Ælfric and St John’s College
At St John’s College special collections and manuscripts are the treasures of the Library. These are often invaluable for research purposes and, in some cases, are unique volumes. Such irreplaceable objects require equally distinctive care and treatment, and St John’s is a member of the Oxford Conservation Consortium which provides excellent conservation possibilities for its texts.
Recently this has been significant for one of the college’s greater treasures: manuscript 154, a broadly contemporary copy of grammatical works by Ælfric of Eynsham (ca. 955-ca. 1010) and his namesake, Ælfric Bata, who would also appear to have been his pupil. Written in England during the very early 11th century, this is the only book amongst the Library’s collections which is fully Anglo-Saxon, and has received praise from Professor Ralph Hanna, Oxford’s Emeritus Professor of Paleography, for representing ‘a virtually unique insight into late Anglo-Saxon schooling’.
The manuscript includes a grammar and glossary by Ælfric, to which are appended Latin colloquies for beginner Latin scholars – with many intriguing glosses in Old English – by Ælfric Bata. Ælfric was the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxon scholar of his time, and was perhaps surpassed only by Bede prior to the Norman Conquest. As a Benedictine he was educated in Winchester, worked at Cerne Abbey in Dorset and was first abbot of Eynsham, 5 miles to the west of Oxford. Meanwhile, Ælfric Bata is known exclusively for his writing as preserved in MS 154.
Like Ælfric, the manuscript itself travelled up and down the country before settling in Oxfordshire. During the Middle Ages it was held at Durham Cathedral where the monks ran a grammar school. On the first page of the manuscript one can read the inscription liber sancti Cutherberti de Dunelmo. It then came into the possession of a man called Christopher Coles, a student at St John’s, who donated the text to the Library in 1611 where it has remained ever since.
Unfortunately during the nineteenth-century the manuscript received a very poor quality binding which not only offered very limited support and made the book difficult to open fully, but also caused deterioration to the manuscript itself. Most damaging was that hot animal glue was applied to the spine folds of the binding.
The conservation project
As a result of the cumulative deterioration to such a significant text for the Library, much of which was caused by a poor binding, the decision was made to begin a large conservation project. In 2010 the Library applied for and received generous funding from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust to conduct major repairs on the volume including a complete re-binding. The work was undertaken by the expert conservators of the Oxford Conservation Consortium and completed in 2014. As well as securing the welfare of the manuscript the project also ensured the transmission of specialist skills, as the noted expert on early book structure, Chris Clarkson, was involved in the project and advised Jane Eagan, the Head Conservator at the Consortium, on the techniques needed for the re-binding.
Although the 19th century binding was removed it was retained as part of the book’s history and is kept in a separate compartment in a specially designed case tailored to the manuscript.
Thanks to this excellent conservation project the grammatical texts of Ælfric and Ælfric Bata are now primed for readers’ careful study: the bound spine no longer restricts the leaves from movement, the leaves’ creases and tears are repaired, and the manuscript is now in a vastly better condition for access to readers and researchers.
This manuscript is also one of three manuscripts at St John’s which have been fully digitised with high-definition photography. You can view it in full online, thanks to Early Manuscripts at Oxford University, here.