The Narratio Metrica de Sancti Swithuno by Wulfstan of Winchester is the longest surviving Latin poem written in England in the period before the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is also one of the most accomplished.
Who was Wulfstan of Winchester?
Wulfstan of Winchester, who is also known as Wulfstan Cantor, was a late 10th-century monk, priest, writer and precentor (the person in charge of music) of the Old Minster (an Anglo-Saxon cathedral which no longer survives) in Winchester. We do not know when he was born or when he died, but most of his works can be dated to the 990s.
Who was St Swithun?
Saint Swithun was a bishop of Winchester, whose cult became popular when several miracles were said to have occurred at his tomb. Swithun was a pious and humble bishop, who died in around 863. Over a century after he was buried, on 5 July 971, his bones were moved in the pouring rain to a new burial place. This is apparently the origin of the superstition that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day, it will rain for the next 40 days.
The poem’s form
The text is based on Lantfred of Fleury’s Translatio et Miraula Sancti Swithuni, which was written 20 years before. The poem is written in hexameters – the standard metrical form used in classical Greek and Latin verse, such as the works of Homer and Ovid. Hexameters are lines which contain six ‘feet’, each made up of one stressed (or long) and one unstressed (or short) syllable. Poetry written in English tends to use iambic pentameter.
This manuscript was made in the Old Minster at Winchester in the late 990s or the early years of the 11th century. It was written by a single scribe, but at the end of the 11th century another scribe added to the manuscript. Notes in the manuscript show that some of the texts were read out during church services.
The other texts in the manuscript arealso related to St Swithun. It includes the earliest copies of Lantfred of Fleury's Translatio et Miracula Sancti Swithuni, an acrostic hymn in honour of St Swithun, and Wulfstan’s letters to Bishop Ælfheah of Winchester and the brothers of the Old Minster.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.