Lot 1
  • 1

The West Saxon Gospels, two fragments from a Gospel Book, in Anglo-Saxon, manuscript on vellum [England (probably south-west England), second half of the tenth century (c.960-80)]

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
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  • Vellum
two strips from the same parent leaf: (a) 90mm. by 23mm., with remains of two lines from John 8:52-53, “ne bið he næfre dead. [Cwyst þu þæt þu sy mærra þon]ne ure fæder Abraham …” and 9:2, “leorningcnihtas hine a[xodon and cwædon Lareow hwæt syngode] þes oððe his magas þæ[t] …” (corresponding to R.M. Luizza, Old English Version of the Gospels, I, 1994, pp.176-77), in a fine and legible English Square minuscule identifiable as the hand of a member of the small group who produced the celebrated Exeter Book (see below), in dark brown ink, with remnants of vertical margin at one side; (b) 95mm. by 22mm., with remains of a single line from John 8:54, “min fæder is þe me …”, in the same hand and ink, with large blank space at side and base showing that this was the last line on the page; both on thick vellum with some discolouration and small spots from reuse as endbands in later binding, item (b) slightly darker, with crack and wormhole (but with no affect to text), and still laid down to section of linen from binding with stitched thong from endband attached, both overall in good condition


(1) Most probably written in the south-west of England, perhaps at or near Exeter, in the second half of the tenth century. Some unusual features of the hand here, such as the thin diagonal penstrokes added to ‘t’ and ‘g’, the bilinear ‘d’ with a slightly waving back, ‘r’ with a hooked curl and narrow ‘h’ (despite the broad ‘a’) with a small kicking upwards foot, locate this within a tight-knit group of scribes from the second half of the tenth century, identified by Patrick Conner (Anglo-Saxon Exeter: A Tenth-Century Cultural History, 1993; see also D.N. Dumville, Liturgy and the Ecclesiastical History of Late Anglo-Saxon England, 1992, pp.82-3) as responsible for Lambeth Palace, MS.149 (Augustine, De Adulterinis Coniugiis; perhaps in Exeter in the tenth century, and given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric, c.1016-72), Bodleian, Bodley MS.319 (Isidore, De Miraculis Christi; in Exeter certainly by the late Middle Ages) and the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral MS.3501, and given to Exeter by Bishop Leofric). Conner identified a single scribe behind all of these manuscripts (p.37), but consensus now agrees that there may in fact be several collaborating hands here.

(2) Reused in a sixteenth-century English binding, and recently discovered in a private collection outside of the United Kingdom.

Catalogue Note


It is remarkable to be able to offer in a single sale two fragments from an Anglo-Saxon translation of the New Testament, a leaf from a Middle English Wycliffite translation of the Old Testament (lot 2) and a monumental thirteenth-century Latin Vulgate Bible from England, from the library of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle (lot 49).

The first of these, the present fragments, are of the utmost rarity. Apart from these, only six manuscripts and two fragments survive: (i) Cambridge, University Library, MS.Ii.2.11, mid-eleventh century, Ker no.20; (ii) Bodleian, Bodley MSS.441, first half of eleventh century, Ker no.312; (iii) and Hatton 38, twelfth or thirteenth century: Ker no.325; (iv) British Library, Cotton Otho C.i, first half of eleventh century: Ker no.181; (v) Royal 1.A.XIV, second half of twelfth century: Ker no.245; (vi) Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS.140, first half of eleventh century: Ker no.35, and exhibited earlier this year in the Vatican in the Verbum Domini II exhibition; and the fragments, (a) Yale, Beinecke, MS.578, first half of eleventh century: Ker no.1; and (b) Bodleian, Eng.Bib.c.2, first half of eleventh century: Ker no.322. The present fragments are older than any other witness to the text, and if as seems likely the text is a product of the revival of monastic life in southern England under King Edgar and Archbishop Dunstan in the second half of the tenth century (see Luizza, II, 2000, ch.3), then they come from the same decades in which the translation was made.

The West Saxon Gospels was the first concerted attempt to produce a single coherent text of the scriptures in a form of English. The early date and localisation of the present fragments is important here, as it has long been supposed that the text was translated somewhere in the south-west of England, and the hand here might well suggest that this task was undertaken by the scribe or scribes of the present fragments in the vicinity of Exeter. If so, then these two strips must be the only known witness to one of the very earliest copies. The text holds an especial place in the history of the Bible in English, as it was used by early Protestant reformers to show that contrary to Catholic teaching, the Bible had existed in English in antiquity. This notion lay behind Archbishop Matthew Parker and John Foxe’s printing of The Gospels of the fower Evangelists translated in the olde Saxons tyme out of Latin, in 1571, and played an important role in justifying the religious revolution of the Reformation.

Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon, or fragments of them, have been eagerly collected into institutional hands for several centuries, and come to the market perhaps only once or twice a generation. Those with Biblical translations do so only once a century or so. Of those listed above, the last to be sold were the fragments now in the Beinecke, which was reused in the binding of a fourteenth-century Hymnal once in the collection of Major Abbey: his sale in our rooms, 24 March 1975, lot 2955; the 4 leaves in Bodleian, Eng.Bib.c.2, which were bought in our rooms, 14 March 1891, lot 695; and before that Hatton 38, which was bought by the Bodleian as part of the library of the 1st Baron Hatton in 1671.

Our thanks to Dr. Peter Stokes for assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.