by Jessica Hodgkinson and John Barrett
A series of exciting inscriptions, almost invisible to the naked eye, have been discovered in the margins of an important eighth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 30. Revealed through state-of-the-art 3D recording technology by the ARCHiOx project, these marginal annotations provide tantalising new insights into this manuscript’s history and its links to women, in particular, to a woman called Eadburg.
Introducing Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 30
Bodleian Library, MS. Selden Supra 30 is a copy of the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the New Testament, written in Latin. It is a small volume, measuring only 229 x 176 mm (only slightly bigger than an A5 piece of paper).
Like most surviving manuscripts from this period, MS. Selden Supra 30 does not contain a formal colophon or scribal note recording when, where, and by whom it was made.
However, certain features of this manuscript, including the style of uncial script used to copy the text, demonstrate that it was produced in England, most likely somewhere in the kingdom of Kent, probably in the first half of the eighth century (i.e., between c. 700 and c. 750 AD).
MS. Selden Supra 30 was certainly in Kent by the fourteenth century when a shelf mark was added to p. 1 showing that it was then in the library of the monastery of St Augustine’s in Canterbury.
Prayers added to p. 70, which was originally left blank, suggest, however, that very early in its history MS. Selden Supra 30 was owned and used by a woman.
These prayers were copied in the same type of script as the rest of the manuscript but by a different scribe to the two responsible for copying its main text.
The first prayer is a petition to God made by an anonymous woman, described as God’s “unworthy servant” (indignam famulam).
This strongly suggests that, at the time the prayer was added, MS. Selden Supra 30 was being used by a woman, or a group of women. The prayer may have been copied into the manuscript by a female scribe.
The formula of this prayer is unique and does not survive in any other manuscript. It could have been composed by the petitioner herself.
In 1935, in the first edition of Vol. 2 of Codices Latini Antiquiores, Elias Avery Lowe, then a Reader in Palaeography at the University of Oxford, suggested that another addition made to MS. Selden Supra 30 could provide further evidence of its links to women.
Lowe recorded, for the first time in print, that the letters EADB and +E+ had been incised into the lower margin of p. 47. He noticed that the letters had been cut into the parchment with force, apparently using a knife, slicing through the upper surface of the membrane.
Lowe suggested that these letters were abbreviated forms of the female name Eadburh/Eadburg.
Studying MS. Selden Supra 30 in the Weston Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room in 2022, Jessica Hodgkinson, a PhD student at the University of Leicester, funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities consortium, spotted another inscription in the lower margin of p. 18. This inscription had never been noticed before. It was very small and almost invisible to the naked eye but appeared to contain Eadburg’s name written in full.
State-of-the-art technology has now not only confirmed this new inscription, but revealed several other instances of Eadburg’s name, alongside many more early marginal additions, incised into the parchment of MS Selden Supra 30. These discoveries provide new and exciting insights into the use of this book by a woman called Eadburg in eighth-century England.
Recording the inscriptions
by John Barrett
Scratched markings on the surface of a page are usually photographed using a single light positioned at a low angle. This simple principle is termed raking light. However, through recordings made for ARCHiOx, it has been demonstrated that scratched markings may be far more effectively recorded using a technique called photometric stereo.
A description of ARCHiOx and an explanation of the technology and processes in use can be read in this blogpost: ARCHiOx: research and development in imaging – The Conveyor
The photometric stereo workflow adopted for ARCHiOx uses 2D images to record and store 3D information. These images map the direction and height of the original’s surface, and are processed into renders showing only the relief of the original with the tone and colour removed.
Renders produced using a photometric stereo workflow are superior to raked light images in three ways:
A 3D render lacks the excessive contrast of a raked light image making markings easier to discern. Through the use of software, it is possible to re-light renders virtually, giving complete control over the intensity of the shadow and highlight over the recorded relief of the original.
The ability to filter for different textural frequencies makes it possible to separate the scratched markings from the texture of material on which the markings have been made.
Renders can be re-lit virtually from any direction or height making it possible to reveal markings made along any angle.
In addition, the depth of a marking can be measured by examining a cross-section through it. The profile may also provide clues regarding the mark-making tool, in this case a drypoint stylus.
A photometric stereo recording of the near-invisible inscription on p. 18 was captured in May 2022.
The Selene, a prototype imaging system designed and built by the Factum Foundation, project partner for ARCHiOx, was used for the recording.
Multiple images were captured from the inscription before being processed, filtered, and enhanced. The resulting high-resolution shaded render shows only the three-dimensional surface of the page. Through this new image, the drypoint inscription has been recorded successfully for the first time.
Subsequent analysis and processing, overseen by Jorge Cano, designer of the Selene, led to a new set of renders which enhance the markings further. These new images were created by compiling renders, re-lit virtually from multiple directions, and using a process called principal component analysis, or PCA.
The lines which form this inscription are incredibly shallow. Even the most prominent are only 15-20 microns in depth, perhaps equivalent to less than a fifth of the width of a human hair. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the inscription is simply absent from a conventionally-lit colour image of this page.
Processing the data using computational methods has revealed an astonishing amount but analogue (i.e., human) intervention has still been required to digitally annotate the image to clarify the reading. Despite attempts to filter specifically for the inscription, shading from the texture of the parchment and its many tiny creases have proved almost impossible to remove. This makes it difficult in some areas, to rule-in or rule-out the presence of lines. An objective and cautious approach has been taken with the digital annotation. This has involved multiple imaging colleagues working independently to contribute to a set of annotations which could then be compared. Finally, the renders and digitally annotated images were shared with the researchers, allowing them to make their own observations and annotations with the benefit of context.
Subsequent recordings made for ARCHiOx have revealed that Eadburg’s name is spelled out in full five times on five different pages of MS. Selden Supra 30 (pp. 1, 2, 3, 12, and 18). On some of these pages, and elsewhere in the book, other abbreviated forms of this name, including E, EAD, or EADB, are also present.
Reading the inscriptions
The discovery of Eadburg’s full name etched several times into the manuscript’s margins definitively confirms Lowe’s theory that the letters previously identified on p. 47 are, indeed, abbreviations of the same name.
Eadburg’s name was copied out using letterforms common to all the newly identified inscriptions. The form of the A (an oblique line with an oval bow on the left) and the angular U and G are distinctive. This suggests that the same scribe may have made all of these additions. If so, it is at least possible that the scribe was Eadburg herself.
Readers and owners of early medieval manuscripts, both men and women, sometimes added their names to books, usually in ink, but occasionally, as here, in drypoint. Another early eighth-century example is the ink inscription that records, in Old English, that Abbess Cuthswitha owned a copy of Jerome’s commentary on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes (now Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek, M. p. th. q. 2, fol. 1r).
Eadburg’s name could also be a mark of ownership or evidence of reading. Although small in scale, and faint, someone, perhaps Eadburg herself, was evidently keen to preserve her name in the pages of this book to be seen by subsequent readers. What is unusual about Eadburg’s name, however, is that it appears here, in full or in abbreviated forms, 15 times.
Eadburg’s name is written on the opening page of the manuscript (p. 1). It overlaps part of the top of the enlarged decorated initial P which begins the text. Here, her name is preceded by a cross (+).
A series of ARCHiOx recordings of p. 1 of MS. Selden Supra 30:
The decision to etch the name over the top of the first letter of the text must have been deliberate. It establishes Eadburg’s presence in the book from the outset and connects her name intimately with the biblical text it contains.
On p. 2, her name is framed by a cartouche.
On p. 18, Eadburg’s name forms part of a multi-word inscription added to the lower margin. Here also, her name is preceded by a cross. Some of the following letters are easy to see, whilst others, especially those towards the end of the inscription, are difficult to make out, even with the benefit of the new visualisation techniques.
The most recent and clearest recording taken of the inscription, enhanced through virtual relighting, image stacking, and principal component analysis, appears to show, however, that, among the visible letters, there is a wynn (Ƿ), the Old English letter for W. This letter can be distinguished from the Rs in the inscription, including in the name Eadburg, by the form of the bow which is pointed and extends further down the vertical line of the letter than on R. The presence of a wynn shows that the inscription was written, not in Latin, but in the Old English vernacular language.
This inscription probably comprises three words. The name Eadburg is the subject of the statement, so we might reasonably expect the other letters to include a verb followed by the object.
A preliminary reading of the inscription is:
+ EaDBURG BIREð CǷ….N
+ Eadburg bears [cw….n]
Most of the letters in what appears to be the third and final word are unclear, with only CW– at the beginning and -N at the end remaining legible.
One Old English noun that could fill this position is cwærtern, meaning ‘prison’. Interestingly, the inscription is positioned beneath the beginning of the text of Acts 5:18 which describes the imprisonment of the Apostles by the high priest of the Temple and his followers because they had continued to preach the Gospel (…et injecerunt manus in Apostolos et posuerunt eos in custodia publica). If cwærtern is the third word in the inscription on p. 18, perhaps Eadburg sought to mirror the text, associating herself with the Apostles in their imprisonment.
Deciphering the drawings
Alongside Eadburg’s name, several intriguing drypoint drawings have also been discovered. Some are clearly human figures, though further investigation is needed to establish exactly who or what they depict. All the figures are very small. Several seem to have been made by incising a line around a thumb or finger to form the outline of the figure.
The scene added to the lower margin of p. 11, which features at least three figures, may also include two E‘s. There appears to be an E, preceded by a cross, to the left of the first figure, and a second E, followed by a wynn (Ƿ) between the second and third figures. Could Eadburg have drawn this scene in drypoint and signed her work with her initial, as found elsewhere in the manuscript?
Eadburg’s name or initials are etched into several pages, sometimes next to contemporaneous dry-point drawings. But who was she? More work on the newly discovered additions may bring us closer to answering this question.
We know of nine women called Eadburg living in England at some point between the seventh and tenth centuries (for details see the online Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England). Other sources provide some tantalising clues that might help identify the Eadburg of MS. Selden Supra 30.
Charter evidence suggests that a woman called Eadburg was abbess of a female religious community at Minster-in-Thanet, in Kent from at least 733 until her death sometime between 748 and 761. As Lowe suggested in 1935, her dates and location correspond with the palaeographic assessment of the script of MS Selden Supra 30.
Abbess Eadburg of Minster-in-Thanet may also be the woman of the same name who corresponded with Boniface, the West Saxon missionary bishop and Church reformer. He became archbishop of Mainz in 732 and was martyred by pagans in Frisia in 754. Surviving letters show that Boniface held Eadburg in high esteem and that she sent books to him in Francia. He commissioned from her a deluxe copy of St Peter’s Epistles to be written in gold.
Boniface’s friend clearly had access to manuscripts and the means to make them. As such she is an especially strong candidate for the woman whose name was etched into the margins of MS. Selden Supra 30.
John Barrett is Bodleian Library’s Senior Photographer and ARCHiOx Technical Lead for the Bodleian.
Jessica Hodgkinson is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester funded by the Midlands4Cities doctoral training partnership. Her research explores the participation of women in early medieval book culture in Western Europe through the analysis of surviving manuscripts commissioned, copied, owned and/or used by them.
With special thanks to Jorge Cano, designer and engineer for Factum Arte and the Factum Foundation, for his work on enhancing the recording of p. 18, to Dr Philip A. Shaw, Teaching Fellow in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, for helping to decipher the Old English of this inscription, and to Professor Jo Story and Dr Erin T Dailey at the University of Leicester for their guidance and suggestions.