The ‘Boy Prodigy’ of Shrewsbury Abbey
13 Aug 2021
by Cathy Block

Professor Michelle Brown introduces us to one of Shrewsbury’s most famous literary figures ahead of her talk at Shrewsbury Abbey this September 18, as part of the Shropshire Scribes Calligraphy Exhibition. 

If you are interested in medieval manuscripts then this upcoming talk is for you! Or, if you are curious about the history of Shrewsbury Abbey - in particular of a young lad named Orderic from Atcham, who went on to become one of the nation's greatest scribes. 

Professor Michelle Brown is one of the leading experts of Medieval Manuscripts. She was the Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library and Professor of Manuscript Studies at the University of London. Prof Brown has written many books, features on TV and Radio and lectures worldwide. She writes...

"Shrewsbury Abbey is still perhaps best know in popular imagination for its starring role in the Brother Cadfael novels. But how can we get closer to knowing the thoughts of those who actually inhabited it during the years leading up to the first turbulent English Civil War in the 12th century?

 Well, one of our best sources for the dynastic conflict between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda, both direct descendants of William the Conqueror, was a local lad from Atcham, near Shrewsbury - Orderic Vitalis (c. 1075-1142).

Born less that a decade after the Conquest to a Norman knight and an Anglo-Saxon woman, Orderic was presented to Shrewsbury Abbey as a boy and went on to serve as a monk there and at St Evroul in Normandy.

He died a year after King Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln, bringing the war to an end and leading to the Angevin dynasty's rise to power with the reign of King Henry II. An empire was born and the rest, as they say, is history. It was Orderic who wrote the history of how this came to pass in his Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy.

Orderic is therefore one of Shrewsbury's most famous literary figures and would likely have been a proficient scribe as well as an author. In this talk I will introduce his work, set it in the context of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and the book culture of the Anglo-Norman court, which produced works such as the magnificent Winchester Bible illuminated for King Stephen's brother, Bishop Henry of Blois.

I will also discuss other medieval manuscripts with a Shrewsbury or Shropshire connection, illustrating how this venerable yet lively border town and its county figured in the culture of medieval Britain up until the time that the Welsh Tudor dynasty occupied the throne."

Let's finish with Orderic's own words, as he committed them to paper, nearly 1,000 years ago: 

“My present object is to treat of what passes under our own observation, or we are called upon to endure. For it is fitting that as new events continually occur they should be carefully committed to writing, to the praise of God; and thus, as the history of the past has been handed down to us by preceding writers, so also a relation of what is going on around us should be transmitted to future generations by the pen of contemporaries.”    

From the preface of the Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis, translated by Thomas Forester. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.

You can hear Professor Michelle Brown talk at Shrewsbury Abbey on September 18, 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm. Tickets via