Radical Objects

Radical Object: A North African Book in the Early Medieval British Isles

In the final days of campaigning before the Brexit referendum in 2016, Nigel Farage (then leader of UKIP) unveiled a poster that appeared to show a large queue of immigrants. A block of text obscured the only prominent person with pale skin in the image. The poster was clearly designed to provoke racist anxiety about immigration from the Middle East and Africa to the UK. Since the Brexit referendum, racist and anti-immigrant attacks have increased in the UK, according the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur E. Tendayi Achiume. In England and Wales in 2016-2017, there was a 29% increase in hate crimes. This was the largest increase by proportion since 2011. Achiume also noted increased anxiety about anti-immigrant sentiment, even ‘in areas where immigrants remain fundamental to the economic prosperity and success of British communities’.

Immigrants have always been fundamental to British economies, culture, and communities, including immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. For example, the development of book-production and writing among the earliest English speakers owed a huge debt to African book-making practices, scripts, and texts. However, the tenor of the debate around Brexit has made asserting this historical fact a radical act in some circles, and, in this context, the historical evidence for it becomes a radical object. Such objects include the oldest surviving book known to have been owned by English speakers: a manuscript that was made in Africa.

British Library, Add MS 40165A, ff. 3v-4r.

This manuscript consists of five resilient parchment fragments, made 1,600 years ago. These late fourth-century fragments contain letters of Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage (now in modern Tunisia) who was killed by Roman authorities in 258 AD. When this manuscript was first made, it was not so much a radical object as a fine, large volume. Each page originally had four columns, with generous margins around the text. Biblical quotations were copied out in bold red ink. The script and layout of the pages suggest that they once formed part of a volume made in North Africa, perhaps even Carthage itself.

Detail of British Library Add MS 40165A, f. 3v with expansions in an Insular hand at the end of the second and third lines.

As William Schipper has shown, this North African book was probably in the British Isles by the eighth century. Someone added letters and expanded abbreviations in the original text in an ‘Insular’ script associated with the early medieval British Isles.  These expansions could have been used to help guide readers for whom Latin was a second language or who found such abbreviations unfamiliar. In some cases, the expansions also seem to have clarified which verbs should be read as plural: Schipper noted that in one passage, ‘baptize’ was expanded to ensure it would be read as ‘they baptize’. Annotator(s) not only engaged with the text, but also anticipated that the manuscript would have multiple other readers or be consulted as an authoritative reference text.

Such a North African manuscript was probably not a particularly radical sight in the early medieval kingdoms of northern Europe. Other manuscripts from the early English-speaking kingdoms suggest that other African books, or manuscripts heavily influenced by African traditions, were present there in the seventh and eighth centuries. The earliest intact European book – the St Cuthbert Gospel from eighth-century Northumbria – is held together with Egyptian Coptic-style sewing, which sews each group of pages together without attaching them to extra cords, unlike later European binding techniques. The practice of illuminating gospel books produced some of the greatest works of early medieval art and it can first be seen in the Garima Gospels, made between 500 and 700 in Ethiopia. The Lindisfarne Gospels’ painting also owes a debt to Coptic art, with its bold lines and stylized depictions of faces, as Michelle Brown and others have shown.

Miniature of St Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 25v.
Coptic wall painting of Saints Cosmas and Damian found at Wadi Sarga, Egypt, dating to the sixth or seventh century (British Museum, EA73139).

The contents of books, too, showed the impact of African literature and writers. Early English speakers studied and carefully copied the works of North African writers such as Augustine, Symphosius, Primasius, and many others. The book culture of the earliest English speakers was significantly influenced by African models, from cover to cover. It should also be noted that African influence on book culture was not limited to this place or indeed this time: Molefi Kete Asante, Abu Shardow Abarry, Wendy Belcher and many others have demonstrated African traditions’ central role in the history of the book, from the origins of writing to the development of codices (books with pages and covers).

The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest intact European book (British Library, Add MS 89000).

But how did all these African manuscripts reach the British Isles? The simplest explanation is that an African brought them. The leaves of Cyprian’s letters are often assumed to have been brought to Kent by Hadrian, a North African refugee and scholar, who became abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s (later St Augustine’s) Church in Canterbury in 670 AD. This is certainly plausible. However, Hadrian was not the only North African to come to the British Isles before the eighth century. By analysing tooth enamel, archaeologists have found evidence of North Africans in the British Isles, from the Bronze Age through to the medieval period. Indeed, North Africans and their writing traditions were present in the southern part of the island of Britain long before English speakers arrived. A piece of Roman pottery found near Holt bears an inscription in the neo-Punic alphabet. The inscription– M’QRYN’– was possibly related to the name Macrinus, which was particularly popular in North Africa. Links between North Africa (and North African writing) and the British Isles continued into the post-Roman period. Excavations at post-Roman settlements such as Tintagel, Lydford and Gwythian have found significant amounts of North African pottery, including some with inscriptions. Even if these objects were traded through several intermediaries before arriving in the British Isles, they still show how North African culture – particularly North African writing – shaped post-Roman Britain.

The manuscript of Cyprian’s writings could have been brought to the British Isles along some of the same trade routes that brought the North African pottery or by North Africans who travelled to the north. Alternatively, such North African manuscripts could also have been acquired by travellers from the British Isles. These travellers included early book collectors who travelled to Italy specifically to enlarge their libraries, such Benedict Biscop, one of the founders of the important monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the kingdom of Northumbria. The Italian peninsula, along with the Iberian peninsula, housed large repositories of North African manuscripts. . The presence of North African manuscripts at Wearmouth-Jarrow is suggested by the Coptic binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, which was made there in the early eighth century. And while Italian and Spanish centres may have had the largest collections of North African manuscripts in Europe, recently evidence for North African manuscripts in early medieval Ireland emerged when a Psalter made around 800 AD was discovered in a peat bog. Papyrus, perhaps from Egypt, lined its leather covering.

However they arrived, the fragments of Cyprian’s letters were probably part of a much larger group of North African books that shaped the liturgy, theology, script, decoration, and written culture of the British Isles. We cannot be sure of all the readers who might have encountered this North African manuscript. While librarians discourage writing in books today, it is difficult to tell who used a book if they did not leave any mark in it or mention it explicitly elsewhere. Additionally, we do not have all the sources that we would like to have about early medieval book production, hence all the ‘probablys’ and ‘perhapses’ in scholarship on the early medieval period. We do know that the idiosyncratic order of Cyprian’s letters in this manuscript has been found in later English manuscripts. Some of these later manuscripts may have been direct copies. This North African manuscript may have been used up to the twelfth century, when the surviving fragments of Cyprian’s letters were reused in the binding of a theological collection.

Maurice Bévenot suggests that these particular leaves were deliberately removed from a larger volume because their contents – including Cyprian’s views on rebaptism – were no longer considered orthodox in the twelfth century. This might suggest that the rest of the manuscript continued to be used. Ironically, the dismemberment and reuse of these folios ensured their ultimate survival, while the rest of the manuscript is now lost.

These fragments are now extremely precious witnesses to North African book culture and its impact as far away as the British Isles. They also testify to the historical importance of immigrants and cultural exchange. They may have been brought by North African and Middle Eastern refugees. Alternatively, they may have arrived via trade links or they could even have been sought out by English-speaking scholars trying to build up their libraries. These resilient fragments remind us that cutting Britain off from the wider world would also cut British society off from the cultures, immigrants, and exchanges that have always been fundamental to its development.

One Comment

  1. This is indeed an interesting article, though its hardly surprising to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the late Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity.
    North Africa was part of the Roman Empire. Its entirely expected that this part of the world would have retained strong connections with the rest of the Roman (or formerly Roman) Empire.

    What is just perhaps more interesting is the one major omission that this piece makes. It fails to mention to most likely reason for the influx of refugees from North Africa to Europe in the seventh century specifically. The Islamic Arab conquest of that region.
    One can only speculate as to why it fails to mention such a significant event, but the reasons are really as obvious as the fact that the works of Augustine of Hippo (another North African) were read in Britain.

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