4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

700 to 800 Timeline


One of the Oldest Surviving Hebrew Fragments Written in Europe Circa 700

One of the oldest fragments of a Hebrew manuscript written and preserved in Europe is probably a Latin palimpsest written on fragments of a Hebrew roll which contained liturgy for Yom Kippur. Estimated to date from about the beginning of the eighth century, it is preserved at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 6325. 

Malachi Beit-Arié, "How Hebrew Manuscripts are Made," Gold (ed.) A Sign and a Witness. 2000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts (1988) 36.

(This entry was last revised on 04-23-2014.)

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Traversing the Mediterranean in Twenty Days 700

"Water is to all primitive systems of transport what railways have been in modern times: the one, indispensable artery for heavy freight. Once a cargo left the waters of the Mediterranean or of a great river, its brisk and inexpensive progress changed to a ruinous slow motion. It cost less to bring a cargo of grain from one end of the Mediterranean to another than to carry it another seventy-five miles inland.

"So the Roman empire always consisted of two, overlapping worlds. Up to A D 700, great towns by the sea remained close to each other: twenty days of clear sailing would take the traveller from one end of the Mediterranean, the core of the Roman world, to the other. Inland, however, Roman life had always tended to coagulate in little oases, like drops of water on a drying surface. The Romans are renowned for the roads that ran through their empire; but the roads passed through towns where the inhabitants gained all that they ate and most of what they used, from within a radius of only thirty miles" (Brown, The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750 [1989] 12-13).

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The First State Libraries in Japan 702

"It is in the eighth century that we have the first firm evidence [in Japan] of collections of books maintained by the state, by religious institutions and by private individuals. The lawcodes promulgated in 702 established the first state library, the Zushoryo, which was supervised by a government ministry [in Nara] and was largely modelled on the Bi shu sheng of Tang China. It was responsible for collecting and conserving both Buddhist and Confucian books and, unlike the Bi shu sheng, was required to complile official histories. For these purposes it had a staff of 4 papermakers, 10 brushmakers, 4 inkmakers and 20 copyists, for collecting was partly dependent on the copying of texts held elsewhere. It consumed huge quantities of paper, drawn by the tenth century from 42 of the 66 provinces, and appears to have become increasingly absorbed in sutra-copying. The statutes contained in the Engishiki include a number of regulations relating to the  Zushoryo, such as a requirement that the books be aired regularly, which shows that it also functioned as a repository of books. Precisely what books is unclear, although a ruling in 728 refers to both secular and Buddhist works as well as screens and paintings, and by 757 the Zushoryo had its own catalogue. The same source stipulates that permission was needed if somebody wished to borrow more than one item at a time, but doubtless the right to borrow was restricted. In 833 some of the buildings were burnt down and in 1027 its treasures were destroyed by fire. It may have been revived as there is a record of another fire in 1042, but it then disappears from the record until the Meiji government established a new Zushoryo in 1884" (Peter Kornicki, The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century [2001] 365).

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The Earliest Surviving Letter Known to Have Been Written from One Englishman to Another 704 – 705

In 1704 Bishop Wealdhere of London wrote a "letter close" , i.e. a letter for private communication, to Archbishop Brihtwold of Canterbury.

This letter, formerly in the library of Robert Cotton, and preserved in the British Library (Brit. Lib. MS Cotton August II, 18), is the earliest surviving

"letter known to have been written by one Englishman to another. . . . Although the letter has no dating clause, internal evidence shows that it cannot have been written earlier than 704, the year of Centred's accession to the Mercian throne, or later than 705, the year of Bishop Haedde's death" (Pierre Chaplais, "The letter from Bishop Wealdhere of London to Archibshop Brihtwold of Canterbury: the earliest original 'letter close' extant in the West", Parkes and Watson (eds.) Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts & Libraries. Essays presented ot N.R. Ker [1978] 3-4).

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Foundation of the Empire of al-Andalus in Spain April 30, 711 – July 19, 718

A map displaying the expansion of the Umayyad empire. (View Larger)

Under the orders of the Great Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I, Muslim general Tariq ibn-Ziyad led a small force from North Africa that landed at Gibraltar on April 30, 711. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Guadalete on July 19, 711, Tariq ibn-Ziyad undertook a seven-year campaign, bringing most of the Visigothic-controlled Iberian peninsula under Muslim rule by 718.

Except for the Kingdom of Asturias, the Iberian peninsula became part of the expanding Umayyad empire, under the name of al-Andalus (Arabic: الأندلس‎). The earliest attestation of this Arab name is a dinar coin, preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, dating from five years after the conquest (716). The coin bears the word "al-Andalus" in Arabic script on one side and the Iberian Latin "Span" on the obverse" (Wikipedia article on Al-Andalus, accessed 12-14-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 04-23-2014.)

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One of the Earliest Newspapers, Written on Silk 713 – 734

A reproduction of the Kalyuan Za Bao, one of the earliest newspapers. (View Larger)

Kaiyuan Za Bao, or Kaiyuan Chao Pao, Bulletin of the Court, an early newspaper, was published during the Kaiyuan era. It may also be considered "the world's first magazine."

Handwritten on silk, Bulletin of the Court collected political and domestic news, mainly for distribution to government officials.

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Creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels 715 – 720

Folio 27r of the Lindisfarne Gospels. (View Larger)

Between 715 and 720 Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, undertook the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Among the many features of this masterpiece are the compass marks, grids and lead-point drawings visible on the backs of the carpet pages. These show how the scribe created the designs for the elaborate illuminations, and reflect clear connections with the design methods used in sculpture and metalwork from the region. The Celtic designs of the manuscript observe the rules of sacred geometry, and are thought to reflect a blend of Eastern "eremitic"  and Western monastic traditions.

"Details were added freehand with a lead-point, the forerunner of the pencil. The use of this was apparently invented by the artist-scribe some 300 years ahead of its time as an alternative to the usual hard-point of bone or metal, which would hae trapped the apint of the fine web of oranment in the furrows it produced (as it did not elave a graphic mark on the page but only dented impressions" (Brown, Painted Labyrinth, 34).

According to a colophon added in the tenth century by Aldred at Chester-le-Street, the Lindisfarne Gospels were created by

"the artist-scribe Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721); the binder Bishop Aethilwald of Lindisfarne (c. 721-750); the metalworker who adorned the binding or book-shrine (now replaced by a 19-century treaure binding), Billfirth the Anchorite, or hermit (who died sometime before 840). Aldred says that the work was undertaken for God and St. Cuthbert. An inscription added some 250 years later cannot be taken at face value, and Ireland, Echternach in Luxembourg and Jarrow have also been proposed as possible places of production of the Lindisfarne Gospels. However, historical and stylistic evidence indicate that the colophon may be right" (Michelle P. Brown, Painted Labyrinth. The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels [2004] 14). 

"The Gospels are richly illustrated in the insular style, and were originally encased in a fine leather binding covered with jewels and metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite in the 8th century. During the Viking raids on Lindisfarne, however, this cover was lost, and a replacement made in 1852. The text is written in insular script" (Wikipedia article on Lindisfarne Gospels, accessed 12-15-2008).

The Gospels were taken from Durham Cathedral during the dissolution of the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII, and were acquired in the early 17th century by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton from Thomas Walker, Clerk of the Parliaments. Cotton's library came to the British Museum in the 18th century, and from there to the British Library.

Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels. Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (2003).

In February 2014 selected pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels were available from the British Library at this link.

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The Earliest Image of a Scribe Using a Writing Table Circa 715 – 720

(View Larger)

Images of scribes in the ancient world typically depict them as writing on their knee. While this may have been a convention or custom, it is hard to believe that no scribes in the ancient world had access to tables for writing.

Saenger theorizes that a writing table, as well as word spacing, would have been necessary for visual copying using silent reading, rather than copying from dictation as is understood to have been done in the ancient world.

The earliest unambiguous image of a scribe using a writing table appears in the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated gospel book that incorporates word spacing, produced on the tidal island of Lindisfarne off the north-east coast of England, circa 715-720. The image is a portrait of the evangelist Mark. f.93v. For a color reproduction see Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels. Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (2003) plate 14.

Saenger, Space Between Words. The Origins of Silent Reading (1997) 48.

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One of the Oldest, Largest, and Most Signficant Medieval Libraries 719

The library in the Abbey of St. Gall. (View Larger)

In 1719 the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall, Switzerland, was founded on a site that had been used for religious purposes since 613.

"Around 613 an Irishman named Gallus, a disciple and companion of Saint Columbanus, established a hermitage on the site that would become the Abbey. He lived in his cell until his death in 646.

"Following Gallus' death, Charles Martel appointed Othmar as a custodian of St Gall's relics. During the reign of Pepin the Short, in 719, Othmar founded the Abbey of St. Gall, where arts, letters and sciences flourished. Under Abbot Waldo of Reichenau (740-814) copying of manuscripts was undertaken and a famous library was gathered. Numerous Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks came to copy manuscripts. At Charlemagne's request Pope Adrian I sent distinguished chanters from Rome, who propagated the use of the Gregorian chant.

"In the subsequent century, St. Gall came into conflict with the nearby Bishopric of Constance which had recently acquired jurisdiction over the Abbey of Reichenau on Lake Constance. It wasn't until King Louis the Pious (ruled 814-840) confirmed the independence of the Abbey, that this conflict ceased. From this time until the 10th Century, the Abbey flourished. It was home to several famous scholars, including Notker of Liège, Notker the Stammerer, Notker Labeo and Hartker (who developed the Antiphonal liturgical books for the Abbey). During the 9th Century a new, larger church was built and the library was expanded. Manuscripts on a wide variety of topics were purchased by the Abbey and copies were made. Over 400 manuscripts from this time have survived and are still in the library today" (Wikipedia article on Abbey of St. Gall, accessed 01-17-2009).

The Abbey contains one of the oldest, largest and most significant medieval libraries, consisting of 2100 codices. It is the only major medieval convent library still standing in its original location. 400 of the codices in this library date before 1000 CE. Digital facsimiles of these manuscripts were available from the Codices Electronici Sangallenses.

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Finger Reckoning and Computus in the Eighth Century 725

A portrait of the Venerable Bede, by John Doyle Penrose, c. 1902.

In De temporum ratione liber (On the Reckoning of Time), written in 725, the Venerable Bede, a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, England, explained the method of finger reckoning which had evolved since the ancient world. It was, he wrote, a reliable method, especially when a writing surface or writing implements were not available. Bede's discussion of finger reckoning appeared in the first chapter of De temporum ratione entitled "De computo et loquela digitorum" (On Computing and Speaking with the Fingers).

Though finger reckoning was mentioned by classical authors such as Herodotus, no ancient treatises on the subject survived, and it is thought that the technique was passed down mainly through oral tradition. Bede described "upwards of fifty finger symbols, the numbers extending through one million" (Smith, History of Mathematics [1925] II, 200).  Undoubtedly Bede's text, of which numerous medieval manuscripts survived, was influential on conveying the method during the Middle Ages.

Bede's De computo, vel loquela per gestum digitorum appears to have made its first appearance in print in In Hoc in volumine haec continentur M. Val. Probus de notis Roma. ex codice manuscript castigatior . . . , ed. Giovanni Tacuino published in Venice by the editor, Tacuino, who was also a printer, in 1525. Tacuino published Bede's text after the text of the Roman grammarian Marcus Valerius Probus's De notis, a list of legal and administrative abbreviations and formulae used in stone inscriptions that had been discovered in 1417 by humanist Poggio Bracciolini. This was an essential guide to understanding ancient Latin epigraphy. In keeping with that theme the title page of Tacuino's volume was designed to resemble a stone inscription.

The editio princeps of De temporum ratione was published by Sichardus in 1529, four years after Tacuino issued his edition. Portions of De temporum ratione appeared in print as early as 1505, but these do not appear to have included the section on finger-reckoning. Smith, in his Rara arithmetica, stated that the 1522 edition of Johannes Aventinus’s Abacus atque vetustissima, veterum latinorum per digitos manusque numerandi contains a description of Bede’s finger-reckoning; however, this may be an error, since there was no record of this edition in OCLC or the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue when we searched the database in March 2013. Smith himself described only the 1532 edition of Aventinus’s work (see Rara arithmetica, pp. 136-138). 

In De computo . . . Bede listed finger and hand symbols for the  numerals 1 through 9999; these roughly work like a placement system. The middle, ring, and little fingers of the left hand denote the  digits; the thumb and index fingers on the left hand express the tens; the thumb and index finger on the right hand the hundreds; and the  middle, ring and little fingers the thousands . . . The informal manner in which Bede explained how to flex the fingers and form gestures seems to retain traces of oral instruction.

Prior to Europe’s adoption of Arabic numerals, finger-reckoning provided a rudimentary method of place-value calculation. “Neither Bede nor any of his contemporaries in Western Europe knew about place value or zero, but finger reckoning enabled them to proceed as if they did. Finger joints supplied place value—one joint 10s, another 100s and so on—and zero was indicated by the normal relaxed position of the fingers—by nothing, so to speak. ” (Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600, p. 4.)

"The noted historian of science, George Sarton, called the eighth century 'The Age of Bede'. Bede wrote several major scientific works: a treatise On the Nature of Things, modeled in part after the work of the same title by Isidore of Seville; a work On Time, providing an introduction to the principles of Easter computus; and a longer work on the same subject; On the Reckoning of Time, which became the cornerstone of clerical scientific education during the so-called Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century. He also wrote several shorter letters and essays discussing specific aspects of computus and a treatise on grammar and on figures of speech for his pupils.

"On the Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione) included an introduction to the traditional ancient and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth influenced the changing length of daylight, of how the seasonal motion of the Sun and Moon influenced the changing appearance of the New Moon at evening twilight, and a quantitative relation between the changes of the Tides at a given place and the daily motion of the moon. Since the focus of his book was calculation, Bede gave instructions for computing the date of Easter and the related time of the Easter Full Moon, for calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac, and for many other calculations related to the calendar. He gives some information about the months of the Anglo-Saxon calendar in chapter XV. Any codex of Bede's Easter cycle is normally found together with a codex of his 'De Temporum Ratione' " (Wikipedia article on Bede, accessed on 11-22-2008).

For a discussion of the manual calculating methods described by Bede see Sherman, Writing on Hands. Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (2000) 28-30.

(This entry was last revised on 10-02-2014.)

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The Oldest English Translation of Any Portion of the Bible 725 – 750

Folio 30v of the Vespasian Psalter, depicting David with musicians. (View Larger)

The Vespasian Psalter (London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian A I) an illuminated Psalter produced in southern England, perhaps in St. Augustine's Abbey or Christ Church, Canterbury or Minster-in-Thanet between 725 and 750 contains an interlinear gloss in Old English which is the oldest extant English translation of any portion of the Bible. The psalter takes its name from its shelf location under the bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian, in the Cotton Library formed by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, from which it passed in 1753 to the British Museum.

"The psalter contains the Book of Psalms together with letters of St. Jerome, hymns and canticles. It was written in Latin on vellum, using a southern English Uncial script with Rustic Capital rubrics. There were additions made by a scribe named Eadui Basan in an English Carolingian minuscule. The English gloss was written in a Southumbrian pointed minuscule."

"There are several major initials which are historiated, zoomorphic, or decorated. Major initials are found at the beginning of Psalms 1, 51 and 101. (This tripartite division of the Psalter is typical of Insular Psalters). In addition, the psalms beginning each of the liturgical divisions of the Psalter are given major initials. The beginning letters of the other Psalms have smaller "minor" initials which are decorated or zoomorphic and are done in what is called the "antenna" style. There is a miniature of King David with his court musicians on folio 30 verso. It is probable that this miniature was originally the opening miniature of the psalter. Sir Robert Cotton pasted a cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York on folio 160 verso. He also inserted a miniature from a 13th Century liturgical psalter as folio 1.

"The Psalter belongs to a group of manuscripts from Southern England known as the Tiberius group. The manuscript was produced during the second quarter of the 8th century. The script of the Old English gloss is typical of the script produced in Canterbury scriptoria from about 820 to 850. Eadui Basan, who made additions to the manuscript, was a monk at Christ Church, Canterbury during the early 11th Century. Thomas of Elmham recorded a Psalter at Canterbury which may have been the Vespasian Psalter. The manuscript was at Canterbury in 1553. It was subsequently owned by Sir William Cecil and Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury. By 1599 it was the possession of Sir Robert Cotton, who signed it on folio 12 recto. It became national property, along with the rest of the Cotton library in 1702 and was incorporated into the British Museum when it was founded in 1753. The volume was the first in the Vespasian shelf section in the part of the library indexed by the names from a set of busts of the Roman Emperors on top of the shelves. Its current binding, with metal clasps, was provided by Cotton" (Wikipedia article on Vespasian Psalter, accessed 11-26-2008).

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The Earliest Surviving Copy of St. Benedict's Rules Circa 725

A painting of St. Benedict drafting the Benedictine Rules, by Herman Nieg, c. 1926. The painting resides in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria. (View Larger)

The manuscript of the Rule of St. Benedict written in England in during the first part of the eighth century, in uncial script on the model of Italian manuscripts, "must have belonged to one of the earliest communities of Roman monks in England" (de Hamel, History of Illuminated Manuscripts [1986] 13, caption to plate 5). It is the oldest surviving copy of Benedict's Rules for monastic life, including the value of scribal work. The manuscript is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Ms. Hatton 48, f. 17v). That the earliest surviving copy of this seminal text for the operation of monasteries should originate in England at this date tells much about the instability of continental institutions from the time of Benedict's promulgation of the rules in 529 through the eighth century.

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The Foundation of English Historical Writing Circa 731

Historia ecclasiastica gentis Anglorum, folio 3v of Beda Petersburgiensis, dated 746. (View Larger)

About 731 The Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, England, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow, completed Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). This work was the founding document of English History.

Bede's works show that he had at his command virtually all of the learning of his time. It is thought that the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow, built up by abbot Benedict Biscop through his extensive travels, might have included as many as 250 titles, probably in fewer volumes, making it the largest and most extensive in England at the time.

"Bede's writings are classed as scientific, historical and theological, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He was proficient in patristic literature, and quotes Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers, but with some disapproval. He knew some Greek, but no Hebrew. His Latin is generally clear and without affectation, and he was a skilful story-teller. . ." (Wikipedia article on Bede, accessed 11-22-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 08-11-2014.)

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Charles Martel Stops Muslim Expansion at the Battle of Tours 732

Charles de Steuben's 'Bataille de Poitiers,' created at sometime between 1834 and 1837, now located at Musée du château de Versailles, France.(View Larger)

At the Battle of Tours (also called the Battle of Poitiers), fought in 732 in an area between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in north-central France, near the village of Moussais-la-Bataille (Vouneuil-sur-Vienne), about 20 km northeast of Poitiers, the Frankish king Charles Martel ("Charles the Hammer") decisively stopped the Muslim army's advance into Northern Europe.

"The Battle of Tours earned Charles the cognomen "Martel" ('Hammer'), for the merciless way he hammered his enemies. Many historians, including the great military historian Sir Edward Creasy, believe that had he failed at Tours, Islam would probably have overrun Gaul, and perhaps the remainder of western Christian Europe. Gibbon made clear his belief that the Umayyad armies would have conquered from Rome to the Rhine, and even England, having the English Channel for protection, with ease, had Martel not prevailed. Creasy said "the great victory won by Charles Martel ... gave a decisive check to the career of Arab conquest in Western Europe, rescued Christendom from Islam, [and] preserved the relics of ancient and the germs of modern civilization." Gibbon's belief that the fate of Christianity hinged on this battle is echoed by other historians including John B. Bury, and was very popular for most of modern historiography. It fell somewhat out of style in the twentieth century, when historians such as Bernard Lewis contended that Arabs had little intention of occupying northern France. More recently, however, many historians have tended once again to view the Battle of Tours as a very significant event in the history of Europe and Christianity. Equally, many, such as William Watson, still believe this battle was one of macrohistorical world-changing importance, if they do not go so far as Gibbon does rhetorically" (Wikipedia article on Battle of Tours, accessed 12-14-2008).

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Earliest Examples of Block Printed Script, Printed on Silk 734

734: Date of the earliest examples of Japanese printed silk in which the date forms part of the pattern.

"These dates [also 740] are the earliest examples in the world of block printed script, and it is not surprising to find that they antedate by only a few years the first block prints on paper from Japan" (Carter, Invention of Printing in China 2nd ed [1955] 195).

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From the Libraries of Richard Mead and Anthony Askew 736 – 760

Folio 5r of Codex Benevenatus, Jerome's letter. (View Larger)

According to a subscription on folio 239 verso, the Codex Beneventanus,  an illuminated Gospel Book, was written by a monk named Lupus for one Ato. This was probably Ato, abbot from 736-760 of the monastery of St. Vincent on the Volturno, near Benevento, Italy.

"The codex contains the Vulgate version of the four Gospels, the canon tables of Eusebius of Caesarea, the letter of St. Jerome to Pope Damasus (Novum opus), the prologue of St. Jerome to the Gospels (Plures fuisse), and prologues and chapter lists for each of the Gospels. The text is written on vellum in two columns in Uncial script with no division between words. The running titles are in small uncials while the incipits and explicits are in capitals. The incipits and explicits are written in alternating lines of red and black ink. The subscription of Lupus is written in uncials, and also has alternating lines of red and black ink. The text contains additional punctuation and annotations in a 10th century Beneventuan hand."

"By the 13th century it [the manuscript] was associated with St. Peter's convent in Benevento. In the first half of the 18th century it was owned by Dr. Richard Mead, and was used by Dr. Richard Bentley in his collation of New Testament texts. Dr. Mead may have acquired the manuscript in the 1690s when he traveled to Italy, however, the manuscript did not appear in the catalog of the sale of his library in 1754-55. The manuscript was later owned by Anthony Askew (d. 1754). It was purchased by John Jackson in 1785 at the sale of Askew's manuscripts. The British Library purchased it in 1794 at the sale of Jackson's manuscripts" (Wikipedia article on Codex Beneventanus, accessed 06-15-2009).

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Most of the Surviving Greek Literature was Translated into Arabic by 750 750

"Most of the surviving Greek literature was translated into Arabic by 750, and Aristotle, for example, became so widely studied that literally hundreds of books were written about him by Arabic scholars. The Moslems also obtained Greek works from Constantinople through regular trade channels and captured others in their various wars with the Eastern Empire" (Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed [1999] 78).

"The early Abbasid Caliphs, adopting a religious philosophy that encouraged learning and debate, promoted the establishment of universities and libraries throughout their realm. Early beginnings were made under Al-Mansur (754-775) and Harun al-Rashid (785-809) of Arabian Nights fame, but was Al-Mamun the Great (813-833) who brought the "House of Learning" [House of Wisdom] or university at Baghdad into prominence. With libraries, laboratories, subsidized scholars, a translating service, and even an astronomical observatory, this institution attracted scholars from Spain to India" (Harris 79).

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The Earliest Known Example of an Historiated Initial and One of the Earliest Witnesses to Bede's Text Circa 750

The oldest known historiated initial, found in the St. Petersurg Bede, also known as the Leningrad Bede.

The earliest known example of an historiated initial—an enlarged letter at the beginning of a paragraph or other section of text which contains a picture—is in the St Petersburg Bede, an Insular manuscript, which was written about 750 CE. Only four 8th century manuscripts of Bede survive. The St. Petersburg Bede and the manuscript known as the "Moore Bede", preserved in Cambridge University Library, are the earliest witnesses to Bede's text.

The Saint Petersburg Bede

The Saint Petersburg Bede (Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18), formerly known as the Leningrad Bede, is one of the two earliest surviving illuminated manuscripts of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). Traditionally, it was attributed on palaeographic grounds to Bede’s monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. It has also been traditionally dated to 731/732 × 746 on the basis of the so-called Memoranda, a series of retrospective dates found in the margins of Bede’s recapitulo in Book V Chapter 24. The validity of these Memoranda (and similar notes in the Moore Bede) as evidence for the precise year in which the manuscript was copied has been vigorously challenged, and while it may not be possible to assign the manuscript to a specific year, it seems unlikely that it was copied much after the middle of the eighth century.

After the huge disruption of French monastic libraries during the French Revolution, the manuscript was acquired by  Russian  diplomat, paleographer, secretary of the Russian Embassy in France, and collector of manuscripts and books, Peter Petrovich Dubrovsky, who later sold it to the Russian Imperial Library.

M. B. Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982.

The Moore Bede

"The Moore Bede is traditionally dated to 734 × 737 on the basis of the so-called Moore Memoranda, a series of chronological notes preserved on f. 128v. Although the validity of these (and similar notes in The Leningrad [St. Petersburg] Bede) as evidence for the manuscript’s date has been challenged vigorously, the manuscript can be dated securely to the eighth century on palaeographic and codicological grounds.

"The manuscript is now thought "likely to be English in origin" (Ker 1990). Bischoff has shown that the manuscript was at the Palace School at Aachen around CE 800 (Bischoff 1966–1968, 56). Parkes suggests that it may have been sent to there from York at the request of Alcuin (Parkes 1982, 27, n. 35)" (Wikipedia article on the Moore Bede, accessed 11-22-2008).

The Earliest Surviving Copies of Caedmon's Hymn

♦ The Moore Bede and the St. Petersburg Bede also contain the earliest known copies of Caedmon's Hymn, the only surviving work of the earliest English poet whose name is known. 

"The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry. It is also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic language" (Wikipedia article on Caedmon, accessed 01-12-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 08-24-2014.)

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The Book of Dimma Circa 750

A portrait of St. Mark the Evangelist from folio 30v of the Book of Dimma. (View Larger)

The Book of Dimma, an 8th century Irish pocket Gospel Book signed by its scribe, Dimma MacNathi, at the end of each of the Four Gospels, originated from the Abbey of Roscrea, founded by St. Cronan in County Tipperary, Ireland. 

"Dimma has been traditionally identified with the Dimma, who was later Bishop of Connor, mentioned by Pope John IV in a letter on Pelagianism in 640. This identification, however, cannot be sustained. The illumination of the manuscript is limited to illuminated initials, three Evangelist portrait pages and one page with an Evangelist's symbol. In the 12th century the manuscript was encased in a richly gilt case" (Wikipedia article on the Book of Dimma, accessed 11-22-2008)

The Book of Dimma is preserved at Trinity College Library, Dublin.

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Evidence of the Decline of Literacy Among the Laity in the Early Middle Ages Circa 750

"Of course, we have no early medieval Pompeii that would allow us to make a true and fair comparison of levels of casual secular literacy between Roman and post-Roman times. But we do have plenty of domestic objects from both periods, and these are a rich source of scratched letters and names in the Roman period, as well as of occasional messages (like those we have seen on tiles from Britain). In the early Middle Ages, domestic objects are almost always mute. They do very occasionally have names carved or scratched on them, but these are almost invariably very neat, suggesting that they have been applied with some care, perhaps even by a specialist writer, rather than roughly scratched by the owners themselves. There is no group of finds from post-Roman centuries that remotely compares with the 400 graffiti, mainly scratched initials, on the bottoms of pots from a Roman fort in Germany, which were almost certainly added by the soldiers themselves, in order to identify their individual vessels.

"In a much simpler world, the urgent need to read and write declined, and with it went the social pressure on the secular elite to be literate. Widespread literacy in the post-Roman West definitely became confined to the clergy. A detailed analysis of almost 1,000 subscribers to charters from eighth-century Italy has shown that just under a third of witnesses were able to sign their own names, the remainder making only a mark (identified as theirs by the charter's scribe). But the large majority of those who signed (71 per cent) were clergy. Amongst the 633 lay subscribers, only 93, or 14 per cent, wrote their own name. Since witnesses to charters were generally drawn from the ranks of the 'important' people of local society, and since the ability to write one's name does not require a profound grasp of literary skills, this figure suggests that even basic literacy was a very rare phenomenon amongst the laity as a whole" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 166).

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The Stockholm Codex Aureus, Looted Twice by Vikings Circa 750

Folio 11 of the Codex Aureus, inscribed in Old English. (View Larger)

The Stockholm Codex Aureus (also known as the "Codex Aureus of Canterbury") was produced in the mid-eighth century in Southumbria, probably in Canterbury, England.

"The codex is richly decorated, with vellum leaves that alternately are dyed and undyed, the purple-dyed leaves written with gold, silver, and white pigment, the undyed ones with black ink and red pigment. The style is a blend of that of Insular art . . . and Continental art of the period.

"In the ninth century it was stolen by the Vikings and Aldormen Aelfred had to pay a ransom to get it back.  Above and below the Latin text of the Gospel of St. Matthew is an added inscription in Old English recording how, a hundred years later, the manuscript was ransomed from a Viking army who had stolen it on one of their raids in Kent by Alfred, ealdorman of Surrey, and his wife Wærburh and given to Christ Church, Canterbury" (Wikipedia article on Stockholm Codex Aureus, accessed 06-25-2009).

The Old English inscription on folio 11 reads in translation:

 + In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I, Earl Alfred, and my wife Werburg procured this book from the heathen invading army with our own money; the purchase was made with pure gold. And we did that for the love of God and for the benefit of our souls, and because neither of us wanted these holy works to remain any longer in heathen hands. And now we wish to present them to Christ Church to God's praise and glory and honour, and as thanksgiving for his sufferings, and for the use of the religious community which glorifies God daily in Christ Church; in order that they should be read aloud every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, as long as God decrees that Christianity should survive in that place. And also I, Earl Alfred, and Werburg beg and entreat in the name of Almighty God and of all his saints that no man should be so presumptuous as to give away or remove these holy works from Christ Church as long as Christianity survives there.



Alhthryth their daughter

The manuscript remained at Canterbury until the 16th century when it travelled to Spain. In 1690 it was bought for the Swedish Royal Collection, It is preserved in the National Library of Sweden, Kungliga biblioteket, Stockholm (MS A. 135).

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Early Chinese Bookbinding Techniques as Practiced in Dunhuang Circa 750 – 950

"In AD 755 a major rebellion in China forced the government to recall its troops from the western regions. The armies of the Tibetan empire moved in to fill the vacuum and most of the Silk Road towns, including Dunhuang, were under Tibetan control for the next century. Trade with central China was cut off and therefore previously imported items, such as high quality paper, were no longer available. Although Dunhuang was retaken by local troops loyal to China in AD 851, by this time Chinese imperial power was in decline and the contacts of the western regions with the centre were still not strong. From the quality of the paper and the colophons to some of the texts, we know that many of the booklets found at Dunhuang date from the late-Tang and Five Dynasties period (AD 907-960). Unlike many other items in the Dunhuang collection, the majority of these booklets were not produced in central China and brought in to the region, but were made locally in Dunhuang, often by the very people who used them.  

"One of the most interesting aspects of the Dunhuang booklets is the sheer variety of different formats. Not only are there examples of both butterfly binding and thread binding, but there are also many booklets which have been made by combining features of different formats to create a new type of binding" (http://idp.bl.uk/education/bookbinding/bookbinding.a4d, accessed 05-21-2013).

In May 2013 I came across a remarkable illustrated study of early Chinese bookbinding techniques on the International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online website of the British Library, from which the above quotation was taken.

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The Most Lavishly Illustrated Byzantine Manuscript Circa 750 – 850

The Sacra Parallela (Parisinus Graecus 923), containing over 400 scenic illustrations and 1256 portrait busts, is the most lavishly illustrated surviving Byzantine manuscript. It is also the only illuminated copy of the Sacra Parallela, a florilegium of excerpts alphabetized under the concepts with which the author associated them. Authorship of the anonymous florilegium has sometimes been attributed, without a strong basis, to John of Damascus

In the classic study of this unusually large and complex manuscript, The Miniatures of the Sacra Parallela (1979), historian of ancient and Byzantine book illustration and iconography Kurt Weitzmann argued that the manuscript was made in Palestine in the first half of the 9th century, and that its illustration cycle was compiled from extensively illustrated prior editions of each of the various excerpted texts. Thus Weitzmann argued this version of the Sacra Parallela provided evidence and visual documentation for a group of earlier densely illustrated books, most of which did not survive. Other scholars suggested that production in Constantinople was also possible, and that the manuscript might have been produced in the eighth century instead of the ninth.

The manuscript is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad Circa 750 – 975

"A century and a half of Graeco-Arabic scholarship has amply documented that from about the middle of the eighth century to the end of the tenth, almost all non-literary and non-historical secular Greek books that were available throughout the Eastern Byzantine Empire and the Near East were translated into Arabic. What this means is that all of the following Greek writings, other than the exceptions just noted, which have reached us from Hellenistic, Roman, and late antiquity times, and many more that have not survied in the original Greek, were subjected to the transformative magic of the translator's pen: astrology and alchemy and the rest of the occult sciences; the subjects of the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and theory of music; the entire field of Aristotelian philosophy throughout its history; metaphysics, ehtics, physics, zoology, botany, and especially logic — the Organon: all the health sciences; medicine, pharmacology, and veterinary science; and various other marginal genres of writings, such as Byzantine handbooks on military science (the tactica), popular collections of wisdom sayings, and even books on falconry— all these subjects passed through the hands of the translators. . . . In terms of the extent of the translated material, the enormity of the undertaking can best grasped if one were to consider that the edition of Galen's complete works by Kühn, and the Berlin Acadmey edition of the Greek commentaries on Aristotle—works that form only a small fraction of the books translated— comprise seventy-four large volumes. One can justly claim that the study of post-classical Greek secular writings can hardly proceed without the evidence in Arabic, which in this context becomes the second classical language, even before Latin. 

"The translation movement which began with the accession of the Abbasids to power and took place primarily in Badhdad, represents an astounding achievement which independently of its significance for Greek and Arabic philology and the history of philosophy and science (the aspects which have been overwhelmingly studied to this day), can hardly be grasped and accounted for otherwise than as a social phenonomenon (the aspect of which has been very little investigated). To elaborate: The Graeco-Arabic translation movement lasted first of all, well over two centuries; it was no ephemeral phenomenon. Second, it was supported by the entire elite of 'Abbasid society: caliphs and princes, civil servants and military leaders, merchants and bankers, and scholars and scientists; it was not the pet project of any particular group in the furtherance of their restricted agenda. Third, it was subsized by an enormous outlay of funds, both public and private; it was no eccentric whim of a Maecenas or the fashionable affectation of a few wealthy patrons seeking to invest in a philanthropic or self-aggrandizing cause. Finally, it was eventually conducted with rigorous scholarly methodology and strict philological exactitude— by the famous Hunayn ibn-Ishaq and his associates — on the basis of a sustained program that spanned generations and which reflects, in the final analysis, a social attitude and the public culture of early 'Abbasid society; it was not the result of the haphazard and random research interests of a few eccentric individuals who, in any age or time, might indulge in arcane philological and textual pursuits that in historical terms are proven irrelevant" (Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries) [1998] 1-2.)

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Chinese Prisoners of War Convey Papermaking Techniques to the Arabs 751

A map of the Silk Road. (View Larger)

In 751 Chinese Tang forces were defeated by Arabs at the battle of Battle of the Talas River, near Samarkand, and lost control of the Silk Road through Central Asia. Chinese prisoners of war taken at the battle of Talas conveyed papermaking techniques to the Arabs.

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Abd ar-Rahman Conquers Cordoba 755

A statue of Abd ar-Rahman in Almuñécar, Spain. (View Larger)

In 755 'Abd ar-Rahman conquered Córdoba to found the Umayyad dynasty of al-Andalus, the name used for the portion of Iberia (Spain) controlled by Muslims. This dynasty lasted 300 years.

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One of the Great Treasures of Early Carolingian Metalwork 760

The ornate cover on the Lindau Gospels, located in the Pierpont Morgan Library. (View Larger)


The gilt silver, enamel, and jeweled lower cover on the Lindau Gospels, MS M1 in the Morgan Library & Museum, was executed in Austria, possibly in Salzburg, during the second half of the 8th century.

"In 1899, Pierpont Morgan purchased the Lindau Gospels from the heirs of the 4th Earl of Ashburnham; it was the first major mediaeval manuscript to enter his collections. He acquired, in this single volume, three outstanding examples of Carolingian book art: an important ninth-century illuminated manuscript from the scriptorium of St. Gall, and two of the finest surviving Carolingian metalwork bookcovers. The two covers, however, may be separated by as much as a century, and it is certain that the older of the covers did not originally belong to this codex, however early it was assimilated to it. The covers and codex can be traced back as an entity no further than 1594, the date stamped on the red morocco spine of the volume. It has not been determined whether the jewelled covers were added to the codex then, or whether repairs were made at that date to an existing bound volume, already with jewelled covers. Nor has it been established where the volume was in 1594; the first explicit record placing it in the Benedictine nunnery of Lindau, from which it takes its name, comes in 1691. Lindau is on a small island in Lake Constance, just offshore near the northeast corner. St. Gall, where the Gospels was written, is southwest of Lindau, across the lake and inland, at a direct distance of about twenty miles."

"It has long been recognized that the lower cover of the Lindau Gospels is considerably earlier than the date of the manuscript, and could not have been designed for it. This cover is one of the great treasures of early Carolingian metalwork. It has elicited a considerable literature, characterized by widely varying opinions concerning its localization and date. Such a diversity of opinion is understandable, for although the cover was clearly designed as a unit, a variety of techniques and motifs make up its individual components. The basic layout consists of an enamelled cross (both champlevé and cloisonné) within an enamelled flrame, over four background silver-gilt panels of complex engraved animal interlace patterns. The cross-in-frame motif is similar to that of Queen Theodelinda's bookcovers, mentioned above, though an interval of as much as 200 years separate the two peices of work; and, on both, the arms of the cross broaden where they join the frame (cross pattée). The four cloisonné representations of the bust of Christ on the Lindau cover, one on each arm about the center of the cross, may be related to the late seventh-century gold Cross of Duke Gisulf, each arm of which contains two repoussé portrait heads, presumably Christ's.

"Many scholars have been struck by the resemblance of the animal interlaces on the quadrants to Hiberno-Saxon decorative schemes, and several have noted a general resemblance in layout to several of the carpet-pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels of ca. 700, on which a cross pattern is brought out against an animal-interlace background. An even more specific stylistic connection has been established for the animal interlaces in the two gilt silver engraved medallions laid into the vertical arms of the cross: these follow precisely the 'gripping-beast' pattern of Viking animal ornament. Their earliest appearance in Viking art is on objects from the Oseberg ship-find, which have been dated to between 800 and 850. It has sometimes been asserted that the Viking gripping-beast style was derived from Carolingian prototypes, but this cannot be documented—unless indeed the Lindau Gospels lower cover is considered as a precedent Carolingian example" (Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings 400-1600 [1979] 25-26).

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Foundation of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad 762

A modern photograph of a courtyard in the House of Wisdom, also known as the Bait al-Hikma. (View Larger)


In 751 the second Abbassid Caliph, Abu Ja'far Al-Mansur, founded the city of Baghdad. There he founded a palace library, which, according to some sources, evolved into The House of Wisdom. According to those sources, the library was originally concerned with translating and preserving Persian works, first from Pahlavi (Middle Persian), then from Syriac and eventually Greek and Sanskrit. One standard view was encountered in the Wikipedia article, from which I quote:

"The House of Wisdom acted as a society founded by Abbasid caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun who reigned from 813-833 CE. Based in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries, many of the most learned Muslim scholars were part of this excellent research and educational institute. In the reign of al-Ma'mun, observatories were set up, and The House was an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and for sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology and geography. Drawing on Persian, Indian and Greek texts—including those of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Plotinus, Galen, Sushruta, Charaka, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta—the scholars accumulated a great collection of knowledge in the world, and built on it through their own discoveries. Baghdad was known as the world's richest city and centre for intellectual development of the time, and had a population of over a million, the largest in its time.The great scholars of the House of Wisdom included Al-Khawarizmi, the "father" of algebra, which takes its name from his book Kitab al-Jabr" (Wikipedia article on House of Wisdom, accessed 12-01-2008).

In 2014 I read Dimitri Gutas's Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries.) (1998). In that book Gutas presented a significantly different view of the bayt al-hikma, or House of Wisdom. From his summary on the topic (pp. 58-60) I quote:

"This is all the substantive and reliable evidence that we have and it allows only the following reconstruction of the nature and function of the bayt al-hikma: It was a library, most likely established as a 'bureau' under al Mansur, part of the 'Abbasid administration modeled on that of the Sasanians. Its primary function was to house both the activity and the results of translations from Persian into Arabic of Sasanian history and culture. As such there were hired translators capable to perform this function as well as book binders for the preservation of books. . . This was its function in Sasanian times, and it remained it throughout the time of Harun ar-Rasid, i.e. the time of Barmakids. Under al-Ma'mun it appears to have gained an additional function related to astrononomical and mathematical activities; at least this is what the names associated with the bayt-al-hikma during that period would imply. We have, however, no specific information about what those activities actually were; one would guess research and study only, since none of the people mentioned was himself actually a translator. Al-Ma'mun's new rationalist ideological orientations, discussed in chapter 4, would explain the additional functions of the library during his reign.

"This then is all we can safely say about the bayt al-hikma. We have abolutely no evidence for any other sort of activity. It was certainly not a center for the translation of Greek works into Arabic; the Graeco-Arabic translation movement was completely unrelated to any of the activities of the bayt-al-hikma. Among the dozens of reports about the translation of Greek works into Arabic that we have, there is not even a single one that mentions the bayt-al-hikma. This is to be contrasted with the references to translations from the Persian; we have few such references and yet two of them, both in the Fihrist cited above, do mention the bayt-al-hikma. Most amazingly, the first hand-report about the translation movement by the great Hunayn himself does not mention it. By the same token, the library was not one which stored, as part of its mission, Greek manuscripts. Hunayn mentions the efforts he expended in search of Greek manuscripts and again he never mentions that he looked for them right under his nose in the bayt al-hikma in Baghdad (cf. chapter 7.4). Ibn-an-Nadim, who claims that his Himyarite and Ethiopian manuscripts came from al-Ma'mun's library, says nothing of the sort when he describes the different kinds of Greek writing.

"The bayt-al-hikma was certainly also not an 'academy' for teaching the 'ancient sciences as they were being translated; such a preposterous idea did not even occur to the authors of the spurious reports about the transmission of the teaching of these sciences that we do have (discussed in chater 4.2). Finally, it was not a 'conference' center for the meetings of scholars even under al-Ma'mun's sponsorship. Al-Ma'mun, of course (and all the early 'Abbasid caliphs), did host scholarly conferences or rather gatherings, but not in the library; such gauche social behavior on the part of the caliph would have been inconceivable. Sessions (magalis) were held in the residences of the caliphs, when the caliphs were present, or in private residences otherwise, as the numerous descriptions of them that we have indicate (for one hosted by al-Ma-mun see chapter 4.3).

"What the bayt-al-hikma did do for the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, however, is to foster a climate in which it could be both demanded and then conducted successfully. If indeed the bayt-al-hikma was an 'Abbasid administrative bureau, then it institutionalized the Pahlavi into Arabic translation culture. This means that all activities implied or suggested by this culture—the Zorastrian ideology of the recovery of ancient Avestan texts through the (re-) translation of Greek works and all that that implied—could be conducted as semi-official activities, or at least as condoned by official policy. The numerous translations from the Greek which were commissioned by the Barmakids, for example should be seen in this light. The example set by the caliphs and the highest adminstrators was naturally followed by the others of lesser rank, both civil servants and private individuals. Once the existence of this additional official—though indirectly so—sanction for Graeco-Arabic translations is realized, the origins and rapid spread of the movement in early 'Abbasid times is better understood."

The House of Wisdom is thought to have flourished until it was destroyed by the Mongols in the sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

(This entry was last revised on 05-02-2014.)

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One Million Copies Printed; The First Large Scale Mass Production 764 – 770

One of one million pagodas commissioned by Empress Shotuku, containing Bhuddhist charms, or dhrani scrolls. (View Larger

Between 764 and 770 CE the Japanese Empress Shotuku commissioned one million small three-story pagodas carved from cypress wood containing Buddhist charms, or dharani scrolls, printed from woodblocks on paper made from hemp fiber, as thanks for the suppression of the Emi Rebellion by Fujiwara no Nakamaro in 764. This has been called the first large scale mass production.

"For printing, the Japanese are thought to have used eight cast bronze plates—1,000 years before the European use of stereotyping. Using hand inking and burnishing the back of the paper, the printers took 125,000 prints from the plates" (Cave & Ayad, The History of the Book in 100 Books [2014] 31).

"900,000 pagodas were distributed to temples around the entire country. 100,000 were divided between the Ten Great temples in the Nara area, which erected special halls for these pagodas, known as the Small Pagoda Hall, or the Ten Thousand Pagoda Hall. 4 different texts were printed, all from the Mukujoko [Muku joko] sutra: Kompon Dharani, Storin Dharani, Jishin-in Dharani, and Rokudo Dharani" (Shøyen Collection MS 2489).

No further printing occurred in Japan until about 1080. 

(This entry was last revised on 01-14-2015.)

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The Oldest Surviving Book in the German Language 765 – 775

The Abrogans, or Codex Abrogans, a dictionary of synonyms or glossary or word-list from Latin into Old High German, is the oldest surviving book in the German language. Abrogans ("humble") is the first word on the word-list.

The codex is preserved in the library of the Abbey of St. Gall. (St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 911).  In February 2014 a digital facsimile was available as part of the Codices Electronic Sangallenses (CESG) virtual library project at this link.

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One of the Finest Libraries North of the Alps: About 100 Books 767

Raban Maur (left), flanked by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right), taken from a Carolingian manuscript (ca. 831/40) currently residing in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Wien. (View Larger)

In 1767 the monk Alcuin became head of the episcopal school at the Cathedral of York. This cathedral had been destroyed by fire in 741, and then rebuilt on a grander scale. Alcuin devoted himself to teaching and to building up the library at the Cathedral— one the finest libraries north of the Alps at this time.

"Athough most of Alcuin's writing dates from his residence in Francia, the roots of his formidable learning and capacity lay in the York years, as he himself often made clear. It would seem in fact, that York was the first place in Europe to create a cathedral school of this scale and character. It was the model to which Alcuin turned in his mind while serving Charlemagne in the later part of his life, and he saw himself, in some ways, as its ambassador. It is important, however, not to project back upon this period the scale of later medieval schools and libraries. The closest parallel was Bede's library, built up by Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith at Monwearmouth-Jarrow, a place that Alcuin knew well and evidently loved. It is possible to conjecture that there may have been up to 250 titles there, but not necessarily so many actual books. it seems that this may actually have been the largest library ever assembled throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Hardly any of it now remains, though perhaps some of its volumes, or copies of them, could have found their way to York itself. In his York poem, Alcuin proudly lists forty authors whose works adorned the library built up by Aethelbert. To this may be added a further eighteen works from one of the few of Alcuin's writings that can dated to his time in York. It is most unlikely, therefore, that the York library in its heyday exceeded 100 books, some of which Alcuin later exported to Tours. Mostly these would have been kept in chests rather than on open shelves. Among them would have been liturgical books, Bibles, lectionaries, sacramentaries and so forth. To York came requests for the copying of books throughout the eighth and ninth centuries, from the continent, and presumably from within England, itself. Its scriptorium was important and respected, but of the York library itself nothing certain now remains" (Dales & Williams, Alcuin: Theology and Thought [2013] 31).

Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library (2006) 40-42.

(This entry was last revised on 08-11-2014.)


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Production of Manuscripts and Interest in Books Begins in Germany in the Last Third of the Eighth Century Circa 770

The production of manuscripts, and evidence of interest in books, did not begin in Germany until the last third of the eighth century, just before the reign of Charlemagne.

"Few books written before this period were preserved in cathedral libraries. A codex written toward the year 700 for Basinus, who was perhaps the bishop of Trier, is preserved in the Bibliotheca Vallicelliana. Two manuscripts of canon law, one written in South France at the time of Gregory the Great, the other written about a century later in Northumbria, are still the property of the Cathedral of Cologne, to which they probably already belonged in the eighth century" (Bischoff, Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne [2007] 18).

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The Earliest Datable Application of Carolingian Minuscule 772 – 781

The Maurdramnus Bible was commissioned between 772 and 781 by Abbot Maurdramnus of Corbie probably in 12 or 13 volumes, of which 5 volumes survived in the Bibliothèque municipale d'Amiens (MSS 6, 7, 9, 11, 12) and a portion of a sixth volume survived in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Lat. 13174). This manuscript was written in the first datable Carolingian minuscule.

" . . .the script of Maurdramnus Bible is a consistent development of Miniscule, more directly out of Half-Uncial even than the earliest writing at Corbie between 750 and 758 practised under Leutchar. . . It begins on the grand scale for the Pentateuch and [the script] was reduced in size as the work proceeded. As the colophon (mentioning Maurdramnus) occurs at the end of Maccabees, it is more than plausible to say that the work consisted of the Old Testament only. . . ." (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 132-33, pl. 87).

Because the script employed in the Maurdramnus Bible has its own character it is sometimes identified as "Maurdramnus Script."

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"The Oldest Western European Codex in Private Hands" (As of 2009) Circa 775

A page fromt he 'Canones concillorum,' written in both unical and miniscule.(View Larger)

When I accessed the website of German rare book and manuscript dealer Dr. Jörn Gunther in June 2009 I found the following manuscript offered for sale under the heading, "The Oldest Western European Codex in Private Hands."

The history of the writing of this manuscript as understood through its palaeography described below. The texts which it contains, and the details of its provenance reflect significant aspects of Carolingian manuscript production, and the history of collecting medieval manuscripts. Here is Dr. Gunther's description:

"Canones conciliorum. Manuscript on vellum, written by an insular scribe. Northern Italy, c.775.

"223 x 175 mm. 94 leaves. Internally complete, lacking one gathering at the beginning and some leaves at the end. The quires are signed with Roman numbers from II-XIII.– Written space fol.1-64v:165 x 130 mm, on fol. 65-94v: 175 x 135 mm, ruled in blind for one column of 24-25 and 19-20 lines. fol. 1-60v written in half uncials and precarolingian minuscules, fol. 61-94v in precarolingian minuscules in olive grey, light brown and dark brown ink. Many capitals in uncial with simple decoration with penwork ornament, including one initial in a form of a fish.– In fine condition for a volume of such antiquity. Right upper corner on fol.70 torn away with some loss of text.– 19th-century brown morocco by the Parisian bookbinder Marcelin Lortic.


"1. The codex was written by an insular scribe from Ireland or Northumbria, working in Northern Italy.

2. Monastery of Reichenau in Germany (at an early date).

3. Bound in Paris by Marcellin Lortic who opened his shop in the Rue St Honoré in 1840.

4. Ms. 17.849 of the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872); his oldest western manuscript and one of Phillipps's greatest treasures.

5. William Robinson Ltd., cat. 81: Precious Manuscripts, Historic Documents and Rare Books, London 1950, no. 92.

6. Dr. Martin Bodmer, Geneva, Switzerland (1899-1971).

7. Peter and Irene Ludwig, Aachen, ms.XIV 1 (1978-1983).

8. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu (1983-1988).

9. Now: Private collection, Europe.


"fol.1-58: Canones Conciliorum– fol.58-77v: Symmachiana, so-called ‘Symmachian forgeries’– fol.77v-94v: Decretals of Siricius, Boniface I, Innocent I, Zosimus, and Celestine I; end of text missing. Following the death of Pope Gelasius I († 496) Dionysius Exiguus (c.470- c.555), a skythian monk in Rome, was commissioned by the papal court to compile the ‘Collectio Dionysiana’ which united the canons of the councils and papal decretals. This anthology was the first compilation of this kind carried out in the Western Church and forms the foundation of Western Latin canon law. The compilation of Dionysius exists in three editions of which the codex at issue represents the so-called ‘Dionysiana II’. Manuscripts of the ‘Dionysiana II’ are rare uncombined with other texts, while only one codex preserved as a complete book is of an earlier date: ms.fol.v.II.3 in St Petersburg (Rossijskaja Nacionalnaja Biblioteka), a Burgundian codex dating from the 7th century (CLA 11 no.1061). Apart from this manuscript only a fragment in the Biblioteca Amploniana in Erfurt (Ampl.2°74) can be dated earlier having been written during the second half of the 6th century, presumably in Italy.

"After the Canones Conciliorum there follows as an insert, which cannot be found in this form in comparable collections, the so-called ‘Symmachian forgeries’, dating from thetime of Pope Symmachus (498-514; see Landau 1998). He was elected pope after the death of Anastasius II by a certain faction; a second faction declared the archpriest Laurence as pontiff. As a result of the turmoil which followed the elections, the ‘Symmachian forgeries were written, which strove to demonstrate by means of fictitious papal case files that the pope would not be subject to a human court of justice, but solely to the judgment of God.

"The third component of the book comprises decretals compiled under the pontificate of Pope Hormisdas (514-523) and contains the complete corpus of the old canon law, which consisted of the decrees of the Middle Eastern, Greek, African and Roman councils as well as those of the popes. The compilation is known as the Sanblasianus edition, because it was edited on the basis of a manuscript which first belonged to St. Blasien in the Black Forest and then to St. Paul in Lavanttal (Stiftsbibliothek, cod.7/1). Only seven manuscripts of this edition are preserved, three of which are older than the present codex (Paris, BN, lat. 3836, dating from the second half of the 8th century; Cologne, Dombibliothek, ms.213 dating from the first third of the 8th century and the Sanblasianus, which also dates from the mid-8th century). The oldest manuscript within the group (Cologne, Dombibliothek, ms.213) was written in Northumbria and brought to Cologne in the 8th century.

"The Canones conciliorum gained such an importance in subsequent decades that the text was duplicated again and again in the Frankish empire and from this later period over 100 manuscripts are preserved in the Frankish area alone. The codex was written by three different scribes. The main scribe (fol.2-60v) wrote the Canones conciliorum as well as the opening of the ‘Symmachian forgeries’. Palaeographic analysis reveals that this scribe came to the continent from an insular scriptorium and finally settled in northern Italy. It is not ascertainable, however, in which northern Italian scriptorium the manuscript was written. The palaeographic indications cannot be used to date the manuscript to a specific year, but it is very likely that it was executed in the years around 775, making the present manuscript contemporary with the famous copy of the Canones compilation, the so-called Dionysio-Hadriana,which was presented to the Frankish ruler Charlemagne (768-814) by Pope Hadrian I (772-795) in Rome in 774. After the presentation, the wording of the statute book was made compulsory for the Frankish empire, and numerous transcripts of the codex, originally kept in Aachen and now lost, were produced."

Note: I reformatted the description somewhat for this database, and left out the bibliographical references cited at the end of Dr. Gunther's description. The hyperlinks are my additions.

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The First Sample of an Early Italian Language Circa 775 – 825

The parchment on which the Veronese Riddle is written. (View Larger)

The growth of a written vernacular allowed the development of a written culture outside the religious orders. The Indovinello versonese or Veronese Riddle, a riddle, apparently half-Italian, half-Latin, written on the margin of the Verona Orational (also known as the Libellus Orationum), probably in the late eighth or early ninth century by a monk from Verona—a city in the Veneto region in Northern Italy— contains the first written sample of an early Italian language different from Late Latin. 

"It is written in northern-Italian cursive minuscule. . . : 'Se pareba boves, alba pratalia araba, albo versorio teneba, negro semen seminaba', which can be translated more or less as 'In front of him (he) led oxen, White fields (he) plowed, A white plow (he) held , A black seed (he) sowed'. This can be easily interpreted as a reprehesentation of the act of holding a pen and writing on a white sheet." (Wikipedia article on Verona Orational, accessed 01-22-2012).

"Many more European documents seem to confirm that the distinctive traits of Romance languages occurred all around the same time (e.g. France's Serments de Strasburg). Though initially hailed as the earliest document in Italian in the first years following Schiapparelli's discovery, today the record has been disputed by many scholars from Migliorini to Segre and Bruni, who have placed it at the latest stage of Vulgar Latin, though this very term is far from being clear-cut and Migliorini himself considers it dilapidated. At present, however, the Placito Capuano (960 A.D.) (the first in a series of four documents dating 960-963 A.D. issued by a Capuan court) is considered to be the first document ever written in Italian, although Migliorini concedes that since the Placito was put on record as an official court proceeding (and signed by a notary), Italian must have been widely spoken for at least one century" (Wikipedia article on Veronese Riddle, accessed 06-22-2009).

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The Only Surviving Visigothic Manuscript Containing Figural Decoration Circa 775 – 825

The Verona Orational (Verona, Cathedral, Biblioteca Capit. Cod. LXXXIX), also known as the Libellus Orationum, a late 7th or early 8th century Visigothic prayer book, is the only surving liturgical book that was written before the Moorish invasion, and is also the only surviving Visigothic manuscript containing figural decoration. The manuscript has 127 folios that measure 330 mm by 260 mm. The text was written in Visigothic minuscule. A marginal gloss indicates that the manuscript was produced in Tarragona, Spain, at the church of Saint Fructuosus.

"The orational contains antiphons and responsories that are not neumed; no music exists in the codex.

"On folio 3r there is a drawing of the "Rose of the Winds", a precursor of the Compass rose. The drawing depicts the twelve winds grouped around a central cross. The twelve winds are represented by four heads with three faces each that have trumpets coming out of the mouth of each face. Each head is contained within a circle and the four circles are arranged in a cross pattern around the central cross. The entire drawing is enclosed within a double circle. Although the drawing has been Christianized by the addition of the central cross, the drawing is based a well known formula in Classical art, the Vultus trifons" (Wikipedia article on Verona Orational, accessed 01-22-2012).

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How the Hindu Numbers Came to the Arabs Circa 776

A portrait of Brahmagupta. (View Larger)

Regarding the transmission of Hindu numbers to the Arabs, al-Qifti's The History of the Learned Men written around the end of the 12th century, but quoting earlier sources, stated:

". . . a person from India presented himself before the Caliph al-Mansur in the year 776 who was well versed in the siddhanta method of calculation related to the movement of the heavenly bodies, and having ways of calculating equations based on the half-chord [essentially the sine] calculated in half-degrees ... Al-Mansur ordered this book to be translated into Arabic, and a work to be written, based on the translation, to give the Arabs a solid base for calculating the movements of the planets. . ." (Mactutor article on The Arabic numeral system, accessed 01-16-2009).

The book from which the early Indian scholar presented may have been the Brahmasphutasiddhanta (The Opening of the Universe), written in 628 by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta, which had used Hindu Numerals with the zero sign.

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Filed under: Mathematics / Logic

The Codex Aureus of Lorsch and its Dispersal 778 – 820

Folio 72v of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, depicting Christ. (View Larger)

The Codex Aureus of Lorsch, also known as the Lorsch Gospels, is one of the masterpieces of manuscript illumination produced during the period of Charlemagne's rule over the Frankish Empire.

"It was located for the first time in Lorsch Abbey (Germany), where it was mentioned as Evangelium scriptum cum auro pictum habens tabulas eburneas in the catalogue of the Abbey's library, compiled in 830 under Abbot Adelung. Considering gold letters in the manuscript and its location at Lorsch it was named the Codex Aureus Laurensius. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the library of Lorsch was the one of the best libraries of the world."

Just prior to Lorsch's dissolution in 1563 the manuscript was taken to Heidelberg and incorporated into the Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg, from which it was stolen in 1622 during the Thirty Years' War

". . . the codex was broken in two and the covers torn off. The richly illustrated first half reached the Migazzi Library and after that was sold to Bishop Ignac Batthyani. This section is now in Alba Iulia, Romania, and belongs to Batthyaneum Library. The second half is in the Vatican Library. The front cover is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the back cover by the Vatican Museums of Rome" (Wikipedia article on the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, accessed 11-23-2008).

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The Contributions of the Emperor Charlemagne and the Educator Alcuin to the Carolingian Renaissance Circa 780 – 820

 "The classical revival of the late eighth and early ninth centuries, without doubt the most momentous and critical stage in the transmission of the legacy of Rome, was played out against the background of a reconstituted empire which stretched from the Elbe to the EbroCalais to Rome, welded together for a time into a political and spiritual whole by the commanding personality of an emperior who added to his military and material resources the blessing of Rome. Although the political achievement of Charlemagne (768-814) crumbled in the hands of his successors, the cultural movement which it fostered retained its impetus in the ninth century and survived into the tenth.

"The secular and ecclesiastical administration of a vast empire called for a large number of trained priests and functionaries. As the only common denominator in a heterogeneous realm and as the repository of both the classical and the Christian heritage of an earlier age, the Church was the obvious means of implementing the educational program necessary to produce a trained executive. But under the Merovingians the Church had fallen on evil days; some of the priests were so ignorant of Latin that Boniface heard one carrying out a baptism of dubious efficacy in nomine patria et filia et spiritus sancti (Epist. 68), and knowledge of antiquity had worn so thin that the author of one sermon was under the unfortunate impression that Venus was a man. Reform had begun under [Charlemagne's father] Pippin the Short; but now the need was greater, and Charlemagne felt a strong personal responsibility to raise the intellectual level of the clergy, and through them of his subjects. . . ." (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed [1991] 92-93).

In 780, at Parma Charlemagne, King of the Franks, met the Anglo-Saxon monk Alcuin, who was head of the episcopal school at the Cathedral of York. Charlemagne took scholarship seriously. He had learned to read as an adult, although he never quite learned how to write. At this time of reduced literacy outside of the clergy, writing of any kind was an achievement for kings, many of whom were illiterate.

Recognizing that Alcuin was a scholar who could help him achieve a renaissance of learning and reform of the Church, in 782 Charlemagne induced Alcuin to move to the royal court as Master of the Palace School at Aachen, where Alcuin remained until 796. This school was attended by members of the royal court and the sons of noble families. At Aachen Alcuin established a great library, for which Charlemagne obtained manuscripts from Monte Cassino, Rome, Ravenna and other sources.

"Books are naturally attracted to centres of power and influence, like wealth and works of art and all that goes with a prosperous cultural life. Some arrive as the prerequisites of conquest, or as the gifts that pour in unasked when the powerful have made thier wishes plain, some in response to the magnetic pull of an active and dynamic cultural movement. Others were actively sought out by those promoting the educational and cultural aims of the revival. There was such a break in the copying of the classics in the Dark Ages that many of the books that provided the exemplars from which the Carolingian copies were made must have been ancient codices, and this immediately raises a fundamental question; where did all the books that have salvaged so much of what we have of Latin literature come from? As far as we can tell from the evidence available, the total contribution of Ireland and England, Spain and Gaul, was small in comparison with what came from Italy itself, from Rome and Campania and particularly, it would seem, from Ravenna after its capture by the forces of Charlemagne. Nor did the wholesale transference of classical texts to northern Europe exhaust the deposits in Italy, for Italy continued, down to the end of the Renaissance and beyond, to produce from time to time texts which, as far as we can tell, had been unknown north of the Alps. 

"Gathering impetus with each decade, the copying of books went on apace through the length and breadth of Charlemagne's empire. Such ancient classical manuscripts as could be found, with their imposing majuscule scripts, were transformed, often at speed, into minuscule copies, and these in time begot further copies, branching out into these complex patterns to which the theory of stemmatics has reduced this fascinating process. The routes by which texts travelled as they progressed from place to place were naturallty governed in part by geographical factors, as they moved along the valleys of the Loire or Rhine, but even more by the complex relationships that existed between institutions and the men who moved between them. There are so many gaps in our knowedge, and so many of pieces in this puzzle have been irrevocably lost, that we can never hope to build up a convincing distribution map for the movements of texts in this period. But certain patterns are discernible, and the drift of texts south and west through the Low Countries and northern France, and down the Rhine to the shores of Lake Constance, appears to point to a fertile core in the area of Aachen, and this would confirm the crucial importance of the palace as a centre and a catalyst for the dissemination of classical texts" (Reynolds & Wilson, op. cit. 97-98).

Also at Aachen, and later at Tours to which he retired in 796, Alcuin promoted the development of the Carolingian minuscule, which became the writing standard for the eighth and ninth centuries.

"The use. . . of a script more compact in the body and needing less time to write, may have been decided upon in view of the plans to proceed with a State educational project, the greatest ever undertaken in the West, or perhaps anywhere at any time in the Roman Empire. For such an enterprise the employment of an accelerated script would become an interest of State, or, to be accurate, of State and Church" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 143).

Regarding the origin of Carolingian minuscule there is little consensus. In the words of palaeographer Stan Knight:

"Some authorities detect Roman (ie.half-uncial) roots, others French pre-Carolingian, some even see Insular influence (perhaps seeking a link with Alcuin), others cursive or semi-cursive scripts. Various combinations of these influences are also suggested. The opinions are many and bewildering.
        "The problem is made more complicated because the actual emergence of Carolingian minuscule appears to have been rather haphazard. There is no solid evidence to suggest that it emanated from just one center, nor can any systematic development of the script be discerned (apart from the natural maturing observable in the work of energetic scriptoria like that at Tours). . . . My considered opinion is that Carolingian minuscule was a modification of the ancient and serviceable half-uncial script, incorporating certain features gathered from other current scripts, and that the Abbey of Corbie led the field in this vitally important calligraphic development" http://dh101.humanities.ucla.edu/DH101Fall12Lab1/items/show/8, accessed 08-07-2014).

Alcuin revised the church liturgy, and also revised Jerome's translation of the Bible. Alcuin and his associates— particularly the Visigothic writer, poet and bishop Theodulf of Orleans, who produced his own, competing, edition of the Bible — were responsible for an intellectual movement within the Carolingian Empire in which many schools were attached to monasteries and cathedrals, and Latin was restored as a literary language. Along with these schools there was a flowering of libraries and manuscript book production.

Charlemagne's Admonitio generalis, a collection of legislation known as a capitulary issued in 789, covered educational and ecclesiastical reform within the Frankish kingdom, established his religious and educational aspirations for the kingdom, and became a foundation for the Carolingian Renaissance.  

"Before the surge of education following the Admonitio Generalis and subsequent Carolingian Renaissance, it was difficult for the Frankish people to connect with Christianity and the church. Peasant life was very hard; the people were illiterate and Latin, the language of the church, was not their native language, making Christianity and the Bible difficult to access. Nobles also were largely uneducated and uncultured, with few devoted Christians among them. Only the clergy were consistent in having some level of education, and thus they had the best understanding and exposure to the Bible and the full extent of Christianity. The schools, which the Admonitio ordered established by the monasteries and cathedrals, began a tradition of higher learning in Carolingian Europe, leading the revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The fulfillment of Admonitio Generalis meant that the study of language, rhetoric and grammar in these institutions, as well as the standardizing of writing scripture and Latin, was undertaken in order to make religious texts and books accessible to the clergy, as well as their correction and standardization. However this strengthened all forms of Carolingian literature, and book production, as well as developments in law, historical writing, and uses of poetry all flourished in these schools. In fact, the capitularies themselves, and the level of language they use, are examples of the increasing importance of writing within the Frankish kingdom. As well as language, the Admonitio Generalis ordered other arts such as numbers and arithmetic, ratios, taxes, measure, architecture, geometry, and astrology to be taught, leading to developments in each field and their application within society. Charlemagne pushed for an educated clergy who could help lead reform, because it was his belief that the study of arts would aid them in understanding sacred texts, which they could then pass on to their followers. During the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne unified religious practices and culture within his realm, creating a Christian kingdom, and ultimately unifying his empire" (Wikipedia article on Admonitio Generalis, accessed 08-06-2014).

"The Carolingian programme of renewal was consciously based on Antiquity. Order and stability lay in a vigorous revival of that which was useful and applicable from the Roman past: e.g. its imagery and art forms, such as the human figure as the central theme of art, or its reliance on the written word. Although, culturally, its upward trajectory had peaked by AD 877, this Carolingian renewal had by then insured the survival of ancient art and literature. The text of virutally every ancient Latin author is today edited largely from Carolingian manuscripts. Texts of only a handful of ancient authors—TibullusPropertiusCatullus among them—are not reconstructed from manuscripts of the Carolingian renaissance" (Rouse, "The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns ed. The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal [1992] 46-47).

(This entry was last revised on 08-19-2014).

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A Book of Psalms from the Late 8th Century Found in a Bog in 2006 Circa 780

In July 20, 2006 a 1,200-year-old Book of Psalms was found by a construction worker in a bog in Ireland. This was the first discovery of its kind in 200 years.

"Fragments of what appear to be an ancient Psalter or Book of Psalms were uncovered by a bulldozer in a bog in the south Midlands. It is impossible to say how the manuscript ended up in the bog. It may have been lost in transit or dumped after a raid, possibly more than a thousand to twelve hundred years ago." The Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr. Pat Wallace, commented that "it is not so much the fragments themselves, but what they represent, that is of such staggering importance. In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the Early Christian civilization of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland." The find has even been compared with that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The pages recovered appear to be those of a slim, large format book with a wraparound vellum or leather cover from which the book block has slipped. Raghnall Ó. Floinn, Head of Collections at the Museum, estimates that there are about forty-five letters per line and a maximum of forty lines per page. While part of Ps 83 is legible, the extent to which other Psalms or additional texts are preserved will only be determined by painstaking work by a team of invited experts probably operating over a long time in the Museum laboratory. Dr Bernard Meehan, Head of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, has seen the discovery and has been invited to advise on the context and background of the manuscript, its production, and its time. He reckons that this is the first discovery of an Irish Early Medieval manuscript in two centuries. Initial impressions place the composition date of the manuscript at about 800 AD. How soon after this date it was lost we may never know" (http://sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=568, accessed 01-27-2010).

The manuscript was subsequently named the Faddan More Psalter or Faddan Mor Psalter, after the town of Faddan More in North Tipperary, Ireland, where it was found.

In September 2010 the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, issued a Press Release on its website indicating that in the process of restoration of the manuscript and its binding "fragments of papyrus were dramatically discovered in the lining of the Egyptian-style leather binding. This potentially represents the first tangible connection between early Irish Christianity and the Middle Eastern Coptic Church. It is a finding that asks many questions and has confounded some of the accepted theories about the history of early Christianity in Ireland" (http://www.museum.ie/en/news/press-releases.aspx?, article=758edb8d-f06d-4478-a404-a68cc3139048, accessed 09-09-2010)

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About 7000 Manuscripts and Fragments Survive from the Late 8th and 9th Centuries Circa 780 – 875

During the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of "enlightenment" and relative stability of educational and political institutions, scholars sought out and copied in the new legible standardized Carolingian minuscule many Roman texts that had been wholly forgotten. As a result, much of our knowledge of classical literature derives from copies made in the scriptoria of Charlemagne and other scriptoria during the Carolingian Renaissance. Roughly 7000 manuscripts written in Carolingian script survive from the 8th and 9th centuries. The availability of Carolingian manucripts during the Renaissance undoubtedly contributed to their being used as models for Renaissance calligraphy and later for type fonts.  

"Thanks to the diversity in local styles of script among the c. seven thousand manuscripts and fragments from the late eighth and ninth century, besides the roughly one hundred which can be localised, other still anonymous large, small, and very small groups can be distinguished, but not identified. Some three hundred and fifty manuscripts still survive from Tours (i.e. basically from St. Martin's), over three hundred from St Gall, rough three hundred from Rheims (which which several scriptoria were involved) roughly two hundred from Corbie, over one hundred from Lorsch, Salzburg, Lyons, and Freising. Not only does Tours surprass the others in numbers but a full forty-five of the traceable codices are or were full one volume bibles (pandects) of 420-450 leaves, with a format of c. 55 x 40cm, written in two columns of fifty to fifty-two lines. Between the last years of Alcuin (for whom Northumbrian bibles probably provided the model) and 850, St Martin's produced two such bibles every year for the Carolingians, for episcopal churches, and for monasteries. These large-format bibles were imitated in other places, for example in Freising, and in two bibles dedicated to Charles the Bald, the Franco-Saxon: Paris, BN, Lat. 2, and the Bible of San Paolo fuori le mura, in Rome" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 208).

"Though the Carolingian minuscule was superseded by Gothic hands, it later seemed so thoroughly 'classic' to the humanists of the early Renaissance that they took these Carolingian manuscripts to be Roman originals and modelled their Renaissance hand on the Carolingian one, and thus it passed to the 15th and 16th century printers of books, like Aldus Manutius of Venice" (Wikipedia article on Carolingian minuscule, accessed 11-23-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 08-06-2014.)

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The Earliest Example of the Carolingian Illumination Style 781 – 783

The Godescalc Evangelistary or Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, an illuminated manuscript Gospel Book written by the Frankish scribe Godescalc, was commissioned by Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard and produced in the court scriptorium at Aachen between 781 and 783. The manuscript was intended to commemorate Charlemagne's march to Italy, his meeting with Pope Adrian I, and the baptism of his son Pepin. The manuscript's dedication poem credits the work to Godescalc, and includes details of Charlemagne's march to Italy.  The manuscript is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (NA. lat. 1203).

A product of the Carolingian Renaissance, the Godescalc Evangelistary is the earliest example of the Carolingian Illumination Style. "This style was characterized by naturalist motifs in the decoration, and a fusion of the Insular, early Christian (late Classical) and Byzantine styles. The artist used natural illusionism techniques to create the appearance of volume in the characters, and used elaborate shadings in light and dark to give characters depth. The Carolingian illumination style was the earliest style to regularly utilize minuscule script, the precursor to our modern lower case letters" (Wikipedia article on Godescalc Evangelistary, accessed 11-25-2011).

Morison, Politics and Script . . . Barker ed. (1972) 135-37, pl. 88.

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The First Treasure Binding Associated with its Original Codex 783 – 795

A facsimile of the Dagulf Psalter, also known as the Golden Psalter. (View Larger)

The Dagulf Psalter, sometimes also called The Golden Psalter, is a collection of the 150 Psalms made for Hildegard, the wife of Charlemagne. The main part of the writing was done by the scribe Dagulf who signed the book in a dedication poem to Charlemagne. The work covers two decisive phases of the Carolingian School of painting. The section carried out between 783 and 789 was done in Worms and Metz, and the work was completed in Aachen between 790 and 795. 

The treasure binding covers of the manuscript are preserved in the Louvre, Paris, while the manuscript is preserved in Vienna at Austrian National Library, Cod 1861.

"Not until Carolingian times can the covers of treasure bindings be connected to their original codices, and even then clear-cut examples are few. The earliest would seem to be the ivory covers of the Dagulf Psalter, presented by Charlemagne to Pope Hadrian I (772-95); although covers and text are now separate, Dagulf's dedicatory verses make explicit mention of the cover decoration. This separation of covers and codex is more the rule than the exception. Rare in any case is the book written before the fifteenth century that has not been rebound. Jewelled covers are particularly susceptible to migration from one codex to another, because they are not integral to the bookbinding. Unlike leather covers, they were tacked on the wooden boards in an operation completely separate form the binding process proper; nor would the artisans who made them be bookbinders. Jewelled covers might easily be removed and added to another codex without any necessity for disbinding or rebinding.

"The expression 'treasure bindings' has a reference broader than just to the materials used in their manufacture. In Jerome's day, when the monastic movement was young and disorganized, jewelled bindings may have been owned by private indviduals. But later they almost invariably belonged to monasteries, cathedrals, and other collegial institutions. Within these institutions they played a specific role; they were part of the liturgical equipment used in celebrating the divine service. This equipment, including crucifixes, eucharistic vessels, vestments, reliquaries, the altar itself, was often of the highest luxury and constituted the 'treasure' of a church. Thus, both finds of sixth-century silver covers referred to above were excavated together with other silverwork liturgical articles. Jewelled covers were ordinarily made for service books, particularly Gospels and Evangeliaries, and may be considered as part of the altar fittings. Because of their special function, they would not be stored in the library presses or library room of their foundations, in or near the cloister. They would be kept quite separate, with the other liturgical objects, convenient to the altar or within the altar itself, under the care of the sacristan" (Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings 400-1600 [1979] 22-23).

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The Gellone Sacramentary: a Masterpiece of Carolingian Manuscript Illumination Circa 790

An image depicting the crucifixion of Christ, found in the Gellone Sacramentary. (View Larger)

"The Carolingian period is the first great epoch of book illumination on the continent since antiquity. Its ornamental book art perpetuates types current in the Merovingian period and at the same time in many places reflects the influence of Insular decoration. Furthermore, it harks back directly to motifs from antiquity (tendrils, palmettes, acanthus, meander) which then had the result that the repertoire of forms of the centuries immediately preceding were banished, or else mixed styles came about. In figural representation antique and early Christian models were followed closely and their study set free new and original facets of creativity.

"A demonstration of what richness in initial forms and motifs a virtuoso and imaginatively inspired late-eighth-century miniaturist could employ is given by the master craftsman who wrote the Gellone sacramentary" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 208-9).

The Gellone Sacramentary is preserved at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.  In February 2014 a digital facsimile of the manuscript was available at this link.

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"Very Little That Was Recopied in the Crucial Ninth Century Was Subsequently Lost" Circa 790

The court library of Charlemagne at Aachen set an example for abbey and cathedral scriptoria throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

"The titles of classical books jotted down in a Berlin manuscript circa 790 have been shown to be a partial list of the library at Aachen. It is remarkable for the range and rarity of the authors represented—Sallust, Martial, Lucan, and Cicero, for example—some of whose books had scarcely survived the Merovingian period. Indeed, it is characteristic of many textual traditions propagated in Carolingian times from old (fifth- or sixth-century) manuscripts, with an intermediate stage. Very little that was recopied in the crucial ninth century was subsequently lost, and the diligent collecting of these earlier representatives themselves ensured the survival of many ancient codices in capitals and uncials.

"Many monastic libraries evidently relied upon copies taken from the palace library for their stock. Some such as Corbie on the Somme or St. Martin at Tours, seem to have benefited spectacularly from their close connection to the court. Other books would be bequeathed by wealthy patrons or procured from outside by persistent begging for loans such as Lupus, Abbot of Ferrières (south of Paris) in the mid-ninth century, engaged in for much of his life. Monastic and cathedral libraries also freely exchanged copies of works as they were needed, along regular routes of circulation. France, especially in the north and central areas, had the lions share of this general revival of learning in terms of numbers of books produced, but the old Irish monasteries in Germany — Fulda, Hersfeld, St. Gall-and more modern foundations such as the imperially favored abbey of Lorsch, south of Mainz, also housed and recopied large numbers of manuscripts old and new, some of them of great importance. Of the seven ancient Italian manuscripts on which the text of Virgil rests, at least four were preserved in Carolingian monasteries in France and Germany" (M. Davies, "Medieval Libraries," Stam (ed)., The International Dictionary of Library Histories I [2001] 105-6).

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Papermaking is Established in Baghdad 793

Papermaking was established in Baghdad.

By 750 it had reached Damascus and Cairo on its way westward from China.

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Vikings Sack the Monastery and Library of Lindisfarne in the First Viking Raid on Britain June 8, 793

The ruins of Lindisfarne Abbey. (View Larger)

In the first Viking raid on Britain, on June 8, 793Vikings, sacked the monastery of Lindisfarne, a center of learning famous across the continent, built on a tidal island off the northeast coast of England, including its library among their spoils.

"Monks were killed in the [Lindisfarne] abbey, thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves along with the church treasures. Three Viking ships had beached in Portland Bay four years earlier, but that incursion may have been a trading expedition that went wrong rather than a piratical raid. Lindisfarne was different. The Viking devastation of Northumbria's Holy Island shocked and alerted the royal Courts of Europe. 'Never before has such an atrocity been seen,' declared the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York. More than any other single event, the attack on Lindisfarne cast a shadow on the perception of the Vikings for the next twelve centuries. Not until the 1890s did scholars outside Scandinavia begin seriously to reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, the technological skills and the seamanship" (quoted from the Wikipedia article on the Viking Age, accessed 11-22-2008).

"Monasteries were a favoured target due to the riches which were contained in them. Jarrow was invaded in 794 and Iona in 795, 802 and 806. After repeated raids by the Norsemen, the monks of Lindisfarne fled the monastery in AD 875, taking the venerated relics of Saint Cuthbert with them for safekeeping" (http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_5.htm, accessed 11-22-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 12-23-2016.)

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Used by Charlemagne at his Coronation as Holy Roman Emperor 794 – 800

The Vienna Coronation Gospels, also known as the Coronation Evangeliar, is the principle work among a small group of surviving manuscripts produced in the scriptorium of the Palace School at Aachen sometime between 794 and 800. It was used by the Emperor Charlemagne at his coronation on Christmas Day 800 when he placed three fingers of his right hand on the first page of the Gospel of Saint John and took his oath. Traditionally, it is considered the manuscript found in Charlemagne's tomb when it was opened in the year 1000 by Emperor Otto III.

"To this day we do not know exactly where Charlemagne’s grave lies. And so we do not know either where the legendary event which is so important for the manuscript actually took place in the year 1000. Otto III had the grave opened and discovered the codex on the knees of the emperor, who had been buried in a sitting position. He removed the book – and thereby laid the foundation for its ascent to become the central book and work of art in the Empire. During the coronations of the kings, which without exception took place in Aachen until 1531, according to tradition the book was opened at the first page of St. John’s Gospel, and the future king took his oath under the eyes of St. John the Evangelist on the words 'In the beginning was the Word' " (http://www.faksimile.de/werk/Coronation_Gospels_of_the__Holy_Roman_Empire.php?we_objectID=800, accessed 11-03-2013).

"The Coronation Evangeliar manuscript consists of 236 crimson-dyed parchment pages with gold and silver ink text. The pages measure 32.4 cm × 24.9 cm (12.8 in × 9.8 in), and contain text presented in one column, 26 lines per page. The incipit page of each Gospel shows the three writing styles common to valuable illustrated manuscripts from the late antique period—the capitalis rustica of the first line, followed by the monumental capitalis quadrata of the second line, which introduces the Latin text of the Gospel in gold ink, which is presented in continuous uncial script with no spaces between the words or punctuation.

"The book is decorated with 16 plates and four portraits depicting the Evangelists—one at the start of each Gospel. The portrait paintings are in a Carolingian style derived from Byzantine art. In the margin of the first page of the Gospel of Luke the Greek name Demetrius presbyter is written in gold capital letters. This may be the signature of the scribe or illuminator and may indicate that there were Byzantine artists in the court of Charlemagne.

"The Coronation Evangeliar cover was created by the goldsmith Hans von Reutlingen of Aachen c. 1500. Designed in high relief, the gold cover shows God the Father seated in front of the canopy of his throne. His left hand is closed over the Bible, and his right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing directed at Mary, who is shown grasping her heart during the Annunciation. The right side of the cover shows the Angel of the Annunciation. God the Father is dressed in imperial vestments and wearing a mitre crown, similar to the one worn by Maximilian I, who was Holy Roman Emperor at the time the cover was produced. The four corners of the front cover are decorated with four medalions bearing symbols of the four Evangelists" (Wikipedia article on Vienna Coronation Gospels, accessed 11-03-2013). 

The Coronation Evangeliar is preserved as part of the Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer) in the Hofburg Palace, affiliated with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. (Schatzkammer, Inv. XIII 18).

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Approximately 1880 Manuscript Codices or Fragments Survive of Texts Written before 800 799

According to Elias Avery Lowe's (E. A. Lowe's) Codices Latini Antiquiores (11 volumes and Supplement), 1,810 manuscript codices or fragments of codices survived of texts written in Latin before 800 CE. Since Lowe died the total has increased to 1884. Lowe's survey excluded charters and other documents, of which a far greater number survived.

From the fifth century only 113 codices or fragments survive.

From the sixth century only 157 codices or fragements survive.

From the seventh century only 198 codices or fragments survive.

From the period from 550 to 750, considered the Dark Ages, only 264 codices or fragments survive.

From the eighth century only 834 codices or fragments survive.

"Of these 264 [surviving from the Dark Ages] only a tenth (26) are secular works, and most of these of a technical nature. Eight of them are legal texts, 8 are medical, 6 are works of grammar, 1 is a gromatic text. It is clear from the historical evidence that the basic arts of life went on; education, law, medicine and the surveying necessary to administration and the levying of taxes still required manuals and works of reference, and these needs are duly reflected in the pattern of manuscript survival" (Reynolds [ed.], Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics [1983] xvi).

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