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One of the most recognisable scenes of the Nativity of Jesus (celebrated at Christmas) is the ‘Adoration of the Magi’: the wise men from the East bringing gifts to Christ. This blog post provides a translation of the relevant passages from the Old English translation of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as a discussion of the Magi in Anglo-Saxon art.
Matthew 2:1-12 in the West-Saxon Gospels and the Missal of Robert of Jumièges
The only mention of the Adoration of the Magi in the Bible is in the Gospel of Matthew. The Old English text below is taken from the West-Saxon Gospels, the fist stand-alone English translation of the four Gospels (c. 990). The images are taken from the Missal of Robert of Jumièges, a beautiful manuscript made in Anglo-Saxon England for Robert of Jumièges, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1052/1055). This missal features the most complete cycle of Magi illustrations to come from Anglo-Saxon England.
Eornustlice, þa se Hælend acenned wæs on Iudeiscre Bethleem on þæs cyninges dagum Herodes, þa comon þa tungolwitegan fram eastdæle to Hierusalem 7 cwædon “hwær ys se Iudea cyning þe acenned ys? Soðlice we gesawon hys steorran on eastdæle 7 we comon us him to geeadmedenne.”
[Truly, when the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, then the astronomers came from the East to Jerusalem and said “Where is the king of the Jews that is born? Truly, we saw his star in the East and we came to pay worship to him.”] (Matthew 2:1-2)
It is noteworthy that in the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are not classified as kings (this is an apocryphal tradition, for which see below); instead, they are mentioned here as “tungolwitegan” [‘lit. planet-knowers, i.e. astronomers’].
Whereas the Gospel of Matthew does not specify the number of the Magi, the Missal of Robert of Jumièges follows the popular aprocryphal tradition that there were three Magi (a number derived no doubt, from the number of gifts that these wise men from the East bring to Christ). The Missal also provides a typical depiction of the Magi as wearing Persian clothing, recognisable by the so-called ‘Phrygian caps’.
Ða Herodes þæt gehyrde ða wearð he gedrefed 7 eal Hierosolimwaru mid him. 7 þa gegaderode Herodes ealle ealdras þæra sacerda 7 folces writeras 7 axode hwær Crist acenned wære. Ða sædon hi him “on Iudeiscere Bethlem. Witodlice þus ys awriten þurh þone witegan: ‘And þu Bethleem Iudealand, witodlice ne eart þu læst on Iuda ealdrum. Of ðe forð gæð se heretoga se þe recð min folc Israhel.'”.
[When Herod heard that, he became afraid and all of the Jerusalem-dwellers with him. And then Herod gathered all the elders of the priests and the writers of the people and asked where Christ had been born. Then they said to him: “In Bethlehem of Judea. Truly thus it is written by the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, are truly not the least among the elders of Judah. From you the leader goes forth, he who rules my people Israel.'”.] (Matthew 2:3-6)
The prophecy referred to and cited by one of these “Hierosolimwaru” is Micah 5:2.
The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows Herod on his throne, surrounded by his advisors; one of them, on the outer right, points up to the Star of Bethlehem. The two advisors closest to Herod lift up five and two fingers, respectively – a reference to Micah 5:2? Maybe. The fact that King Herod wears a Phrygian cap similar to the ones worn by the Magi might indicate that the artist of the Missal already associated the Magi with kings (for which, see below).
Herodes þa clypode on sunderspræce ða tungelwitegan 7 befran hi georne hwænne se steorra him æteowde. And he asende hi to Bethlem 7 ðus cwæð: “Farað 7 axiað geornlice be þam cilde 7 þonne ge hyt gemetað cyþað eft me þæt ic cume 7 me to him gebidde”. Ða hi þæt gebod gehyrdon þa ferdon hi, 7 soþlice se steorra þe hi on eastdæle gesawon him beforan ferde oð he stod ofer þær þæt cild wæs. Soþlice þa ða tungelwitegan þone steorran gesawon fægenodon swyðe myclum gefean. 7 gangende into þam huse hi gemetton þæt cild mid Marian hys meder 7 hi aðenedon hi 7 hi to him gebædon. And hi untyndon hyra goldhordas 7 him lac brohton þæt wæs gold 7 recels 7 myrre.
[Herod then spoke in private to the astronomers and asked them eagerly when the star had shown itself to them. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said thus: “Go and ask eagerly about the child and when you meet it tell me afterwards so that I might come and worship him.” When they heard that command then they travelled, and truly the story, which they saw in the East, went before them until it stood over the place where the child was. Truly, when the astronomers saw the star, they rejoiced with much faith, and, going into the house, they met the child with Mary his mother and they paid worship to them and they worshipped them. And they unclosed their gold-hoards and brought them a gift, that was gold, frankincense and myrrh.] (Matthew 2:7-11)
It is notable here that the Gospel indicates that the Magi only met Christ and his mother – there is no reference to Joseph, who, consequently, is often absent from depictions of the Adoration of the Magi, as in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges:
The Missal’s depiction of the Magi in the Adoration scene shows some notable differences to the Magi on horseback in the same manuscript. They are still wearing their Phrygian caps, but appear to have lost their pants and shoes (a sign of humility?); one of them had a beard while on his horse, but now all of them are clean-shaven (on the importance of bearded Magi, see below).
And hi afengon andsware on swefnum þæt hi eft to Herode ne hwyrfdon ac hi on oðerne weg on hyra rice ferdon.
[And they received a warning in their dreams so that they did not turn to Herod afterwards but travelled to their realm via another road.] (Matthew 2:12)
And that is the last we heard of the wise men from the East in the Gospel of Matthew. The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows how the three Magi received their warning while they slept under one blanket. Notably, they had kept their clothes (and Phrygian caps!) on:
Psalm 71:10-11 and the Magi as kings
The Magi in the tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold are depicted without Phrygian caps but with crowns, instead. The notion that the Magi were kings is not derived from the Gospel of Matthew, but stems from the interpretation of Psalm 71:10-11 (according to Vulgate reckoning). Here is the relevant Latin passage from the twelfth-century Eadwine Psalter, along with its Old English gloss:
Reges Tharsis & insulae munera offerent. reges Arabum & Saba dona adducent. Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae. Omnes gentes seruient ei.
Kininges 7 iglonde of tarsis læc brohton. Kininges of Arabe 7 Feredæ giefa to geledæþ. 7 gebiddaþ hine eællæ kininges of eorðæn. Eællæ diodæ þeowigæþ him.
[The kings and the island of Tharsis brought treasure. Kings of Arabia and Saba bring gifts and all kings of earth worship him. All nations serve him.]
The Eadwine Psalter itself is beautifully illustrated with literal interpretations of the Psalms – the illustration of Psalm 71 features an image of three kings offering gifts to Christ:
Whereas the Eadwine Psalter depicts three kings offering their gifts to an adult Christ, the eleventh-century Bury St Edmunds Psalter illustrates the same passage of Psalm 71 with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, giving gifts to the baby Jesus:
If you look closely (you can zoom in on the image here), you can see that one of the Magi is wearing a Phrygian cap and the other two are wearing crowns. The Magi are further differentiated: the Phrygian cap Magus is clean shaven, the standing Magus has a beard, while the kneeling Magus has an even longer beard. This differentiation between the Magi (in this case in terms of age: young, middle-aged, elderly) became a common topos in depictions of the Adoration of the Magi – representing different age classes, the Magi symbolize mankind in its entirety (similarly, in later traditions, the Magi are differentiated for race).
The importance of beards: The Franks Casket and Bishop Cuthwine’s Carmen Paschale
The earliest known depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from Anglo-Saxon England is found on the front panel of the Franks Casket, an early 8th-century whalebone box now kept in the British Museum. the Magi, here led by a duck (or dove), are clearly differentiated in terms of age: beardless, semi-beard, full beard.
There is one more depiction of the Magi with Anglo-Saxon origins that differentiates between the Magi through their beards. It is found in a ninth-century Carolingian manuscript of Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale (an epic re-write of the Gospels) :
As I have discussed in another blog post (An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale), this manuscript was copied from a book once owned by the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Cuthwine (fl. 716-731) and its miniatures show the influence of an eighth-century English exemplar. As such, Cuthwine’s original copy may have had a similar image of the Magi; it would certainly have featured Sedulius’s poetic paraphrase of Matthew 2:1-12:
So, watching the light fixed high in the sky before them,
The wise men made haste to follow the star with its royal twinkling.
They kept close to the hoped for road which under a subsequent
Dispensation has led adoring gentiles to the holy cradle.
And when together they had opened their treasures in reverence,
So that the precious objects themselves could point to Christ,
They poured out gold as a present fit for a new born king;
They gave him frankincense, a gift for a god; they offered him myrrh for his grave.
But why three gifts? Because the greatest hope we have in life
Is the faith which testifies to this number and the most high God
Who distinguishes all times, past, present, and future,
Always is, always was, and always will be possessed
Of his triple power. Then the Magi, warned from on high
By a dream to despise the commands of the threatening tyrant,
Changed their itinerary, and, proceeding by alternative routes,
Returned to their homeland. Thus we also,
If we wish to reach our holy homeland at last,
After we have come to Christ, should no longer return to the evil one. (bk. II, ll. 89-106, trans. Springer 2013)
By exhibiting this valuable lesson, the Magi themselves, it seems, were deemed worthy of adoration in early medieval England.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works referred to:
- Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)
A great portion of the extant Old English corpus survives between the lines of Latin manuscripts, as interlinear glosses. Generally, these glosses provide a simple word-for-word Old English translation of the Latin text in order to aid the reader, but various alternative glossing methods existed. This blog post takes a look at what could be read between the lines in early medieval English manuscripts.
Save me, Lord: A simple word-for-word gloss in The Vespasian Psalter
This beautiful page from the eighth-century Vespasian Psalter shows the opening lines of Psalm 68. A careful look at the words SALVUM ME reveals a great number of animals hiding out among these letters (animals often feature in such illustrated capitals; for another example see my blog on A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus ). More interesting, linguistically speaking, are the little words written above the Latin: Old English glosses, that provide a word for word translation of these lines:
Halne mec doa god forðon ineodun weter oð sawle mine; gefestnad ic eam in lam grundes 7 nis spoed.
Salvvm me fac deus quoniam introierunt aqvę usque ad animam meam; infixus sum in limum profundi et non est substantia.
Save me, God: because the waters have come in unto my soul; I am fastened in the ground’s mud and there is no substance.
Here, the Old English glosses clearly follow the word order of the Latin and, thus, “animam meam” is glossed with “sawle mine” [soul mine], whereas “mine sawle” [my soul] would be a more natural word order in Old English. This type of gloss is the most typical kind of gloss found in early medieval English manuscripts.
When one word is not enough: Multiple glosses in The Lindisfarne Gospels
Created around the year 700, the Lindisfarne Gospels is possibly the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript. While it is known for its beautiful illumination, the Lindisfarne Gospels also contains a word-for-word gloss, added some 250 years after the original manuscript had been produced. The maker of this tenth-century gloss, a monk named Aldred, was not always satisfied with offering just one Old English translation for each Latin word. His work features several ‘multiple glosses’; that is, several Old English alternatives are offered for one Latin word. The example above shows Aldred’s four glosses for Latin desponsata ‘married’: biwoedded, beboden, befeastnad and betaht. As such, Aldred’s gloss may function as something of a thesaurus of Old English.
b, c, e, d, a: Paving letters in British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.iii
Some glossators also included some syntactical guidance, since Latin word order was markedly different from Old English word order. A good example of such syntactical guidance are the so-called ‘paving letters’ in the Old English gloss to this eleventh-century copy of the Benedictine Rule. Here, the word-for-word Old English translations above the Latin are preceded by a letter – these letters show the Old English word order. Rather than “deað dæghwamlice ætforan eagan gewenedne habban” [death daily before eyes with expectation to have], this should be read as “habban deað dæghwamlice gewenedne ætforan eagan” [to have death daily, with expectation, before your eyes] which, incidentally, is one of the forty-five “tools of good works” that Benedictine monks had to abide by.
. .. …. …: Dot glosses in the Lambeth Psalter
The scribe responsible for the glosses to the tenth-/eleventh-century Lambeth Psalter had a different system for indicating word order and syntactical relationships. A system of dots and commas underneath the Latin words provide the reader with extra information. The commas under “qui” and “tribuit”, for instance, show that the relative pronoun “qui” is the subject of the verb “tribuit”: ‘who gives’. The dots underneath the Latin words show the Old English word order: rather than “ic singe drihtne þam þe goda sealde me 7 ic singe naman drihtnes þæs heahstan”, we should read “ic singe drihtne þam þe sealde goda me 7 ic singe naman þæs heahstan drihtnes” [I sing for the Lord who gave goods to me and I sing the name of the highest Lord], if we put the dotted words in numerical order.
Now you see me, now you don’t: Scratched glosses in British Library, Royal 5 E XI
This eleventh-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s prose De virginitate shows yet another type of gloss: the so-called “scratched gloss”. These glosses were made without ink and, thus, were scratched into the parchment. As a result, these glosses are only visible from a particular angle (or, thanks to digital image editing, if you play around with contrast and brightness). In early medieval England, a user of this manuscript may have tilted the manuscript over in order to reveal the gloss. If he had done so for this manuscript, he would have seen that the Old English translation for Latin scribendi is “writende” [writing].
If you liked this blog post about manuscripts, you may also enjoy the following posts:
- Word processing in early medieval England: Browsing British Library, Royal MS 8 C III
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Over the last two years, parchment has proven to be a contentious issue in the UK Parliament. This blog post reconstructs a debate about parchment in the UK House of Commons in April 2016.
June 2017: The Queen and the Goatskin
Last week (June 12-18, 2017), various newspapers ran the story about a possible delay of the Queen’s Speech for the State Opening of Parliament (marking the formal start of the parliamentary year). The delay, it was said, would be caused by the fact that the speech had to be printed on goatskin and that the ink would take days to dry. While goatskin may remind some of medieval parchment (often made of the skin of goats), reporters were quick to point out that, while the monarch’s speech was indeed traditionally printed on parchment, no goats are harmed to produce present-day goatskin paper. Instead, it is high-quality paper that lasts for 500 years, bearing a watermark in the form of a goat. Be that as it may, the whole affair reminded me of April 2016, when parliamentary dealings with actual parchment were making headlines.
April 2016: Veni, vidi, vellum
On 20 April, 2016, the UK House of Commons held a debate to repeal a decision to stop printing the Acts of Parliament on parchment – a suggestion made made by the House of Lords in February of that year. The rationale behind the initial decision was to cut down the annual printing costs (£103,000 per year) by replacing the pricy parchment for high quality paper. James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire and instigator of the debate on 20 April 2016, pointed out that, despite the fact that Parliament could save perhaps £10,000 or £20,000 a year, parchment has some advantages over paper. His two main arguments for not abandoning vellum were 1) the longstanding tradition of using vellum for important documents and 2) the fact that parchment is more durable than paper.
The records of the proceedings are published here in the House of Commons Hansard and make an intriguing read – especially for a medievalist: the various MPs refer to precious medieval documents to praise the value of parchment. Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, for instance, makes the point that, without parchment, we would not have had copies of Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Lindisfarne Gospels:
“Our most important documents have been printed or written on vellum, from the Magna Carta to the Domesday Book and a piece of important north-east English history, the Lindisfarne gospels. All these historical manuscripts have been preserved for posterity because they were printed on vellum. They have lasted through the ages due to vellum’s durable qualities, which have ensured that future generations can appreciate and respect our shared history. Surely the legislation that we make here is worthy of this small additional cost.”
Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, also raises the importance of the Lindisfarne Gospels (luckily without noting that it had been printed on vellum!):
“The issue is close to my heart because of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Everyone here will know their relevance to the north-east and to my Durham constituency. Produced in around 700, the gospels were written and painted on vellum, without which the gospels simply would not be with us today. Not just old relics, they are important living texts for our understanding of the culture and heritage of the north-east and elsewhere.”
Reading how present-day politicians refer to medieval documents as being relevant cultural products is, of course, a joy for any medievalist. And who could deny the stunning cultural impact the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels still have today? (check them out digitally here)
Not everyone agreed with upholding this medieval tradition of using parchment, even if one MP in favour of abandoning parchment (Paul Flynn for Newport West) still cited the medieval Welsh poem Y Goddodin:
I cherish the history of this country; I cherish the Book of Aneirin, Y Gododdin, presumably written on vellum:
“Gwyr a aeth i Gatreath
Godidog oedd eu gwedd”.
That goes back to the early centuries, before English existed as a language. Of course we treasure the past, and our heritage, but it has nothing to do with this century. We have other ways of maintaining a record.
The 13th-century Book or Aneirin was indeed written on vellum and, while the poem Y Gododdin is older than its manuscript (composed between c. 700 and 1100), it should be pointed out that English was already around back then!
Nevertheless, while the long-standing tradition of reporting important matters on parchment may not have swayed everyone, there was another argument, one that strikes surprisingly close to home for myself.
Porck and parchment in Parliament
In order to make the point about the durability of parchment over the durability of paper, Tory MP Chris Skidmore (for Kingswood) cited one Henk Porck (the tweet by parliamentary journalist Richard Wheeler above suggests that the name caused Sidmore some difficulties!):
Europe’s leading expert on the subject, Dr Henk Porck of the Netherlands national library, has gone on record as saying that current ageing tests for paper
“cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests.”
When it comes to printing our country’s laws, arguably our most important documents, we need to ensure that we have a clear assurance that the materials they are printed on will last the test of centuries, as vellum has. Paper-printed Acts of Parliament may last a long time—I do agree that they last a significant amount of time—but it is not long enough, and we need all the details of what is being proposed.
This Henk Porck is, in fact, my dad, a bio-chemist who worked at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands) as conservation scientist and curator of the Paper History Collection. His full quote on current, artificial ageing tests for paper reads “The rate of paper deterioration and other quantitative aspects of the natural ageing of paper, such as durability and permanence, cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests” and his report ‘Rate of paper degradation: The predictive value of artificial aging tests’ (2000) can be found here. In short, Henk Porck’s statement that the ageing of paper cannot be reliably tested was interpreted as a strong recommendation to use vellum instead of paper.
The statement (even though it did not advocate vellum per sé) proved convincing enough for Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who concluded the debate by noting that he was now in favour of retaining the tradition of printing the Acts of parchment:
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) brought his great and deep expertise to the debate, and told us why Dr Porck thinks we should print on goatskin. For that insight, I thank him. … On the basis of symbolism, cost and practicality, therefore, we should continue this great and long tradition.
So did my dad play a vital role in Parliament’s decision to hold on to using parchment? Unfortunately, that is not the full story.
Parchment wrapped around paper
Even though the House of Commons voted on 20 April, 2016, to keep using parchment ( 117 Ayes vs. 28 Noes), the House of Lords still decided to switch to using high-quality paper. In the end, a compromise was reached, which means that the Acts will now be printed on high-quality paper, but will have parchments covers, with the name of the legislation in caligraphy. Parchment wrappers! Understandably, some MPs responded with disgust, including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger who was cited in the Daily Mail as follows:
We never learn. You try to save pennies and you lose pounds. The history of parliament is the history of our nation. Remember history because you will need to learn those lessons.
[About the Article 50 Act (triggering Brexit)] It should be written on vellum. Because in a thousand years’ time people will ask, ‘what did they do in March 2017?
They will not read it on paper. Ancient man had it right.
Now that the UK Parliament has switched to paper (with parchment wrappers), it is to be hoped that they treat and store the paper with care. Should they be interested, ‘Europe’s leading expert on the subject’ and myself co-wrote an article about a late medieval text from 1527 on book preservation, which appeared with an English translation of the medieval text as T. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of PaperConservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25. The article is available on Academia.edu. A summary was featured on this blog as “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books
Imagine having to copy a lengthy medieval manuscript by hand – day in day out, crouched over your writing desk, dabbling away with your quill, for weeks, nay, months on end. No wonder some medieval scribes were relieved when the job was done. This blog post features a number of evocative colophons from early medieval English manuscripts which shed some light on the state of mind of these weary scribes.
‘Pray for me’ – Colophons in medieval manuscripts
Qui istum librum legat precat pro anima Sistan me scripsit. Amen
Whoever may read this book, pray for the soul of Sigestan who wrote me. Amen
This Sigestan’s plea to ‘say a little prayer for him’, added at the end of a tenth-century manuscript of Paschasius Radbertus’s De corpore et sanguine Domini is a typical early medieval colophon. Colophons were added at the end of a text or manuscript and usually ask the reader to pray for the scribe’s soul or give thanks to God. In addition, the colophon may identify the scribe responsible for the manuscript and reveal something of the scribe’s circumstances. The examples provided below suggest that those circumstances may not always have been very pleasant.
‘Three fingers write, but the whole body labours’
Writing with a quill was a full-body workout, if we are to trust the testimony of the following three medieval English scribes. The first wrote the following at the end of an eighth-century copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:
Qui nescit scribere laborem esse non putat. Tribus digitis scribitur totum corpus laborat. Orate pro me qui istum librum legerit.
[He who does not know how to write does not think that it is a labour. Three fingers write, the whole body labours. Whoever has read this book, pray for me.]
The scribe responsible for a tenth-century copy of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate wrote eerily similar lines:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat. Scribere qui nescit nullum putat esse laborem.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work.]
A third attestation of similar lines in a scribal colophon of a twelfth-century manuscript (another manuscript of Aldhelm’s De virginitate) reveals that we are dealing with a popular maxim among scribes:
Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat
Scribere qui nescit nullum putet esse laborem.
Dum digiti scribunt uix cetera membra quiescunt.
[Three fingers write and the whole body labours. He who does not know how to write thinks it is no work. While the fingers write, the other members hardly rest.]
Anyone with a desk-job today can relate to this medieval sentiment!
The last chapter as a long-awaited harbour: Scribes getting metaphorical
Though his whole body may have quivered from the labour of his three fingers, the eighth-century scribe Æthelberht still had enough inspiration to come up with a beautiful metaphor. In his colophon to a copy of a commentary on the Psalm he likens the copying of a manuscript to an arduous sea journey:
Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro … lege in pace — Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [for uersus?] nouissimus scribentibus. Edilberict filius berictfridi scripsit hanc glosam quicumque hoc legat oret pro scriptore. Et ipse similiter omnibus populis et tribubus et linguis et universo genem humano aeternam salutem optat —— in Christo, Amen, Amen, Amen ——
The Psalter is finished. In Christ our lord, read in peace. Like a timely harbour to sailors is the last line to scribes. Æthelberht, son of Berhtfrith, wrote this gloss. Whoever may read it, may he pray for the scribe. And he himself similarly desires eternal health for all people, tribes and tongue and for the entire human race. In Christ, Amen, Amen, Amen.
Interestingly, Æthelberht was not the only Anglo-Saxon scribe to compare a scribe finishing his copy to a sailor reaching port. In a tenth- or eleventh-century Aldhelm manuscript (now Cambridge,Corpus Christ College, MS 326), a scribe added the following lines in Latin:
Nauta rudis pelagi ut seuis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora leta tenet
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub colle laboris
Deponens habeat pectore laeta quidem (source)
[A sailor, rescued from savage waves of the rough sea, coming into the harbour, holds a happy heart; So may a scribe, tired under the mountain of labour, laying down the quill, have a happy heart, indeed.
‘God help my hands’
The last example is a colophon in Old English that follows an eleventh-century version of Ælfric’s Old English De temporibus anni. This scribe shows some signs of fatigue. He duly notes his job is done, but seems to have had no spirit or energy left to come up with a proper maxim or a nice metaphor:
Sy þeos gesetnys þus her geendod. God helpe minum handum.
[Thus, let this composition be ended here. God help my hands]
This scribe was so tired, he did not even ask the reader to pray for his soul!
With that, this ship has reached its port. Though I have typed this with ten fingers, my body aches and so do my hands. Say a prayer for me.
If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:
- Scribal abuse in the Middle Ages
- Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England
- “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books
In this day and age of cyber espionage, encryption of information is becoming increasingly more important. But even in the early Middle Ages, scribes developed techniques to encode their messages, as this blog post reveals.
At the very end of an eleventh-century manuscript copy of St Augustine’s Confessions, an Anglo-Saxon scribe wrote “Fknktp Lkbrp χρp prfcpnkB rfddp”. Rather than garbled gobbledegook, these words were written in a simple but popular code: the vowels have been replaced by their neighbouring consonants in the alphabet: a=b; e=f; i=k; o=p; x=u. The scribe’s words actually read: “Finito libero Christo [the Greek letters χρ is a well-known abbreviation for Christ] preconio reddo”, which is Latin for something along the lines of: “The book is finished, I give a laudation to Christ in return”. Apparently, this scribe was happy that his job was done and rendered thanks to Christ in an encoded message.
The same motivation seems to underlie another encrypted colophon at the end of an eleventh-century Gospel-book made in England: “DFPGRBTKBS AMΗN”:
The first two words of this colophon read “DEO GRATIAS” [thanks be to God]; the last word is “AMEN”, with a Greek capital Eta instead of the E (and a weird M and N, which I haven’t been able to identify).
One of the most ambitious encoded messages of this kind is found in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, made in the 1020s in Winchester. The encoded message reads as follows:
Frbtfr hxmkllimus ft mpnbchxs afslknxs mf sckpskt skt kllk lpngb sblxs. B m .. n ;
[ve]l us [ve]l us [ve]l us
AFlfwknp mpnbchp aeqxf dfcbnp cpmpptxm kstxm ppsskdfp [ve]l mf ppsskdft. Bmfn.
The first line is easy to decipher: “Frater humillimus et monachus Ælsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus” [Ælsige, the most humble brother and monk, wrote me, may a long health be to him]. The code “B m .. n” means “Amen”, the “e” is replaced by two dots (for which, see below).
The next two lines take some more effort. The first part of the third lines reads: “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano compotum istum possideo” [I posses the computus for Ælfwine, the monk and dean]. The second line (vel us, vel us, vel us), makes clear that the words “Ælfwino monacho aeque decano” can also be read as “Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus”, thus changing the dative forms into the nominative forms. Combined with the last part of the third line which starts with “vel”, this reads: “vel Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet. Bfmn.” [or Ælfwine, the monk and dean, possesses me. Amen].
The rather intricate code is simply an inscription to indicate the maker of the manuscript (Ælfsige) and its owner (Ælfwine). Given the rather complicated encoding, one might wonder whether Ælfsige’s modesty (he calls himself humillimus ‘most humble’) is feigned modesty.
Hygeburg, a cryptographic Anglo-Saxon nun
Another case of feigned modesty is found in the prologue of the Anglo-Saxon nun Hygeburg (fl. 780). As part of the Anglo-Saxon mission, she ended up in Heidenheim, Germany. She was an abbess and wrote a work called the Hodoeporicon, a saint’s life of the Anglo-Saxon missionary saint Willebald. In her introudction, Hygeburg confesses that she considered her womanhood a hindrance for writing hagiography, noting in her preface:
And yet I especially, corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength, but impelled spontaneously by the ardour of my will, as a little ignorant creature culling a few thoughts from the sagacity of the heart, from the many leafy, fruit-bearing trees laden with a variety of flowers, it pleases me to pluck, assemble and display some few, gathered – with whatever feeble art, at least from the lowest branches-for you to hold in memory. (trans. Dronke 1984)
Hygeburg’s declaration of ignorance is undermined by the flowery rhetoric of her Latin prose, which suggests a high level of education. The encoded message with which she closes her message has a similar, subversive effect:
In this message, Hygeburg has replaced all the vowels with abbreviations for ordinal numbers, e.g., “Secd” for “secundum” [second] meaning the vowel e. The code can cracked as follows:
With her encoded message, Hygeburg not only shows off her encryption skills, she also claims the text (and possibly the manuscript?) to be her own: “Ego una Saxonica nomine Hugeburc ordinando hec scribebam” [I, a Saxon nun named Hygeburg, have written this].
Dot codes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
Another encryption method, similar to Hygeburg’s, is the replacement of vowels by dots. One dot equals the first vowel (a), two dots equal the second vowel (e), three dots mean the third vowel (i), and so on. A line in a tenth-century manuscript of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, probably made in Canterbury, is reproduced above and reads: “V⋮V:V·L:F:L⋮C⁞MCR⋮ST:: ·M:N” (four dots in a line representing U; four dots in a square representing O). In other words: “Vive vale feli cum Cristo. Amen” – here, the word “feli” [with/for the cat] is usually emended to “felix” [happy], so that it translates to “Live, be well, happy with Christ. Amen.” (Live, be well, for the cat, with Christ would make little sense, especially given the rather haphazard relationships between cats and medieval manuscripts, for which see: Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts).
My last example is found in a tenth- or eleventh-century manuscript of Bede’s Vita Sancti Cuthberti, made in southern England. Here, the scribe has once more replaced the vowels with dots: ·=a – :=e – ⋮=i – ::=o – :·:=u.
Q:·:|⋮ SCR⋮PS⋮T :·:|⋮|:·:|·T :T Q:·: L:G·T L:T:T:·:R
QUI SCRIPSIT UIUAT ET QU LEGAT LETETUR
Which, rather charmingly, translates to “May he who wrote live and may he who may read be happy”. This encrypted message suggests that encoding messages was an enjoyable pastime for scribes and that decoding these messages was considered a fun mental exercise for readers.
K HPPF YPX H·V: :NJ::Y:D R2nd1stD3rdNG TH⋮S BL::G PPST!
If you have enjoyed this blog post, why not follow this blog (see button on the right-hand side) and/or read the following posts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter
- Alcuinundrums: Seven brain teasers from the early Middle Ages
Works referred to:
- Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984)
Since today is #InternationalCatDay, I figured it was time to reboot the following blog post, which appeared three-and-a-half years ago on medievalfragments and is my most succesful blog post so far. In this present blog, I have added the rather entertaining aftermath of the blog post (I was contacted by The International Cat Association!), as well as a better version of the image of the medieval manuscript that was peed over by a mischievous feline in fifteenth-century Deventer…
Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts
Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel revealed that this is nothing new:
Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky. A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:
“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi catti venire possunt.”
[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]
Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
(You can read the full poem here)
The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.
Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]
So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.
The aftermath: My first paw-reviewed article
The blog post above was ridiculously succesful and has been viewed over 75,000 times over the last three-and-a-half years. Various bits of the blog post have also been floating around on the internet, including my own translation of the Latin along with the image of the cat-pee manuscript (sometimes with, but more often without attribution!). The success of the blog post, obviously, boils down to a mix of popular ingredients. The internet has always had a unique relationship with cats, with several websites being devoted only to clips and pictures of our feline friends. The Middle Ages, too, are gaining in popularity with the ongoing success of medieval fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. People are fascinated by medieval culture and like learning more about the world of our ancestors a thousand years ago. Combining medieval stuff with cats? The key to success!
About two years ago, the blog post reached its apex of fame, when I received an e-mail from The International Cat Association (TICA). Apparently, they had read my blog post and now wanted to publish it in their magazine. This magazine, TICA TREND with its tagline ‘For Fabulous Felines, Fun and Friendships!’, is shipped to over five thousand cat owners worldwide! My piece was indeed published in the June/July issue of 2015, which also featured the winner of the 2013-2014 Best Household Pet Kitten of the Year’ (you can read it here).
While I am aware that the little publication in TICA TREND is not an academic achievement worth boasting too much about, it does introduce the fascinating world of medieval manuscripts to an audience outside of academia. In all, therefore, I am quite pleased with my first ‘paw-reviewed’ article, even if something appears to have gone wrong in the printing process. The article’s title in the magazine reads ‘Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Century Manuscripts’ and the word ‘Century’ obviously shouldn’t have been there. Perhaps, the error was caused by a cat walking all over the editor’s keyboard – a problem a medieval scribe could relate to!
A better image of the cat-pee manuscript
The image of the manuscript with the scribe’s apology for feline urine that has circulated the Internet for the past three-and-a-half-years was taken with my IPhone from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in a book. I was pleased to learn that the manuscript has since been digitzed (you can access it here), allowing me to present the Internet with a better quality image. Enjoy:
As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth, starting with the map of Thror.
Found in the front matter of The Hobbit, Thror’s map is for many readers the first glimpse at Tolkien’s fictional universe. A closer look soon reveals that this is no ordinary map. For one, its orientation seems off: the East is on top, North is on the left, West is on the bottom. Moreover, the map contains little drawings, such as a mountain, a dragon and a spider in a web, accompanied by such little texts as “there are spiders”. More obviously, perhaps, is the strange alphabet (discovered and identified by Elrond as ‘moon letters’) and the little hand on the left, pointing at more moon-ish letters. A strange map, indeed. Though not so strange, perhaps, for someone who is familiar with the Middle Ages.
A medieval map: The Cotton World Map
This Anglo-Saxon map of the world, made in Canterbury around 1025-1050, shows a number of similarities to Tolkien’s map of Thror. First and foremost, the two maps share the same orientation: East is on the top, North is on the left and the West is on the bottom (you can clearly see this by looking at Britain in the bottom left corner!) – a standard feature of medieval maps (before the introduction of the compass, the East (where the sun rises) was the easiest direction to locate). Moreover, the Cotton World Map, like Tolkien’s, features several drawings, such as two little men fighting in the south of Britain, little drawings of cities like Rome and Jerusalem, and mountains (including Mount Ararat in Armenia with a little Ark of Noah!). Finally, the Anglo-Saxon map accompanies some of these drawings with descriptions; e.g., the drawing of a lion in China, where it says “hic abundant leones” [here are many lions] – not unlike Tolkien’s drawing of a spider, near the text ‘There are spiders’.
It is not inconceivable that Tolkien, in fact, drew inspiration from the Cotton World Map – its manuscript, Cotton Tibius B v, contains a version of the Marvels of the East (a catalogue of monsters), of which another version is found in the Beowulf manuscript that was so vigorously studied by Tolkien.
Strange script: Moon letters are Anglo-Saxon runes
The fact that only Elrond is able to decipher the moon letters might make them seem strange and ancient; they turn out to be a lot closer to home. Tolkien based his moon letters on the Anglo-Saxon ‘futhorc’, the runic alphabet used for short inscriptions on stone, wood and metal. Using the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, one can clear decipher the message on Thror’s map as “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole”. The English reading of the runes is retained even in some foreign-language versions of The Hobbit, including the Dutch one.
Manicula: Little hands in the margins of medieval manuscripts
The little hand pointing at another set of letters (which, again, can be deciphered using the Anglo-Saxon futhorc) is reminiscent of similar little hands found in medieval manuscripts. These so-called maniculae were often added in the margins by readers to point out important pieces of text (see a highly informative blog here)- the little hand on Thror’s map serves a similar purpose.
To conclude, the map that serves as every reader’s introduction to Middle-Earth immediately gives away the medieval character of the fictional world it depicts. Welcome to Middle-Earth? More like welcome to middangeard!
The information in this post is slightly adapted from an article I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here).
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