A detail from a manuscript of Anselm of Canterbury's theological treatises.

The circulation of manuscripts before 1200

Samu Niskanen discusses the movement of manuscript texts and letter collections between England and France in the early Middle Ages.

The circulation of medieval books constitutes significant evidence of communication in the Middle Ages, particularly over long distances. Throughout the period from 700 to 1200 manuscripts travelled between networks of monastic and other ecclesiastical centres in England and the Continent as tools of learning and religious reform.

This cross-Channel movement of texts is witnessed by the dissemination, for instance, of insular manuscripts in the eighth century through Anglo-Saxon missionaries on the Continent and of books related to the reforms of the Church in the 11th century. We shall also see that the letter collections of prominent figures such as the English scholar Alcuin and the Benedictine monk Anselm bear testimony to the power of the written word to create and maintain connections over great distances in medieval Europe.

Anglo-Saxon missionaries on the Continent

During the eighth century, books were carried across the Channel to provide for the needs of British and Irish missionaries on the Continent. As missionaries established new monastic centres, the libraries of these institutions accumulated materials used in Christian worship and scholarship, mainly biblical, theological and liturgical texts.

St Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah

A text page from a 9th-century manuscript of St Jerome's Commentary on Isaiah.

Text page from an eighth-century copy of St Jerome’s Commentary on the book of Isaiah (BnF, Latin 9526, f. 23r)

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One eighth-century theological commentary (now Paris, BnF, Latin 9526) demonstrates the mechanics of how these libraries grew. The manuscript is written in a script called ‘Insular minuscule’, a book hand primarily used in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England.

The volume contains the commentary of the Latin Father St Jerome (b. c. 347, d. 420) on Isaiah. For more on St Jerome and the Western Church, see Works of the Church Fathers. The commentary formed part of the library of Echternach, in modern day Luxembourg, the first monastery in continental Europe founded by Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

Its founder was St Willibrord (b. c. 658, d. 739), who was born in Northumbria. By virtue of its material, the manuscript testifies to a sustained Anglo-Saxon contribution to Christian missionary activity in continental Europe. This book was to be studied by readers to interpret and engage with Scripture. As such the manuscript represents efforts by Anglo-Saxons not only to implant, but also to nurture Christianity overseas. The volume is by no means an isolated case: a significant number of books written in early-medieval English or Irish scripts survive from monasteries across Europe.

The Carolingian Renaissance

Our next manuscript relates to the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ that began in the late eighth century and ran across the ninth, flourishing during the reign of the emperor Charlemagne (r. 768–814). The Carolingian dynasty ruled a vast territory in western and central Europe and Charlemagne was an avid supporter of religious and educational reform, promoting written culture. Several thousand books from this period have come down to us. One is a collection of the letters of Alcuin (b. c. 735, d. 804), an Englishman and one of his generation’s leading scholars.

The book (now British Library, Harley MS 208) is datable to the early ninth century and was written in a script known as ‘Caroline minuscule’, a clear and simple script developed during Charlemagne’s reign. The manuscript was produced in the monastery of St Denis near Paris, one of the most significant Carolingian cultural hubs, which had extensive connections with the royal and imperial court. By the 10th- or early 11th century, the volume was transferred to England, as is evident from the presence of a marginal note in Old English, dating to this time.

Alcuin's letter collection

A text page from a 9th-century collection of the letters of Alcuin of York.

Letter from Alcuin addressed to Gisela and Rotrud, Charlemagne’s sister and daughter respectively, here nicknamed Lucia and Columba (at the end of line no. 7), (British Library, Harley MS 208, f. 34r)

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Alcuin’s correspondents were spread throughout the Carolingian empire and beyond, and exchanges with them attended to a variety of matters, ranging from scholarly questions to political issues. The manuscript also reflects Alcuin’s experience as a member of the elite in that its origin and subsequent provenance constitute a mirror image of his trajectory from England to the heart of the Carolingian empire.

Like many of his learned peers, Alcuin was not from the area that is now France, but was offered lucrative positions and offices at Charlemagne’s royal court and elsewhere. Alcuin was educated at the cathedral school of York and had started his career there. During a visit to the court of Charlemagne, he managed to impress, and a splendid career ensued. This copy of a collection of his letters eventually found its way to York.

We may assume that this transfer was commissioned by a learned party at York Minster to commemorate one of its greatest scholars. The book eventually became part of the Harley collection, one of the three foundation collections of the British Library.

The transmission of St Augustine’s Confessions in England

The 11th century saw an increase in the production and use of the writings of the Church Fathers. Patristic works formed the foundation of theological studies in the medieval period. To furnish the libraries of monastic communities and other churches, exemplars had to be procured in order for copies to be made, sometimes from great distances.

An example of this is the renewed interest in the autobiographical Confessiones (Confessions) of St Augustine (b. 354, d. 430) in England. The work, which is a landmark in the history of Latin literature, was known in England in the early medieval period. Yet no surviving English copies dating from the late ninth century until the 11th century are known. Then, several copies of the work appear to have emerged within a relatively short period of time, including a volume from the Harley collection, now British Library, Harley MS 3080.

St Augustine, Confessiones

The opening page of an 11th-century copy of St Augustine's Confessiones, featuring a large initial in green ink.

Opening page of St Augustine’s Confessions featuring decorated initial ‘M’[agnus] (British Library, Harley MS 3080, f. 2r)

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The manuscript apparently originated in the west of England in the latter half of the 11th century. Certain aspects of the text indicate that it may derive from a continental exemplar from the abbey of St Peter’s at Ghent. Comparison with three other surviving copies related to the same continental source support the West Country origin. These books were also produced in this area: Bath (British Library, Royal MS 5 B XIV), Exeter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 815), and Salisbury (Salisbury, Cathedral Library MS 6). Therefore, it seems that a continental copy circulated between religious houses in the west of England to stock libraries with this important work.

Post-Conquest circulation of texts

The circulation of books across the Channel increased further following the conquest of England by William I (r. 1066–1087) in 1066. In response to subsequent English rebellions, William extended his policy of depriving Anglo-Saxon elites of wealth and office to the Church. Thereafter, priests of continental background governed almost every major church in England. These men remained in contact with their previous associates and home institutions, many of which were in Normandy. Such appointments increased communications between English and Norman churches and the exchange and dissemination of books.

One of our best sources for various aspects of the circulation of manuscripts following the Norman Conquest is the correspondence of St Anselm (b. c. 1033, d. 1109). Anselm was a monk of the Norman abbey of Bec and a celebrated author of learned treatises and meditative prayers. He ended his career in Canterbury, where he moved in 1093 following his election as archbishop (r. 1093–1109). The bulk of Anselm’s surviving letters from the 1070s and 1080s were addressed to his brethren who were transferred to England after the deposition of the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical leadership. These men formed a group, or literary network, which included the abbey of Bec in Normandy and Christ Church, Canterbury in England.

Anselm’s letters refer to requests for copies of patristic works to be sent to England, and also reveal that he had problems in obtaining some of the works solicited. The circulation of books within Anselm’s network was not limited to patristic literature, however. Contemporary texts were also transmitted across the Channel. For example, the Italian Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury (r. 1070–1089), who had been Anselm’s teacher at Bec in the 1060s, asked for a copy of his own Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, implying that he had not brought the work with him to Canterbury. Anselm provided his brethren at Canterbury also with copies of his own works, including his first scholarly treatise, the Monologion (‘Monologue’). Having completed a preliminary version at Bec in 1075–1077, Anselm sent the text to Canterbury, giving instructions on how to publish the work in his absence.

Furthermore, Anselm wished to obtain books from England for the library of Bec, suggesting that the works he requested may not have been available in more convenient Norman libraries. These requested works fall into two categories: texts of English origin, such as the Life of St Dunstan, and medical works, of which Canterbury apparently boasted a fine stock. Thus the cross-Channel circulation of books in the wake of the Norman Conquest was not only one-way traffic.

Anselm of Canterbury's theological treatises

A text page from a 12th-century collection of Anselm of Canterbury's theological treatises.

The opening page of Anselm’s Proslogion (British Library, Harley MS 203, f. 40r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

St Anselm’s letters do not survive as original single sheets, but as copied compilations, found often in manuscripts which also carry his other works. One such compilation, for instance, includes seven of Anselm’s 13 scholarly treatises with just five of his more than 400 surviving letters (now British Library, Harley MS 203). The volume is a composite one, consisting of three originally separate booklets. The script in the second booklet includes Norman features that are datable to the beginning of the 12th century, together with decorated initials characteristic of Norman production. The booklet includes an early text of what is today Anselm’s best-known work, the Proslogion (Discourse). In the compilation, this text is titled Fides qu[a]erens intellectum (Faith seeking understanding). Anselm subsequently revised this title several years before his transfer to Canterbury in 1093. We do not know precisely when the manuscript arrived in England. It may have been present in York by the 15th century, as a reference to a manuscript with the same works of Anselm was included in a booklist for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s in York (now British Library, Harley MS 2268).

Be that as it may, this collection of Anselm’s letters makes manifest the circulation of books between England and Normandy via ecclesiastical channels, something which intensified following the Norman Conquest and remained a phenomenon throughout the 12th century and beyond.

Further reading

Richard Gameson, ‘The Circulation of Books between England and the Continent, c.871–c.1100’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, volume I, c. 400–1100 (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 344–372.

Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Exchanges between the British Isles and the Continent, c.450–c.900’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, volume I, c. 400–1100 (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 313–337.

Teresa Webber, ‘The Diffusion of Augustine’s Confessions in England During the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, in John Blair and Brian Golding, ed., The Cloister and the World: Essays in Medieval History in Honour of Barbara Harvey (Oxford, 1996), pp. 29–45.

  • Samu Niskanen
  • Samu Niskanen is Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of Helsinki, his alma mater. He is the Principal Investigator of the project Medieval Publishing from c. 1000 to 1500, funded by the European Research Council and running from 2017 to 2022. His research is mainly concerned with medieval texts: their publication, transmission, and reception. His books include The Letter Collections of Anselm of Canterbury (2011), the collaborative edition Ralph von Battle: Dialoge zur philosophischen Theologie (2015), and Letters of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, vol 1 (2019).