Archbishop Parker and the recovery of Old English

The recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition at the British Library gave visitors the chance to see two of the pre-Conquest treasures of the Lambeth Palace Library. MS 218 (containing Alcuin’s letter to Charlemagne) and MS 1370 (the Mac Durnan Gospels) are now back onsite and will soon be available to view online. Although the Archbishopric did not acquire the site of Lambeth Palace until the early thirteenth century, it has in its history housed a substantial number of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Matthew Parker (Archbishop between 1559 and 1575) amassed a vast collection of manuscripts, assembled from the spoils of the dissolved monastic libraries: many still bear marks of their pre-Reformation repositories, including the libraries of the two Benedictine communities in Canterbury, Christ Church and St Augustine’s. While Parker’s manuscripts are now mainly held in Corpus Christi College Cambridge and the Cambridge University Library, traces can be found throughout the collection here at Lambeth Palace, both in manuscripts and in printed books of the Early Modern period.

Pater noster on englisc
Image 1: ‘Pater noster on englisc’ from A testimonie of antiquitie

Archbishop Parker employed a team of scholars to study historical and theological texts from the Anglo-Saxon period, in order to support the newly-Reformed English Church’s claims both to doctrinal accuracy and to independence from Rome. The earliest product of this scholarship was A testimonie of antiquitie, shewing the auncient fayth in the Church of England touching the sacrament of the body and bloude of the Lord, printed in London in 1566 by John Day, who cut the special type used to replicate the insular minuscule of the Anglo-Saxon sources. This small volume contains a sermon by Ælfric of Eynsham, with additional materials including a ‘Pater noster on englisc’ (see image 1).  The accompanying English text reflects the appearance of interlinear glosses in numerous manuscripts of the late Anglo-Saxon period but, more importantly, would also have helped readers to understand the Old English language, accurately printed for the first time in this very book. Day later used his type for Parker’s 1574 edition of Asser’s Ælfredi regis res gestæ, where it was used not only for text in Old English, but also for Latin. A comparative table of alphabets opposite the first page of Asser’s text allows the reader to contrast the Latin and Saxon typefaces for shared characters, and to contextualise characters that were common in Old and Middle English but had fallen out of use by the Elizabethan period (see image 2): the ‘ash’ (Æ) ligature; ‘eth’ (ð, Đ) and ‘thorn’ (þ); the Tironian ‘and’, resembling a numeral 7; and ‘wynn’ (ƿ).

Image 2: Comparative table of alphabets from Ælfredi regis res gestæ

The most important of the scholars in Parker’s circle was his Latin secretary John Joscelyn, who is acknowledged to have been the chief contributor to the Archbishop’s monumental history of the Church in England, De antiquitate Britannicæ ecclesiæ & privilegiis ecclesiæ Cantuariensis, printed at Lambeth Palace by John Day in 1572. Working closely with the Archbishop’s son John Parker, Joscelyn compiled a dictionary of Old English (now London, British Library Cotton MSS Titus A. xv and xvi) and a grammar (now lost), drawing upon his extensive use of manuscripts in the Archbishop’s collection. The Old English word lists that survive in MS 692 represent a stage of Joscelyn’s efforts to construct this dictionary. Each list corresponds to an Old English text – mostly historical and theological works in prose, such as Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History – with pages containing up to four columns of over 150 words each, glossed in Latin or, occasionally, English. Joscelyn replicated the form of the insular minuscule in his tiny script, as can be seen from a list of R words from fol. 10r (see image 3). These words are compiled from a manuscript of Ælfric’s Grammar (now Cambridge, University Library MS Hh. 1. 10), the opening passage of which Joscelyn quoted in the preface to A testimonie of antiquitie:

Ic Ælfric ƿolde ðar littlen boc aƿendan to engliscum gereorde of ðam stæf cræfte ðe is gehaten grammatica… [I Ælfric wanted to translate this little book on the art of letters, which is called Grammatica, into the English language.]

Image 3: Word list from MS 692

Bound into MS 692 is a second, non-alphabetical word list, in a larger and scruffier hand than Joscelyn’s. This was compiled by the prolific scholar Laurence Nowell, who is now perhaps most famous for having owned the manuscript containing the sole extant copy of Beowulf (London, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A. xv). Nowell likewise glossed Old English words in Latin, but relied more upon English than Joscelyn did, for example rendering ‘Byrigeles’ as ‘Buriall’, ‘Blæc ⁊ feðere’ as ‘inke & penne’, and ‘Þunreslege’ as ‘Thunderclappe’ (see image 4). Nowell’s list was probably incorporated into MS 692 by Joscelyn himself. Indeed, like Joscelyn, Nowell spent many years compiling a Vocabularium of Old English (now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Selden Supra 63); this work was never published but the manuscript served as a useful source for scholars including Joscelyn and John Parker, and William Somner, whose Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum, the first printed Old English dictionary, was published in Oxford in 1659.

Image 4: Word list by Laurence Nowell from MS 692

Items in the Lambeth Palace Library reflect the shift in the early modern period away from the search for the political identity of the Anglo-Saxon Church, and towards the study of the Old English language in its social and literary contexts, underpinned by the rigorous study of Anglo-Saxon texts from Archbishop Parker’s collection by scholars in his circle. Seventeenth-century editors of Old English celebrated the Archbishop’s extraordinary library, acknowledging the efforts of John Joscelyn and his colleagues, and making use of John Day’s typeface – all of which were at crucial stages connected to Lambeth Palace. As the preface to the Old English Pastoral Care in Parker’s Ælfredi regis res gestæ (image 5) shows, the business of the Church has played a key role in the spreading of literacy both in England and in English. Under Archbishop Parker’s patronage, this tradition perhaps reached its zenith, with the study of ancient books leading to new styles of printing, new fields of study, and a renewed interest in the preservation of historical documents.

Image 5: Preface to the Old English Pastoral Care in Ælfredi regis res gestæ

Further Reading

Albert H. Marckwardt, ‘The Sources of Laurence Nowell’s Vocabularium Saxonicum’, Studies in Philology 45.1 (1948), 21-36.

N.R. Ker, Catalogue of manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957).

Timothy Graham and Andrew G. Watson, The Recovery of the Past in Early Elizabethan England: Documents by John Bale and John Joscelyn from the Circle of Matthew Parker, Cambridge Bibliographical Society Monographs, 13 (Cambridge, 1998).

Timothy Graham, ‘John Joscelyn, Pioneer of Old Engilsh Lexicography’, pp. 83-140 in The Recovery of Old English: Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries ed. Graham (Kalamazoo, MI, 2000).

John N. King, Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ and Early Modern Print Culture (Cambridge, 2006).

John Considine, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage (Cambridge, 2008).