Open main menu

BYRHTFERTH, less correctly written BRIDFERTH (fl. 1000), mathematician, was a monk (in priest's orders) of the abbey of Ramsey, and studied under the celebrated Abbo of Fleury, who taught there for two years. Leland mentions that Byrhtferth was described by some as a monk of Thorney, and it has been conjectured that he may have originally belonged to that monastery, and migrated to Ramsey soon after the foundation of the abbey there about 970. He subsequently became the head of the Ramsey school, and his extant works have for the most part the appearance of being notes of his lectures to his pupils. From a passage in his commentary on Bæda's work, ‘De Temporum Ratione,’ it appears that he had travelled in France, as he mentions an observation on the length of shadows which he had made at Thionville (‘in Gallia in loco qui Teotonis villa dicitur’).

The only undisputed writings of Byrhtferth which have hitherto been printed are his commentaries on four treatises of Bæda (‘De Temporum Ratione,’ ‘De Natura Rerum,’ ‘De Indigitatione,’ and ‘De Ratione Unciarum’), which may be found in the edition of Bæda published at Cologne in 1612. Considering the age in which they were written, these commentaries display a surprising degree of scientific knowledge, and the wide range of classical reading which they exhibit is perhaps still more remarkable. Some interesting extracts from them are given in Wright's ‘Biographia Britannica Literaria.’

Bale ascribes to Byrhtferth two works, entitled respectively, ‘De Principiis Mathematicis’ and ‘De Institutione Monachorum.’ Of these writings no trace is known to exist; but a manuscript in the Bodleian Library (Ashmole, 328) contains a treatise of Byrhtferth's, bearing the title ‘Computus Latinorum ac Græcorum Hebræorumque et Ægyptiorum necnon et Anglorum.’ This work is written in Latin, with an Anglo-Saxon translation at the foot of each page. From the account given of this manuscript by Dr. Stubbs in the introduction to his ‘Memorials of St. Dunstan,’ it would appear to be well worthy of publication, as affording valuable information respecting the state of scientific knowledge among the Anglo-Saxons, and the methods of teaching adopted in their schools. It contains the following couplet, which is interesting as being probably the earliest attempt at imitating the classical hexameter in English:

Cum nu, Hálig Gást! Bútan the ne bist thu gewurthod.
Gyf thine gyfe thære tungan the thu gyfst gyfe on gereorde.

From the terms in which Abbo is mentioned (‘Abbo dignæ memoriæ’), it may be inferred that this work was not written until after his death, which occurred in 1004; and the reference to ‘Eádnoth the bishop’ (of Dorchester) seems to point to a date a few years later.

Another work which is usually attributed to Byrhtferth is a life of St. Dunstan, the writer of which calls himself ‘B. presbyter.’ The conjecture that this initial stands for Byrhtferth is due to Mabillon, who had seen the ‘Life,’ but did not consider it worth while to print it. He gives, however, some extracts from it in his preface and notes to the ‘Life of Dunstan’ by Osbern, and it has been published in the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ of the Bollandists, and in Dr. Stubbs's ‘Memorials of St. Dunstan.’ Mabillon's suggestion appears at first sight highly plausible, as Byrhtferth in the ‘Computus’ describes himself as ‘presbyter,’ and his master Abbo had intimate relations with Dunstan. The wretched Latinity and the bombastic style of the ‘Life,’ however, cannot easily be reconciled with the supposition of Byrhtferth's authorship. Dr. Stubbs has furnished some other arguments, which appear to be decisive against Mabillon's conjecture, although his attempt to show that the author of the ‘Life’ was a continental Saxon can scarcely be considered successful.

[Bale's Script. Ill. Maj. Brit. (Basle edition), 138; Pits, De Angliæ Scriptoribus, 178; Tanner's Bibl. Brit. 125; Wright's Biog. Brit. Lit. i. 174; Memorials of St. Dunstan (ed. Stubbs), introd. p. xix; Bæda's Works (Cologne edition, 1612), ii. 103 et al.]

H. B.