Oswald in the margins

Annotations and additions in a medieval manuscript copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
Johanna Dale

We tend to think that writing in library books is a bad thing. Some time ago the Cambridge University Library held a small exhibition showing some of the most egregious examples in their collection. I remember seeing on display a library volume in which every line on the double-page opening was underlined in rainbow pencil, i.e. the sort of pencil you might have had as a child, which changes colour as you write. The exhibition label stated that almost every page in the book had received this same treatment. This seemed to be a clear case of mindless defacement, for which there can be no defence. However, as a student I remember sometimes being rather grateful when, dashing into the Seeley Library on the way back from hockey training, a previous reader had highlighted key points in a chapter or article, making writing my weekly essay an altogether swifter and less challenging experience. And now, few things delight me more than discovering marginal annotations made by medieval readers of manuscripts. What did they find interesting and/or important in a text? How did they use the text? What can annotations and additions tell us about the community where the manuscript was kept? 

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was a very popular text in England in the Middle Ages. Around 70 manuscript copies survive, with around one third of those dating to the ‘long’ twelfth century. In the 1980s both Antonia Gransden and R.H.C. Davis explored the reasons for Bede’s popularity in this period, with both seeing monastic renewal in the north as a key reason – afterall, Bede’s account is centred on the Northumbrian church and naturally provided both inspiration for renewal and also historical legitimation to newly founded or re-founded northern monastic communities.[1] Davis pointed out, for example, that that sites chosen for monastic foundations were invariably places mentioned by Bede, such as Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, Tynemouth, Melrose, Whitby and Lastingham. He also suggested that Bede was most valued as a source of monastic history, as the majority of surviving Bede manuscripts with firm provenances had been in the possession of monastic houses.

Oswald lections – Trinity MS R.7.5 f.249v

There are a good portion of Bede manuscripts, however, which lack any firm provenance. One of these is Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.7.5, an early-eleventh-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History, which is full of corrections, marginal annotations and additions dating from the late-eleventh through to the sixteenth century. At the end of the manuscript is something that particularly caught my attention – a set of lections for Oswald of Northumbria, written in an early sixteenth-century hand. Lections are readings for the night office (matins) and, given that Oswald is a star of Bede’s text, it is unsurprising that readings for Oswald’s feast day were normally taken from Bede. Tessa Webber’s careful work has shown how many twelfth-century manuscripts of Bede have marginal Roman numerals, indicating which passages should be read on the feasts of several early-medieval saints, including Oswald.[2] In the case of Trinity R.7.5 the lections are much later than those found by Webber and are not indicated by marginal numerals, but by the writing out for the first and last few words of each lection. The first lection is written out in full. The presence of these lections at the end of the manuscript, along with a passage in a twelfth-century hand taken from John of Worcester about Lindisfarne, long ago led scholars to conclude that the manuscript must have been in a northern monastery, but M.R. James was unable to ‘definitely trace it to either Durham or any other house’.[3]

Looking towards Oswald’s royal city at Bamburgh from Lindisfarne

James’s suggestion of a northern provenance for this manuscript has been widely accepted, but it is possible to go a little further than James did. Firstly, we can be confident that, at least by the early-sixteenth century, the manuscript was not in a monastic community living under the rule of St Benedict, but was instead in a secular community. We know this because Oswald’s feast is provided with nine lections, whereas monastic communities included twelve readings for the celebration of matins on major feast days (and Oswald’s feast was, of course, a major feast for northern monasteries). Presumably it was the passage about Lindisfarne that led James to think of a Durham connection, but Durham was not the only community to link its past to the island monastery, founded by Oswald and his bishop Aidan and widely seen as the cradle of Northumbrian Christianity.

Hexham Abbey

To get a better idea of possible homes for this manuscript we need to look beyond the obvious additions at the end of the manuscript, which includes a list of episcopal prognostics alongside the Oswald lections and the description of Lindisfarne. This manuscript has numerous interlinear and marginal additions, and they can tell us a lot about the community where this manuscript was kept. We know it was a community that cared about Oswald in the sixteenth century from the presence of the lections, but we can see that Oswald was also important in the twelfth century from the addition of crosses in the margin by passages about the Northumbrian king in a twelfth-century hand. Only one other saint is also highlighted in this way – St Æthelthryth, former Northumbrian queen. In my recent article in Northern History, I argue that the combination of interest in Oswald and Æthelthryth is suggestive of a Hexham provenance. Oswald was particularly important at Hexham, a secular foundation, which had a close connection to nearby Heavenfield, where Oswald had set up a wooden cross before his great victory over Caedwalla. St Wilfrid had founded Hexham on land given by Æthelthryth and she remained significant in both the liturgy and also in Hexham’s historical consciousness throughout the Middle Ages. The Augustinians at Hexham also had a particular interest in Lindisfarne, claiming their own community descended from that founded by Oswald and Aidan on Holy Island as a way of justifying their independence from the bishops of Durham. The Lindisfarne passage therefore also resonated in the Tyne valley.

For more details of the annotations to this manuscript and my reasons for arguing for a Hexham provenance see my article, available to view open access here.


[1] A. Gransden, ‘Bede’s Reputation as an Historian in Medieval England’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 32 (1981), 397–425; R. H. C. Davis, ‘Bede after Bede’, in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. Allen Brown, ed. by C. Harper-Bill, C. J. Holdsworth and J. L. Nelson (Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 103–16.

[2] T. Webber, ‘Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica as a Source of Lections in Pre- and Post-Conquest England’, in The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, ed. by M. Brett and D. A. Woodman (Farnham, 2015), pp. 47–76

[3] M. R. James, The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. A Descriptive Catalogue, vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1901), pp. 219–22.

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