Scribe B draft

Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19, fol. 61r11-22, Scribe B, containing the St. John prayer against poison in Latin, corrected and glossed in Old English by Aldred.  See full text of Latin and Old English at the end.

Bert looked dolefully at the letter D. It was too thin and a bit shaky.  Had he sharpened his pen too much or not used the wide angle enough?  What would master Aldred say?  Hopefully Cuthwald would not stroll by right now and see how badly he was doing.

His eye traveled above his pitiful D to look at the preceding prayer, written in a firm and deliberate hand, obviously by a confident scribe who had already done over a hundred pages in this manuscript alone.  The thought made Bert nauseous—his first letter looked miserable and he still had twenty more lines in this prayer.

He picked up the exemplar, the manuscript with the prayer in it that master Aldred had asked him to copy.  It was a bit hard to see its curvy and decorated “D” so he carried the finely leather bound book to the window, stepping carefully to avoid the squeaky boards of the floor, and examined it in the shaft of light streaming in from the mid morning sun.  Ds meus.  My God.  Well at least he understood that much of it.  God, come to my assistance.  The morning prayers surfaced in his mind, and the reply. Lord make haste to help me.

His eye traveled down the rest of the prayer, sticking on some very odd Latin words he did not recognize at all:  rubeta, scorpius, spilagius.  What were they?  Master Aldred had said to him, “copy this prayer right here in this empty spot on the bottom of this page. Don’t worry about what it says.  We’ll talk about it later.”

Bert looked up from the calfskin page and out of the window.  Master Aldred had also said, with a sly grin, “you should be able to fit it all in without turning the page—and don’t let master Cuthwald catch you.” The other side of the page was already filled with prayers Cuthwald had been copying into the blank pages at the end of this folio.

He didn’t understand the politics of community life at Chester-le-Street, especially in the scriptorium.  Aldred may be provost and a brilliant scholar, but Cuthwald was older and had been there longer, one of the more prolific scribes and general overseer in the scriptorium.  He glanced back at the two other scribes at work in the room, young men, not much older than Bert, but with fancy handwriting they learned in a southern monastery.  Under Cuthwald’s direction, they had also left their test writings in the booklet Bert was now working on. Frank (Fronko)[1] wrote out some of the readings and prayers he needed to know as lector while Ed did prayer formulas he was learning to be a deacon, and a hymn he wrote over a page erased from the old scribe’s work.

They looked studious, but Bert knew better—he was uneasy around these boys who had grown up in the schoolroom and knew all kinds of Latin.  He remembered the hazing and taunts he received when he first arrived.  In the schoolroom and outside of it, boys practiced a form of vituperative Latin that, although Bert did not understand the words at first, he could tell were vile insults:  [colloquy]  Ed and Frank were more serious, now that they were both taking the path to priesthood—moving up through the clerical ranks would take them another 15 years.  Did Bert want to go that far?

Resting the slim hardbound manuscript carefully on the ledge, he stared out across the fields, toward the river Wear. It was late August and the flowers blooming along the edge sent a waft of sweet smells on the breeze. He heard birds, probably circling the ripe fields, their cries calling him back, back in time to his childhood.  He loved wading in the shallow edges of the Wear, the cool mud squishing between his toes, looking for…frogs.  Big ones and little ones, sitting, hopping, catching flies with their tongues.  He loved frogs, and newts, but not snakes.  He tried bringing newts and tadpoles home in the bucket of water his mother had sent him to get, but her response was less than encouraging.  “Bertieeee, not in the water!  You may as well use it to wash your muddy feet.”

Generally she didn’t mind his meanderings, as long as he came back with whatever she had sent him to do. Bertie was her nickname for him, since his full name was Berctwin, joy of Berct, for his father, Berctfrith, who did not always live up to his name of frith, peace.  Joy, he guessed, in having a son, finally, but perhaps less at peace in finding him virtually useless with anything requiring long distance sight, like seeing birds eating the grain in the fields, throwing rocks at vermin, or shooting arrows.

His sight was closer, the small things at his feet, floating in the river, secret marks on rocks, symbols he carved on sticks.  That is in part how he came here, to the community of St. Cuthbert, learning to read and write, as well as pray.  It seemed better—for this life and the one to come—than managing a worldly estate, although he missed the frogs and river wanderings, or maybe he just missed his childhood.

His mother was the one who took him to the church and talked Aldred into accepting him into the community—a bit old at 12 for a novice.  She told some story—was it true?—that he, Bert, was a gift from God, conceived miraculously late in her life when she had lost all hope of having a son, a son who would live and thrive unlike her previous children.  So she was belatedly thanking God by dedicating him to a religious life, to a life of prayer, for the living and the dead, his dead father now.

They did spend an inordinate amount of time these days praying for the dead—abbots and monks, noble donors to the church, the king, especially King Æthelstan who had given rich gifts of books, textiles, and metalwork to the community in honor of St. Cuthbert.  Less spectacular, but still worthy of adding their family’s name to the rolls, Bert’s mother donated both her son and their land, the land his father’s family had lived on for generations under the protection of St. Cuthbert.  Now St. Cuthbert, patron of the bishopric and all the surrounding lands and people, owned Bert and Bert’s lands both.  The charter had to be signed by Bert as heir, who did so at that time with a clumsy mark.  His mother retreated to a monastic house for ladies, giving them her dowry lands.  With his hazy vision, he sought to make out in the distance the boundary of trees marking his father’s lands.  The bishop had now leased the land to some viking tenants willing to settle down to farming—their boys, Bert’s age, were absolutely wild.

Bert started as he heard a stool shoved back and then the snick-snick of a knife, sharpening a nib.  He should get back to work so he would have something to show master Aldred this afternoon.  The Provost had only returned to Northumbria the previous week from his journey with the Bishop to the Southumbrian land of the West Saxons, where he reportedly had seen the king, Edgar was his name.

Back in his seat at the corner table, Bert rested the exemplar manuscript on its angled stand and looked at his despised “D” again.  Maybe it was just too tall for the skinny width of his nib, resembling a scrawny, perpetually hungry manchild like himself.

He rinsed his quill of the ink clump, dried it with a wipe on a cloth (okay, his tunic), then swirled it in the ink—not too dried out yet, thankfully—and wrote the “s” after the D.  He made it the insular way, like an “f” without a cross bar.  Hook wedge, down minim, lift pen, second stroke angled up and right, with a nice finish.  Add the abbreviation line above, and voila, G-d.  Or at least, God abbreviated, vowel-less.  Was that sacrilegious?  Or did it please God that his name was so commonly known that a two letter abbreviation would do?  What if some later readers did not know Ds meant Deus—if they did not know God (or Latin, which might be the same thing), would they understand him from reading what Bert wrote?

The “s” was half the size of the tall ungainly “d,” but still too big to continue at that height. He would need to set a lower bar for the rest of the text to get it to fit on the page with space between the lines—assuming master Aldred wanted to continue his gloss above the Latin, as he had already done for the old scribe’s work.  Aldred’s tidy and economical minuscule matched the Northumbrian dialect English he glossed with.  Bert could hear Aldred’s voice in the letters.  Would he want to gloss Bert’s work?

He had better get on with it, or risk not finishing before midday prayers, when he would certainly need to talk to God again.

Meus.  My.  God.  Is he really my God?  I hope so.

The next bit was familiar, the Trinity:  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  et pater et filius, yes, and father and son.  That is what my father envisioned, yet here I am and there he is, in the grave, his spirit waiting for the resurrection…where? [back to work] et spis oh boy end of line is that the right abbreviation I’ll give it a nice fancy abbreviation mark oh well holy ss on the next line. What is the next bit God who what? The phrase that popped into his mind was a familiar one, qui tollis peccata mundi, the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.  But that was not what followed in the manuscript.

The scribe whose work he was copying had made a mistake!  There it was, a correction above the line.  Bert felt better.  He copied the addition letter by letter after his qui… and abbreviated “all” oia, slipping a bit on the “a,” and then sub i ecta.  Who all things subject(ing?).  What is this in the margin under it that looks like s..t must be sunt but that doesn’t quite work so maybe it is an abbreviation I don’t know so just to be safe I will put an abbreviation mark above it and let the reader with better Latin figure it out.

Or Aldred!  Yikes!  There he is!

As was his habit, the Provost slipped quietly through the door and angled across the room, looking toward the other scribes’ table across from the window while actually moving toward Bert’s corner.  He held his breath as Aldred leaned his graying head over the two manuscripts, the exemplar on the stand and the quire pages on which Bert was working.  Then he pulled up a stool and sat down, still without saying anything, although Bert whispered with bent head a faint waes hael, min faeder to him.  The Provost pulled from his bag, slung over his shoulder, his own quill set, knife, and even a small pot of red powder, which he proceeded to mix with the supplies on Bert’s desk to produce his glossing ink.

Clearing his throat, Aldred read in a slow and stately voice the first few words Bert had written:  “Deus meus et pater et filius et spiritus…you don’t need an “i” in that abbreviation…sanctus.”  What is that in English, puer?  One word at a time, if you please, and dipped his quill in his red ink.

Bert, a bit nervously, replied “god, min, ond fæder, ond gast, halig.”  As he spoke each word, Aldred wrote the English above the Latin.

“What have we next here?” Aldred peered at Bert’s next few words (qui oi-a subiecta su-nt) then over at the text in the exemplar, noticing the correction there.  “Hmm, this scribe probably missed copying one phrase due to eye skip—happens easily when you have reduplicating phrases. But you have jumped to a grammatical familiarity, a homonym, Berctwin.” Aldred always used his full name, when he wasn’t calling him puer, boy.  Taking his quill, still dipped in red ink, Aldred slashed a diagonal line through the “q” of Bert’s qui.  “qui, quem, cuius, cui, quo” “Who, whom, whose, to whom, or  by whom?” he asked. “Which one do we want here?”

Bert looked at the exemplar text with its correction and saw cui not qui in both phrases, the first one and the added one.  He certainly knew the letter “q” from “c,” but was less certain about the difference between qui and cui.  He had been thinking about God qui takes away the sins of the world, not this phrase here, cui omnia subiecta sunt, the meaning of which was opaque to him.  Probably it was better just to copy letter by letter rather than hearing familiar words and phrases in his head that he might accidentally copy instead of what was on the page he was supposed to be emulating.

Scooping a large C above the slashed q, Aldred explained.  “This is more like a benedictio, a praise of God, to whom all things are subjected.  What did you think the sunt meant?”  Bert shrugged and watched as Aldred wrote the gloss above each word “ðæm alle vnderðiodded aron.”  Ah, the verb subiecta had confused Bert, especially with the unclear sunt written below in the marginal addition of the phrase.  Bert recited “subiecta, underthiodded.”  Sub and under he understood to mean the same thing. iecta, theod, hmm.  Did the Latin mean the same as the English?

Đeodan. The verb meant to join or attach. Đeod, the noun, though, meant people.  Bert thought.  How are the verb and the noun related?  People, people joined to each other, speaking the same language, living in the same area.  He thought about the different languages and people living around him—familiar English, West Saxons speaking it with a different accent, vikings with their almost but not quite incomprehensible tongue, Irish from over the water, Latin.  Were they all one people, if they were all Christian?

The fragment of a poem floated in his mind, ðeoden, lord of a people.  That must be what underðiodded and the Latin subiecta mean, people joined together in service, under someone.  Serving under God, my God, whom all people are under.  That made sense.

Aldred had glided off to look over the shoulders of Ed and Frank, so Bert continued his copying, glancing at the exemplar page every word or so, trying to prevent his mind from wandering.

et cui o-nis creatura deser he wrote carefully, then broke to a new line, refilling his quill as he did so.  On the next line, he finished the verb ending –uit, scanned the next phrase and wrote et omnis potes but not enough ink, dip, back and finish  -tes subiecta est.  He looked back at the exemplar text to check what he had written.  Ack.  He had copied –tes over again after potes, making potes tes, but the word was potestas.  The time he took filling his quill must have caused his mind to back up a syllable.  He carefully added a smaller “a” above the “e.”

Bert made his letter “a”s with four sides like a square: first a downward stroke hooking right at the bottom, then a horizontal line at the top left to right, then a single minim downstroke on the right, closing the box.  Bert liked the angular look of the “a.”  He found it easier to move the quill in straight lines than curved.  After adding the “a” above, he put a dot under the “e” as he had seen Aldred do to mark a correction, although a few minutes ago, he had slashed through Bert’s mistaken “q.”  Aldred usually did not show annoyance, but perhaps this was his way of making a point about Bert’s carelessness.

He went on, this time more careful to check the exemplar phrase, short enough to refill ink at the end of a word rather than the middle.

et metuit et expaues finished the third line, with the rest of the verb starting line four, cit.  This was going well.

What is next?  et draco fugit et silet uipera.  As he finished the “a,” he sensed Aldred behind him again.  “Why do you use three strokes to make your “a” when you can use two?” he asked.  “Yours looks almost like a ligature of ‘t’ and ‘i.’”  Although Aldred was speaking in English mostly, Bert did not recognize the Latin word ligature.  Picking up his quill, Aldred tapped the feather end on a “ti” in the older text above Bert’s, where he saw the two letters “t” and “i” fused.   Now dipping the sharp end in his red ink, still fresh, the master wrote another “a” above Bert’s at the end of uipera.  He did it deliberately and slowly, angling the curve of the first stroke sharply.  “One stroke curves like a “c,” the second minim stroke closes it.  No need for a lid.” See, you did it up here, copying the abbreviated omnia, although the proper abbreviation is ona.”

Bert did not want to admit he had made a mistake with that particular “a,” preoccupied with how to abbreviate omnia, which he suspected was wrong and stopped trying to abbreviate words after that. Besides, he thought, even though my “a” does not look like any others, exactly, I like the square look of letters. In some of the older manuscripts, the texts were written in a majestic style of letters, each rectangular and evenly shaped.  Sometimes scribes still used that style for titles, but Bert had not learned how to do it yet.  “Stick with this style we use here in insula nostra, our isles, it is easy to learn and write quickly and legibly,” advised Aldred.

So Bert copied the next phrases, paying no attention to the words, instead looking only for “a”s.  et rubeta illa que dicitur had two.  At the end of rubeta, he tried but the curved bit did not close at the top when he added the right minim stroke, so he included his little top line again.  With illa he was so flustered he started the “a” as he usually did and so had to finish it with a top line again.  This looked no different than his other “a”s!  He finished the line with que dicitur.

Next line and the text offered him an opportunity for two “a”s in one word, rana.  Here is a chance to try it.  Bert dipped, made the “r” and then got off one “a” in two strokes, aha! After the “n” he did it again!

Flush with success he copied the next two, “a”-less words, torpescit scorpius.  With a flourish, he curved the initial and final “s” of this odd word, using the older script style of the exemplar rather than the typical straight vertical “s” that he often confused with an “f.”[2]  This tall snake like “S” took some work, but was good practice for moving the quill on a curve.  The first stroke created the angled middle, then the second and third strokes add the curvy bits at the top and bottom.

Bert looked ahead and saw a letter he dreaded:  “x.”  His always came out looking like two letter “c”s smashed back to back rather than two elegant lines intersecting.  Here goes:  extinguitur uincitur et.  He made the first angled line, from top left to bottom right, then the second crossing it from bottom left angled to the upper right. That didn’t come out too badly, although the “x” stood out taller than the letters on either side, like it was done more laboriously, as it had been.  He couldn’t figure out if he should add finials to all four ends to even them out or not.

The next few lines Bert concentrated on copying the letters, though the words were meaningless to him.  He had lost all sense of the prayer, if that is what it was.


lagius nihil noxium operatur et omnia uenenata et aduc

ferociora repentia et animalia noxia tenebrantur et

At least he had a chance to practice the “x” twice more, and the “a” when he remembered.  The second stroke of “a” in –lagius was too tall, but at least connected. The rest in that line came out fine, except the middle “a” in uenenata, which had to be closed at the top with a small horizontal line.  He was doing fine with ferociora but by the middle of animalia he was back to his three stroke flat-topped boxy “a.”  He recovered the two stroke “a” in tenebrantur though.  Whew, changing to a new style is harder than learning it the first time.  Habits are hard to break, although he had not been writing that long, less than a year.

Bert jumped when Aldred said “don’t you want to know what you are writing?”  Bert raised his eyes from the forest of letters, and sat up, stretching.  He had not realized how hunched over he had been.  Aldred seated himself with his red pen and began glossing what Bert had already written.

“We ended with all being subject to God, did we not?  So this thought continues with the same construction, cui, omnis creatura deseruit.  As usual, Aldred moved between English and Latin seamlessly, which could be instructive but was frequently frustrating to the novice.

Quid est creatura?,” Bert asked tentatively in Latin.  He learned this Latin question format early on, just as he had learned the English equivalent as a toddler.  His first words to his mother were “hwæt þæt?”  Although she tired of it, this was the way he learned about the world he saw, mostly small things in his path—bugs, worms, frogs of course.  Later, the hwæt became not only an expression of discovery but also a question of why.  Those questions his mother was less willing to answer, another reason she sent him to the priests at Chester-le-Street.

Creatura,” Aldred answered as he wrote the English above it, “id est giscæft

He is Creator, Scieppend, the shaper.  So the phrase shows how every bird, reptile, and mammal is a creature that relies for its life and breath on God because He shaped it that way.”

“All humans and spiritual beings, too, kings and angels, as the next phrase shows: et omnis potestas subiecta est” and he wrote ælc onwæld vnderbeged is above it.

Bert noticed gratefully that Aldred ignored his correction to potestas, so he asked “why did you gloss subiecta here with underbeged when before you glossed it with underðiodded?”

“For variation,” Aldred answered with a smile, and warmed to his subject.  Bert knew he was in for a brief disquisition on the nature of language, Aldred’s favorite topic.  “Each language’s words resonate, like a note struck on a bell, with various meanings that are slightly different from another language’s, which resonate on a different note.  What makes for a harmonious understanding is to find different words to bring out these other notes.  The author of this prayer, John the Beloved, to whom I feel particularly close” (Aldred always said this whenever he mentioned the fourth gospel writer), “uses an economy of language, repeating similar words but adding meaning to them as he goes.  You will find this in his epistles as well as the Gospel where he records the very words of our Lord directly, although of course he wrote what was spoken in Hebrew in Greek, which we have in Latin.  To these three sacred languages, we now add our humble English.  Underbeg combined with underðiod gives us a richer sense of subiect because it adds the sense of bowing under, just as we worship by bowing before God.”

“But not only worship, but awe and fear, et metuit et expauesuit,” above which Aldred glossed ond onscynað ond ondredað.  Bert understood the English, although not the Latin.  He doubted he would remember this vocabulary.  The language of praise left him awestruck, oddly beyond words—dread was the word he felt, a sense that was increasing as they went forward in this prayer.

“Let’s look at the nouns first,” Aldred said, as he prepared to add to the gloss.  “I will say the word and you tell me what comes to mind.”

draco” “dragon.” That word had crossed into English from Latin in various sermons Bert had heard.  His mother’s brother was a priest and fond of terrifying Bert when he visited by giving vivid descriptions of devils flying through the air like winged snakes.

uipera” Bert recoiled as he blurted out “hattre” for venom, and shuddered remembering a particularly nasty encounter with a snake hiding in the grass by the river.  The painful bite subsided, but only after his mother acquired a liquid from the monastery containing, they said, scrapings from an Irish manuscript page.  Curiously, the manuscript he was currently copying from was also from that green isle, but he did not see any signs of scraping.

Then Bert remembered where he had heard of this remedy:  Aldred had been reading to him from the Venerable Bede’s history, that the holy land of the Irish had no reptiles and even if you tried to take a snake there from Britain, they would die as the ship arrived when they breathed the sweet scents of the air.  The Irish, who wrote this prayer he was copying, were immune to poison!  How blessed to live in such a place.  But then what did that say about his own homeland, where there were snakes?

Aldred glossed the Latin viper with an abbreviated form of the English, hatterne, Bert’s uncle had pronounced it without the “h,” attern, venom, as he milked the snake of its poison.  “Useful,” he had said, but not for what.  Bert knew that some poisons in the right doses can cure…or kill.  And what is the antidote?  Is that what this prayer is about?

rubeta” Aldred said, but Bert blushed; he had no idea what a rubeta was.  “Have I embarrassed you?” Aldred said as he wrote above rubeta, sceomiende, shamed.  “Rubeo, to grow red, the color of my ink for creating rubrics, the color of the bramble bushes under which hides a small reptile, according to Pliny.  Confusing, isn’t it?”  Bert nodded.

“But it goes on to say, also called rana,” Aldred added.  The master glanced at Bert out of the corner of his eye, then wrote above rana, tosca.

Bert stared. Frog.[3]  He had just been reminiscing about his delight in frogs, but here the reference seemed more sinister:  a venomous frog?  If frogs were evil like snakes, was he sinful to like creatures that were associated with evil and death?  But if as the text Aldred explicated said, all things are made by God and subject to him, surely they must have some good purpose or meaning.  Bert wasn’t sure what it was, good or evil.  It brought him back to his question:  how can poison be medicine?

ScorpiuS.”  Aldred said it with a hissing sound to match Bert’s capital “S”s.  With a start after his musings on evil, he now realized the sinuous letter matched the animal.  Aldred glossed it nedre, adder.  “I have seen pictures of snakes and scorpions together in other recipe books for ailments using herbs.  But here on our island, we have far less poisonous creatures than the ancient world.  Our Irish predecessors who founded our monasteries brought to Northumbria powerful prayers like this one for expelling their evil effects.”[4]  Aldred’s explanation confirmed Bert’s view of the wise Irish monks and their manuscripts.

spilagius.”  Both of them stared at the word.  Aldred calmly wrote above it an abbreviated form spilæg and left it at that.

Bert took courage and asked, what is a spilaeg?  Aldred answered “it is apparently another form of snake.  This is one of those cases where our language has fewer words for something that Latin and Greek have many. Next time I am in Wessex, I should get a copy of a herbarium and quadrapedibus, if not Pliny, to sort through this vocabulary.”

He added se ætt’ne after spilæg.  “Perhaps it is a name, like Rubeta the Rana, now Spilagius the Snake.”

 ferociora repentia et animalia noxia,” Aldred recited next.  Bert tackled the second first, because he recognized animalia as neat, and noxia he knew from Aldred’s gloss on the previous line, sceððend, scathing, harmful.  Not all animals were harmful, but some were (and why?).  Aldred glossed those two words accordingly, then added, “The previous phrase is more difficult to work out. Ferociora is like those vikings, what do you call those boys?”  Bert answered with the word his mother used of them, “rifista.”  “Yes, and clearly this is another wild and dangerous animal meant by the word repentia, which must be related to the verb repens, to act suddenly,” so he glossed it feerræsenda.  “Like a snake striking from the riverbank, or an unlooked for dragon-headed ship prow coming over the waves.”

Bert then raised the question that had been bothering him earlier:  “why did God make noxious creatures whose venom harms us?”  Aldred answered, “that is like asking why God made the devil, as surely he did.”  “Or the vikings,” Bert said in an undertone.

Then Aldred turned back to the text and said “we have not glossed the verbs yet.  Perhaps an answer lies there.  What happens to these creatures when we submit ourselves to their Creator for protection?  They fugit (svigað), torpescit (gilattia), and extinguitur (gidrysnad).”  Aldred glossed each word as he spoke them. “What does this tell you, puer?”

Bert timidly suggested, “They run away, fall asleep, or dry up.  So God still controls them?”

“If?” Aldred asked.

“If we pray and submit ourselves to our Lord’s protection.”

“Let us see how it ends.  I will read the Latin to you while you copy it, that way it will go quicker and you will hear the sound of the letters,” Aldred advised.   Bert also suspected he was testing his Latin. “Tres digiti scribunt duo oculi uident una lingua loquitur totum corpus laborat,” Aldred quoted the scribe’s mantra, and posed it as a riddle in English to Bert, “what speaks with one, sees with two, and writes with three?”  Bert worked it out backward, “I write with three fingers, look at the page with two eyes, and speak it with one tongue.  The scribe.”[5]

“And his whole body labors,” Aldred finished the proverb.  Bert could feel the effects of that labor already in his hunched back and cramped fingers.  “But in this case,” Aldred went on, “we will read and write with two tongues, yours and mine, Latin and English.”

Aldred picked up the older manuscript and held its leather binding open in both of his hands, its pages lying flat as they should with a well-bound volume. Tilting it toward the light, he began reading short phrases to Bert.

Dipping his pen and starting a new line, Bert heard omnes aduersalutis, but thought how much longer it takes to write the letters than to speak them or hear them, for him longer than he could keep the unfamiliar syllables in his memory.  Recognizing the first word omnes as a frequent word meaning “all,” he carefully wrote out the letters without abbreviation.  But he did not recognize the second word Aldred spoke and was afraid to check the exemplar manuscript that Aldred now held.  He wrote aduersal…, when Aldred interrupted him.  “Two words, puer, aduersae then salutis.”

Too late. Bert would not be able to fit another syllable between.  He tried scraping off the sal with his knife, surreptitiously keeping the debris for later experiments with venom antidotes, but Aldred was watching him quizzically and somewhat impatiently.  So he squeezed above the “r” an “se” to make aduerse.  Then to compensate, he made a capital, curvy S for Salutis, which he knew to mean both health and salvation and was also used as a greeting, both in Latin and in English: hæl, whole and hale, we wished to others to ward off evil.

“All roots adverse to human health are dried up,” Aldred said as he glossed in English the rest of the Latin sentence Bert had just finished, aduerse salutis humani radices arrescunt.  “Hmm, that line could have several layers of meaning, from the literal of poisonous plants to that root of all evil, the devil and sin.  He is a murderer and has been sinning since the beginning, poisoning us with temptation.  But our Haelend and Hlaford, healer and gift giving Lord, defeated the devil’s stratagems with his blood.  That is why the devil is dried up.”  Bert found this idea of a dried up, shriveled, powerless devil more attractive than the terrifying images conjured by his uncle of an airborne devil of monstrous dimensions swooping down like a bird of prey.  He wished the same shriveling effect would happen to those viking boys who tormented him.  Was this prayer useful against that kind of poison?

The rest of the copying went better, he thought. At least Aldred spoke the words separately, waiting for Bert to copy each, sounding out each of the longer words syllable by syllable over again several times:

Tu extingue hoc uenenatum uirus operationes eius mortiferas et uires quas in se habet euacua et da in conspectu tuo omnibus quos tu creasti oculos ut uideant aures utaudiant cor et magnitudinem tuam intellegant.

“That finishes the prayer.  Let me now explicate it to you with the gloss.”

Bert looked nervously at what he had written.  He really had no idea what any of it meant and sometimes simply wrote what it sounded like to him.  Now Aldred would be able to correct his mistakes while he glossed.

Aldred spoke his gloss in English “you (this is addressed to the Lord), dry up this poisonous poison, its deadly work, whatever poison in itself it haved…hang on.  HabedQuid est habed, puer?”  Aldred put a red dot under the final “d.”

Bert looked guiltily at the page.  It had sounded like Aldred said habed so he put a “d” on the end, but obviously it must be wrong.  He guessed (what else could it be?), “t.”  His voice ended up with a question mark.  Aldred put a red “t” above the offensive “d” and then glossed the next word up and around it.  Bert was trying to look now to see if he had made the same mistake elsewhere.

Alas, there were more “d”s in what followed, and how many of them should be “t”s? Maybe it was master Aldred’s stuffy nose.

Skimming ahead, Aldred pointed out, “Now that the prayer has finished asking God to clear out the poison, it goes on with a request for God to grant favor:  Give in your sight all those whom you created eyes…ears…heart.”  Aldred glossed the three nouns, skipping over the other words in between.  Then he went back:  “Eyes, uhd, for what?  Ears, uhd, for what?”  Aldred put red lines through the “d” in the two “ud”s in the sentence.

Bert looked at oculos glossed ego, aures glossed eara, and cor glossed hearta and tried to work out the rest of the sentence with some kind of logic, without really understanding the Latin.  “Eyes are for seeing with…,” Bert looked for a likely verb near oculos, “uideant.”  He looked at aures, “ears are for hearing, audiant.”

Aldred filled in the glosses on these two verbs including the two plural third person pronouns, hia gisii (geseon) and hia gihera (geheran).  “But the grammar:  is the prayer simply describing the function of eyes and ears or asking for something?”  Above the two “ud”s Aldred wrote the abbreviation for “that” ($te).  Bert skimmed the English, “we ask God for eyes that they may see and ears that they may hear.”

“That,” Aldred said, “ut with a ‘t’ not a ‘d,’ just like þæt ends with a ‘t.’”  Bert mouthed the word silently, ut, that, over and over again.  Across the room, he saw the raised eyebrows and bemusement of Ed and Frank, who had been increasingly distracted by the master-pupil dialogue.  Was this a simple Latin word that he should have known?  Probably.  But so far most of his Latin was absorbed from prayers and chants in church, and only recently through reading.  Mostly he focused on the main words and often forgot the little ones.  How was he to know ut was spelled with a “t” rather than a “d” when they sounded so alike?

“And what about the heart?  What is the heart for?” Aldred queried him.

Bert looked at the Latin words magnitudem tuam intellegant as Aldred wrote above them micilnise ðin hia ongette and read “that we might understand your greatness.”

“This prayer is the positive reverse of that passage from the prophet Isaiah that John the Beloved quoted in the twelfth chapter of his Gospel, about those religious leaders who could not believe because ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts,

nor turn—and I would heal them.’”

Bert asked, “does this prayer work against evil people?”  He was thinking of the viking boys.

Aldred answered, “we should pray this prayer for them, that their hearts would be turned toward God and away from the devil.”  Bert considered the possibility but had a hard time picturing the viking boys in church, although he had witnessed the whole family baptized last Easter when they accepted the tenancy on Cuthbert’s lands. The white robes looked fine on the outside, but Bert wondered about the inside.  He had not seen them in church since, but that was unsurprising since it was the busy time of summer and most people came to mass services only on the major feasts.  He wondered if they would turn up for Christmas.

With Bert’s poison prayer done and the ink dried, Aldred turned the page to reveal what master scribe Cuthwald had copied on the verso.  Dipping his pen in his red ink, he continued glossing.  Bert watched, trying to follow the Latin.

Aldred read the title and glossed it:  “Here begin the blessings for readings.”

“God, son of God, who this eternal day of the virgin born, worthy is, have mercy on us.”  Rather than spelling out the English word for day (dæg), Bert noticed Aldred’s common habit of using the rune, older and reminiscent of the runes carved on stone and wood, like those incised on the wooden coffin of St. Cuthbert in the church sanctuary. Then Bert was surprised to see Aldred correct Cuthwald’s next word, adding a red “h” to the front of Latin odierna to make hodierna. Cuthwald did have a tendency to drop his “h”s in speech, unlike Bert and Aldred, who tended to add them.

“What season is this referring to, puer?”

“The birth of our Lord,” Bert answered.  “So hodierna,” he aspirated the word carefully, “is hodie, day, plus aeterna to make hodierna, ecelice dæg?  Why is his birth an eternal day?”

“Because ‘He is the same yesterday, today, and forever,’ God Incarnate.  Listen to the next line.  ‘God true and man true, born from a virgin, bless us.’”  Smoothing the page of the booklet flat, Aldred had to write gibloedsia around the amen Cuthwald added above the end of his line.  Cuthwald seemed to have tried to keep each prayer’s opening tag to one line each, forming a column of “amen”s on the right, but couldn’t always fit it in.

“What is the credo, puer?”  Bert looked at the phrase true god and true man.  It sounded somewhat like the creed they recited—even lay people were supposed to know it.[6]  God and man, both.  Equally?  Eternally?  Was Jesus still a man in heaven?  Bert thought of images he had seen of Jesus enthroned as a stern judge and others of him as a child in his mother’s lap.  Was he both at the same time?

It became a rhythm now of prayer in two languages. Bert recited the Latin as Aldred glossed aloud with the English.  Together they said Amen.

“King of kings today born us to hold, he is worthy.” “Amen.”

“Reigning with the father, born of a mother, Christ, we bless you.” “Amen.”

“Savior of the world, born of a virgin to save us, we worship you.” “Amen.”

eftlesend  mennisces cynnes to dæg acenned gihalda vsig driht’ amen

Redemptor hvmani[7] generis hodie natus conseruet nos dominus;

“Redeemer,” Aldred glossed with eftlesend and stopped to explain.  “This is how I think about this word, RedemptorRe- means again, eft; –demptor means to take away, lisan, to loose something.  To let something go again is to release it, free it, like a slave with a manumission written in a will.” Bert remembered that his mother’s will when she entered a women’s community and he entered the community of St. Cuthbert.  It very carefully tied the donations made to both communities to the prayers said for their family, but also specified that Bert was to be trained as a scribe and priest.  But before turning over their demesne land to the community of St. Cuthbert, the will first released the serfs on their land, giving each a portion to farm on their own as freemen, and therefore not beholden to the new viking tenants.  It was a clever move on the part of the community of St. Cuthbert to settle the vikings on the land and draw income from them, but whether the viking settlers were now redeemed Christians remained to be seen.

“In fact,” Aldred went on expounding the terminology, “the Latin compound manu-mitto, hand-sent, has a similar meaning to Redemptor, to send away by hand, to release; in the case of manumission,  a ‘man.’”  Noticing the pun on the word “man,” Bert pointed to the next word after Redemptor in Cuthwald’s text, mani, and asked, “So is this the same word in Latin and English, man?”

“No,” Aldred replied, “Latin manus means “hand.”  Looking down at Cuthwald’s next word, Aldred explained.  “The Latin should be humani, plural for homo, man, as we saw above, true man. Why don’t you fix the omission.”  Startled at being asked to correct the senior scribe’s text, Bert cleared and refilled his pen with the dark brown ink that matched Cuthwald’s, then added hv in front of mani, but he sharpened the “u” into a “v” shape as he had seen in other Latin texts.[8]  Aldred finished the English gloss on the line, “Redeemer of human kind, today born, hold us, Lord.”  Bert noticed that Aldred used gihalda for both the Latin custodire and conseruet.  Wasn’t it odd, he thought, that they were asking the Redeemer who frees them to hold onto them?

“Author of life, born of a virgin, have mercy on us, Lord.”  Auctor, Aldred glossed, frumwyrhta.  “He is the first-wright, the original craftsman, who spoke the world into being, according to John the Beloved.” “Amen.”

“God of peace and love, today born, be with all of us.” “Amen.”

A soft bell sounded outside the door as one of the monks passed by. “Prayer time.”  They had one more line of Cuthwald’s lection prayers for Christmas before the Epiphany section, but instead they rinsed and dried their quills, covered the ink, and left their work.

Quickly and silently, the four of them in the scriptorium rose and filed out, Aldred leading.  Bert allowed Frank and Ed to precede him, while he fell into line, pondering on the way to prayer the littera of prayer he had crafted.

[1] Fronko in Durham Liber vitae fol. 18r (ninth century); Ed, short for one of the Ed-names.

[2] Nunnaminster uses a cap curved S at the beginning of scorpius.

[3] no clear distinction in ASE between toad and frog?  no iconography of them in Ohlgren.  frogga attested as gloss for rana in DOE, but tosca as used here is a bit uncertain in Bosw and Toll.

[4] see Herb. Ap. and Quadrupedipus early 11th cen; Ohlgren index shows scorpion and snake, but no frogs or toads.  ck medical texts.  also cross sculptures for frogs.

[5] Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes, p. 66, n. 47; Paul Saenger, Space Between Words:  The Origins of Silent Reading. Figurae:  Reading Medieval Culture (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 49; Randall Rosenfeld, “Tres digiti scribunt:  A Typology of Late-Antique and Medieval Pen Grips,” in Music and Medieval Manuscripts:  Paleography and Performanace, ed. John Haines, Andrew Huges, and Randall Rosenfeld (Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2004), pp. 20-58.  See Exeter Book riddles ASPR 3, riddles 26 (gospel book), 49 (bookcase?), 51 (pen and three fingers or dragon?), 60 (pen or gospel book), 67 (Bible?).

[6] Nicene; but phrase closer to Chalcedon or Athanasian creed; Alcuin and others use the phrase.

[7] Aldred? correction in brown, adding “hu” in front of and above “mani” to make humani.

[8] No evidence to suggest Scribe B made this correction.  Could be Aldred, but the matching ink color is curious.


fol. 61r11–22


     god min 7 fæder 7 svnv 7 gast

11  Deus meus et pater et filius et spiritus


     halig ðæm alle vnderðiodded aron 7 ðæm ælc giscæft giheres

12  sanctus  qc ui omnia subiecta su-nt  et cui omnis creatura deser


     7 ælc onwæld  vnderbeged  is 7 onscynað 7 ondredað

13  uit et omnis potesteas  subiecta est et metuit et expaues


     7 se dræcca fleeð 7 svigað sio hatt’ne  7 sceomiende  ða ðio is acvoeden

14  cit et draco fugit et silet uipera et rubeta illa que dicitur


     tosca gilattia  ðio nedre se gidrysnad f ’cvmmen  sie æc spilæg se ætt’ne

15  rana torpescit scorpius extinguitur uincitur et spi


     noht sceððende givyrca 7 alle ða ætt’na 7 geet ł

16  lagius nihil noxium operatur et omnia uenenata et aduc


     ða rifista  feerræsenda  æc netna sceðend sie aðiostrado  7

17  ferociora  repentia  et animalia noxia tenebrantur et


     alle wiðirwærdo  hæles mennis wyrtt’rvm’ giscrinca hia ðv gidrysne

18  omnes  aduerse  salutis  humani radices arrescunt tu ex


     ðis ætt’ne attor voercdedo his deaðberendo

19  tingue hoc uenenatum uirus operationes eius morti


      7 ætt’no ða in him hæfeð gildla  ðu 7 sel in onsione ðinv’

20  feras et uires quas in se habedt   euacua et da in conspectu tuo


      allvm  ða ðv gisceope ego þte hia gisii eara þ’te hia gi

21  omnibus quos tu creasti oculos ud  uideant aures ud  audi


     hera hearta 7 micilnise ðin hia ongette

22  ant cor et magnitudinem tuam intellegant :;


Modern English translation of the Book of Cerne version:

‘My God, and Father and Son and Holy Spirit, to whom all things are subject, on whom every creature depends and to whom every power is subject, and whom [each] fears and dreads, and [by whom] the serpent is stilled and the dragon flees, the viper [made] silent, and that toad, which is called Rubita, becomes numb with sleep, the scorpion is destroyed, and the regulus is conquered, the spalagius works no harm, and all venemous and hitherto creeping ferocious creatures and noxious animals are made dark and all roots adverse to human health are dried up.  You, Lord, destroy this venomous poison, destroy its deadly operation and void the powers that are in it; and give to all those whom you have created in your sight, eyes that they may see, ears that they may hear, a heart that they may understand your greatness.’


  1. […] Scribe B draft […]

  2. […] Scribe B draft […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: