to God]; the last word is “AMEN”, with a Greek capital Eta instead of the E (and a weird M and N, which I haven’t been able to identify).
One of the most ambitious encoded messages of this kind is found in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, made in the 1020s in Winchester. The encoded message reads as follows:
Frbtfr hxmkllimus ft mpnbchxs afslknxs mf sckpskt skt kllk lpngb sblxs. B m .. n ;
[ve]l us [ve]l us [ve]l us
AFlfwknp mpnbchp aeqxf dfcbnp cpmpptxm kstxm ppsskdfp [ve]l mf ppsskdft. Bmfn.
The first line is easy to decipher: “Frater humillimus et monachus Ælsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus” [Ælsige, the most humble brother and monk, wrote me, may a long health be to him]. The code “B m .. n” means “Amen”, the “e” is replaced by two dots (for which, see below).
The next two lines take some more effort. The first part of the third lines reads: “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano compotum istum possideo” [I posses the computus for Ælfwine, the monk and dean]. The second line (vel us, vel us, vel us), makes clear that the words “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano” can also be read as “Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus”, thus changing the dative forms into the nominative forms. Combined with the last part of the third line which starts with “vel”, this reads: “vel Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet. Bfmn.” [or Ælfwine, the monk and dean, possesses me. Amen].
The rather intricate code is simply an inscription to indicate the maker of the manuscript (Ælfsige) and its owner (Ælfwine). Given the rather complicated encoding, one might wonder whether Ælfsige’s modesty (he calls himself humillimus ‘most humble’) is feigned modesty.
Hygeburg, a cryptographic Anglo-Saxon nun
Another case of feigned modesty is found in the prologue of the Anglo-Saxon nun Hygeburg (fl. 780). As part of the Anglo-Saxon mission, she ended up in Heidenheim, Germany. She was an abbess and wrote a work called the Hodoeporicon, a saint’s life of the Anglo-Saxon missionary saint Willebald. In her introudction, Hygeburg confesses that she considered her womanhood a hindrance for writing hagiography, noting in her preface:
And yet I especially, corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength, but impelled spontaneously by the ardour of my will, as a little ignorant creature culling a few thoughts from the sagacity of the heart, from the many leafy, fruit-bearing trees laden with a variety of flowers, it pleases me to pluck, assemble and display some few, gathered – with whatever feeble art, at least from the lowest branches-for you to hold in memory. (trans. Dronke 1984)
Hygeburg’s declaration of ignorance is undermined by the flowery rhetoric of her Latin prose, which suggests a high level of education. The encoded message with which she closes her message has a similar, subversive effect:
In this message, Hygeburg has replaced all the vowels with abbreviations for ordinal numbers, e.g., “Secd” for “secundum” [second] meaning the vowel e. The code can cracked as follows:
With her encoded message, Hygeburg not only shows off her encryption skills, she also claims the text (and possibly the manuscript?) to be her own: “Ego una Saxonica nomine Hugeburc ordinando hec scribebam” [I, a Saxon nun named Hygeburg, have written this].
Dot codes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
Another encryption method, similar to Hygeburg’s, is the replacement of vowels by dots. One dot equals the first vowel (a), two dots equal the second vowel (e), three dots mean the third vowel (i), and so on. A line in a tenth-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, probably made in Canterbury, is reproduced above and reads: “V⋮V:V·L:F:L⋮C⁞MCR⋮ST:: ·M:N” (four dots in a line representing U; four dots in a square representing O). In other words: “Vive vale feli cum Cristo. Amen” – here, the word “feli” [with/for the cat] is usually emended to “felix” [happy], so that it translates to “Live, be well, happy with Christ. Amen.” (Live, be well, for the cat, with Christ would make little sense, especially given the rather haphazard relationships between cats and medieval manuscripts, for which see: Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts).
My last example is found in a tenth- or eleventh-century manuscript of Bede’s Vita Sancti Cuthberti, made in southern England. Here, the scribe has once more replaced the vowels with dots: ·=a – :=e – ⋮=i – ::=o – :·:=u.
Q:·:|⋮ SCR⋮PS⋮T :·:|⋮|:·:|·T :T Q:·: L:G·T L:T:T:·:R
QUI SCRIPSIT UIUAT ET QU LEGAT LETETUR
Which, rather charmingly, translates to “May he who wrote live and may he who may read be happy”. This encrypted message suggests that encoding messages was an enjoyable pastime for scribes and that decoding these messages was considered a fun mental exercise for readers.
K HPPF YPX H·V: :NJ::Y:D R2nd1stD3rdNG TH⋮S BL::G PPST!
If you have enjoyed this blog post, why not follow this blog (see button on the right-hand side) and/or read the following posts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- Alcuinundrums: Seven brain teasers from the early Middle Ages
Works referred to:
- Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984)
The phrase ‘medieval obscenities’ typically bring to mind such curious late medieval depictions as the penis tree and obscene pilgrim badges featuring crowned vulvae being carried around by penises. This blog post deals with explicit art from an earlier period: the time of the Anglo-Saxons (c. 500-1100). As we shall see, the depiction of exposed genitalia served multiple purposes: from political commentary to markers of the monstrous, the diabolical and the sinful.
1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection
Perhaps the most famous depictions of nude figures in a work of early medieval art are found in the lower margins of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in the late 11th-century, by Anglo-Saxon nuns for a Norman patron). Whereas the main panels of the Tapestry depict the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the margins are home to an array of animals and human figures. It has been suggested that some of these marginal figures were meant as political commentary on the events depicted in the main panels. The scene of Harold Godwinson brought before William the soon-to-be-Conqueror, for instance, is accompanied by a virile and naked man reaching for an exposed woman whose hand gestures suggest discomfort. Is it possible that the Anglo-Saxon nuns were not-so-subtly comparing the interaction between William and Harold to non-consensual intercourse?
The Bayeux Tapestry features several other naked men with exposed appendages. The obscenity of these marginal scenes proved to be something of an obstacle for 19th-century, Victorian embroiderers who were intent on making a full-size replica of the tapestry. When I visited Reading Museum last year (where you can see the replica in a special gallery on the first floor), I noticed that at least one of the nude figures was given a pair of underpants:
(For more on censored nudity and the Bayeux Tapestry, see this blog by Christopher Monk)
2) Marvels of the East au naturel
The Marvels of the East is a catalogue of monsters that survives in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The text, accompanied by illustrations, features descriptions of marvellous beasts (including exploding chickens!) and semi-humans (on this text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). Some of these humanoid monsters are depicted in their birthday suits. As Kim (2003) has noted, their full-frontal nudity acts as a marker of monstrosity: it sets these weird and wonderful creatures apart from mankind. This difference is particularly clear in the depiction of the Donestre (half-human, half-lion, who speak to travellers in their own languages, then eat them and cry over their victim’s heads): whereas the monsters are naked, their human victims are clothed.
3) Woden, a well-endowed god
Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons practised Germanic paganism. Evidence for their pagan beliefs includes various grave goods, which imply that they believed in an afterlife where such material goods would come in handy. Archaeological finds in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries include objects that feature depictions of what are believed to be pagan gods. Two such objects, both dating to the seventh century, feature depictions of the god Woden as a semi-naked warrior. By the looks of it, the pagan Anglo-Saxons assumed Woden was well endowed, indeed.
4) Phallic…er…Fallen angels in the Junius Manuscript
The so-called Junius Manuscript (a 10th-century manuscript containing Old English religious verse) features an interesting set of illustrations. In the depictions of the Fall of Angels, the fallen angels are depicted as losing their clothes and, in some cases, gaining visible, male genitalia (as opposed to their angelic, genderless and concealed counterparts). Possibly, the Anglo-Saxon artist masculinized the fallen angels because male nudity was associated with sin in Anglo-Saxon writings and art (see Karkov 2003, and examples below).
By the by, the Junius Manuscript also contains an intriguing depiction of Noah flashing his son Ham, which I have discussed in another blog post: Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England.
5) Disrobed demons and strap-naked sinners in the Harley Psalter
The association of male nudity and exposed genitalia with sinfulness is further revealed by this depiction of Psalm 6:6 (“and who shall confess to thee in Hell”) in the Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter (an 11th-century manuscript of the Psalms, featuring illustrations of literal interpretations of the Psalm texts). The sinners, wrapped in snakes, are all fully naked and the second one from the left is quite clearly a man. The two demons on the right, too, show distinctively masculine features (even if the rightmost demon seems something of a hermaphrodite). The addition of these diabolic reproductive organs is remarkable, since these obscene features are not clearly present in the exemplar of the Harley Psalter, the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter (see here).
6) Pulling your beard in a canon table
The 8th-century Barberini Gospels is a beautifully illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript that resembles the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. Tucked away in a canon table (a list of corresponding passages in the four Gospels), we find a naked, male figure surrounded by snakes. The presence of the serpents suggests that this is another depiction of a sinner in Hell. The man is tugging his beard with one hand, while the other reaches for his male appendage. While stroking one’s beard may seem like an innocent action today, medieval depictions of ‘beard-pulling’ had a strong connotation with masturbation (see here). The depiction in the canon table, then, seems to depict what punishment awaits those who indulge in onanism: snakes biting your snake!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
Works referred to:
- C. Karkov, “Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art”, in Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 181-220
- S. M. Kim, “The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes”, in: Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 162-180
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
From Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’ to Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’ – this blog post deals with the remarkable bynames found for individuals mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Domesday Book as a cultural treasure trove
The Domesday Book is perhaps the most famous administrative record from the Middle Ages. The Domesday Book was made in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror in 1086, who wanted to know whom he could tax and how much. The result is a long and detailed work, listing the various duties and payments that had to be made to the crown as well as the names and holding of landowners living in 1086. The Domesday Book also includes an overview of the situation during the reign of William’s predecessor Edward the Confessor in 1066. William’s scribes were thorough, indeed, as the Peterborough Chronicle remarks:
Swa swyðe nearwelice he hit lett utaspyrian. þæt næs an ælpig hide. ne an gyrde landes. ne furðon, hit is sceame to tellanne. ac hit ne þuhte him nan sceame to donne. an oxe. ne an cu. ne an swin. næs belyfon. þæt næs gesæt on his gewrite.
[So very narrowly did he command them to record it, that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, moreover (it is a shame to say it, but it did not seem to him a shame to do it) not one ox, not one cow, not one swine was left, that was not set down in his book.]
While the Domesday Book is mostly used as a source for the social and economic history of eleventh-century England, it is also a treasure trove for those interested in more cultural phenomena, such as bynames and nicknames.
Anglo-Norman and Latin bynames from the Domesday Book
A byname is an additional name to a person’s main name, which often allows for a clearer identification of the individual. Often, such bynames take a locational form, allowing us to distinguish between such a Wulfstan of York and a Wulfstan of Worchester. More interesting are those bynames that describe physical, mental or moral characteristics. The last category is known as nicknames and can often be jocular. Some intriguing Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames found in the Domesday Book are listed below:
Bernardus panceuolt – Bernard ‘Paunch-face’
Hunfridus uis de leuu – Humphrey ‘Face of a wolf’
Hunfridus aurei testiculi – Humphrey ‘Golden-bollocks’
Rogerus Deus saluaet dominas – Roger ‘God save the ladies’
Slideshow with Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames. Source images: opendomesday.org
Top 10 Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
Fascinating though the Anglo-Norman and Latin nicknames are, I was mainly interested to find some Old English nicknames and have listed my personal top 10 (in no particular order) below:
10) Aluui Ceuresbert – Alwy ‘Beetle-beard’
Alwy was a landowner in Thatcham, Berkshire, with, as it would seem, a remarkable beard. His nickname ‘ceuresbert’ is a compound of Old English ceafor ‘chafer, beetle’ and beard ‘beard’, suggesting that he may have had a two-pronged beard resembling the antennae of a beetle.
9) Alwinus Bollochessege – Alwine ‘Bullock’s eye’
Alwinus Bollochessege lived in Winchester in 1066. Since Winchester was not included in the survey for the original Domesday Book, his name is found in what is known as the Liber Winton or Winchester Domesday Book: a twelfth-century document, based on an earlier, now-lost document. The nickname of Alwine is made up of the Old English words bulluc ‘bullock’ and eage ‘eye’ (see Tengvik 1938, 295).
8) Ernuin Catenase – Ernwine ‘Cat’s nose’
Ernuin Catenase (catt ‘cat’ + nasu ‘nose’) was a landowner in Yorkshire, owning lands and manor in Scacherthorpe and Upper and Lower Poppleton. The Domesday Book records that his lands were granted to an Ernwine with a less unfortunate byname: Ernwine the priest.
7) Alricus Wintremelc – Alric ‘Winter-milk’
Alricus Wintremelc was the tenant-in-chief of Goldington, Bedfordshire. His pretty straightforward nickname is, nevertheless, more intriguing than that of Ailmar Melc who lived in Tolleshunt, Essex.
6) Goduuinus Wachefet – Godwine ‘Weak-feet’
Godwine ‘Weak-feet’ was one of the tenants of Gloucester in 1066. In this list we can clearly see that Godwine’s nickname was added to separate him from another “Goduuinus” and a “Goduinus”.
5) Goduuinus Softebread – Godwine ‘Soft-bread’
Another inhabitant of Winchester, mentioned in the Liber Winton (see Tengvik 1938, 380).
4) Godwinus Penifeder – Godwine ‘Penny-father’
Godwin Penny-father lived in Winchester and his nickname suggests that he was something of an Anglo-Saxon Scrooge. He apparently lived in the same street as Aluricus Penipurs – Alfric ‘Penny-purse’ (see Tengvik 1938, 353).
3) Aluuardus Belrap – Alward ‘Bell-rope’
In 1066, Alward ‘Bell-rope’ was the lord of Holcot, Bedfordshire. Interestingly, his lordship had passed over in 1086 to one “Radulfus Passaqua”: Ralph ‘Pass-water’.
2) Aluuinus Deule – Alwine ‘The devil’
Alwine ‘the devil’ was a Bedfordshire landowner not to be meddled with!
1) Aluredus Caddebelloc – Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’
Another landowner in Winchester in 1066 – name mentioned in Liber Winton. According to Tengvik (1938) this is a tautological compound of OE/ME cade ‘testicle’ and balluc ‘testicle’: Alfred ‘Testicle-testicle’, lest we confuse him with Alfred ‘the Great’…
If you liked this blogpost, you may also be interested in the following post:
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great? (on the nickname ‘Arseling’, popularised by BBC’s The Last Kingdom)
- How Cnut became Canute (on the name of Viking king Cnut the Great)
- Naming names in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (a great blogpost by For the Wynn)
Works referred to:
- G. Tengvik, Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938)
In this blog, I have occasionally noted how illustrated manuscripts resemble the comic books and graphic novels of this day and age (see here and here). In this post, I focus on the eighth-century Cuthwine, bishop of Dunwich, who appears to have had a taste for illustrated manuscripts: an Anglo-Saxon comic book collector!
Bishop Cuthwine of Dunwich and his illuminated manuscripts
Cuthwine was bishop of Dunwich somewhere between 716 and 731. Little is known about Cuthwine, apart from his interest in illuminated manuscripts. This interest is revealed by the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (d. 735) in a work entitled The Eight Questions; Bede suggests that he had seen an illuminated manuscript that Cuthwine had brought back from Rome. Bede brings up Cuthwine’s manuscript in reply to a question by the London priest Nothelm about what the Apostle Paul meant when he said “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty minus one” (2. Cor. 11:24):
What the Apostle says … signifies that he had been whipped by them five times, in such a way, however, that he was never beaten with forty lashes, but always with one less, or thirty-nine. … That it is to be understood in this way and was understood in this way by the ancients is also attested by the picture of the Apostle in the book which the most reverend and most learned Cuthwine, bishop of the East Angles, brought with him when he came from Rome to Britain, for that book all of his sufferings and labours were fully depicted in relation to the appropriate passages. (trans. Trent Foley & Holder 1999, p.151)
The book described by Bede has been identified as the De actibus apostolorum, a verse history of the Apostles by the sixth-century poet Arator. While this particular copy of Cuthwine’s has not survived, the name of this Anglo-Saxon bishop has been connected to another manuscript.
Cuthwine’s copy of the Carmen Paschale by Sedulius
Antwerp, Plantin-Moretus Museum, M 17.4 contains an illustrated versification of the life of Christ, known as the Carmen Paschale by the early fifth-century Roman poet Sedulius. According to art historian Alexander (1978, p. 83), the Antwerp manuscript represents a ninth-century Carolingian copy of an earlier Anglo-Saxon exemplar. It is possible that this Anglo-Saxon exemplar once belonged to Cuthwine, since the copiist of the Antwerp manuscript copied a colophon of another text in the manuscript, which mentions the name “CUĐUUINI”:
The fact that the Antwerp manuscript is based on an Anglo-Saxon exemplar coupled with Bede’s report on Cuthwine’s interest in illuminated manuscripts has led scholars to suggest that the exemplar of this manuscript once belonged to this Anglo-Saxon bishop (e.g. Lapidge 2006, pp. 26-27).
As I will reveal at the end of the blog post, the Antwerp manuscript may have something peculiar in common with the manuscript described by Bede as having belonged to Cuthwine, aside from just being illustrated. But let’s look at some of the illustrations of the Carmen Paschale first.
The Carmen Paschale: The Bible as an epic poem
Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale attempts to rewrite the Gospels in the style of classical epics, such as Vergil’s Eneid. Apart from the story of Christ, the poem also contains various references to Old Testament stories. To give you an idea of the nature of the poem, here is the text that accompanies an image of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Antwerp manuscript:
The enfeebled uterus of old Sarah was already withering,
Worn out by long inactivity, and the chilly blood,
Moribund in her ancient body, was denying her a child.
Her husband was even older than she, when the insides of her cold belly
Began to swell to give new birth, and the trembling mother,
Grown heavy in her freezing womb, produced hope for a fertile race
And held a late-born son up to her breasts.
His father brought him to God to sacrifice, but instead, a sacred ram
Was slaughtered, and the boy’s throat was spared right at the altar. (bk. I, ll. 107-115, trans. Springer 2013)
Sedulius’s style has been described as bombastic, and rightly so, judging by his description of Sarah’s withered uterus!
Jonah and the whale
The illustrations in the Antwerp manuscript generally illustrate the text of the poem well, as the two illustrations of the story of Jonah and the whale illustrate:
Jonah fell off a ship and was swallowed up by a voracious whale.
Even in the sea he did not get wet, for he was in a living tomb,
So that he would not perish. Safe in the wild beast’s belly,
He was its charge, not its prey, and over the great expanse of the sea,
Rowed by an unfriendly oarsman, he arrived in unfamiliar lands. (bk. I, ll. 192-196, trans. Springer 2013)
Whipped saints and martyred babies: Cuthwine’s taste for gore
If the illustrations in the Antwerp manuscript resemble those of the Anglo-Saxon exemplar (and Alexander 1978 seems to think so), we might attribute to Cuthwine a certain taste for blood and gore. Both the Antwerp manuscript and Cuthwine’s manuscript described by Bede contained illustrations with a lot of graphic detail. Bede describes the scene of St. Paul’s flogging in Cuthwine’s manuscript as follows:
This passage was there depicted in such a way that it was as if the Apostle were lying naked, lacerated by whips and drenched with tears. Now above him there was standing a torturer having in his hand a whip divided into four parts, but one of the strings is retained in his hand, and only the remaining three are left loose for beating. Wherein the intention of the painter is easily apparent, that the reason he was prepared to scourge him with three strings was so that he might complete the number of thirty-nine lashes.(trans. Trent Foley & Holder, p. 151)
Apparently, the artist of Cuthwine’s book had not left much to the imagination. Much the same can be said for the image in the Antwerp manuscript, depicting the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (the young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, massacred by Herod):
Indeed, the image of warriors cutting babies in half, a baby impaled on a spear and the attempts of their mothers to embrace the dead babies is gruesome by any account and well accompanies Sedulius’s outrage over the massacre:
And he kept on dashing to the ground and slaying masses of infants,
Fierce in his unwarranted murder. For what crime did this innocent
Multitude have to perish? Why did those who had barely begun to live
Already deserve to die? There was rage in the bloodthirsty king,
Not reason. Killing them at their first cries and daring to
Perpetrate wickednesses beyond number, he slaughtered boys
By the thousands and gave a single lament to many mothers.
This one tore out her mangled hair from her bare scalp.
That one scored her cheeks. Another beat her bared breast with fists.
One unhappy mother (now a mother no longer!)
Bereft, pressed her breasts to her son’s cold mouth-in vain.
You butcher! What did you feel then as you watched such a sight? (bk. II, ll. 116-127, trans. Springer 2013)
When one compares Sedulius’s text to the illustration, it is interesting to note that much of the brutality in the Antwerp manuscript illustration was added by the artist. Sedulius focuses on the reaction of the mothers and nowhere mentions babies being cut in half or impaled on spears. Speculatively, we might imagine the artist of the original, Anglo-Saxon exemplar of the Antwerp manuscript adding these gory details, since he knew Bishop Cuthwine’s taste for such scenes. I wonder what Cuthwine felt when he “watched such a sight”….
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works referred to:
- J.J.G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts: 6th to the 9th Century (London, 1978)
- Bede, A Biblical Miscellany, trans. W. Trent Foley & A. G. Holder (Liverpool, 1999)
- Lapidge, M. The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford, 2006)
- Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)
This blog post focuses on one of the most extensively illustrated books from the Middle Ages: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV). A unique picture book from early medieval England.
The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch as a picture book
Thirty-three goats, twenty-six sheep, thirty-one camels, thirty cows and twenty-nine asses. The artist responsible for the illustrations of The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch made a valiant attempt to match the numbers of livestock mentioned in Genesis 32:13-14 as having been gifted by Esau to Jacob (“Two hundred she-goats, twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams, thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and twenty bulls, twenty she-asses, and ten of their foals”). His efforts exemplify the great ambition behind this unique manuscript: to fully illustrate an Old English translation of the fist six books of the Bible. These efforts resulted in one of the most important examples of Anglo-Saxon art, with over four hundred illustrations.
The illustrations accompany the texts of Genesis through to Joshua, translated into Old English from the Latin Vulgate. This translation has been partially attributed to the famous homilist Ælfric of Eynsham, who was responsible for the translation of Genesis up to 24:22, the second half of Numbers and the book of Joshua. The rest of the translation was made by one or more anonymous translators. The text survives in seven other manuscripts , but Cotton Clauius B. IV is the only one to be illustrated (Barnhouse and Withers 2000: 2-3). Most of its illustrations are original and were made especially to conform to the text of the manuscript: “In other words, the artist was not copying the pictures of a remote and long-forgotten age; like other creative artists he was thinking in terms of his own life and times” (Dodwell and Clemoes 1974: 71). As such, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch is a unique, Anglo-Saxon picture book, that not only illustrates the text of the Old Testament, but also provides a glimpse of how an inhabitant of early medieval England imagined these events.
Sample: Sodom and Gomorrah and the seduction of Lot
To give you an idea of the joy of reading The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, here follows the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the seduction of Lot (Gen. 19:24-33). The text was edited by Samuel J. Crawford in 1922:
God sende to þam burgum ealbyrnendne renscur mid swefle gemencged 7 ða sceamleasan fordyde. God towearp ða swa mid graman ða burga, 7 ealne ðone eard endemes towende 7 ealle þa burhwara forbærnde ætgædere, 7 eall ðæt growende wæs, wearð adylegod.
[God sent to the towns an all-consuming shower, mixed with sulfur, and destroyed the shameless ones. Thus, God then destroyed the towns with rage, and all the land he cast down likewise, and he burned all the citizens together, and all that was growing, was destroyed.]
In the illustration below, note the rather anachronistic architecture!
Þa beseah Lothes wif unwislice underbæc 7 wearð sona awend to anum sealtstane na for wiglunge, ac for gewisre getacnunge.
[Then Lot’s wife unwisely looked back and was immediately turned into a salt-stone, not because of sorcery, but as a certain sign.]
In the added illustration, one of Lot’s daughters seems to be making a facepalm!
Lot and his daughters then find their way to a mountain, were the daughters plan to make him drunk:
Ða cwæð seo yldre dohtor to hyre gingran swyster: Vre fæder ys eald man 7 nan oðer wer ne belaf on ealre eorþan, ðe unc mage habban. Vton fordrencean urne fæder færlice mid wine 7 uton licgan mid him, þæt sum laf beo hys cynnes. Hi dydon ða swa, 7 fordrencton heora fæder
[Then the elder daughter said to her younger sister: ‘Our father is an old man and no other man is left in the whole world, who might have us. Let us quickly make our father drunk with wine and let us lie with him, so that there may be an heir of his kin.’ Then they did so and made their father drunk.]
The image below suggests that the artist deemed four drinks enough to get Lot drunk enough to sleep with his daughters – on the right we can see a happy Lot sharing a blanket with one of his daughters (with untangled hair!))
How to illustrate a medieval manuscript? A five step guide
One very interesting feature of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch is that some of its scenes were left unfinished, allowing us to reconstruct the various stages of the illustration process. Johnson (2000: 175-176) has identified the following five stages:
- Outline sketches (often no longer visible)
- Added blocks of ground colours for bodies, surfaces of rivers, etc.
- Confirmed outline sketch by adding outlines of heads, feet and hands in red ink.
- Fill in facial details (nose, eyebrows, hair)
- Added shading and highlighting for draperies, hair and shoes
These five stages are illustrated below:
Twitter Project ‘Old English Hexatweets’: Tweeting the Old English Hexateuch
The above has hopefully convinced you that the Old English Hexateuch deserves to be more widely used and enjoyed. To ensure this and to give myself something to tweet about, I will start tweeting one image of the Old English Hexateuch a day, along with an accompanying Old English citation from the edition of the text by Crawford (1922). If you would like your daily fix of Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination and Old English prose, follow me on Twitter.
Works referred to:
- Barnhouse, Rebecca, and Benjamin C. Withers (eds.). The Old English Hexateuch: aspects and approaches (Kalamazoo, 2000).
- Crawford, S. J. (ed.). The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, Ælfric’s Treatise on the Old and New Testament and His Preface to Genesis. Early English Text Society OS 160 (London, 1922).
- Dodwell, C.R., and P. Clemoes (eds.). The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B. iv, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 18 (Copenhagen, 1974).
- Johnson, David. A Program of Illumination in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: “Visual Typology”, in Barnhouse and Withers 2000: 165-200.
As Easter is drawing near, this blog post deals with a unique early medieval manuscript that reveals how missionaries around the year 600 tried to teach the story of the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons. Notably, they used a rather modern method: teaching through comics.
Saint Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604)
In the year 597, a Benedictine monk by the name of Augustine arrived in Kent, having been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great. Augustine’s mission was to convert the Anglo-Saxons, and the Kingdom of Kent seemed to be a good place to start, since its king, Æthelberht, had married a Christian princess from Francia, named Bertha (which, incidentally, is a name which in The Netherlands is mostly associated with cows!). Although the Kentish king was apprehensive at first (he wanted to meet Augustine out in the open, lest the monk would act some kind of sorcery), Augustine was pretty successful. He was able to establish an episcopal see in Canterbury and founded two further bishoprics in London and Rochester.
One of the key factors of Augustine’s success was the papal backing he received from Pope Gregory the Great. The latter would sent Augustine additional personnel to aid his missionary activities, as well as answers to various pressing questions. These answers to Augustine’s questions form the so-called Libellus responsionum [Little Book of Answers], which survives in Bede’s Ecclesiastic History; the questions (and answers) deal with matters such as how to punish sinners, whether a man should wash after intercourse and whether a priest was still allowed to celebrate mass after he had had a wet dream – essential stuff. Lastly, the pope also sent Augustine a number of books; one of which is Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS. 286: The St Augustine Gospels.
The Passion in the St Augustine Gospels
The St Augustine Gospels were made in Italy in the sixth century but soon ended up in Canterbury, where it remained until the 16th century. What makes this manuscript unique is not only its antiquity (it is one of the oldest books in Europe), but also its illustrations, which represent various scenes from the life of Christ. Collected as some of them are on a single page, these illuminations resemble the panels of a present-day comic strip.
I find it fascinating to imagine how Saint Augustine would have to explain the story of the Gospels to mostly illiterate Anglo-Saxons and that he could use this comic strip as a means to make his message clear. Incidentally, the face of one of the people who mock Christ in the St Augustine Gospels appears to have been all but erased – could this be because missionaries would dramatically thump this part of the illumination to indicate that this guy was doing something wrong?
Here follow the various scenes in more detail:
Early medieval comic strips: The St Augustine Gospels and The Bayeux Tapestry
Although speech bubbles and such are absent, we may very well consider the St Augustine Gospels as one of the precursors of the modern-day comic strip. It possibly served as an inspiration of another early medieval ancestor of contemporary comics: The eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to and including the Norman Conquest of 1066. This 70+ meter piece of embroidery was probably made in Canterbury and at least one of its scenes seems to show the influence of the St Augustine Gospels: the banquet organised by bishop Odo of Bayeux (the most likely patron of the Tapestry) resembles the Last Supper. Note how bishop Odo blesses the food in a manner similar to Christ!
The fact that Saint Augustine and his fellow missionaries used comic strips, such as the one that survives in the St Augustine Gospels, to educate their flock reveals that teaching through comics has a long history, indeed. For a more modern example, see this blog post, where I try to explain a particularly difficult episode in Beowulf through the same medium!
Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troilus to wryten newe,
Under thy lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my making thou wryte trewe.
So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe,
Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape;
And al is through thy negligence and rape.
[Adam scribe, if it should ever happen to you that you write Boethius or Troilus anew, may you have scabs under your locks, unless you copy in true fashion in accord with my lines. So often in a day I must renew your work, and correct and rub and scrape it; and all is through your negligence and haste.]
In this famous little poem, Geoffrey Chaucer cursed the sloppiness of his scribe Adam. Some evidence of the medieval punishments inflicted on other scribes in the Middle Ages suggests Adam got off lightly.
Write like this or else: Poor Ælfric and Willimott
A number of inscriptions, added in the margins of English manuscripts, suggests that negligent scribes could face physical repercussions. In London, British Library, Harley 55, a twelfth-century miscellany containing medical texts and Anglo-Saxon law codes, an added note reads “Writ þus oððe bet ride aweg Ælfmær pattafox þu wilt swingan Ælfric cild”. Depending on whether we interpret the word “bet” as a form of Old English betan ‘to make amends, pay’ or bett ‘better’, this note translates as either ‘Write like this or pay (and) ride away, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’ or ‘Write like this or better ride way, Ælfmær Pattafox will hit you Ælfric, child’.
Similar threats of violence against a scribe failing to reproduce the script of his exemplar are found in two twelfth-century notes, added in the margins of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20 (a ninth-century copy of Alfred’s Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care). These notes are directed at scribe Willimot and read “willimot writ þus oððe bet” [Willimot, write like this or pay/better] and “writ þus oððe bet oððe þine hyde forlet” [write like this or pay/better or lose your skin]. Similar admonitions to ‘write like this’, albeit without explicit threats of physical punishment, can be found in other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (Whitbread 1983).
‘He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows’
The scribal notes in Harley 55 and Hatton 20 are painful reminders of the fact that a strict regime of physical discipline was an integral part of monastic education. A twelfth-century manuscript now in Durham Cathedral Library shows a pupil being beaten by his teacher, next to the rubric “Afficitur plagis qui non vult discere gratis” [He who does not want to learn freely must be taught with blows] (Cleaver 2009).
Monastic rules abound in corporal punishment for misbehaving monks and these sometimes included negligent scribes. The 9th-century typikon of the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, for example, lists the following punishments:
A diet of bread and water was the penalty set for the scribe who became so much interested in the subject matter of what he was copying that he neglected his task of copying. Monks had to keep their parchment leaves neat and clean, on penalty of 130 penances. If anyone should take without permission another’s quaternion (that is, the ruled and folded sheets of parchment), 50 penances were prescribed. If anyone should make more glue than he could use at one time and it should harden, he would have to do 50 penances. If a scribe broke his pen in a fit of temper (perhaps after having made some accidental blunder near the close of an otherwise perfectly copied sheet), he would have to do 30 penances (Wegner 2004, p. 210).
A scribe condemned to a mouse’s death
One particularly painful corporal punishment of a scribe, though not for erroneous copying, is found in the 9th-century Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna by Andreas Agnellus. After Ravenna rebelled against the Byzantine Empire at the end of the seventh century, one of its local rebels, the scribe Johannicis, is arrested and brought before Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, ‘the slit-nosed’ (669-711):
Justinian, having become enraged, ordered Johannicis to be brought into his presence; as if ignorant, he asked him ironically, “is this indeed Johannicis the scribe?” and when he answered that it was he, the imperial rage rose yet higher. He ordered a reed to be brought and he ordered that it be forced under all the nails of his fingers up to the second joint. He then ordered parchment and pen to be given, that [Johannicis] might write. When he received it, he forced the pen between two fingers. He did not write with ink, but with the blood which flowed from his fingers (Mauskopf Deliyannis 2004, pp. 265-6).
In true heroic fashion, Johannicis writes a prayer to God in his own blood on the parchment and throws this in the Emperor’s face. The enraged Justinian then orders Johannicis to die a ‘mouse’s death’; that is: he is crushed between two stones and dies.
In view of the above, Chaucer could have done a lot worse to Adam scriveyn than a mere conditional curse of scabs. So, the next time you are frustrated with barely legible scripts or missing pieces of text in medieval manuscripts and feel like wringing the scribe’s neck, rest assured that his contemporaries probably got there first…
Works referred to:
- Cleaver, L., ‘Grammar and Her Children: Learning to Read in the Art of the Twelfth Century’, Marginalia 9 (2009), http://www.marginalia.co.uk/journal/09education/cleaver.php
- Mauskopf Deliyannis, D. (Trans.), The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna (The Catholic University of America Press 2004)
- Wegner, P.D., The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI 2004).
- Whitbread, L.G., ‘A Scribal Jotting from Medieval English’, Notes and Queries 228 (1983), pp. 198-199.
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the medievalfragments blog.