Some medieval manuscripts have an obvious purpose. It’s a psalter, a gospel-book, a collection of charters, a book of poetry. Others … don’t. London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A. iii is, first and foremost, a copy of the two most important Rules (guides on how to live and worship in the monastery) for use in English monasteries and convents: the Rule of St Benedict, which had been the blueprint for all Benedictine monasteries for centuries, and the Regularis concordia, a text on monastic practices during the tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England. Other than those, however, the manuscript is a kind of lucky dip of homilies, prayers, miniatures, confessional guides, charms, prognostics, medical texts, lunaria, Alfredian translations, dream guides and other random texts. When I first started writing about Anglo-Saxon prayer, I focused on a small number of manuscripts, not including this one; but in everything I read, I kept on coming across words to the effect of ‘this prayer is also found in Cotton Tiberius A. iii’. Eventually I got pulled into it. I suspect that most Anglo-Saxonists working on prose texts get pulled into it eventually. All roads lead to Tiberius A. iii.
I have visited it at the British Library a few times now, transcribed from it, dithered over precisely what the significance of its page layout might be, but on those occasions time has been short and I have mostly confined myself to looking at the parts of the manuscript that are most relevant to my work. Now that the whole manuscript has been digitised, it is easier to take a look at them. Tiberius A. iii is an incredibly practical manuscript, with all kinds of useful guides to everyday life. Such as …
How to ward off your enemy
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 391, pp. 617-18 (also found in Tiberius A. iii, fol. 59r-v)
Are your enemies considering you insolently? A little prayer programme found in the Portiforium of St Wulstan has the answers for you. It is also found in Tiberius A. iii. First of all, go to a ‘suitable place’ (frustratingly, the manuscripts do not tell you where that might be) and call on the Holy Cross for protection. Then, say a few prayers and certain psalms, asking Christ to protect you through his cross, and to destroy the schemes of your enemies ‘both visible and invisible’. On three occasions, you are told to sing these psalms aþenedum earmum, with outstretched arms – quite an undertaking, considering how long some of them are! After the final prayer, you are told to make the sign of the cross upon your body as you say the antiphon ‘Ecce crucem’.
O God, who redeemed the world through the cross and your passion, free me from all the dangers of my sins and from all the plots of my adversaries, you who live, [etc.]
And make Christ’s cross sign very frequently on your head and on your heart, and [say] ‘This is the cross of the Lord: flee, all hostile forces; the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered, alleluia’; and say then this: ‘By this little sign of the holy cross’.’
How to decide what to do today
Vatican City, Bibliotheca Apostolicana Vaticana, Pal. lat. 235, fols. 40r-41r (also found in Tiberius A. iii, fols. 32v-35v)
Earlier this year, I wrote about prognostic guides to predicting what would happen in the new year: in 2017, apparently, honey and peace would be abundant. Well, honey is still freely available in most places; we’re still waiting for world peace. If you’re looking for something more accurate, Tiberius A. iii has prognostics of all kinds for every situation. This one tells you about the varying strengths and weaknesses of each day of the month. For today, the 24th, the prognostic states:
The twenty-fourth day of the month is useful for beginning things. A boy born will be combative, a girl strong. A sick person will quickly die. A dream means nothing. In the morning it is a good day to let blood.
(Trans. R. M. Liuzza, Anglo-Saxon Prognostics, 145.)
How to bless yourself with the sign of the Holy Cross
London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvii, fol. 70v-71r; London, British Library Arundel MS 155, fol. 173v-174r (also found in Tiberius A. iii, fol. 60r)
Some medieval prayers, particularly confessions, are pretty long and rambling; others are direct and to the point, using repetitive, patterned language. This blessing for oneself, said to the Holy Cross, is a good example of the latter. It is found in a sequence of prayers to the cross in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (Cotton MS Titus D. xxvii), and in the prayers following the Eadui Psalter (Arundel MS 155); it is also found in a group of prayers to the cross on fols. 58r-60v of Tiberius A. iii.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your holy cross, be near me, that you may defend me.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your blessed cross, be within me, that you may refresh me.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your joyous cross, be around me, that you may keep me safe.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your glorious cross, be before me, that you may lead me.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your venerable cross, be after me, that you may guide me.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your praiseworthy cross, be above me, that you may bless me.
O Lord Jesus Christ, for your great cross, be within me, that you may lead me to your kingdom.
How to interpret your dreams
Oxford, Bodleian Library Hatton MS 115, fols. 150v-152v (also found in Tiberius A. iii, fols. 38r-39v)
Have you had a strange dream? Several Anglo-Saxon manuscripts include dream interpretation guides, and Tiberius A. iii is no exception. Maybe God is trying to tell you something, via your sleeping visions. Or maybe you’ve just been reading too many blogposts …
Gif him þince þæt he spiwe, þæt byþ swa hwæt swa he ana wat þæt wyrþ geypped …
Gif him þince þæt he hine georne to gode gebidde. micel gefea him biþ toweard …
Gif him þince þæt he hunig ete. oððe geseo. þæt bid angnys …
Gif him þince þæt he næddran geseo þæt bið yfeles wifes niþ …
Gif him þince þæt he awiht on godcundum bocum ræde. oððe leornige. micel wurðmynt him byþ towerd æt gode.
If it seems to him that he vomits, that means that something he alone knows will be made public …
If it seems to him that he prays fervently to God, great joy lies ahead of him …
If it seems to him that he eats honey, or sees it, that means distress …
If it seems to him that he sees a serpent, that means the malice of an evil woman …
If it seems to him that he reads or learns anything from sacred books, great honor from God lies ahead for him.
R. M. Liuzza, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon Prognostics, 182-7.
How to learn about the heavenly bodies
Too many to list (also found in Tiberius A. iii, fols. 65v-73r)
Or maybe you want to learn a bit about how the world was made? The scientific works of St Bede were adapted into an Old English text called De Temporibus Anni, which is attributed to the homilist Ælfric of Eynsham, and covers subjects such as the nature of the sun, moon and stars, the weather, and the times and seasons of the year. Some parts of the treatise are scientifically accurate (the moon receives its light from the sun), others are not (the stars also receive their light from the sun). If you want to learn about the equinoxes, look no further than this chapter:
Now the day of the equinox is the same all over the world, and equally long, and all the other days in the twelve months have various lengths. In some lands they are longer and in some shorter because of the earth’s shadow and the sun’s orbit. The earth can be compared to a pine cone, and the sun glides around it by God’s decree, and on the end where it shines it is day through the sun’s light, and the end that it has left behind is covered in darkness until it approaches that end again.
Now the earth’s roundness and the sun’s orbit constitute the obstacle to the day’s being equally long in every land … [i]t ought nevertheless to be known that there are always twenty-four hours in the day and night; and on the day of the equinox, that is, when the day and the night are equally long, then they both have twelve hours, as Christ himself said in his gospel: Nonne .xii. horae sunt diei? “Does not the day have twelve hours?”
Trans. University of Virginia Old English
It might sound like I’m suggesting there is something derivative, not special, about Tiberius A. iii; and of course there are texts in it which are not known elsewhere. But this compilation is an excellent example of how manuscript culture worked at this time, because it shows what was considered to be worth copying and keeping in the eleventh century. If a scribe considered a text to be of interest – whatever it was about – then a spare folio could be found to scribble it down in. Informative bits of scientific knowledge, effective prayers, handy charms and useful prognostics from all sorts of sources could be passed on from one manuscript to another, and gathered together in one place, like a personalised playlist of medieval knowledge. From copying and repetition comes a compilation which is entirely unique.
All roads lead to Tiberius A. iii. But most of them are one-way streets.
R. M. Liuzza, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: An Edition and Translation of Texts from London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A. iii (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2011).