An eleventh-century prayer-book for women? The origins and history of the galba prayer-book

Julia Crick*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


London, BL, Cotton Galba A. xiv, a small, charred, poorly written, and imperfectly reconstructed manuscript, attests a central but sparsely documented element of pre-Conquest religious life: private devotions. While gospel-books from the period survive in quantity, and many manuscripts contain individual prayers, prayer-books themselves are a relative rarity. Only six are known, four dating from c. 800 and two, including Galba, from the last generations before the Norman conquest. If this meagre total reflects not just a high rate of obsolescence but, as has been suggested, a low level of production, then special significance may attach to the fact that five of the six bear signs of female ownership or use. The Galba prayer-book is an enigmatic manuscript by any reckoning. It is a remarkably un-calligraphic production by multiple scribes, and yet its contents link it to a high-status centre of production: Winchester. It contains prayers in English and Latin for an audience of men and, apparently, women, but the institutional context in which it was produced and used remains elusive. Ker noted four prayers scattered through the volume bearing feminine singular endings, evidence that he interpreted as the adaptation of the volume ‘for the use of a female member of a religious house’. A fifth prayer names female as well as male supplicants (pro fratribus et sororibus nostris), and a sixth shows adaptation to female use: the scribe copied feminine endings interlineally above the masculine endings of the main text. Michelle Brown and Barbara Raw have both cast the Anglo-Saxon private prayer-book as a particularly female genre, but the genesis of the surviving examples requires close consideration. In Neil Ker’s highly influential opinion, Galba A. xiv was originally compiled not as a women’s book but for male use and only subsequently received additions adapting it to a female audience. Bernard Muir has preferred to interpret its contents as those of a book produced ‘for a religious institution which seems to have housed both men and women’. Various scholars have proposed different male or female institutions in which the book might have been written. The Nunnaminster at Winchester has most frequently been cited as place of origin, adaptation or both, but Galba and its sister volume London, BL, Cotton Nero A. ii (fols. 3-13), have been associated with Truro, Exeter, West Wessex, St Germans, Sherborne, Leominster and, most recently, Shaftesbury.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWriting, Kingship and Power in Anglo-Saxon England
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781316676066
ISBN (Print)9781107160972
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


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