Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: cultures and connections

Associated with the 2019 British Library exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war, these 14 short essays demonstrate the specialised scholarship that lies behind the choice and description of items in such an exhibition. The contents of each closely focused chapter range chronologically from the Durham A II 10 Gospel Book (here dated to the 630s) to examining the motivation of the reader who made 12th-century interventions in the Alfredian Orosius translation. Topics include choice of membrane (calf-, goat-, or sheep-skin), generic scripts and individual hands, punctuation, musical notation, and eclectic scriptorium practices. A recurrent theme is how readers used manuscripts, including lectors in monasteries, Alcuin’s letters being appreciated centuries after they were written and how his ‘letterbook’ continued, Wulfstan revising his homiletic work in his own hand, and annotators demonstrating their attempts to mine information from Old English text that had become archaic.

Travel is a recurrent theme. Monks were expected to carry writing materials with them, as a note written by Aldred, provost of Durham, while travelling in 970 attests (Aldred was writing for his bishop ‘in his tent’). Books were constantly taken from England or Ireland to the Continent, for study and as gifts, and the relationship in them between Anglo-Saxon scripts and continental ones helps to trace their history and that of the establishments where they were housed. The Würzburg book-list is analysed to demonstrate that the place was no insular satellite – rather that its bishops were major actors in Frankish and Roman political and ecclesiastic matters; and the Vercelli Book of Old English poetry is discussed as a suitable gift to Leo, Bishop of Vercelli, a scholar and Saxon speaker. Intellectual ideas and liturgical practices were exchanged between England and the Continent, and the numerous book fragments in Norway and Sweden testify to Anglo-Saxon influence in Scandinavia.

Modern technology is constantly invoked. Many of the manuscripts discussed have been digitised; several authors display multi-spectral imaging; digital technology is used to count interventions in manuscripts; and digital straightening of lines in manuscripts warped by fire produces dramatic results.

This book is an esoteric read but I found it fascinating.

Review by Gale R Owen-Crocker.
Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: cultures and connections, Claire Breay and Joanna Story (eds), Four Courts Press, £50, ISBN 978-1846828669.