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We begin with a straightforward example, a benedictional which was made for the monastic reformer Æthelwold when he was bishop of Winchester (963–84) and which shows, thanks perhaps to its extraordinary splendour, little sign of having been adapted for the needs of later users. Though imperfectly preserved, it remains the most lavishly decorated book to survive from Anglo-Saxon England: it has twenty-eight full-page miniatures (and there were probably another fifteen), nineteen pages on which text is surrounded by an elaborate decorative frame (and there were probably another two of this kind), two historiated initials (one surrounded by another frame), and many pages where the text has been written in gold ink. The book’s association with Æthelwold is made explicit for its readers by a prefatory poem which appears on fols. 4v–5r:
A bishop, the great Æthelwold, whom the lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present bookótruly knowing well how to preserve Christ’s fleecy lambs from the malignant art of the devil; illustrious, venerable and benign, he desires also to render, as a steward, full fruit to God, when the judge who sifts the actions of the whole world, what each has done, shall come and give reward as they deserve, to the just eternal life, and punishment to the unjust. He commanded also to be made in this book many arches well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold. This book the Boanerges aforesaid [i.e. Æthelwold] caused to be indited for himself in order that he might be able to sanctify the people of the Saviour by means of it and to pour forth holy prayers to God for the flock committed to him, and that he may lose no little lambkin of the fold, but may be able to say joyfully, ‘Lo, I present to thee myself and the children whom thou didst give me to keep; by thy aid none of them has the fierce ravening wolf snatched away, but we stand together and desire to receive abiding life and to enjoy it in the heavens with the supreme sovereign whose members we are, who by right is the head or salvation of those baptised in the dear-sounding name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost so that, if they wander not astray but hold the faith, and by their deeds also perform the commands of salvation and repel all heresy from their hearts, ever striving to overcome the evil of sin, they may be joined to the Lord in heaven without end.’ May Christ the Saviour, who is the good king of the world, mercifully grant this to all who are sprinkled with holy baptism; and to the great father who ordered this book to be written may he grant an eternal kingdom above. Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heavenóGodeman the writer, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this (trs. Warner and Wilson, Benedictional of Æthelwold, pp. 7–8).
This poem tells us that the book was made at ∆thelwold’s command and for his personal use and that he took a personal interest in the scheme of decoration. The scriptor and author of the poem identifies himself as Godeman. The poems fails to say whether he was also responsible for drawing and painting the images, but it seems likely that he was. Since the book includes blessings for St Swithun (fols. 98r–99r), it seems likely that it was made after Æthelwold had Swithun’s remains translated to a new shrine on 15 July 971. That is, the book was probably produced between 971 and 984. It seems likely that the work was done at the Old Minster, Winchester, where Æthelwold had his seat. The name Godeman figures among the lists of late tenth-century monks of the Old Minster in the Liber vitae of its near neighbour, the New Minster. Æthelwold later made Godeman abbot of the East Anglian monastery of Thomey (a house which he had refounded between 971 and 973), whilst the book seems to have remained in Winchester until the Reformation.
A highly specialised kind of liturgical book, a benedictional sets out the threefold blessing that a bishop would pronounce during mass after the Pater noster and at the start of communion. This type of book was related to the ‘pontifical’, a liturgical book containing rites that were performed exclusively by bishops, and ‘benedictionals’ are often found as sub-units within pontificals. Pre-communion blessings first began to appear in the liturgies of eastern churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, but they became one of the great distinguishing features of the Gallican liturgy. The texts of these blessings varied according to the feast that was being celebrated, different texts being required for the various Sunday services, for the more important saints’ days and for occasional services such as those that would accompany the dedication of a new church. Since this practice did not figure in the rites of Roman Church, their survival was threatened in the late eighth century by the Carolingian reformers’ emphasis on the orthodoxy of Roman forms, but there was evidently a reluctance to abandon a popular liturgical practice, and in the ninth and tenth centuries various attempts were made to produce collections of blessings for use with the Roman books.
Representing a later stage in this process, the present book combines blessings drawn from the two main alternative traditions, from a book which belonged to the ‘Gallican’ tradition and from a version of the ‘Gregorian’ benedictional, a short supplement to the Roman sacramentary. Thus, the Benedictional of Æthelwold provides for many of the greater feasts a Gregorian blessing followed by a Gallican alternative. It also includes some blessings which are not attested elsewhere (not least those for Saints Swithun and Æthelthryth), and it is a reasonable assumption that some, if not all of these items, were composed in England, perhaps even by Æthelwold himself.
The ideological agenda of the book is also apparent in its script and its illuminations. The style of the handwriting, which known as Anglo-Caroline miniscule because it took its inspiration from Carolingian models, represents an attempt to emphasise the reform movement’s break with the religious culture of the ‘secular clerics’ who had been ejected from the two minsters in Winchester in 964. Scribes based in those churches had previously used an insular type of script known as ‘square miniscule’. The influence of Carolingian (and Byzantine) models is also apparent in the design of the frames and miniatures which appear on many pages, or so Robert Deshman (the author of the most thorough study of the book) has argued. The forms of ornament associated with Anglo-Saxon manuscripts immediately pre-dating the reform were suppressed in preference for those which were associated with Frankish and Greek models, but they ‘were recast according to old Insular decorative principles, perhaps to evoke the ideal of early Insular monasticism that ∆thelwold sought to emulate in his own era’ (Benedictional of Æthelwold, p. 252). Made for one of great movers and shakers in the later Anglo-Saxon Church, and the book bears witness to the politics of the monastic reform movement.
Printed Facsimile: Prescott, A., The Benedictional of St Æthelwold: A Masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon Art (London, 2002). Oversize VSRea.B.
Online Facsimile: The entire manuscript is now available online at the British Library's Collection of Digitised Manuscripts.
Descriptions: The British Library Manuscripts Catalogue has a easily accessible description of Additional MS 49598. But see chiefly, Prescott, Benedictional of St Æthelwold, pp. 20–26, and Deshman, Benedictional of Æthelwold, pp. 257–61.
Components for Discussion
Text and translation from Deshman, Benedictional of Æthelwold, p. 122.
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