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Oldest Intact Book in Europe

April 26th, 2012
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The oldest intact book in Europe, a copy of the Gospel of John, from 687 A.D., purchased by the British Library for $14.5 million dollars (!).

British Library buys oldest intact book in Europe

After an unprecedented campaign to raise £9 million ($14.5 million) in 8 months, the British Library has reached its goal and is now the proud owner of the 7th century St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest book in Europe that is fully intact from covers to binding to sewing structure to vellum pages. It was the most ambitious and most successful fundraising campaign in the Library’s history, marshaling donations from the likes of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library trusts, the Art Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, major individual donors and members of the public.

Although the former owners, the Society of Jesus, had loaned the book to the Library since 1979, since it wasn’t publicly owned the institution could not spend any money on conservation. It was on display, but with the cover closed to avoid any damage to the pages. Once the money to acquire the Gospel was secured, the British Library brought in leading conservation experts to assess the ancient volume. They found it in unbelievably good condition.

The Gospel has now gone on display in the entrance hall of the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library building at St. Pancras and for the first time it is open so that visitors can see two of the pages. This exhibit closes on June 17th.

The St. Cuthbert Gospel is a copy of the Gospel of St. John written in Latin around 687 A.D., the year Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, died. The cover and back are made of crimson goatskin leather over birch boards, witha chalice and vine motif embossed on the front. It’s an incredibly rare surviving example of Anglo-Saxon leather work. Inside, the Latin script on the vellum pages is beautifully preserved and extremely clear.

It was written by monks at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, probably with the specific intention of creating a pocket gospel to place in Cuthbert’s coffin when it was moved behind the altar at Lindisfarne Cathedral in 698. When the coffin was opened, Cuthbert’s body was found to be incorrupt for the first, but not the last, time.

The Vikings invaded Lindisfarne in 875, and the monks fled carrying the coffin and its precious cargo with them. They were on the lam for seven years until they settled in Durham. The saint was kept in a church on the site of the present Durham Cathedral (with occasional interludes elsewhere while escaping later invaders), then in Durham Cathedral as we know it today until Henry VIII’s marauders came to pillage the cathedral during the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541.

The monks hid St. Cuthbert’s body, but the Gospel was taken during this time and passed into private hands. It turned up again in 1769 when a private collector gave it to the English Jesuit College at Liège, later moved to England and renamed Stonyhurst College. The Jesuits kept it in the Stonyhurst Library until they loaned it permanently to the British Library in 1979.

Despite this checkered past, the St. Cuthbert Gospel has been preserved in a virtually incorrupt state of its own. You would never imagine looking at it that it’s 1300 years old. Now that the Library owns it, they are making long-term conservation plans to ensure that it retains its preternatural condition. They’ve also digitized the entire volume and uploaded it to their website.

The British Library is partnering with Durham Cathedral so the Gospel will split its time between London and Durham.

The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, said: “It is the best possible news to know that the Cuthbert Gospel has been saved for the nation. For the people of Durham and North East England, this is a most treasured book. Buried with Cuthbert and retrieved from his coffin, it held a place of great honour in Durham Cathedral Priory. The place in the Cathedral where it was kept in the Middle Ages is still the home of our unique manuscript collection.

“I want to pay tribute to the heroic efforts of the British Library in achieving this wonderful outcome. It has been a privilege to be associated with this fundraising campaign. I am pleased that the Friends of Durham Cathedral have supported it with a generous gift, and that one of the fund’s donors has chosen to channel a major gift through the Cathedral.

“As part of the plan agreed between the World Heritage Site and the British Library for its display, 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.”

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Categories: Books
  1. pastordbeck
    April 26th, 2012 at 09:37 | #1

    Yeah, this thing’s old and all…but could you imagine how “classic, conservative, and able to stand the test of time” it would be in royal blue!? All kidding aside, very impressive little tome.

  2. barney
    April 26th, 2012 at 11:00 | #2

    It would be nice to be able to read Latin, has it been translated? I am wondering how the wording would compare to King James.

  3. Joshua Hayes
    April 26th, 2012 at 11:09 | #3

    It looks like the original first volume of the Lutheran Essential Library!

  4. Joanne
    April 26th, 2012 at 12:44 | #5

    The gentleman holding this 1300 year old book in his left hand, should be wearing a white cotton glove. Librarians will not allow such matrials to be touched by the oily, acidy human hand. However, all books created before the inclusion of acid in paper, look this good if treated well. You do know that the library at Uppsala University, Carolina Redivivus, has the Arian Bible of Wulfilas in Gothic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Argenteus It was war booty that Gustavus Adolphus brought home from Bohemia. However, it is not complete, i.e. missing pages, and though older than Cuthbert’s gospel, would not fit the same condition excellence.
    I wrote a short history of the Bodlian Library at Oxford. Had the existance of this book been known to them, they would have cooperated with the King and Sir Walther Raleigh to obtain it. If the book were in the country the King would have put pressure on the private owner to sell it to the Library. If the book were abroad and reachable by a sea raid, Sir Walter would have been sent to “war booty” it. Sometimes, if a cathedral and diocese ran afowl of the King, the Bodlian would get it’s pick of their libary collection.
    What I’m saying is that there must be reasons that the Bodlian never got possession of this Book. Will we have a history of a fascinating provenance for thii book. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Cuthbert_Gospel
    I was studying rare books and working in the rare book room at LSU planning on a career in that direction. I was encouraged to pursue it, but it would require moving to where the few position openings were, and I was hired to work in a federal science libary in my home town before I even finished my degree. I spent 2 weeks at Oxford studying English Libraries in 1991, but returned home to the Biology Library job. Oh, what might have been. I tried several times to get an interview with the librarian at Dumbarton Oaks in DC, but she adamantly refused to see me. I believe because this Byzantine Library is managed by Harvard Libraries that she had a bias againt my LSU degree.

    • April 26th, 2012 at 14:50 | #6

      Oh, well, I’m sure if it has lasted this long, a rare hand-holding won’t do much harm.

      : )

  5. April 26th, 2012 at 13:01 | #7

    This is fantastic! And the 1st picture, of the Gospel being held in a bare hand, is an explicit indication of its need for top notch conservation. Even skin oil can deteriorate its calfskin cover. I bet N T Wright would have loved to have seen this remarkable acquisition occur while he was still at Durham. And Cuthbert — what a gospel story that saint’s life gives! And the fund raising from among the general public for the purchase is a wonderful UK tradition. Great blog, Paul, thank you!

  6. Steve
    April 26th, 2012 at 13:52 | #8

    Did you notice the Gideon’s label on the inside?

  7. Rev. Michael Penikis
    April 26th, 2012 at 14:56 | #9

    I also noticed the same thing about the color. Hey, Paul, do you think CPH could secure the rights to produce a facsimile version?

    Seriously, what a magnificent treasure! We often think that something old has to be worn and/or difficult to read. The text is so clear, it’s easy to tell that it’s John 1:1-8. The digitized — sorry, “digitised” — text is just as clear. Though I wonder: Do you know the reason for difference between this first page you have pictured and the script on the other pages?

  8. Sven Wagschal
    April 27th, 2012 at 03:48 | #10

    And remember: This is handwritten, not printed!

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