What do St Augustine (d. 430), Charlemagne (d. 814) and two Anglo-Saxon monks, Burchard (d. 753) and Alcuin (d. 804), have in common? Hint: it involves nuns, fish and birds bent in lettershapes, and a list of books.
Earliest copy of St Augustine’s On the Trinity, made in a nunnery
The oldest manuscript digitized for the project so far is a copy of St Augustine’s work De trinitate or On the Trinity (Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 126). It is a remarkable manuscript for many reasons. For one, it is the earliest known surviving copy of St Augustine’s treatise. Known as one of the Fathers of the Western Church, St Augustine (d. 430) was a prolific writer and a significant Christian thinker. As with most early Christian authors, his works survive only in medieval manuscripts copied centuries after his death. Our copy was written around 750 in Northern France (known as Neustria), in the region of Paris. Interestingly it was probably produced in one of two nunneries famous for their scriptoria: either Chelles Abbey or Jouarre Abbey.
Two old additions in an even older book
Secondly, MS. Laud Misc. 126 is the oldest manuscript in the Bodleian collection that is known with certainty to have belonged to the Cathedral Church of St Kilian in Würzburg. The diocese itself was established and staffed during the Anglo-Saxon mission to the Germanic parts of the Frankish realm. The manuscript made its way to Würzburg early on. It is thought that it was probably Burchard (d. 753), one of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries and the first bishop of Würzburg, who brought it with him to his see.
Letter from Charlemagne re: importance of education
Around year 800 two remarkable additions were made to the manuscript. The first is an exhortation letter, known as De litteris colendis. This is a letter addressed by Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) to Abbot Baugulf of Fulda (d. 802). It isn’t the best-looking document there is, but its significance is undisputed. It is the only known surviving copy of the letter, the other known copy (Metz, BM, MS. 226 from the turn of the twelfth century) having burned in 1944.
The letter bears an important witness to the Carolingian educational reform that aimed to improve literacy through the formation of schools. The letter is thought to have been authored by a renowned English monk, Alcuin (d. 804), who was invited by Charlemagne to join his court. Alcuin himself had a great impact on shaping the Palace School in Aachen through his teaching and writing. The letter was added to the first folio of our manuscript around the year 800 by a scribe writing in German Anglo-Saxon minuscule. We don’t know when the original text was composed but scholars have surmised that it probably happened in the 780s or 790s, meaning our copy was made within decades or even just years after the original.
The second important addition is found at the end of the volume, in a very similar hand to the letter from Charlemagne: a list of books held at the Cathedral Church of St Kilian around year 800. It also mentions four books that are on loan to Fulda “ad fultu”.
One of the earliest booklists from medieval Europe to survive, it lists 36 volumes, each on its own line. The titles on the list are quite short and general which makes the identification somewhat difficult. Nevertheless some 20 of the works have been identified, and moreover, some of them still survive. Amongst the volumes of Anglo-Saxon authors and various patristic texts, line 27 in the list has a ‘Liber de trinitate’ (Book on Trinity). It is quite possible that Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 126 is the book referred here, and hence the list references the book in which the list itself is.
Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 126 is a remarkable witness to the Anglo-Saxon influences on Würzburg’s book culture and to the interest in education that was an essential part of the Carolingian era. For a full description of the manuscript and discussion of its significance, see Daniela Mairhofer’s descriptive catalogue Medieval Manuscripts from Würzburg in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (2014).
- The manuscript is described in detail in Daniela Mairhofer, Medieval Manuscripts from Würzburg in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: A Descriptive Catalogue (Oxford, 2014), pp. 401-13.
- De litteris colendis edited and discussed in L. Wallach, ‘Charlemagne’s De litteris colendis and Alcuin’, Speculum 26 (1951) 288–305.
- ‘List 800’ is edited by M. Lapidge, ‘Surviving booklists from Anglo-Saxon England’, in Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, ed. M. Lapidge & H. Gneuss (Cambridge, 1985) 33–89, at p. 41.
Tuija Ainonen is the Bodleian’s Manuscripts Digitization Project Cataloguer for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands.