The Anglo-Saxon Monk looks at the bindings of two Anglo-Saxon gospels from the British Library collection and offers his very personal take on their merits
All images on this post: © British Library Board
I always try my very best to instil in the hearts and minds of my beloved readers an appreciation for the gospel of Christ, do I not? Well, today I thought I would show you how using the wizardrous British Library digitised collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts can amplify that appreciation. So we are going to look at gospel book covers!
However, what we do have is a Victorian interpretation of an appropriate cover for the Word of our Lord. And I must humbly concede that Messrs Smith, Nicholson and Co. of Lincoln’s Inn, London did manage to get a sense of the cover's history and especially the Celtic influenced artwork so evident in the gospel pages themselves. But really, all those jewels! It's like the loudest possible advertisement to the Vikings to come and plunder.
This gospel book, which contains only the Gospel of St John, was discovered in September of 1104 inside the coffin of Saint Cuthbert (c.635-687) at the time when his remains were translated to Durham. A thirteenth-century note, added on folio ii verso, states that it 'was found at the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb in the year of his translation'. Since scholars have recently dated the script and decoration of the binding to the decades after his first translation to Lindisfarne in 698, then we must assume this means on the translation to Durham.
I should probably observe, blessed ones, that our Cuthbert, one of the greatest of all Anglo-Saxon saints, somehow managed to get about quite a bit post mortum. After being re-interred in 698 at Lindisfarne, he was removed from there in 875 by terrified monks fleeing from the nasty Vikings who had captured their monastery, only for him to wander around with the brethren for seven years, before eventually being found a resting place at St Cuthbert's Church in Chester-Le-Street.
That didn't last terribly long, however, because those dastardly Danes struck again. Poor old Cuthbert was forced on the move once more, arriving safely at Ripon in 995. Later, Cuthbert himself, we are to understand, had a quiet word in the ears of the monks at Ripon and let them know he wanted to go to Durham. And so in 1104, that's where this blessed little book turned up. Who would have thought there was such a tale to tell inside its cover?