Rochester Cathedral. This image has been released by the copyright holder into the public domain.
This Wednesday I will be travelling to Rochester Cathedral to give a public talk about the cathedral's greatest treasure, the twelfth-century manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis.
It is without doubt one of the most important English cultural and historical treasures, and yet probably if you asked the general public to describe it, you would be met with blank faces and "never heard of it".
What makes it so important? What exactly makes it a treasure?
If I were to point to just one thing, it would be that the Textus Roffensis symbolizes Englishness.
This is most clearly apparent when you open the codex to its first document:
'These are the judgements which King Æthelberht set down in Augustine's day' states the title.
So excited was the antiquarian William Lambarde when he first read this in 1573 that he got his pen out and wrote a message in the margin of the manuscript:
'Place a high value on this book whoever you may be who come upon it!'
Lambarde knew what he was talking about, even if he was a bit free with his pen.
He was actually an expert on ancient English laws, having published a collection of Anglo-Saxon laws five years earlier, and yet he must have assumed Æthelberht's law was lost forever.
He'd certainly read about it in the famous eighth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, written by Bede, but he'd never clapped his eyes on it.
You can almost feel his excitement when he wrote:
'These are the very laws that Bede reports were still around in his time! But I'm not aware that another copy of them is in existence anywhere!'
He was right. The Textus Roffensis does indeed contain the only surviving copy of the oldest English law, written in English (not Latin, which came to dominate legal writings after the Norman Conquest), and written more than 1400 years ago!
We might say, then, that the Textus Roffensis represents the conception of Englishness.
There is so much more to say about this remarkable book. This post is really just a taster.
And the really great thing is that we will all soon be able to re-live William Lambarde's experience of turning the pages of the Textus Roffensis.
On Wednesday, Rochester Cathedral will launch the digital 'turn-the-pages' facsimile of the codex, and to celebrate it I've been asked to give a public talk on this amazing treasure of Englishness.
My talk on Wednesday is being filmed so I will in due course be providing a link to the film.
You've heard of the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book. But the Textus Roffensis?
If you asked the general public, they'd probably say "never heard of it".
So excited was Lambarde at what he'd discovered, that he took his pen and wrote a message in the margin of the manuscript!
The oldest English law, written in English, not Latin, and written more than 1400 years ago!
The Textus Roffensis represents the conception of Englishness.
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