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International Letters, in the 'Book of Nunnaminster'

International Letters, in the 'Book of Nunnaminster'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 820

Shelfmark: Harley MS 2965

Item number: f.16v

Length: 21.3

Width: 16

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated Manuscript

This prayerbook's small size speaks of its function as a personal devotional aid. Like other contemporary prayerbooks created in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia during the late 8th and early 9th centuries, it is made up of gospel extracts and prayers which centre on a theme, in this case the life of Christ. It resembles other books associated with Worcester, but inscriptions in the back of the book reveal that by the late 9th century it had travelled to the nunnery at Winchester (Nunnaminster). Not surprisingly feminine word endings suggest that at least one of its owners was a woman. It may have been given by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, whose name appears in the inscriptions, but this theory is unproved.

This page of text shows the end of the extracts from gospels relating the Passion of Christ. This is marked by the titles written in red capital letters inthe middle of the page: 'The passions of the four gospels end, according to Matthew....' The capital letters are dressed up, taking on forms of Greek letters such as pi and sigma and also a generally angular character imitating runes, both devices seen in the early 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels. Possibly using an international variety of letter forms was a way of expressing the unity of Christian devotion as well as to place the Passion in history and the world. The title following introduces a prayer of Gregory the Great, which begins with a modestly decorated letter, in the style of late 8th- and early 9th-century Mercian manuscripts. The minimal colour scheme and decoration are augmented by dots of red or ink, a simple way to enrich the titles and initial letters, making them more conspicuous.

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