Saturday, May 5, 2012

Oldest bound book in Europe retrieved from grave

The compact book retains its original ornate binding.
This little beauty—a handwritten copy of St John’s Gospel from the New Testament—was just bought by the British Library for a cool $9 million. Its provenance is impeccable, having been placed in the coffin of St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne Priory in 698, where it lay undisturbed for the next 400 years. In 793, the Vikings attacked, and the community had to leave the island around 875, carrying Cuthbert’s coffin with them. The gospel was discovered in 1104 when the coffin was opened for reburial and enshrinement in Durham Cathedral.
The gospel's covers are made of birch boards covered with decorated, red goatskin. Two panels of Anglo-Saxon interlace have been tooled onto this intricately decorated front cover and decorated with yellow and bluish pigments. The central motif of a stylized vine sprouting from a chalice reflects earlier Christian imagery from the Eastern Mediterranean and has similarities with silverwork details on a portable altar also found in St Cuthbert’s coffin. It may represent the text ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ from St John’s Gospel.
After Henry VIII suppressed the Cathedral's Priory in 1540, the book disappeared from history until it was recorded as being in the possession of mathematician Thomas Allen (d. 1632), a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. By the 18th century, the Gospel belonged to George Henry Lee, 3rd Earl of Lichfield (d. 1772), who gave it to the Reverend Thomas Phillips, S.J. (d. 1774). He in turn donated it to some English Jesuits, and it was later kept for nearly 200 years at a Jesuit college in Lancashire before being put on loan to the British Library in 1979. The press release of the new proud owners gives this account of Cuthbert's life:
A successor to the famous early Christian missionaries, St Patrick, St Columba and St Aidan, Cuthbert first entered the monastery at Melrose in southern Scotland in 651, moved to the new monastery at Ripon in Yorkshire and then returned to Melrose. In 664, the Synod of Whitby addressed growing tensions between Irish and Roman traditions within the Church by backing Roman practices. Soon afterwards, Cuthbert, who apparently accepted the Roman traditions, became prior of the Irish-founded monastery at Lindisfarne on Holy Island, off the coast of north-east England, and in 685 was made bishop of Lindisfarne. During this time, he spent long periods living as a hermit on the nearby island of Inner Farne where he died on 20 March 687. Cuthbert was elevated to sainthood in 698, only 11 years after his death. He became one of Britain’s most popular and widely-venerated saints, both in the Anglo-Saxon period and after the Norman Conquest. Bede (d. 735), the historian and monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow who wrote two biographical accounts of Cuthbert’s life, said he was the saint for Britain, just as Peter and Paul were the saints for Rome. Cuthbert’s shrine was a major national pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages and he remains the North’s best-loved saint.
Because its only marginal annotations designate passages to be used for masses for the dead (e.g., de mortuorumin; above, left), it is thought that the book may have been used at the 7th-century service in Lindisfarne Priory to mark the canonization of Cuthbert. The Library has already digitized each precious page, so that scholars and dilettantes can peruse it at will. Almost makes you want to brush up on your Latin (although it's surprising how many words you can figure out)!

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