Old English Hexateuch


The Old English Hexateuch provides invaluable evidence of an English person’s experience of the Bible in their own language. Like most of the other biblical manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages, this book comprises only part of the Bible. However, unlike the more common Gospel-books, this manuscript is a Hexateuch, the first six books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua). It is also written in Old English and represents the earliest example of an English translation of these six biblical texts.

The translations were partly the work of the Benedictine monk Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, sometimes called ‘the Grammarian’ (d. c. 1010). He wrote the preface to the text and translated the sections from Genesis up to the beginning of the story of Isaac. The use of the vernacular for the sacred text suggests that the intended recipient of this highly illustrated book may have been a layman. The book was produced in Canterbury in the generation before the arrival of the Normans, and is a product of the Anglo-Saxon movement of intellectual reform.

The Old English Hexateuch contains over 400 illustrations, which are justifiably well known for their vivid and dynamic depictions of important biblical events, including Creation, the building of the Tower of Babel and the story of Noah’s Ark. An additional full-page representation of the apocryphal story of the Fall of the Rebel Angels acts as a visual preface to the book of Genesis. These illustrations are the earliest to accompany any vernacular translation of a significant part of the Bible in the West.

How does this manuscript relate to Magna Carta?

In the Middle Ages, the Bible’s influence extended beyond its religious significance. For instance, it contains examples of the exercise of justice – such as the hanging of Pharaoh’s baker, illustrated on f. 59r (digitised image 19) – that shaped the development of medieval law. 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. The Bible helped to underpin the concept of medieval justice, as witnessed in Magna Carta and other texts.

Full title:
Old English Hexateuch
1000–99, Canterbury, Kent
Old English / Latin
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

Related articles

The importance of translation in the diffusion of Christianity

Article by:
Annie Sutherland
Christianity, Living Texts

The Latin Vulgate Bible was the most commonly used Bible in the Christian West for centuries. Dr Annie Sutherland looks at the history of biblical translations in Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England.

Religion in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Article by:
Alison Hudson

From paganism to Christianity, we explore the religions of Anglo-Saxon England.

Manuscripts of the Christian Bible

Article by:
Scot McKendrick
Christianity, Sacred texts

Dr Scot McKendrick looks at manuscripts of the Bible prior to the invention of printing, exploring their contents and uses and answering the question of why there are so few manuscripts of the whole Bible.

Related collection items