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‘More Unique Than Most’: the Benedictional of St Æthelwold

We are absolutely thrilled to announce the recent upload of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript, Add MS 49598, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, and is a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art.  As a notable professor of our acquaintance once said, ‘All medieval manuscripts are unique, but the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is more unique than most.’

The uniqueness of this manuscript begins with its text.  A benedictional contains the various blessings pronounced by a bishop throughout the ecclesiastical calendar, and its specialised nature makes it comparatively rare among medieval manuscripts.  It is even more uncommon for such texts to include a cycle of illumination, and the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is the earliest such illustrated manuscript in existence.

Add_ms_49598_f070r Historiated initial ‘O’(mnipotens) of Christ in Majesty, preceding the benediction for the Octave of the Pentecost (or Trinity Sunday), from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (Old Minster, Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 70r

As might be obvious from its title, this benedictional was created for one of Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest clerics, St Æthelwold.  He was born in Winchester about the year 909, and entered the church as a young man.  He eventually became Abbot of Abingdon, and in 963 was appointed to the bishopric of Winchester, a vitally important religious institution in this period.   Æthelwold embarked on a programme of building and renovation at Winchester, which culminated in a splendid re-dedication ceremony of the cathedral in the year 980.  Æthelwold was renowned as a scholar, and was responsible for a number of glosses, commentaries, and translations of religious texts; he was so well-regarded that the future King Edgar was sent to study with him.

Add_ms_49598_f025r Full-page miniature of the baptism of Christ, preceding the benediction for Epiphany, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The Benedictional of St Æthelwold was created between 963 (the time of Æthelwold’s appointment to the see of Winchester) and 984 (the year of his death).  It was written throughout by a single scribe named Godeman, who was responsible for a number of other related Winchester manuscripts from this period.  The text of this Benedictional appears to have been a deliberate attempt to synthesize the two main contemporary forms of this type of text, the Gallican and the Gregorian, and it is likely that the creation of this hybrid was initiated and closely supervised by the erudite Æthelwold.  Indeed, many of the blessings included are only found in the English tradition; that for the feast of St Ætheldreda, for example, appears to be a work of Æthelwold himself.

Add_ms_49598_f090v Full-page miniature of St Ætheldreda [Æthelthryth], holding a book and a flower, at the beginning of her benediction, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It is not clear who created the magnificent illuminations that are included within the folios of the manuscript, but some scholars maintain that this work should be attributed to Godeman as well. They are certainly perfect examples of the famous Winchester style, which features elaborate acanthus sprays in the borders, vibrant lines, and a lavish use of gold.

Add_ms_49598_f004v Beginning of the poem describing the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Add MS 49598, f. 4v

We know as much as we do about the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold in large part because of an extraordinary poem, written in gold letters across two folios, which precedes the benedictional proper.  This poem tells us that ‘The great Æthelwold, whom the lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book … He commanded also to be made in this book many arches well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold.’  It continues with a description of Æthelwold’s motivation in creating this book: ‘that he might be able to sanctify the people of the Saviour by means of it… and that he may lose no little lambkin of the fold’.  The poem concludes with a prayer for the soul of St Æthelwold, and, in the final lines, for that of the scribe responsible for it: ‘Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven. Godeman the writer, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.’

A few more images from this magnificent manuscript are below; please spare a thought for Godeman and St Æthelwold as you scroll through its glories!

Add_ms_49598_f005v Full-page miniature of the Annunciation, preceding the benediction for the first Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 5v

Add_ms_49598_f009v Full-page miniature of the Second Coming of Christ, preceding the benediction for the third Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 9v

Add_ms_49598_f064v Full-page miniature of the Ascension of Christ, preceding the benediction for Ascension, Add MS 49598, f. 64v

Add_ms_49598_f099v Full-page miniature of St Benedict, preceding the benediction for his feast, Add MS 49598, f. 99v

Add_ms_49598_f118v Miniature of a bishop, probably St Æthelwold, pronouncing an episcopal blessing on a congregation of monks and clerics (possibly related to the dedication of Winchester Cathedral in 980).  This miniature appears unfinished but is probably deliberately so; perhaps to indicate the importance of the dedication blessing, Add MS 49598, f. 118v

by Sarah J Biggs

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