London, British Library, Additional MS 49598 / The Benedictional of Æthelwold

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).

firebeastThis 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. 98rĖ99r), it seems likely that it was made after ∆thelwold had Swithunís 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, the cathedral 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 Thorney (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.

firebeastThe 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. If the page fails to load try reloading or search for ‘Add MS 49598’ at the Digitised Manuscripts Search Page.

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

  1. The Dedicatory Poem (fols. 4v–5r). The poem in which the scribe Godeman explains the origins and purpose of the book, dedicating it to Bishop Æthelwold, appears immediately after the opening picture cycle of the choirs of the saints. It is copied entirely in letters of gold and in a special display script consisting of rustic characters akin to those found in pseudo-Roman Carolingian mnauscripts. This script distinguishes the poem from the rest of the manuscript, which is written in Anglo-Caroline miniscule; but the references to the Day of Judgement at its inception connect the poem to the eschatological theme of the opening illustrations, showing Christ and the choirs of saints. Note: Boanerges is the Greek version of the name which Christ gave to the sons of Zebedee, deriving from the Hebrew or Aramaic term meaning ‘sons of thunder’, and is hence applied to a powerful or vociferous preacher or orator. For the text, see above.
  2. The Image of St Æthelthryth of Ely and the Blessings for the Feast (23 June, fols. 90v–91r and 91v–92r). Written in gold, the caption identifies the subject of the image as ‘St Æthelthryrh, abbess and perpetual virgin’ (‘Imago s[an]cte Æðeldryðe abb[atisse] ac perpetue virgin[is]’). The flower in her hand recalls the floral imagery that figures in Bede’s hymn celebrating the saint: ‘Her worthiness bears many from the chaste shoot. Her worthiness bore virgin flowers’ (Historia ecclesiastica, iv.20). Æthelthryth had been celebrated by Bede as a conspicuous example of virginity, which had withstood the pressures of two marriages. She had founded the minster at Ely in 673, becoming its principal saint after her death in 679. Æthelwold had reformed the house as a monastery for monks in about 970, and he may well be responsible for composing the three blessings which figure here. Certainly, the artwork which accompanies Æthelthryth’s blessings shows his desire to associate himself with her cult. That’s because decoration and script are used in this manuscript to grade the benedictions according to the relative importance of different festivals and Æthelthryth’s is the only feast to receive the full complement of devices: a full-page miniature with a decorative frame for the opening of the benediction, a historiated initial, the use golden uncials and rustic capitals for first few lines of the blessings with the golden uncials running on to the first two lines of the next page. It is more typical for just first line of a saint’s blessings to be introduced with gold capitals (e.g. Agnes, fol. 31r) or gold unicials (e.g. Bartholomew, fol. 104r). The blessing reads as follows:

    Omnipotens unus et aeternus deus pater et filius et spiritus sanctus, qui beatae aeðeldryðe animum septiformis gratiae ubertate ita succensum solidauit, ut duorum coniugum thalamis asscita immunis euaderet, castamque sibi piissimus sponsam perpetim adoptaret, uos ab incentiua libidinum concupiscentia muniendo submoueat, et sui amoris igne succendat. Amen. May the one omnipotent and eternal God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spiritówho made the will of the blessed ∆thelthryth steadfast and so ablaze with the bounty of seven-fold grace that, summoned to the marriage beds of two husbands, she avoided them, remaining intact, and was taken as a chaste bride in perpetuity by the most just oneóremove you from the burning desire of lust by protecting you, and enflame you with the fire of his own love. Amen.
    Et qui eius integritatem per imputribile corpus post obitum manifeste designauit, signisque miraculorum ineffabiliter ostendit, uos in sanctis operibus castos fideliter usque ad uitae terminum perseuerare concedat. Amen. And may he, who displayed her purity manifestly through her incorruptible body after death, and ineffably revealed her by signs of miracles, allow you to persevere faithfully in holy works, chaste to the end of your life. Amen.
    Quatinus ab huius recidiui saeculi cupiditate remoti, uirtutum omnium lampadibus adornati, eius in caelis mereamini habere consortium, quae terreni regis caritatiue contempsit thalamum, spretaque lata terrenae cupiditatis uia, artam monasticae conuersationis eligere uoluit uitam, ac hodierna die uoti compos, caelestem aeterni regis intrare promeruit aulam. Amen. So that remote from the desire for this vain world, [and] adorned with the lamps of all virtues, you may merit to have in Heaven the company of her who on account of her love, rejected the marriage bed of an earthly king and, having spurned the broad path of earthly desire, wished to adopt the narrow life of monasticism and on this day, obtaining her wish, deserved to enter the heavenly palace of the eternal king. Amen.

    The blessings are followed by the words Quod ipse praestare dignetur..., a cue for the form of the doxology with which the bishop would conclude this section of the Mass: ‘May he deign to grant us this [grace], God who with the Father and the Holy Spirt lives and reigns, world without end. Amen.’

Text and translation from Deshman, Benedictional of Æthelwold, p. 122.


  • Backhouse, J., D. H. Turner and L. Webster (eds), The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966–1066 (London, 1984). Exhibition catalogue. Oversize V3ea.B.
  • Brückmann, J., ‘Latin Manuscript Pontificals and Benedictionals in England and Wales’, Traditio, 29 (1973), 391–458. Journals L6
  • Deshman, R. E., The Benedictional of Æthelwold, Studies in Manuscript Illumination 9 (Princeton, NJ, 1995). Oversize VSRea.B.
  • Dumville, D. N., Liturgy and the Ecclesiastical History of Late Anglo-Saxon England: Four Studies, Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 5 (Woodbridge, 1992).
  • Dumville, D. N., English Caroline Script and Monastic History: Studies in Benedictinism, A. D. 950–1030, Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 6 (Woodbridge, 1993).
  • Gittos, H. B., Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England, Medieval History and Archaeology (Oxford, 2013). PN.G.
  • Gretsch, M., The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 25 (Cambridge, 1999).
  • Lapidge, M., and M. Winterbottom (ed. and trs.), Wulfstan of Winchester: The Life of St Æthelwold, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1991). YBQ.W95. Listed here chiefly for the introduction in which Lapidge discusses Æthelwold and his career. There is some discussion of the present manuscript and of Æthelwold’s role in composing the blessings for Æthelthryth and Swithun at pp. lxxx–lxxxiii.
  • Lapidge, M. (ed.), The Cult of St Swithun, Winchester Studies 4.ii (Oxford, 2003). Oversize MWKM.K. Listed here chiefly for its introduction which includes much discussion of Æthelwold and his career.
  • Nelson, J. L., and R. W. Pfaff, ‘Pontificals and Benedictionals’, in R. W. Pfaff (ed.), The Liturgical Books of Anglo-Saxon England, Old English Newsletter Subsidia 23 (Kalamazoo, MN, 1995), pp. 87–98.
  • Ortenberg, V. N., The English Church and the Continent in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries: Cultural, Spiritual and Artistic Exchanges (Oxford, 1992). MVC.K.
  • Prescott, A., ‘The Structure of English Pre-Conquest Benedictionals’, British Library Journal, 13 (1987), 118–58. An important study of the text of the Benediction, of its relationship to the ‘Ramsey Benedictional’, and of the influence of the hybrid text.
  • Schipper, W., ‘Dry-Point Compilation Notes in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold’, British Library Journal, 20 (1994), 17–34.
  • Warner, G. F., and H. A. Wilson (eds), The Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, 963–984: Reproduced in Facsimile from the Manuscript in the Library of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth and Edited with Text and Introduction, The Roxburghe Club (Oxford, 1910).
  • Wormald, F., The Benedictional of Æthelwold (London, 1959).
  • Yorke, B. A. E. (ed.), Bishop Æthelwold: His Career and Influence (Woodbridge, 1988). PN.DM.E8. Includes: B. Yorke, ‘Æthelwold and the Politics of the Tenth Century’ (pp. 83–84); M. Lapidge, ‘Æthelwold as Scholar and Teacher’ (pp. 89–117); A. J. Prescott, ‘The Text of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold’ (pp. 119–47).

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