Librarian’s Pick #3: A Latin Textbook from Early Medieval England (MS 154)

History of the Manuscript

David Porter supports a proposition first made towards the end of the 19th century, namely that all of the early 11th-century texts in St John’s MS 154 ‘were first combined by Ælfric Bata and have been transmitted together wholesale’ (Porter, ‘Anglo-Saxon Colloquies’, p. 475). While another scholar proposes that St John’s manuscript may have been a copy of an exemplar that originated with Bata, Porter goes even further by suggesting that it is ‘likely that the Oxford manuscript itself came from Bata’s scriptorium’ (ibid). Alas, there is no further evidence to support Porter’s enticing suggestion. Still, St John’s MS 154 provides a tantalizingly close link to Ælfric Bata and his teacher Ælfric of Eynsham. This makes our humble little manuscript an extraordinary witness of late Anglo-Saxon education.

By the late 12th century, our manuscript was in the library of Durham Cathedral as this ex libris inscription on the first folio indicates:

SJC, MS 154, fol. 1r (ex libris inscription of Durham Cathedral)

Liber sancti Cuthberti de Dunelmo ‘Book of St Cuthbert of Durham’

Thanks to surviving booklists, we know the volume was still at Durham Cathedral in 1391 and 1416. The next known event in its history is the donation to St John’s College:

SJC, MS 154, fol. 2r (College’s ex dono inscription)

Liber Collegii Sancti Iohannis Baptistae Oxon ex dono Christopherj Coles Artium Bacchalaurej ejusdem Collegii conuictoris 1611 ‘Book of the College of St John’s the Baptiste Oxford from the donation of Christopher Cole, Bachelor of Arts, fellow of the same College 1611’

It is not clear whether the book was donated in 1611 or whether the otherwise unknown Christopher Cole obtained his degree in that year. We can safely assume, however, that the manuscript was added to College’s book collections in the 17th century.

We can further speculate that the manuscript was among the spoils of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Describing the fate of Durham Cathedral Library, David Pearson points out that between 1530s and the early 17th century (especially in the 1560s) Durham Cathedral’s more than 1,000 manuscript volumes, which made it one of the largest collections in Britain before the dissolution, were reduced to around 300. Pearson argues that the more ‘boring’ books were left in Durham (‘Durham Cathedral Library from the Dissolution to the Restoration, p. [2]). The Protestants were very interested in Anglo-Saxon vernacular books, especially the religious ones as they were deemed to support their theological independence from Rome. A volume teaching Latin in the vernacular and by reversal teaching the Old English language must have made an interesting find for scholarly plunderers or profiteers. The general interest of early modern scholars in Ælfric’s Grammar and the Glossary in particular is evidenced by a string of early modern transcriptions, several of which are from the 16th century.

The latest stage in the history of MS 154 was its rebinding in the 2010s. An earlier blog on this site reports this exciting conservation project.

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