This manuscript is known as the Guthlac Roll. It is a long, thin strip of parchment which contains 18 ink ‘roundels’ – circular drawings – depicting the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint, Guthlac.
Who was Guthlac?
Guthlac (674–715) was a saint from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. He was a warrior in the Mercian borderlands who, after nine years of fighting, had a religious conversion and became a hermit in Crowland, in Lincolnshire, where he lived in solitude on an island in the middle of a marsh.
Guthlac’s cult was enormously popular. Two Old English poems about him survive in the Exeter Book, as well as an Old English translation of the early Latin text about his life by the East Anglian monk, Felix. He is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which provides a record of events on an annual basis. Even after the Anglo-Saxon period, and long after his death, Guthlac’s cult still had widespread appeal, as we can see from the existence of this roll and his appearance as the subject of a poem in the South English Legendary.
What was the Guthlac Roll for and when was it made?
The Roll was made in the late 12th or early 13th century. It was very likely to have been made for Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire, which was a Benedictine abbey built on the site of Guthlac’s monastic cell. The Roll is sadly incomplete, having lost its first fifth (which probably contained two or three roundels).
The work of the artist is recognised for its expressivity. In roundel 2 (digitised image 2), we see a look of amazement on the part of Guthlac’s fellow soldiers, as he says goodbye to them and sets off to live alone in the fens. In roundel 16 (digitised image 16), depicting a scene after Guthlac’s death, we see the tender care with which his disciples are gathered around his body, their heads bowed in grief. The body of Guthlac is drawn in a simple outline, drawing the eye of the viewer to it, contrasting with the busy, complex details of the architecture and drapery around it. Perhaps the most intriguing image, however, is roundel 8 (digitised image 8), which shows Guthlac being carried to the mouth of hell by some terrifying devils. To the left, St Bartholomew hands him a scourge (a whip) with which to repel the demons.
We do not know what the Roll was made for. One possibility was that it was a design for a set of stained glass windows or a design for a wooden carved ceiling. Either way, the drawings appear to have been intended to be the model for some kind of public display.
Later in the history of the Roll someone doodled images of spectacles on several of the figures.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.