Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Two Library staff attended an exciting and ground-breaking conference held at the British Library on December 13th and 14th, 2018. The British Library represents one of the world’s leading centres in the study of manuscripts and conservation, and its reputation for cutting-edge scholarship, not to mention the once in a lifetime exhibition, made it the ideal place to hold a conference around the theme of Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The conference was conceived and organized by Dr Claire Breay, who is the Library’s Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. She introduced the event by announcing that the intent of the conference was to “cover the history of the literature, culture, and the interconnectedness of this world,” and, by bringing these manuscripts together for the first time, allowed scholars unprecedented access not only to the manuscripts as physical objects but also to the full suite of digitisation and chromatization technologies available from the British Library. Together, conference participants worked to define and propose methodologies for the study and understanding of these documents and their wider world. The opportunity that this conference provided, bringing in a diverse group of Anglo-Saxon historians, palaeographers, conservationists, linguists, and art historians, made for a truly diverse range of speakers and ideas. The papers touched on manuscripts produced in Merovingian and Carolingian France, Irish and English monastic communities, the transport of manuscripts as items and gifts, and the use and symbolism of music.

The first day of the conference primarily focused on the Irish and English manuscripts in the collection with papers which challenged previous scholarly assumptions about the origin of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the use and transmission of writing styles. Following his opening address, Dr Lawrence Nees set the stage for the conference with a paper that looked at the central question of “The European context of manuscript illumination in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, 600-900”. Throughout his presentation, he continued to lay out other fundamental questions that persistently resurfaced in the discussions that occurred over the next two days: the difficulties of the commonly used dynastic labels, the intertangled cultures, the difficulties of reading stylistic images, and the importance of focusing on the individuals who made the manuscripts as well as the wider culture. As a result, Dr Nees proposed that, for the purposes of the conference, we consider the connection of scribes and the migration of ideas. He suggested that the static image that tends to prevail of individualised communities, whist being useful for classification, may not be as representative as once thought. He called attention to the fact that historians’ tendency to focus on the larger, or more complete, works has considerably limited our knowledge of the variety, diversity and interconnectedness that existed in society. Studying the art and world of the Anglo-Saxons is therefore crucial, since it significantly widens our understanding of history during this period.

The second session began with Dr Daibhi O Croini (NUI Galway), whose paper entitled “Durham A.II.10 – the original Lindisfarne Gospels” examined the two-way influence of Irish and Saxon art. In looking at the precursors to the Gospels O Croini examined the changing monographs and decorations of the Capitals and the use of letter forms. He drew on the contemporary translation of a Greek paternoster showing how the spelling of the Greek words using Latin letters was indicative of Irish pronunciation.

The second session continued with a presentation by Dr Bernard Meehan (Trinity College Dublin), whose paper, “The Corpus-Ortho-Royal/ Cambridge-London/ Parker-Cotton-Wolsey Gospels,” championed anew the idea that it is a single manuscript. albeit one with a complicated history, rather than several different texts. One of the primary challenges facing scholars working on historical manuscripts is the individual nature of each piece. Dr Meehan’s study provided an example of how such limitations could be overcome by careful palaeographic analysis of the source and by placing the text in the wider contextual environment. Next, Dr Richard Gameson (Durham University) presented “Copying scripture at Wearmouth-Jarrow,” which took a more palaeographical look and considered issues of copying and craftsmanship to shed light on the Monumental Bible. He focused in particular on the interaction of Uncial, ½ Uncial, and Carolingian scripts and the comparative hierarchy of scripts. He examined how textual choices demonstrate how people thought about text and how they wanted to present the world.

Following lunch, the next panel commenced with Dr Immo Warntjes (Trinity College Dublin), whose presentation, “Willibrord: harbinger of the Carolingian Renaissance,” challenged scholars’ conception of the origins of Carolingian scripts and their relation to the Anglo-Saxon world. Dr Joanna Story (University of Leicester) then presented a paper, “Insular art and script in Carolingian Europe,” examining the distribution of Insular script and Insular culture as opposed to Carolingian script: how its particularly localised appearance and forms could be traced to differential patronage and fashion as opposed to more destructive ideas. Next, Dr Rosamond McKiterick (Sidney Sussex College Cambridge) presented a paper entitled “Links with Rome and the Franks in the light of some Anglo-Saxon manuscripts” Her study of a series of manuscripts considered how the transport and transmission of knowledge showed the importance of the interconnected religious sites in the Anglo-Saxon period. The cultural exchange of books and people was as important a feature of this world as the individual works themselves and to attempt to separate them into distinct spheres was a mistake. This linked very well with the keynote speech on the European context of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

The presenters for the next session were Dr Rosalind Love (Robinson College, Cambridge) who read a paper on going “Back into Bede’s Library.” She argued that his library was constructed of a mixture of owned works and borrowed books. She looked at how the books would have been constructed and construed and what they would have looked like (plain, lacking illumination and annotations) as well as how the collection would have balanced original or “scholarly editions” of works. Next was Dr Teresa Webber (Trinity College, Cambridge), whose research focused on “The lector and lectio in Anglo-Saxon England.” Dr Webber’s paper provided an informative survey of how books were viewed (visualisation, visual impact) and used (read aloud, aural impact). She focussed on the ways in which people reacted or related to the works and the responsibility associated with the act of reading books and reading them well. Following Dr Webber’s paper, the first day of the conference wrapped up with a pair of fascinating talks by Dr Winfried Rudolf (University of Göttingen) on “The return of the Vercelli Book: new observations on its Italian provenance” and Dr Andy Orchard (Pembroke, Oxford) on “The Uniqueness of Beowulf”. Dr Rudolf’s examination of this work looked at the possibility of it being a surviving example of a larger tradition or as a companion text to a larger cycle. He also highlighted the fact that whoever copied the book reproduced it down to the mistakes and obscurities suggesting the scribe’s unfamiliarity with both old English and Latin. Finishing the day, Dr Orchard put forward the argument that rather than being an orally composed poem, Beowulf was conceived as a written text, focusing on the poet’s use of language and the unique sound world in which the poem exists.

The second day addressed a similarly wide variety of topics. Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) kicked off with an introduction to her work as a Welsh medievalist, focusing on Manuscript Studies and Early English literature. Her paper, “Post-Conquest Old English Manuscripts from a distance,” outlined the various sources available for the study of history by contemporaries, focusing on the Letter to Eadwine, asking whether the letter, an obvious forgery, was meant to be accurate to an imagined past or was it an attempt to construct a culture for a contemporary group. The next presenter, Dr David Johnson (Florida State University), who spoke on “The transmission and reception of Alfredian Apocrypha” pushed against the scholarly assumption of the dialogues as apocrypha, looking at the lack of quality, the place of composition and the loose association to Alfred. Instead, his research revealed how by examining the marginalia and looking at similarities between it and WLKK 3.18 and Cotton Tiberius BL Orosius one can detect patterns in their construction. The first session ended with Dr Jon Wilcox (University of Iowa), “The Wolf Howls Twice: Wulfstan’s Writing and Scribal Repetition”, looking at the exposure of new Wulfstan writing using chromatic photography. He produced a previously illegible page and showed how, after using this process, the page could not only be read but reconstructed so clearly as to allow for an in-depth paleographical analysis, leading to the theory that this page was meant as a draft or working out of a sermon.

The second session of the morning commenced with a paper by Dr Francesca Tinti (University of the Basque Country). Her presentation, “Anglo-Saxon Travelers and their Books”, examined books made for transport and the logistics that this involved and asked how we can recognise books designed for traveling. Dr Simon Keynes (University of Cambridge) continued the discussion with a focus on the Canterbury letter book. His paper introduced compelling evidence of the rich diversity of a ‘society of letters’ existing right across Europe at that time, including some of the earliest references to trade. Finally, we heard from Dr Michael Gullick (Independent Researcher), whose research on “Across the North Sea: Anglo-Saxon Liturgical Manuscripts in Norway and Sweden’” aims to create a compilation of Old English fragments found in parish churches in Scandinavia, looking at who wrote them and how they were constructed. Since few representations of these have been studied extensively, they provide a fascinating resource of unknown works.

Following lunch, the conference reconvened for the next two sessions. Dr Catherine Karkov (University of Leeds) started off the afternoon with her paper, “Negotiating Difference in the Wonders of the East”, which examined a series of images depicting the transformation of bodies and monsters in the text, looking at how their locations were always in relation to known places but never located themselves, as well as their relation to gender, conflict, and the question of categorisations used by artists and writers. Dr Sue Brunning (The British Museum) presented on “Saying Things: Anglo-Saxon Inscribed Objects in the British Museum” discussing the use of writing on items held at the British Museum including rings, bowls, and swords found in various forms throughout Europe. The question was asked what the name represented: ownership, a guarantee of quality, or commemoration?

The conference continued with a presentation from Helen Gittos (University of Oxford) whose paper “In their mother tongue: the use of Old English in Anglo-Saxon liturgy” addressed the importance of assessing this field whilst divorcing it from post Reformation thinking. Through her research she established that the use of the vernacular was to facilitate comprehension. It was used in confessions, tending to the sick, and can be found in the excommunications. It appears to be used also in trial by ordeal and the penitential ritual. This suggests that it was used when the performance of liturgy was less important than ensuring comprehension and clarity. This was followed by Dr Susan Rankin (University of Cambridge) who offered a paper entitled “A Fleury model for singing at Winchester” where she worked to determine the forms and uses of the two voice troper found in the chant books. She looked at how the notation used represented a musical reality linked to a common practice but still showing a direct link to the various Benedictine communities. She also examined the links of the troper to Winchester and its possible use in the crowning of Edward the Confessor. Her talk ended with a brief performance of two parts of the music.

The day and conference ended with the keynote by Dr Julia Crick (Kings College London) with a talk on “English Scribal Culture in an Age of Conquest, 900–1100”. She began by thanking the British Library for their work in digitizing so many of the manuscripts and went on to examine what the Norman conquest changed in Anglo-Saxon manuscript culture. She noted that the main signifier that is used, Carolingian script, can present an artificial distinction and asked instead what the use of script can tell us about the scribe, their training, and collaborations. She ended by calling for a broadening of the models used by Anglo-Saxon historians and the importance of learning from cognate studies.

One crucial issue raised by many of the conference papers was the need to reformulate and widen our notions surrounding the category of “Anglo-Saxon.” Many of the works that were discussed in the presentations have been shown to be located in a much wider and more diverse European context. It offered the opportunity re-examine manuscripts in light of advances in technology and practice, as well as the once in a lifetime opportunity to see all of these manuscripts in one place as part of the stunning associated exhibit.

The conference proved that studying the cultural production of the elite can only take us so far in our understanding of art and society until we hit a wall. The Art of the Poor started a conversation that needs to continue within the field. As scholars and as educators, it is essential that we encourage research and discussions in the classroom that revolve around questions concerning the less privileged members of the population and the role that art played in their lives.

MS 1370 ff. 4v-5r: on display in the British Library Anglo-Saxon exhibition

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