For nearly 1,300 years, no one knew it was there. The name of a highly educated Englishwoman, secretly engraved on the pages of a rare medieval manuscript in the 8th century, but impossible to read – until now.
Scholars have found that the Old English female name Eadburg was repeatedly stamped on the surface of religious text, using a method that hid it from the naked eye for more than 12 centuries.
The secret script of the woman’s name was finally revealed when researchers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford used advanced technology to capture the 3D surface of the ancient manuscript, a Latin copy of the Acts of the Apostles that was made in England between AD700 and AD750.
This is the first time that this technology, capable of revealing “almost invisible” marks so shallow that they are about one-fifth the width of a human hair, has been used to record annotations on the surface of a manuscript.
“There are only a limited number of early medieval manuscripts that contain clear internal evidence of a woman creating, owning or using them,” said Jessica Hodgkinson, a doctoral student at the University of Leicester who made the discovery while researching his thesis. women and early medieval manuscripts.
“Most of these manuscripts are from the Continent – it is much rarer to find evidence of them in surviving manuscripts that were made and used in the geographical area we now call England.”
Writing Eadburg’s name on the book quietly affirmed her power and high status at a time when only a few highly educated elite women were able to write and read both Old English and Latin. “It is an extremely significant and very powerful text – the word of God, transmitted by the apostles. And I think that might be at least part of the reason why someone chose to write Eadburg’s name on it, so it was close to that.
It is unclear why the name was written so stealthily, with a drypoint stylus, rather than ink. “Maybe it had to do with the resources that person had access to. Or maybe it was because of wanting to leave a mark that put this woman’s name in this book, without making it really obvious,” Hodgkinson said. “There might have been some reverence for the text, which meant that the person who wrote his name was trying not to hijack scripture or compete with the word of God.”
Significantly, she found Eadburg’s name passionately engraved in the margins of the manuscript in five places, while abbreviated forms of the name appear another 10 times.
This suggests that it is likely that Eadburg itself made the marks. “I could understand why someone could write someone else’s name once. But I don’t know why you write someone else’s name so many times like that,” Hodgkinson said.
An Old English transcription and tiny, crude drawings of figures – in one case, of a person with arms outstretched, reaching for another person who raises a hand to stop them – were also discovered engraved on the small book, which is barely larger than an A5 brochure.
Hodgkinson hopes that further study will reveal the meaning of these numbers and the ancient transcription, which has so far proved impossible to translate.
She also hopes to eventually find out who Eadburg was. Certain features of the manuscript suggest that the book was produced in Kent, where a woman called Eadburg was abbess of a female religious community at Minster-in-Thanet in the mid-eighth century. However, there are at least eight other known contenders for the role.
But whether those mysteries are solved or not, for Hodgkinson there is something very empowering and meaningful about the discovery of the Eadburg name. “Yet to this day there is this human need to leave a mark of your presence on something that has meaning to you or is a record of where you have been,” she said. . “We don’t know much about Eadburg, but now, thanks to this amazing technology, we’ve seen her name, we know she was there. It is there, in this book – and it speaks through the centuries.