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.

More early modern than medieval… But oh so entertaining

Scribal Terror reports:

Futility Closet tells the story of a 16th century French attorney who was placed in an unenviable position by the “the authorities in Autun [who] asked him to advocate for the rats, which they put on trial in 1510 for eating the harvest of Burgundy”:

In his defence, Chasseneux showed that the rats had not received formal notice; and, before proceeding with the case, he obtained a decision that all the priests of the afflicted parishes should announce an adjournment, and summon the defendants to appear on a fixed day.

At the adjourned trial, he complained that the delay accorded his clients had been too short to allow of their appearing, in consequence of the roads being infested with cats. Chasseneux made an able defence, and finally obtained a second adjournment. We believe that no verdict was given. — Sabine Baring-Gould*, Curiosities of Olden Times, 1896