Revealed: the medieval manuscript that could be more significant than Magna Carta

The Textus Roffensis, a 12th-century manuscript 100 years older than Magna Carta that contains the only copy of the oldest set of laws in English, has been digitised for the first time

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The Textus Roffensis, which was compiled by a single scribe at Rochester Cathedral in Kent in the 1120s, is seen by some as containing foundation documents of the English state. Safeguarded by the cathedral since its inception, the charter has been digitised by the University of Manchester as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded renovation and community engagement project. Here, Dr Chris Monk highlights 10 things we ought to know about the remarkable ‘text of Rochester’.

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Everyone has heard of Magna Carta and the Domesday Book, but the Textus Roffensis? Produced at Rochester Cathedral around 1123–24, it is a manuscript to rival any in historical and cultural importance:

 

1) It contains the earliest example of written English in the form of the only surviving copy of the oldest known English law

The law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent (560–616) represents the creation of the Old English alphabet, which combines Latin characters and letters based on ancient runes. Issued around the year 600, Æthelberht’s Code is the first of three Kentish laws unique to the Textus Roffensis – the others being Hlothere and Eadric’s Code (c679–85), and Wihtræd’s Code (695). 

It is the opening text of a ‘legal encyclopaedia’ of more than three dozen English laws (ranging from 600–1100) that constitute the bulk of the first part of the Textus Roffensis

Æthelberht’s Code offers us insight into the system of compensation that probably prevailed in Kent at the start of the 7th century. Its opening words, ‘Godes feoh & ciricean XII gylde’ set out the level of restitution to be made by one who stole from ‘God’s property and the Church’s’, namely ‘a twelve-fold compensation’.

The law also includes an extensive list of payments to be made for acts of violence, including 50 shillings for gouging out an eye and six shillings for stabbing a man through his genitals.

 

2) It contains a forged document written by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (1002–23), purporting to be a settlement drawn up between King Alfred (r871–99), Edward the Elder (r899–924), and Guthrum, Viking king of East Anglia (d899/90)

This decree, known as Peace of Edward and Guthrum, was fabricated as an addition to the genuine Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum [an agreement between Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum, the Viking ruler of East Anglia, following Alfred’s victory at Edington, which established a boundary between their kingdoms and regulated relations between the English and Danish subjects of the two kings in criminal matters].

Wulfstan’s rationale was likely the preservation of the security of the church – and his own bishopric – in the Danelaw, the area of England in which Danish law prevailed.  The law focuses on issues that directly affected the church, including church sanctuary, payments of tithes, and sorcery.

 

3) It contains a unique copy of William the Conqueror’s law of trial by combat, which was used to settle disputes between Englishmen and Frenchmen

This law, written in English, introduced to the English the Norman idea of settling disputes by combat. Fascinatingly, if an accused Englishman refused to defend himself though either trial by combat or oath swearing, then he had the further option of ordeal by iron: carrying a piece of red-hot iron in order to ascertain innocence (if innocent, he would heal quickly from the burns). 

Should the Englishman be the accuser, but he dared not summon the Frenchman to combat, then the latter could defend himself by a comprehensive oath.

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4) It contains an excommunication curse with an obscenity

“May he be cursed… in sh***ing”.  This is how Laurence Sterne, in his 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy, translated “maledictus cacando”, the surprisingly irreverent words that form part of a malediction against criminals. Sterne also supplied ‘pi**ing’ for “mingendo”, though that is arguably a somewhat amplified rendering of the Latin. 

Known officially as Excommunicatio VIII, and thought to originate from either the 10th or 11th centuries, it is an appeal for supernatural intervention against one expelled from the church.  The comprehensive malediction leaves us in no doubt of the excommunicate’s status, cursing all activities of his life, his death, and all body parts – from the hairs of his head right down to his toenails!

 

5) It contains the oldest copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter which, more than 100 years before Magna Carta, granted freedom to the English Church

The charter, published on 5 August 1100, announces to the shires that Henry was king of “the realm of England”, and that he would restore to the people “the law of King Edward (the Confessor)” – a profoundly symbolic gesture towards his English subjects for whom he claimed to have great love. 

The opening grant of freedom to God’s Church, that Henry would neither sell nor “lease at farm” its lands, influenced the first grant of liberty coerced out of King John and written down in the Magna Carta 115 years later.

 

6) It contains a fabricated foundational charter for Rochester Cathedral, created to defend the long-standing land rights of England’s second oldest cathedral

A beautiful, historiated initial depicting Christ in front of Rochester Priory offering his blessing while also trampling a beast (signifying Satan) marks the opening of a cartulary, the second part of the Textus Roffensis. 

As the only major decoration in the manuscript, it visually reinforces the charter’s claim that King Æthelberht granted lands for the foundation of the Church of Saint Andrew at Rochester in 604. 

Though the charter is, to put it politely, retrospective, it nevertheless represents what was in essence factual, since the historian Bede states explicitly that Æthelberht did indeed grant land and privileges in establishing the church at Rochester.

Though written largely in Latin, the land boundaries themselves are described in Old English. If truly representing Æthelberht’s original grant, these may be the oldest examples of English street names.

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7) It was dropped into the River Thames in the 18th century

Though the facts are not completely clear, it appears that the Textus Roffensis was accidently submerged in either the Thames or the Medway while being transported to or from London, sometime between 1708 and 1718.

The book shows signs of water damage on each of its folios. Despite this, the manuscript is in remarkably good condition. It may well be that its tight clasps and robust binding prevented more significant damage. 

 

8) It is similar in size to a hardback novel

Measuring approximately 225 x 155mm, the book’s importance is not reflected in its small size. It is clear that its vellum pages have been trimmed, though it is not possible to say exactly by how much. Most likely this took place when the decision was made, probably in the 14th century, to bind together what were originally two separate manuscripts: the ‘legal encyclopaedia’ and the cartulary.

Though both parts are predominantly the work of the same scribe, we cannot be sure of the rationale behind forming a single volume.

 

9) It contains a pseudo-Christian, magical charm for the recovery of stolen property

Sandwiched between a law on betrothal and a law on bequeathing property is this rather odd formula for dealing with theft of livestock and household goods. The charm – a mix of Latin and English – invokes the Cross of Christ, Abraham and Job. 

Instructions for singing the charm, written in English, are also provided, and include directions to sing upon the bridle, or fetters, of a stolen horse; and, in the case of other livestock, to sing upon and thrice drip candle wax over the animal’s hoof-tracks. 

For the recovery of household goods, one had to sing to the four sides and the middle of the house.

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10) It contains a royal genealogy that traces the kings of Wessex back to the apocryphal fourth son of Noah

There are four royal genealogies in the first part of the Textus Roffensis, two of which trace the purported ancestry of the West Saxon kings back to Woden and ‘the first man Adam’, and, in one of these, to ‘the Father, who is Christ’. 

Bizarrely, both of these also highlight a certain Scef (or Scyf), informing the reader that he was ‘born on the ark’ – according to one of them, to Noah himself! It would seem, then, that Anglo-Saxon genealogists were keen to create a foundation myth that demonstrated that the English people had a very special ancestry.

Dr Chris Monk is a consultant for Rochester Cathedral’s ‘Hidden Treasures, Fresh Expression’ project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and various other organisations. He has lectured on medieval literature and art at the University of Manchester, and is now a freelance writer, blogging as The Anglo-Saxon Monk.

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To explore the Textus Roffensis online, click here.