Three hands, one manuscript: examining MS.46

Show Navigation

By | Early Medicine

Sarah Gilbert recently completed an MPhil looking at Anglo-Saxon medical recipes recorded outside of the main medical compendia from the period. One of the most interesting manuscripts that she looked at was Wellcome Library, MS.46. She will be undertaking a PhD at the University of Exeter from October 2013 examining marginalia in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Sarah is also interested in the modern understanding of medieval culture, including how films and games retell medieval stories.

L0067134 Anglo-Saxon Medical Manuscript

Anglo-Saxon Medical Manuscript. Collection of five receipts, for heartache, lung disease, ‘wenns’ or tumours, and liver disease. Click on image for more details. (Wellcome Library MS 46)

In around 1000 CE three Anglo-Saxon scribes contributed to what would become one of the most unusual manuscripts to have survived from Anglo-Saxon England.

Now in the collections of the Wellcome Library, this manuscript, catalogued as MS.46, is a single page that was cut away from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, with five medical recipes in Old English on one side, and short quotations and scribbles on the other. We don’t know when it became separated from its original manuscript, or even which manuscript it was separated from. The page was probably toward the back of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript that contained another text entirely – the recipes were entered onto a leaf that was left blank when the main text had been completed.

We can work out roughly when the recipes were written down based on the scribes’ handwriting. Anglo-Saxon handwriting followed fashions and the three Anglo-Saxon hands on MS.46 are all typical of English scribal styles from about 1000 CE. All three scribes used the English Vernacular minuscule script with varying degrees of success; scribe 1 in particular is quite inconsistent in his letter forms. The three scribes of MS.46 are by no means terrible, but only scribe 3’s writing has much in common with the practised Old English book hands that one finds in the Beowulf manuscript or the Old English boundary clauses of contemporary charters. This makes MS.46 even more special as most of the surviving manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England were copied by monks whose days were spent writing: they were monks by vocation, but scribes by profession within their religious houses. The recipes on MS.46 look like the work of monks who had been taught to read and write as part of the standard monastic education, but who were not used to copying texts on a regular basis. The recipes seem to be more of a voluntary contribution, rather than a planned text, and where one monk started, two others followed.

L0067135 Anglo-Saxon Medical Manuscript

Verso MS 46, Wellcome Library.

Anglo-Saxon medicine is important within the context of early medieval European medicine, as it is the only medical tradition where original medical recipes have survived that were written in the vernacular (Old English), rather than Latin copies of Classical recipes. Four large texts of Anglo-Saxon medical recipes have survived, but none of the recipes on MS.46 appear to directly match any of the recipes recorded in these key texts, suggesting that they may have been copied from one or more sources that are now unknown to us.

Nevertheless, there is a  link between MS.46, recipe 3, and British Library Cotton Domitian i, an Anglo-Saxon miscellany containing copies of works by Isidore and Bede. The medical recipe on BL Cotton Domitian i, f.55v was copied at St Augustine’s some time in the second half of the tenth century and so it predates the hands on MS.46 by up to fifty years. I have reproduced the two recipes below and underlined shared words and phrases:

BL Cotton Domitian i, f.55v:

Þas wyrta sceolon to wensealfe . elene . garleac . cerfuille . rædic . næp . hremnes fot . hunig 7 pipur . cnucige ealle ða wyrta wringe þurh clað . 7 wylle þonne on þam hunige.

Wellcome Library, MS.46, recipe 3:

Hat wyrcean þe sylf wenn sealfe man sceal niman clæne hunig swylc man to blacan briwe deþ 7 wyllan hit neah briwes þicnesse .7 niman rædic 7 elenan . fillan 7 hrefnes fot, \næp/ cnocian swa man betst moeg. 7 wringan þonne þa wyrta 7 geotan þæt was þærto 7 þonne hit beo forneah gewylled cnucian godne dæl gar leaces 7 don þærto 7 piperian swaswa þe þince.

London Wellcome Library MS 46 1r recipe 3[1]

Wellcome Library, MS.46, recipe 3

The list of ingredients required by each recipe to make the ‘wennsalve’ is identical (‘fillan’ has long been proposed as ‘chervil’, but with little strong evidence for it – these recipes prove that the identification is correct) although the version in MS 46 is obviously more detailed.

As to the reason why the three scribes of MS.46 wrote down the recipes, it is impossible to know for certain. There is a chance that the scribes of MS.46 were copying recipes from multiple sources in order to build their own mini-medical compendium, that they had access to BL Cotton Domitian i, and added a recipe from it to their list, but I do not think that such a direct relationship can be proved as there are too many small variations in the two copies of the recipe. Furthermore, none of the other recipes on MS.46 have such close relationships with any other surviving recipes from Anglo-Saxon England.

MS.46 is a remarkable witness to monastic scholarship and an important example for Anglo-Saxon historians of the vernacular medical culture, and spontaneous writing. MS.46 differs from most surviving Anglo-Saxon texts in that it is not a meticulous, planned production. The leaf may have been a jotting page that was later intended to be re-copied in a larger collated recipe book, or simply a recipe list by the monks of one particular house, culled from other texts that they had access to, in order to form their own informal repository. The leaf shows us that multiple monks at one religious house were interested in medical recipes, and were comfortable with writing in the back of a pre-existing book in order to collect their notes together.

MS.46 has survived reformation, bookbinders, fire and neglect. For one small page, it makes a large contribution to our understanding of monastic networks, religious scholarship, and early medieval  medicine.

Author: Sarah Gilbert.

For more on MS.46’s provenance, see this previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.