Sub-Librarian Steven Archer describes why a medieval manuscript is so important to Roskilde, Denmark.
In the year 1022, King Cnut, ruler of both England and Denmark, assembled a group of his nobles and church leaders on St Æthelthryth’s Day (23 June) to witness the grant of a piece of land at Wood Ditton to the monastery at Ely. This transaction was recorded in the form of a single-sheet charter, signed (or attested) by the witnesses present. This written record provided evidence, should it ever be challenged, that the land had legally been transferred to the monastery. In order to preserve the content of these single sheets, monks would copy out multiple charters into a codex volume which was referred to as a cartulary.
Manuscript O.2.41 is a composite volume that contains several texts all of which relate to Ely. The codex opens with an Ely calendar (a dated list marking feast days and Saints’ days), and then the works of Bishop Æthelwold, who had refounded the abbey of Ely in 970 as part of his monastic reform movement. Also in the volume is the Inquisitio Eliensis which details the lands owned by the abbey, collated from the original returns for the Domesday survey. The text we are primarily interested in here, however, is the cartulary which is the earliest to survive from Ely and dates from the mid-12th century. It contains six full diplomas (a formal document) issued by four different Anglo-Saxon kings, all in favour of the abbey, including one particularly important charter recording Cnut’s grant to Ely in 1022.
In July 2021 we received a loan request from colleagues at Roskilde Museum to lend the manuscript to an exhibition celebrating the 1000-year anniversary of the establishment of the first Christian diocese in Denmark. This request highlighted the incredible importance of a single word in the text; the first time the name of the town of Roskilde had been written down, and of the attendance of a Danish bishop at an English royal gathering. ‘Gerbrand of Roscylde’, attests the charter as a member of the Danish episcopate signalling the importance of this early diocesan development in Roskilde; a major power base for both the church and the king. Gerbrand had been consecrated as a bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelnoth, between 1020 and 1022, and this charter records they met again in the audience of King Cnut.
Over many months, we discussed with the curators at the museum the best way to display the book and how to convey to the audience that the manuscript is a later copy of an earlier work. A special cradle was made by our expert colleagues at the Fitzwilliam Museum that could be easily taken apart for transportation and reassembled on arrival at the museum. Despite several delays because of Covid and complications with the necessary export licence, at the end of April, the manuscript finally travelled to Denmark; the first time it has ever left the UK.
Never before has a 12th century cartulary received such a reception! Having been collected from Copenhagen airport by the Danish art handlers, the van arrived into Roskilde to be greeted by several television crews and newspaper reporters all excited to see this important piece of history for the first time. I was welcomed by the Museum Director, Curators and Conservator and the manuscript was ushered into the museum in a wave of palpable excitement.
As part of our conservation conditions we had agreed with the museum that the book should be allowed a period to acclimatise to its new surroundings before we staged it for the exhibit. This allows the parchment and binding structure time to ‘relax’ after having been transported in uncontrolled conditions when at the airport and in flight. Unpacking the box in front of an expectant audience certainly added an element of pressure to the occasion – when delivering an item to an exhibition like this, one always has a moment of panic hoping the right manuscript is in the box, but usually without the added pressure of a television camera watching you! When the manuscript was finally unveiled, a collective gasp came from the crowd; after months and months of work we had finally achieved our goal of bringing the earliest recording of ‘Roscylde’ to the place it means the most.
A round of interviews followed; live on the 6 o’clock news, and for the ‘good news’ story at the end of the 10 o’clock news, and finally with press journalists. It came as something of a surprise the next day when stepping into a supermarket, to see a display of newspapers with a familiar looking face on the cover, only to realise we had hit the headlines and made front-page news!
It was an incredibly rewarding experience to have seen this project through from start to finish and to have established new working relationships with a brilliant team of curators and conservators. After all of the excitement of the installation of the manuscript to such a fanfare, now as the exhibition opens at the Roskilde Museum it gives great satisfaction to think our manuscript is now telling part of the story of such a historic city, and will be seen by tens of thousands of visitors.
The exhibition runs from 20 May to 25 September 2022.