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!