Specialist in Viking and Roman School Visits for Key Stage Two of the National Curriculum.
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Making a Treasure Cover for the Beowulf Codex
2018 - 2021
A couple of years ago I commissioned Alex Summers of Red Swan Books, a wonderful craftsman, to make me a new “manuscript” of Beowulf. I took delivery in spring of 2018 at TORM.
As I expected it was a magnificent copy, in modern English for usefulness today and using a very convincing vellum substitute. We have used the 1910 translation by Francis Barton Gummere which is still considered by many to be the most successful attempt to render in modern English something similar to the alliterative pattern of the original.
It is entirely hand finished with period pigments, including gold, and properly bound by Alex as well. Strictly speaking ”manuscript“ usually refers to something entirely hand written although it has stretched to include typewritten. This is partially printed but many of the letters and all of the illuminations are hand painted. It took me a while to think what else to call it until I remembered the word “Codex” which is an ancient word referring to what we would now call a book.
The intention has always been to decorate the cover in the style of the great treasure books of the period and for that I had been collecting bronze mounts in the intervening period.
When the book arrived I was able to start preparations for the work to follow.
The mounts are to be set onto a plate of brass which will then be attached to the book cover. The drilling and punching of the necessary holes was done in the workshop ahead of taking it to the Heysham Viking Festival where I would be working on it as part of my living history display.
Unsurprisingly I did not get a huge amount of work done at the show while interacting with the public but it is that interaction that is important when putting on a show.
I did get the silver intaglios done and the basic layout marked up though.
I posted earlier about leaving one of Britain’s largest Viking Societies because of their attitude about wearing glasses while demonstrating to the public.
Fine craft work like this is just the sort of thing I now require visual support to achieve and as a result it is the sort of living history that the public rarely gets to see.
The display was hugely popular over the weekend and I spent much of my time explaining how and what I was doing and about the codex itself. Exactly the kind of educational display I try to provide.
In fact it was so popular that I also managed to pick up the award for the “Best individual living history display”, which was judged by a secret family group over the course of the weekend, so I guess I must have been doing something right even if I did happen to be wearing glasses. ( I also needed glasses for my prize as you can see.)
Back in the workshop I was able to work faster of course. A couple of days later I had laid out the divisions properly with a dotted chevron pattern.
The next day I filled the top and bottom margins with a square knotwork and inscribed it with Anglo Saxon Runes, near the spine reading:
Beowulf / I am called
Alex Summers / wrote me
Gary Waidson / had me made
As Wayland / he wrought me
After a days break to do other things, I completed the right hand margin and bordered the intaglios to marry them in better with the plate.
This may be as much as I get done for a while, I need to plan the next parts carefully and I want to save some work for my next living history presentation which may well be Heysham, a year from now.
20th March 2020
With Britain now in the grip of the Corona Virus the schools have all closed, probably for the rest of the academic year.
It does give me some time to catch up on a few of the projects I have had on the back boiler for a while though.
The first to be completed was the Hrafn Coffer and now this is sitting on my bench again.
The picture above shows the stage it was at after working on it at the last Heysham Viking Festival. With the summer looking so uncertain now, I want to progress it a bit in the workshop now.
This is the design work that is going to fill the main panels. A mixture of dragons, nicors and serpents which are all mentioned in the text.
The job now is to scribe the lines onto the plate before chasing them. That should keep me busy for a while.
In case you were interested in the process here is a picture of my bench, with work in progress. You can see that three sections of the panel have been chased and there are five remaining sections which are just lightly scribed onto the surface.
I usually do this kind of work as demonstrations on living history displays so the bench is a bit different but the tools are essentially the same.
Most of the work is done with three small chisels, each half the length of the next one. The hammer on the right applies a gentle tap and you move the chisel along the line.
It is simple enough but does require careful attention. You cannot rub out a mistake here.
This is the main panel completed then.
I’ve just got the minor panels around the edge to fill in now.
Here you can see I am using the cubic dapping block to make the silver rivet heads that will be used to attach the cover to the book when it is finished.
I also used it to dome the boss on the plate you can see to the left of the hammer.
I decided this needed something to protect it whilst in transit so I started yet another project, The Wayland Casket.
June 6th 2022
Sometimes I can be a master of procrastination. It has been over a year since I did anything to this and what was stopping me was indecision. I had decided that the main panels on the treasure cover needed something to make the beasts more prominent but couldn't decide how to do it.
As usual, I found that I was not the first to tackle this problem and the solution was at least a thousand years old. I suspected that a dot punched background would do the job but it was a big decision. What if it didn't look right? There would be no going back and the whole piece could be spoiled.
Plenty of reason to put it on the shelf and not think about it for a while.
Well, time waits for no man and I eventually picked it up again and made a start.
In the end I’ve quite pleased with the result.
June 9th 2022
Well that is the engraving finished at long last.
This is probably the last picture I will post before the base goes off for gold plating.
Here you can see Grendel’s Mother in the top panel and one of the Nicors below.
The Dragon motif in the middle and the “ugly” bronze fitting will represent Grendel while the two faces on the other mount stand in for Beowulf and Wiglaf.
2nd August 2022
This afternoon I popped over to see Lee at the Gold Plating Company and he has done a superb job of plating the cover for the Beowulf Codex.
I had expected to wait a few weeks for this to be done but as luck would have it he had just finished the job he was working on and offered to do it for me while I waited
That was the icing on the cake for me, to be able to follow the process through. More complicated than I expected. The brass was first silver plated, then gold, then nickel before the final 24 carat plating on top which produces a robust, tarnish free surface that will resist handling.
It’s a fantastic job, better than I ever expected. I would highly recommend his knowledgeable service to anyone.
4th August 2022
It is done...
Six years from conception, four years from receiving the hand made book from Alex Summers, The Gods alone know how many hours work done at shows and in the studio.
Finally the Beowulf Codex is finished.
This was just a quick shot I took in the yard but I will try to get some decent shots taken soon. It deserves to be seen at it’s best.
This is one of those projects that I look at and think “Did I really do that?...”
It is the result of collaboration of course. Alex Summers did a fantastic job putting the book together in the first place. Then there are the various craftsmen that sculpted and cast the bronze fitments. Lee’s work on the plating and I just brought that all together.
In many ways it reflects the teamwork that would have been necessary to produce a manuscript like this in the Early Medieval period. A massive undertaking.
In some ways it is a relief to see it finally completed, in otherways I shall miss working on it. Now it will begin it’s life as an artefact, transported in it’s casket and shown to the public at events that I get to.
After that? Who knows where it will end up. I suspect this will have a life far longer than mine.