From the Eagle’s talons to the Internet: the Book of Cerne goes online

As the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition draws to a close, I am thinking about how much I will miss the manuscripts which were loaned by other institutions, which I had heard about or even studied but never seen before.  One of these was the Book of Cerne, an early medieval collection of prayers, gospel texts, and psalms, probably intended for devotional use.

As my work is on late Anglo-Saxon prayer, the Book of Cerne is a little outside of my main time range.  However, many of the texts which appear in this ninth-century manuscript would later be copied into those which I do study, and I have written on this blog about the very similar manuscript known as the Book of Nunnaminster.  It was therefore a great pleasure to be able to see the Book of Cerne, which was lent by Cambridge University Library, in the flesh for the very first time at the exhibition, sitting alongside Nunnaminster.  What is more, CUDL (Cambridge University Digital Library) have now digitised the manuscript in its entirety, allowing anyone with an internet connection to see the whole thing for the first time.

The first main part of the manuscript is devoted to extracts from the four gospels – specifically, the parts dedicated to the suffering and death of Christ – each one prefaced by a full-page miniature of the gospel writer, and his symbol: a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John.

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Each one of the symbolic creatures grasps the gospel book firmly in its hands, paws, hooves or talons!  It was the opening image from the gospel of John which was on display in the British Library’s exhibition: I was particularly taken by the white pigment used on the wings, something which I only rarely see in medieval manuscripts, but which acts like a kind of highlighter, drawing the attention.  Each gospel narrative also begins with a large headpiece decorated in coloured inks, with floral and zoomorphic designs, and surrounded by red dots – a feature characteristic of British and Irish manuscripts in this era.

Large initial H with interlace, followed by the beginning of the passion according to John
Cambridge, University Library MS Ll. 1. 10, f. 32r.

After the gospel extracts follow nearly a hundred folios of prayers and hymns, each one beginning with a large initial, usually with some kind of zoomorphic design, and again outlined in red dots.  One prayer, on the other hand, is given the same treatment as the gospel incipits – it has a full headpiece for the first line, and a second line in half-uncial script.  The suggestion is that this prayer is particularly important.

Coloured headpiece from the top of a manuscript page, with the start of a prayer, and zoomorphic designs woven into the opening letter S
Cambridge, University Library MS Ll. 1. 10, f. 43r

This prayer is none other than the Lorica of Laidcenn, which I wrote about in an earlier blogpost: a poem in which the speaker prays to God for the protection of all of their bodily limbs and organs.  Just like the copy in London, British Library Harley MS 585, which I discussed in the blogpost, this is written in Latin but glossed in Old English; the following prayers in Cerne are in Latin alone.

The Lorica is not the only link between Cerne and the other Anglo-Saxon prayerbooks.  Several of the prayers found in it appear again in later collections such as the Galba Prayerbook, on which I have written before.  And, just like Galba, Cerne has also been annotated by later users, who have changed the grammatical gender of the prayers.  Here, the word peccatricem (female sinner) has been changed to peccatorem (male sinner) in a later hand.

Manuscript image: the Latin word 'peccatricem' has been altered to 'peccatorem'
Cambridge, University Library Ll. 1. 10, f. 56r

A later part of the manuscript is an abbreviated version of the psalms: collections of psalm verses were a form of prayer, and are found in several early medieval manuscripts.  In this one, strange creatures fly or swim between the lines, acting as a handy way of showing where the copyist has run out of space on one line and finished a verse on the line above or below.

If you have not had a chance to see this wonderful manuscript in person at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, please do have a look through it online!


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