Posted by: kljolly | April 5, 2018

Æcerbot Ritual I: Paleography and Codicology

For my Leeds Medieval Congress paper this summer, in a session honoring Debby Banham, I am re-examining certain bilingual rituals from a performative perspective, trying to “stage” them.  I am particularly interested in the timing:  how long might it take to recite a text and how does that affect the procedures?  The three I am planning to use are the Æcerbot Ritual, the Durham collectar ordeal (see post on Hehstald), and the Darley baptism ritual (see my use of it for Aldred’s baptism).

Today’s post is on the Æcerbot, and its paleographic and codicological context.  In further posts, I will provide my experimental “script” for the performance.  For reference:

For those not interested in the manuscript minutiae detailed below, here is a question to ponder and answer in future posts:

How long does it take to perform a typical or ordinary Mass service, from introit to post-communion, and how long for just the Canon of the Mass, from te igitur to concluding prayers of the masspriest, before the Pax Domini and Agnus Dei?

The bilingual (Old English and Latin) field remedy commonly called the Æcerbot Ritual exists in a single manuscript:  London, British Library Cotton Caligula A.viii, fols. 176r-178r, is in an early eleventh-century hand following a late tenth-century copy of the Old Saxon Heliand.  This is our sole witness to this agricultural “remedy.”  Although there are remotely similar practices and texts found elsewhere, nothing of this performative complexity:  it includes instructions for actions requiring material props; it records texts to be performed verbally in both Latin and Old English, with some of the Latin texts abbreviated; and it requires multiple people to plan and perform the ritual.


How do we get from this manuscript witness to the ritual performance, whether as performed prior to this written script or after, using this script?  If we were to re-enact it like a group of community players, how would we go about it?

First, some observations about the paleographic and codicological context, if we are going to read this as a “script” for performing the remedy:

  • It is added to an existing manuscript, and not included in a compendium of remedies or liturgical practices, with which it has analogs. In that sense, the remedy stands alone, although scholars have noted some thematic connections to the Heliand, at least in the mind of whoever bound it with the Heliand.
  • Ker says that the parchment is similar to the Heliand, so not “an independent fragment” bound by Cotton with the Heliand. But that does not preclude the possibility that the remedy folios, although produced in the same scriptorium, once stood alone as a booklet.
  • Disagree partly with Ker: the Heliand folios are insular style, with hair and flesh side sanded to uniform appearance, while the parchment of fols. 176-78 has hair side visibly different from flesh side.  176r hair, 176v flesh; 177r hair, 177v flesh; fol. 178r flesh, 178v hair (blank).
  • A vertical cut at the top of fol. 178 around which the scribe wrote suggests a low to medium grade of parchment. Heliand has similar folios with patches (fol. 167).
  • Heliand ends midway down fol. 175v, followed by an unfoliated blank leaf (BL designates as fol. 175*rv). Cut edge visible between fol. 175v and inserted leaf.  Inserted leaf prepped in insular fashion, hard to detect hair and flesh side.  175*r has faint imprint of letters from facing page (175v).  175*v has knife scrape erasure in upper middle.  So basically, two half sheets back to back here, fol. 175* and fol. 176, where the remedy starts.
  • Foliation of freestanding remedy: 176 is a half-sheet, fols. 177-178 a bifolium.  Paste down visible in gutter on 176v doesn’t make sense.  If 176 designed as a half sheet, it should be pasted down after fol. 178, not folded back on itself obscuring some of the letters, so a later binder must have done this.  This raises the possibility that fol. 176 was once a bifolium and its back half, which would be after fol. 178, is missing.
  • The remedy scribe finished with no room to spare on fol. 178r, while leaving the verso (178v) blank: does this suggest more texts were envisioned and never done?
  • BL site says dimensions overall: folios 220 x 140 mm (8.66×5.5 in), with text space 195 x 105 mm (7.67×4.13).  Ker says bifolium (and whole ms?) is 224×138 mm, and says Heliand has written space of 190×95 mm in 24 lines, while fols. 176-78 are 190×90 (7.48×3.54 in) with 22 lines.
  • Remedy folios, like Heliand, have wide outer margins. Narrow gutter margins may be function of the modern binding.  The 190×90 mm text box may have been centered on page when unbound.
  • Heliand has 24 lines per page, remedy 22 lines per page. Dry point lineation visible on remedy folios, not on Heliand (spot checked).  Aspect of remedy slightly more spacious than Heliand in terms of vertical spacing between lines and size of script.
  • Slight differences at least initially between Latin and OE script in the remedy disappears by the bottom of fol. 176r, where insular minuscule “s” is used for Latin (lines 21-22).
  • Some punctuation—capitals in the left margin, punctus in the text,–may indicate sections.
  • The abbreviated Latin forms of standard prayers suggests a clerical user familiar with the liturgy. The OE prayers are written out fully, suggesting these texts were not familiar.
  • Pater noster occurs four times, whether this meant reciting it in Latin or Old English or both is unclear, since “pater noster” had moved into Old English as a term for the prayer. 176v1, pater noster is written without abbreviation and using tall “s” as used thus far for Old English rather than sinuous “s” for Latin texts. But at 176v17, pater is written without abbreviation but noster is abbreviated (nr).  In both of these cases, the Pater noster follows the Crescite prayer.  At fol. 177r18-19, pater is abbreviated (pat) but noster is not and uses OE “s”; the Pater noster here follows Latin litanies, Tersanctus, Benedicite, and Magnificat; but has Roman numeral .iii. after.  The last instance is fol. 178r22, the last line of the remedy, where both are abbreviated (pat nr); it is preceded by the Crescite and In nomine patris sit benedicti, amen; and followed by OE þriwa (whereas Cresicte is preceded by Roman numeral .iii.).
  • Comparing Roman numerals versus OE words is possibly indicative of shifts between Lat. and OE or between texts and instructions. The OE instructions spell out feower, þriwa, and nigon on fols. 176rv, but uses .iii. at fol. 177r14 for turning sunward, and at 177r19 for the pater noster.  At 178r21, .iii. in front of Crescite.
  • A number of errors especially on fol. 177v suggest the scribe was hasty or unfamiliar with OE.
  • The remedy appears to be copied from some other manuscript source, rather than written from oral dictation, memory, observation, or a unique compiliation of the scribe. This otherwise unknown source or sources bears some relation to an oral performative context now lost to us.
  • The text as we have it copied here is framed as a set of instructions to be carried out by performers, whether this particular scribe intended it be acted out or not.
  • The fact that directions for performance as well as oral texts are written out is suggestive. Generally speaking, liturgical texts, except for the most basic sacramentary or the rare baptismal instructions as in Darley, assume the performer needs the written text just for prayers for specific occasions and knows how to carry out the rituals.  On the other hand, medicinal texts are more likely to specify how the practitioner should compound a prescription or perform a remedy, but with frequent gaps in presumably well-known procedures.
  • Although there are some stains, overall the manuscript does not look like it had been used to conduct the ritual—there is little wear on the corners or evidence of heavy usage outdoors, for example (although it would be interesting to test for dust, plant, and insect residues).
  • The small, paperback book size of the manuscript in its current form minus the later hard binding suggests it could be handheld and carried about, perhaps softbound.
  • Given the above codicology, fols. 176-78 could have been a booklet or part of a booklet. A softbound booklet would have been easier to use in performance.
  • The text might have served as a playbook for the group who planned the ritual ahead of time, so everyone knows their role.
  • If the written text were used in the performance, the logical person to hold it is the person reciting the oral texts, who could then give cues to the other performers.
  • Adverbial conjunction þonne (þanne, þænne) in directions may function to separate sets of activities, if not sequence them (some seem to overlap, or refer to procedures done ahead of time). There are a lot of continuity problems when blocking these scenes.

 Next up,

how do we turn this into a script playbook, and what do we need?


British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.vii, fols. 176r-178r. Gneuss 308,  Ker 137. Critical edition:  Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR), vol 6: The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ed. Elliot van Kirk Dobbie (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1942).

Foley, John Miles.  “Epic and charm in Old English and Servo-Croatian oral tradition.”  Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook – British Comparative Literature Association 2 (1980): 71-92.

Hill, David. “The Æcerbot Charm and Its Christian User.” ASE 6 (1977): 213–21. Banham, Debby.  “The staff of life: cross and blessings in Anglo-Saxon cereal production.”  In Cross and Cruciform in the Anglo-Saxon World: Studies to Honor the Memory of Timothy Reuter. Ed. Sarah Larratt Keefer, Karen Louise Jolly and Catherine E. Karkov (Medieval European Studies, 11), pp. 279-318.

Kramer, Johanna Ingrid. “The Poetics of Materiality in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion and Material Reality in the Æcerbot Charm, Ascension Homilies, and Christ I.” Ph.D. Diss., Cornell Univ., 2006. DAI 67A (2006): 181.

Monlinari, Maria Vittoria. Sull’Æcerbot anglosassone. Rituale per la benedizione dei campi (ms. Londra, B.L., Cotton Caligula A. VII.”  Romanobarbarica: Contributi allo studio dei rapporti culturali tra mondo latino e mondo barbarico 10 (1989): 293-308.

Niles, John D. “The Æcerbot Ritual in Context.” In Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays, edited by John D. Niles, pp. 44–56, 163–64. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980. PR181 .O4 1980

Rosenberg, Bruce A., “The Meaning of Æcerbot,” Journal of American Folklore 79 (1966), 428-436.

Schneider, Karl. “The OE. æcerbot – an Analysis.” Sophia Lectures on ‘Beowulf’. Ed. Shoichi Watanabe and Norio Tsuchiya. Tokyo: Taishukan, for the Japan Science Society, 1986. 276-98.






  1. […] noted in my previous post, I am endeavoring to re-create the Æcerbot Ritual from BL Cotton Caligula A.VII as a scripted […]

  2. […] as the “field remedy” found in BL Cotton Caligula A.VI cannot be tied to a particular season or days, it is also not specific to a place or region.   […]

  3. […] theory, one person could perform everything specified in the field remedy.  That person would need to be a priest in order to say the four masses, as well as have the […]

  4. […] materials does the field remedy specify or imply with its […]

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