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Treasures of the Cotton Library

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1631 of Sir Robert Cotton, the creator of a famous and very important collection of books and manuscripts. On Wednesday, we described the arrangement of the collection, and how the items were given call numbers based on the busts of the Roman emperors mounted above the bookcases. So today, we’ll have a quick look at some of the more noteworthy treasures from this collection, going by order of the emperors after whom they are named.

The Julius Work Calendar – the oldest known calendar in England, written ca. 1020 at Canterbury Cathedral.

A portfolio (Augustus ii) of Anglo-Saxon charters and a few medieval ones, including one of the collection’s two original copies of the Magna Charta.

Tiberius A ii, a Gospel book copied out ca. 800 AD., believed to have been given by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (936-62) to the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan (924-39), who in turn presented it to the priory of Canterbury Cathedral.

Caligula A vi, one of only two complete manuscripts of the Heliand. This is a paraphrase of the Gospels, composed in the first half of the 9th century, in the language of the Saxons as a way of evangelizing them, by translating the life of Christ into cultural terms which they would be able to understand and accept. The manuscript itself is from the second half of the 10th century.

Claudius C vii, the Utrecht Psalter, a mid-9th century illuminated manuscript considered to be one of the masterpieces of Carolingian art, with over 160 illustrations, one for each psalm or canticle. Produced on the Continent, it came to Canterbury Cathedral ca. 1000. This is one of the fairly few items to permanently leave the Cotton Collection; it is now at the University of Utrecht in Holland.

(A folio of the Utrecht Psalter, illustrating Psalm 149. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Nero A x, the only surviving copy of the works of the anonymous writer of the late 14th century known as the Pearl Poet, with his poems Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and two lesser-known pieces, Patience and Cleanness. Also within the Nero section are the Lindisfarne Gospels (D iv), made ca. 720 AD at the monastery of Lindisfarne, one of the finest illuminated manuscripts of its period, and one of the oldest items in the collection. In the 10th century, a priest named Aldred at a monastery in Chester which then possessed the book added between the lines an Old English translation, which is the oldest known version of the Gospels in English.

(As an aside, the dissolution of the English monasteries was a catastrophe for the vernacular literature of pre-Reformation England. Had it not been for Sir Robert Cotton gathering them into his collection, many of these works might well have been lost forever.)

Vitellius A xv, also known as the Nowell Codex, ca. 1010, the only surviving copy of the Old English epic poem Beowulf.

The Vespasian Psalter (A i), an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript ca. 765 AD, which contains an interlinear Old English translation, the oldest surviving English version of any part of the Bible, and the oldest surviving illuminated manuscript from the southern part of Anglo-Saxon England.

In 1731, the house where the collection was temporarily stored was destroyed by fire. Among the most badly damaged items was a manuscript known as the Cotton Genesis (Otho B vi), a Greek manuscript of the Biblical book produced in the 4th or 5th century, with about 350 illustrations, of which there now survive 18 fragments. Many of the images are preserved in a 17th century copy now in the National Library of France in Paris.

(One of the surviving fragments of the Cotton Genesis, part of a folio which showed the meeting of Abraham and the three angels in chapter 18. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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