The Vercelli Book is one of the four most significant verse manuscripts to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. These four books contain the vast majority of all surviving Old English poetry. Almost all the texts in these manuscripts are unique and without them we would have a much poorer understanding of the earliest period of English literature.
The Vercelli Book is housed in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, in Northern Italy. Dating from the second half of the 10th century, it contains six verse texts and 23 prose homilies, written by one scribe.
We cannot tell for certain where the manuscript was made in England, as the language is standard and non-localised. Current scholarship, however, proposes that it was likely made in Kent. An early 11th-century hand has added the words ‘writ þus’ at the foot of f. 63v and ‘scealan’ on f. 99r which may indicate that the book was still in England in this period. By the end of the 11th century it appears to have made it to Vercelli. In a blank space at the bottom of f. 24v a later hand has added a short piece of Northern Italian church music which can be dated to the first half of the 12th century.
How the manuscript came to be in Vercelli is something of a mystery and there are a few theories which explain its presence there. The town is one of the stopping points on the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, which may provide a clue. It is likely that the book was donated by a high-ranking traveller from the North. There were several institutions in Vercelli where pilgrims could stay, including the Hospital of Saint Bridget, which was favoured by English pilgrims. It was established in the 11th century by Canon Bonfiglio, the treasurer of the cathedral in Vercelli.
Donating manuscripts to churches was traditional and it was common for bishops to travel with manuscripts to aid them in their daily devotions. We have records of successive archbishops of Canterbury visiting Vercelli in the 11th century, including Sigeric in c. 990, Aelfheah in 1007, Lyfing in 1018, Aethenoth in 1022 and Eadsige in 1040.
Another theory concerns bishop Ulf of Dorchester. Ulf was required to surrender a ‘treasure’ at the 1050 Council of Vercelli, which met to discuss church reforms and found bishop Ulf to have behaved improperly. This ‘treasure’ might have been the Vercelli Book.
A final theory points to the role of archbishop Leone of Vercelli: he was a great bibliophile who glossed several manuscripts now housed in the Biblioteca Capitolare and donated several others. Many of his books were gifts from monasteries North of the Alps.
The manuscript contains a mixture of texts – the majority are in prose, but many of these have the rhythms of verse. The longest poem in the manuscript is Andreas, which is a life of St Andrew. Most of the texts are anonymous, except The Fates of the Apostles and Elene (which describes how St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, 272–337 CE, discovered the cross on which Christ was crucified). Both of these poems feature runic letters which are arranged to form the poet Cynewulf’s signature. Cynewulf is one of only 12 poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose names we know.
Arguably the most famous and perhaps the most moving is the anonymous Dream of the Rood, which is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon verse. The poem, which is framed as a dream vision, tells the story of the crucifixion from the perspective of the tree that was cut down to make the cross on which Christ was crucified. In this, it shares with Elene an interest in the cross as an object of devotion. (This is appropriate given that above the altar in the Cathedral of Saint Eusebius in Vercelli there is a monumental Romanesque crucifix made of wood covered in silver and embossed on the front. It is dated to the end of the 10th century.) The Dream of the Rood survives in two forms: in the Vercelli Book, but also in an abbreviated form, carved in runes on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross in the Scottish borders.
Since 2005 the Vercelli Book has been the focus of several scholarly projects. It has been part of a joint collaboration between the Biblioteca Capitolare and the University of Goettingen for the Vercelli School of Medieval European Palaeography. As well as this, the Biblioteca Capitolare has been undertaking digitisation, virtual restoration and non-invasive chemical analysis of the manuscript, thanks to the support of Italian and foreign scholars.
As well as digitising the Vercelli Book, researchers have started a project that aims to virtually restore the manuscript. During 2013 the Lazarus Project team of the University of Mississippi and Rochester performed a non-invasive multi-spectral scan of the manuscript which recovered some illegible text. At the same time, new non-invasive technologies have also been used by the CenISCo Laboratory (Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale) and the BAM Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Berlin, to perform a chemical analysis of the manuscript. Using the Raman and XRF instruments on samples of ink and parchment, it is now possible to assess its composition and compare it to other manuscripts.