Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17 + London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero C.VII, fols. 80r–84v

fire beastThis book is the foremost example of an English deluxe ‘computus manuscript’ to have survived to the present undamaged and (almost!) intact. I say ‘almost’, because in about 1623 four folios were removed by the antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton, and these leaves are now in the British Library where they form part of MS Cotton Nero C.VII (fols. 80r–84v). (Books of this type were often dismembered and pillaged, sometimes for their stunning illustrations and diagrams, but often for their annalistic texts: compare, for example, the Caligula A.XV / Egerton 3314 computus.) This example was produced in about 1110 at Thorney Abbey in Cambridgeshire, and it remained in use there for a period of over three hundred years, until 1427.

Like other computus manuscripts, St John’s 17 combines texts concerned with the reckoning of dates and the measurement of time with works on astronomy, geography, medicine, weights, and other sciences. It is illustrated with many diagrams. It is thought to be largely based on a book of the same type assembled by Byrhtferth, an Anglo-Saxon scholar active at Ramsey Abbey between c. 980 and c. 1020. He certainly used a similar book when he produced his Enchiridion, a manual for teachers and students of ‘computus’ largely written in Old English, and certain items in the present volume bear the imprint of his distinctive approach to the discipline.

The most significant of the historical texts in this book is a series of annals which appears in the margins of the tables of the ‘Great Paschal Cycle’ that occupy St John’s 17, folios 139r–155v, and Cotton Nero C.VII, folios 80r–84v. (The Cotton-Nero leaves belong between fols. 143 and 144 of St John’s 17.) This table sets out the computistical data required for reckoning the date of Easter across the period 532 to 2612! The annals in the margins of the ‘Great Paschal Cycle’ fall into three groups:

  1. The Ramsey annals (538–1016×1092) (s.xiiin). The entries from 538 to 1111 were copied when the book was first assembled, and most of these (as far as 1016 or perhaps even 1092, which refers to the death of Abbot Ælfwine of Ramsey) seem derive to derive from the Ramsey exemplar that was used in the making of the book as a whole.
  2. The Thorney annals (s.xiiin–s.xv1/4). Some Thorney material was added when the book was first compiled c.1110, but the annals were then continued as far as the accession of King Henry VI in 1422. It should not be assumed that these additions were always contemporaneous to the events they record: successive continuators went back and added events belonging to the more distant past. The annal for 1188 was written by the same hand, for example, as revised the annal for 1208.
  3. Those composed after MS 17 left Thorney (s.xv2–s.xvii1/4). Having acquired St John’s 17 from Abbot Thomas Cherwalton during a visit to Thorney in 1427, Duke Humphrey gave the book to Oxford in either in 1439 or 1444, where it seems to have passed into the ‘ownership’ of various Oxford-connected scholars until finally being acquired by St John’s College in the first decade of the seventeenth century. (It was in about 1621 that Sir Robert Cotton borrowed the book from St John’s College.) These ‘Oxford’ owners were responsible for adding various entries to the tables, beginning with items for 1450 and 1455. The annals are relatively continuous from 1519 to 1536, where they end imperfectly, the margins for 1537–1621 having been excised! Some of these additions, such as that for 1519 (fol. 144v: ‘In these times the Lutheran heresy was condemned with much commotion’), are in the hands of known antiquarians—in this case Robert Talbot. It is worth asking why annals were still added to books like St John’s 17 as late as the sixteenth century and in an intellectual milieu as advanced as that of Oxford University. The implication is that the writing of annals was not the primitive activity it so often assumed to have been.

These are not the only annals in this manuscipt. There are also in the margins of a second Easter table on folio 29r–v (a table that covers 1083–1150) a few items for the years 1085–1111, most of which pertain to the history of Thorney Abbey. The manuscript also has a copy of Bede’s De temporum ratione, ‘The Reckoning of Time’ (fols. 65v–123r) which incorporates, as most do, that author’s Chronica maiora, a history of the world down to Bede’s own time. To this chronicle some annals, most of them relating to the lives of Christ and the apostles, have been added in the margin at the foot of folio 111r–v. Since these additions were made by one of the main scribes (Wallis’s ‘Scribe A’), it seems likely that they were carried over from the exemplar.

Facsimiles: There are two online facsimiles of this manuscript, one in a website called ‘The Calendar and the Cloister: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17’, housed at McGill University in Montreal, and another housed in the Oxford Digital Library. The former offers extensive commentary on the manuscript, including a useful essay about its annalistic components and transcriptions of all the annals. The ‘site map and navigation’ link offers the most direct access to the relevant images. The other site offers no commentary, but provides quicker acccess to images of the manuscript. The McGill also has images of the leaves now found in Cotton Nero C.VII. One page from this section, folio 82r, is also available via the British Library’s Online Gallery.

Texts: For the annals covering 538–1081, see C. R. Hart, ‘The Ramsey Computus’, English Historical Review, 85 (1970), 29–44, at pp. 38–44; for the annals in the Easter table on folio 29r–v, see ibid., p. 44. The annals for 528–1016 are printed again with corrections in C. R. Hart, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Ramsey Abbey’, in J. Roberts, J. L. Nelson and M. Godden (eds), Alfred the Wise: Studies in Honour of Janet Bately on the Occasion of her Sixth-Fifth Birthday (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 65–88, at 78–86 [MVCR]. Hart also prints the annals entered in the lower margins of folio 111r–v in ibid., pp. 77–78.

Text and Translation: The annals for 1085 to 1412/22 (and those from the other Easter table on folio 29r–v) are edited and translated in C. R. Hart and T. M. Halliday, ‘The Thorney Annals’, Peterborough’s Past: The Journal of the Peterborough Museum Society, 1 (1982–83), 15–34, at pp. 18–33. This article also has a reproduction of Cotton Nero C.VII, fol. 82r.

Note especially the sample annals from St Johns 17, fol. 29rv, and Cotton Nero C.VII, fol. 83r, that have been transcribed and translated on the Moodle Site.


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