The University of Exeter and Exeter Cathedral celebrate another development in their long-standing collaborative relationship with the launch of a new website illustrating and explaining the digital images of the Exeter Book and presenting, for the first time, this treasure of Anglo-Saxon literature in its entirety in high resolution.
Academics at the University of Exeter have collaborated with Exeter Cathedral on a variety of projects designed to uncover histories, preserve artefacts and encourage local projects. The project to digitise the Exeter Book, which has been undertaken by the University’s Digital Humanities Lab over many months, has now come to fruition and images can now be viewed with incredible clarity on a new website.
Exeter Cathedral was founded in 1050 and the construction of a Cathedral on the present site began in 1114. It holds several famous historical documents, including The Eliot Indian Bible (1661-63), Shakespeare’s Second Folio (1632) and The Foundation Charter (1050). The Exeter Book is a tenth-century anthology of poetry in Old English and is of major importance to Exeter Cathedral, the Cathedral Library and English literature itself. In 2016, UNESCO added the Exeter Book to its ‘Memory of the World Register’ of artefacts of global cultural significance.
The Exeter Book is one of only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry and has a strong claim to be the oldest surviving book of English poetry in the world. The Book has been in Exeter since at least the 11th century, being donated to the Cathedral by Bishop Leofric on his death in 1072. Its riddles are virtually all those which survive in Old English and provided inspiration for many works of art and literature over the centuries, including current displays in Exeter’s High Street.
The ancient text comprises 123 written leaves, which readers can view in exceptionally high resolution. Close up images will show how the ancient book was made from animal skins, written on by hand in the Old English language of the Anglo Saxons. It was later decorated with dry –point images in a few places, previously difficult to see without modern digital photography techniques. Over the centuries it has suffered damage from use as a cutting board and showed a ringed mark from a glue pot, as well as scorching, all of which can be seen in the photography.
The website presents clear images of each and every page, and highlights specific details of the dry points, which are not easily seen with the naked eye, but reveal intriguing detail, unrelated to the text itself. The project has enabled the ancient stories and riddles to be read and studied as clearly as a modern book, though in a less familiar language.
The launch of the new website took place over a Zoom meeting with colleagues from the University and Cathedral on the 5th of July 2021. The meeting included PVC Professor Neil Gow, the Very Reverend Jonathan Greener (the Dean of the Cathedral) Professor James Clark and Ann Barwood (the Canon Librarian), Gary Stringer (Manager of the Digital Humanities Lab) and Nicola Nuttall (Heritage Innovation Lead for the University of Exeter). The collaboration follows several previous projects, including the series ‘On Common Ground,’ which involved University-hosted talks on science and faith. The University and the Cathedral have, in addition, worked previously on specific areas of research development and student work-based opportunities.
To read The Times’ article about the launch of the Exeter Book, see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/anglo-saxon-scribblers-made-their-mark-on-the-exeter-book-8xjrs6fjj.
To view Exeter Cathedral’s other digitised texts see: https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/history-heritage/virtual-books/. To find out more about the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities, see: https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/research/digital/ and for more information about the Exeter Cathedral, see: https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk.