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.