A manuscript visit and a look back at 2015

As we come to the end of 2015, it’s time for a quick look back over my year in Anglo-Saxon studies, and, of course, over this blog (so far). Although I have been on Twitter (as @For_the_Wynn) since 2011, it was this year that I started actively using it; I have been delighted to meet some interesting people there, and been pleased by the positive response that I have had to some of my tweets. In particular, I have discovered that people seem to like my photographs from church-skulking expeditions in North Yorkshire; I will make a point of taking more pictures like those next time I am out and about. York, where I live, has plenty of great medieval sights to share, so if all else fails and I don’t get to travel anywhere, I will post some photos from my adopted hometown.

I’m writing this blogpost shortly after a trip to visit some of the major manuscripts which feature in my thesis and the book which will be based on it. Two of those were London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii and xxvi, originally part of one manuscript known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook. Although I have used this manuscript before, it never stops being a surprise to me: this little handbook of prayers and scientific material is utterly tiny, with tiny writing to go with it – and even tinier interlinear annotations added by a female reader after the prayers were originally written, as I wrote in a blogpost in late October. This manuscript contains three line drawings – one of the crucifixion, one of the Trinity (plus the Virgin and Child), and one of Dean Ælfwine offering his little book to St Peter – which are drawn in such fine detail that you find yourself wondering how on earth anyone managed to create something that intricate. The miniature (and it truly is miniature) of St Peter in particular manages to blow my mind, even though I am well acquainted with it.

London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvi, fol. 19v
London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvi, fol. 19v

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on a short guide to prayer in this manuscript; in particular, I explained why I was so interested in the part which says:

                 • Ne mæg ænigmann on

his agen geþeode þageswinc• 7þara

costnunga nearonessa þehim onbecu

mað gode swa fulfremedlice arec

can• nehismildheortnesse biddan

swa hemæg midþillicum sealmum 7

mid oþrum swilcum•

(Transcribed directly from Cotton Titus D. xxvi, fol. 2v, with word and line breaks as in the manuscript. ‘No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such.’)

Looking at the manuscript once again, I couldn’t help but notice a slight darkness on the vellum covering the word ‘nearonessa’ (‘oppression’), and a little on ‘-fremed-‘ (part of ‘fulfremedlice’, ‘effectively’) on the line below. Part of me wants to believe that this is a little fingerprint, where the user of the manuscript literally reached out and touched the book in an expression of his or her spiritual sufferings. It’s certainly not something that I can prove – the reader must have had a rather small finger, for starters – but I suppose it’s not altogether out of the realms of possibility.

Whilst on my research trip, I also got the opportunity to spend some time looking at London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A. iii, which has for several years been standing quietly in the shadows of my work. I once remarked on Facebook that all roads lead to Tiberius A. iii, before beginning to wonder whether they might not, in fact, be one-way streets. For although my thesis focuses on three major collections of prayers, this other manuscript somehow kept cropping up: I would find out that a couple of prayer programmes that I was writing on were also found in it; it is one of the two surviving witnesses to the Regularis concordia, a tenth-century guide to the monastic life; and a popular group of confessional texts are copied in two places in the manuscript. It’s also home to a number of prognostics, a genre which I would love to spend more time exploring one day, plus various homilies and a copy of St Benedict’s monastic rule. All in all, this manuscript is a kind of compilation of anything and everything that was considered valuable at Canterbury’s Christ Church in the mid-eleventh century. A sort of Now That’s What I Call Monasticism 1050, if you like.

So I finally took the opportunity to check out a programme of prayers to the cross in Tiberius A. iii. I only found out about these shortly before the submission of my thesis, and didn’t have the chance to write about them except in a brief footnote; I have since mentioned them in a conference paper, but wanted to see the original words in the flesh (literally) before writing on them more extensively in my book. Much to my surprise, they largely did not follow the pattern that I had expected them to, judging from the edition that I had been using. Perhaps I have confused one manuscript with another; perhaps the prayers crop up twice within the same one; or perhaps this is another example, like those I wrote about in November, of why Victorian editors are not always to be trusted. I will have to check this out in the new year.

So what do I have lined up for 2016? A number of embryonic blogposts are sitting in my files as I type this; with my other work permitting, I’d like to post at least a couple of them each month. Now that both of the main two medical manuscripts which I work on have been digitised by the British Library, I hope to be able to write a few posts on medieval medicine in the coming weeks. I’m also planning something on how to tell your fortune, Anglo-Saxon style; how to protect yourself from all forms of harm; about why it’s important to say your prayers; and I want to post some eleventh-century instructions for how to get the devil off your case (should you require them). In terms of more formal publications, I should have a few things coming up in the next few years, one of which is now confirmed to appear in 2016: more details soon.

Have a merry Christmas, a happy holiday, and an excellent 2016.

Wall painting, c. 1250, from St Agatha’s church, Easby, North Yorkshire

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Cathy Stillman-Lowe says:

    I am looking forward to more information on Medieval medicine. I spent 16 years in the NHS and keep up a keen interest in evidence-based medicine today – so hearing about the contrasting approaches taken in the past is most pleasing to me.


  2. katehthomas says:

    Good! I have plenty to write about – just a question of finding time to organise it all …


  3. Trish V. says:

    A question… you mentioned that the BL has recently digitized two of your sources. I’m very interested in seeing the BL’s Sloane 2499 and Amherst additional 37,790 put online for reading and study, which contain Dame Julian’s “Shewings.” Do you know what I can do, from the U.S., to encourage the digitization of these two manuscripts? Do they have a wait list, or is it public access requests that trigger it, or ? Many thanks… 🙂


    1. katehthomas says:

      Good question! I don’t know the Amherst library at all; the BL recently posted a link to all the MSS they have digitised so far http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/01/a-belated-holiday-gift-from-us-a-giant-list-of-digitised-manuscript-hyperlinks.html

      Not sure what their strategy is about which MSS to digitise (though atm they are doing a lot of Anglo-Saxon ones), but maybe if they know there is a demand for a particular MS that might help?


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