The first mention of St Austell, ca. 900 AD, in a Vatican manuscript

In the Vatican there is a Latin manuscript, shelfmark Vatican Reginensis Latinus 191, which contains a collection of texts assembled for the church in Reims in northern France.  The manuscript is online, and may be found here.

At some point before the 12th century, the manuscript was given some parchment guard-leaves on either end.  These are not blank.  They were taken from another volume and turned upside down to avoid distraction.  The pages contain part of ps.Seneca, De Moribus, followed by the notice of Jerome on Seneca from De viris illustribus.

Jerome finishes part way down what is now folio iir.  Then on the same line there is a list of 48 names, written in an larger insular book hand, and carrying on over the page.

Here is the first page, turned back the right way:

Vatican Reg. Lat. 191, f. iir.

And here is the verso:

Vatican reg. lat. 191, folio ii, verso.

On the verso, at the start of line 2, are two names: Austoll and Megunn.

A list of names is inscrutable, and the reader may well ask what he is looking at.

In a brilliant article in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies,[1] B. L. Olson and O. J. Padel analyse the list and come out with some fascinating conclusions.

They show that these names are all in Old Cornish.  Of the 48, 21 are most certainly the patron saints of modern Cornish parishes.  St Just, for instance, is there.  Other names are very obscure, and it is possible that the parish patron saint has simply changed since to one better known.

Even more interestingly, they print a map of Cornwall, showing the location of each church.  This shows that the parishes cluster together.

These cannot be coincidences.  They conclude from this that this is a list of Cornish parishes, written down for some unknown purpose shortly after 900 AD, either in Cornwall or in Brittany.  As such this is testimony to the existence of some sort of parish system at this date, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a century before the Norman conquest.

Austoll is of course St Austell (see this previous post).  This scrap of waste parchment is the earliest mention of the saint; but since this is a list of parish saints, this is also the earliest witness to the church and village of St Austell.

The name “Megunn” is undoubtedly Megwin, i.e. St Mewan, or S. Méén, so important in Brittany.  There is still a village of St Mewan near St Austell, and we learn from the medieval life of St Mewan that St Austell was a deacon who was the disciple of St Mewan.  The two stand together in the list, as on the ground.

There is almost nothing left of Old Cornish, or so the authors tell us.  The history of the land has perished.  Cornwall began to be assimilated into English even before the conquest.

So this is a precious peek into a land which became Christian in the Roman or sub-Roman period, but about which nothing is really now known.  Thus it is only from archaeology that we know of Byzantine ships visiting north Cornwall during this period, off-loading  goods from far away, and doubtless taking on a cargo of tin.  What did the sophisticated Greek merchants see, on the hills above the landing, in this rude land?  Simple churches dedicated to Celtic saints, it would seem.

  1. [1]B. Lynette Olson & O. J. Padel, “A tenth-century list of Cornish parochial saints”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 12 (1986), 33-72, with plates.

A portrait of Constantius II from 354, via two intermediaries

As manuscripts of the Vatican come online, it becomes possible to look at items previously known to us only from poor-quality photographs.  This is a good thing.

Years ago I made an online edition of the Chronography of 354, an illustrated luxury manuscript made for a Roman aristocrat in 354 AD, and transmitted to us by copies.  The pictures exist in various versions, mostly derived from a Carolingian copy now lost.  The best set, in monochrome, are preserved in Vatican Ms. Barberini lat.2154 B.  Sadly the full colours of the ancient original are not preserved; but the renaissance artist did his best to copy the Carolingian original.

Here’s one of the illustrations, on folio 13, depicting Constantius II, in the uncharacteristic pose of money falling from his hand.  Somehow one suspects that this charmless man did look rather like this.  (It is a pity that, as with other Italian stuff put online, the image is defaced with a watermark screaming “mine! mine! mine!!”)

Let’s not shout at the Vatican library for digitising microfilms

The Vatican library digitisation has made a bit of a left turn lately, and I’ve certainly complained about it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Instead of the high quality brand new full colour photographs, they’ve started to digitise vast numbers of rather rubbish quality microfilms.

Today a correspondent from the library gently took me to task for this, and I admit that I accept the reproof.

It’s easy for us to forget that the Vatican state has no tax base.  The whole enterprise relies upon the generosity of people who do not live there.  We are accustomed to thinking of the mighty Roman Catholic Church as a rich institution, and so it is; but mostly in things like the roof of the Sistine chapel, which are actually a responsibility and a drain on resources, rather than a source of profit.

Among this, the digitisation of the Vatican manuscripts is a mighty expense.  It has been paid for by donations, notably from the Polonsky Foundation, to whom the world now owes a huge debt.  But the digitisation can only go forward with the support of donations.

What the Vatican library has chosen to do, in the meantime, is to make as much of its manuscript collection available as possible.  They may not be able to afford to rephotograph everything just yet.  But they can afford to scan the microfilms, for which they used to charge a pretty sum – so they are being generous here – and make these available online for free to us all.

To their credit, this is what they have chosen to do.  I think we should applaud, not criticise.  Would that other libraries, like the British Library, or the Bodleian, would do the same.  It does give us some access to the manuscripts right now.

Well done, the Vatican Library.  They have lost a revenue stream, in order to benefit us all.  We should be grateful.

If you, reading this, are a wealthy man, please consider whether you could do anything so easily beneficial to scholarship as to sponsor the digitisation of the Vatican library.  If you are an ordinary mortal, like myself, please consider donating at the link here.