A hidden gem: Bede’s De Arte Metrica





Photograph taken by Worcester Archives Service on behalf of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Mention a manuscript to someone, and they are likely to think about scrolls, charters or perhaps elaborate bound illuminated manuscripts. Sometimes, however, manuscripts are less eyecatching, even if they are equally fascinating in content. The Cathedral has a wonderful example of this in a simply bound manuscript by Bede and others, which has been dated to the 10th century. The binding is plain tawed skin (tawed refers to a particular treatment of leather or skin to create a texture and colour as seen in the picture above) rather than glossy or stamped leather, yet it contains one of the Cathedral’s most unique items.

While Anglo Saxon Bede is perhaps best known for his Ecclesiastical History, he was in fact a scholar in many other areas, too. De Arte Metrica focuses on grammar and meter and was originally written by Bede in the 8th century, though the Cathedral’s copy was written out in the 10th. As a piece of bibliographical history, the Cathedral’s copy is quite special. Bound with several other manuscripts about grammar, including Bede’s De Schematibus et Tropis and several unattributed samples of verse and other guides to meter, its binding also dates from the 10th century. There is evidence of later repair, and it seems likely this is due to some severe water damage sustained by the volume – the parchment in the latter half is heavily stained and has been repaired by a skilled conservator. It is unusual for a manuscript of this age still to be in an original binding, though, revealing the good care of the Cathedral monks and librarians throughout the centuries. The volume is believed to have been in the Cathedral Library since the 13th century at the very latest (though it is likely to have been earlier), and bears the rather handsome 1530 Worcester ownership plate on the front cover. While it’s easy to think of this as a work by Bede, it is notable that the spine makes no reference to him and is simply labelled Grammatica. It is common for bound manuscripts to have a general title, or occasionally no title at all, on the spine. Binding would have been expensive, and it was important to be cost effective by including several pieces in one volume.



Photograph taken by Worcester Archives Service on behalf of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Like Bede’s Ecclesiastica, De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus are not necessarily original works, but rather collations of material already in existence. Scholars have identified at least 17 sources for De Arte Metrica, many quoted verbatim. However, De Arte Metrica did contribute something new to English knowledge of grammar and verse. Most existing work at the time would have focused on ars grammatica, or pure grammar, and omitted references to verse. Bede’s went through his library to identify which content was relevant to his more particular interest in meter and verse for this work. While he does include some information about the basics of grammar, including his assertion that the alphabet has 21 letters (some other scholars of the time suggested there were 17 or 23), the focus is generally on the language of poetry, focusing in particular on elements of poetry like meter and syllabification, as well as spelling. De Schematibus et Tropis is generally viewed as the first English work about rhetoric, and therefore these two manuscripts together give insight into Bede’s views on the power of language.



Photograph taken by Worcester Archives Service on behalf of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


One of the other interesting manuscripts within this volume is the table of verse forms, not attributed, though written by the same hand who copied out Bede. This page starts with the still familiar iamb, but includes other lesser known forms, such as the amphimachrus, which appears to have 6 divisions (perhaps pairs?). Each line also includes a visual depiction of the stressed/unstressed syllables – a handy guide to medieval Latin verse patterns. These symbols bear resemblance to those written above music at the time.



Photograph taken by Worcester Archives Service on behalf of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


It is no surprise to find this particular work of Bede in a former monastic library like Worcester Cathedral’s. Monasteries were closely linked to education in both the Anglo Saxon and the medieval time periods, and that would have included a variety of topics (as you can see from the range of subjects on the Cathedral blog). The Carolingian period when the manuscript was written is also particularly well known for its scholars, and as a monk himself, Bede would have been a crucial source for any thinkers of that era. If Worcester did indeed have this book before the 13th century, it may even have been a reference book for the Tremulous Hand of Worcester while he was busy glossing manuscripts. He did, after all, gloss several other works by Bede while they were still in Worcester.

Jennifer Dumbelton



Deanesly, M. (1951) A History of the Medieval Church 590-1500. London: Methuen.

Murphy, J. (1981) Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. California: University of California Press.

Palmer, R.B. (1959) “Bede as textbook writer: a study of his De Arte Metrica.” Speculum 34(4), pp. 573-584.


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