Posted by: anna | September 4, 2010

St Ethelgitha

Today (22 August) we commemorate St. Ethelgitha of Northumbria, abbess (ca. 720), who was the abbess of a Benedictine monastery in Northumbria. I can’t even discover which abbey. [celt-saints]

So here are a few pictures of nuns and abbesses from manuscripts in the British Library:

London, BL MS Egerton 233, a psalter and other prayers adapted to the Use of Ely with East Anglian saints inserted inthe calendar.  Made in the mid 13th cntury, perhaps at Norwich. Here, a nun at prayer, illustrating the beginning of Psalm 101 (Domine exaudi oracionem meam, O Lord hear my prayer). The wavy clouds at top right of the D are worth noting – they indicate the division between earth and heaven. Sometimes they look more like clouds and sometimes more like waves – perhaps denoting the ‘wates below the heavens’? – but they are almost always there, and are a visual shorthand for the presence of the divine in human life, or the contact between the two… while delineating a difference and division between them at the same time. More about that one day…

London, BL MS Egerton 945 f. 237v Christ displaying the wound in his side to a nun in prayer, historiating the initial D of the Hours of the Passion (Domine labia mea aperies, O Lord open thou my lips). This prayer book may well have belonged to a nun, and was made in southern France between 1275 and 1300. It’s written in both Latin and French, not unusual for even professed religious women’s devotional books (because their Latin education was often rudimentary), and uses both Norman and Provencal variants of French, which is interesting.

Lond, MS Royal 2 B VII f. 219v Bas-de-page scene of a kneeling nun being blessed by an abbess. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of my favourites (so far) – it’s unusual in that most of its very profuse illustrations are tinted drawings like this rather than painted miniatures, though it has a good few of those as well. The drawing is very delicate and the image above is at least twice actual size. There are lots of knights hunting snails – more about this subject in another post…

London, BL MS Royal 10 E IV f. 182 The Smithfield Decretals, Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria (medieval canon law with commentary). This copy made in France in the last quarter of the 13th or 1st of the 14th century. Detail of a bas-de-page scene of an angel speaking to a nun. The illustrations in the Smithfield Decretals are amazing – medieval canon law is often far from dull anyway, not to say lurid, and the illuminations certainly liven things up – full of weird grotesques and absurdities as well as images relating to the text. Dr Alixe Bovey, whose research area is seriously fun, and what I would want to do if I were an art historian, is currently working on a book about the SDs – the imagery, not the canon law (I expect).

London, BL MS Royal 6 E VI f. 27 Only copy of Omne Bonum, an (incomplete) encyclopedia compiled by James Palmer in in the 3rd quarter of the 14th century and illustrated by AN Other. This is the illustration for (guess what) Abbatissa.
St Ethelgitha and all our holy mothers among the saints, pray to God for us.


  1. According to An abridged history of England: from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the … By Oliver Goldsmith, William Pinnock, St. Ethelgitha was the Abbess of Shaftesbury.

  2. An Ethelgitha, daughter of Alfred the Great – they don't call her saint, though to be fair founding abbesses from that period often do end up as saints. That makes her a century too late and at the wrong end of the country to be an 8th century Northumbrian abbess. And they don't cite any sources (so much for popular abridged histories) – then again neither do the Orthodox calendars I'm using, and they are occasionally provably mistaken or confused. So there we are – probably two Ethelgithas. Neither, as far as I can discover given its rather intolerant view of spelling variants, is in Acta Sanctorum.

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