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Famous Manuscripts

( Originally Published 1893 )

IN the present chapter, short descriptions will be given of a few of the best known manuscripts which have come down to us, arranged in order of date. Most of our examples are taken from manuscripts still preserved in the British Isles. Their vicissitudes and present state illustrate the dangers which have attended the precarious passage of these treasures across the ocean of time, and many bear traces of fights, of fire, and of shipwreck, in their voyage.

CIRCA B.C. 3000

Among the very oldest writing in the world, on stone, wood, papyrus, or parchment, is a monument, with an inscription in Egyptian Hieroglyphics (preserved in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford), of which a representation is given opposite. It is the cornice over a false door of a tomb, the frame of the doorway being still in existence in the Gizeh Museum near Cairo, while a portion which bears an inscription was presented by Dr. Huntington to the University in 1683. At one side is a seated figure representing Shera, a priest of Send ; at the other, another seated figure of a female. Between them is a table, and on it and below it offerings made to Send. This Send was a king of the second dynasty ; and even if we allow his cult to have continued for centuries, the age of the stone would still have to be assigned to some such date as 3000 B.C. The astonishing thing is that, even in this remote antiquity, the inscription (the important part of which runs along the upper edge) exhibits, not only ideographic writing or only syllabic, but actually alphabetical ! It adds to the interest of this venerable monument that Egyptian Hieroglyphics are in the direct line of the ancestry of our own alphabet.

B.C. 2500

The oldest piece of literary composition known, and the oldest book in existence, are to be found in the celebrated Papyrus Prisse, now in the Louvre at Paris. It consists of eighteen pages in Egyptian Hieratic writing, ascribed to about the year B.C. 2500. But the treatise it contains claims to have been composed as long ago as about B.C. 3350. Curiously enough, these first-fruits of the earliest ages are a treatise on how to behave wisely, the moralizings of an aged sage, a laudator temporis acti. The early narratives embedded in the Book of Genesis may be of equal antiquity, but materials for satisfactorily dating them are at present wholly wanting.


The oldest known Greek writing is a papyrus containing the Persa, a play by Timotheus, assigned to the second half of the fourth century B.C., and now at Berlin. The next oldest is a woman's curse ! On a papyrus at Vienna, written in uncial characters, and assigned to the early part of the third century B.C., is found a prayer of one Artemisia, calling down vengeance on the father of her dead child for deserting her without supplying even the means with which to bury the infant. This might almost seem a chapter from a nineteenth century novel, were it not that the ancient Greek attributed such age-long consequences to neglect of burial, that there is a stronger emotion in the scene than even we could feel.

Earliest Latin Writing A.D. 53

In contrast with the antiquity of Greek writing is the fact that no Latin document is known which can claim to be written before A.D. 50. The most ordinary and prosaic incidents of life, described on no more durable substance than wax, are the subject of the Latin documents which have most successfully defied the influence of time. Wax tablets containing the record of sales and taxes, scratched with a stilus in cursive letters, now in the National Museum at Naples, and found at Pompeii in 1875, are clearly dated from A.D. 53 onward, and at present take precedence of all other known Latin documents written by hand, except one papyrus which may be of about A.D. 25.


Every reader of Pliny's Epistles remembers the graphic description of the ` Last Days of Pompeii ; ' how his uncle, the elder Pliny, was in command of a fleet at Misenum when his attention was called to a column of thick smoke and vapour rising from Vesuvius ; how he put to shore in order to observe the phenomenon, and, after being driven from the house where he was staying by the showers of ashes, succumbed at last on the sea-shore, suffocated by sulphurous fumes. The showers of ashes and the streams of lava which overcame the elder Pliny poured over the houses of Herculaneum and Pompeii, filling the rooms, and by their heat reducing the papyrus rolls of the private libraries there to black and desiccated lumps. But what appeared to be destruction was really the condition of safety ; for after they were dug out in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was found that, by the most delicate treatment, many of them could be given consistency enough to allow of unrolment, and finally of decipherment. Fortunately, facsimiles were carefully taken immediately after the unrolling, partly under the Prince Regent's auspices in 1802-6 ; and it is now found that the facsimiles are really of more value than the originals, which, even when carefully preserved, could hardly escape decay and disintegration. Out of these rolls have come large fragments of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher, in Greek, and some Latin fragments of poems ; and it is quite possible that in the future still more, and, we may hope, more interesting, specimens of ancient literature may be recovered.

Papyri from Egypt

Old burial grounds and temple rooms buried in the sands of Egypt have given up astonishing treasures since about 185o. Orations by Hyperides, the lost of Aristotle, and the mimes of Herodas may be mentioned, as well as traditional sayings of Christ, and numberless fragments of classical Greek authors, but very little Latin literature. And among them are such delightful pieces as the following schoolboy's letter in Greek of the second or third century of our era :—` Theon to his father Theon greeting. It was a fine thing of you not to take me with you to Alexandria. Mother said to Archelaüs, " He quite upsets me. Take him away." So send for me, I implore you. If you don't, I won't eat, I won't drink. There now ! ' We may be pretty sure that after firing off this blunderbuss at his father, the youthful Theon sat down to a good dinner, and slept well. The father probably replied, after a chilling interval, that he had better wait and see, and not upset his mother.

The Cottonian Genesis

In its original state this celebrated MS. contained 165 quarto leaves, bearing the text of Genesis in Greek, written in uncials, with 250 miniature paintings. It was probably written in the fourth century, being the most ancient Greek Septuagint MS. on parchment in existence, but is now, unfortunately, a mass of blackened fragments, some better preserved than others, having been the chief victim in that terrible fire, so often referred to in this volume, which half ruined the Cottonian Collection in 1731. We have, however, collations of the text made before the fire, so that the loss, so far as the text is concerned, is not wholly irreparable ; but the very size of the letters was altered by the heat, and the paintings practically destroyed.

The Codex Sinaiticus

The story of the discovery of this famous manuscript of the Bible in Greek, the oldest existing of all the New Testament codexes, and in several points the most interesting, reads like a romance. Constantine Tischendorf, the well-known editor of the Greek Testament, started on his first mission littéraire in April 1844, and in the next month found himself at the Convent of St. Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, in the middle of the hall, as he crossed it, he saw a basket full of old parchment leaves on their way to the burning, and was told that two baskets had already gone ! Looking at the leaves more closely, he perceived that they were parts of the Old Testament in Greek, written in an extremely old handwriting. He was allowed to take away forty-three leaves ; but the interest of the monks was aroused, and they both stopped the burning and also refused to part with any more of the precious fragments. Tischendorf departed, deposited the forty-three leaves in the Leipzig Library, and edited them under the title of the Codex Friderico-Augustanus, in compliment to the King of Saxony, in 1846. But he wisely kept the secret of their provenance, and no one followed in his track until he himself went on a second quest to the monastery in 1853. In that year he could find no traces whatever of the remains of the MS. except a few fragments of Genesis, and returned unsuccessful and disheartened. At last, he once more took a journey to the monastery, under the patronage of the Russian Emperor, who was popular throughout the East as the protector of the Oriental Churches. Nothing could he find, however ; and he had ordered his Bedouins to get ready for departure, when, happening to have taken a walk with the steward of the house, and to be invited into his room, in the course of conversation the steward said : ` I, too, have read a Septuagint,' and produced out of a wrapper of red cloth ` a bulky kind of volume,' which turned out to be the whole of the New Testament, with the Greek text of the Epistle of Barnabas, much of which was hitherto unknown, and the greater part of the Old Testament, all parts of the very MS. which had so long been sought ! In a careless tone Tischendorf asked if he might have it in his room for further inspection, and that night (February 4-5, 1859) it ` seemed impiety to sleep.' By the next morning the Epistle of Barnabas was copied out, and a course of action was settled. Might he carry the volume to Cairo to transcribe ? Yes, if the Prior's leave were obtained ; but unluckily the Prior had already started to Cairo on his way to Constantinople. By the activity of Tischendorf he was caught up at Cairo, gave the requisite per-mission, and a Bedouin was sent to the convent, and returned with the book in nine days. On the 24th of February, Tischendorf began to transcribe it ; and when it was done, conceived the happy idea of asking for the volume as a gift to the Emperor of Russia. Probably this was the only possible plea which would have gained the main object in view, and even as it was there was great delay ; but at last, on the 28th of September, the gift was formally made, and the MS. soon after deposited at Petrograd, where it perhaps now lies. The age of this MS. (known as N) is supposed to be not later than A.D. 400, and has been the subject of dispute, partly in consequence of the curious statement of Simonides in 1862, that he had himself written it on Mount Athos in 1839-40 (see p. 142). For other great Biblical MSS. see p. 82.

I The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells, the chief treasure of Trinity College, Dublin, is so called from having been long preserved at the Monastery of Kells, founded by Columba himself. Stolen from thence, it eventually passed into Archbishop Ussher's hands, and, with other parts of his library, to Dublin. The volume contains the Four Gospels in Latin, ornamented with extraordinary freedom, elaboration, and beauty. Written apparently in the seventh century, it exhibits, both in form and colour, all the signs of the full development and maturity of the Irish style, and must of necessity have been preceded by several generations of artistic workers, who founded and improved this particular school of art. The following words of Professor Westwood, who first drew attention to the peculiar excellences of the volume, will justify the terms made use of above :

This copy of the Gospels, traditionally asserted to have belonged to Columba, is unquestionably the most elaborately executed MS. of early art now in existence, far excelling, in the gigantic size of the letters in the frontispieces of the Gospel, the excessive minuteness of the ornamental details, the number of its decorations, the fineness of the writing, and the endless variety of initial capital letters with which every page is ornamented, the famous Gospels of Lindisfarne in the Cottonian Library. But this MS. is still more valuable on account of the various pictorial representations of different scenes in the life of our Saviour, delineated in a style totally unlike that of every other school.' The frontispiece will give some idea of the regularity and beauty of the ornamentation, and of the minuteness and profusion of it, though not of the striking harmonies of colour.

The next MS. which would naturally be mentioned is the Lindisfarne Gospels, in the British Museum, of the seventh century ; but as being already described in this series of books (see Mr.

Elton's The Great Book-Collectors, p. 18), it is here omitted, so far as relates to its general history and description. But the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit another point of great interest not there recorded. Each Gospel is preceded by a list, in the order of the Gospel itself, of saints' days, feasts, vigils, etc., on which passages from that Gospel were read ; that is to say, the first days recorded are those on which passages from the first chapter were read, and so on. In 1891 a Benedictine monk observed that the lists clearly proved that the liturgy thus summarized was that of Naples, and was of extreme interest, being more than two centuries older than the oldest known Neapolitan calendar. But how was it possible for an early calendar of Naples to appear in a Gospel book written at Lindisfarne or Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast, in the seventh century ? The answer is supplied by Bede, who, in describing the early work of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, after his arrival in England in 668, says that in his peregrination of England he was accompanied by one Adrian, formerly abbot of a monastery near Naples. At Lindisfarne the archbishop was to consecrate St. Aidan's new cathedral, and there can be no reasonable doubt that the abbot brought with him some volumes from his own abbey, and that the monks of Holy Island took the opportunity of transcribing for their own use this volume. Curiously enough, another less famous MS., also in the British Museum (in the Old Royal Collection), is found to have the same calendar prefixed, and doubtless was written at the same place and time. Directly, the volumes lead us back to the services of Naples in the first half of the seventh century, that is to say, of the time of St. Gregory ; indirectly, they lead to something still more striking. Naples is not far from Rome ; and when it is remembered that no extant MSS. carry us beyond the seventh century in the quest of ancient Roman service books, the real value of these two MSS. becomes clear. They present to us one of the nearest attainable clues to the most ancient liturgical ceremonies of Rome itself.

Alcuin's Bible

The connexion of Alcuin of York with the literary reforms of Charles the Great has been already referred to (see p. 29). It was natural that the head of the school of Tours should show gratitude to his patron on so great an occasion as the coronation of Charles the Great as Emperor of Rome on Christmas Day in A.D. 800 ; and from contemporary sources we know that this gratitude took the form of a Latin Bible written under the immediate superintendence of Alcuin, and with a text emended by himself.

There is still in existence a Latin Bible directly ascribed to Alcuin himself, a volume bought in 1836 by the British Museum, which sufficiently answers to everything which we know of the circumstances of the gift, and certainly represents Alcuin's revision of the Vulgate text. At the end are certain verses in which the writer's name is given as Alcuinus and Albinus (a not infrequent variety of the former name). It is a splendid volume, both in size and from the four full-page illuminations which, with other smaller paintings, adorn the text. It is known, however, that similar verses are found in another Latin Bible now at Rome, so that the claim of this volume to be the actual gift of the great English scholar and teacher to the Emperor who honoured him is not incontestable, and the date is asserted to be more probably forty years later than 800.

The Old English Chronicle

The chronological Annals of England, known familiarly as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are said to be the finest existing record, having regard to its antiquity and detail, of the early history of any European nation. They begin, after a brief preface, with Julius Cæsar's landing in England, B.C. 65 ; and though at first affording notices of general history, soon settles down to a history of Britain alone. The MSS. we possess of it are extremely interesting in their differences, for almost every one contributes local colouring and local history to the common stock, and each carries the chronicle proper down to a different date. Six complete MSS. still exist one in the splendid library bequeathed by Arch-bishop Parker to Corpus Christi Library at Cam-bridge, which was written in 891 and continued to 1070, and which, having been first at Winchester, was transferred before it was finally completed to Christ Church, Canterbury ; a second, written in one hand, and ending with A.D. 977, now in the British Museum (Cotton Tiberius, A. vi.), but formerly also at Canterbury, and noticeable for the incorporation (as is the case also with the next two MSS.) of a Mercian chronicle for the years 902-924 ; a third, an Abingdon chronicle, written in one hand to 1046, and continued to 1066, and now in the British Museum (Cotton Tiberius, B. i.) ; a fourth from Worcester, embodying some Northumbrian annals, written in 1016, with additions to 1079, now also in the National Library (Cotton Tiberius, B. iv.) ; a fifth, given by Archbishop Laud to the Bodleian (Laud Misc. 636), abounding in Peterborough history, and though written in A.D. 1122, continued in Peterborough Abbey to 1154, which is three-quarters of a century beyond any other ; and lastly, a Canterbury MS. of the twelfth century, curious for being bilingual, in Saxon and Latin, and now in the Museum (Cotton Domitian, A. viii.). A seventh was burnt, with the exception of three leaves, in the fatal fire of 1731 (Cotton Otho, B. xi.), but is known from previous editions, and ended in A.D. 1001 ; and a single leaf of an eighth is known in yet another Cotton MS. (Domitian, A. ix.). This wealth of material gives every facility for a thorough knowledge of the Chronicle, difficult as it is to determine the method and date of its original formation. It is quite possible that Alfred himself ordered its compilation, and at any rate it was formed after Bede's death in 735, and before 895, when Asser, the biographer of Alfred, quotes it.


The great fire of 1731, which caused such irreparable damage to the Cottonian Library, mutilated and nearly deprived us for ever of the earliest English epic, and, with the possible exception of Widsith, of the earliest known English poem. This is known by the name of Beowulf, the hero whose combats with the fiend Grendel and with a dragon, and death from his wounds, form the subject of the book. The scene professes to be laid in Den-mark, and most German scholars attribute its formation (out of older materials) to about the year 600 ; but the late Professor Earle believed that the object of the book was to instruct the English folk of the time of Offa, King of Marcia, in the true education and feelings of a prince. It is supposed, therefore, by him to have been written in the eighth century, on English soil, though it has survived to our time only in a single MS. of about the date 1000, of which the first notice of any kind is not earlier than A.D. 1705, and the first printed edition that of Thorkelin in 1815. The language is Anglo-Saxon.


The earliest personal name in the history of English literature is that of Caedmon, the cow-herd of Whitby, about the middle of the seventh century. Bede, who had good opportunities for knowing the facts about him, tells us how, when each person after supper had to sing a song to his harp, and the turn came to Caedmon, he would slink out, ashamed and stupid, rather than attempt to sing. But in a dream a voice said to him, 'Caedmon, sing, sing something to me ' ; and when he pleaded ignorance and incapacity, and inquired what he should sing, ' Sing,' said the voice, ' the beginning of created things.' Then Caedmon broke out into impromptu song ; and when the matter came to the ears of Hilda, the foundress and first Abbess of Whitby, she caused him to be educated, and exercise his gift of song as a monk. A few of his actual words seem to be preserved to us by Bede ; but one MS., preserved in the Bodleian, has long been believed to contain, in a modified form, some part of the poems of Caedmon. The name of the poet does not occur, but the contents agree fairly closely with what we know from Bede were the subjects of our first English poet's songs. These are, of course, all religious, consisting of metrical paraphrases of Genesis, Exodus, and parts of Daniel, with descriptions of scenes in Christ's life and of the day of judgment. Modern critics are disposed to deny any connexion between these West Saxon poems and the Northumbrian songs of Caedmon, but it is still at least probable that this MS., written like that of Beowulf about i000, contains a substratum and, as the writer in the Dictionary of National Biography is willing to admit, some whole passages from the poet himself. Not the least interesting feature of the MS. is the drawings, chiefly in outline, with slight colouring, with which it abounds. They are of genuine Old English character, and are valuable, not for their fidelity to the subject to be elucidated, but for the evidences they afford of contemporary English life. Thus, when the ark is to be delineated, the artist racks his brain to think of the largest ship which he has ever seen, and presents us (see the illustration opposite) with a picture of a Scandinavian war galley, with carved figurehead, the side paddle used for steering, and many of the details of the Viking ship discovered in Norway some years ago. On the deck of this he places a large box to contain the animals. So, too, the architectural details of some buildings here drawn are of value for determining the style of church building of that period,

St. Margaret's Gospel-Book

The figure of St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, is perhaps the most striking in the early history of that kingdom. Having regard to the rough times of the eleventh century, and her great personal influence, we may say that she did more to refine and civilize a nation than any mediæval queen before or after her. No wonder that the Scotch cherish her memory with especial reverence, and that her oratory in Edinburgh Castle is to them one of the most venerated relics of the past. Grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside, sister of Edgar the Atheling, and mother of the wife of Henry I., she is in the direct line by which our present king traces his descent from the English kings before the Conquest. Margaret fled before the Conqueror to Scotland, and sought refuge in the court of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, who, about A.D. 1070, married her. For details of her character and life from this period till her death in 1093, no better account can be wished than her Life written by one who knew her intimately, printed in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum and elsewhere, and issued in English by Father William Forbes-Leith (2nd ed., London 1889). The discovery of her most treasured volume, which she must often have used within the splendid choir of Dunfermline Abbey, where she was married, has preserved, it may be hoped, to all time a volume, small indeed in size, but of the deepest interest alike to the antiquary, the Church historian, and the liturgiologist.

In 1887 a little octavo volume in worn brown binding stood on the shelves of a small parish library in Suffolk, but was turned out and offered at the end of a sale at Sotheby's, presumably as being unreadable to country folk, and capable of being turned into hard cash wherewith a few works of fiction might be purchased. The contempt for it thus displayed was apparently shared by the cataloguer, who described it as Latin Gospels of the Fourteenth Century, with Illuminations. For the sum of g6 it passed into the Bodleian Library, and came to be catalogued as an ordinary accession. It was noticed that the writing was of the eleventh century, and that the illuminations were valuable specimens of old English work of the same century, comprising figures of the four evangelists of the Byzantine type, which was common in the west of Europe ; the drapery, however, colouring and accessories were purely English. The book itself was seen to be not the complete Gospels, but such portions as were used in the service of the Mass at different times of the year. Further, it was observed that a poem in Latin hexameters had been written, apparently before the end of the same century, on a fly-leaf of the volume, which began by thanking Christ for ` displaying miracles to us in our own days,' and went on to describe how this very volume had been carried in the folds of a priest's robe to a trysting-place, in order that a binding oath might be taken on it ; but that unfortunately it had been dropped, without the priest observing it, into a stream, and given up for lost. But a soldier of the party was sent back, who discovered it, plunged head first into the river, and brought it up. To every-one's intense surprise, the beautiful volume was entirely uninjured, ` except two leaves, which you see at each end, in which a slight contraction appears from the effect of the water, which testify the work of Christ in protecting the sacred volume. That this work might appear to us still more miraculous, the wave washed from the middle of the book a leaf of silk. May the King and pious Queen be saved for ever, whose book was but now saved from the waves ! ' The silk, was, no doubt, pieces placed loosely in the book to preserve the illuminations from contact with the page opposite ; and, sure enough, a leaf at each end of the book showed unmistakable crinkling from immersion in water. But who were the King and Queen ? By a curious accident connected with the name of Margaret, a lady to whom this story was told remembered a similar incident in Forbes-Leith's edition of the Life of St. Margaret, and the mystery was solved. There in the Life is a passage in prose, beginning : ` She had a book of the Gospels beautifully adorned with gold and precious stones, and ornamented with the figures of the four evangelists, painted and gilt. . . . She had always felt a particular attachment for this book, more so than for any of the others which she usually read.' Then follows a story almost identical with the one given above, with some variant but not discrepant details. It, too, mentions the pieces of silk and the contraction on certain leaves, and adds that it was found lying open at the bottom of the river. If anything could add to the interest of the volume, it is that in the same Life we read of the King, that ` although he could not read, he would turn over and examine books which the Queen used either for her devotions or her study ; and whenever he heard her express especial liking for a particular book, he also would look at it with special interest, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands.


The fortunes of MSS. are well illustrated by a MS. now in Exeter College Library at Oxford. It is a Latin Psalter, followed, as usual, by canticles, a litany and prayers, beautifully illuminated in English style, and from the joint occurrence of the Royal arms and those of Bohun, and the occurrence of the name Humphrey in a collect, probably written and painted for Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford (d. 1361), grandson of Edward I., whose grandniece was married to Henry IV. in 1380. Through her it passed into the Royal Library ; but seems specially to have belonged to the Queens, for both Elizabeth of York and Katherine of Arragon have written their names. In the calendar are obits of the Royal family up to the time of Henry VIII., and no doubt it passed to Elizabeth. She seems to have parted with it to Sir William Petre, the re-founder of Exeter College, to which he presented it. Thus it happens that the successive possession of the Tudor sovereigns, and the original authority for the exact date of the birth of the founder of the Tudor dynasty (Jan. 28, ` Hic natus est rex Henricus 145x), has dropped into a quiet college library.

The foregoing are a selection, as numerous as the scale of the present work would allow, of some well-known MSS. of great libraries ; but even though the volumes described are nearly all within the British Isles, the list is very far from exhausted. No place has been found for the Verona Codex of Sulpicius Severus, dated A.D. 517, the earliest dated vellum MS. ; for the splendid Hiberno-Saxon MSS. other than the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, such as the Chad Gospels at Lichfield, the Gospels of M'Durnan at Lambeth, and several more ; for the Benedictional of St. Ethelwold (see p. 102) ; for an original of Magna Charta in the British Museum ; for the Paston Letters, a unique example of English domestic correspondence from 1422 to 1509 ; or for the Syriac version of Genesis and Exodus, dated A.D. 464, and believed to be the earliest dated MS. extant of any entire book of the Scriptures ; or for the treasures of foreign libraries. But, indeed to give an account of such MSS. as suggest them-selves as famous, would require a volume of itself, and turn a manual like the present into a catalogue.

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