Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cotton Library Day

The Great Nokes over at Unlocked Wordhoard reminds everyone that today is Cotton Library day....the day in 1731 of the Ashburnham House, then housing the nascent national library, burned down in which much of the Cotton Collection suffered some kind of damage. For us Anglo-Saxonists of all stripes, it's a day to be grateful that we have what we have. The Great Nokes asks readers what their favorite Cotton manuscript is. I went with the obvious one: Cotton Vitellius A.xv.

But it reminded me to talk about a manuscript that *didn't* go through the Ashburnham House fire. I'm sure the one or two people reading this (and I can safely say with absolute certainty that neither reader is my mom or my spouse!) are saying "Huh?"

Oxford Bodleian Library Laud 509 is a copy of Aelfric of Eynsham's "translations" of the Heptateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, followed by Aelfric's sermon summarizing Judges). These are followed by Aelfric's letters to Wulfgat and Sigeweard, and then a copy of prose Life of Guthlac that is now a separate manuscript, London, British Library Cotton Vitellius D.xxi, but was originally the ending of Laud 509. The other main manuscript with the Hexateuch is also a Cottonian manuscript, Claudius B.iv and has the advantage of being wonderfully illustrated.

Ok, so, the attentive reader will have noted that Laud 509 has a copy of a text that is also in a Cottonian manuscript, and what's more part of Laud 509 remained with the Cottonian library, and obviously both went through the fire. So that should indicate that Laud 509 was once a part of the Cottonian did it come to Oxford and be designated Laud 509?

Well, there's a nice little story there, and I at least find it interesting. Laud 509 was in fact part of the Cotton Library. William L'Isle in the early 17th century became interested in learning Old English and to establish certain doctrines of the Anglo-Saxon church. The Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation were still in full swing and one of the points that L'Isle and other Protestants continued to argue was the doctrine of the Eucharist and the Biblical text in the vernacular. As is well known, the English Reformers used Aelfric and other Anglo-Saxon writers to justify their views. So L'Isle borrowed from Cotton the two manuscripts with the Hexateuch. He made notes from them and in them over the early years of the 17th century and returned the illustrated hexateuch in Claudius B.iv to Cotton as the more valuable of the two. He returned and reborrowed Laud 509 over the years and even offered an exchange of some of his manuscripts in return for 509. Cotton died, and after his death L'Isle simply kept the manuscript for his use in preparing a vernacular edition of the English Bible in Old English, a project that his own death prevented him from completing. It is apparent that at some point early on, Cotton himself separated the Guthlac from the other texts as there is no evidence of L'Isle's notes in that portion and that the Guthlac traveled with the Cotton Library and not with L'Isle's 509.

L'Isle died in the late 1630s and somehow the manuscript was acquired by Archbishop Laud, seemingly with an interest in the vernacular Bible of the Anglo-Saxon period as L'Isle was. But Laud was running afoul of Parliament: by this time we're fast approaching Cromwell and Milton et al, both of whom are already active. If memory serves Laud, sensing trouble brewing, made two large manuscript bequests to Oxford in 1641-2, including this manuscript. And that's how a Cottonian manuscript came to Oxford and escaped the Ashburnham House fire of 1731.

In full disclosure, the foregoing is not the result of my original research. It is a summary of what is found in Neil Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon and Graham, Timothy. “Early Modern Users of Claudius B.Iv: Robert Talbot and William L’Isle.” In The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches, ed. Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000. For more, I write about this manuscript in chapter 3 of the ol' beast.

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