New book lets the public get under the covers of the earliest intact European book, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, recently acquired by British Library
St. Cuthbert (c. 635 – 68) was a Northumbrian ascetic saint and bishop. He was particularly connected with the community at Lindisfarne where he was venerated as a saint after 698. After continued Viking raids, the monks moved away from the island and further inland and took with them his shrine and the relics connected with his life. Although other explanations have been circulated, it is likely the tiny book was in fact placed in his shrine at that point, later to be discovered in Durham cathedral when his remains were inspected in 1104.
The St Cuthbert Gospel – formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel – is the earliest intact European book and a landmark in the cultural history of western Europe. Now dated to the early eighth century by Richard Gameson and Leslie Webster, the manuscript contains a beautifully written copy of the Gospel of John. It is famous for the craftsmanship and outstanding condition of its contemporary decorated leather binding. Recently, the Gospel was acquired by the British Library for the national collection following a major fundraising campaign in 2011-12.
This week a new collection of essays published on the book was published by The British Library. It presents the results of the most substantial study of the tiny book since the 1960s, and is the culmination of new research on the Gospel undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of scholars and scientists during the last few years. The book significantly revises the existing scholarship on one of the British Library’s most recent acquisitions.
The book includes detailed commentary on:
- Cuthbert in his historical context by Clare Stancliffe
- The codicology, text, script and medieval history of the manuscript by Richard Gameson
- The structure and production of the binding by Nicholas Pickwoad
- The decoration of the binding by Leslie Webster
- The Irish pocket Gospels by Bernard Meehan
- The other relics found in Cuthbert’s coffin by Eric Cambridge
- The post-medieval ownership of the book by Arnold Hunt.
The book is interesting for two reasons. First of all it is a fascinating example of how an interdisciplinary group of scholars studying a singular manuscript may wrest a compelling composite picture out of the conclusions reached from diverse points of perspectives. Thus – even if some of the reflections seem widefetched – we get a glimpse of how such diverse specialists as codicologists, palaeographers, arthistorians, and archaeologists can and must supplement each other in order to gain new insight into the 7th and 8th century milieu surrounding Cuthbert, Lindisfarne, Wearmouth-Jarrow and Bede. Secondly it offers a splendid case to be used in teaching manuscript-studies in a university context. Well explained, any student will get a wide-ranging sense of what it takes to pursue a career as a specialist working with medieval manuscripts.
One of the most exciting aspects of the long preparation for the new book on the Gospel was the day when the British Library took the manuscript to the Natural History Museum for a CT scan. The videos produced from this scan have allowed the scholars to look inside the book as never before and to appreciate the many remarkable features of this manuscript. They were able to examine the extraordinary refinement and careful shaping of the wooden boards, establishing that at their maximum the left (front) board measures only 2.4mm thick and the right (back) board only 1.5mm. Visible were also the cords beneath the raised frames in the decoration and the much-debated foundation material lying beneath the raised plant-motif decoration in the centre of the left cover. Roger Powell had suggested that the foundation material might be cord or leather, while Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose found more recently (in making a facsimile of the binding which they generously made available to the project) that gesso could be used to produce comparable results. However, it became immediately apparent from the CT scan that neither cord nor leather had been used for the foundation of the central motif, as it is a clay-like material which completely fills the space between the leather and the board.
In his chapter in the new book launched this week, Nicholas Pickwoad explains in detail exactly how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a matrix, carved with the plant design, to impress the wet leather over the clay-like material and on to the wooden board.
Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist at the British Library, has produced videos of the St Cuthbert Gospel from the CT scan which show the manuscript, its wooden boards, the cords which lie under the raised frames in the decoration and a cross-section through the whole manuscript showing the structure of the book and the raised decoration. Unfortunately this video has not so far been made available at Youtube; but this will surely happen soon.
Getting Under the Covers of the St Cuthbert Gospel by Claire Breay
The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John
by Claire Breay and Bernard Meehan
The British Library Publishing Division 2015