The Book of Cerne: Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England.

The Book of Cerne: Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England. – book reviews

Susan Millinger

The Book of Cerne. Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England. By Michelle P. Brown. (London: The British Library and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. Pp. 252. $85.00.)

Michelle P. Brown, a curator of Western Manuscripts in the British Library, has written a detailed and highly technical study. She provides lengthy studies of the codicology of the manuscript, its script, its decoration, and certain aspects of its texts.

What are Brown’s main conclusions? Cambridge University Library Ms Ll.I.10, a Latin devotional book, is traditionally called The Book of Cerne because of later medieval texts from Cerne Abbey, Dorset, which became attached to it. From its script, Brown dates it to the 820s-840s and assigns it a provenance in the Midlands-centered kingdom of Mercia, the dominant political power of the time. Brown argues that the book, written and illustrated by the same scribe, was produced for, and perhaps even by, Bishop Aedeluald of Lichfield, of whom we know little.

The Book of Cerne is one of a small group of devotional collections whose contents seem shaped by a theme. Brown suggests that the theme of the Book of Cerne, which influenced choice of visual images as well as texts, is the Communion of the Saints. She argues that the unusual miniatures of the evangelists (above their symbols are busts of the evangelists as young men) were intended to remind the ninth-century reader of a ceremony for adult catechumens and thus of initiation into the faith, that is, into participation in the Communion of the Saints. The identification of this theme might be more persuasive if the reader were given more knowledge of the texts themselves, and if the discussion of the notion of the Communion of the Saints could be more firmly based on what can be learned of pre-Viking Age Anglo-Saxon liturgical ideas and practices, limited though that may be.

Brown’s conclusions are firmly set in the context of the ongoing scholarly debate about this and related manuscripts; indeed, they are better read as a suggestive contribution to that dialogue than as a definitive study of the Book of Cerne. Close analysis of manuscripts is by its very nature not conducive to highly readable discussion. Nevertheless, Brown’s work could be more readable than it is. At times this reader felt she was looking at the author’s note cards. The book carries the strong flavor of its origin as the author’s dissertation. Its subtitle, Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England, could mislead a reader into thinking that the book has broader interests; perhaps “The Study of A Devotional Manuscript” would be more accurate. The reader who is looking for insight into the mind of a ninth-century author is, however, provided useful raw materials–particularly if Brown’s book is read together with the older edition of Cerne’s contents. There is much intriguing and valuable information collected here, but the appeal of The Book of Cerne is to a very specialized audience.

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