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Old English Hexateuch

As the earliest copy in English of part of the Old Testament and with over 400 illustrations, this manuscript is both remarkable and unique. The collaboration of a team of translators, scribes and an artist over many years, it is a vivid example of the demand for sacred texts in 11th-century England that were accessible to everyday people, who wanted a Bible presented in a way they could understand.

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Old English Hexateuch

Old English Hexateuch, Canterbury, England, first half of the 11th century. Adam naming the animals
BL Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 4
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a Hexateuch?

'Hexateuch' (from Greek 'six books') refers to the first six books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. (Similarly, 'Pentateuch' refers to the first five books, which also make up the Torah, the first part of the Hebrew Bible.)

What is special about this manuscript?

First, this manuscript is remarkable as being the oldest surviving copy of the Old Testament in English - or rather, Old English. Also called 'Anglo-Saxon', Old English was the language of Beowulf.

Various dialects of Old English were spoken up to about 1066. It resembles modern English only vaguely, and its alphabet includes several letters no longer used. The first line of the Lord's Prayer in the Wessex dialect of Old English for example is Fder ure u e eart on heofonum ("Father ours, thou that art in heaven").

Second, this manuscript is illustrated, unlike any similar such collections of the time. The 400 pictures illustrate all facets of the stories in the first six books of the Bible. The artist evidently had a strong streak of originality: the content and style of several images, such as that depicting the fall of the rebel angels, are unlike anything known elsewhere in traditional sacred textual art.

Who created it?

Modern stylistic analysis suggests that the Old English Hexateuch was the work of a team, probably of two translators, two scribes and one artist, though we don't know any details of the sequence in which they collaborated.

The only name we do know is that of Aelfric, a Benedictine monk. He trained at Winchester and became a prolific writer and author, as well as being the Abbot of Eynsham, and died in 1020. Aelfric wrote the preface (which warns that the foolish man takes the Bible as literal truth; one must look for its spiritual meaning) and translated the sections from Genesis up to the beginning of the story of Isaac. Another translator carried on his work, presumably after Aelfric's death.

Another anonymous hand compiled their work, meticulously planning the layout of text and images, as the presence of spaces for images that were left unfinished demonstrates. It was then written out by two scribes and illustrated by the imaginative painter.

The entrance to the Cathedral area in the historical pilgrimage town and religious centre of Canterbury, where the Old English Hexateuch may have been originally commissioned

Who was it made for?

It is not known who commissioned the work, but the dominance of the vivid illustrations may indicate that it was a lay person. The fact that another copy of this Old English Hexateuch was made, as well as many other translations of the Bible that were not copies of this, suggests that there was a demand for accessible texts by those outside the ranks of the highly educated: at the time, the only widely available Bibles in England were in St Jerome's translation in Vulgate Latin.

What is being illustrated here?

Here God instructs Adam to give names to the animals, illustrating Genesis chapter 2. ("And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.")