The Book of St Albans, One of the Finest Medieval Manuscripts, Gets Digitized and Put Online

This past month, on the eve of the June 22nd feast of St Alban, the library of Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin announced that it had dig­i­tized the “13th cen­tu­ry mas­ter­piece” the Book of St Alban, a rich­ly illus­trat­ed man­u­script that “fea­tures 54 indi­vid­ual works of medieval art and has fas­ci­nat­ed read­ers across the cen­turies, from roy­al­ty to renais­sance schol­ars.”

Cre­at­ed by the Bene­dic­tine monk Matthew Paris, the man­u­script “chron­i­cles the life of St Alban,” notes The Irish Times, “and also out­lines the con­struc­tion of St Alban’s Cathe­dral in Hert­ford­shire.” The text and illus­tra­tions explain the ori­gins of a cult of St. Alban, the first Eng­lish mar­tyr, that began to spring up after his 4th cen­tu­ry death.

Accord­ing to the Ven­er­a­ble Bede, the Eng­lish monk who wrote the Eccle­si­as­ti­cal His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Peo­ple, the mar­tyr­dom of Alban involved a few mirac­u­lous events. Sen­tenced to die for his refusal to renounce Chris­tian­i­ty, Alban sup­pos­ed­ly peti­tioned God to dry up the Riv­er Ver so he could more quick­ly reach the place of his exe­cu­tion.

This mir­a­cle caused Alban’s Roman exe­cu­tion­er to fall to his feet, spon­ta­neous­ly con­vert, and refuse to kill the saint. A sec­ond exe­cu­tion­er stepped in to behead them both, where­upon this man’s eyes popped out of his head. “He who gave the wicked stroke,” writes Bede, “was not per­mit­ted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground togeth­er with the blessed mar­tyr’s head.”

In the illus­tra­tion of this gris­ly sto­ry (top) from the man­u­script, we see the exe­cu­tion­er hold­ing his eyes in his hand, and Alban’s head appears to have been caught by the hair on a tree branch above. Anoth­er illus­tra­tion, fur­ther up, shows a char­ac­ter named Her­a­clius mak­ing off with Alban’s head.

In a lat­er leg­end, Alban’s head rolled to the bot­tom of Holy­well Hill, and a well sprang from where it came to rest. On the sup­posed site of Alban’s exe­cu­tion now stands St Albans Cathe­dral, once St Albans Abbey, where the Book of St Albans remained for 300 years until Hen­ry VIII dis­solved Britain’s monas­ter­ies in 1539.

The book is writ­ten in both Latin and Anglo-Nor­man French, “which made it acces­si­ble to a wider sec­u­lar audi­ence includ­ing edu­cat­ed noble women,” Trin­i­ty Col­lege’s Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn writes. “It was bor­rowed by noble ladies of the peri­od, includ­ing the King’s sis­ter-in-law Count­ess of Corn­wall, Sanchia of Provence, and oth­ers.”

The man­u­script even­tu­al­ly made its way to Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin in 1661, where it has remained ever since, and where its “most­ly framed nar­ra­tive scenes” have been admired by a select few. Now every­one can access the book and its illus­tra­tions, made with a “tint­ed draw­ing tech­nique,” Lochlainn notes, “where out­lined draw­ings are high­light­ed with col­ored wash­es from a lim­it­ed palette. This tech­nique was dis­tinct­ly Eng­lish, dat­ing back to the Anglo Sax­on art of the 10th cen­tu­ry.”

See all the gris­ly details of this fas­ci­nat­ing arti­fact at Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin’s Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tions, and learn more about the man­u­script in the video just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

The Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts of Medieval Europe: A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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