The Saint Petersburg Bede is the second oldest copy of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) and was written within a few years after the completion of the work around 731. Previously known as the Leningrad Bede, it was taken back to Russia from Paris after it was stolen from the Abbey of St Germaine-des-Prés in 1791. It was produced either at the scriptorium of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria, or at nearby York. The Latin text is written in an Insular minuscule with a hybrid uncial display font used sparingly as part of the decorative text marking the beginning of main sections.
The book contains the M-text of Bede’s history (version L) as well as one of two vernacular copies of Caedmon’s Hymn, making it important for literary and linguistic studies. Although it has a distinctly Insular decorative program limited to the embellishment of its text, it does feature the oldest known historiated initial in Europe: the bust of a saint within an enlarged H. It is a splendid work that holds a special position in the history of western manuscripts.
The Earliest Historiated Initial
Historiated initials are enlarged letters that contain human figures either as individual portraits or within narrative scenes. The Saint Petersburg Bede preserves the oldest known of these in western manuscripts. On folio 26v, the beginning of the second book is demarcated with an enlarged HIS (HIS temporibus, id est anno dominicae incarnationis DCV, beatus papa Gregorius) in a square field. The background of the uncial letters is a patchwork of red, blue, and green with the H and I filled with knotwork.
Within the H is the top half of a male saint, his cheeks red wearing colorful robes. He holds a cross crosier in his right hand and a book with his draped left hand. A later scribe has labeled the figure as St. Augustus, however, given that the text refers to the sainted Pope Gregory, the historiated initial may mean to represent him.
Second Earliest Version of Bede’s Historia
Several early manuscript copies exist of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, and they are generally divided into two types, the m-type, with an additional miracle and an annal terminus of 731, and the c-type, omitting the miracle and terminating at 734.
While there is disagreement about the original version, textual and paleographic analysis place the Saint Petersburg Bede before 750. This makes it second only to the Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, Kk. 5. 16) as the earliest copy of Bede’s landmark history.
A Book of Ambassadors
The circumstances of the Saint Petersburg Bede are unknown before the seventeenth century when it likely came into the possession of Christophe de Harlay, Comte de Beaumont, who was serving as French ambassador to England from 1602-1605.
He was on good terms with a group of Scottish nobles and given the Northumbrian origins of the manuscript, he may have obtained it through them. This assumption is made due to the binding from ca. 1700 that features the arms and initials of his descendant, Achille de Harlay.
In 1755, it entered the Abbey of St. Germaine-des-Prés in Paris, but was stolen from there in 1791 with several other manuscripts. It came into the possession of Peter Dubrowsky, then Russian ambassador to France. It was taken to Russia in 1800 and entered the National Library in Saint Petersburg in 1805.
From circa 1700, the binding is brown leather featuring the Harlay arms. The spine is embossed with ADHCDB for Achille de Harlay, Comte de Beaumont.