The Benedictional ofAethelwold is a service book of prayers made for Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester between 970 and 984. It features twenty-eight full-page illuminations all of which are surrounded by the florid borders typical of the Winchester style. Although it is missing as many as fifteen other illuminated pages, likely lost when its jeweled covers were removed, an additional nineteen framed pages, two historiated initials, and gold and red lettering throughout make this one of the most lavishly decorated manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England.
The volume’s text is as elaborate as its imagery. The principal hand, written by a scribe called Godeman is a handsome Caroline minuscule, purposefully employing Europe’s primary monastic hand rather than the domestic vernacular minuscule. Rubricated Roman rustic capitals and formal, classicizing chapter initials reinforce ties to the Roman church. This glorious manuscript is the ultimate expression of the religious, literary, and artistic culture of the Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon England.
The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art
The second half of the tenth century saw a flowering of art and culture in Anglo-Saxon England. A revival of both Anglo-Saxon and Latin literature was coupled with the production of numerous manuscripts, many of which were elaborately ornamented with full-page figural illustrations, florid borders, golden lettering, and jeweled covers.
The Benedictional of Arthelwold is the pinnacle of this style with its restless painterly energy, bright pinks, and whites contrasting with muted earth tones and golden script.
It reflects the desire for the English monasteries to take their new place in western Christendom by fusing the iconography of the Carolingian Renaissance with classic Insular decorative practices all executed with the expressive disquiet of the Anglo-Saxon figural style.
Monastic Revival and Reform in Anglo-Saxon England
After the destruction wrought by Danish invaders through the ninth and first half of the tenth century, the unification of England under Eadred (d. 955) in 954 paved the way for the rebuilding and expansion of monastic foundations.
Aethelwold was pivotal in this process and generally enjoyed royal support, especially under Edgar (d. 975). He wrote the Regularis Concordia to regulate the practices of Benedictine foundations in England and his reforms were intended to bring English practice in line with those of the Carolingians. This looking to Europe is evident in the choice of Caroline minuscule and Carolingian manuscript style in the production of his benedictional.
Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester
Æthelwold was one of the most important Anglo-Saxon clerics. He possessed broad intellectual talents. He was a writer, teacher, politician, and clergyman and had much influence on Anglo-Saxon society, especially through his heavy-handed monastic reforms. While he is often called a saint and his feast day is held on the first of August, he was never formally canonized.
His benedictional was certainly produced at the Old Minster in Winchester and remained there until the Reformation. The first record of private ownership is by Henry Compton, who died in 1713. It was then given to William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, and remained in that family until it was acquired for the public by the British Museum in 1957.
Image courtesy by the British Library
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "Benedictional of St. Aethelwold":
- The benedictional of Saint Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, 963-984 facsimile edition published by Roxburghe Club, 1910
- The benedictional of Æthelwold facsimile edition published by Princeton University Press, 1995
- The benedictional of St Æthelwold facsimile edition published by British Library, 2002