Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Trinity College Library: De consolatione philosophiae

This is the second blog-post in a series taking a closer look at manuscripts lent by Trinity College to the British Library’s major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. This week, we focus on Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (O.3.7).

O.3.7, f.31r

Boethius was an educated member of the Roman elite. De consolatione was written as a dialogue between the author and Philosophy and addressed issues such as predestination and free will. Boethius’ text was complex and many commentaries were written and circulated alongside it. These commentaries are known as glosses. The main Latin text is written in a minuscule hand and the extensive gloss, which is written in the margins and between the lines of the main text, is in a contemporary Old English script. The marginal glosses, which are a form of scholarly footnote, are linked to the main text by corresponding symbols in red ink.

O.3.7, Detail from f.2r

A full page drawing on f.1r relates to Boethius’ vision of Philosophy described in the opening chapter: “She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men … Her clothes were made of imperishable material of the finest thread woven with the most delicate skill … There were some books in her right hand, and in her left hand she held a sceptre.” This figure of Philosophy can be compared to figures on other frontispieces in contemporary manuscripts including a copy of Gregory’s Regular pastoralis from St Augustine’s Abbey (Oxford St John’s College, MS28, f2r) , and St Dunstan’s Classbook (Bodleian, Library MS Auct F.4.32, f.1r) from Glastonbury Abbey.

O.3.7, f.1r

As well as the commentaries and glosses in the margins and between the lines, some of the poems in this manuscript have been provided with musical notation. The signs added above the text provide a melody for this verse, and are written using a characteristically Anglo-Saxon form of neumes. They may have been intended as a means of allowing the poem to be sung out loud, or may simply have helped the reader to remember the metre of the verse.

O.3.7, Detail from f.4r showing neumes

Trinity’s copy of Boethius is a prestigious manuscript, probably produced at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury around the last quarter of the 10th-century. It was given to the Library by Roger Gale in 1738.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is at the British Library until 19 February 2019.




One thought on “Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Trinity College Library: De consolatione philosophiae

  1. As this post suggests, evidence that the poems of De consolatione philosophiae were sung in the early Middle Ages survives in the form of musical notation added above the text. The music of this song repertory has long been considered lost because the notational signs employed record only melodic outlines, relying on oral traditions that have now died out to provide missing details.

    Research conducted by Dr Sam Barrett at the University of Cambridge over the last twenty years has shown that principles of setting can be identified that provide key information for modern realisations. This research, extended in consultation with members of the professional medieval music ensemble Sequentia, has resulted in the creation of a number of reconstructions of songs from De consolatione philosophiae, including ‘Quisquis composito’.

    For further details, go to, a new website devoted to this project, which gathers together manuscript images, videos and other resources, explains reconstruction methods and invites users to contribute

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