Librarian’s Pick #7: The Brittany Gospels

The Gospels

IMAGE 1 (Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 36r)
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 36r

The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are written in two columns (each 125mm x 45mm) in a small but tidy Caroline minuscule. Over the centuries medieval scribes wrote in many different scripts, but the Caroline minuscule is arguably the most important. Created as part of the educational reform initiated by Emperor Charlemagne (748-814), the script was to establish a uniform international standard to supersede all ‘national’ scripts. Despite some setbacks, its overall success has been so lasting that even today’s basic letter forms echo this script (except for our round ‘s’). Thus, even without knowledge of Latin, you should be able to make out individual letters and even entire words in these two lines:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 36r, detail

Interestingly, the scribe frequently used an Insular variant of the letter a and sometimes also of the letters g and s. Look at the two variants of a in these two words, for instance:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 36r, detail

The the a in the abbreviated second word aut(em) looks more like a continental Carlolingian a while the one in the first word dicebat takes the Insular form with its rounded bow and upright stroke. The Insular letter forms suggest that the scribe had some kind of Insular connection even if the Gospels were written in Brittany or, alternatively, that the scribe was a Breton working in the British Isles (Lendinara, ‘The Poem “Nauta rudis”’, p. 227).

Running titles on the top margin are in the same ink as the main text, but in the uncial script:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 36r, detail

The running titles consist of the Evangelists’ names only, sometimes in Greek but mostly in Latin. In contrast to many other Bibles, there are no indications as to which book, chapter, or verses are on individual folios.

Most medieval manuscripts have distinctive initials to structure texts, which makes it easier to read them and to find individual sections. Often these initials are the only decorative elements of manuscripts. The scribe of MS 194, however, did not make use of this tool. There is only one distinctive large initial (14 lines high in text ink) at the head of the Gospel of John. All other initials are merely large capital letters in the same style and ink as the main text:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 36r, detail

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