Earliest known piece of English writing to be auctioned this month

The discovery of a ``hitherto unrecorded'' masterpiece or treasure is proclaimed by every major auction house at least once a season. Exciting discoveries seem frequently to be made in junk shops, lofts, and garden sheds. They are rarely made among the collections of a major institution. But it's not impossible. What could be the earliest piece of English writing to have survived in any form was recently discovered in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and is to be sold at Sotheby's in London on June 25.

The manuscript dates from the 7th century and is a double page -- or bifolium -- of vellum, written on both sides. The text comprises the opening pages of a copy of the Latin translation by Rufinus of the ``Ecclesiastical History'' written in the early 4th century by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.

Dr. Christopher de Hamel, Sotheby's expert in medieval manuscripts, describes the writing as being in an Irish hand, in a style known as the Irish half-uncial script, a development of the Italian style.

That the Folger manuscript is English and not Irish is a matter of some speculation. Although written by an Irish scribe, the piece may be classed as English if written in this country. Very few ``insular'' manuscripts -- those from the islands of Britain and Ireland -- have survived, and this one is comparable to only two others known, both by Irish scribes, the one wholly Irish and the other, rather later, written in Northumbria. The Folger manuscript can be dated somewhere between the two.

Irish scribes working in England were not unusual. Christianity was introduced to northern Britain from Ireland in the late 6th century, independently of St. Augustine's mission to Kent. Having established the monasteries of Iona and Staffa, the new teaching spread over the north of England in the next 50 years. The twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow soon became an important center of scholarship and boasted the greatest library outside Italy.

One of the outstanding figures in this community was the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon theologian, historian, and chronologist. Bede is known principally for his ``Anno Domini'' (AD) method of dating events from the birth of Christ Jesus, and for his history of the founding of Christianity in England. His ``Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum'' is important to our knowledge of these obscure times. In it, Bede used a copy of the Rufinus translation, and -- assuming that even in Jarrow such books were not numerous -- it is tempting to believe that this page may be from Bede's own copy.

Dr. de Hamel suggests a further significance to the Folger manuscript. The capital letter of the opening chapter is very simply decorated with flowers. This, he feels, must be one of the earliest forms of Celtic illumination, and therefore an important step in the development of Western graphic art.

How does a piece of such historical importance remain unnoticed for so long? Or become lost in the first place?

The monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow were sacked in 1022 by the Vikings. Many of the items from the library were dispersed, some to Durham, and many lost. Medieval manuscripts were frequently used as bindings for later printed books, and most of the latter are of little importance. The Folger manuscript formed the binding of two 16th-century medical tracts which the library bought from an English bookseller 50 years ago for about 30 ($39 today). The treasure was discovered last year during a routine inspection.

The Folger library is a distinguished institution specializing in the works and the times of Shakespeare. Having discovered a medieval cuckoo in their nest capable of laying a golden egg, the trustees have decided that a more suitable home should be found to the benefit of their appeal fund.

No comparable manuscript has ever come onto the market, and it makes estimating the auction value a tricky business. Dr. de Hamel admits that his initial figure of 50,000 (about $65,000) may be very conservative. In spite of its historical significance to both Britain and Ireland, the fact that it has spent the last 50 years in America avoids a need for an export license.

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