Posted by Richard Higgins on 29th January 2019

Who Consults the Durham Cathedral Library Manuscripts and Why

By Catherine Monahan

In a recent trip to England, I visited Durham Cathedral in hopes of viewing several of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts found in the Cathedral Library. As the Managing Editor of the Dictionary of Old English, I was looking forward to seeing the actual manuscripts rather than the poor copies which we consult regularly during the process of writing entries for the Dictionary of Old English (DOE). I was particularly interested in the Durham Ritual (Durham Cathedral MS A.IV.19) and a small Latin – Old English glossary of herb names found in Durham Cathedral MS Hunter 100.

Each of these two manuscripts provide particular points of interest when it comes to dealing with their content.

The Durham ritual is a tenth-century Latin manuscript which (like the Lindisfarne Gospels) has had a running gloss of Old English added in tiny script above each Latin word. What is unusual about this particular manuscript is that the Old English is highly abbreviated with many atypical spellings. When we write a dictionary entry for any Old English word, we try to include all the known spellings and the Durham Ritual provides many that do not occur anywhere else in the extant Old English corpus.

Durham Cathedral MS Hunter 100 is a manuscript written at Durham shortly after 1100 and it piqued our interest because it contains, in its glossary of herb names, the earliest instance we can find of the word lavender (predating that noted in the Oxford English Dictionary).

As it happened, I was unable to see either manuscript since the Durham Ritual is presently a part of the British Library exhibit, “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” and Hunter 100 is too fragile for display. Most fortunately, both manuscripts are now available as part of the “Durham Priory Library Recreated” project, and can therefore be viewed online. When several members of our project visited the digital site, we were very impressed with the high quality of the manuscript images. They are a huge improvement over what was previously available to us and as such, a great boon to Anglo-Saxon scholars.

About DOE

The Dictionary of Old English (DOE) defines the vocabulary of the first six centuries (C.E. 600-1150) of the English language, using twenty-first century technology. The DOE complements the Middle English Dictionary (which covers the period C.E. 1100-1500) and the Oxford English Dictionary, the three together providing a full description of the vocabulary of English.

The Dictionary of Old English (DOE) is a research project based at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. Begun in the 1970s as a ground-breaking foray into the digital humanities, the DOE has two distinct areas of focus. First, it has assembled and digitized the entire extant literature written in Old English between CE 600 and 1150. Every written word, including poetry, charms, inscriptions on jewelry and on stone, historical and legal documents, botanical and medical texts, has been input to build an electronic corpus of Old English. Second, the DOE treats this digital corpus as the master source for the dictionary. Before defining any word, the editors of the DOE survey each and every example of it occurring in this corpus, reviewing, analyzing and organizing the evidence to produce an entry that documents every nuance of the word.

example entry from online dictionary of Old English

The Dictionary of Old English has published online eleven fascicles to date, which cover the first ten letters – A to I – of the 22-letter Old English alphabet. We are presently working on drafting entries beginning with the letter L.

A notable feature of the online DOE: A to I is the incorporation of manuscript images. These images, which allow readers to see contested passages, enable DOE users to examine manuscript evidence for themselves. As more manuscripts become available online, we hope to expand the number of these links to problematic passages.

Visit our webpage ( to check out our Word of the Week section, a selection of words from unpublished entries; the weekly word can be received by email on request. We also have an “Adopt-a-Word” campaign where Old English enthusiasts can support the writing of their favourite Anglo-Saxon word. Here are just a few to chose from:

lācnestre ‘female physician’

lamb ‘lamb’

lǣcecræft ‘medicine’

lāþ ‘repulsive’

lāþian ‘to loathe’

lēof ‘beloved’

lēogan ‘to tell a lie’

lēoht ‘bright’

leornian ‘to learn’

lufu ‘love’

lust ‘desire’

Posted by Richard Higgins on 24th November 2018

Identifying pigments used in manuscripts

‘Team Pigment’ a group of historians and chemists from Durham and Northumbria Universities are currently analysing manuscripts from the 5th to the 15th century in order to ascertain which pigments are dyes were used in the creation of these splendid works. In a previous blog post, the reasons why ‘Team Pigment’ are researching this area were discussed. In this blog post I am to give an overview into ‘how’ pigments are analysed.

Several methods can be used to identify pigments on the page, one of which is Diffuse Reflectance Spectroscopy (DRS). This method utilises the fact that visible light reflected from a sample produces an individual spectrum dependant on the nature of a sample. For example a white light shined on the blue pigment lapis lazuli will produce a spectrum as shown below on the left. This shows reflectance in the blue part of the spectrum but also some towards the red end of the spectrum. The diffuse reflectance spectrum of a different blue pigment, smalt, is shown below on the right. This spectrum again shows reflectance in the blue and red areas of the spectrum, but in a different pattern from that of lapis lazuli. In this way, and when compared to known samples, pigments in manuscripts may be discerned even when to the naked eye the samples look the same.

Diffuse reflectance spectra of lapis lazuli and smalt both identical to the human eye

However, diffuse reflectance has its limitations, as some pigments produce very similar spectra. Infrared spectroscopy is another tool that can be used and which works in a similar way to diffuse reflectance but in the infra-red portion of the spectrum.

Yet another tool, and one which ‘Team Pigment’ are developing with high-specification and portable equipment, is Raman spectroscopy. This technique identifies vibrations in molecules to produce a Raman spectrum of bands at certain wavenumbers. When compared to library data the sample can be ascertained. Below is a manuscript from Durham Cathedral that has been examined. The Raman spectrum of the pigments gives us conclusive evidence about which pigments were used to decorate the page.

Raman spectra of an illustration in A.II.10, part of a 7th Century Gospel Book

Alongside these three techniques, multi-spectral imaging is also used. This is where light of different wavelengths are shone onto the page being examined, and a picture is taken using a filter at a specific wavelength. This can sometimes reveal under painting or writing, as well as providing further information about pigments. We can even see if anyone has sneezed on the page, as the sneeze shows as a luminous splatter in ultra-violet light!

Louise Garner, Durham, October 2018


Posted by Richard Higgins on 26th July 2018

Why analyse pigments in manuscripts?

In the next few months and years you may see more and more information on pigments available on the Durham Priory Recreated website.  Collected by ‘Team Pigment’ – a group of chemists and historians from Durham and Northumbria Universities  – this information aims to tell the viewer which exact pigments or dyes were used to create the splendid illustrations contained within the manuscript collection. In this blog post I try to answer the question of why ‘Team Pigment’ has such an interest in this research.

MS DCL C.I.9 under modified light

In the past few centuries, scientific techniques have been employed to understand further the technology that was employed in the making of these magnificent books.  At first, the field was invasive – samples were taken, books were unbound, and parchment was cut.  Some nineteenth century scholars even employed strange methods to learn more – in one case tipping strongly brewed tea onto the surface of a manuscript in an effort to reveal the secrets that lay beneath the surface!  However, these techniques have thankfully been recognised as damaging and detrimental and now there are an increasing number of non-invasive analytical scientific techniques that can be employed.

Professor Richard Gameson from Durham University and a member of ‘Team Pigment’ looks over The York Gospels, which is about to be analysed with The Raman Spectrometer



One area of manuscript studies that has benefitted immensely from this analysis is the study of the inks and pigments used to write and decorate these great works.  In the field of history, knowledge of which pigments were used to create illustrations can answer many questions. Individual illuminations and other artworks can be assigned to individual scribes or illuminators.  Knowledge of scribal practice can tell us more about how manuscripts were created, the transmission of manuscripts across the world, and the itinerary of scribes/illuminators. Trends in pigment use over time and place can show the creation of and changes in trade routes and the impact of cultural and religious events on commerce can be further established.

Aside from history, pigment analysis also has many conservation implications as correct identification of pigments used allows increasingly sensitive conservation techniques to be applied.  There are also wider applications of the use of pigment identification – to detect fraudulent works of art where anachronistic pigments are used, for example.

As the application of non-invasive analytical techniques on priceless manuscripts has become more commonplace, and more and more scholars are turning to science to answer the questions they are asking, technology has had to keep pace in order to provide the answers.  At the University of Durham, the capabilities of the Raman spectrometer that occupies an entire room and weighs half a ton, are replicated by a portable spectrometer that fits into two suitcases. Advances in this portability mean that the equipment can travel nationally and internationally to a manuscript, and examination can take place in situ rather than the manuscript having to move.

Louise Garner, a Durham PhD scholar and member of “Team Pigment” previews Douce 296 at The Bodleian Library, Oxford before the manuscript undergoes analysis

Whilst manuscripts are not quite as fragile as one might suppose (one could take a match to parchment and would have trouble keeping a fire burning) the illustrations themselves are sometimes not standing the tests of time.  Past exposure to sunlight, water damage, rough treatment and the passage of time itself can degrade the pigment colour or composition, or both, and pigments sometimes flake off the writing support.  Sometimes pigments can “eat” through the parchment itself, or react with other pigments to produce unfavourable effects, and it is conservation research that aims to halt this.

Louise Garner, Durham, July 2018

Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 29th June 2018

Law as Theology: Hypothesising about one of Durham’s canon law manuscripts

DCL B.IV.18, fol. 1r. 

Durham Cathedral Library, MS B.IV.18, written in the early twelfth century, begins with what canon law scholars call the ‘Canterbury Abridgement’ of Collectio Lanfranci, which would be the canonical collection Lanfranc of Bec brought with him to England and dispersed whilst Archbishop of Canterbury (1070-1089). This manuscript and the other one that contains the abridgement, Lambeth Palace MS 351, were written at Christ Church, Canterbury, based on palaeography. The abridgement is followed by a selection of letters from Gregory the Great.

As Martin Brett has discussed (see bibliography at bottom), the Canterbury Abridgement is not especially useable. The excerpts from papal letters and conciliar canons all just run together with no headings to help guide the interested reader. Not only this, I would also say it is not particularly useful, not, at least, the way we might expect a canon law book to be used by a reader.

Living in an age of reference works, handbooks, and manuals, we expect an abridgement of Lanfranci to be something that someone could take up, skim through, and find interesting bits of canon law, perhaps to help him in an upcoming trial or to sort out whether he could marry his deceased brother’s widow. Unfortunately for such a reader, not only is the Canterbury abridgement entirely unsuited to this task, it is likely to be completely useless, including as it does such unhelpful pieces of church regulation as Leo the Great’s statements on what to do if someone has been captured by pagan barbarians and forced to participate in feasts in honour of pagan gods.

My hypothesis is that the Canterbury Abridgement is not canon law. It is theology.

It is very common to say that canon law did not exist as a separate discipline from theology before Gratian and the rise of the schools of law, starting in Bologna in the mid-1100s. Yet we continually treat the pre-Gratian canonical collections and the body of church canons as ‘canon law’. Perhaps this is the wrong way of going about it.

The first step in testing this hypothesis is actually reading all of the Canterbury Abridgement (I’ve yet to do this). The second step I have already taken — considering the rest of the contents of the manuscript. These contents are what made my hypothesis arise. After the regulatory material, which also includes the Concordat of Worms (1122), DCL B.IV.18 includes the Cena Cypriani, which is a long, biblical allegorical amusement piece, the Canterbury Forgeries, Hugh of St Victor in a later hand, excerpts from Augustine, then more ‘canon law’ material.

What does all this regulatory material have in common with the Cena and Augustine?

That is a theological question. The canons of the church are the application of theological principles to concrete human situations, are they not? Theology, such as Augustine on the Trinity, is the application of human reason to the questions of God. Both of them seek order. The former seeks the right ordering of human relationships. The latter considers the ordering of divine relationships. They interact with each other more than one would think. (On this, think on Wei, Gratian the Theologian.)

Iustitia and rectitudo — these are part of the divine oikonomia, are they not? And they are meant to be part of the human oikonomia operating out of divine gratia.

What that means in the context of this manuscript — that remains to be seen.


Image provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

Brett, Martin. ‘The Collectio Lanfranci and Its Competitors’, in Intellectual Life in the Middle Ages: Essays Presented to Margaret Gibson, ed. Lesley M. SmithBenedicta Ward (London 1992), 157-174, at 161.

Evans, G. R. Law and Theology in the Middle Ages. London, 2002.

Wei, John C. Gratian the Theologian. Washington, D.C., 2016.

Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 14th June 2018

Sorting out your Fulgentii

In the old catalogue of Durham Cathedral Library, Codicum manuscriptorum Ecclesiae Cathedralis Dunelmensis catalogus classicus from 1825, you will find the following Fulgentius entries:

The Homilia of page 56 is in DCL, A.III.29, folio 313, part of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (not the manuscript I blogged on before, that was B.II.2). The Homiliae of page 98 are the afore-blogged Homiliary in B.II.2 — two homilies this time, starting on folios 4v and 29r. The third set of homilies is in another Homiliary, B.II.31, three homilies starting on folios 26, 30, and 47 according to the catalogue. These are homilies of St Fulgentius of Ruspe, who lived c. 467 – c. 532.

The next item is the Epistola de Fide. This text is in B.IV.12, starting folio 1r:

Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

This is an anti-Arian tract by Fulgentius of Ruspe, Ep. 8 of his correspondance.

Then we have Comm. in Mythologiae, found in B.IV.38, starting folio 92, the Commentarius in Fulgentii Mythologias. This is a commentary on the Mythologiae of Fabius Planciades Fulgentius, a fellow African who live around the same time as the Bishop of Ruspe but is a different person altogether. Some have previously thought them the same, but, as I understand it, scholarly consensus today divides our two Fulgentii.

What is strange about this index is that, after the commentary on the other Fulgentius, we are directed to the De Fide ad Petrum in DCL B.II.27 by Fulgentius Ruspensis, as though this were a work by a different person. I assume the index was compiled by someone different from the catalogue itself, since it gives the impression that we have two Fulgentii, but divides the works wrong.

Why does this matter? Well, I have an interest in Fulgentius of Ruspe as someone who was influenced by the theology of Leo the Great and engaged in what some call ‘the Arian controversy 2.0’ — he shows the sixth-century synthesis of earlier theology. I am, perhaps, less interested Fulgentius the mythographer, but he is still worthy of interest for me as an intellectual historian whose work, when not analysing mediaeval canon law, looks at the fifth century.

For both Fulgentii, mansucripts are important. In fact, manuscripts are important for all pre-print authors. Studying them helps us understand the authors better. Textual criticism brings us closer to their own words as well as showing us how they were read and interpreted in history. Furthermore, in a library like Durham’s, it is worth knowing which authors were transcribed and read. One of my hypotheses I want to test is the idea of canon law as theology, and the only way to do that is to consider the non-canon law books from the same library.

If we can’t keep our Fulgentii straight, we’ll have trouble understanding the history of ideas and manuscripts.

Anyway, all of this to say: I do look forward to Richard Gameson’s catalogue when it is finished. And I look forward to the day when all of these opera Fulgentii are digitised and can be worked on from the comfort of my own office.