Skip to main content

The Book and the Transformation of Britain, ca. 550-1050: A Study in Written and Visual Literacy and Orality

Michelle P. Brown
Published by The British Library in 2012

Reviewed by David Lyle Jeffrey, Literature and the Humanities, Baylor University

Anyone who has read so much as one of her many books knows that Michelle P. Brown, Curator Emerita of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library and Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies and History of the Book at the University of London, is no ordinary scholar. Among her more than a dozen volumes, The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts (1998), The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe (2003), How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland (2006), and The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval Words (2010) are all authoritative. Amongst her many edited volumes, In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000, done for an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2006, is a critically acclaimed hallmark study. Just now in her mid-fifties, Prof. Brown is at the peak of her powers, and she has no equal in the field of manuscript study in the English-speaking world. When she sets her hand to a book so evidently at the heart of her life’s work, the reader has every reason to anticipate another authoritative volume, and indeed, the anticipation is fully rewarded in the book under review here, an expansion of her Sandars Lectures in Bibliography, given at Cambridge University in 2009. It is a magisterial work, definitive historically, yet wonderfully attuned to issues attending literacy in our own time.

To begin with, Brown asks us to consider the relation of visual and textual literacy in Anglo-Saxon in England as if they were in many ways similar to their relationship in our own digital age: monks who copied works on vellum, then illustrated and bound their volumes, she likens to desktop publishers today; wooden and wax tablets for quick copy she describes as “the lap-tops of their day.” While this may seem whimsical, when she gets to describing the relation of word and image in medieval culture and the degree to which orality and visual literacy enrich rather than diminish our idea of literacy, her thesis becomes intriguing. It helps the reader enormously, and significantly beautifies this book, that images play a large part in advancing her argument; there are 88 illustrations of texts, mostly manuscripts illuminated with images, many of the plates in color.

Brown draws attention to a split in Northern England and the Scottish border country between two very different attitudes toward textuality. While Celtic cultures privileged orality, committing texts to memory rather than to parchment or vellum, Latin cultures limited to those only who could read Latin literary texts the designation literati. Anglo-Saxon culture, sandwiched between these and already possessed of a “secret” runic alphabet (furtharc, an analogue to Irish ogam) but also having a strong tradition of pictorial language, worked out its own ideas about literacy in an inter-cultural space.

Brown’s book has a tripartite organization, in the first section of which she examines the work of the scribe as a transmitter, one who in an apostolic sense hands down that which he has received. The tradition once published in papyrus scroll (rotulus or volumen) gave way around the first or early second century to the codex, or bound and paginated book, made popular by early Christian writers though actually first recommended by the Roman poet Martial. By the fourth century the codex was evidently the medium of choice. By then translation from Greek and Hebrew in Europe was a part of the “handing down,” and Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, was the preferred language of transmission. What Brown shows us, however, is how efforts to evangelize the peoples of northern Europe especially, invited a further stage of translations, vernaculars now not of Italian culture but of Germanic and Celtic tribes with a very different heritage. As monastic communities took on the task of preparing priests to minister to communities of converts, it soon became apparent that translation into the new vernaculars was essential. One of these, Brown’s chief focus in this book, was Anglo-Saxon, the language of early medieval Britain excepting Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It is remarkable to see and reflect upon the image of the great Jewish scribe Ezra, seated in front of a book-case with the books of Scripture he has been copying, as frontispiece to the Codex Amiatinus, one of the great pandect (complete) Bibles transcribed for Ceolfrith about 715 A.D. in Northumbria. In these and other visual loci, Brown shows, the textual tradition is clearly presented from the beginning as a handing down of that which began with the Torah transcriptions of Moses.

What Brown is pleased to call “communities of reading,” literacy in the Benedictine monastic environment, is thus shown to have visual as well as intelligible connection to the foundations of biblical tradition from the beginning. What she shows more fully than almost anyone is what this complex and very rich tradition of manuscript book production has cost in human discipline and dedicated learning. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had a respect for the Word of God, she shows, that shames us. Their commitment to extending literacy, and their astounding success in that endeavor, owes to a consistency and perseverance in regard to Christian tradition that we can scarcely now appreciate. Orality – including the hearing of Scripture in worship and the commitment of it to memory in monastic education – is central. A Gothic codex Bible, such as the Codex Upsalensis, copied in the sixth century in Ravenna, probably for the despotic Ostragothic ruler, Theodoric, is only one testimony to a cultural passion much deeper than may be measured in any such single example, however magnificent, namely a determination to inculcate through manuscript books the Word “written on the tablets of the heart,” as John Wyclif was one day to phrase the goal of textual and oral transmission.

Moreover, Brown reveals that this was not, as often it is represented, a gendered enterprise, the work only of male monks in the cloister. Brown details how women were among the scribes, the illustrators, the patrons, and the communities of reading in which Christian knowledge flourished – especially in Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic environments. Moreover, the community of reading was everywhere transparently international, as she shows, with manuscripts as far away as Sinai and Baghdad having a direct relationship to the work of scribes in England – and indeed the reverse.

The evangelical motive was key, the animus for such a massive and principled effort at a total cultural literacy. Books became teachers. When women were instructed by books, they became teachers of children. Brown offers a lively demonstration of the myriad ways by which book culture among medieval Christians in rough Anglo-Saxon England became the means by which learning was codified and historical consciousness expanded. Her exposition of the work of Bede and Alfred is finely attuned and inspiring; her detailed accounts of the formation of the library of Benedict Biscop and other libraries pay tribute to a seriousness in Christian education such as we might wish for today. Her history fittingly concludes with a brief account of how the study of Scripture became in Anglo-Saxon Britain a vernacular activity, presaging the distinctive disposition and character of Anglo-Saxon Christian culture.

This is a wonderful book, richly annotated in such a way as to provide a survey of relevant scholarship, and yet accessible and of much interest to historians, literary and linguistic students, and art historians as well as to theologians and scholars with a specific interest in the history of the book. In short, here is work worthy of serious Christian intellectual consideration.

Cite this article
David Lyle Jeffrey, “The Book and the Transformation of Britain, ca. 550-1050: A Study in Written and Visual Literacy and Orality”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:2 , 197-199

David Lyle Jeffrey

Baylor University
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University.