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Triangular texts in three manuscripts from early medieval England

When I visited the amazing exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War‘ at the British Library (19 October 2018 – 19 February 2019), I was struck by the wealth of manuscripts on display. Among this treasure hoard of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, my eye fell on a manuscript that was annotated by none other than the missionary Boniface (d. 754).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 140, fol 4r. The interlinear glosses are attributed to Archbishop Dunstan (d. 988); the triangular note in the top margin is attributed to Boniface. The manuscript has been fully digitized and is available here.

In the Netherlands (where I am from), Boniface is one of the few early medieval figures of note to feature in our national history curriculum and he is, therefore, a common reference point for me when I talk about Old English and Anglo-Saxon England to a Dutch lay audience (e.g., Old English as the language of Boniface and Willibrord). Boniface has come up elsewhere on this blog, see, e.g., Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad and ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

Looking at the display, I was not only struck by the fact that I was looking at Boniface’s own handwriting, but also by the form of Boniface’s annotation, which was shaped like a triangle. Similar triangular notes are found throughout the manuscript:

It seems as if Boniface took particular effort to make his notes triangular. The note on fol. 27r, for instance, reads “De septem faculis et quattuor animalibus oculatis” [about the seven torches and four animals with eyes], but was formatted as follows, without any respect for word boundaries:

K. De septem facu
lis et quat
tuor ani
malib
us o
cul
at
is

Triangular note by Boniface

The K is an insertion mark and is matched by another K in the text, to indicate which part of the text that this is a comment on. Apparently, this note was added to indicate where chapter VII of the first book of Primasius’s Commentary on the Apocalypse started (the seven torches and four animals are mentioned in the Book of Revelations 4:5-6). Note how Boniface also added two triangles above and under the number VII he added in the left-hand margin:

The triangular form, no doubt, is somehow related to the Trinity that is so important in Christianity – I have not come across many instances of this type of text formatting, but there are at least two other manuscripts from early medieval England that feature something similar.

Triangular text in London, British Library, Royal MS 8 C.iii

While Boniface’s triangular notations were added after the main text had been finished and, as such, represent the marks of a user or owner of the text, the original late tenth-century scribe of London, British Library, Royal MS 8 C.iii made part of his main text into the shape of a triangle:

The text that has this triangular form is an exposition on the Mass and deals, e.g., with the Eucharistic prayer. The contents of the text does not appear to call for a triangular form of the text (other than, of course, dealing with the Trinity), but perhaps the scribe was nearing the end of his quire (gathering of folded pages) and wanted to drag out his text, so as to finish on the last page. It would not be the only weird instance of text formatting in this manuscript; I wrote about the manuscript and its inventive scribe here: Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III

Thureth: A speaking book, a triangular poem

The third example of a triangular text is the interesting Old English poem Thureth. This text is found at the beginning of an early eleventh-century benedictional (a collection of blessings used in the Church). The poem is in the first person and the speaker, intriguingly, is the book itself. The book asks God to take care of Thureth, the man responsible for having the book lavishly decorated:

Ic eom halgungboc; healde hine dryhten
þe me fægere þus frætewum belegde.
þureð to þance þus het me wyrcean,
to loue and to wurðe, þam þe leoht gesceop.
Gemyndi is he mihta gehwylcre
þæs þe he on foldan gefremian mæg,
and him geþancie þeoda waldend
þæs þe he on gemynde madma manega
wyle gemearcian metode to lace;
and he sceal ece lean ealle findan
þæs þe he on foldan fremaþ to ryhte. (source)

[I am a blessing-book; may the Lord protect him
who covered me thus fairly with treasures.
Thus Thureth gratefully commanded me to be made,
with glory and honour for him who created light.
Mindful is he of each craft
that he is allowed to perform on earth,
and may the ruler of peoples reward him
that he, mindful of many treasures,
wants to mark (me) as an offering to the Lord
and he must find eternal reward for everything
that he justfully does on Earth.] (Translation mine)

Judging by drawn lines at the bottom of the poem, and the attempt to wrap the last part of the text into it, the scribe made an unsuccesful attempt to make his text triangular:

Sources of inspiration: Arabic? Mediterranean?

The practice of writing triangularly is not unique to early medieval England. When I tweeted the triangular pages from Royal MS 8 C.iii back in 2017, historian of medieval islam @afzaque pointed out that triangle-shaped texts were standard practice for colophons (i.e. a brief statement about how the book came into being) in medieval Arabic manuscripts. Indeed, it is quite easy to find triangle-shaped colophons in medieval Arabic manuscripts; here are two late medieval examples:

Triangular colophons in al-Tuḥfah al-shāhīyah fī al-hayʾah التحفة الشاهية في الهيئة Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Maḥmūd ibn Masʿūd قطب الدين الشيرازي، محمود بن مسعود ‎2r, British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Add MS 23393, in Qatar Digital Library https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100023492342.0x00000f; Kitab Jālīnūs fī ‘amal al-tashrīḥ كتاب جالينوس في عمل التشريح ‎17v, British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Add MS 23406, in Qatar Digital Library https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100023513958.0x00002e

The Arabic colophon tradition has been traced back to the ninth century or so (see this article), so it may well have influenced the shape of Thureth, which is also a colophon-like text. It certainly would not be the only instance of Arabic influence in Anglo-Saxon England – see this interesting blog post on multicultural Anglo-Saxon England from the British Library. Of course, the idea of a triangular text does not need to have been borrowed from somewhere else and for Boniface’s triangles at least, the Arabic tradition seems too late.

A quick Twitter search reveals a broader early medieval tradition of tiangular texts. The book historian @ParvaVox here suggests that triangular colophons are typical of books from the Italian monastery Vivarium, founded in the 6th century. Another book historian on Twitter, @jkeskiah here highlights a 6th-century Italian manuscript with triangular annotations by Donatus similar to those added by Boniface. Intriguingly, in the 8th century, another hand added a (non-triangular) note to the manuscript, using an Anglo-Saxon script.

Now, this 8th-century note was probably not added by Boniface himself – the script does not quite match his handwriting, which is hard to identify anyway (see this article by Malcolm Parkes), but perhaps this was someone from Boniface’s circle, one of his companions who travelled with him to Rome, where the manuscript appears to have been? Did a fellow Anglo-Saxon show him the manuscript with Donatus’s triangular notes and, in doing so, inspire Boniface? Who knows? To be continued!

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Addendum: Twitter user @IneptiGraeculi notes that similar triangular texts can be found in Greek manuscripts

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:

 Tweet.TriangleText

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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