Medieval Studies The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch
Herbert R. Broderick FSA
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0228


The term “Old English Hexateuch,” or “Heptateuch,” refers to a compilation of Old English prose translations of the first six books (the Hexateuch) of the Latin (Vulgate) Bible (Genesis to Joshua) to be found in a core group of 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, one of which (Oxford, Bodleian library, Laud Miscellaneous 509) contains a summary of the Book of Judges and is, therefore, technically a “Heptateuch.” Marsden 2012a (cited under the Texts of MS Claudius B.iv) refers to all nine manuscript witnesses to this project as “Heptateuchs.” This article will concentrate on the sole illustrated version of this compilation (London, British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv), now generally cited as “the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch” but formerly referred to as “Aelfric’s Pentateuch” or “Aelfric’s Paraphrase of the Pentateuch and Joshua.” The British Library manuscript, designated as MSB in The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B.IV. (Dodwell and Clemoes 1974, (cited under General Overviews), will be referred to in this article as MS Claudius B.iv. The manuscript is thought to have been produced sometime in the second quarter of the 11th century, most likely at St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (Barker-Benfield 2008, cited under General Overviews), as discussed in Dodwell and Clemoes 1974. The texts of Claudius B.iv are accompanied by 394 framed illustrations comprising some 500 narrative episodes, which, along with the forty-eight pen-and-ink drawings in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11 (see also the Oxford Bibliographies in Medieval Studies articles “Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Illumination” and “The Junius Manuscript”)—a collection of poems in Old English on biblical subjects from the Old and New Testaments of c. 1000 or slightly before—together present the largest extant body of Old Testament illustrations in the Latin West before the 13th century. The fact that many of the illustrations in Claudius B.iv are unfinished permits unique insights into the working methods of the artist, or artists, responsible for its program, as discussed in Dodwell and Clemoes 1974. Although the original purpose of Claudius B.iv is not known, the large number of the illustrations themselves, as well as the fact that the text is in Old English, has suggested to scholars the possibility of its intended function as a pedagogic tool for a monastic or secular audience, as documented in The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (Withers 2007, cited under General Overviews). With its Old English text, Claudius B.iv stands at the beginning of a long line of English vernacular translations of the Bible, as explained in Marsden 2012b (cited under the Texts of MS Claudius B.iv).

General Overviews

The most recent bibliographic reference for MS Claudius B.iv is Gneuss and Lapidge 2014. Prior assessments of the style of its illustrations as lacking the finesse and “verve” of other examples of late Anglo-Saxon manuscript art, as discussed in Withers 2000, have relegated the manuscript to a lesser aesthetic category. For an idea of the artistic and historical context in which Claudius B.iv is situated, Brown 2007 is a good beginning for the general reader. Dodwell 1993 places Claudius B.iv in the larger field of medieval manuscript painting in general. Gameson 1995 makes a number of important observations about Claudius B.iv’s illustrations, while Karkov 2011 situates Claudius B.iv in a more current theoretical framework.

  • Barker-Benfield, Bruce C. St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. 3 vols. Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, 13. London: British Library in association with the British Academy, 2008.

    Claudius B.iv is cited in volume 1, pp. 405–406 of this important reference work, with other references indexed at Vol. 3, p. 2034-2.

  • British Library.

    The entire manuscript, as well as its binding, is available in full color on the British Library website. Images may be magnified on command, providing the reader with unprecedented access to the sometimes difficult-to-see details of its text and illustrations.

  • Brown, Michelle P. Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age. London: British Library, 2007.

    With many color photographs of major Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, this is an excellent source for general readers to get a sense of the artistic environment from which Claudius B.iv emerges.

  • Budny, Mildred. “The Biblia Gregoriana.” In St. Augustine and the Conversion of England. Edited by Richard Gameson, 237–284. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1999.

    The author suggests that the artist responsible for the illustrations on folios 68v-69v of Claudius B.iv was possibly the same as the artist who added a Mark Evangelist portrait to folio 30v of the so-called Royal Bible (London, British Library MS Royal 1 E. vi), an Anglo-Saxon illustrated Bible fragment of c. 815–845, thought to be based in part on the lost Biblia Gregoriana of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury.

  • Dodwell, C. R. The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800–1200. Yale University Press Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    While now somewhat dated, this survey of Western medieval manuscript and wall painting provides a historical and artistic context within which to place the illustrations of Claudius B.iv.

  • Dodwell, C. R., and Peter Clemoes, eds. The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B.IV. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 18. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1974.

    A complete facsimile in black and white (with color frontispiece and four color plates) of Claudius B.iv, with extensive commentary and analysis of the history and probable origin of the manuscript (pp. 13–16), the physical structure and contents of the manuscript (pp. 16–42), the composition of the text (pp. 42–53), the production of an illustrated version (pp. 53–58), the technique and style of the illustrations (pp. 58–64), and an essay on the basic originality of the illustrations (pp. 65–73).

  • Gameson, Richard. The Role of Art in the Late Anglo-Saxon Church. Oxford Historical Manuscripts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    In this wide-ranging and penetrating study, Gameson surveys a broad spectrum, as his title suggests, of the role of art of all kinds in the late Anglo-Saxon Church. Included in his discussion are numerous insightful references to Claudius B.iv in terms of various aspects of its physical construction, pictorial narrative structure, and potential audience and function.

  • Gneuss, Helmut, and Michael Lapidge. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100. Toronto Anglo-Saxon 15. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442616288

    This extraordinary work documents all relevant scholarship on Claudius B.iv up to 2014, with a few notable omissions in the area of iconography that will be cited in Illustrations/Iconography. It should be consulted at all times for bibliography on any given Anglo-Saxon manuscript.

  • Karkov, Catherine E. “Manuscript Art.” In Working with Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Edited by Gail R. Owen-Crocker, 205–215. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press, 2009.

    This essay provides an excellent overview and context in which to understand and appreciate some of the larger aesthetic/interpretive issues involved with illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscripts such as Claudius B.iv, while other essays in the collection deal with some of the specific textual concerns of the Old English Heptateuch.

  • Karkov, Catherine E. The Art of Anglo-Saxon England. Boydell Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2011.

    While making only brief mention of Claudius B.iv itself, Karkov surveys the development and understanding of Anglo-Saxon art as a whole with an emphasis on the art as “art,” and its creators as “artists,” rather than seeing the art as simply a reflection of the historical and sociological context from which it emerged.

  • Withers, Benjamin C. “A Sense of Englishness: Claudius B.iv, Colonialism, and the History of Anglo-Saxon Art in the Mid-Twentieth Century.” In The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches. Edited by Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers, 317–350. Publications of the Richard Rawlinson Center. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 2000.

    As coeditor of this collection of essays on a wide range of aspects of Claudius B.iv, Withers concentrates in this essay on the historiography of the reception of Claudius B.iv in the scholarship of the 20th century and on how the evaluation of the style of the manuscript’s illustrations has contributed to the construction of ideas such as “Englishness” and the formation of an “English” national culture.

  • Withers, Benjamin C. The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England. Studies in Book and Print Culture. London: British Library, 2007.

    This is the first full-length monograph on the manuscript since Dodwell and Clemoes 1974. The author explores the manuscript as a whole from a “phenomenological” point of view, as well as the ideas of Roger Chartier. The book comes with a full-color CD of images of the entire manuscript, which can now also be accessed on the British Library website.

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