Gospel that was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert has survived the ravages of time (From Durham Times)
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Gospel that was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert has survived the ravages of time
9:20am Friday 27th April 2012 in Features
THE ST Cuthbert Gospel, a Gospel of St John, has a fascinating history – having survived Viking invasions and Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries virtually unscathed.
Dame Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library – where it has been kept since 1979 – believes the book is like no other.
She said: ‘‘Its importance in the history of the book and its association with one of Britain’s foremost saints make it unique.’’ The book has the historic importance of being known as the earliest surviving European book. It is a careful copy of the Gospel of St John, written in Latin. The 7th Century manuscript was placed in the tomb of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne Island.
This caused confusion as to who owned the book: it was originally believed to be St Cuthbert’s personal copy of the gospel and, therefore, a relic of the saint but historians now believe the book to date shortly after the Cuthbert’s death.
Historians now believe the book was a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, placed in the saint’s coffin. The British Library dates this event to AD698.
The book and the coffin remained on the island of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, until the Viking invasion of the British Isles. Around 875 the monks fled the island in fear of the Norse raiders, carrying with them the coffin. Eventually the coffin arrived in Durham, where the saint remained undisturbed until 1104 when the coffin was opened.
The gospel was found in St Cuthbert’s coffin when the monks moved his burial ground and opened the coffin. From 1536 to 1541, during the outlaw of monasteries, the book was passed between collectors until it was eventually given to Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school in Lancashire.
THE book remained at the college until 1979, earning it a second name of the Stonyhurst Gospel. The British Library loaned the book until earlier this month, when after the largest and most successful fundraising campaign in the British Library’s history, the £9 million total needed to buy St Cuthbert’s Gospel was reached.
Based on a 50:50 basis, the gospel will be shared between Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and the British Library in London. Visitors can expect to see the surprisingly small book in Durham in July 2013 at Durham University’s Palace Green Library.
The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, the Dean of Durham, said: ‘‘We look forward from time to time to welcoming this precious book back to the peninsula where Cuthbert’s remains are honoured.
‘‘It will be always be loved and cherished here. I am sure Cuthbert shares our delight.’’ AT a tiny 5.4 inches in length and 3.6 inches in width, the Gospel seems small compared to its huge, rich and varied history. The size of the book did, however, prove useful during a long and controversial period. When the book was rediscovered in St Cuthbert’s tomb, it was kept amongst other relics inside Durham Cathedral, where it would sometimes be used as an amulet.
People of importance who visited the cathedral could place the book inside a small leather bag and then wear it around their necks. It was believed that the manuscript, as an amulet, had protective and healing powers.
It was not just St Cuthbert’s Gospel that was used as an amulet but other manuscripts of the Gospel of John were used as well.
The Christian leader Augustine suggested using manuscripts as a cure for ailments such as headaches. Ironically Bede mentions in his prose, Life, that St Cuthbert combated the use of charms and amulets in the village of Melrose.
Red goatskin, a type of leather, was used to bind the book, which is still in excellent condition today. The decoration on the front cover is raised and the cover includes colour – unique among the few surviving early bindings. The text suggest the gospel belongs to the ‘Italo-Northumbrian’ family of books.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, which are also associated with ‘Italo-Northumbrian’ texts, will also be returning to Durham next year for a three-month loan from the British Library. Unlike the text in St Cuthbert’s Gospel, it has bright illumination and decoration.
The Lindisfarne Gospel is called a masterpiece of early medieval book painting and was made between 687 and 721.
St Cuthbert’s Gospel has been digitised and published online; and is is available to view at british library.typepad.co.uk/ digitisedmanuscripts.