Old English Hexateuch

Old English Hexateuch Facsimile Edition

Benedictine Abbey of St. Augustine, Canterbury (United Kingdom) — Second quarter of the 11th century and second half of the 12th century

Biblical texts in the garb of 11th century England: 394 pen and ink drawings containing 550 scenes from the Old Testament including 12 full-page miniatures at various stages of completion

  1. Between 1025 and 1050, the Hexateuch was translated into English vernacular for the first time

  2. This is the most richly illuminated of the seven surviving codices containing that translation

  3. With scenes set in Anglo-Saxon England, it is an important historical source on contemporary life

Old English Hexateuch

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Old English Hexateuch

Between 1025 and 1050, the first English vernacular translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Hebrew Bible, was undertaken by a team of Anglo-Saxon monks under the supervision of Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham. Seven manuscripts with the translation survive to the present, the most famous of which is the richly illuminated codex stored in the British Library under the shelf mark Cotton MS Claudius B.iv. The so-called “Old English Hexateuch” was compiled at St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury and other texts in both Latin and English were appended to the manuscript during the 12th century, often using blank spaces left for miniatures that were never executed. The text is adorned by 394 pen and ink drawings containing 550 scenes including 12 full-page miniatures at various stages of completion. Scenes from the Old Testament are thus set in the everyday life of Anglo-Saxon England, making it an important historical source on contemporary life.

Old English Hexateuch

Not only does the Old English Hexateuch contain a rare translation of the first six books of the Old Testament written in Insular miniscule script, but the majority of its 300+ pages have a miniature, sometimes two or three to a page, and some combine scenes in bordered compartments. The miniatures are richly colored and detailed, especially with regard to garment fall of folds. Peculiarities of the artwork include figures with blue hair, peculiar architectures, and tents with colorful stripes. Many of the miniatures are in varying stages of completion: those towards the beginning of the manuscript are fully finished while later miniatures are often incomplete, with some elements showing pen outlines that have not been colored in, offering insights into the manuscript’s creation.

The Old Testament in Old English

The manuscript opens with a preface written by Ælfric of Eynsham (ca. 955 – ca. 1010), who translated the text, and addressed to the ealdorman and historian Æthelwærd (d. ca. 998), the chief benefactor of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury at whose behest the translation project was begun. This preface mostly serves to clarify that the practices of the ancient Israelites are not acceptable for Christians. It is followed by the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, which are furnished with notes in the Kentish dialect of Old English as well as excerpts from commentaries written in Latin including the Historia scholastica by Peter Comestor (d. 1178) as well as two works by Saint Jerome (ca. 342/347 – 420): Liber quæstionum hebraicarum in Genesim and a translation of De situ et nominibus locorum Hebraicorum by Eusebius (ca. 260/265 – 339/340). Ælfric did not translate the Latin word-for-word but attempted to encapsulate its meaning instead, which yielded a more natural and readable Old English text. The nearly one-thousand-year-old manuscript is thus a precious specimen of both Anglo-Saxon theology and Old English linguistics.

History of the Manuscript

The Old English Hexateuch originated in Canterbury and was housed in the library of St. Augustine’s Abbey according to a medieval catalogue of the library’s holdings. After its dissolution in 1533, the manuscript came into the possession of Robert Talbot (1505/06–58), an Anglo-Saxon scholar and scribe. It was then acquired by the famous antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Baronet of Connington (1571–1631) and remained in the Cottonian Library under the shelf mark Harley MS 6018 until it was bequeathed along with the entire collection by his grandson “‘for Publick Use and Advantage”. It was a cornerstone of the collections of the British Museum when it was founded in 1753 and passed into the holdings of the British Library when it was detached as a separate institution in 1973.


Alternative Titles
Altenglischer Hexateuch
Size / Format
312 pages / 32.5 × 21.5 cm
Second quarter of the 11th century and second half of the 12th century
Insular minuscule

Available facsimile editions:
Old English Hexateuch – Rosenkilde and Bagger – Cotton MS Claudius B IV – British Library (London, United Kingdom) Facsimile Edition
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1974
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Old English illustrated Hexateuch

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1974

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1974
Commentary: 1 volume by Charles R. Dodwell and Peter Clemoes
Language: English
1 volume: This facsimile is not complete. Partially colored reproduction of the entire original document with 312 black and white plates and five color plates. The pages are presented on a larger white background. The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
Edition available
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