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IES Senior Research Fellow unearths the Venerable Bede's handwriting in centuries-old manuscripts

Professor Michelle Brown, Senior Research Fellow and Professor Emerita of Medieval Manuscript Studies in the Institute of English Studies, believes she has identified an example of the handwriting of the Venerable Bede, a revered English monk, scholar and saint.

Speaking to the Observer, Professor Brown said that extensive evidence found in two manuscripts makes a compelling case for linking them to the eighth-century monk and scholar. One manuscript is also believed to include segments of Bede’s previously “lost” Old English translation of the St John's Gospel.

Professor Brown found a number of parallels between Bede’s published work and the grammar and linguistics used in annotated passages in the preface to the Book of Kings in the Codex Amiatinus, a Bible taken to Rome from Jarrow in 715 and now housed within a Florentine archive. Her analysis of the margins also revealed complex Greek letterforms and a distinctive "lightning flash" that Bede invented to highlight quotations.

"We know Bede knew Greek," said Professor Brown. "So, we've got the marginalia, and the way in which he marks up. The little zigzag lines that look like lightning flashes — he invented these to indicate when he was quoting a passage. These mark-ups were his invention around this period.”

Professor Brown also argues that the use of Greek and Hebrew, as well as marginal reference annotations, echo Bede's scholarly interests and practices.

Bede was a scholar and theologian during the early Middle Ages and is often described as the father of English History. He produced a large number of works and translations on subjects including science, poetry and biblical commentary, and is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, one of the most important works on early Anglo-Saxon history.

On his deathbed in 735, Bede translated the Gospel of St John into Old English – the first time that a western language other than Latin had been used to record any part of the Bible. Although the original work has not survived, Professor Brown believes that sections of the translations were added to the Lindisfarne Gospels around 950, having identified characteristic Bedan marginal quotation marks in the manuscript.

She said of the evidence: “You haven’t got a smoking quill. It doesn’t say ‘Bede’. But put all the evidence together and I think this is as good an argument as has been advanced.”

Professor Clare Lees, Director of the Institute of English Studies, said: “Professor Brown’s work is an exciting example of how book history continues to offer up new stories about old books and attracts major public interest.”

The Institute of English Studies (IES) is an internationally renowned research centre specialising in the history of the book, manuscript and print studies, textual scholarship, and critical approaches to English Studies. Professor Brown’s discoveries will be featured in her upcoming book, titled Bede and the Theory of Everything, to be published by Reaktion Books in October.

Image courtesy of KayRetired via Flickr.

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