Notes on the Liber Eliensis by Dr. Charlie Rozier

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The Liber Eliensis or, ‘Book of Ely’, is a twelfth-century account of the history of the monastic community at Ely from its foundation in 673 down to the middle of the twelfth century. Like all medieval texts, it survives in several versions, each containing revisions and additions according to who was copying it out and when. Two ‘complete’ versions are extant: one from the twelfth century, now kept in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.2.1, and another later copy from the thirteenth century, which is kept by Cambridge University Library on behalf of Ely Cathedral. Sections of the Liber Eliensis also survive in extracts collected in several other manuscripts copied from the twelfth century onwards.

The full version of the text comprises three main books. The first tells the background and story of St Ætheldreda, seventh-century Queen of Northumbria and eventual abbess of Ely. The remainder of the text charts the history of subsequent events at Ely, miracles performed there by various major and minor saints (including Ætheldreda), the ruin of the community under Danish rule c. 870, its restoration in the late tenth century, and renaissance under the Normans in the eleventh century. As such, the text is an excellent example of what is known as an in-house cartulary chronicle: that is, a narrative of a single community, complete with local miracle-stories, accounts of foundation and patronage, and often including administrative/legal records inserted verbatim. Sadly, the compiler of the text is unknown.

The Liber Eliensis has been studied in detail, and is well known to specialists in Anglo-Norman history. In 2005, Janet Fairweather published an English translation of the text with an extensive introductory discussion: Liber Eliensis: a History of the Isle of Ely from the seventh century to the twelfth (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005).