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July 27, 2011

The long, strange path of St. Cuthbert's Gospel

St Cuthbert Gospel, Copyright British Library Board 9

Excerpts from a July 14, 2011 Economist article follow.

The book [above] fits into the palm of your hand. Barely three inches across, it weighs no more than a few ounces and opens with words familiar through the ages: In principio erat verbum ("In the beginning was the word"). It was written more than 1,300 years ago in a neat hand using ink made of oak-gall nuts mixed with carbon. On July 14th news came that St. Cuthbert’s Gospel, the earliest intact European book — looking exactly as it did when it was made at the end of the seventh century — will be bought for Britain for £9m ($14.3m) from the Jesuit order. It will be on display half the time at the British Library in London, and half the time in the north-east of England.

What is remarkable is not the price; though a record for a religious book, it is still considered a bargain. The real story is the object itself. The gospel was commissioned to honour St. Cuthbert, a monk, hermit and then reluctant bishop of the Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne, whose life and miracles were set down by the Venerable Bede, an early medieval chronicler. Bede lived and worked on the mainland at Wearmouth-Jarrow, the monastery where the book is believed to have been made by a man trained in the tradition of Egyptian Coptic bookbinding and decoration. Shortly after Bede's hero, Cuthbert, died in 687, the book was placed in his coffin.

When the Vikings began raiding the north-east of England, the monks of Lindisfarne fled their island home with Cuthbert's bones and wandered, like the Israelites in the desert, until they found sanctuary in Durham. In 1104 another chronicler, Simeon of Durham, records how Cuthbert's coffin was opened in preparation for formal reinterment in a new church, the precursor of Durham cathedral. Cuthbert seemed not so much dead as sleeping, wrote Simeon. His limbs were flexible and his body "gave off a very pleasant odour". By his head lay the book. Durham became a place of pilgrimage, and Cuthbert's relics competed with those of the later Thomas à Becket in Canterbury.

Encased in its leather wrappings, Cuthbert's gospel was protected from misadventure. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century it passed into the hands of collectors. In 1769 it was given to the Jesuits, who packed the book in a small oak box and placed it in the library of their boys’ school, Stonyhurst College.

Since the 1970s the gospel has been on long-term loan to the British Library. Says Scot McKendrick, head of history and classical studies at the British Library, who has led the negotiations to buy Cuthbert's gospel, "We have no other book that has such a strong, unassailable, unimpeachable association with a major saint. This book is not just rare; it's unique."

July 27, 2011 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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