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Saintly books, saintly bodies

An introduction to digitised manuscripts, through Ælfric's Life of St Æthelthryth

The extraordinary progress in manuscript digitisation made over the last three decades - and over the last ten years in particular - has revolutionised the research that academics are able to undertake. Where once we might have had to catch trains or planes to distant libraries and religious centres, proffering letters of introduction to librarians, who (sometimes!) proceeded to chaperone us we read, we are increasingly able to access high-resolution images without even leaving the house. But more than simply making our lives easier, this enables us to totally reposition the role of manuscripts in much of our research, seeing them as an essential starting-point to reading, things to be taken time over. Writing about the Exeter Book Riddles in 2012, Winfried Rudolf argued that a view of the manuscript text in situ is essential to criticism,[1] and I think this holds true for Old English verse more broadly. We can describe to our students the components of manuscript production, presentation and transmission, but it's hard to fully appreciate what these things might mean for the formal and stylistic aspects of verse – textual division, versification, rhetorical structures and so forth – until you actually set eyes on parchment. I like to begin my first-year introductions to OE by inviting my students to a game of spot-the-difference between two very different manuscript pages.


On the left is the opening page of Aldhelm's Latin Enigmata from London, British Library Royal 12 C xxiii, f. 83 (image obtained from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts), and above on the right is the opening page of the Old English poem Genesis, from Oxford, Bodleian Library Junius 11, p. 5 (image obtained from the Digital Bodleian). These two manuscripts are broadly contemporary with one another, but their texts receive very different presentational strategies. This game is an excellent icebreaker – it's easy for even the shyest students to point to the varied colours and ornate initial of the Latin text, but there's lots for ambitious contributors to get their teeth into too: interlinear and marginal glosses on Aldhelm's text; the absence of paratextual information in both manuscripts; the stark distinctions in layout and punctuation. From here you can move into a variety of discussions, for example, how the sparse punctuation and lack of titles in OE manuscripts should make us reconsider the apparati of our printed editions. It's also a great way to start a conversation about the different languages in use in early medieval England.

Students enjoy looking at manuscripts (who doesn't?), but they also have the potential to hugely increase the richness and quality of their written work by doing so. For a start, manuscripts provide chronological anchoring-points in the highly fluid textual histories of anonymous verse, and allow students to think more concretely about reception and transmission history, before entering into speculation about textual origins.[2] Encountering texts as they were encountered historically helps students to engage much more critically with the changes made by modern editors and translators. One year I had two students who returned to the manuscript witness to determine punctuation of their OE creative translation coursework.[3] The forthcoming CLASP project at the University of Oxford will make it easier than ever for young scholars to see where editions differ from the manuscript text, thanks to a database recording all emendations made by the editors of the ASPR.[4] But using digitised manuscript facsimiles is not necessarily simple for the uninitiated, and so I have developed a class exercise designed to get students comfortable with looking up and navigating manuscripts on one of the largest digital repositories: the British Library website. This exercise is designed to fit into a class about Ælfric's Life of St Æthelthryth, and has a few objectives:

  • Train students to find and navigate a digitised manuscript, identifying bibliographic information and looking up certain folios

  • Lead students to connect the contents of the manuscript with the narrative of the text they're reading

  • If relevant, introduce students to the language and register of Art History, looking at manuscript art, illustration, initials, etc.

  • Use the manuscript to deliver historical context around the text of study

The class should already have read the Life, in translation or the original Old English, and preferably discussed it together. The plan can be broken down as follows:

  1. Begin by asking students what they know about manuscripts from their lectures/reading. Responding to the level of knowledge, fill in the students' answers as much as necessary to develop a picture of handwritten books of parchment produced in monastic scriptoria. If you have time, some images of parchment-making, or discussion about the movement from papyrus and into paper are good fun.

  2. Explain the different names a manuscript can come by. Erica Weaver and Daniel C. Remein's introduction to Dating Beowulf gives an entertaining summary of the names of Cotton Vitellius AXV / The Nowell Codex / The Beowulf-Manuscript. Give students the shelfmark of the manuscript you are working with that day, and ask them to find it online: Add MS 49598. Can any of them tell you another name for this MS, using the information on the landing page? (the Benedictional of St Æthelwold).

  3. Make sure they're all on the correct landing page ( Ask them about the information that's presented here: what is it telling us? When they've got the gist, get them to click through the image partway down the page to get to the digitised manuscript. Once here, just let them explore a bit. How does the interface work – turning pages, moving to a specific page? What do the 'f' and 'v' mean in the drop down page list in the upper right-hand corner? If you are lucky enough to have a bit of vellum, this would be a great moment to pass it around and ask them to rub it between their fingers, feeling the velvety flesh-side, and the shinier hair-side (this bit might be more suitable in a post-Covid world!). Reminding students that the digital object is a copy of something very physical and real adds a helpful dimension to their experience with the facsimile, and can later be developed into conversations about the limitations of digitised sources.

4. Ask them to navigate to folio 90v, which has a full-page miniature of St Æthelthryth (this is the image to the right of this page, obtained from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts). Ask them to talk about whatever they find interesting – for example, what she's carrying (a flower to symbolise her virginity), how she's dressed (an emphasis on the stomach/womb area), her face (aged, presumably to show the viginity was perpetual), the gold lettering ('Imago s[an]cte Atheldrythe abb[atisse] ac perpetue virigin[is]') and the ornate frame of foliage.[5] They may have thoughts on how this image of the saint tallies with the text(s) they've read, and you could here direct them to a quotation from Hugh Magennis' Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature, in which he describes the 'holy stasis' of this image, and its implications for hagiographical writing.[6]


5. Ask them to compare the image of St Æthelthryth with images of male saints elsewhere in the manuscript. They may be able to identify the folios themselves from the bibliographical information on the landing page, or you may want to guide them to, for example, St Stephen being martyred on folio 17v, and St John the Evangelist seated with a book on folio 19v. In my classes, we have used this as a springboard for discussions about the gendering of agency, particularly in Ælfric's interpretation of the Life, and in comparison with Bede's text in the Historia ecclesiastica.[7]

6. If you have time remaining, you can develop this into a conversation about Ælfric's wider career, and his place in the literature of the Benedictine Reform period. We tend to talk about why Ælfric may have written this particular life, and discuss the importance of St Æthelthryth to the religious-political life of bishop Æthelwold, Ælfric's teacher and the namesake of this manuscript.[8]


[1] Winfried Rudolf, ‘Riddling and Reading: Iconicity and Logogriphs in Exeter Book Riddles 23 and 45’, Anglia 130 (2012) 499–525.

[2] Even if such anchoring points are frequently very broad!

[3] A genuinely accessible and interesting text for students to read on problems of punctuation in modern editions of OE text is Bruce Mitchell and Susan Irvine's 'Beowulf Repunctuated', Old English Newsletter 29 (2000).


[5] See Hugh Magennis, The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature (2011) p. 119–20.

[6] Magennis, pp. 118–21.

[7] With particular reference to Gwen Griffiths, 'Reading Ælfric's Saint Æthelthryth as a woman', Parergon 10:2 (1992) 35–49.

[8] With particular reference to Peter Jackson, 'Ælfric and the purpose of Christian marriage: a reconsideration of the "Life of Æthelthryth", lines 120–30', Anglo-Saxon England (2000) 235–60.

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