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.

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 Fæder ure þu þe 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 Ælfric (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. Ælfric 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 Ælfric'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.

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.

How does this manuscript relate to Magna Carta?

Magna Carta did not emerge from a vacuum. The concept of justice was long established in England; indeed, the first surviving evidence of the codification of Anglo-Saxon laws dates from around the year 600, some six centuries before King John granted Magna Carta to his barons. This manuscript of the Hexateuch illustrates the administration of Anglo-Saxon justice. The text on digitised pages 23 and 14, in Old English, is taken from Genesis (40. 21–22) and describes the hanging of Pharaoh’s baker. The 11th-century artist dressed the figures in the costumes of his own time: the king in the centre, holding a sword and a sceptre or rod, is surrounded by his counsellors; the condemned man, on the right, is being strung from the gallows. The Hexateuch includes two accounts of the granting of the Ten Commandments which, together with the law codes, provided a framework for early English law.

What is being illustrated in these examples?

  • f. 3v (digitised image 1)  – Genesis 1, 20–23. The creation of the fish and fowl on the fifth day of creation
  • f. 4r (digitised image 2) – Genesis 1, 24–31. Adam naming the animals
  • f. 4v (digitised image 3) – Image and text from Genesis
  • f. 6r (digitised image 4) – Genesis 2, 15–17. Adam is placed in Paradise. God addresses Adam, from whom he is separated by the Tree of Knowledge. With one hand, God points to the birds and animals, over whom Adam has been given domination; and with the other hand God points in the direction of the tree, from which Adam is forbidden to eat if he is to avoid death
  • f. 7v (digitised image 5) – Genesis 3, 7–24. Upper scene; Adam and Eve cover their nakedness from God. Below; God expels Adam and Eve from Paradise; right, Adam, accompanied by Eve, tills the earth.The archangel Michael, said to have been sent to instruct Adam and Eve
  • f. 9r (digitised image 6) – Genesis 4, 9–18. Upper drawing; God addresses Cain concerning the murder of Abel and its consequences. Centre drawing; Cain builds a city and calls it Enoch after his son. His son and wife are represented in the drawing. Lower drawing; the descent from Cain. Enoch and Mehujael; Mehujael and Methusael; Methusael and Lamech
  • f. 10r (digitised image 7) – Upper drawing, illustrating Genesis 4, 22. Lamech and his two wives; His son, Tubalcain, the artificer [or blacksmith]
  • f. 14r (digitised image 8) – Genesis 7, 1–9. Noah's ark. Upper scene; God tells Noah to embark his passengers. Below; an interior view of the ark, with Noah and his family, the birds, and the animals, embarked.
  • f. 14v (digitised image 9) – Genesis 7, 10–23. An exterior view of Noah's ark, as it survived the flood
  • f. 15v (digitised image 10) – Genesis 8, 10–19. Above; the dove returns to the ark with the olive branch; right, God instructs Noah to evacuate the ark. Below; Noah and his family, the birds and animals leave the ark
  • f. 17r (digitised image 11) – Genesis 9, 20–22. Upper drawing; Noah working on his vines. Below; Noah and his family harvest the grapes, and then crush them
  • f. 19r (digitised image 12) – Genesis 11, 5. God descends, by means of a ladder, to witness the building of the Tower of Babel
  • f. 22r (digitised image 13) – Genesis 12, 11–16. Above; Abraham tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister while they are in Egypt. Below, Sarah is brought before Pharaoh; left, Abraham is given money
  • f. 23v (digitised image 14) – Genesis 13, 11–13. Lot departs with his herds for the plain of Jordan; Abraham stays with his herds in the land of Canaan; Lot sits in a building, outside a devil encircles a group with a scroll
  • f. 24v (digitised image 15) – Genesis 14, 1–12. Text, with upper part of illustration. The battle against Sodom and Gomorrah
  • f. 27v (digitised image 16) – Genesis 16, 4. Centre illustration, Sarah sleeps alone, while Abraham sleeps with Hagar
  • f. 35v (digitised image 17) – Genesis 21, 8. Abraham gives a feast on the day that Isaac is weaned
  • f. 38r (digitised image 18) – Genesis. A story of a journey
  • f. 51r (digitised image 19) – Genesis 33, 1–4. Meeting of Jacob and Esau; Esau's retinue of armed men
  • f. 56r (digitised image 20) – Genesis 38, 14–21. Above, Judah, as pledges, gives Tamar his staff, bracelet and ring. Below; Judah sends a kid to redeem the pledge, but the messenger cannot find Tamar
  • f. 57r (digitised image 21) – Genesis 38, 25–30. Tamar, taken to be burnt, sends back Judah's pledges; below, Tamar gives birth to twin
  • f. 58v (digitised image 22) – A scene showing Anglo-Saxon justice
  • f. 59r (digitised image 23) – Genesis 40, 22. RH of upper drawing, Pharaoh [with Saxon Witan] has his chief baker hanged
  • f. 63v (digitised image 24) – Genesis 43, 15–24. Above; Joseph's brothers, with their gift, prostrate themselves; at the sight of Benjamin, Joseph has to retire to his chamber to weep. Below; on Joseph's return, there is segregated feasting
  • f. 73v (digitised image 25) – Exodus 1, 15–21 Upper drawing; The king of Egypt orders the Hebrew midwives to kill the male babies. Below; the king rebukes the midwives for their disobedience; left, the houses of the Hebrews multiply
  • f. 76r (digitised image 26) – Exodus 2, 16–17.The seven daughters of Reuel, the priest of Midian, with their water jugs
  • f. 79v (digitised image 27) – Exodus 5, 1–14. Top; Pharoah refuses the request of Moses and Aaron to release the Israelites. Centre; Pharoah has a message conveyed to their overseers to force them to gather their own straw for bricks. Bottom; they are opressed with more work
  • f. 80r (digitised image 28) – Exodus 5, 14. The Israelites supervising the making of bricks are beaten
  • f. 92v (digitised image 29) – Exodus 15, 1–21. Upper drawing; Moses and the Israelites sing a song of triumph to the Lord. Below; the Israelite women rejoice; playing harps
  • f. 103r (digitised image 30) – Exodus 31, 18. Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God
  • f. 105v (digitised image 31) – Exodus 34, 4–33. God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai. Below; Moses returns to the Israelites with the Tablets of the Law; he is horned, and veils his face before the Israelites

This manuscript has been digitised in full and can be viewed online here.

Full title:
Old English Hexateuch
1000–99, Canterbury, Kent
Ælfric Abbot of Eynsham
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Cotton MS Claudius B IV

Full catalogue details

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