Rochester Tome

Rochester Tome

Rochester (United Kingdom) — Before 1123

This manuscript contains an Anglo-Saxon law code from ca. 600, the oldest surviving document in English legal history

  1. The codex combines two books written by the same scribe between 1122 and 1124

  2. Texts range from the reign of Aethelberht of Kent (550-616) to Henry I (ca. 1068-1135)

  3. Old English texts are expertly translated and presented alongside those written in Latin

Rochester Tome

MS A.3.5 Rochester Cathedral Library (Rochester, United Kingdom)
  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Rochester Tome

The Textus Roffensis or “Tome of Rochester” represents one of the most important manuscripts for the history of English law. The codex represents two books written by the same scribe between 1122 and 1124 that were later bound together sometime after 1300. Aside from containing a masterful translation of Old English, which is presented along Latin legal texts, each language is written in a different script. The manuscript is famous for containing the oldest surviving copy of a royal code of law, which is dated to ca. 600 during the reign of England’s first king to convert to Christianity, Æthelberht of Kent. In addition to a compilation of legal documents concerning the diocese of Rochester, it also contains a wide variety of secular documents including the coronation charter of King Henry I from the year 1100.

Rochester Tome

The Textus Roffensis or “Tome of Rochester” is an English manuscript consisting of two texts written by the same scribe between 1122 and 1124, which were bound into a single codex at the beginning of the 14th century. The first book contains the earliest of all surviving collections of Anglo-Saxon laws while the second contains the oldest and most precious cathedral cartulary – a collection of documents concerning the foundation, privileges, and legal rights of an institution or family. While not a legal encyclopedia per se, the manuscript represents one of the most important documents concerning the history of the English legal system and is also fascinating from a linguistic perspective as well. The expertly written text is adorned by numerous colorful initials, including one large historiated initial in the Insular style consisting of a figure with a halo giving the sign of the benediction, possibly Christ, and a dragon whose body twists and transforms into leafy tendrils.

The History of English Law

Legal documents contained in the first book range from the conversion of King Aethelberht of Kent (550-616), England’s first Christian king, to the coronation charter of King Henry I (ca. 1068-1135) from the year 1100. Many sections are concerned with compensation for injuries and offenses, demonstrating the litigiousness of the Anglo-Saxons. The second book contains inter alia two foundation charters of the Rochester Cathedral and Diocese from 604, two pre-Conquest and pre-Domesday Book lists of parishes in Kent, and copies of the earliest surviving English law codes. The fact that this is referred to as a textus is significant – a textus was a book with a decorative cover that would be displayed on a church’s high altar and contained biblical texts, such as the Gospels. It is extremely rare for a secular book to be referred to a textus, such a document would normally be a liber, a less decorative book for use in a cloister. Thus, the name Textus Roffensis is an indication of the importance of this manuscript during the Middle Ages.

Two Languages, Two Scripts

The scribe, possibly a prior named Ordwine, exhibits a knowledge of the archaic: he was able to translate an obsolete, 500-year-old dialect of Anglo-Saxon without making erroneous “corrections” like others and wrote it down in Insular Miniscule when the script was nearly extinct. Latin texts are written in a Protogothic form of Carolingian Miniscule, helping to make the two more easily distinguishable from one another. Glosses were added by a second hand to clarify the meaning of certain words and these annotations might be evidence that the manuscript was consulted in some trials after the Norman Conquest. The combined use of these two languages represents the first documentary evidence of the compromises made between the new Norman rulers and their indigenous English subjects, hinting at a convergence rather than a collision between the English language and English laws on the one hand and Romance laws and language on the other.

A Resilient Manuscript

The involvement of Bishop Ernulf of Bec (1115-1124) in creating this manuscript is commemorated on the first folio. At that time there was little distinction between the possessions of the priory and the bishopric, and the bishop lived in the priory buildings with the monks. The manuscript created at Ernulf’s behest was loaned out to various scholars and institutions over the centuries and has evidence of extensive use. Despite passing through many hands and even suffering water damage after a ship transporting it overturned in the River Thames or possible the River Medway, the manuscript has survived in surprisingly good condition aside from the evidence of some water damage. To protect the manuscript from any further degradation, it is stored in an airtight case in the crypt of Rochester Cathedral.


Alternative Titles
Rochester Book
Textus Roffensis
Institutiones regum anglorum in I volumine
Size / Format
235 folios / 22.5 × 15.5 cm
Before 1123
Insular Uncial
1 historiated initial; 1 small diagram; numerous colored initials
Early English laws, Rochester Cathedral charters, and other documents

Available facsimile editions:
Textus Roffensis
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1957–1962
Facsimile Editions

#1 Textus Roffensis

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1957–1962

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1957–1962
Commentary: 1 volume by Peter Sawyer
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.
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