The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch

The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch

An 11th Century Tome Survives

The Old English Hexateuch refers to early scholars’ translation from Latin of the Old Testament’s first six chapters. That’s Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. It’s filled with color illustrations of unknown origin, but that are attributed to at least one or more skilled artists of the time. A second book also exists that includes the Book of Judges. It’s referred to as the Old English Heptateuch.

The Hexateuch (meaning “six” books) was also probably written by numerous scribes working together and contains approximately 400 illustrations. It is perhaps the earliest surviving Biblical translation into Anglo-Saxon text. A noted Benedictine monk of the time, Aelfric of Eynsham, wrote the preface, with a note that it would be foolish to take the Bible literally, but rather look for its spiritual intent.

Experts don’t know who commissioned this work, but it was obviously meant to convert complicated text into words that the layperson could understand. At that time, very few average people were educated - especially in translating Latin, so the inclusion of drawings was perhaps meant to convey messages for those who couldn’t read. Many of the illustrations, although quite detailed, are unfinished, and there are even blank spaces clearly meant for additional drawings. Missed deadlines are nothing new.

Some also believe that the original works were created in Canterbury and remained there at St. Augustine’s Abbey. Around the 17th century, Sir Robert Cotton acquired the works for his personal library, later donating his collection to Britain.

It’s quite an amazing work that highlights the talented collaborations of writers, one or more illustrators, and book-makers, which includes the layout. What a treat it would be to have participated in a project like that - but with all of today’s technologies.

Illustration: Tower of Babel, public domain, British Library