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Manuscript production in England and France

Books were made in monasteries across England and France during the early medieval period. Calum Cockburn introduces some important sites of manuscript production that were active between 700 and 1200.

Medieval manuscripts often provide clues that help identify the monasteries that produced them. Some books include medieval shelfmarks and notes that reveal their owners or indicate that they were once part of the collections of monastic libraries. Others have named scribes and illuminators who identify themselves in inscriptions, also known as colophons, on the manuscript page. 

Manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky England and France Project have been linked to over 140 individual sites of book production that were active been 700 and 1200. This article presents a selection of some of the centres that produced many manuscripts in England and France during this period. 

Map (Northern France and England)

England

Over 250 of the manuscripts digitised were produced in England. The production of at least 150 of these can be attributed to monasteries in named towns and cities across the country, including Canterbury, Winchester and Durham.  

Canterbury

Nearly 50 manuscripts included in the project are known to have been produced in the archiepiscopal city of Canterbury. During the early medieval period, Canterbury was home to two major monasteries, one at the abbey of St Augustine’s, and another based at Christ Church Cathedral. 

St Augustine’s Abbey

The abbey of St Augustine’s was founded during the first years of the 7th century. It was dedicated to St Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604), the missionary sent by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) to convert the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity. The Abbey was an important centre for book production, both before and after the Norman Conquest of 1066. One surviving catalogue of the Abbey’s library suggests that it had gathered as many as 1,900 volumes by the end of the 15th century. 

This 12th-century Passionale, or collection of saints’ lives, has been ascribed to St Augustine’s Abbey because of its script and style of illumination. The manuscript contains numerous historiated initials (enlarged letters that incorporate images) that mark the beginning of each text. One depicts the Archangel Michael fighting a dragon. 

Passionale (Lives of Saints)

Arundel MS 91, f. 26v detail

Passionale (Lives of Saints), from St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (British Library, Arundel MS 91, f. 26v, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Christ Church, Canterbury

The monastic community of Christ Church Cathedral also had its own scriptorium, a room in the monastery set aside for the writing and illuminating of manuscripts. This scriptorium came to prominence during the period of English monastic reform that took place at the end of the 10th century, under Archbishop Dunstan (d. 988). The monks working there made many high-quality works at this time, including the Eadui Psalter, named after its probable scribe and possible illustrator Eadwig Basan.  

Eadui Psalter

Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

A representation of David and Goliath in the Eadui Psalter, produced at Christ Church, Canterbury (British Library, Arundel MS 155, f. 93)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Manuscript production at Christ Church continued after the Norman Conquest of 1066. One book copied there during the 12th century is an illustrated collection of scientific and astronomical works (now Egerton MS 3314). An introductory note written in Latin reveals the name of one of the manuscript’s scribes, a monk called Salomon: 

Peccator ego Salomon ecclesie Christi dictus monachus, cum modernorum compotistarum diligenter scripta revoluerem, apud illos notulas repperi, quibus aliqua quae ab antiquis dicta sunt diffusius iocunde breuitatis compendio colligantur. 


I Salomon, a sinner, monk of Christ Church, discovered notes as I was carefully reading through the writings of modern astronomers, which, though discussed in more detail by the ancients, should be compiled in a summary pleasing in its brevity. 

As well as writing several of the texts at the beginning of the manuscript, Salomon also added his own annotations and corrections to a number of others. 

Computus, astronomy and finger-counting

Egerton MS 3314, f. 74v

Finger-counting in a 12th-century scientific manuscript, produced at Christ Church, Canterbury (British Library, Egerton MS 3314, f. 74)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Winchester

16 of the manuscripts digitised by the project were made in Winchester. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the city was the capital of the kingdom of Wessex and an important royal and ecclesiastic centre. In 901, King Edward the Elder (r. 899–924) founded a Benedictine abbey there, known as the New Minster. It was built alongside the Old Minster, Winchester’s first Christian church, which was established in 648 and subsequently turned into a cathedral in the 660s. The New Minster was wealthy, housing a number of important relics and possessing a large amount of land. The Abbey also contained a monastic scriptorium, which produced many of the illuminated books that survive from the end of the Anglo-Saxon period in England (c. 950– c.1100). 

Ælfsige, a monk of the New Minster, compiled this illustrated prayerbook in the 1st quarter of the 11th century. He inscribed the book and identified the person for whom it was made: Ælfwine, a dean of the New Minster who became its abbot in 1031. 

Frater humillimus et monachus Ælsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen. 

Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus compotum istum me possidet. Amen. 


The humblest brother and monk Ælfsige wrote me; may he have a long life. Amen. 

Ælfwine, monk and dean, owns me. Amen. 

Ælfwine’s Prayerbook

Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v

An illustration of St Peter, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, made at the New Minster, Winchester (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Durham and Northern England

Manuscript production was not limited to southern England. 26 of the manuscripts digitised by the project originate from the north of the country, including places such as Rievaulx, Kirkham, Fountains Abbey and the city of Durham.

The First Arrival of the Saxons and the Normans

A manuscript page featuring a king with a long beard

An illustrated copy of the De primo Saxonum adventu (On the Arrival of the Saxons), produced in northern England (British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Durham was the home of a Benedictine priory, founded in 1083 by the city’s Norman bishop, William of St Calais (d. 1096). The Priory amassed a substantial library. A fragment of a surviving booklist from the monastery indicates that it had at least 70 books in its collection by the mid-12th century. Many of the manuscripts it held were written and illuminated in its own scriptorium. One of the earliest surviving copies of Symeon of Durham’s chronicle De Exordio Ecclesiae Dunelmensis (On the Beginning of the Church of Durham) is thought to have been made there at the beginning of the 12th century.

Symeon of Durham, De Exordio Ecclesiae Dunelmensis

Cotton MS Faustina A V, f. 25r

A 12th-century copy of Symeon of Durham’s De Exordio Ecclesiae Dunelmensis, made in Durham (British Library, Cotton MS Faustina A V, f. 25r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

France

The majority of the manuscripts digitised by the project were produced in France, and at least 300 of these have been attributed to named monastic scriptoria, active across the country between 700 and 1200. These include a number of monastic scriptoria housed in the city of Paris, the Abbey of St Peter at Corbie, and the monastery of Saint-Bertin in northern France. 

Paris 

Early medieval Paris was an intellectual hub, famous for the school of Notre Dame, where royal and ecclesiastical figures from across Europe came to study. Over 40 of the manuscripts digitised by the project were made in this city. Paris and its environs were home to a number of monastic foundations involved in the production of manuscripts, including the Abbeys of Saint Victor, Saint-Maur and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, as well as the Abbey of Saint-Denis, located outside the city.

The abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was built on the outskirts of Paris during the 6th century by the Frankish king Childebert I (r. 511–558). Originally dedicated to the martyr St Vincent of Saragossa (d. c. 304), it was renamed during the 12th century, in honour of St Germain d’Autun (d. 576) one of the first bishops of Paris. The Normans plundered the Abbey several times and burnt it down during the 9th century, but its buildings were rebuilt in stone around the year 1000. It subsequently developed as a major monastic scriptorium and place of learning, and benefited greatly from royal patronage. 

One manuscript produced at the abbey around the middle of the 11th century is a decorated copy of the poem De Laudibus sancta crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) by Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856). It contains 30 monumental illustrations, including a portrait of the Frankish king and Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814–840) as a miles Christi, or soldier of Christ.  

Hrabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sanctae crucis

Latin 11685, f. 5v

An illustrated copy of Hrabanus Maurus’ poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross), made at the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pres in Paris (BnF, Latin 11685, f. 5v).

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A skilled artist known as Ingelardus was responsible for the manuscript’s extensive decoration. He has also been linked to the illustrations in six other surviving manuscripts made at St-Germain during this period, including a miscellany of historical and scientific texts (BnF Latin 12117) and a life of the Abbey’s patron saint (BnF Latin 12610).

Illustrated scientific and historical works

BnF Latin 12117, f. 104v detail

An image of an execution scene, made by Ingelardus, monk of St-Germain-des-Prés (BnF, Latin 12117, f. 104v, detail)

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Life and miracles of St Germain

BnF Latin 12610, f. 40v detail

A portrait of St Germain, made by Ingelardus, monk of St-Germain-des-Prés (BnF, Latin 12610, f. 40v)

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Corbie Abbey

The abbey of St Peter was founded at Corbie, in Picardy, by Bathilde (d. 680), the widow of the Merovingian king Clovis II (r. 639–657) in c. 660. The Merovingian kings ruled Francia (a region covering modern-day France and parts of Germany and northern Italy) between the 5th and 8th centuries. The abbey at Corbie was a centre for book production in the Frankish empire. At its height, it housed some 300 monks, and had a large library, a monastic school, and a scriptorium, known for its style of manuscript illumination and distinctive scripts. Caroline minuscule, a script that became a calligraphic standard in Europe between 800 and 1200, is thought to have been developed at the Abbey in about 780. 

Corbie was still producing illuminated books by the 12th century. 26 manuscripts digitised by the project originate from the Abbey of St Peter, including this illustrated collection of works on penitence. The frontispiece of the manuscript portrays a kneeling monk in a black robe offering a book to St Peter and St John the Evangelist. An inscription above the monk identifies him as FRATER HERBERTUS DURUS SENSUS. Herbertus Dursens wrote several other manuscripts produced at Corbie during the mid-12th century. One (now BnF Latin 12004) opens with a Latin acrostic poem based on the letters of his name.  Another is an illustrated copy of Amalarius of Metz’s De Ecclesiasticis officiis (On the Ecclesiastical Offices, now BnF Latin 11850), which contains a similar image of Herbertus presenting a book to the patron saints of the Abbey. 

Penitential works

BnF Latin 12270, f. Bv

An illustrated collection of works on penitence, produced at Corbie Abbey (BnF Latin 12270, f. Bv)

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St Bertin

The abbey of St Bertin was founded in the 7th century in northwestern France, by Bishop Audomar (d. c. 670), who was also known as St Omer. Initially dedicated to St Peter, it was later renamed in honour of its second abbot, Bertin (d. c. 709). The Abbey’s scriptorium flourished during the 10th century under the abbacy of Odbert (d. c. 1007), who had a special interest in manuscript illumination. Several lavishly decorated books were made at the Abbey in the years that followed. One example is a manuscript now known as the St Bertin Gospels. This Gospel-book contains portraits of the Evangelists Sts Matthew and Luke, painted in pink and green, on a background of burnished gold. 

St Bertin Gospels

BnF Latin 278, f. 17v

A portrait of the Evangelist St Luke in the St Bertin Gospels (BnF Latin 278, f. 17v)

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There is evidence to suggest that English scribes and illustrators crossed the Channel to visit St Bertin, and several manuscripts produced there show the influence of Anglo-Saxon art styles. Anglo-Saxon manuscript production similarly influenced the monastic scriptoria of Fécamp, Mont-St-Michel and Préaux in Normandy, particularly during the century after the Norman Conquest of England. 45 manuscripts digitised by the Polonsky project were made in monasteries in this coastal region of northern France.

Préaux Gospels

Add MS 11850, f. 62r.

An illuminated page from a Gospel-book produced in Préaux, Normandy (British Library, Add MS 11850, f. 62r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Further Reading

C. R. Dodwell, The Canterbury School of Illumination, 1066–1200 (Cambridge, 1954) 

David Rollason, ed. Symeon of Durham: Historian of Durham and the North (Stamford, 1998)

Charlotte Denoel, « Le scriptorium de Saint-Germain-des-prés au temps de l'Abbé Abelard (v. 1030-1060): les manuscrits enluminés par Ingelard, scriptor honestus », dans Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Milles ans d'une abbaye à Paris (Paris, 2015), pp. 159-212

Richard Gameson, The Earliest Books of Canterbury Cathedral: Manuscripts and Fragments to c. 1200 (London, 2008)

Julian Luxford, St Augustine’s Abbey (London, 2017)

Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art from England and France 700—1200 (London, 2018)

  • Calum Cockburn
  • Calum Cockburn is currently studying for a PhD at University College London. His research examines the representation of Hell in Old English literature and insular manuscript illumination between 700 and 1100. From July 2018 to July 2019, Calum held a postgraduate internship at the British Library, working for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.