Mysterious ‘Eadburg’ etched into early medieval manuscript

Last year, PhD student Jessica Hodgkinson was examining the manuscript when she noticed the Old English female name ‘Eadburg’ along with a cross symbol scratched into the lower margin.

The name of an early medieval woman has been found among inscriptions recently identified on an 8th-century manuscript held by the Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford (below).

IMAGE: Bodleian Libraries

Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 30 is a copy of the Acts of the Apostles (a book of the New Testament), written in Latin, and is thought to have been made in England c.AD 700-750, perhaps in the kingdom of Kent. A shelfmark added to its first page shows that the manuscript had been part of the library of the monastery of St Augustine in Canterbury by the 14th century.

Last year, Jessica Hodgkinson (a University of Leicester PhD student funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities consortium) was examining the manuscript when she noticed the Old English female name ‘Eadburg’ along with a cross symbol scratched into the lower margin of p.18. After she brought the inscription to the attention of John Barrett, Senior Photographer at the Bodleian Libraries, the book was recorded as part of the ARCHiOx (Analysis and Recording of Culture Heritage in Oxford) project, a collaboration with the Factum Foundation funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust.

During this work, a cutting-edge photographic technique called photometric stereo and the Selene Scanner – a prototype imaging system designed and built by the Factum Foundation – revealed the presence of many different shallow inscriptions in the manuscript’s margins, some of them less than a fifth of the width of a human hair. Among these, the name ‘Eadburg’ appeared in some form no fewer than 15 times, while several of the pages also bore human-like figures that may have been drawn by tracing a line around a thumb or finger. After examining a cross-section of the pages in order to discern the depth of the markings, it appears that they were made using a drypoint stylus.

Interestingly, a prayer addressed to God by an anonymous woman had also been added to what was originally a blank page in the book very early on in its history, suggesting that it may have been owned and used by a woman or a group of women – perhaps including the mysterious Eadburg. While we may never know who this individual was, a possible candidate is Abbess Eadburg of Minster-in-Thanet, who led this female religious community in Kent from at least AD 733 until her death sometime between AD 748 and 761.