Patterns and poetry: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11

Figure 1: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 225: rosette, quatrefoil and acanthus imagery. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford (CC-BY-NC 4.0)

Towards the end of a manuscript of illustrated Old English poetry once thought to contain works attributable to the illiterate Northumbrian labourer and eventual famed Christian songmaker, Cædmon, there is an unfinished line drawing of geometric shape, a pattern of diamond and rosette-like repetitions (see Figure 1). It was designed to be symmetrical, its top a reflection of its bottom, its left of its right. Yet it remains incomplete. [1]

Why this sits at the bottom half of page 225 of this codex known as ‘Junius 11’ (after its first editor, Franciscus Junius, 1591-1677) is difficult to ascertain. But the shape itself, for as long as I’ve examined its quatrefoils or its seemingly missing – or not yet filled-in – tessellations, has for me become representative of the overall arrangement of poetic works we see within this old book. As the interlace patterning on surviving early medieval treasures has often offered a visual analogue for Old English verbal art, so too this rosette pattern also has me thinking about poetry.

For one thing, this flowering shape, with its empty segments, evokes the gaps and interruptions that recur in my readings of MS Junius 11. It reminds me that I have no doubt missed things in my literary excavations, that I should return and see what other connections between its different, but related, parts might be found. Yet, I also see how the overlaps and symmetry within the rosette evoke visually the way parts of this manuscript might reflect and speak to others, the way the messages or concerns of one poem might be reiterated – even enforced or reflected – by another.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11 (to give it its full shelf-mark), put together over a length of time from the late-tenth to early-eleventh centuries, is one of the four major manuscripts of Old English poetry (this group also includes ‘the Exeter Book’, ‘the Beowulf manuscript’ and ‘the Vercelli Book’). Junius 11 is the only one of these codices with an extensive programme of what are inventive and astounding illustrations for Old English poetry. It is unique amongst these collections in another way, too: its poems, untitled in the manuscript but known as Genesis A, Genesis B, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan (drawing on and expanding as they do on biblical and apocryphal subject matter), are arranged to resemble the course of history, from the war in heaven to the Last Days. And Junius 11 does this history on an epic scale, in the dramatic tenor and artful ingenuity of early medieval verse.

Although the poetry in Junius 11 was arranged to resemble the great cycle of salvation history, the more acquainted one becomes with the manuscript the more it reveals alternative pathways through it, as well as disruptions: there are gaps and blank pages in Junius 11 where illustrations were planned but never committed to parchment. In poetry and pictures the story of the fall of the angels is told several times and the manuscript ‘narrative’ often flashes back and forward through the ages. It is a book in which much space is given to accounts of the falls and failures of those in positions of great power, but also one that tempts us to read it as a collaborative creative project that never reached the heights of its own ambitions: there are signs that the production of the manuscript stalled and paused (the final poem, Christ and Satan, was added at least some decades after the other material, and written out by several scribes different to those who worked on the other sections of the codex).

When putting together my own book, MS Junius 11 and its Poetry, I was aware of the inevitability that I would fall repeatedly in my attempt to unlock all the manuscript’s mysteries. I was also struck by the way this compilation of early medieval English verse seemed to be working like Old English poetry itself does, but on a grand scale. Features employed with such skill in Old English poetry, like apposition or variation, were taking place not only across individual works of verse, but across the manuscript. The codex also seemed to be offering up its wisdom in and through those moments where I found myself adjusting to or acknowledging verbal and poetic echoes across its folios.

Figure 2: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 7: creator above circles of creation. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford (CC-BY-NC 4.0)

Poetry and illumination speak to each other too, of course. Something like the account of the creator shaping the universe in the manuscript’s first poem, Genesis A, which sits close by an illumination of God above linked circles containing different days of the worldly creation (on page 7, Figure 2) allows text and image to combine as part of a multidimensional and bidirectional reading process. But this scene also combines with and echoes within the beginning of the last poem in Junius 11, Christ and Satan, thousands of manuscript lines (and hundreds of pages) later. That last poem in this old book tells us how Christ ‘deopne ymblyt clene ymbhaldeð’ [completely encompasses the deep circuit, l.7] of all time and space, and how he was present at creation. This nudges us to circle back to the early pages of the manuscript and see how much more of Christ might be detectable in that account from Genesis A about the coming into being of all things. Such a process of re-reading, or looking back and forth, would also allow us to re-view (and review!) the work of the scribe who wrote ‘salvator’ [saviour] inside the mandorla image of God the creator by that Genesis account on p. 7.[2] In this instance, those who added the poetry of Christ and Satan to Junius 11 might well have looked to encourage a re-reading that deepened and re-ignited parts of the manuscript worked on at an earlier date.

To return to that mysterious drawing on page 225, which is duplicated once again on the front cover of my book, I am thinking once more of how the Old English poems in Junius 11 work as part of an arrangement set in motion by communities of bookmakers possibly spurred on by the inspiration and creative energy drawn from the poems themselves.[3] Junius 11 leaves us with a version of salvation history remade in vernacular poetry, but it is also a compilation of individual, intricate poems that work together to generate an array of large-scale and powerful impressions that repeatedly remind us of the layered, patterned and many-petalled shape of creation to which the surviving manuscript itself pays homage.

This guest blog piece was written by Carl Kears, Lecturer in Medieval Literature at King’s College London.

MS Junius 11 and its Poetry
by Carl Kears
9781914049132, hardcover, £65/$99
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[1] On the back of the 10th century ‘Ælfric Seal’ (so-called because it shows on the front a man with a sword and cloak in profile named Ælfric) – a seal matrix found by worker cutting away a bank on the side of the road from Winchester to Stockbridge, about three-quarters of a mile from Winchester, in 1832 – there’s one Winchester style acanthus motif that is very similar to the filled-in one we see on p. 225 of Junius 11. See

[2] On the topic of going round in circles, it is worth noting here that the scribe seems to have written ‘ybmlyt’ instead of ‘ymblyt’ (the latter being derived from OE ymbliðian (‘to surround’, ‘to encircle’).

[3] I might not be the only one to see the drawing as representative of Junius 11’s design. On the front cover of Israel Gollancz’s 1927 facsimile of the manuscript (he called it The Cædmon Manuscript of Anglo-Saxon Biblical Poetry), there is a version of the shape, but it is all filled in. Likewise, on the cover of R. E. Finnegan’s edition of Christ and Satan: A Critical Edition (1977), we see the same thing! Did the two editors desire some kind of unity or completeness?

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