As Bentley fled from the inferno of Ashburnham House, a significant portion of the nation's cultural heritage was abandoned to its fate. In one part of the room, the flames caused extensive damage to books shelved under the brass busts of Tiberius and Caligula; in another, they devoured the books under Vitellius and Otho, sweeping up the backs of both presses and then licking their way across the top shelf of Galba, as if in search of the Aethelstan Psalter (Galba A.XVIII).
Had Bentley taken it upon himself to return to the house in order to save some of the volumes smouldering on the shelves of the Cottonian library, he would doubtless have made his way through the smoke to the Otho press, and taken the sixth book along on the second shelf down; for even the most rabid medievalist would have to concede that a fifth-century manuscript of the Book of Genesis, in Greek, with an accompanying cycle of over 250 illustrations, was infused with greater symbolic importance than almost anything else in the collection as a whole. Yet Bentley did not come back; and while the Cotton Genesis (Otho B.VI) burned, several other volumes of particular interest to an Anglo-Saxonist began spontaneously to combust, on the shelf above, on the same shelf, and on the shelves below.
Otho A.X contained the text of Ealdorman Aethelweard's Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and also a copy of a law-code of King Aethelred the Unready. Otho A.XII contained the text of Asser's Vita Alfredi regis Angul-Saxonum, as well as the fragment of the Old English poem on the Battle of Maldon. Otho B.IX was a gospel-book of continental origin which came into the hands of King Aethelstan, and which was given by him to the community of St Cuthbert, at Chester-le-Street, complete with a picture of the King himself doing the deed. A leaf in Otho B.IX contained the unique text of the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem. Otho B.XI contained a most interesting collection of texts, including a copy of the Old English translation of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, the 'G' manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, law-codes of King Aethelstan and King Alfred the Great, and the document known as the 'Burghal Hidage'. And Otho C.V contained the more substantial part of an early eighth-century Insular gospel-book, of which another part survives in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
In the case of each of these manuscripts, it is possible to gain some sense of what has been lost by combining the evidence of early transcripts, printed editions, catalogues, other notes and descriptions made before 1731, and surviving fragments; and in each case, the exercise of trying to reconstruct the manuscript as a physical entity contributes much to the understanding of the texts which it contained. It is always salutary for an Anglo-Saxonist to reflect in this way on the fate of books which had survived conquest, neglect, reformation and civil war, only to be incinerated in the Cotton fire; and we have to give thanks that the Augustus portfolio, containing the best of Sir Robert Cotton's charters, was saved, and that someone had the presence of mind to rescue so many (though sadly not all) of the volumes ranged along the top three shelves of the Tiberius press. One can but think. however, what troubles might have been avoided had the unique manuscript of Beowulf (in Vitellius A.XV) not been singed at the edges, or had the unique manuscript of Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' (in Otho A.XII) not been burnt to the proverbial crust.
« Older Is your name linked to your life chances?... | John E. Karlin, Bell Labs' fir... Newer »
This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments
Buy a Shirt