The ‘Laudian Acts’, MS. Laud Gr. 35, is one of the Bodleian Library’s oldest books. It’s one of those that have travelled the furthest. It likely had a reader who is so famous that you’ll almost certainly have heard of him, even if you think you don’t know anything about medieval history.
Who was William Laud?
With the manuscript closed, little of its illustrious history is visible. Like the majority of medieval manuscripts, this one doesn’t have its original binding. What we can see here is the seventeenth-century binding given to the manuscript by Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645). That’s his coat of arms you can see in the middle of the upper board. And there’s a note inside the manuscript, which tells us that Laud acquired it in 1636.
William Laud is best known today as an archbishop of Canterbury whose views on the power of the church ultimately led to his execution in 1645. But he was also chancellor of Oxford University, and one of the major patrons of the university library, the Bodleian, which had been refounded in 1602. He built up the library’s collections considerably, donating over a thousand manuscripts, including this one.
So the binding tells us about the end of the manuscript’s journey. To find out about its beginning, we need to open it up.
A manuscript isn’t like a printed book – and not only because it’s written by hand, so each one is unique. Most medieval manuscripts don’t have title pages naming the text they contain, and unlike printed books they don’t have explicit statements about when and where they were produced. Scholars have to identify the text by reading it and comparing it to other texts; and they have to work out when and where it was written by looking at the handwriting, decoration, and other features of the book.
So let’s follow this process step by step, starting with the text.
A layout for learning
Normally we’d start with the first page, but for this film, I’m going to choose a page that’s particularly revealing, and that’s folio 90.
You’ll probably notice straight away something unusual, which is that the two columns of text are in different languages and scripts. This is a bilingual manuscript, with the left column in Latin and the right column in Greek. The Latin text might not be too hard to read, even if you’re not familiar with medieval scripts – the main difficulty is that there is no space between words. That’s something we take for granted, but it didn’t develop until some time after this manuscript was written.
The first lines read ‘A Galilea post baptismum quod praedicauit Iohannes’. If you put this into an internet search engine, you’ll see it’s from the Acts of the Apostles, in modern numbering chapter 10, the end of verse 37. The King James Version translates this as ‘from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached’.
The Latin isn’t the version that become most common in the Middle Ages, the translation mostly by Jerome that we now call the Vulgate. The version here is an older one: what we call the ‘Old Latin’ or ‘Vetus Latina’ version.
The Greek text is also the Acts of the Apostles, and even without knowledge of Latin or Greek it’s possible to see that the two columns have been arranged so that the texts run exactly parallel, with usually only one or two words per line, with the Greek and Latin texts being exactly equivalent. So ‘μετὰ τὸ βάπτισμα’ (‘meta to baptisma’), on the second line of the Greek, is exactly equivalent to ‘post baptismum’ in the Latin, and so on.
This was not an easy task to carry out, since the Old Latin text occasionally has a few words not found in the Greek, and vice versa. On these occasions, rather than leave a blank space in one column, the Latin (or more rarely the Greek) was adjusted as necessary. That’s important because it tells us that this manuscript, or at least the manuscript it was copied from, was the work of someone with a high degree of competence in both Greek and Latin.
We can see that the Latin and Greek texts were written by the same scribe. It seems very likely that he was a native Greek speaker, and there are some clues to this in mistakes he occasionally makes in the Latin text. For instance, as is visible on fol. 90r and elsewhere, he makes mistakes with the Latin letter R. The Greek letter rho (Ρ) is identical in shape to the Latin P and the scribe often seems to have been tempted to write P instead of R in the Latin script.
Dating the Laudian Acts
So to sum up so far, we’re looking at a bilingual Latin-Greek manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles. Where and when was it written?
As I said before, medieval manuscripts don’t tell us explicitly about this, and scholars have to deduce what they can based on a manuscript’s script, decoration and physical characteristics. Using this evidence, most scholars have agreed that this manuscript was written in Italy, around the year 600. It might have been written in Sardinia, based on a note at the end of the manuscript, and another possibility is Rome.
The layout of the book, making it easy to match individual words in the different languages, and the fact that the Latin is in the left column, suggests that it was intended for Latin speakers who were trying to learn Greek.
The Laudian Acts travel north
The next stage of the book’s history has not left any trace in the manuscript itself, but scholars have deduced it by close analysis of the text it contains.
The scene now shifts to Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, around the year 700 – the age of Bede, the great historian and scholar, active at the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. Bede is famous to us as a historian, but he was equally active as a biblical commentator, and he wrote two separate commentaries on Acts. Scholars have noticed that one of the versions he quotes is so similar to the Laudian Acts that it must have been this very manuscript which Bede consulted.
We have an example of this on folio 90r, in the words ‘sicut unxit eum deus’, which are found only in this manuscript and which Bede quotes. So this manuscript travelled from Italy, perhaps Rome, to England. And in fact there is nothing implausible about this. We have several records of Northumbrian monks in the seventh century travelling to Rome and bringing back manuscripts with them. This bilingual volume must have been enormously useful to Bede, whose knowledge of Greek was fairly limited, especially earlier in his career.
We next discover the manuscript in Germany. There’s an ownership inscription which scholars date to the late eighth century at the end of the manuscript. It’s a little difficult to see, because it was scratched into the parchment with a hard point, rather than being written in ink, but you can see traces of it here. It reads ‘Marie uirginis Gamundum’. It shows that the book belonged to a monastery at the church of the Virgin Mary at ‘Gamundum’ which is now Hornbach in southwestern Germany, near the border with France.
Like the manuscript’s journey from Rome to Northumbria, its journey from Northumbria to the Rhineland might be surprising – but again, it’s less unusual than you might think. The eighth century was the great age of Anglo-Saxon missionary activity on the Continent. Missionaries needed books, and like missionaries, books travelled from England to the Continent. This manuscript was almost certainly one of them.
From Laud to the Bodleian
After that, things are less clear. There are some later annotations that indicate the manuscript stayed in the Germanic area, but we’re not sure exactly where. Almost certainly it was in a monastic library until the seventeenth century, when Germany was shaken by the religious conflict of the Thirty Years’ War. Several monasteries lost their books in this period, and this manuscript was probably one of them. There was a brisk trade in these manuscripts, and Archbishop Laud acquired a large number for his donations to the Bodleian.
And so we’re back where we started, with archbishop Laud. Of course, the manuscript’s arrival at the Bodleian wasn’t the end of its story. Scholars soon became aware of it, and since the seventeenth century it’s been studied intensively, even acquiring its own nickname, the ‘Laudian Acts’. It’s one of the key manuscripts for establishing both the Greek and Latin texts of the Acts of the Apostles. But that’s a story for another occasion.
About the author
Matthew Holford is Tolkien Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library.