Librarian’s Pick #7: The Brittany Gospels

A Cryptographic Puzzle

Following directly after the explicit (closing statement) of the Gospel of John and written in the same ink as the main text is a strange paragraph of six lines:

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 65r, detail

The first two lines are in a made-up alphabet and the subsequent two lines are in Greek letters (but not necessarily in the Greek language). Then follows one illegible line, perhaps in another made-up alphabet or in distorted Latin letters. Finally, one line in Latin reading (Sic) scriptor fessus kalamu(m) sub calle laboris ‘so the exhausted writer […] the pen at the end of his work’. The transcription of the first two words is based on Hanna’s, who incorrectly read fersus instead of fessus,however (Descriptive Catalogue, p. 280). There is no verb or similar which indicates what the writer does with the pen.

I have been puzzled by these six lines since I first saw this manuscript. Ironically, the crucial piece of information which largely unravelled mystery of these lines for me has been sitting in my bookshelf at home all the time. Helmut Gneuss’s Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (no. 688)lists ‘Parts of two Latin poems (SK 1012, 10046) in secret or Greek script’ among the content of St John’s MS 194.

Number 1012 in Schaller and Könsgen’s Initia carminum Latinorum saeculo undecimo antiquiorum, an index of 11th-century Latin poems, refers to an anonymous poem beginning with the line ardua scriptorum prea cunctis artibus ars est, composed perhaps in the 9th century. SK 10046 refers to a poem attributed to Alcuin and published as Carmen 65.4 in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Dümmler, Poetae latini aevi Carolini, p. 284):

Nauta rudis pelagi ut saevis ereptus ab undis
In portum veniens pectora laeta tenet :
Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub calce laboris
Deponens habeat pectora laeta satis. 
Ille deo dicat grates pro sospite vita,
Proque laboris agat iste sui requie.

You may recognise the third line marked here in bold as the final line in MS 194. My Latin leaves a lot be desired, but Alcuin’s poem means as much as this: ‘As the rough sailor, snatched away from the stormy waves of the sea, has a joyful heart when he comes to the harbour, so the exhausted scribe has a very joyful heart when he puts down the pen at the end of his work. The one says thanks to God for his saved life [and] the other that he may proceed to his rest from work.’

Patrizia Lendinara has pointed out that the comparison of a writer’s work with a sea voyage had been well known in Antiquity and remained popular thereafter (‘The Poem “Nauta rudis”’, pp. 219-22). Alcuin’s poem in particular circulated in the early Middle Ages on the Continent and in England, surviving as a colophon after the main texts in three of four Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and ten Continental manuscripts (ibid, pp. 233-5). She discusses St John’s MS 194 as one of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts despite its probable origin in Brittany and the fact that the colophon must have already been written when the volume arrived in 10th-century Anglo-Saxon England (cf. below in the section on the full-page illustration).

The poem has evidently developed a life of its own independently from its original historical context. This development may have begun in the scriptorium of Alcuin’s own monastery, as two of these ten Continental manuscripts were produced in Tours, where Alcuin had established a centre for the production of Bibles. One of these is the so-called Moutier-Grandval Bible (British Library, Add MS 10546). Produced between 830 and 840, not very long after Alcuin’s death in 804, it contains Alciun’s poem at the start of a longer text written after the Book of Revelation on fol. 448v. Thus, an educated early medieval reader would have recognised the seafaring-writing commonplace when reading Sic scriptor fessus calamum sub calce laboris in MS 194 and possibly even identified the line as Alcuin’s.

Colophons were used by medieval scribes to ‘inform the reader about the contexts in which a manuscript was copied [and] express their feelings and wishes’ (Schiegg, ‘Scribes’ Voices’, p. 130) and some colophons were written as cryptograms (ibid, pp. 137-8). Indeed, Lendinara (‘The Poem “Nauta rudis”’, p. 228) has described these strange six lines in MS 194 as cryptic colophon consisting of the following four components:

  1. The first line of poem SK 1012 written in the made-up alphabet commonly associated with the name Aethicus Ister. As luck would have it, St John’s MS 17 includes the Æthicus Ister alphabet on its cryptographic folio 5v (see here). Some of the letters in MS 194 can be matched to those in MS 17’s Æthicus Ister alphabet, but not all of them. This is why I had dismissed this idea when I looked into it after first seeing MS 194. Either variants of this alphabet circulated or MS 194 is in fact a mix of at least two made-up alphabets. My decoding below shows letters matched (some with a little imagination) with MS 17’s Æthicus Ister alphabet in black and those not matched in grey.
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 65r, detail
  1. The first line of Alcuin’s poem Nauta rudis is written using Greek capital letters. Judging by today’s Greek transliteration rules, the scribe has used the Greek capitals with some freedom, using the more “exotic” letters theta (Θ) instead of tau (Τ) for T, eta (Η) instead of epsilon (Ε) for E, and upsilon (Υ) with a dot instead of iota (Ι) for I. The letter rho (P) for R looks rather odd even for medieval standards. Only omicron (O) is used to represent the letter U, the sound of which is usually represented by the two letters omicron and upsilon (OU) in Greek. Rather inexplicably zeta (the form of which differs from the modern zeta) instead of gamma (Γ) is used for G.
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 65r, detail
  1. The second line of Alcuin’s poem together with the first 1.5 words of the third line is written in distorted Latin letters, which require some imagination even if the text is known. Some letters are in vertical sequence and the letters si of sic at the start of the third line is jumbled up.
  2. Finally, the bulk of line four of Alcuin’s poem is written in legible.
Oxford, St John’s College, MS 194, fol. 65r, detail

In Lendinara’s more elegant translation, MS 194’s cryptic colophon reads:

‘That of the scribe is the hardest of all trades. Just as the inexperienced sailor, rescued from the raging waves of the sea, has a joyful heart when he comes into the harbour, so may the weary writer, putting down his pen, at the end of the work, have a very joyful heart. May the former say thanks to God for his safe live, and may the latter give thanks for the rest from his labour.’ (‘The Poem “Nauta rudis”’, p. 229 n. 54 and p. 223 n. 28).

It is a commonplace statement about the efforts and hard work of writing, variations of which are found in many medieval manuscripts. As so often in the Middle Ages, the cypher did not hide a secret (dark) message but has merely been used to distinguish and thus emphasis the sentiment expressed from the main text.

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