A Brief Background in Old English Manuscripts A BRIEF BACKGROUND

The majority of Old English manuscripts are scattered throughout the libraries of England. The two largest collections belong to the British Library and the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. While these documents are national treasures and should be accessible to anyone, they obviously need to be protected; hence, heightened powers of persuasion notwithstanding, it is unlikely that an individual without an academic position or recommendation will be allowed access. Fortunately, many of these documents are on public display.


Most of the existing Old English manuscripts were made in the scriptoria of monasteries by members of the clergy. Anyone who has ever visited the remnants of such a monastery can imagine how difficult this must have been, with such little comfort, light and warmth in winter. It only goes to show the skill of monastic scribes in rendering their words so beautifully.

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were written exclusively on parchment or vellum. While in modern times we know these media as semi-transparent writing papers used for tracing and sketching, they were originally made out of calf, goat or pig skins which had been stretched, shaved and treated. The result of this process was a thin membrane with one completely smooth side and another with a thin layer of leftover hair. Hundreds of animal skins were required to make a single book. This meant that the cost of creating literature during the Anglo-Saxon period was staggering - and hence the value of the finished product.

After the skins had been treated, they were folded into page-size squares (one fold created a folio, two folds a quarto, four folds an octavo, and so on - denoting the number of pages created by the folds). The result was a "quire," or section of pages. This process permitted the scribe to prick small holes through the pages of each quire, which could then be ruled, making uniformly straight lines of text on each page. Finally the quires would be bound together and covered. Unfortunately, we have few decent examples of what these covers looked like; one notable exception is the small Gospel book found in St. Cuthbert's tomb, now on display at the British Library. This method of book production meant that manuscripts could be easily unbound/rebound, permitting portions of texts to become separated, swapped or lost. For this reason, and because medieval writers frequently wrote wherever they could fit text (in blank spaces, on flyleaves, etc.), many manuscripts contain a wide assortment of different documents.

The dominant script of the Old English manuscripts is Anglo-Saxon (also called Insular, a Latin word meaning "island"; in this context, the term means "from England or Ireland"). It stemmed from the Uncial script brought to England by Augustine and his fellow missionaries, and incorporated the initially Irish Roman Half-Uncial. The Anglo-Saxon hand was generally miniscule (a calligraphic term meaning smaller, lower-case letters), reserving majuscule characters (larger, upper-case letters) for the beginnnings of text segments or important words (this developed into the norm for modern writing - beginning sentences and "important" words with capital letters). For some great examples of what this script looked like, visit the manuscript images list in Carl Berkhout's Anglo-Saxon Manuscript page. Also, the Old English Pages at the Unviersity of Virginia contain a lovely set of Old English computer fonts which may be downloaded. These fonts are perfect for calligraphers who want to work on their hand or experiment with page layouts before writing. They may also be useful for those who are unfamiliar with the slight variations between the appearances of Old English and modern English characters.

Probably the most popular element of medieval manuscripts in general is illumination - the decoration of text with drawings. Latin texts were more often illuminated than were Old English texts. But there are some spectacular examples of Old English illumination, including the stark line drawings of Junius 11, the biblical illustrations of Cotton Claudius, the mysterious Sphere of Apuleius in Cotton Tiberius C.vi, the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton Nero D.iv - one of the few manuscripts that approaches the Book of Kells in its overwhelming intricacy and detail), and so on.

This material is intended to be a mere whetter of appetites on the subject of Old English manuscripts. For further information, I recommend the following texts, from which the previous information was taken:
  1. An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England, by Bruce Mitchell. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
  2. The Anglo-Saxons, edited by James Campbell. London: the Penguin Group, 1982.
  3. A Critical History of Old English Literature, by Stanley Greenfield. New York: the New York University Press, 1965.
  4. "Dry-Point Annotations in Early English Manuscripts", by Thomas E. Toon. From Annotation and Its Texts.
  5. Medieval Calligraphy: its History and Technique, by Marc Drogin. Mineola: Dover Publications, Ltd., 1980.

Return to
Old English Manuscripts homepage

© John Herrington 1998