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.


Three Things:

1. You have no idea how much I hate the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos right now (unless of course you read my LJ, in which case you saw all the frothing at the mouth). Every time I think I have an idea, I can’t pin it down; it turns out to be wrong; it turns out I have two contradictory ideas; it turns out someone else already thought it and it’s not quite right; or despite the fact that my gut and a reasonable amount of historical evidence tells me that Wulfstan did not particularly want AEthelred back in 1014, I still can’t figure out how to read the Sermo except as advocating the return of AEthelred. What kind of person presides over the ordination of a new bishop of London, despite said bishop not being in your province, and despite the current bishop of London being in exile with your exiled king, and then turns around the next day and says ‘you know, it’s very sinful to kick out the king, we should get him back’. AND THEN KEEPS PREACHING SAID SERMON FOR FOUR OR FIVE YEARS, even after said king has been exiled and the young Viking dude you rejected in 1014 is now on the throne.  WTF, Wulfstan, WTF?

Oh, and the Thing is due in three weeks. Someone please preside over my execution immediately.

2. Hey, a medieval blog I didn’t know about! Hannah is studying at Melbourne with Stephanie Trigg, and is writing her honours thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She’s talking about “Duality and Ambiguity”, being the ways in which the poet sets things up with two possible interpretations; and about the relationships between devotional and romantic literature in SGGK. Gawain, however, is not all she talks about: check out her blogo-biography of Henry VI.

3. Oh, and I can tell my blog’s up and running again when I start getting loopy porn search hits on a daily basis. To the person hunting for Gawain slash fic, try a Google advanced search restricted to livejournal.com, that should do the trick.

For the benefit of the person who wanted to see medieval women naked, here are both Eve AND Adam naked. Eve is the one on the right, who appears to have two nipple rings. Adam is the one with the pot belly. (Apologies to the illuminator of MS Junius 11 for my terrible LOLmanuscript):

York and Worcester: A Joke I Am Not Making In My Formal Paper

In 952, Eric ‘Bloodaxe’ invaded Northumbria, and all the Northumbrian lords went over to him at once. Later, when King Edmund (not the dead one) came along and took Northumbria back, Archbishop Wulfstan I of York was imprisoned because ‘he had been accused against the king’. Read: he went over to Eric along with the Northumbrian lords. Wulfstan I was later re-instated, and thenceforth (until 1016) the see of York was held in tandem with a southern see. This a) propped up the finances of the impoverished Archdiocese and b) was probably meant to tie the loyalties of the Northumbrian church more closely to the southern parts of England.

I’m about to argue that aim b) wasn’t exactly successful, with reference to Wulfstan II of York. I thought about making the old ‘like communism, works well in theory’ joke, but decided it was boring. Here are some other jokes I am not putting in my formal paper for the Centre for Medieval Studies:

* This arrangement was something like a threesome: looks good on paper, rarely turns out well in practice.

* This arrangement was something like a threesome: interesting in theory, but the end results were messy.

* This arrangement was something like a threesome: well intentioned, but loyalties were strained.

(H/T to Jeph of Questionable Content, who I believe was responsible for the original ‘threesomes are like communism’ line.)


On the other hand, while I am not making threesomes jokes before the Centre, I am using terrible alliteration. To whit: ‘the wonderous works of Wulfstan’. Yes, I have a great career ahead of me as a terrible academic punster.


Hey again, Intarwubs! I’m back again, isn’t that surprising! No deep content this time, but I found a cool thing that I want to share with you. I am reading the Encomium Emmae Reginae right now, which is a hugely hilarious piece of propaganda.  They should show this to high school kids, instead of WWI recruitment posters. So much more fun.


“After the death of his father, Knutr attempted to retain the sceptre of the kingdom, but he was quite unequal to so doing, for the number of his followers was insufficient… the king […] ordered a fleet to be got ready for him, not because he was fleeing afraid of the harsh outcome of war, but in order to consult his brother Haraldr, the king of the Danes, about so weighty a matter.” (E.E.R, book II item I)

but, immediately following this explanation of why Knut is wise and not cowardly for leaving England, we then get an explanation of why Thorkell the Tall was brave and heroic for chosing the opposite course:

“… Thorkell, whom we have already mentioned as a military commander, observed that the land was most excellent and chose to take up his residence in so fertile a country, and make peace with the natives, rather than to return home like one who had, in the end, been expelled.” (E.E.R, book II item I)

There are, of course, good reasons for this, and for the fact that the encomiast does his very best to gloss over Thorkell’s alliance with AEthelred at this stage, and so on. He’s engaged in the praise of Emma, Cnut, and everyone who ended up on their side in the end. Some of these people were on the other side at various points in time, but they’re still all superlatively excellent. This results in some humourous contradictions, like the one just above.

Along with all the amusements, I just found this description of Cnut:

“He became a friend and intimate of churchmen, to such a degree that he seemed to bishops to be a brother bishop for his maintenance of perfect religion, to monks also not a secular but a monk for the temperance of his life of most humble devotion. He diligently defended wards and widows, he supported orphans and strangers, he suppressed unjust laws and those who applied them, he exalted and cherished justice and equity, he built and dignified churches, he loaded priests and the clergy with dignities, he enjoined peace and unanimity upon his people…” (E.E.R book II item 19)

O blogosphere, you have no idea how happy this makes me. Just look at the Wulfstanian tenor of that passage!

Oh, I don’t believe it for a moment. Cnut was a rampaging egomaniac, and I certainly don’t buy all this humble devotion business. HOWEVER, what this does show is that Wulfstan’s description of the ideal king had sunk in, well enough that Cnuts wife would want Cnut painted as a king in that mould.

The first sentence I’m not so sure about- king as brother bishop and fellow monk. I know I’ve read something like it somewhere, but it might have been AElfric rather than Wulfstan. The defence of ‘wards and widows’ is a priority which crops up all over Wulfstan’s work, though- laws, Institutes, homilies, you name it. The emphasis on promoting justice and stamping out injustice is all over Wulfstan’s work- often expressed in repetitive and parallel structures like this. And peace and unanimity reminds me awfully of Wulfstan’s injunctions to the synod regarding their common dealings.

The short form of this is, O Internet:

Rejoice! For I may have something to say in the third chapter of my thesis, after all!

Common Ground

Someone has been google-searching ‘Anglo Saxon customs in Australia’. Now, I happen to think we in Australia have some common cultural ground with our Anglo-Saxon forbears, and it is this: booze. Anglo-Saxons liked booze. Australians like booze. Australian social culture revolves around boozing far more than some of us would like.

I give you Wulfstan’s Admonition to Bishops:

And hit is egeslic gewuna, Þæt we eac habbað: sylfe we bysniað oft and gelome Þæt we geornost scoldan ægwær forbeodan… we oferdrucen lufiað to georne and mid ðam huru ðencað, Þæt we us sylfe weorðian wide, Þe we oðre men drecan to swyÞe.
And it is (a) dreadful custom, which we each have: we (our)selves set an example often and frequently which we should most eagerly forbid everywhere… we love drunkenness to eagerly. And certainly think upon that, which we ourselves praise widely, so that we make other men too greatly drunk.1

Now, to the best of my knowledge neither the Anglican nor Catholic Archbishop of Sydney has lately been accused of ‘staying too long on the bench of the ale-house’, as were Wulfstan’s fellow-bishops. I have known a good few ministers of the Word in my time who happily trot down to the pub after church for a beer or two- a perfect example of the moderation Wulfstan advises.

I’m quite sure, however, that Wulfstan would consider the other book-learned members of our society- the politicians and the lawyers, the doctors, the students, and yes, quite definitely the medievalists- likewise responsible for setting a good moral example to the degenerate footballers of the nation. Wulfstan would not be encouraging students to drink their stresses away. Wulfstan might even argue that the inebriated examples of those who should know better are in some way responsible for the antics of, say, Shane Warne. He would certainly have some choice alliteration to describe the kind of drunken embarrassments to the country (let me have a stab at this) which one may find here:

Hooligans and hoons, racists and rioters, misogynists and misanthropes, criminals and crooks, lushes and lechers, and those who, all too often, embarrass the establishment, with drunkenness, which they should defend.2

In conclusion: one Anglo-Saxon custom we cling to very eagerly, O Google Searcher, is that of social drinking, often to excess. Drunkenness as group bonding. Convivial imbibing as the key to ‘networking’. Whether or not this is a good thing, I leave to your discretion.

Finally: when next you’re having a glass before knucking down to write, remember to:


1. For the persnickety: the Admonition is in Jost’s edition of the Institutes of Polity, p. 262ff, and if from the MS London, British Library, Cotton Nero A.i: f. 100v.ff. The translation is mine and shouldn’t be trusted.
2. OK, it’s nigh impossible to keep one’s syntax straight and alliterate a sentence. I am suddenly more tolerant of convoluted Anglo-Saxon expressions.

Myltestran 7 myrðran: infanticides and stillbirths in Anglo-Saxon England

‘Prostitutes and killers of children’. The two form part of a long list of alliterating pairs of social dangers in Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi Ad Anglos. They can be found with man-slayers and woman-slayers, priest-destroyers and church-haters, and so on.

I remarked to the Bocera this afternoon that it was a bit harsh, equating prostitutes with killers of children. Some early form of ‘but think of the children!’ hysteria? The Bocera looked over his glasses at me and pointed out that ‘killers of children’ is probably referring to abortions or child abandonment- and who would be in a worse economic or social position to raise children than prostitutes?

He then went on to tell me that in excavations of Anglo-Saxon settlements, it is not uncommon to find the bones of newborns in the rubbish heap, and that presumably these were the successful abandonments, since they weren’t discovered and given a proper burial.

But what about still-births, I asked. Still-births, he informed me, were always given a proper burial. In the excavation of Anglo-Saxon churches and cemeteries, the graves of children who died before baptism are usually found under the eaves of the church, in the hope that they would be ‘baptised’ by the water running off the sanctuary.

I learn something new every time I see the Bocera.1 Today: one gruesome, one sweet, and both sad…


1. Did you know that Neil Ker died by falling out of an apple tree? The Bocera tells me, with his impenetrable Bocera expression, that this is not an uncommon way for scholars to die.

Happy Fact on a Sunday

Wulfstan was a puntuation nerd. According to Neil Ker’s article ‘The Handwriting of the Archbishop Wulfstan’, in MSS which were not produced under his direction, where Wulfstan’s handwriting is present in the margins, the punctuation has been edited in places to match the dominant scheme of punctuation in Wulfstanian MSS. You can’t tell for sure, but it is to be assumed that Wulfstan did it himself.

Wulfstan was a punctuation nerd. And, on a more practical note, this is a good indication that the punctuation in Wulfstanian MSS is a scheme designed for reading aloud- why else would it be important to synchronise older texts which you were also using with your personal scheme of punctuation?

I am also a punctuation nerd. This makes me feel that I have some kind of affinity with our favourite grouchy Archbishop. I own a teapot mat decorated with ampersands. Sadly, it was not available with Tyronean Notes on it, otherwise I could fondly imagine that that Archbishop Wulfstan would have appreciated it too.