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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – Art, Word, War at the British Library

Below is a brief description and illustration of the eleven important manuscripts currently on loan from the College to the British Library. The significance of the Corpus loan is clear; and even clearer in the context of the exhibition itself. What follows is just a brief set of snapshots of the magnificent treasures which await visitors to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – Art, Word, War.

CCCC = Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
MS = manuscript

CCCC MS 286: The Gospels of St Augustine

The Gospels of St Augustine is one of the most famous manuscripts in the Parker Library. This small, and unutterably precious, book is said to have been given by Pope Gregory the Great to St Augustine in AD 597; a parting gift as Augustine left Rome on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain to Christianity. The text is written in a clear and readable Italian uncial hand (those with some Latin should not be afraid to try). The Gospels of St Augustine is the oldest surviving gospel book in Latin, and one of the oldest surviving books in Europe. It is also the earliest surviving gospel book with figure illumination: although most of it has been lost, with only a picture of Luke as a scribe under an arcade, and a page of gospel images in a grid. In the later Middle Ages, the Gospels was probably kept on the altar at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. In 1982, it was put in the place of ​honour between Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie during the first papal visit to England since the Reformation. It normally leaves the College – securely chained to the Librarian – only for the enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. 


CCCC MS 197B: The Northumbrian Gospels

The Northumbrian Gospels is amongst the oldest decorated books made in England. This manuscript is the surviving part of a lavish gospel book with elaborate decoration. The larger part was acquired in the early seventeenth century by the great collector, Sir Robert Cotton. The Cotton library was bequeathed to the nation by his grandson in 1702 (and formed the core of what was later to become the British Library). The Cotton collection was badly damaged by fire in 1731 and only charred fragments remain of Cotton’s part of this gospel book. In the part of the book preserved in Corpus (unharmed and safe in the Parker Library) the eagle symbol of St John survives. Both Matthew Parker and Robert Cotton believed that this gospel book was once owned by St Augustine of Canterbury. The later date of the manuscript rules this out: it seems to be from late seventh- or early eighth-century Northumbria, almost certainly from the island of Lindisfarne. It is also likely that Matthew Parker had his part of the manuscript rebound, displacing the illustration of the eagle from its original position so that it became the first, and visually dramatic, page of his part of the gospels.

For more information on this manuscript see the Parker Library blog post here.


CCCC MS 100: sixteenth-century transcripts of various medieval texts

The most important text transcribed in this manuscript is ​Asser’s De rebus gestis Ælfredi regis [The Achievements of King Alfred]. The text was copied for Matthew Parker from an earlier manuscript acquired by Robert Cotton for his library. It was completely destroyed in the fire of 1731. A Welshman from St David’s, Asser (died 909) became Bishop of Sherborne. His account of Alfred the Great (ruled 871–899) is the earliest known account of an Anglo-Saxon king. The text divides into two sections: the first discusses Alfred’s life up to 887, while the second is an approving discussion of his rule. In Asser’s Life, the picture that emerges of Alfred is of a ruler keen to promote religion and learning in the language of the people: English. Asser describes how Alfred’s mother once showed Alfred and his brothers a book of English poetry. She promised to give the book to whichever of them was able to memorise it the fastest. Asser claims that ‘spurred on by these words, rather than by divine inspiration, and attracted by the beauty of the initial letter in the book’, Alfred immediately took it away and learnt the poetry by heart. Somewhat less romantically, it is also Asser who tells the famous story of Alfred burning the cakes. 


CCCC MS 173: The Parker Chronicle

The Parker Chronicle is fundamental to any understanding of Anglo-Saxon history. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the earliest history written in English – is part of Alfred the Great’s initiative to establish a local, English sense of identity through the recording of significant events in the language of the people (so in English, not Latin). A core set of annals was composed which were then augmented variously over the years in different places. Every version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is therefore different and has its own complicated transmission history. The Parker Chronicle, also known as the A-version, is the oldest manuscript surviving. It was started in the late ninth century and continued into the eleventh. It originated somewhere in Wessex, probably in Winchester, but had moved to the cathedral priory of Christ Church, Canterbury by the end of the eleventh century. Although the Chronicle is the most famous part of the manuscript, it also contains other material: important early texts of the Old English laws of Alfred the Great as well as a list of bishops and popes. The volume was greatly valued by Matthew Parker who brought the list of archbishops of Canterbury up to date to include his own name. 


CCCC MS 144: The Corpus Glossary

The Corpus Glossary, written in the early ninth century, contains some of the oldest words in the English language. A glossary is a list of terms in one language defined in a second language or “glossed” by synonyms (or at least near-synonyms) in another language. The first part of the Corpus Glossary offers explanations of various Greek and Hebrew/biblical names. The second part offers Old English glosses (in effect, a vocabulary list in alphabetical order) for over two thousand Latin words. It is an important record not only of Old English vocabulary, but also of the level of Latin education in Anglo-Saxon England. The text is thought to have evolved from a lost anthology of English words originally put together in Canterbury to help the Mediterranean missionaries understand the local language.

For more information on this manuscript see the Parker Library blog post here.





CCCC MS 41: Old English Bede

This manuscript contains an Old English translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History. The Venerable Bede was a monk at Jarrow (near the mouth of the River Tyne) in the late sixth/early seventh century. He was one of the most important thinkers and writers in early medieval Europe, and is the only English-born saint to have been declared a ‘Doctor of the Church’ (by Pope Leo XIII in 1899). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (originally written in Latin) is a history of Christianity in England. It is a fundamental text for English history and for understanding the formation of English national identity. The translation was commissioned as another element in Alfred the Great’s campaign to translate into English (in Alfred’s own phrase) ‘those books most necessary for all to know’ and, as with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to establish a sense of Englishness through the use of language (English not Latin). MS 41 was written in the first half of the eleventh century probably somewhere in the south of England. The manuscript is large in format, written in grand round script, and was clearly intended to be a deluxe book. It was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop ​Leofric (1050­–1072), and still contains the bilingual donation inscription warning anyone who attempted to remove it: ‘If anyone should make off with this book from here, may he be subject to a curse.’

For more information on this manuscript see the Parker Library blog post here.


CCCC MS 183: The Venerable Bede, Two Lives of St Cuthbert

This is one of several manuscripts associated with King ​Æthelstan (924/25–939), grandson of Alfred the Great. This is the only manuscript known to have been written in England in his reign (sometime between 934 and 939). Æthelstan is generally regarded as the first king of a unified England, his reign being marked by an increased centralisation of government and much greater and systematic legal intervention. He was also known as a learned collector of books and holy relics. Æthelstan seems to have commissioned this book for presentation to the community of St Cuthbert, which at this point was at Chester-le-Street, having fled Lindisfarne to escape Viking attacks, but not yet settled in at Durham. The presentation picture shows Æthelstan (with purple tunic, fashionable red hose, crown, yellow hair and beard) with bowed head, presenting the book to St Cuthbert himself. Cuthbert, a seventh-century monk, bishop and hermit, was the most important medieval saint in northern England with a pilgrimage cult centred on his tomb in Durham Cathedral. MS 183 contains The Venerable Bede’s two Lives of St Cuthbert, the first in prose and the second metrical, a mass and office for Cuthbert’s feast day, as well as lists of popes, bishops and kings, and a record of Æthelstan’s other gifts to the community. 

For more information on this manuscript see the Parker Library blog post here.


CCCC MS 23: Prudentius and Orosius

MS 23 is one of the most richly illustrated books surviving from Anglo-Saxon England. It consists of two volumes bound together. The first is an elegantly illustrated manuscript of works by the late fourth-century Christian poet ​Prudentius – one of the most popular poets (alongside Horace) in the Middle Ages. This manuscript presents Prudentius’ Psychomachia, a poem about the struggle between personifications of the vices and virtues for possession of the human soul. In the battle between virtue and vice, full weight is given to the power of Luxuria with her attendants Beauty and Pleasure, and her weapons of rose petals and violets. Luxuria almost overcomes the army of Virtue, before yielding to ultimate defeat. This copy was produced in England probably in the late tenth century, perhaps at Canterbury, but a presentation inscription claims Malmesbury. The 89 delicate illustrations in coloured inks of red, brown, green and blue are likely to have their origin in a much older, fifth-century manuscript. 


CCCC MS 383: Anglo-Saxon Laws

This late eleventh- or early twelfth-century manuscript, possibly from St Paul's Cathedral in London, contains a very early version of the Anglo-Saxon law codes and related texts. This manuscript is a legal ​encyclopaedia copied throughout by a single hand in an easily legible script in dark brown-black ink. This manuscript contains the only surviving Old English version of the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (a manual to guide the administration of a late Anglo-Saxon estate and the only systematic record of the obligations and perquisites of its various tenants and workers written prior to the Norman Conquest) and the Gerefa (a discussion of the duties of an estate overseer in the style of a colloquy based on classical models). Both texts are key to understanding Anglo-Saxon economic history. The Rectitudines begins with a discussion of the duties and obligations of four different social ranks present on the estate; then turns to tenant beekeepers and both tenant and bound swineherds. It then runs through a series of agricultural occupations from plough ‘follower’ through to cheese-wright, barley-keeper, beadle, forester and hedge-warden. At some point, the manuscript was in the hands of Robert Talbot, prebendary of Norwich (died 1558) and contains notes in his hand as well as that of Matthew Parker's secretary, John Joscelyn (1529–1603). 



CCCC 201: Old English religious and legal texts

This is a composite volume which can be divided chronologically into three parts, probably first bound together by Matthew Parker. The oldest sections, written in the early eleventh century, contain a fragment of the Old English ​Regularis concordia, the code of monastic observance, and some Old English religious poems, most notably Judgement Day II, a translation of The Venerable Bede’s De die iudicii. The second part of the volume contains a large number of sermons by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (died 1023), as well as a collection of ecclesiastical material, mostly in the vernacular. The third part was written at Exeter in the time of Bishop Leofric (1050–1072) and was probably once part of CCCC MS 196. This manuscript did not come to the College with the rest of the Parker collection in 1575. Instead it was one of the large number of books which Matthew Parker gave to his son John. It had arrived at Corpus by 1600, before John’s financial troubles that likely led to the majority of the books bequeathed to him by his father ending up in Trinity College through the gift of Thomas Nevile (Dean of Canterbury 1597–1615 and Master of Trinity 1593–1615).





CCCC MS 473: The Winchester Troper

This small-sized book attests to the musical repertory of the Old Minster at Winchester in the eleventh century. It contains some of the oldest polyphonic music in the West and is of incalculable importance for understanding the history of western melody. As well as 'tropes', musical settings of words like ‘Alleluia’ which were added as embellishments to the standard chant for the liturgical texts, it also contains sequences and other music. It would have been used by a cantor, whose office it was to lead the music at mass and the divine office. There are many signs that this manuscript was made for use in the Old Minster at Winchester, including texts for the feasts of the Winchester saints Swithhun, Æthelwold, Justus of Beauvais, Hædde (Hedda) and Birinus.  It was perhaps for the personal use of the cantor, Wulfstan, a disciple of St Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester (963–984). In September 2007, the College choir took this manuscript back to Winchester Cathedral to sing a Michaelmas mass. It is likely that the Winchester Troper had not been in Winchester since the sixteenth century, and that its music had not been sung in its original setting for over a thousand years.