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Woman scribbled her name and sketches 1,200 years ago in a medieval manuscript. She was just like us

'It’s a hugely significant and very powerful text – the word of God conveyed through the apostles.'

Woman scribbled her name and sketches 1,200 years ago in a medieval manuscript. She was just like us
Cover Image Source: Instagram / Bodleian Libraries

Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 11, 2022. It has since been updated.

A woman's name has been found scrawled across the pages of a 1,200-year-old holy manuscript, providing new information on the role women played in medieval book culture. The discovery was uncovered by University of Leicester historian Jessica Hodgkinson while she was studying an eighth-century text. Hodgkinson and colleagues discovered the word "Eadburg" 15 times throughout the pages of the MS Selden Supra 30, a Latin translation of the Acts of the Apostles, using specialized 3-D photography and digital imaging techniques. They also discovered a number of enigmatic, human-like figures scrawled all over the paper. One figure has hands and arms, while two others appear to have mouths, eyes, and noses, according to Smithsonian Magazine.



"These are not random doodles,” Hodgkinson tells BBC News’ Dan Martin. “They are deliberate interactions with the text.” The meaning of the name and the markings is unknown to researchers. However, they imply that the work was being read and discussed. Readers have occasionally doodled and signed their names on the pages of books they have owned or studied throughout history. At a time when relatively few women could read and write, the name Eadburg may therefore indicate that someone by that name either owned or read the text.



Nine ladies with the name Eadburg who lived in England between the seventh and tenth centuries were discovered by scholars trying to identify the Eadburg. Given that one particular Eadburg—the abbess of Minster-in-Thanet—likely had access to religious literature, they speculate that the name may allude to an abbess who lived in Kent around the eighth century. According to an editorial in the Guardian, this Eadburg taught Leoba, the abbess of Bischofsheim, how to read. “Nunneries closed women off from the world, yet paradoxically gave them the possibility of independent intellectual lives,” as per the Guardian. “The presence of Eadburg’s name in the Acts of the Apostles brings those lives a little closer to the light.” 



This hypothesis also fits with what has been discovered by experts regarding the manuscript's historical settings. They speculate that the text was written in Kent by an unidentified author between the years 700 and 750 and that it was afterward moved to St. Augustine's monastery in nearby Canterbury. Hodgkinson claims that with more investigation, she hopes to identify Eadburg and discover more about her. In a statement from the University of Leicester, Hodgkinson remarked that it is probable that Eadburg inserted her name herself to MS Selden Supra 30's margins. If true, she left a physical record of her presence that has endured for hundreds of years by leaving her mark in a book she interacted with and that had significance for her.



Using a technique called the photometric stereo process, the researchers were able to examine 2-D photos for 3-D data, such as the height of the paper's surface.  According to the University of Leicester, the MS Selden Supra 30 technique revealed markings that were 15 to 20 microns deep, or "less than a fifth of the width of a human hair". Researchers concluded as a result of a shortage of ink, the inscriptions most likely employed a drypoint knife or a stylus. However, Hodgkinson says that the discovery is an example of the "human urge to leave a mark of your presence on anything that is meaningful to you or is a record of where you've been." She concluded by adding that, “We don’t know all that much about Eadburg, but now, because of this amazing technology, we’ve seen her name, we know she was there,” she adds. “She’s here, in this book—and it speaks across the centuries.”

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