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Manuscript leaf from thirteenth century ‘Glastonbury Bible’ returns to the South West

Press release issued: 7 September 2020

A precious manuscript leaf from a thirteenth-century Latin Bible that almost certainly originated from Glastonbury Abbey has been acquired by the University of Bristol Library’s Special Collections.

The hand-written page contains the beginning of the Old Testament Books of Chronicles, narrating the history of Israel and Judah from the Creation.

The first word of the book, Adam, is marked by a beautifully illuminated A, made up of interlocking creatures and foliage.  Fine penwork in the text and intricate initial letters evoke not only the monks’ devotion to Scripture but also their careful scholarship.

Founded in the seventh century, Glastonbury Abbey became one of the wealthiest Benedictine monasteries in medieval England. Its fortunes improved following the discovery, in 1191, of the supposed graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, which attracted many visitors and pilgrims to the site, including royalty.

Abbeys played a key role, alongside universities, in the growth of higher education in the thirteenth century and beyond and Glastonbury was especially famous for its vast library of books and manuscripts. When King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 and the execution of its Abbot on Glastonbury Tor, the library and its contents were destroyed, dispersed or sold.

What happened to the ‘Glastonbury Bible’ after this something of a mystery. It is known to have been in the collection of the antiquary and politician Roger Gale (1672-1744). Like many medieval manuscripts, the Glastonbury Bible was subsequently broken up, and beautifully illuminated leaves were cut out. Today, leaves from the same manuscript can be found in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio and there is a very substantial fragment in the Schøyen Collection, based in London and Oslo.

The University of Bristol’s popular postgraduate programme in Medieval Studies makes extensive use of manuscripts in the Library’s Special Collections. High quality and local provenance will make the new leaf an inspirational asset in the teaching of medieval book production and culture. 

The leaf was purchased with the help of a generous bequest by the late Anthony John Edwards, who studied history at Bristol (graduating in 1952) and went on to become the first Librarian of Canterbury Christ Church University.   

Professor Ad Putter, Co-Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, said: “This is a wonderful treasure.

“I have often visited nearby Glastonbury Abbey with students, and it is amazing to think that this was written there some 800 years ago, vanished and has now come home to the South West of England where it was originally created.

“This beautiful and historic artefact will help us to teach our students how to decipher medieval handwriting.”   

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