Michelle Brown, professor emerita of medieval manuscript studies at the Institute of English Studies, has always challenged the mainstream thinking that there had been little face-to-face contact between the far West and the Middle East between the fifth century and the crusades in the 12th. But until recently, her publications and presentations have provoked a mixed academic response.
During the past decade, one of my principal research interests has been challenging the traditional historical view that there was little or no direct contact between Britain and Ireland and the Near East between the demise of the western Roman Empire in the late fifth century and the crusades.
Parallelism and secondary or tertiary influences mediated via Iberia and S. Gaul have been advanced to account for anything that suggests otherwise. Yet the evidence from the western end seemed to me to amount to something more tangible and I have been marshalling and assessing clues from manuscripts, artefacts and archaeology.
Papers that I have presented and published have provoked a mixed academic response, from enthusiastic applause to sullen skepticism from those unwilling to adapt their mental mind maps. But earlier this month the media picked up on two facets of my research in this area, and suddenly there’s a lot of interest.
The first was the work I have been doing at the Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai. The rich polyglot manuscript holdings of what I have termed this ‘bridge in the desert’ were thought not to include Latin materials prior to the Crusader presence there. However, I have so far found some 60 books, binder’s fragments and palimpsests which point to a continuous western presence and Latinate book culture there during the early Middle Ages, alongside the Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Slavonic, Georgian and other linguistic groups drawn to the foot of the holy mountain where man encountered God.
Animal skins are at a premium in the middle of this wilderness, and so parchment was often reused many times. The challenges of deciphering the layers of erased script were eased by the application of high-level multi-spectral imaging by the Sinai Palimpsest Project, using technology initially developed in association with NASA and used in the Archimedes Project at the Walters, Baltimore.
My ‘Sinai sandwich’, as I call one manuscript, is the earliest Arabic Gospel book. It was made by a Christian Arabic scribe at the monastery, c.800, using fragments of earlier books, many of which had already been palimpsested a couple of times by hands from sixth-century Italy and eight-century England, with a lower Greek layer from early sixth-century Sinai. The logical conclusion is that these scribes were all working in Sinai before 800. The world was a smaller place than we suspected, even then.
The other press flurry concerned the new excavations at Tintagel in Cornwall, with its legendary associations with the Arthurian tales. I have been working on a recently discovered inscription on slate reused as a sill there, which I (in collaboration with Oliver Padel and using specialist digital images generated by Tom Goskar) have dated to the seventh century. It reads, in Latin, ‘From Titus to the two men, A(lpha) the son/s of Budic TuΔ A’.
The presence of a monogram of Alpha, and perhaps a Greek letter alpha at the end, point to a Christian context, while the mixture on upper and lower-case letters, some Greek. And an affinity to the display script of imposing Gospels such as the Book of Durrow, indicate the presence of a literate Christian high-status household. Other finds include pottery and glassware from sixth to eight-century Asia Minor and Egypt, as well as from neighbouring lands.
Those living at Tintagel were trading far afield and situating themselves upon the world stage, after the global superpower of Rome had collapsed. In 610 the Patriarch of Alexandria had sent famine relief to Cornwall (on the back of two millennia of trading contacts) for Cornish tin had enabled the technological revolution of the prehistoric bronze age and wine and olive oil continued to flow along the ancient seaways linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic seaboard. For Land’s End was then ‘Land’s beginning’.
Then, as now, it is all a matter of perspective and the ability to stand back and look at history and material culture in new ways, as well as with the benefit of new technologies, can open up new dimensions – of continuing social relevance.
Michelle P Brown is professor emerita of medieval manuscript studies, at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is also a visiting professor at UCL.