‘If I had to save one historical document from the whole of English history, it would not be Magna Carta – or even Domesday Book- but Textus Roffensis.’
In this 800th anniversary year of the signing of the Magna Carta, Michael Wood, historian and broadcaster, reflects that while the Magna Carta is undeniably important there is an even older manuscript which is the true foundational document of English law and one of our greatest national treasures. The Textus Roffensis or ‘Book of Rochester’ was written at Rochester Cathedral in Old English and Latin almost one hundred years before the Magna Carta in 1122-24. More importantly, some of the laws that it records stem back a further four centuries to the year 600, from the first Christian kingdom in Kent.
In a new article written for Rochester Cathedral, Wood explores some of the Textus Roffensis’ eclectic collection of laws which range from the softening of the death penalty in order that those under 15 were no longer eligible, to rules applicable to the king, which Wood feels to be the ‘root of our Parliament’. The laws also include a series of compensation tariffs for third person injuries whereby a front tooth is worth six shillings and a thumb is worth twenty.
Wood’s exploration of this extraordinary book comes as the first instalment of Rochester Cathedral’s new initiative, Leafing through the Library. Starting with the Textus Roffensis on 1st March 2015, the cathedral’s manuscripts and early printed books will be shared and investigated online bi-monthly. Digital images from Rochester cathedral’s library will be accompanied by articles examining the content, context and significance of a wide variety of books. Leafing through the Library’s initiator and editor, Dr Jayne Wackett, University of Kent, explains,
‘This new venture means that access to some wonderful hidden gems is made easier for absolutely everybody. The collection has some fascinating works and we want to open out an awareness of the historical significance of these books and to offer ideas and explanations of the symbolism and meaning of their images and text.’
Wackett’s enthusiasm for the library’s collection is certainly shared by Wood in this first article. He explains how, ‘Sometimes working on medieval manuscripts you have an electric moment staring at a battered page, with its stains and burns and worm holes, when your eye alights on some detail … for a moment, the barrier of the intervening centuries seems to fall away.’ Since 2014 a complete digital copy of the Textus Roffensis, created by the University of Manchester, has been available to view online at the University of Manchester Library’s Image Collections. So, it is possible to view the stains and wormholes, with zoom facility, for ourselves.
Other books to feature in the Leafing through the Library commentaries will be, amongst others, Henry VIII’s Great Bible, one of only thirty-five copies of the 1662 Sealed Book of Common Prayer, a 1744 navigation atlas and Isaac Newton’s observations.
Rochester’s Acting Dean, Canon Philip Hesketh, welcomes the project as being very much in tune with the cathedral’s Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Hidden Treasures, Fresh Expressions’ which will culminate in a permanent exhibition at Rochester of the cathedral’s artefacts, including the Textus Roffensis.