Hidden inscriptions hint at mystery medieval woman’s identity

Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1

A series of secret drawings and writings possibly added by a mysterious female scribe have been uncovered in a manuscript over 1,200 years old thanks to detective work by a University of Leicester postgraduate student, and cutting-edge imaging technology developed by the ArchiOx (Analysing and Recording Cultural Heritage in Oxford) project at the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. 

Recording the surface of the manuscript’s pages using high-resolution 3D imaging has revealed hidden inscriptions scratched into the parchment itself, including the Old English name ‘Eadburg’.

The drawings and writing could be the work of a high status and highly educated woman from a time when only an elite group of women were able to read or write. 

The discovery was made as part of research by Jessica Hodgkinson, a PhD student at the University of Leicester funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities consortium. While studying an early Insular manuscript in the Bodleian Libraries’ special collections, known as MS Selden Supra 30, she spotted an inscription on one of the pages that appeared to be the name ‘Eadburg’.

While an inscription of an abbreviated form of the name had been found previously, this is the first time the name has been found in full.

State-of-the-art technology, currently in use at Bodleian Libraries, has now not only confirmed this new inscription, but revealed several other instances of Eadburg’s name, alongside many earlier marginal additions, incised into the parchment of MS Selden Supra 30. These include a series of sketches of human figures, one of which has outstretched arms, and is reaching towards another who appears to be holding up a hand to signal them to stop.

The purpose of the writing and drawings is not obvious, but may be a mark of ownership, and are clear evidence of reading and of a reader’s engagement with the manuscript. Very unusually, Eadburg’s name appears no less than 15 times in the manuscript.

Jess Hodgkinson, PhD student in the University of Leicester School of History, Politics and International Relations, said: “Discovering Eadburg's name etched into the margins of MS Selden Supra 30 provides new and exciting evidence of links between women, books, and literate culture in the early medieval period. The cutting-edge technology used by the Bodleian’s ArchiOx project revealed these tiny inscriptions and shows them in far greater detail than would have been previously possible. 

“Very few surviving early medieval manuscripts contain evidence of having been created, owned, or used by a woman. It is possible that Eadburg herself added her name into the margins of MS Selden Supra 30. If so, by making her mark in a book she interacted with and which held meaning for her, she has left a tangible record of her presence that has survived for hundreds of years. I hope my study of the inscriptions will reveal more about who Eadburg was and who added her name to this book and why.”


Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p. 11

To reveal the inscriptions, the manuscript, a Latin copy of the Acts of the Apostles made in southern England sometime between AD700 and AD750, was imaged by John Barrett as part of the ARCHiOx project at the Bodleian Libraries. This uses 2D images to record and store 3D information, and revealed markings that were at best 15-20 microns in depth, equivalent to less than a fifth of the width of a human hair. The technology, developed by the Factum Foundation, is on loan to the Bodleian Libraries as part of a twelve-month partnership project funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The goal of the project is to explore and record previously hidden markings in items from the Bodleian’s special collections. 

John Barrett is Bodleian Libraries’ Senior Photographer and ARCHiOx Technical Lead for the Bodleian. He said:  “During the last ten months, through photometric stereo recording, ARCHiOx has generated many new discoveries from originals in the Bodleian's collections. This is the first time this specific technology has been used to successfully record annotations of this kind. The machine used to make the recording was built by the Factum Foundation, our collaborative partner for ARCHiOx project.  It's called the Selene and it's a prototype - the first of its kind.  Though it's impossible to say with certainty that the principle which this machine uses to generate the recordings, photometric stereo, is not being used elsewhere, the specific hardware and workflow which we use to make 3D recordings for ARCHiOx is unique.  

“As a Senior Photographer and Technical Lead for ARCHiOx at the Bodleian, I have spent the last ten months making 3D recordings of originals from a range of collections within the Library and this discovery has been exciting to behold for all involved. We are continuing our work until our partnership ends next year, and await the many more exciting surprises the collections have in store.”