There are some features of the text that give us some cause to ponder the nature of literacy in 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, even within the confines of the educated church. The uncial script is very elegant, formal and carefully formed, mostly. Unlike the earlier form of continuous script, the words are separated, but the spacing can be a bit eccentric at times. There are also numerous corrections, some of which look rather messy. There seem to be four such corrections in the first two lines, two of which involve inserting untidy superscript letters and two of which involve trying to squash extra letters into the right margin. One of these has evidently been chopped through, presumably at some time when the book was trimmed for rebinding. While the production of such a work would have been a matter of great significance, writers from the early days of the church have intimated that the work of copyists was regarded as manual labour, given to monks who were not perhaps the sharpest knives in the drawer rather than to the intellectuals. The copyists may have been toiling away letter by letter, trying to do a beautiful job, but not fully literate in the spelling and grammar of the words they were copying.

The Old English gloss is not a grammatical translation of the Latin text, or so I am led to believe by those who actually know something about Old English. It is a sort of running glossary for the Latin words beneath, to aid understanding. The Psalms were, of course, the basis for the divine office and were chanted by monks day in and day out. They knew them off by heart, but nonetheless, there is an intimation that perhaps they were not all fully fluent in their understanding of Latin. The translation does indicate that the meaning did matter. It was not just a case of formally pronouncing the words.

The Old English gloss is barely legible at this magnification, but you can have a bit of a peep at it by going to the script sample page.

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Vespasian Psalter, 8th century (British Library, CottonVespasian A1 f.53r). All photographs by permission of the British Library. Reproduction of these images is permitted under Creative Commons licence.

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Medieval Writing
Script sample page for uncial script in this example
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