What is ‘Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book’?

Helloo, Blogoverse! I just finished the introduction to my thesis, and am bouncing off the walls. In an endeavour to calm down and get some sleep, let me share with you my historiographical introduction to the study of Wulfstan’s ‘Commonplace Book’. Please excuse the talking-up of myself at the end, I’m told it’s necessary, in order to justify one’s writing a thesis at all, to situate onself in relation to the best scholarship in the field. Also please excuse the inexplicably tiny text, no idea why it’s done that to me.

Mary Bateson, in 1895, first identified four manuscripts, including Nero A.i(B), which contain a common collection of canon law and ecclesiastical tracts in Latin. She posited that the Commonplace Book was a sort of scrapbook for a bishop’s personal use, as a guidebook in diocesan administration.[1] A substantial part of the Latin writings in these manuscripts comprised what was known, on the basis of medieval and early modern textual errors, the Excerptionese Ecgberhti. The Exerptiones have now been shown to be a collection of canon law by earlier authors, not distinct from the similar texts around it, and collected by Wulfstan himself rather than his predecessor Ecgbert.[2]

Dorothy Bethurum repeated Bateson’s assessment of the ‘Commonplace Book’ in her edition of the Homilies,[3] and in her seminal article, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book’, identified a group of eight manuscripts, including Nero A.i(B), which contain a similar series of Latin works, dealing with the affairs of a bishop in administering a diocese. Her opinion was that three of these were compiled during Wulfstan’s lifetime; Nero A.i(B), British Library Cotton Vespasian A.xiv, and Copenhagen Royal Library Gl. Kgl. S 1595. [4] (Another manuscript, held in Rouen, has been added to the list in 1992,[5] and another in Bodleian Ms Barlow 37.[6]) Subsequently, Bethurum systematically worked through the evidence for Wulfstan’s own use of the Commonplace Book, finding numerous examples of large and small excerpts used in Wulfstan’s Anglo-Saxon writings.[7]

The dominant approach to the study of this manuscript group, until Patrick Wormald, was in this vein. Mary Bateson had seen the Commonplace Book as a personal administrative tool for a bishop; Dorothy Bethurum then went on to show that Wulfstan personally used the collections of Latin ecclesiastical writing as a core resource for his Anglo-Saxon compositions. H. R. Loyn, in his introduction to the facsimile edition of Nero A.i(B), applied the same principle to the Anglo-Saxon texts therein, pointing out that the manuscript contains an almost comprehensive survey of English law up until the rein of Cnut, and was thus ‘an indispensible source-book’ for Wulfstan in the composition of his final law code, I-II Cnut.[8]

Patrick Wormald, in his article ‘Archbishop Wulfstan and the Holiness of Society’, called for a change in the focus when it came to the study of these manuscripts. In his study of Nero A.i(B), he demonstrates that Wulfstan’s compilation of Latin ecclesiastical matter is by no means a simple collection of sources for further writings: rather, it represents an early attempt at a comprehensive collection of canon law, comparable to those of being composed on the Continent at the time, although less well structured than its European counterparts.[9] Furthermore, he argues that the Anglo-Saxon portion of the manuscript is not only a collection of English legal writing, but ‘the realisation in secular law’ of the teachings found in the canon law collection.

Canon law collections are not meant to be used by one man alone as a reference work: they are intended to be circulated in the present and to be referred to into the future. Wormald, in ‘the Holiness of Society’, notes that the revisions of Nero A.i(B), combined with the fact that section a went on to a life of its own after removal from the main texts, suggests a ‘production line’ for the composition of such manuscripts.[10] In The Making of English Law he went one step further, suggesting that perhaps Nero A.i(B) was not originally a single manuscript, but two or more books or parts of ‘books intended not to make a point… but to serve a purpose’.[11]

This is the direction in which the study of the ‘Commonplace Book’ manuscripts is proceeding: the study, not of Wulfstan’s personal literary sources, but the study of collections of texts made for his lifelong purpose, the restoration of Christian social order in England. The ‘Excerptiones’ have been re-edited as Wulfstan’s Canon Law Collection, in which Cross and Hamer present not an editorial attempt to reconstruct Wulfstan’s personal exemplar, but two distinct recensions of the collection, which more accurately reflects its circulation in the late Anglo-Saxon period and subsequent centuries. I, for my part, have examined the Anglo-Saxon part of the manuscript, and the claims Wulfstan makes within the vernacular text about the use and purpose which he intended for his books.


[1] Mary Bateson, ‘A Worcester Cathedral Book of Ecclesiastical Collections’, The English Historical Review 10 (1985), pp. 712-731.

[2] Wormald, ‘Holiness of Society’, pp. 196-203.

[3] Dorothy Bethurum, The Homilies of Wulfstan, p. 99.

[4] Dorothy Bethurum, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book’, PMLA 57 (1942), pp. 916-929.

[5] J. E. Cross, ‘A Newly-Identified Manuscript of Wulfstan’s “Commonplace Book”, Rouen, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS. 1382 (U. 109), fols. 173r-198v’, Journal of Medieval Latin 2 (1992), 63-83.

[6] Wormald, ‘Holiness of Society’, p. 197.

[7] Dorothy Bethurum, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book’, PMLA 57 (1942), pp. 916-929.

[8] Loyn, A Wulfstan Manuscript, p. 48,

[9] Wormald, ‘Holiness of Society’, p. 202-3.

[10] Wormald, ‘Holiness of Society’, p. 195.

[11] Wormald, The Making of English Law, p. 202.

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13 Responses to “What is ‘Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book’?”

  1. Nathaniel Says:

    Good on you for using Junicode.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    That’s because Junicode is *pretty*…

  3. Hannah Kilpatrick Says:

    An introduction! Well done – that’s half of your work done there, right? I’d love to read the whole thing when it’s done, or before if you want someone to read for all those little typos you can never pick up in your own work. I used “fourteenth century” as a compound adjective sans hyphen no fewer than four times, to my great shame. Though in my defence, most of them were originally single adjective + noun until the sentence shifted around…

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    Hannah- I certainly hope that’s half my work done! I have still to edit two chapters and almost completely rewrite the third (content’s there, but not the structure). And then a conclusion. But I think I can get that all done by next monday, when I’m handing it over to my mentor for last-minute readjustments.

    I’d love to read the whole thing when it’s done, or before if you want someone to read for all those little typos you can never pick up in your own work.

    I have people conscripted for the the final read-over: my mentor Awesome is reading the whole thing, and my best friend is reading one chapter and spotting for things which need editing to turn it into an article.

    But if it’s as awesome as I think it is (I mean, how could it not be?) it might end up in the USyd online repository, whereupon I will point everyone in the direction of the downloadable PDF file!

  5. kishnevi Says:

    I’m not too up on academic ettiquette, but isn’t that last sentence supposed to give a summary of your conclusions?

    Out of sheer what-killed-the-cat, did anyone ever try to establish if any of the surviving manuscripts were Wulfstan’s own copy? If so, it might be worthwhile to try to determine if his handwriting appears anywhere in the MS, and if it does in which parts? Point being that if W. wrote out any of it himself, his original intent was more likely to have texts available for personal use to consult as bishop or author. Whereas if he did not, it was more likely a compilation which he intended from the start to be made available to others. (Of course, to add another wrinkle, that point would be not be valid if the MS was a copy Wulfstan had made from his own original, when he might for instance want a clean copy available for reference.)

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    Kishnevi- that last sentence is just a fragment of my whole introduction. The introduction begins with the usual “in this thesis blah blah blah”, whereas this is part of the manuscript description.

    Three of the suriving manuscripts of the ‘commonplace book’ were what you might call Wulfstan’s own copies. Mine, Nero A.i, has his handwriting in nine of the ten quires: making corrections, notes, changes, and occasionally writing chunks of the text itself.

    I don’t think he HAD an original. Even this manuscript he was updating as he went: three quires were cut loose and apparently passed on to someone else, whereupon Wulfstan replaced them with a new set of quires dealing with similar topics.

    This is part of Wormald’s big argument: that Wulfstan did not in fact have a ‘commonplace book’, which would be a single person’s resource book, but was producing a series of manuscripts dealing with ecclesiastical and secular governance. Yes, he did evidently use them as a personal resource, but ALL of the texts are texts intended for public reading. The law codes were preached; the homiles and admonitions were preached; he also states clearly in the Institutes that he expects the synod to read together and debate canon law. So even in Wulfstan’s hands, these manuscripts are produced for communal use. And then they appear to have gone on to independent lives in the hands of others, while he himself commissioned a new manuscript compilation tailored to his specific interests at the time.

  7. Eggs Maledict Says:

    “Please excuse the talking-up of myself at the end”

    I can only assume this refers to the single uses of “I” and “my”, which don’t seem to need excusing. I’m disappointed now, I was hoping for something along the lines of this:

    “And as I will show, through my sheer genius I have disproved ALL the pitiful fools who came before me. Cower, mortals, and despair!” *Cue maniacal laugh*

    …Or something like that…

  8. highlyeccentric Says:

    YOU, E.M., may cower before me and despair. Patrick Wormald is too awesome and too dead to cower before anyone.

  9. Eggs Maledict Says:

    *cowers and despairs*

    Wait…why am I cowering again?

  10. highlyeccentric Says:

    You are cowering before my scholarly magnificence and despairing of ever matching my awesomeness. OBVIOUSLY.

  11. Eggs Maledict Says:

    Oh right. I knew there had to be a reason…

    Kinda hoped for a *good* one though…I mean…you’re just not that scary. Not compared to certain askers of questions at evening lectures, at least.

  12. highlyeccentric Says:

    Oh, gosh, you’re comparing me to sixty years of practice at terrifying one’s inferiors?

    Not speaking of anyone in particular, of course, but I’m rather relieved to hear that the more terrifying end of the centre will definitely NOT be marking my thesis.

  13. Eggs Maledict Says:

    Take it as a compliment. Remember, I use words like ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ as compliments too.

    But there are more scary people than you in the world, yes. And that sounds like a very good thing…


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