Saint Petersburg Bede

Saint Petersburg Bede

Wearmouth, Jarrow or York (United Kingdom) — 735–750

A precious Anglo-Saxon manuscript containing the earliest surviving historiated initial in the history of European illumination

  1. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People was written ca. 731 by Saint Bede (672/3-735)

  2. This manuscript was likely completed by ca. 746 in the same monastery where Bede lived

  3. Europe’s oldest initial exhibits a combination of Insular and Mediterranean artistic styles

Saint Petersburg Bede

Lat. Q.v.I.18 National Library of Russia (St. Petersburg, Russia)
  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Saint Petersburg Bede

This precious copy of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Saint Bede is a near-contemporary of the original manuscript and likely originated ca. 746. Aside from its precious contents that cover the history of England from Caesar’s invasion of Britannia in 55 BC up until Bede’s own lifetime, the manuscript is famous for containing the old surviving historiated initial in the history of European illumination. It demonstrates a combination of artistic techniques from both the Insular and Mediterranean styles and is priceless for the history of medieval art. The manuscript is named for its modern repository in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg Bede

This 8th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript is significant both for the history of illumination and the growth of Christianity in England, as well as providing general geographical and historical information on the island. It contains one of the oldest copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People as well as the earliest historiated initial found in any European manuscript. Work on this manuscript likely began not long after the original text was completed ca. 731 and in the same monastery, Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey. It was likely completed no later than ca. 746, making it a near-contemporary of the original manuscript. The Saint Petersburg Bede is also one of the two oldest examples of the “m-type”, a version containing the vernacular text of the Northumbrian aelda recension of Cædmon's Hymn.

Saint Bede’s History of England

Saint Bede (672/3-735), also known as The Venerable Bede, was a Benedictine monk and author of the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. His work traces the history of the English church with special focus given to the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity. The Latin text is one of the most important sources on Anglo-Saxon history and the development of an English national identity. It is divided into five books and includes some geographical information as well as a historical overview beginning with Caesar’s invasion of Britannia in 55 BC. A brief history of Christianity in Roman Britain includes the martyrdom of St. Alban and the missionary work of St. Augustine among the Anglo-Saxons, which began in 597. Books 2-4 each cover a period of approximately 30 years and Book 5, which covers a 44-year-period including the events of Bede’s own lifetime.

A Historic Initial

Although the identity of those involved with its creation remains unknown, the parchment folios of the manuscript show the signs of at least four hands, with a fifth hand having added notes, colophons, etc. Although most of the manuscript is unadorned, the decorative initials show a combination of both Insular and Mediterranean artistic styles, especially the famous historiated at the beginning of Book 2. The ruddy-cheeked figure with a halo holding a cross and a book is a saint – identifiable by his tonsure – either Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) or Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604). Although the initial is Insular in style, the figure within it is clearly influenced by art from Late Antiquity, as is some of the foliage found in other initials. Nonetheless, it is believed to be the earliest example of a historiated initial from European illumination to survive today.

A Mysterious Past

Although it is not known, the manuscript likely remained in the monastery for centuries before coming to France, perhaps in the possession of the diplomat Christophe de Harlay, Comte de Beaumont. The manuscript was certainly in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés by 1762, where it was subsequently stolen. It was then acquired in 1791 by the Russian diplomat and famous bibliophile Peter P. Dubrovsky (1754-1816) who brought it back with him to St. Peterburg where he donated it in 1803 to the institution that would grow to the Russian National Library. It has thus come to be known as the Saint Petersburg Bede.


Alternative Titles
Leningrad Bede
Size / Format
162 folios / 27.0 × 15.0 cm
Insular minuscule Roman capitals
Numerous ornamental initials, including the oldest surviving historiated initial in Western art
Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) and Caedmon's Hymn
Previous Owners
Christophe de Harlay
Achille de Harlay
Peter Dubrowsky

Available facsimile editions:
The Leningrad Bede
Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1952
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Leningrad Bede

Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1952

Publisher: Rosenkilde and Bagger – Copenhagen, 1952
Commentary: 1 volume by Olof S. Arngart
Language: English
1 volume: This facsimile is not complete. Monochrome reproduction of the entire original document (scope, format). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding. Facsimile and commentary are housed in separate parts of the same volume.
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