Woman’s Name and Doodles Found Hidden in 1,200-Year-Old Religious Manuscript

The name may point to an abbess who lived in Kent at a time when few women could read or write

MS Selden Supra 30 manuscript
Researchers made the find while studying the MS Selden Supra 30, a version of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles written in Latin. Courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford

Historians have discovered a woman’s name scratched into the pages of a 1,200-year-old religious document, which offers new insights into the role women played in medieval book culture.

Jessica Hodgkinson, a historian at the University of Leicester, made the find while inspecting a manuscript from the eighth century. Using specialized 3-D photography and digital imaging techniques, Hodgkinson and collaborators discovered the word “Eadburg” 15 times throughout the pages of the MS Selden Supra 30, a version of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles written in Latin.

They also found a series of mysterious human-like figures scribbled throughout the manuscript. Two figures appear to have mouths, eyes and noses, while another has hands and arms.

Figures etched into manuscript
The figures etched into one of the pages of MS Selden Supra 30 Courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford

Researchers don’t know what the name or the markings mean. However, they suggest that someone was reading and engaging with the text. Throughout history, readers sometimes doodled and wrote their names on the pages of books they owned or studied. The word Eadburg, then, could mean that someone by that name either owned or read the manuscript at a time when very few women were able to read and write.

"These are not random doodles,” Hodgkinson tells BBC News’ Dan Martin. “They are deliberate interactions with the text.”

In their quest to uncover the Eadburg’s identity, researchers found nine women who went by that name living in England between the seventh and tenth centuries. They suspect the name may refer to an abbess who lived in Kent during the eighth century, as one particular Eadburg—the abbess of Minster-in-Thanet—likely had access to religious texts.

This Eadburg taught another Englishwoman—Leoba, the abbess of Bischofsheim—how to read, according to an editorial in the Guardian.

“Nunneries closed women off from the world, yet paradoxically gave them the possibility of independent intellectual lives,” writes the Guardian. “The presence of Eadburg’s name in the Acts of the Apostles brings those lives a little closer to the light.”

That theory also aligns with what researchers have learned about the manuscript’s historical locations. They think an unknown author wrote the manuscript in Kent sometime between 700 and 750, and that it was later transferred to the monastery of St. Augustine’s in nearby Canterbury.

Eadburg on religious manuscript page
Researchers found 15 instances of "Eadburg" throughout the text. Courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford

With further research, Hodgkinson says she hopes to identify Eadburg and learn more about her.

“Very few surviving early medieval manuscripts contain evidence of having been created, owned or used by a woman,” says Hodgkinson in a statement from the University of Leicester. “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.”

The technology the researchers used, called photometric stereo workflow, analyzes 2-D images for 3-D information, such as the height of the paper’s surface. Then, it produces renderings that reveal any 3-D characteristics on the page.

With MS Selden Supra 30, the process showed markings that were 15 to 20 microns deep, “equivalent to less than a fifth of the width of a human hair,” per the University of Leicester. This discovery led researchers to surmise that whoever made the inscriptions likely used a drypoint knife or stylus without any ink. The person may have chosen to make the marks stealthily for several reasons, such as a reverence for the text or a lack of access to ink.

No matter the reason, the find represents the “human urge to leave a mark of your presence on something that is meaningful to you or is a record of where you’ve been,” Hodgkinson tells the Guardian’s Donna Ferguson.

“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.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.