Naming names in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook

It’s strange how you think you know a manuscript well and then realise that there are things in it that you didn’t even know were there.  Take London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvii + xxvi (originally one manuscript, later divided into two), a compendium of liturgical prayers, private prayers, and scientific information.  It’s generally known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook as it was first owned by the Dean of the New Minster in Winchester, in the second quarter of the eleventh century.  I’ve worked with the original manuscripts on a number of occasions, studied their prayer collections, used them as a major source for my thesis, and written an article on a small part of one of them.  But there are still so many sections of the prayerbook that I don’t know that much.

Like the calendar.  Most medieval liturgical books begin with a calendar of the year, showing the saints’ days, astrological information and other important dates.  This one includes the death days of several monks of the New Minster and of the kings, queens and other notables of the time, such as Earl Byrhtnoth, who died on the 11th of August in the Battle of Maldon, and King Cnut and Queen Emma, who donated an altar cross to the monastery, an act commemorated in the New Minster’s Liber Vitae, or Book of Life.

London, British Library Stowe MS 944, fol. 6r.

Some of the monks remembered in the calendar have been given a kind of descriptive name, in English or Latin, and I’ve been looking some of them up on PASE, a database of people known to have lived in Anglo-Saxon England.  The entry for the third of September marks ‘Obitus Ælfrici pueri’ (‘the death of Ælfric the child’); the twenty-seventh of March is the death of ‘Byrhsini sacerdotis hwita’ (‘Priest Byrhsige the White’), and the third of July is ‘Obitus Wulfrici monachi pictoris’ (‘the death of Brother Wulfric the painter’).  The scribe who copied the calendar in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook also wrote monks’ names into the Liber Vitae, so it’s possible that some people are commemorated in both manuscripts, although you can never be quite certain: there is more than one ‘Ælfric puer’, for instance.  But the third of August marks the death of ‘Ælfweardi culla sacerdotis’, and there is indeed a man of that description in the Liber Vitae, Ælfweard 20 on PASE.

London, British Library Stowe MS 944, fol. 21r.

In some cases, these names get a little baffling.  The twenty-seventh of November is marked as ‘Obitus Byrhferði cat sacerdotis’.  The death of Priest Byrhferð the cat?  I don’t know of any other meaning for the word in Old English, nor does it mean anything in Latin, unless it is some kind of abbreviation.  Was he the world’s first jazz musician?  Or did someone have the good sense to offer Holy Orders to a feline?

The date of the ordination of cats is not known, but a feline bishop was in post by the late fifteenth century.  Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 1, fol 48r, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

And then there is the twenty-ninth of October, ‘Obitus Leofwini funig monachi’.  By coincidence, I had first came across the word fynig earlier on the day that I read this, whilst reading up for my blogpost on Anglo-Saxon cheese.  It means ‘damp’ or ‘mouldy’.  Maybe his burial was delayed for a few weeks.

But in amongst the purring priests and mouldy monks, on the twenty-fourth of November we find the addition ‘Ælfwinus uitam liquit hic abba caducam’.  ‘Here, Abbot Ælfwine gave up this transitory life’ (although he was the dean at the time of the manuscript’s creation, he later became the abbot).  Ælfwine’s ownership of the prayerbook has been deduced from references to him throughout both manuscripts.  Not only are he and his family members mentioned in the calendar, but also in the parts of the manuscript dedicated to personal prayer, most notably the miniature of the crucifixion on fol. 65v of Titus D. xxvii, above which are written the words ‘Hec crux consignet Aelfwinum corpore mente’: ‘this cross signs Ælfwine in body and in mind’.

But Ælfwine wasn’t the only owner of this book.  I’ve written before about a short guide to morning prayer which was added to the manuscript, perhaps even after Ælfwine’s usage of it.  I’ve also written about the later, presumably female reader who added glosses to the text, feminising the grammar and thus making the prayers suitable for a female voice.

Female glossator
Come to the aid of me, a (female) sinner. London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvi, fol. 68r.

Medieval manuscripts were never a finished product, something that should not be added to or altered.  As well as making changes to grammatical number and gender, a vernacular gloss could be added to a Latin text, perhaps many years later than the original.  Extra texts could be written into blank spaces in the manuscript, and extra gatherings of leaves inserted, with newly-added texts on them.  The continually-changing nature of medieval manuscripts is part of what makes them so unique and personal.

Prayer, too, could be personal.  Occasionally, both liturgical and private prayers allowed the reader to mention him- or herself, with N. standing in for the name (nomen).

Defende me undique diuina protectione miserum/am et peccatorum [sic] /tricem famulum/am tuum/am .N.

Günzel, ed.,  Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, p. 131.

Defend me, a pitiable sinner and your servant [both genders], [name], everywhere by your divine protection.

This is not a very frequent occurrence, but it is commonplace enough not to be a surprise to me.  But what really sets Ælfwine’s Prayerbook apart from other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts is one prayer in a group of some which use the first person singular pronoun, ideal for private prayer:

Deus, qui es iustorum gloria et misericordia peccatorum, pietatem tuam humili prece deposco, ut me, famulum/am tuum/am .ÆLFWINE., benignus respicias.

Günzel, ed., Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, p. 187.

God, you who are the glory of the just and the mercy of sinners, I ask your love with a humble prayer, that you may graciously consider me, your servant Ælfwine.

It is extremely rare for the owner or scribe of a manuscript to actually name him- or herself in a prayer.  The only other example I can think of is in the Eadwine Psalter, c. 1150:

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R. 17. 1, fol. 262r.

Almighty and merciful God, I humbly ask your mercy, that you may grant me your servant EADWINE to serve you faithfully, and deign to give me good perseverance and a happy end, and because I have sung this psalter in your sight, may it achieve the eternal health and remedy of my soul.  Amen.

By putting their names into a prayer copied from some other source, Ælfwine and Eadwine left their own personal stamp upon this prayerbook and this psalter.  We can see how prayers could be said, not just for the good of all humanity, but also for one specific person, praying for his own soul upon first waking in the morning, or after singing the psalms, or during the monastery’s time for reading and rest.  And Ælfwine in particular has left us a record of himself, more intimate and personal than those in his monastery’s Book of Life – along with his brothers Leofwine the Mouldy and Byrhferð the Cat.

Ælfwine offering his prayerbook to St Peter. London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvi, fol. 19v.


Works used:

Beate Günzel, ed., Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library, Cotton Titus D. xxvi + xxvii), Henry Bradshaw Society 108 (London: Boydell Press, 1993).

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dear Kate,
    I enjoyed in particular the mention of the personal names. With regard to “Priest Byrhferð the cat,” I might add that the sequence of personal name + animal/bird-epithet is not uncommon in the early Germanic onomasticon. Consider the Old Norse names Ondóttr kráka ‘Ondóttr Crow’ and Ólafr pái ‘Ólafr Peacock,’ both from Grettis saga; and further Eyvindr lambi ‘Eyvindr Lamb’ (Egils saga); Ketill Kálfr ‘Kettle Calf’ (Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar); and a man “er Hallsteinn hét ok kallaðr Hestr” ‘who was named Hallsteinn and called Horse’(Grettis saga, ch. 30). An OE example is afforded by charter 1406, which mentions a Godric finc ‘Godrich Finch’ (cited in DOE ‘finc’).
    Edmund Fairfax (


    1. katehthomas says:

      Excellent, thanks! Someone on Twitter asked me why he might have been called a cat, and it makes you think about which personal qualities might have prompted the nickname. What tends to lie behind the Norse ones – do the people have crowlike, peacocklike personal traits?


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