Tag Archives: Uncials

The Vespasian Psalter

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.56.19The Vespasian Psalter is an Anglo-Saxon book written, it is thought, in the second quarter of the eighth century. The style suggests the south-east of England, possibly St Augustine’s or Christ Church, both in Canterbury, or Minster-in-Thanet.
The large full-page illustration on the right shows an intriguing mix of Insular interlace, La Tène spirals, and Roman motifs. David is painted as the psalmist with scribes recording his words on a scroll (which could represent the Old testament) and a codex (the New Testament). Musicians play musical instruments and a couple of young men look almost as if they are break dancing!


Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.53.12The prefatory material contains pages written in small elegant Rustic letter-forms.







Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.54.53The main text is written in delightful Flat Pen Uncials, held with the pen almost horizontal. The fine serifs at the top and bottom of many of the letters give the impression of the script being written between tramlines.


Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.55.37The huge advantage of viewing this manuscript on the British Library’s website (view here) is that the pages can be enlarged so that the formation of each letter can be seen. The large triangular ends to the downstrokes on the letters N and T are clearly shown here, and it is possible to enlarge the pages even more. And the change in nib angle from the flat pen used for the fine hairline serifs and the diagonal stroke to about 45° for the bowl of the letter A is also obvious. The very fine curved stroke leading off to the left from the bowl of the letter A is made by the left-hand corner of the pen. How this is done is shown in writing the letter t in this Calligraphy Clip for Gothic Black Letter here, about 2.30 minutes in. The dancing Insular Minuscule Gloss (word-by-word translation) was written about a hundred years after the main text and is the earliest extant translation of biblical text into English.

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.54.11But it is the decorated letters which are so inventive. Here is a little gold bird in the letter D with rather unusually-shaped lumpy companions either side. The gold is flat, but it does look like leaf gold rather than shell gold here.





Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.58.07And on this page, there is a line of decorated letters with a huge initial S. This letter is an intriguing mix again of patterns and decorations from different cultures.







Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.58.36And when enlarged, the sad little bird, who looks most perplexed, can be seen clearly. Note, too the many red dots indicating the line markings and surrounding the letters; these are typically insular. There is more about this page in my book ‘The Art and History of Calligraphy’, published May 2017 by the British Library.



Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.56.38The book has another first and that is that it contains the earliest known historiated initials, and the one shown here is of David and Jonathan. An historiated initial is one that tells a story as opposed to a decorated initial.



Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.53.36The book was owned by Sir Robert Cotton, and his was one of the three major collections which made the British Library. Here is his signature in the book.




Codex Amiatinus – a very English book with an Italian name

St Paul's, Jarrow
Abbott Ceofrid (pronounced Chalfrith) must have been a remarkable man. At the beginning of the eighth century, he was in charge of the twin foundations of St Peter’s at Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and also St Paul’s, Jarrow (right), both on or very close to the coast on the far north-east of England. The church buildings have evidence of Anglo-Saxon work, and although both have been much altered, it is still possible to get something of the feeling of what it must have been like at the time of Ceolfrid and Bede; Bede lived at Jarrow.

cod amIn 692, Ceolfrid commissioned three great pandects (all the books of the bible in one volume) to be created, one for Monkwearmouth, one for Jarrow and one to take with him when he went to see Pope Gregory II in Rome; this last book became the Codex Amiatinus. The date is fairly certain because it was in that year that the twin foundations were given a grant of extra land, needed to raise the cattle required for these books. (Map of Jerusalem on the right from the Codex Amiatinus)

Each of the three books had 1029 leaves from calfskin, which was of exceptionally fine quality. The books were large, one calfskin would have had the edges trimmed and then folded in two to make four pages. It’s been estimated that 2,000 cattle were needed for the project, and it should be pointed out that these would be calves, not fully grown mature cattle because their skin is too thick and unwieldy. The books weighed over 5 stone each (75 lbs, 35 kg), and would have required two strong people to move them once bound.

page from Cod AmiatinusThe writing in the Codex Amiatinus is a particularly fine uncial script (opening of St Mark on the right), and for many years was thought to be produced by scribes in or from Rome because of its quality. It must have taken years to produce three great books; seven scribes have been identified and there is evidence that the Venerable Bede was involved in the project. It was only at the beginning of the last century, and then only because of its similarity to other manuscripts known to have been produced at Monkwearmouth/Jarrow, that scholars agreed that the books would have been written by English scribes in England. There is no punctuation, but sections start with a large initial, and it is written as per cola et commata, which means that it is set out as clauses in a sentence, and indented as such. It is remarkably easy to navigate despite there being few illustrations or big headings.

Ezra page, Cod AmiatinusThe text is an almost pure form of the Latin Vulgate translation of St Jerome (the language used at the time, nothing to do with it being ‘vulgar’), and is thought to be have based on a book called the Codex Grandior, an Italian 6th century book, and again a pandect, but now lost. Benedict Biscop, who has recently been adopted as the patron saint of Sunderland, was the founder of the monasteries, as well as being Ceolfrid’s predecessor. He and Ceolfrid visited Rome in 678 and brought back books, including the Codex Grandior, bought from the library of the Vivarium, a monastery set up by Cassiodorus, on the site of modern Santa Maria de Vetere near Squillace, in Italy. (Right: The Ezra page from the Codex Amiatinus)

Two of the pandects stayed in England at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, but, when he was 74 years of age, on 16th June in 716, Ceolfrid set out for Rome with the third book. It must have been a tearful departure as the monks knew they would not see their dear abbot again. Sadly, Ceolfrid didn’t get to Rome but died at Langres, Burgundy, in France on September 24th the same year.

Codex_Amiatinus_(dedication_page)By the 9th century, the pandect was at the monastery of Monte Amiata, near Siena, which gave the book its current name. It remained there until 1792 when the monastery closed and it was taken to the Laurentian Library in Florence, where it is to this day. In 1888 a scholar called Giovanni Battista de Rossi noted the similarity in text to the bibles mentioned by Bede, and also noted that the dedication of Petrus Langobardorum (Peter of Lombardy, see right, line 5) had been added over Ceolfridus Anglorum (Ceolfrid of England) which had been partially removed. This was one of the great Ceolfrid pandects.



Greenwell leafWhat happened to the two books that stayed? We have evidence that one was presented to King Offa when it was thought that it was a book from Rome, but that hasn’t survived, and nor has the other. However, individual leaves have. The most famous is the Greenwell leaf (right) discovered by the Reverend Greenwell in an old register that he said he bought in Newcastle. Other leaves have turned up including one from a book found at Kingston Lacy; mainly these are used as binding waste, which is why they are often discoloured and with pieces cut off.

So the Codex Amiatinus, one of the most famous books in the world because of its purity of text and script, is actually an English book produced by English scribes from Northumbria. Perhaps its name should be changed to Codex Northumbrianus (or whatever the Latin translation would be!).

St Cuthbert’s Gospel – a rare jewel

St Cuthbert's Gospel 1St Cuthbert’s Gospels is one of the most covetable books I have ever had the privilege to see close up. Being within a foot or so of a seventh-century book that was found in the coffin of the important Northumbrian saint, St Cuthbert, was an amazing experience. When the coffin in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, the book was found placed there with other objects such as St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross and precious textiles. It fits in the hand, as you can see on the right, and could so easily have slipped into my pocket if no-one had been watching!



St Cuthbert Gospel, coverWhat is quite remarkable about the book is that it is still in its original binding, and as such is the oldest European bound book. Deep red leather covers wooden boards. On the front cover a scroll pattern and straight lines (which make a neat frame) have been outlined, possibly with cord or even carved wood which was then glued on to the cover. This meant that, when the red leather was pasted on, these areas became raised from the surface. In the surrounding border and in the upper and lower blocks, an interlace pattern has been indented and also coloured; the yellow pigment is more obvious than the blue in this photograph.


Coptic bindingThe gospel is a coptic binding, which means that, rather than the sections of folded pages (gatherings) being sewn on to wide tapes and these then attached to the covers, the gatherings are sewn with thick thread in a sort of chain stitch (see right) and these hold the sections of the book together and are then attached to the wooden boards (as you can see on the right). This is how codices (books as we know them) were first made and they rarely have covered spines. The wooden boards of this book (right) – made when I was at college – would then have been covered by red leather and tooled to get the effect of the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Coptic book openThe binding is particularly flexible, as you can see again here with that college-made book. When I was being filmed writing the first page of this book at the British Library I was able to speak to the conservation book binder, and he said that the spine is still completely flexible, and it would be possible to turn the book round completely on itself so that back and front cover could touch – of course he hadn’t done this!

St Cuthbert Gospel, f. 1Inside the book the text is written in the lettering style of Uncial. There are very few ascenders and descenders and the letters are essentially majuscule. The Gospel of St John starts with a long versal I in red (versals are letters where the thicker strokes are constructed out of two or more pen strokes, rather then simply changing the nib to the thickest angle and making one stroke); this letter is followed by a smaller letter N. The red ink has smudged slightly over the years. The rest of the text is in a dark brown ink. As with most scribes when writing an important manuscript, the first few words are rather tightly written, but by line four things are more relaxed, although it is only in the second paragraph that the scribe really gets into his stride. Notice, too, that the first two words (In principio – In the beginning…) are written with more pen nib angle changes than for the remaining Angled Pen Uncial script. This page, too, because it is the first page, is more discoloured and worn than the rest of the book.

St Cuthbert's Gospel 2And the remarkable aspect of this book is how even and pleasing on the page the text is. There is considerable consistency to the lettering, and it is quite easy to read with very few contractions, unlike some manuscripts written centuries later. Look out for Lazarus at the end of the second line on the right, for example (obviously this page is about the raising of Lazarus). It is written per cola et commata, that is the length of the line is determined by the sense of the text, and a subsequent clause starts on the next line. You may also be able to see the fuzzy ink indicating an erasing at the start of line 8. The scribe has scratched out whatever it was written in error and the vellum skin is rougher at this point. Look out, too, for where the ink is running out and so the scribe fills his quill for the next letter. In the second to last line the letters TT in quattuor have had additions to the start of the serifs on the crossbar (look closely, and see that the crossbars are fainter at the beginnings and ends, and so the scribe has added tiny strokes with a full quill of ink to emphasise them).

Look also at the free Calligraphy Clips page on this website for how to write this style of lettering (it’s the latest set I’ve put up so you’ll need to scroll to the bottom).

photoWhen the St Cuthbert Gospel was saved for the nation, the British Library made a film to celebrate this, and I was lucky enough to be asked to show how the first page was done. I tried to be as ‘period’ as I could. I knew that a plastic ruler wouldn’t quite cut the mustard, so I found a piece of wood to draw the lines (rather large, but it was real wood), and fished out an old bradawl from the tool box to score the lines. There is no sound on this clip, but it does show how the page would have been set out, and how the letters were written.

The book is now at the British Library, and they were thrilled to own it now, as is evident on this BBC World News item with Dr Claire Breay (a couple of seconds in on this clip). It is usually on display in the British Library, and for many years it was shown closed – very frustrating to we scribes! Conservation experts have indicated that it can now be displayed open so everyone can have a chance of studying the wonderful script for themselves.