Old English Orosius

Old English Orosius – Rosenkilde and Bagger – MS Add. 47967 – British Library (London, United Kingdom)

Winchester (United Kingdom) — 870–930

A translation with impact: Orosius' Latin universal history in English as a gold standard for subsequent Anglo-Saxon chronicles

  1. Paulus Orosius (ca. 375 – ca. 420) was a Roman priest, historian, and theologian

  2. This translation was probably commissioned by King Alfred the Great (848/9-899)

  3. Fascinating notes and sketches were added to the manuscript during the 11th century

Old English Orosius

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

Paulus Orosius was an important Roman priest, historian, and theologian who wrote a work of universal history ca. 416/7 that would be profoundly influential on medieval historians and chroniclers. The first English translation of the text likely occurred in the late-9th century during the reign King Alfred the Great or shortly thereafter and resulted in the creation of the so-called Old English Orosius. This manuscript had a profound impact on successive historical works from medieval England. It has been the coveted possession of various bibliophiles and the subject of study for centuries.

Old English Orosius

Although less well-known than his teacher and colleague Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Roman priest and historian Paulus Orosius (ca. 375 – ca. 420) was also a very important theologian and scholar of the early Christian church. Originally from modern Portugal, Orosius travelled throughout the Mediterranean world as far as Alexandria and Jerusalem and these journeys had a profound influence on his life and work. His most important work was Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII or Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, which was written between 416 and 417 and went on to be one of the most influential works of history during the Middle Ages. Around the turn of the 10th century, the work was translated into the West-Saxon dialect in a manuscript known as the Old English Orosius. Aside from being the first translation of the work into English, the anonymous writer cuts extraneous details while adding explanations, dramatic speeches, and detailed information on the geography of the Germanic world.

Connection to Alfred the Great

Judging by the script, the manuscript probably originated in the scriptorium at Winchester between and was possibly recorded by the same scribe who was responsible for parts of the Parker Chronicle. The translation was once wrongly attributed to King Alfred the Great (848/9-899), but it is now believed that the work may have originated during the latter years of his reign or in the decades immediately following it, between ca. 892 and ca. 925. Five of the six books feature zoomorphic initials, and a space exists before the sixth book for another. This is a rare example of an English manuscript in which the parchment is arranged with the hair sides and flesh sides facing each other, as was common in continental manuscripts in this period, as opposed to the common early Insular practice of arranging every piece of parchment with the hair side facing outwards. The first, initially blank folio contains musical notation, drawings of the four Evangelists and their symbols, runes, partial Latin alphabets, and Latin phrases added in an 11th century hand and similar notations are found elsewhere.

Passing through Famous Hands

Despite how influential the Old English Orosius was on other Anglo-Saxon histories and chronicles, its fate before the 17th century remains unknown, but during this time two fragments of an Exchequer scroll recording payments for the 19th and 20th of April, 1347 were added to the codex. The manuscript supposedly first appeared in the library of the mathematician, astrologer, and antiquarian John Dee (1527-1609) and an inscription indicates it was then owned by a certain Joan Davysun before passing into the possession of John Maitland (1616-82), Duke of Lauderdale by the year 1678. It was inherited by the Duke’s second wife Elizabeth Murray (1626-98), Countess of Dysart, Duchess of Lauderdale and one of the most influential political figures of her day in spite of the fact that she was a woman. She bequeathed the manuscript to her son Lionel Tollemache, 3rd Earl of Dysart (1649-1727) and the manuscript remained at Helmingham Hall in the possession of the Tollemache family for two centuries before finally being purchased by the British Museum in 1953 for £10,000.


Alternative Titles
Paulus Orosius: Historiae Adversus Paganos
The Tollemache Orosius
Helmingham Hall 46
Historum Adversum Paganos
Lauderdale Orosius
Tollemache Manuscript
Size / Format
174 pages / 29.5 × 20.5 cm
Insular Minuscule
Five zoomorphic decorative initials; Two drawings of the kneeling evangelist Matthew with the three other evangelist symbols
Paulus Orosius "Historiae adversum Paganos" from ca. 410–420 in Old English translation
Previous Owners
John Dee
John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale
Elizabeth Murray
Lionel Tollemache
John Tollemache

Available facsimile editions:
Old English Orosius – Rosenkilde and Bagger – MS Add. 47967 – British Library (London, United Kingdom)
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1953
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Tollemache Orosius

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1953

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1953
Commentary: 1 volume by Alastair Campbell
Language: English
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€
(1,000€ - 3,000€)
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