Europe’s Oldest Intact Book Was Preserved and Found in the Coffin of a Saint

Pho­to via the British Library

If you’re a British his­to­ry buff, next month is an ide­al time to be in Lon­don for the British Library’s “once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion exhi­bi­tion” Anglo-Sax­on King­doms: Art, Word, War, open­ing Octo­ber 19th and fea­tur­ing the illu­mi­nat­ed Lind­is­farne Gospels, Beowulf, Bede’s Eccle­si­as­ti­cal His­to­ry, the “world-famous” Domes­day Book, and Codex Ami­at­i­nus, a “giant Northum­bri­an Bible tak­en to Italy in 716” and return­ing to Eng­land for the first time in 1300 years. But with all of these man­u­script stars steal­ing the show, one spe­cial exhib­it might go over­looked, the St. Cuth­bert Gospel, the old­est sur­viv­ing intact Euro­pean book.

A Latin copy of the Gospel of John, the book was orig­i­nal­ly called the Stony­hurst Gospel, after its first own­er, Stony­hurst Col­lege. It acquired its cur­rent name because it was found inside the cof­fin of St. Cuth­bert, a her­mit monk who died in 687 and whose remains, leg­end has it, were incor­rupt­ible. This sup­posed mir­a­cle inspired a cult that placed offer­ings around Cuthbert’s tomb. Just when and how the small book made its way into his cof­fin remains a mys­tery. It was like­ly some­time between the 700s and 800s CE, when his body was moved to Durham due to Viking raids.

When Cuthbert’s cas­ket was opened in 1104, the book was found “in mirac­u­lous­ly per­fect con­di­tion,” writes the British Library, inside “a satchel-like con­tain­er of red leather with a bad­ly-frayed sling made of silken threads.” Schol­ars have dat­ed the book’s cre­ation to between 700 and 730, and its inter­est for aca­d­e­mics and lay peo­ple alike lies not only in the leg­end of St. Cuth­bert but in the book’s phys­i­cal qual­i­ties and its own uncor­rupt­ed nature. As Alli­son Meier writes at JSTOR Dai­ly, “the 1,300-year-old man­u­script retains its orig­i­nal pages and bind­ing,” a remark­able fact for a book of its age.

Its con­di­tion makes it an “impor­tant exam­ple of Insu­lar art, which was cre­at­ed on the British Isles and Ire­land between 600 and 900 CE.” The gen­er­al fea­tures of this style involve “the lay­er­ing of pat­tern, line, and col­or on seem­ing­ly flat sur­faces,” notes Oxford Bib­li­ogra­phies, in order to cre­ate “com­plex spa­tial pat­terns.” Schol­ar Robert D. Ste­vick describes these prop­er­ties on the ornate dyed leather cov­ers of the St. Cuth­bert Gospel:

There is inter­lace pat­tern in two pan­els on the front cov­er, step-pat­tern imply­ing two cross­es on the low­er cov­er, a promi­nent dou­ble vine scroll at the cen­ter of the front cover—elements of this ear­ly art that have been well cat­a­logued for their indi­vid­ual fea­tures as well as for their affini­ties to sim­i­lar dec­o­ra­tive ele­ments in oth­er arti­facts.

Bound with a sewing tech­nique that orig­i­nat­ed in North Africa (and there­fore often called “Cop­tic sewing”), the “sim­ple but ele­gant” book, Meier explains, “reflects the trans­mis­sion of pub­lish­ing knowl­edge across Europe” from the Mediter­ranean. Its small size and place­ment in a leather pouch is also sig­nif­i­cant. St. John’s Gospel “was some­times employed as a pro­tec­tive tal­is­man,” worn in a pouch on the body to ward off evil. Why one of Cuthbert’s admir­ers would have giv­en such a tal­is­man to his corpse remains unclear.

If you can’t make it to the British Library to see this fas­ci­nat­ing arti­fact in per­son, you can see its mirac­u­lous­ly well-pre­served bind­ing and pages in scans at the British Library site here.

via JSTOR Dai­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

1,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of Beowulf Dig­i­tized and Now Online

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Bill W. says:

    Nice to know that the trea­sured items we’ll be buried with will poten­tial­ly be tak­en from our eter­nal rest, and put on dis­play by soul­less sci­en­tists for curiosity’s sake. The saint may be dead, but it’s still his possession…his prop­er­ty!

  • Warren P. says:

    If you’d both­ered to read the arti­cle, the book was added to his crypt some 50–100 years after his death. I’m sure the saint won’t miss what he did­n’t know he had.

  • Doge says:

    So, you did­n’t read the arti­cle.

  • Dan says:

    You peo­ple are miss­ing the point. Even if it had been added right at his earth he “wouldn’t miss what he didn’t know he had”. It’s about the fact that it was added to his remains makes it part of his belong­ings. All you peo­ple are doing is ratio­nal­iz­ing how soul­less, inhu­mane, cal­lous “sci­en­tists” are rum­mag­ing through the remains of some­one on the more equal­ly so than not jus­ti­fi­ca­tion that oth­er grave rob­bers use all through­out his­to­ry. Just as with oth­er grave rob­bers, once all the graves have been loot­ed and all his­tor­i­cal things cat­a­logued, there will no longer be any his­to­ry cre­at­ed and it will there­fore come to an end. There will be no man­u­script to be found of a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly and nar­cis­sis­tic ratio­nal­iz­ing cal­lous soci­ety of “sci­en­tists” that dig­i­tized every­thing that will imme­di­ate­ly be erased from one EMP. No tombs or reli­quar­ies are cre­at­ed or added to remains that will be found in the future, because today’s soci­ety does not believe any­thing not hedo­nic and imme­di­ate in nature. We have reached a state where not just his­to­ry and cul­ture have been arrest­ed and suf­fo­cat­ed, but even biol­o­gy and nat­ur­al selec­tion are being suf­fo­cat­ed and per­vert­ed. It is the real extinc­tion event nonone even has the capac­i­ty to com­pre­hend, let alone the license to dis­cuss as sav­agery mas­querad­ing as “diver­si­ty” and “tol­er­ance” falls over the civ­i­lized and cul­tures world like the pesti­lence it is. The end is not near, the end of human­i­ty is near, giv­ing way to inhu­man­i­ty.

  • Alan says:

    “There is no life with­out change. The real tragedy is that we are always fear­ful of change and resist it vehe­ment­ly.”
    ― Deba­sish Mrid­ha

  • kristina stinson says:

    Don’t know why some are up in arms about remov­ing this bible, and would pre­fer it to rot. it’s unique , from a time when very lit­tle writ­ten mate­r­i­al exists. Should we it be left with the bones — NO! He is dead, and long gone he won’t know the dif­fer­ence. Cer­tain­ly the cler­ic’s from the 11 cen­tu­ry had no qualms about remov­ing it.

  • Nicole Hall says:

    I would imag­ine the monk would be pleased that after 1,300 years a bible giv­en to him posthu­mous­ly would be seen by hun­dreds of peo­ple.

  • Janine Bowen says:

    Best answer yet. I believe the point of the bible was to spread the mes­sage, not to own it. I too believe he would be hap­py if peo­ple were to not only see it, but to read it.

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