The bibliophilia of Anglo-Saxon England
Eleanor Parker reveals the scholarly network of knowledge that was at the heart of Anglo-Saxon England and the love these scholars had for the pleasures of the written word.
My insides are filled with holy words, and my entrails bear sacred books – yet I can learn nothing from them.
This is a riddle by the Anglo-Saxon poet Aldhelm, to which the solution (as you may have guessed) is ‘book-chest’. It is one of a number of riddles from Anglo-Saxon England that play with the mechanics of books and writing, teasing the reader with ingenious descriptions of ink, vellum and decorated volumes.
Another celebrated example gives a riddling picture of a bookworm: ‘a thieving guest, no whit the wiser though he swallowed words’. In Old English an object like Aldhelm’s chest could be called a book-hoard (boc-hord) and, like a treasure-hoard, might be inhabited by a devouring wyrm. Neither book-chest nor bookworm learns anything from their encounter with books – so they are a sly warning to human readers to profit by the words they devour.
The bookworm riddle survives in a volume which was given to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric, c.1070, and is still there. I have been thinking about books and their givers recently, since receiving a generous benefaction from the library of a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, which prompted me to realise what an important aspect of the community of scholarship the giving of books still is. In a digital age the idea of passing on books to younger academics might seem like an old-fashioned form of almsgiving, but it is going on constantly. It is valuable not only in itself but in what it represents: as books are passed on, they accumulate traces of their readers, a visible sign of the transfer and growth of knowledge.
Praise for this particular form of generosity goes back a long way. Bede records his gratitude to Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow and one of Anglo-Saxon England’s most distinguished bibliophiles. Benedict collected books while travelling through Europe, establishing the monastic library where Bede was educated (see the article on the Codex Amiatinus, p.44). Even on his deathbed he was still concerned for the fate of his library. Bede must have thought of Benedict as he pored over his books; through him that act of benefaction had a lasting impact on English history and literature.
Stories about books and their givers are recorded throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Books were prized highly, both as physical objects and for what they contained, and so they were high-status gifts and an important way of displaying piety and generosity.
At a time when literate people might possess few books of their own, readers could nonetheless become attached to individual books. According to his hagiographer, St Wulfstan of Worcester used to tell a story about his childhood, which involved his youthful fondness for two particular books. As a child in the early 1020s, Wulfstan was educated in the monastery at Peterborough and was taught by the monk Earnwig, who was an expert scribe. Earnwig gave young Wulfstan some books to look after, a sacramentary and psalter he had illuminated with gold, and the boy fell in love with the rich decorations.
Then Earnwig, to Wulfstan’s disappointment – but with an eye to the advantages of royal patronage – presented the books to the king and queen, Cnut and Emma. They promptly sent the books as a diplomatic gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, leaving Wulfstan heartbroken and thinking he would never see them again. Fortunately, years later, the books were brought back to England and given to Wulfstan as a gift by someone who did not know of his connection to them.
The young bibliophile Wulfstan was just the kind of person who might have appreciated the bookworm riddle, or the rapturous description of book-love in the Old English poem Solomon and Saturn:
Books are glorious … They gladden the heart of every man amid the pressing miseries of this life. Bold is he who tastes the skill of books; he will ever be the wiser who has command of them. They send victory to the true-hearted, the haven of salvation for those who love them.
This poem is characterised by an intense interest in learning and arcane knowledge, with an insatiable appetite for boc-cræft, the ‘craft of books’. The value to be found in books and learning is hardly an uncommon theme in medieval literature, but the language here is appealing: it speaks of love and of the pleasure to be found in books amid the troubles of the world. What could be a more precious gift?
Eleanor Parker is a medievalist and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.