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Illustrations of damnation in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts

Sarah J. Semple

Anglo- Saxon England, Vol.32 (2003)

Introduction: ‘Many tribulations and hardships arise in this world before its end, and they are heralds of the eternal perdition to evil men, who shall afterwards suffer  eternally in the black hell for their sins.’ These words, composed by Aelfric in the last decade of the tenth century, reflect a preoccupation in the late Anglo-Saxon Church with perdition and the infernal punishments that awaited sinners and heathens. Perhaps stimulated in part by anxiety at the approach of the millennium, both Aelfric and Wulfstan (archbishop of York, 1002-23) show an overt concern with the continuation of paganism and the terrible judgement that awaited sinner and heathens and the infernal torment to follow. The Viking raids and incursions, during the late eighth to ninth and late tenth centuries, partially inspired the great anxiety apparent in the late Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical leadership. Not only were these events perceived as divine punishment for a lack of religious devotion and fervour in the English people, but the arrival of Scandinavian settlers in the late ninth century may have reintroduced pagan practice and belief into England.

Around the turn of the first millennium, during this period of great political and religious tumult, one of the most important Anglo-Saxon illustrated manuscripts was produced at Christ Church, Canterbury: the Harley 603 Psalter. This manuscript includes scenes portraying a uniquely late Angl0-Saxon vision of hell and damnation, a perception of eternal torment which, it will be argued, arose through a combination of three influences: political practice, Christian teaching and local folk belief.

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