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13 January 2007

Devon Book 22

Exeter Working Papers in Book History ; no. 12

A history of the book in Devon
by Ian Maxted

D-12: Saxon Devon

The Saxon conquest of Devon in the seventh century obliterated virtually all traces of the Celtic literary tradition in the eastern half of the Dumnonian peninsula. Exeter probably became a Saxon town after the Battle of Penselwood in 658 and within a few years, in 670 according to a fabricated charter, the Saxon king Cenwealh founded the monastery of St. Mary and St. Peter at Exeter. Whether, as in the case of Glastonbury, there was already a timber church on the site when the Saxons built their stone structure there, we are not informed. If there had been an earlier foundation, little of its learning appears to have survived the transfer of power. Certainly it provided little stimulation to St. Boniface. Probably born in Crediton in about 680, Boniface was sent to the monastery of Exanchester, then in the care of Abbot Wulfhard, where he studied and taught. However, according to his biographer Willibald, his enthusiasm for study and the lack of suitable teachers in Exeter soon made him seek permission to leave for Nursling near Romsey.

The letters of this greatest of Devonians provide a unique insight into the problems that faced a man of learning in Europe at the end of the so-called Dark Ages. His belief in the value of study was fervent. At about the time that he left for his missionary work on the continent in 718 he wrote a letter to one Nidhard encouraging him to continue his studies and a number of subsequent letters show him assisting others to learn (Tangl 9). In 732 a nun Leoba asked for a letter to be corrected and sent him a poem she had written (Tangl 29). On another occasion he apologised to St. Eadburga of Thanet for not having had the time to copy out passages from the scriptures for her. His correspondence with Eadburga extended over a number of years. In 720, shortly after his arrival in Germany, he remarked to her that he was unable to obtain The sufferings of the martyrs and some fifteen years later he thanked her for her many useful gifts of books. In the same letter he asked her to make him a copy of the epistles of St. Peter in letters of gold, adding that he was sending the gold through the priest Eoban (Tangl 15, 30, 35).

Scholars were reliant on each other for information. In 735 Boniface was clearly very exercised about the problem of marriage within the prohibited degrees. He wrote from Germany to Archbishop Nothelm of Canterbury asking him to forward a copy of the questions sent to Pope Gregory I and the Pope's replies, mentioning the question of whether marriages between Christians related in the third degree are lawful. He asked that a search be made to establish their authenticity; they did not appear to be in the archives of Pope Gregory at Rome. At about the same time he asked Duddo, conjectured to be an abbot in the West of England, to search ecclesiastical writings to find references to clarify whether the marriage of a woman to the godfather of her children was a sin. In the same letter he asked Duddo to send him the works of the church fathers and commentaries on Paul, adding: "If you have anything in your monastic library which you think would be useful to me and of which I may not be aware or of which I have no copy, pray let me know about it." (Tangl 33, 34)

In about 747 he developed an interest in the works of Bede. He wrote to Abbot Hutebert of Wearmouth asking him to sent him Bede's writings and at the same time tackled Archbishop Egbert of York on the same topic, specifying his homilies and his commentaries on the proverbs (Tangl 76, 91).

He clearly collaborated closely with Egbert. In about 747 he sent him a letter reproving King Athelbald of Mercia for him to correct and polish before forwarding, and also a copy of the letters of Pope Gregory received from the Roman archives and not yet available in Britain. He added that it is possible to obtain more works from the same source. A human touch in one of his letters to Egbert is his mention of a gift of two small casks of wine and his recommendation to use it for a merry day with the brethren (Tangl 75, 91).

Equally human is his letter to Bishop Daniel in the early 740s where he asks for the book of the Prophets that Winbert of Nursling left on his death. It had large clear letters and no copy was available in Germany suitable for his failing eyesight. It was impossible for him to read the small abbreviated script of the manuscripts circulating there (Tangl 63).

These letters show what a highly developed network of contacts between scholars existed at this time. Boniface mentions his English contacts in Canterbury, York and, perhaps, the West of England on the one hand, while on the other he is combing Germany for suitable manuscripts and making extended inquiries of the Roman archives. At a time when travel was hazardous and slow, the determined efforts to obtain texts and, where necessary, to have them copied out in letters of gold, show what a high value was placed on the written word.

This attitude towards the book and writing is also reflected in a work of literature probably composed in the West of England during Boniface's lifetime, the riddles now included in the Exeter Book, the large tenth- century volume of Old English poetry which is one of the chief treasures of Exeter Cathedral Library. This collection of riddles, which may originally have totalled one hundred, was written probably by a cleric, who was familiar with the work of compilers of Latin riddles such as Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (640-709). There are at least half a dozen riddles that can fairly confidently be considered to revolve around books or writing. These range from a riddle about an inkhorn to one which describes the quill pen and three fingers. There is a charming riddle on the bookworm, which remains none the wiser for devouring other men's words. Most significant however is riddle 24, which follows the laborious processes involved in producing a book, tracing the stages by which the skin, stripped from the back of the newly killed animal, is soaked, dried, scraped, written on with a quill pen, bound and embellished, and finally spreads the message of salvation far and wide. Written in the alliterative verse form common to most Old English poetry, this account of the stages whereby the holy word is diffused in written form has something of the epic grandeur of Beowulf contained within its 28 lines. The sheer labour involved in producing a gospel book is stressed; the force of the knife scraping the blemishes from the parchment, the repeated movements of the pen, dipped again and again in the oak-gall ink, the effort of stretching the leather over the boards when the book is bound. The monetary value attached to the end-product is made apparent; the book is adorned with gold, smiths are employed to produce glittering metal ornaments, clasps and bosses. But all this labour and the glorious external appearance of the final product is a pale reflection of the content of the book. The book is a sacred object in itself, its message, if heard and acted on, could improve the lot of all mankind.

This reverence for the book as a material object, a precious shrine containing sacred texts, is something difficult to understand today, surrounded as we are by a superfluity of cheaply printed information of all kinds. It is an attitude derived in part from the central position of Christian beliefs in the life of that period, and in part from the sheer expense and time involved in producing a book and hence the scarcity of texts of any kind, sacred or profane.

Among profane text from this period are the 70 Devon charters and similar legal documents that are recorded from the time before the Norman conquest (Finberg 1953, Hooke 1994). These are grants of land or privileges, normally by the king and normally to an abbey, bishop or church. The earliest recorded is dated 729 and is a grant by King Aethelheard of Wessex to Glastonbury Abbey of ten hides of land in the valley of the Torridge. The original is lost but it is recorded by Adam de Domerham and John of Glastonbury, the chroniclers of the abbey. Manys charters were lost when the monastery at Exeter was sacked by the Danes in 1003 but some were replaced by clumsy reconstructions, including tenth century charters of King Athelstan which were wrongly dated 670. The charters themselves are in Latin with most boundary clauses, where they exist, in Old English and in one Cornish charter, that for Lanlawren in Lanteglos, in Cornish (Padel 1978). Most land charters survive in later copies in cartularies. The lost Glastonbury "Landbok" of the early 11th century contained 136 charters. Similar cartularies with westcountry charters survive for Sherborne and Winchester, the Codex Wintonensis of the 12th century (BL Add Ms 15350), containing 190 charters. The earliest Devon charter with boundary clauses is the Crediton charter of 739 and the earliest in a near contemporary version is the 847 South Hams charter of King Aethelwulf (BL Cotton Charters viii, 36r). The rows of crosses against the signatories' names need not imply that even kings and nobles were illiterate, merely that the scribe, making a fair copy did not transcribe the original signatures or marks. The true extent of literacy in this period is difficult to establish, but the tradition of vernacular writings implies that, though not widespread, it was not confined to clerics.

This page last updated 29 August 2020
© Ian Maxted, 2001.