A diagram illustrating the technique of finger-counting, from a manuscript of Bede's On the Reckoning of Time.

Learning and education in Anglo-Saxon England

What was it like to be a student in early medieval England? We go on a journey from the Anglo-Saxon church to the classroom, and also encounter some riddles on the way.

1. Learning in the Anglo-Saxon church

2. Learning in the Anglo-Saxon classroom

3. Anglo-Saxon riddles

Learning in the Anglo-Saxon church

Centres of learning and education flourished throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This was due to their conversion to Christianity, which gave them access to Latin learning from the Mediterranean. But how did this happen?

In 597, a group of Roman missionaries led by Augustine (died 604) arrived in Kent, having been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. With the help of missionaries from Ireland, the early Anglo-Saxons were gradually persuaded to adopt Christian customs.

Christianity was a religion of the book and based on the study of scripture. Once converted, the Anglo-Saxons gained access to the technology of writing, Latin literacy and access to Classical learning from the Mediterranean. Many of the churches and monasteries founded throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms went on to become key centres of learning and education.

Theodore and Hadrian’s Canterbury School

One of the most influential schools in the seventh century was based in Canterbury. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People described how the Canterbury School was established by Archbishop Theodore (died 690) and Abbot Hadrian (died 710). Theodore was from the Greek-speaking part of the eastern Mediterranean and Hadrian was ‘a man of African birth’ (vir natione afir). 

The curriculum set out by Theodore and Hadrian at Canterbury was influenced by their time in southern Europe.

Tiberius Bede

A page from the Tiberius Bede, featuring an elaborate decorated initial in red, green, and yellow, with interlace and beasts' heads.

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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It is likely that Theodore and Hadrian brought books from the Mediterranean to aid their teaching. One manuscript that certainly travelled to Anglo-Saxon England from that part of the world is the Letters of Cyprian.

Letters of Cyprian

A fragment of a 4th-century collection of the letters of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, showing a column of biblical quotations written in red ink.

Annotations to the text suggest that the manuscript may have reached Anglo-Saxon England by the eighth century (British Library, Additional MS 40165A, f. 4r)

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Aldhelm of Malmesbury (died 709) was perhaps the most famous graduate of Theodore and Hadrian’s Canterbury School. One of his texts is De Virginitate (On Virginity), a work he dedicated to the nuns of Barking and their abbess, Hildelith. 

A 10th-century copy of De Virginitate is preceded by a letter Aldhelm wrote to a former student, Heahfrith. Aldhelm dissuaded Heahfrith from travelling to Ireland for his education when Canterbury was so near at hand.

Aldhelm on Virginity

The opening of a 10th-century copy of Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith, marked with a decorated initial and featuring interlinear and marginal glosses.

This manuscript, written for Abbess Hildelith of Barking and other women, also contains a copy of a letter from Aldhelm to his former student Heahfrith, criticising him for heading to Ireland for his education (British Library, Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 5r)

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Education in Northumbria

Many Irish and Anglo-Saxon monasteries fostered close relationships, and it would not have been uncommon for students to travel long distances for their education. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede recorded that many in England, ‘both nobles and commons, retired to Ireland either for the sake of religious studies or to live a more ascetic life’.

Irish monks played an important role in the establishment of centres of learning in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. In 634, an Irish monk called Aidan founded a monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne with the help of King Oswald of Northumbria (reigned 634–642). The artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced around the year 700, shows influence from Ireland, England and the Mediterranean.

Lindisfarne Gospels

The elaborate incipit page for the Gospel of St John, from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Written and illustrated probably by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, the Lindisfarne Gospels is amongst the British Library's greatest artistic, linguistic and religious treasures.

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The monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow was another intellectual powerhouse in Northumbria. Bede made great use of this vast library. He may be best known today as a historian, but Bede also wrote biblical commentaries and treatises about natural science. Many of Bede’s works were recopied long after his death in 735.

One of Bede’s most popular texts was his De Temporum Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), which explained how to calculate dates in the ecclesiastical calendar, such as Easter. This text was aimed at students and it used similes to explain complex ideas.

In his explanation of how Earth was shaped like a sphere, Bede said that it is not ‘circular like a shield or spread out like a wheel, but resembles a ball being equally round in all directions’.

The Reckoning of Time

A page from a miscellany of works on computus and astronomy, featuring a diagram that details the technique of finger-counting.

The Reckoning of Time deals with computus, the science of time-reckoning and how to calculate the date of Christian holy days such as Easter (British Library, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 33v)

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Learning in the Anglo-Saxon classroom

Aids for learning and teaching

Texts on medicine, astronomy and geography had an important place in the Anglo-Saxon classroom. Many of these manuscripts used diagrams to explain complex ideas.

Byrhtferth, a monk and teacher at the abbey of Ramsey in the late 10th and early 11th century, wrote a text on the workings of the natural world. This included a complex diagram to describe the elements, seasons and the celestial world, which were represented through repeated patterns of four.

Computus collection including Byrhtferth of Ramsey's diagram

A page from a 12th-century computus collection, featuring an annotated diagram by Byrhtferth of Ramsey.

The universe as an inter-connected unit; the inner circle contains the first letters of the Greek language terms for east (anathole), west (disis), north (arcton) and south (mesembrios), which as an acronym, spells out 'Adam' (British Library, Harley MS 3667, f. 8r)

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Many scholars in Anglo-Saxon England would have consulted texts in both Latin and Old English. Some Latin texts written in the Mediterranean may have contained unfamiliar or difficult words for Anglo-Saxon readers, even if they had a relatively accomplished grasp of Latin. 

Students would have consulted a glossary to understand these complex words. Glossaries were alphabetised lists of potentially unfamiliar Latin words, accompanied by a more familiar Latin word or an Old English translation. These works are the precursors to modern dictionaries.

Corpus Glossary

A page from a 9th-century glossary of Latin words.

This early ninth-century manuscript from southern England contains two glossaries for understanding Latin (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 144, f. 8v)

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Letter collections were also frequently consulted in the classroom to teach the art of letter writing. This collection of letters by Alcuin of York was made at Saint-Denis, near Paris, in the ninth century, but it was being used in Anglo-Saxon England by around 1000.

Alcuin's letter collection

A text page from a 9th-century collection of Alcuin's letters, with the Latin alphabet written in the upper margin.

The manuscript features annotations showing novice scribes practising writing and appears to have been used in a classroom. At the top of this page, a scribe has added the Latin alphabet, with the letter ‘b’ the wrong way round, followed by four Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. At the bottom of the next page, another scribe has copied an Old English phrase that reads: hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard?] very many ancient tales’). This closely resembles a verse from Beowulf  (lines 869–70a). (British Library, Harley MS 208, f. 87v)

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Alfred the Great’s programme of translation

The late eighth and early ninth centuries reportedly witnessed a decline in the quality of Latin learning and education in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Alfred of Wessex (reigned 871–899) played an important role in the resurgence of Latin learning in the late ninth century.

In a letter addressed to the bishops of his kingdom, Alfred encouraged a programme of translation of Latin texts into Old English. Alfred spoke of his wish to return to a time before ‘it had all been ravaged and burnt’, when ‘churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books’.

This letter was attached to an Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care). Pope Gregory was highly regarded in in Anglo-Saxon England, since he sent the group of missionaries to convert Kent to Christianity at the end of the sixth century. Good leadership is an important theme in the ‘Pastoral Care’, making it an appropriate text for Alfred’s programme of translation.

King Alfred’s Translation of the Pastoral Care

A text page from a 9th-century manuscript, featuring Alfred the Great's Preface to the Pastoral Care, written in Old English.

The opening page of the Pastoral Care (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r)

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Professor Andy Orchard reads the Sermo lupi ad Anglos, or ‘The Sermon of the Wolf’, by Wulfstan of York in the original Old English and then in translation.

Translating a text into Old English made it more accessible for many Anglo-Saxon students. Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy) was translated into Old English sometime between 880 and 950 (the original Latin text was written in the early sixth century) and was widely read in Anglo-Saxon England. The text is written as an imaginary dialogue with Philosophy, personified as a woman, and questions the point of the life of the mind in a body doomed to die.

Boethius in Old English

A text page from a 10th-century manuscript of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy written in Old English.

This work was widely studied, and around 80 manuscripts survive from the period up to 1100, often heavily glossed and annotated in many languages (British Library, Cotton MS Otho A VI, f. 106r)

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Anglo-Saxon students and scholars would often add notes to manuscripts, commenting on, translating or expanding on the main text. These notes are known as glosses. One high-status Latin copy of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was specifically designed to allow future readers to add glosses. The text was written in widely-spaced lines and framed by wide margins. The commentary expanded upon points in Boethius’ work, and the scribe used a system of red symbols to match the commentary with the corresponding point in the text.

Boethius in Latin

An opening from a 10th-century manuscript of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, featuring numerous marginal and interlinear glosses.

The complexities of this work demanded explanation, and this need was met by the commentaries which circulated alongside the text (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.3.7, f. 31r)

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Ælfric the Grammarian

Perhaps the most famous writer at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries was Ælfric of Eynsham (died c. 1010). He is best known for composing two series of ‘Catholic homilies’, aimed at both the clergy and educated laypeople, plus a third series comprised of saints’ Lives.

Ælfric also produced a Grammar, written in Old English, but designed primarily to explain Latin, together with a Glossary and a Colloquy (a staged conversation written in Latin). These three works were evidently intended to increase Latin learning and literacy, and they were widely copied.

Ælfric's Lives of the Saints

A text page from an 11th-century copy of Ælfric's Lives of Saints.

Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010) wrote the collection of texts known as the Lives of the Saints between 990 and 1002. Ælfric's writings were still being copied as late as 1200 (British Library, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 1v)

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Ælfric’s Grammar

A text page from a manuscript of Ælfric's Grammar, written in Old English.

The Grammar includes notes on all sorts of constructions, from passive verbs to onomatopoeia like ‘haha’ and ‘hehe’: according to Ælfric, these were the same in English and Latin (British Library, Cotton MS Faustina A X, f. 53v)

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Ælfric's Colloquy

A text page from a manuscript of Ælfric's Colloquy, featuring interlinear glosses in Old English.

Ælfric’s Colloquy – a bilingual guide to learning Latin – which was probably aimed at noviciate monks shows the importance of Latin in the monastic culture of the period (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 60v)

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Anglo-Saxon riddles

Aldhelm’s Riddles

Aldhelm of Malmesbury was famous for composing a collection of 100 riddles (enigmata). These Latin riddles could be complex and educational, but many had a playful tone.

One of these riddles demonstrates the value Aldhelm placed on education and the written word:

God’s holy words now fill my inner part

And bear the sacred books with all my heart,

And yet from them I’m not much edified.

By fate this gift has sadly been denied

As fierce Fates steal the light that books provide.


Translated by A.M. Juster, Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, London, 2015


The answer? A bookcase!

Aldhelm's Riddles

A text page from a 10th-century manuscript, featuring the prologue to a collection of Aldhelm's riddles.

The work contains 100 riddles (British Library, Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v)

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The Exeter Book riddles

The tradition of writing riddles in Anglo-Saxon England, as demonstrated by Aldhelm around 700, was continued in the Exeter Book, made in the 10th century. One riddle in that manuscript provides a lesson about the dangers of consuming knowledge without understanding it.

A moth ate words. That seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder,
that the worm, a thief in the darkness, swallowed
a certain man’s song, a glory-fast speech
and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not
at all the wiser for that, for those words which he swallowed.

(Translated by Megan Cavell)

Exeter Book

A text page from the Exeter Book, featuring a collection of riddles in Old English.

The Exeter Book contains almost 100 riddles and several saints’ lives (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, f. 112v)

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Conclusion

Centres of learning and education prospered in all corners of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Their libraries and classrooms would have been filled with manuscripts copied in Anglo-Saxon England or imported from libraries on the Continent. 

The texts would have been composed by authors from England, Carolingian Francia and across the Mediterranean. These great libraries and centres of learning produced well-respected scholars whose reputations would prevail for centuries to come.

  • Becky Lawton
  • Becky Lawton is an Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research, carried out at the University of Leicester and the British Library, focuses on how the Anglo-Saxons experienced the city of Rome in the 7th and 8th centuries.